In 1985, the Guerrilla Girls formed to combat inequality in the art world. Cloaking their identities with gorilla masks and adopting the names of forgotten female artists, the Girls papered the streets of downtown New York with broadsides against the underrepresentation of female artists in museums and galleries.
Following the “banana split” in the collective at the turn of the millennium, the Guerrilla Girls BroadBand—composed of members of the original group and new recruits alike—have carried on the Guerrilla Girls’s tradition of wit and righteous anger while embracing digital activism to expand their critique beyond the confines of the art world. Chloe Wyma spoke to Gerda Taro, Alma Karlin, Djuna Barnes, Josephine Baker, Minnette De Silva, and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz—six Guerrilla Girls BroadBand members, or “Broads”—on the occasion of #ProvokeProtestPrevail, an exhibition of their historic posters and digital projects at Bruce High Quality Foundation Gallery (through June 14).
Chloe Wyma (Rail): Could each of you introduce yourself?
Gerda Taro: Hi, I’m Gerda Taro, I was a photographer and journalist during the Spanish Civil War and was crushed to death by a tank.
Alma Karlin: My name is Alma Karlin. I’m a Slovenian who passed away in 1950 and was a famous travel writer, polyglot, and cultural anthropologist. I chose her as my alias because she travelled all over the world and wrote about her encounters with other artists and writers. She is the original travel blogger.
Djuna Barnes: My name is Djuna Barnes. I was an author, a journalist, a poet, and experimented extensively with sexuality and women’s relationships with one another.
Josephine Baker: Hello, my name is Josephine Baker, I’m a black American performance artist and freedom fighter.
Minnette De Silva: Hello, my name is Minnette De Silva, the first woman architect of Sri Lanka. I went all over the world doing architecture, was friends with the top architects of the time in the ’20s, ’30, and ’40s. But I ended up in Kandy, Sri Lanka, building an art center for the community there. I died in 1998.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: Hi, I’m Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. I’m a poet living in the 17th century in Mexico. I chose to be a nun instead of marrying so that I can pursue my intellectual interests, which are writing and poetry.
Rail: Could you briefly explain the history of Guerrilla Girls BroadBand? How did you come together to form a new collective?
Taro: In the Guerrilla Girls from 1985 to 2000, there was much discussion, never resolved, about what the scope of our work should be. Should we stick to the art world, should we look at the larger world and its social justice issues? At the turn of the millennium, the Girls formed three different trajectories: one of them examining injustice in the theater world—that’s Guerrilla Girls on Tour—one of them pretty much sticking to the art world with occasional forays into Hollywood—that’s Guerrilla Girls—and Guerrilla Girls BroadBand. Many of us were actually in the original group: myself, Josephine Baker, Djuna Barnes, and Ines [Juana Ines de la Cruz]. We felt it was important to look at issues that were common to women and had a larger resonance in society. So, the show at the Bruce High Quality Foundation examines some larger issues we felt were important.
Rail: Guerrilla Girls BroadBand has taken on a much wider array of feminist issues beyond the art world, such as workplace inequality, rape, reproductive rights, and war. Could you speak a little bit about the Broads’ decision to work beyond the issue of art world inequality? Do you see this as an extension of the Guerrilla Girls’s earlier project?
De Silva: Coming from the art world into the rest of the world seems like a natural move, as the art world itself has expanded. We very much wanted to engage with amazing feminist movements, and to consider issues like military recruitment in schools and reproductive justice, not as separate from art, but to make art that would speak with a feminist, furious, and fun attitude that could encompass and bring humor to those issues.
Karlin: A critical part of who we are, and our work in a broader context, is very much about engaging technology. And I think that the exhibition title, #ProvokeProtestPrevail, is really important because it directly speaks to what we do: to the capacity to share stories in connection with critical issues that would otherwise remain within their own individual realm and now can connect to greater voices and greater communities all over the world. One of our key goals is really the amplification of voices.
