- An Interview with the Guerrilla Girls, Dyke Action Machine (DAM!), and the Toxic Titties
In 1970, in an unsuspecting rural community in central California, Judy Chicago married feminist studies with art-making at Fresno State University, promising future generations of women new, expressive forms of art with activist aims. Since then, activist strategies and aesthetic concerns have metamorphosed as each new generation of feminist artists puts feminist theory into practice. Recently, I had the pleasure of engaging three feminist activist art groups—the Guerrilla Girls, Dyke Action Machine (DAM!), and the Toxic Titties—in a discussion regarding their practices. In this interview, the women addressed their methodologies, the challenges each collective faces today, and the future of feminist activist art practices. For all three groups, a strong visual language, subversive wit, and collective identity serve as key weapons for their interventions into the worlds of art, politics, and the media, exposing domains where gender, racial, and sexual injustice still lurk.
Of the three groups, the Guerrilla Girls has the longest history, bursting onto the art scene in the early 1980s. By that time, the headiness of the first wave of the feminist art movement was long gone; feminism was no longer "in," if it ever had been in commercial galleries and museums. Instead, the 1980s were characterized by record-breaking prices for works created by a select group of young, male art stars, effectively marginalizing the conceptual and activist practices that dominated the previous decade. And, despite years of feminist agitation, museums continued to organize large, group exhibitions of contemporary art with virtually no women artists represented. In June 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened one such blockbuster exhibition in which only ten percent of the 169 artists chosen were women (Guerrilla Girls 1995, 13). The message was clear: the art world was still a male-dominated arena of culture. MoMA's gross oversight was the impetus for the Guerrilla Girls' most famous campaign on the streets of New York City, where the group surreptitiously plastered the walls, kiosks, and construction fences of SoHo and the East Village with provocative posters that exposed the sexist practices of the art world. In straightforward, bold, block letters, the posters questioned What do these artists have in common? and blatantly listed every prestigious art gallery that showed less than ten percent of women artists' work along with the names of the male artists whom the galleries represented (Guerrilla Girls 1995, 8) (Fig. 1).
Over the ensuing two decades, the Guerrilla Girls have continued to unabashedly parry and thrust with the art world, wielding their sassy [End Page 39] brand of feminist activism that attracts media attention. Their weapons—posters, stickers, billboards, bus ads, magazine spreads, protest actions, and letter-writing campaigns—deploy humor, ridicule, mockery, and embarrassing statistics delivering irrefutable information in a disarming manner aimed at shaming the artworld. As Susan Tallman reported in Arts Magazine, "The posters were rude; they named names and they printed statistics. They embarrassed people. In other words, they worked" (Guerrilla Girls 2006a).
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From 1989 to 1991, the Guerrilla Girls began taking on issues outside the artworld such as the threat to reverse Roe v. Wade, the Clarence Thomas hearings, and the rape trials of William Kennedy and Mike Tyson (McQuiston 1997, 150). In 1992, the collective created a poster specifically for the Republican Convention, which stated, "Republicans do believe in a woman's right to control her own body" followed by six picture boxes with images of female circumcision, plastic surgery, anorexia, and foot binding (Guerrilla Girls 1995, 78). In addition, they poked fun at politicians such as Newt Gingrich for his hypocritical stance on family values, in response to revelations of his extramarital affair and subsequent divorce in 1999 (Fig. 2). The Guerrilla Girls' agitprop style was characteristic of the times [End Page 40] and echoed the feminist grassroots political activism of such groups as the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) and Women's Health Action and...