Guerrilla Girls: The Conscience of the Art World and Beyond

The ground-breaking artist-activists Guerrilla Girls in conversation with Inter-Actions about why they believe no one is free till everyone is free!

LILA:  GG has largely insisted on maintaining the anonymity of its members while developing its unique character as a collective for over 30 years. This act of your existence foregrounding the ‘collective’ challenges the centralised governance practices and hierarchical sustainability models of patriarchy. What was the immediate trigger for launching this collective in 1985?

GG: In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), one of the most important museums in New York, mounted an exhibition titled An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. This exhibition claimed to represent the best contemporary artists in the world. Out of 169 artists only 13 were women, and very few were artists of color. This was bad enough, but then the exhibition curator claimed that any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink “his” career. A protest was called by the Women’s Caucus for Art, and it was the usual kind of picket line with chants and placards. A few of us who would become Guerrilla Girls were part of the demonstration and saw that no passers-by seemed to care. We realized there had to be a better way – a more contemporary, media-savvy way – to convince people that discrimination existed in art world. Within months, we formed a group to create in-your-face posters. We realized we couldn’t just say that the art world was prejudiced we had to SHOW it. That’s how the Guerrilla Girls were formed.

LILA: In a world that is increasingly falling for individual-centric propaganda, what is your motivation and inspiration to remain a masked collective? What is your internal governance practice/training that helps you maintain this practice for decades, and with different members?

GG: Being a collective flies in the face of the individual-genius pedagogy fed in art schools. This rhetoric supports a system where only a few are anointed ‘stars’ and everyone else is a failure. We choose to oppose this system. Collective work is not for everyone.  Every decision takes longer, we argue for days about a comma, we rarely agree on everything…it gets messy! But once a project comes together, the combined input makes it more relatable.

LILA:  A corollary question relates to your reference to yourselves as the ‘conscience of the art world’. You once said, “If you’re in a situation where you’re a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won’t believe what comes out of your mouth.”  Does fear seize you while being the conscience of the art world? Do the gorilla masks and your sense of collective offer some protection against fear? If so, how?

It’s tough to publicly criticize a system when you are dependent on it for your livelihood. We get that. And in the beginning, it was part of the reason the GGs were anonymous. We had to protect ourselves while we went after the big galleries, critics, and museums the same institutions that we needed to support our own work.  Anonymity also prevents our message from being hijacked by our personal lives. Any time a woman complains about something, her life is examined. By keeping our lives a secret, we keep the focus on our message.

LILA:  Do the masks allow you to be ‘everyone’ /’anyone’ – does this help in people identifying with you, thereby increasing your popularity?  We understand that over the years, spaces like Tate Modern and MOMA that were initially averse to you, have welcomed you. How do you see this change and your journey over the decades in terms of reception?

GG: Yes! Our masks and anonymity are a double-edged swordon the one hand they have hidden how diverse we have always been, perhaps curtailing our popularity especially within the minority activist communities, but, like you say, it has, hopefully, also allowed these communities to project themselves onto our masks and secret personas. We could be anyone, but we don’t believe we can speak for everyone. Feminists must find their own way in their own situations. We are here to support, not dictate.

True cultural change requires effort on all fronts. We are the agitating outsiders, but change requires people working inside the system as well. Every time we are invited to exhibit or be part of a program at institutions like Tate Modern or MoMA it’s because a curator believes in our message and wants to remake their institution by bringing our message inside. It’s very gratifying to see more and more supporters inside major cultural institutions, including curators and educators, but there’s still a lot more work to be done.

LILA:  Your work lies in the curious space between art and activism. Even as you are a strong force of resistance and protest, your posters and other products are today highly valued art. As different members join/leave the collective, do shifts occur in your trajectory of work? We notice that your chronology page shows a four-yearly categorisation. Do you think your methods or foci change every four or five years?

GG: Our posters are $20! We don’t believe in making precious, “highly valuable” art objects. They are valuable because of the content not because they are unique commodities. We reproduce them endlessly. We love that we exist in this alternative space and always want to encourage more artists to occupy this space with us.

Our work shifts organically, responding to the politics of the time we are living in; there’s no five-year plan. (The four-year categorization on our website was our webmistress’ choice!)