Baker: Around 2001, our work as Guerrilla Girls BroadBand took on the question of the interweb and digital technology. With one of the first projects, Letters to Bad Bosses, we asked ourselves, “What can the Internet do, what’s our relationship to women, and how can we amplify our work and the idea of anonymity to help other women?” So the Bad Bosses letters were this opportunity to bring attention to inequality in the workplace and at the same time offer a tangible, fun, precise, and critical vehicle for people who were dealing with discrimination in the workplace. So anyone could fill out the form on the Internet and then get an anonymous letter sent by email to their boss through the Guerilla Girls BroadBand site.
Ines: When we started to develop our project Where to Get an Abortion in the City of Buffalo, we came up with a map that you could find on the Internet of places to get an abortion if you needed to. Even though it started out as an exhibition in a bus stop in Buffalo, the whole idea driving the project was to develop a map that we would have on our website that would be available and accessible to other people, whoever they were, and allow them to help themselves to this information that was becoming less accessible in a physical space. So when we are working in physical space, we’re also trying to create that link to the Internet as well.
De Silva: With the Buffalo project we began to see how our work could be shared, distributed, and become more interactive. With another project in the show, the Heads of State posters, we saw an opportunity where people, through our website, could make and post their own posters and adapt them to their own preoccupations to some extent. So there’s kind of a democratization of the work as well. And that’s partly what has, I think, driven the expansion of the group to become more diverse, generally. There was a sort of exclusivity around the original collective and I think we’ve been more interested in allowing the complications of the wider public to get into our work.
Karlin: To speak to this exhibition in particular, it’s a pleasure to be working with the Bruce High Quality Foundation because this space is not just a gallery space, it’s about education and its capacity to create a forum, to bring people together for workshops, and to really activate the pieces that are here. We will have three critical workshops over the course of the exhibition that will allow us to come together and engage with the community directly to activate the pieces in the show.
Rail: I’d like to talk a bit more about the Heads of State project, because it’s one of the highlights of the exhibition. It juxtaposes rap sheets cataloging the sexual misconduct of various politicians, from Bill Clinton to Silvio Berlusconi to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with photographs of penises in varying sizes and degrees of erectness.
Taro: Josephine, take it! [Laughter.]
Baker: Heads of State came out of a really fun dinner at one of our member’s family’s Indian restaurant and we just kept throwing out all kinds of bad and good ideas and finally came up with heads of state who were the biggest dicks. I think Minnette and I did a lot of Internet research looking for the actual dicks. We were invited to submit it as a poster project [for an exhibition], and then we were uninvited. [Laughter.]
Rail: Because of the penises?
Baker: Yeah. In some ways it was a failed project that turned out to be a big success.
De Silva: I think it began because we were so collectively pissed off about Dominique Strauss-Kahn getting away with raping the maid in the hotel. There was a group of really egregious rape-type incidents around that time that really got us fired up. We also wanted to include information that was coming from Google, essentially, about how many hits these different names had online to get a sense of who was considered by the wider world to be the worst, the biggest dick. It’s kind of international, borderless dick criticism. But yeah, it’s true that we accepted the offer from the university gallery, I think in Switzerland or somewhere, because they were proposing this very accessible format whereby each poster would be made out of 16 pieces. It could be downloaded and anyone could assemble a much bigger image. When they refused to show what we had done, we just decided to distribute it ourselves, which was probably better anyway. It’s downloadable from our website.
Baker: The other thing was this project just kept moving because we also made a gif out of all of these dicks. That’s pretty fun; I invite people to check that out.
Rail: You recently did another project dealing with sexual assault: a Collective Carry with artist and activist Emma Sulkowicz, who—in her famous endurance performance—vowed to carry a dorm mattress with her on Columbia University’s campus until the student she claims sexually assaulted her was expelled.
Karlin: Our joining Emma was very much about amplifying Emma’s voice. We were carrying the mattress along with a number of other people who joined along the way. Her project is very important and I think that the video documentation that we have, which is included in the exhibition with critical writing by the organization Carry that Weight, is useful for that purpose of amplification.
