Part of being in New York is facing an almost over-bowling (as in, it bowls one over) range of opportunities to see and experience THE ARTS. Film, theatre, opera, music, ballet, museums and galleries, street performance, festivals, etc. etc. etc. — and much of it is free (or cheap) if you know where to look and when to go. One of the great offerings at the Lincoln Center are Target Free Thursdays, where every Thursday (surprise surprise!) at 8:30, musical/theatrical/cultural performances take place in the Atrium, free and open to the public.
This past Thursday evening, I was lucky enough to get a front row seat for a performance by the Guerrilla Girls on Tour, a NYC-based theatrical-comic-feminist-activist troupe. (Go ahead, shudder at the F-word — this is a topic that they address in their performances, actually.) The Guerrilla Girls (the umbrella group, which split from the Touring group about a decade ago) began in 1985 in response to what they saw as a blatantly sexist “retrospective” at The Met of painting and art from across the world, which included only 13 women among its 169 (white) featured artists. They saw this proof of the inequality of the art world as symptomatic of greater discrimination that could be addressed by the very means of this field in which they were being, as a collective, shunted aside — the arts. They began with mostly print and visual media, such as this poster, which is probably one of their most well-known early works (at least it’s the one that seems to make it into every text book on visuality and culture jamming that I’ve ever read):
Anyway, I’ve read a number of authors’ eloquent waxings on this specimen of visual culture, and even seen some of their graphic and sculptural work in person at MACBA this past spring, and fancy myself, yes, a feminist, so I was totally stoked at the chance to see the live theatrical faction for myself.
The performance was fairly in-your-face, a touch sloppy, but powerfully sincere and well-received by the crowd that packed the Lincoln Center Atrium. Yes, the occasional missteps and dropped lines, the sort of forced frivolity, the we’re-laughing-because-we’re-actually-uncomfortable-because-everything-we’re-saying-is-unfortunately-true might have fallen short, but for a moment about two-thirds of the way through the program. After jokingly declaring Michelle Obama’s biceps as the greatest symbol today of America’s strength, and then genuinely congratulating Obama on her active role as First Lady, the Guerrilla Girls added their ‘yes, but’ to that statement: taking issue with Obama’s use of the phrase ‘anti-obesity’ in her campaign with Beyonce.
A shift in the performance: the four actresses came forward before individual microphones, and read in counter-point four stories that collectively created a plea for acceptance of all women’s bodies, no matter their size or the state of their skin or anything else that is really so far off from the essence of their personhood, a thing to which we all have an immense right. In a style that echoed strongly that of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, the stories built on one another, becoming an incessant vocal recreation of this, their latest poster, which was projected behind them on a giant screen:
It ended, in unison: “I think someone wants me to disappear.”
How suddenly sobering. Among a deluge of less-than-subtle comedy and theatrical gags (it was sandwiched between respective parodies of Beyonce and Lady Gaga), this moment was all the more striking. Not that issues of body sovereignty are solely feminist domain, or that among the topics that feminism seeks to address, such issues are the “MOST IMPORTANT” — but they exist, and the presentation of them, in its visuality in particular, affected me, and was simply effective. The poster design reveals an increasing sophistication in their graphic approach (which is echoed across other recent graphic work), and the invocation of the Vagina Monologues‘ visual and verbal format worked incredibly well to break through the funny and become, in an instant, serious.
And as a girl growing up in this society, I know that these aspects of visual culture require this kind of address — I spend so much of my time thinking abstractly or intellectually about the visual aspects of our society, but more and more I wonder where theory becomes too much and lived experience must speak. Visual culture is not just art, not just beautiful films or the depth of a Rothko color field. Visual culture is not just Justin Bieber and what he chooses to wear, or the interesting but obvious proliferation of Facebook and its affect of how we operate the increasingly ubiquitous camera. At some point, visual culture must also encompass the crushing pressure of self-presentation, particularly on women, but really on all people in this increasingly mediated and visual society. I’m beginning to realize that ‘practices of looking’ includes ‘practices of appearing’. And maybe art itself can interrogate and rip apart these inconsistencies, deconstruct these aporia — at least, the Guerrilla Girls can.