The corner of West 24th Street and 10th Avenue September 13, 2008
"Museums Cave In To Radical Feminists” read the sign on poster board in hot pink letters, hoisted by a Brainstormer on the corner of West 24th St. and 10th Ave. Donning tinfoil brain-mold helmets and lab-coats, the members of this four-woman art-activist collective were hitting the pavement in Chelsea, the “lion's den” of high-art culture, where they have leveled their critique of gender inequity in the visual arts a number of times before. For the past three years they’ve been exposing gender bias through research projects, events, publications and actions directed at leading venues like P.S. 1 and the 2006 Armory. They have also exhibited works at institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center and recently with the Guerrilla Girls in Making it Together at the Bronx Museum.
The Brainstormers—Elaine Kaufmann, Danielle Mysliwiec, Anne Polashenski, and Maria Dumlao—had set up a card table on the street corner, where curious passersby would be invited to fill out Mad Libs postcards. (Among the Brainstormers’ supporters was a masked Guerrilla Girl whose anonymity precluded any chance of interacting with her). The front of the postcards listed thirty galleries with the worst boy/girl ratio. On the reverse side was a form letter expressing disappointment in the gallery; blanks were left for your own verb, adjective, and noun. The Brainstormers would help you fill it out and then offer to send the card on to the offending gallery of your choice as a form of protest-by-mail.
The postcards worked like a party-game ice-breaker, allowing for conversation that sidestepped the unfortunate awkwardness of being asked to think or care about something by a stranger. The Brainstormers’ tongue-in-cheek approach and general amiability was hospitable, not showy; they presented themselves as insiders commenting on the gender politics at play in the art institution/market. Their performance-based street activism is geared toward dissemination and exposure; star-power meets grassroots organizing, a more second-wave approach than the early Guerrilla Girls’ soft guerrilla tactics and media gags.
“If one of my guy friends gets representation at a blue chip gallery, is he going to recommend they look at one of his lady friends?” Anne Polashenski asked. Anne, who lives in Brooklyn among thousands of Chelsea hopefuls, pointed out that Brooklyn galleries that move to Manhattan often discard their prior progressive ethical stance and assume the gender biases of their new neighbors. It seems what’s needed are spaces founded on a feminist mandate that will view marginalized artists as members of a discrete community and commit themselves as an alternative to the mercantile high-art mainstream. La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse in Montreal, founded by a circle of women artists, has maintained this mandate since its inception in the early 1970s and through many changes of address and format.
The Brainstormers’ own research has shown that nothing has changed in New York since the Guerilla Girls’ first attempt to correct gender bias in the ’80s. What’s more, not long after they began their activities, the GGs allowed themselves to be co-opted and canonized by the very system they had been decrying as unjust and sexist. Their actions seem now to be a pantomime of protest, its panache and bite all-too-willingly exploited while the attention they were directing towards the governing dynamics of a rich, white, male-dominated art market was lost. This failure reveals the flaws in the strategy of using artworks as a kind of oversight committee for the culture-industry: in the end they sheath the reigning structure in an illusion of self-criticism that forestalls real change.
We need to consider some wiser strategic and ethical positioning if we want to move closer to the end of white/male hegemony. Say, taking the fight to places where patriarchal culture has yet to capitalize on artist-borne gentrification to erect its steaming walls of glass and class, an approach taken by the GGs offshoot group, Guerrilla Girls on Tour, and the DIY Riot Grrrl movement. Despite the abundance of artists who highlight sexual, racial, and socio-economic injustices within the visual arts, we rarely see critics willing to forsake the system altogether.