De Silva: We had been thinking for a few months about the campus rape issue and wanting to get involved in one or other struggles on campus to raise these issues. In fact, one of the Broads who is not here had been reaching out to some campus organizations prior to this happening. For example, we were supposed to speak at this university. Then they looked at our website and disinvited us because it was a Catholic university. They were very unhappy about the references to abortion in our work and were worried that we would bring that to campus. When we saw what Emma was doing with her performance, it seemed like a perfect way to launch into this issue. We really respect her: the idea of her performance, the collectivization, and the kind of public expression of anger and resistance to the institutionalization of rape.
Karlin: For the record, [Guerrilla Girl BroadBand member] Alla Horska really helped us with Carry that Weight.
Rail: Your participation in Carry that Weight raises the issue of intergenerationality and including younger artists. I was wondering if you could talk about bringing younger feminists into the fold, as well as nonwhite feminists, which, from what I’ve read, was not always a priority in the earlier iteration of the Guerrilla Girls.
Ines: I was brought into the original group when I was young. [Laughs.] I’m not young anymore. But it felt important to work with younger artists. By doing that, we let go of the one single vision. It’s a long process that we undertake collectively. It’s not easy, but it has been really significant for us. We really made an effort to allow the voices to be equal among us. I think it’s also what allows us to move forward, to grow, and to allow the dialogue to become more open and inclusive.
Baker: It became really clear that we could benefit from some folks who were interested in doing research with us, so we started reaching out to women and gender studies programs at colleges and universities to get interns. That has also been a process of having an intergenerational conversation with younger feminists. Sometimes our interns move on and do other things, and sometimes they become a part of GGBB for the long haul.
Karlin: I’d like to speak to the multigenerational question. I’m currently the youngest member of Guerrilla Girls BroadBand, I believe, and I was very excited to be recruited. I want to speak to the idea that I think for us, legacy and a future comes from the vision of recruitment and the power of mentorship. That is a big part of who we are. I think that as a grassroots, consensus-based organization, having people who are on the bleeding edge of new technology and new media is how you move forward and grow as an organization. I think it’s the critical element behind our identity.
Taro: I’m the oldest person in the room. The vitality of the vision has been the thing that has kept the Girls going from day one. And the fact that the needs are largely the same as they were in 1985 is the other thing that keeps us going. For example, there’s a poster in the show that says, “Women earn two thirds of what men earn.” I think it’s gone up by three cents. We now make 78¢ on the dollar instead of 75¢. So, clearly there’s still a need to be doing this kind of work. I’m personally thrilled to the gills that our effort is multigenerational and multiethnic, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to solve anything in this culture.
Barnes: I think the other thing that’s really extraordinary about the Girls in particular is our longevity, because it does in fact translate to a certain kind of wisdom and a cumulative set of experiences. The original Girls taking over the streets of Soho and putting up posters—that was an extraordinary physical rupture. It was saying, “We don’t accept the terms of this community and we don’t accept the terms of privacy and we don’t accept terms of proprietary ownership over this information or the use of aesthetics to disenfranchise or to disallow people to participate.” And I think what’s extraordinary, fast-forwarding 30 years later, is that we’re effectively doing the same thing. We are refusing the tides of peace to come in and gently cover things over and make it all look fine and dandy. We are constantly pulling back the curtain, pushing open the door, insisting—through the information that we bring forward—that the whole story isn’t present, and certainly all the people possibly wanting to be involved are not present. That continuity and that ability to push back has transformed from what was a public physical space to what is perceived as a sort of seamlessness and all-knowing presence on the Internet. A lot of young people don’t even imagine how much information they’re not getting vis-à-vis the Internet. The fact that we did this in the street makes it very powerful to then be able to see it on the Internet. The older girls are in fact learning from the younger girls, but then we older girls also have this way of perceiving what’s absent, probably because of the age in which we started doing this work ourselves.
Rail: Historically, the Guerrilla Girls occasionally came under criticism from some feminists who thought that their primary goal—agitating for a more inclusive, equitable art world—was more oriented towards increasing access than reimaging the system as a whole. In other words, some feminists have criticized the Guerrilla Girls for advocating a liberal idea of inclusivity, rather than a radical break. I was wondering if that critique makes any sense today, and how you might respond it?
