When I began writing this article I attempted to define “art activism” and failed miserably. I hated everything I came up with because I had a little critique for every word I wrote. And thus I decided that the best way to explain what art activism is would be to provide a number of examples. After reading this, you may decide how to define art activism for yourself.
The most famous example of art activism in the Third Wave is the Guerilla Girls. The members of this group of anonymous women conceal their identities by assuming the names of dead female artists and by only appearing in public wearing gorilla masks. Still going strong since 1985, the Guerilla Girls produce “posters, stickers, books, printed projects and auctions that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and the culture at large.” (Guerilla Girls FAQ, 2005) This art activism group prefers to subvert the system by making art that is accessible and digestible for the masses rather than making more shocking artistic statements. “That's preaching to the converted,” the Guerilla Girls say on their website, “We want to be subversive, to transform our audience, to confront them with some disarming statements, backed up by facts—and great visuals—and hopefully convert them.” (Guerilla Girls FAQ, 2005 http://www.guerrillagirls.com/interview/faq.shtml)
In the book Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women’s Movement edited by Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancy Martin, I found a great example of art activism that dates back to the 1970s in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. The CWLU focused on music, art and film early on, which can be seen in a number of different projects. The Chicago Women’s Liberation rock band played at various events, and was viewed as an outreach project. The band was intended to gather support for the cause from the masses. Additionally, the CWLU Graphics Collective produced posters and other materials, and members of the CWLU took part in the production of The Chicago Maternity Center, a film about a home-delivery center that is closed by the medical establishment (Feminist Organizations, pg 147).
Printed publications are a great place to start when thinking about art activism because it can be easy to do. The easiest form of printed publication is the zine (pronounced zeen, not zIne). The best way to describe a zine is a self-published (well, self-xeroxed, is more like it) magazine of sorts. One writes about some stuff, arranges it creatively into an attractive booklet, xeroxes a bunch of copies of it, and hands it out to everyone they know. That’s zines. In a nutshell. To make a zine a form of art activism, it just basically has to be political. Political rant zines are RAD, by the way.
Zines are great because they are cheap to make, don’t have to take a lot of time, and you can hand them out all over the place and disseminate ideas that are YOURS everywhere. Or the ideas don’t necessarily have to be yours, but they can be ideas that you think everyone should be thinking about. And you can remain anonymous if you like. Or assume a pseudonym. Zineing is tons of fun and a great way to be an activist (can you tell I’m a fan?).
A more sophisticated way to go about the printed publication is do publish a journal. This will take funding. At my school, the Associated Students Women’s Center publishes an annual journal called Labyrinth. It is entirely creative pieces, including creative non-fiction, short stories, poetry, and artwork. The journal even includes a CD with music and spoken word. There are varying kinds of submission requirements for feminist journals. Labyrinth requires that the pieces be by or about women to be considered. Other journals may require that the pieces be exclusively by women. Others may require that submissions address women’s issues in some way. It greatly depends on the journal. There are also more academic journals, which are strictly political essays.
If your school doesn’t already have a feminist journal that you can volunteer for or submit to, and this is something that you would like to see at your school, there are various resources you could utilize to get one started. In addition to familiarizing yourself with the feminist organizations on your campus and ideally in the community (which is an absolute MUST for feminist activists at college), to get a journal published you could network with the journalism department and the graphics design department. Many campuses provided students with various beneficial printing services. Find out what resources you as a student already have for free or cheap. And don’t do this alone! This is a big project, so if you are going to attempt to start a feminist journal from scratch, get a group of committed people together and realize that it might take some time. Campus bureaucrats can be real stringy with money, and some administrative types tend to shy away from things that seem political.
The broadest category of art that I can think of is “visual media.” Likewise, activist visual media is an equally expansive category. The obvious place of reference is the famous female artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, and Judy Chicago. But that’s only a little piece of the pie. Visual media can be so many things: painting, photography, installations, and other things. My dear friend of mine, Emily McMurdo, a Sex and Gender Media Studies student at Fairhaven College, is a testimony to the spectrum of possibilities in activist visual media. “I try to create paintings and sculptures that appeal to current visual trends and culture,” she told me, “That way, my messages are an added bonus and not something one has to seek out. Shock value is often valuable, but not always. To create art for the masses, an artist should try to be flexible.”
Emily has also done less conventional activist art projects: “I have created a pair of menstrual panties with snap-in pads. The panties are intended to counteract the ‘flush it down, throw it away’ wasteful attitudes and negative stigma spread by feminine hygiene companies by creating a market for things that make a girl feel special for having a period. Instead of feeling like she is wearing diaper, a woman can feel comfortable, special, and proud of her contribution to environmental preservation.” Emily believes that act activist is effective because, “Art is everywhere. Human beings decorate their lives with art culture for a number of reasons. Art activism is so effective because it can be so accessible. The most effective art activism in my eyes, however, is art that catches the attention of more than those already involved in causes for change. Mass-appeal is key to getting that message across.”