LILA:  You draw from and affect the field of art as well as that of activism, without projecting either of them as your finite identity. Can you tell us more about the dynamic of working in this middle space – what keeps you from falling completely into conventional practices on both sides, and how do you manage to make a mark with a fresh, self-defined, non-conventional identity, while remaining relevant–a space to be reckoned with?

GG: To be honest, we don’t know how to do anything other than occupy this middle space. We are all artists in our non-GG lives and relish the uniqueness of this alternative space and identity. We believe we are creating a new paradigm for how a visual artist can survive and thrive in the world.

LILA:  The curatorial motives of public art and gallery exhibitions are quite different. Often, the nature and impact of art changes with the space where it is displayed. Your work is often displayed in both spaces, and also in private homes and on personal objects ranging from mugs to bags to t-shirts. Can you give us some insight into your curatorial processes for different spaces as well as for performances? What is your curatorial philosophy and how does it change with the display medium/stage?

GG: I wish we had an overarching curatorial philosophy, but, honestly, we don’t! Each project is different and any project we do with a curator will be different based on the dynamics of their institution and its surrounding community. We always want our work to be accessible and affordable to everyone. We are not interested in catering to the tastes of the 1% or breaking any auction records. We want our work to be where lots of people see it, think about it and even argue about it. One of our goals is to see our posters hanging in dorm rooms, artists’ studios and curators’ offices all over the world. The wall space above rich collectors’ couches doesn’t interest us much.

LILA:  It is evident that a lot of research goes into the making of your posters, performances and other works. We observe a curious similarity between your method of yoking dissimilar ideas together to communicate something specific, and that of the 17th Century English Metaphysical Poets. For instance, the unexpectedness of comparison between Tony Awards and Toilet Stalls. Till the time, TS Eliot wrote insightfully about these poets who marked the Transition Age, the metaphysical poets were not appreciated at all. How do you think your material directly revealing unexpected parallels without any pretence of suggestiveness came to be regarded as highly valued art in our times?

GG: You can’t just point at something and say, “This is bad!” You have to do more. You have to twist your message, to say it in an unforgettable way. We’ve found that humor is a very powerful tool – if you can make someone who disagrees with you laugh, you have a hook into their brain, and your message stays there and haunts them! There are a lot of people within the art world who refuse to recognize our work as valuable art but we are glad you do!

LILA:  While we are on the subject of ‘metaphysics’, let us circle back to your anonymity. In India, we are so used to coming across profound texts that have no sign of the author. We see in your anonymity a very subversive proposition of art practice in our largely self-indulgent times, especially in the West. How do you see ‘art’ in this regard?

GG: You are 100% correct in pointing out the LONG history of “anonymous art”, when art was produced by workshops and not attributed to a single creator. The singular-genius, especially at the celebrity status we see now, is really a post-renaissance, modern phenomenon. Let’s be honest, it’s getting boring. And it’s a servant to the worst aspects of late-capitalism!

LILA:  While your main focus has been to fight discrimination against women, have you expanded your work to cover related gender and sexuality issues raised by the LGBTI/Queer movements? What is the current scope of your work?

GG: Oh yes! From the beginning we have talked about race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, art world corruption and more! Our work always responds to the times we are living in. We believe in an intersectional feminism that fights for all human rights. No one is free until everyone is free!

LILA:  You have expanded your activities beyond the art world–you respond to right-wing politics, Hollywood, issues concerning the body and sexuality…, while keeping your fight against discrimination as the thread that connects all your reactions. Do you envisage a world where discrimination ceases to exist, and where your existence as activists also become redundant? On Indian Independence Gandhi had asked to dismiss the Congress, which in his view was a tool of the struggle for independence. If such a day of independence comes, what would be the nature of work of GG as artists? What does your vision of art’s future show us?

GG: We believe in and long for the day that our activism is not needed, but it’s not happening any time soon. It will take more than a hundred years of feminism to correct millennia of patriarchy. So, we don’t spend time envisioning our post-independence lives! We are too busy focusing on the resistance.

Guerrilla Girls – Not Ready to Make Nice. 2015. Credit: 22 Months Production
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