Barnes: I won’t proffer a comprehensive answer because I think that this kind of question brings out the fact that we are each individuals, so the sum total of what we do as a group is not necessarily the sum total of what we think. It’s also a question of our medium because it’s very hard to go beyond a certain level of complexity in a poster, in a sound byte, or in a sassy phrase. It’s hard to be witty in a proactive sense. It’s easier to be witty in an ironic, reactive sense. Oftentimes our work has been precisely more about critique than about generative platforming or propositioning. All of us are engaged in that more positive and more proactive work, personally, individually, professionally. But it’s not as available, between the medium and the message, to do that as a group. So, I think that critique to some extent has validity, but it needs to be taken with understanding certain structural limits of possibility. To that end, we work in relationship to whatever decade we’re in, and I think that there will be in fact more critique of the overall apparatus moving forward. We didn’t even have the framing of the 99%, or the off-shoots of that kind of thinking with Strike Debt, and Occupy, and all these other elements of activism that are now taking place. So I think it still remains to be seen.
Karlin: One of the key aspects of what it means to be a feminist activist is to open up, not to shut down, questions. And I think that act of continuing to ask, to pry open, to create awareness, is in the positive sense what that critique is about.
De Silva: The Guerrilla Girls BroadBand has broken out of the confines of the conventional art world. It hasn’t been our project to get included in it so much. It’s been more of a project to use the position that we have, and the tone that we have, and collective brilliance that we have to address issues and open up dialogue with a range of players, not necessarily art world players. Of course the art world has changed hugely since the ’80s, as have the types of things that people are doing as art—take the Bruce High Quality Foundation, for example. We feel a certain affinity, I think, with their emphasis on the collective project.
Barnes: Guerrilla Girls BroadBand can make brief statements in a very effective way, but it can also be hashtagged back to the website where we can actually develop much larger arguments. That was completely unavailable to us in previous iterations of the technology and the systems that we had available.
Rail: Lately, there’s been a surge of data and statistics on art world representation, picking up—in a sense—from where the original Guerrilla Girls left off. I’m thinking of artist Micol Hebron’s Gallery Tally project, counting the gender breakdown of gallery rosters, and the outcry over the underrepresentation of artists of color in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. More recently, The Art Newspaper’s Julia Halperin published findings that nearly one third of solo shows in US museums go to artists represented by the same five galleries.
Taro: What I think is so great about the work of the Guerrilla Girls is that it is no longer possible to mount a show without Jerry Saltz looking at it and analyzing the numbers of women and artists of color. Even though we are not doing the counting anymore, the agenda has gotten out, and I believe there’s an incremental change. I mean if you look at the art world today, shows don’t go up that are 100 percent white and male. It’s embarrassing. It’s just not done.
De Silva: What Guerrilla Girls BroadBand does is stand in the art world and relate it back out to the rest of the world. What’s really important about the continued inequality of representation of women and people of color in the art world is that the whole of American society is still incredibly racist and anti-women in certain ways. We see the art world as part of the world.
Rail: Have you a noticed a certain mainstreaming of feminism, at least nominally, with celebrities and entrepreneurs like Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé claiming the feminist mantle? Do you see that as a sign of progress, or something that could potentially water down feminism or impoverish its meaning?
Taro: I’ll start by saying that the word feminism is supposed to mean something, but actually in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, we were yelling at each other at the top of our lungs because there was no agreement whatsoever about what the feminist project was, or what it was going to accomplish. There were the goddess women; there were the Pattern and Decoration women; there were the video and photography women. There were 12 schools of action in which the central imagery people were yelling at the photography people because they weren’t doing the central imagery that was supposed to be the source of feminism. So now there’s this term feminism that we think denotes something, but I think the definition of the term has evolved and changed. There was a period of time—correct me if I’m wrong—when young women didn’t want to be identified as feminists because that was anti-men, and now the next generation, the millennials are all over it. They want to be termed feminists.