Emily and I had the wonderful experience of embarking upon an activist art endeavor together about a year ago when we made a documentary film about menstruation called BloodLove. The film is intended to smash the cultural taboos surrounding menstruation and educated our audience about positive approaches to menstruation. If making films isn’t your bag, watch feminist films! Women Make Movies (www.wmm.com) is a great resource for feminist films. You could even go a step beyond that and organize a viewing of a feminist film on your campus. Make sure you get everything all cleared with copyright laws, though.
One of the most fun aspects of feminist art activism is feminist music. Riot Grrrl is one of the coolest things to ever happen to rock and roll music. Riot Grrrl happened in the early 90s when women rose up against sexism in the supposedly progressive punk rock scene and started forming their own bands that addressed feminist issues in their songs. Zineing is also strongly affiliated with the Riot Grrrl movement. For those interested, some good riot grrrl bands to check out are Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney, and Bratmobile.
Tori Amos is an awesome feminist activist. Not only is her music totally empowering and bad-ass, but Tori uses her success in the music industry to raise funds for the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). This is yet another way one can be an art activist. Even if your art is not necessarily activist or political, highlighting feminist issues at art galleries, plays, open mic nights, concerts, band websites, whatever, is a form of art activism.
Again, my good friend Emily McMurdo exhibits an unconventional way of being an art activist. Emily is also a music minor at Western Washington University, with a focus on classical vocal performance. What makes Emily an activist in this arena is that she exclusively sings music that was written by female composers. This is an area (classical music) where women still don’t get much attention, and by simply performing music written by female composers, Emily exposes unsuspecting audiences to women’s history.
A beautiful art form that can be used (and often is) as a form of art activism is spoken word. Spoken word kind of flows between the categories of poetry (in its lyricism and in that its power lies in words), theater (its performance aspect), and music (the musical qualities found in rhythm and intonation). Oratrix is an awesome Seattle-based feminist spoken word group made up entirely of queer women. The group travels around performing shows to various audiences in various venues around the west coast. But one need not search far to find some awesome spoken word. Get to know your local feminist spoken word artist. She frequents a coffeeshop open mic night near you.
The final example of feminist art activism that I can think of is feminist theater. There are a variety of feminist plays out there, and often the best are student productions featuring budding feminist playwrites (we love those). The most famous feminist theater production to date, however, is hands-down, The Vagina Monologues. The advantage that feminist activists on college campuses have pertaining to The Vagina Monologues is that the V-Week campaign has a pleasantly packaged college campus campaign. The campus program grants student organizations with the rights to show three performances of The Vagina Monologues, and allows the sponsoring organization to donate a portion of the proceeds to a local feminist charity. The Vagina Monologues are always a blast to be a part of because there is just something about getting a group of women together and having them talk about their vaginas for a few months that lends itself to an absolutely mind-blowingly empowering and bonding experience. It’s one of those things that a woman will always remember fondly.
In addition to The Vagina Monologues, my school organizes a separate cast of women to perform what we call "The Vagina Memoirs". As a member of the Vagina Memoirs cast, each woman develops her own vagina monologue in a consciousness-raising/writer’s workshop type environment, and then the pieces are performed as part of the V-Week events. This performance is generally even more powerful than The Vagina Monologues (if you can imagine such a thing) because the pieces are so personal. It is unexplainable how moving it is to see a vagina monologue being performed by the woman who wrote it. Because of the intensity of the performance, "The Vagina Memoirs" cast engages its audience in a dialogue after each performance to discuss any issues that were raised. The entire event serves as an extremely powerful means of raising feminist consciousness and addressing feminist issues.
So, the weather outside is frightful, right? Or ‘tis the season, or whatever. However you want to say it, feminist activists at college have winter break right around the quarter. While you’re staying warm over the break, try making some activist art. One of the best things about art is that it’s cathartic, and activists need outlets for release in order to avoid burnout. So try it out. You may surprise yourself.
I want to hear about the feminist activism happening on your campus -- shoot me an e-mail and we'll compile a rich database of ideas for feminists to share.
I'm actually writing a paper for an Activism in Art HAVC class on
Feminism Activist Art, and I came upon your article online "Art
Activism" online (which I enjoyed a lot.) Following your article you
requested us to share our own feminist activism going on at our own
schools. I am attending University of California Santa Cruz and a good
friend of mine Morgan, myself, and a good handful of our other friends
started having "Kick Ass Women Speaking up Tea and Talk" which invited
anyone that wanted to to come and have some tea and talk about women's
issues. This was inspired by us attending an Intro to Feminisms class.
Originally we were going to start a zine to distribute as we are all
very creative people who like to write and do art, but then Morgan
went to the University and is now getting our feminist literary
magazine "Germs"! It's actually the first feminist literary magazine
ever to hit the UC's. Kind of ridiculous right? Anyway, I thought I
would share with you. Our myspace is: www.myspace.com/kickasswomenspeakingup
Brooke N. Benjestorf is a senior at Fairhaven College, an interdisciplinary concentration design program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Her chosen concentration is Feminist Activism and it includes study in writing, film, women’s studies, and social change. When she is not being a feminist activist extraordinaire she loves to hang out with her girlfriends, make art, and take good care of her dog (her best friend), Paytah.