Karlin: I think fact that we are even speaking about this now, to the extent that we are, has to do with the Internet, and everything to do with social media and technology, and our capacity to share local stories globally. This critique that you pointed out—that if everybody’s a feminist, if Beyoncé is a feminist, everybody’s identifying with Sheryl Sandberg—is there a problem with that? I think there’s only a problem if you make a problem out of it. I think it’s very complex, and as long as we are banding together with the idea of creating change, I think it’s a positive thing.
Barnes: One of the really important elements is that feminism has evolved generationally with the addition of language. When I got started, the multicultural was just beginning to be used. We didn’t have intersectionality for almost 20 years following that, even though we were talking about it. Ever more increasingly I now see respectability politics. I think we don’t quite have a word for it yet, but there’s something emerging within the conceptual scape that’s very similar to respectability politics, where people are looking for a kind of flawlessness in order for something to be accepted. But the very terms of explorative politics and revolution, in the sense of transformative change, means that there’s going to be a very uneven ground, lots of different perspectives. I personally admit that I find a lot of things that are called feminist disappointing, but I think it’s very important to allow that to be. At the very least it makes me be more refining and more particular, and to think more clearly about what it is that’s valuable to me. No one person has the answer or the solution. Simultaneously, we’re still fighting about a lot of the things we thought were done and put to bed that have come back to haunt us. I mean, we’re back at the beginning with abortion rights. Even in Italy abortion rights aren’t contested. It’s quite fascinating that a major, singularly identified Catholic country does not have a fight over abortion issues the way the United States does. So at the same time that we’re moving forward and adding to the list of expressions, we’re also being hauled in to go back and do things that we kind of thought we had moved on from.
Ines: Even the idea, just the terminology, of feminism going corporate scares the hell out of me because it means that it is being made mainstream for everybody to consume. It’s being made more palatable, but it’s also being washed out. What I also wanted to say is that geography has a very important part to play, because when you’re not on this sort of New England coastline—where all of this is so well articulated—and you move away from the center, people are misconstruing the meaning of feminism to make people become weary of it, especially young women. As you move away from that center, feminism is being extremely manipulated and misconstrued to make people think about it as something they don’t want to align themselves with.
Rail: Speaking of feminism in the mainstream, would any of you like to give your take on the Hillary Clinton run? Who would the Guerrilla Girls BroadBand endorse as a potential candidate?
Taro: I would vote for Bernie Sanders, but I am a pragmatist also and I know that if I do vote for Bernie Sanders, then there’s the Ralph Nader effect that could take the election away from the Democratic Party and give it to the Republicans.
Baker: I guess I would say that our role is not to give endorsements. Our role is to have a really thick feminist critique, and all heads of state are eligible for accountability. That’s just Josephine speaking; I cannot speak for the collective.
De Silva: I just got the right to vote about a year ago in this country and I don’t feel very moved to vote, to tell you the truth. I just don’t think that this is a country that will be changed as much as it needs to be, anywhere as much as it needs to be, by the available heads of state, sadly. I would love to see a woman president. I’d love to see a woman in power, but I lived through Margaret Thatcher’s rule as well, and the criterion needs to be a lot more than just “she’s a woman.”
Rail: Is there a particular artwork or project that you thought was particularly effective, fun, or otherwise a highlight in your career as a Guerrilla Girl?
Taro: Are You a Woman Artist in Search Of… is a video project that was made around 2000/2001. It’s looking at the art world, and how the art world functions for women who are ignored for the entirety of their careers; and then, based on the story of Lee Bontecou, it talks about all you have to do is live in obscurity for 30 years. Isn’t doing laundry, having two jobs, and no health insurance, and no retirement plan bad enough? No, that’s misery. They want tragedy! If you’re lucky Gwyneth Paltrow will play you, and you’ll never look so pretty.
De Silva: The project for Buffalo was really exciting, plus we were invited to be in a cool kind of public space, a bus shelter. This is where the power of online mapping as an art form came from originally. We were looking at the map of Buffalo and looking for a place where you could get an abortion legally in or near Buffalo, basing our imagery on a transit map of Buffalo. But then at the same time we made these kind of mind melds between the historic Guerrilla Girls terminology of a list of things that would happen if there was no access to abortion at all. It was a real eye opener for me cause it seemed like such a gloomy subject—the continuing loss of abortion access throughout this country—but we really needed to find a kind of upbeat and even humorous way of thinking about it, about how to pose the battle in a non-victimish way.
Baker: I’d like to talk about the collaboration with Cat Mazza, which is a series of five balaclava gorilla masks, a copy-left pattern that anyone can knit, although I have to say you have to have some skills to do it because Cat Mazza has many skills. The impulse came from what was going on with Pussy Riot, and wanting to engage with that in some way. It started as a fundraising campaign to contribute to the legal fund for Pussy Riot. It’s now available through our website for people to download as a copy-left pattern.
Karlin: Those masks will be actually be activated on May 27th. There will be a knit-in in this space, one of our three workshops. Our first one actually, and we have invited Carry that Weight to join us and they’ve confirmed that they will participate, as well as the Bruce High Quality Foundation University’s sex-ed class, so we’ll have a really great critical mass of knitting and activism. And they will also have a spotlight at the end of our exhibition on June 14th. There will be a big party. Gerda Taro will be leading a Pussy Riot song/performance/action/celebration using the masks as well.
Ines: I want to talk about the counter-recruiting that we did in the Bronx, working with the public to make them aware of the military recruitment processes that are happening—especially in high schools—for Latinos and African-Americans. For me, this particular project always resonates. Personally, this is an experience that I encountered with one of my nephews where we had a recruitment person from the Army come to our house three or four times. The high school didn’t even have one college come. The ability to get away from art world related issues is always very significant and important for the Guerrilla Girls BroadBand.
Karlin: I’m excited about the vinyl windows at the Bruce High Quality Foundation. It is a collaborative piece that will live on well beyond this exhibition, #ProvokeProtestPrevail. There’s a big, vinyl gorilla mask on the face of the school, and I think that exemplifies our partnership and I’m excited to see that live on because I think every time somebody sees that hashtag we’re going to be continuing the dialogue.
Barnes: How about all our work? [Laughs.] I don’t love it all equally, but I love the amount of work that goes into it, and I think that over the years, it has taught me so much about the difficulty, but also the extraordinary nature, of collaboration. I think, that as a legacy organization, we have something to offer in terms of being consistent to the project, staying committed to one another and showing that it’s possible. It doesn’t mean that it’s everything you wanted, but there’s an extraordinary wisdom that comes into play by giving different voices the opportunity to work together and staying on project. When I have the opportunity to speak to other people, particularly younger women, I realize how much that kind of collectivity is not part of their experience, unless they’re specifically involved in their own organizations. By and large, lots of young women are just really out there alone having these ideas by themselves. And they do have these ideas, but there are not necessarily enough support systems; they don’t feel networked. One of the amazing parts of the Internet is that that’s exactly what it does allow, but ultimately one must also realize that the Guerilla Girls project has been going on in various forms for 30 years, and that women have transitioned in and out of the group and connected again. We offer a message of community and collaboration that, by and large, our culture cancels out, particularly in relationship to women. We are in fact an institution. And there aren’t many institutions that are women-run, owned, and operated in this kind of activist public space.
Rail: What project are you working on next?
De Silva: I think we may now be scheduled to develop something for a campus anti-rape effort on a particular campus, and we’re hoping that we’re going to come up with a digital poster for that.
Baker: Map Abortion is an ongoing project, and I think one of the things we’ve always wanted to do with Map Abortion is to engage more with grassroots organizations around reproductive justice. We’re still also doing that kind of outreach, trying to make that project as big as it can be in order to reach its potential.
Taro: The old Girls, the Guerrilla Girls of all time, are developing a project for the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Guerrilla Girls and we are hoping to launch it on all three of the websites soon, so that’s what we’ll be working on also.
CHLOE WYMA is a writer and associate art editor at the Brooklyn Rail. A Ph.D. student in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, her recent essays appeared in the Rail, Dissent, and the New Inquiry.