I was surprised and touched by the number of men scattered amongst the still predominately female crowd at Ground Zero, silenced and awed as they stared up at the stage where the lovely speaker gestured at the screen as cheery, colorful slides sped by. Dressed chic in all black, with black lustrous fur and incomparable thick, black rubber skin. She was a Guerilla Girl, appearing at USC in her full badass regalia of head to toe black and the iconic rubber gorilla mask. As she turned her head to address the audience, we could see flashes of glittering red from behind the cut out eyeholes; either wicked glasses frames, or the flames of her ardor for activism burning in her eyes. Whichever, just seeing one of the founding Guerilla Girls on the stage was one of the coolest things I’ve gotten to do at USC, or, y’know, ever.
The Guerrilla Girls are a band of female activists who work through art and anonymity to protest the under representation of women and/or minorities in the art world, Hollywood and politics. Through posters, billboards and biting wit they’ve been working since 1985 to redress wrongs and be “the conscience of the art world.” The anonymity is key; all members assume the name of dead female artists, and never appear without their masks. When asked how they settled on this particular persona, she answered: “We decided to be anonymous from the beginning… you couldn’t hate what we were doing because you hated us. Then we realized we needed an identity. One of our early members was a terrible speller, and during one of our meetings she was doodling GO-rilla girls the animal as opposed to GUE-rilla girls the freedom fighters… it confounds expectations and pushes people’s buttons.”
She entered the room after the lights were turned off and the bar closed the curtain to business, and broke the ice by handing out bananas on the way to the stage. The presentation then started with a PowerPoint talk covering the history of the Guerilla Girls activism, a sort of lite intro into what they were all about. It covered them from the beginning, when they were a small band of outsiders and renegades in New York, going out late at night to plaster the city with posters and stickers to the present, with their posters hanging in the TATE permanent collection, and shows at contemporary galleries around the world from Shanghai back to New York again.
Not that the recent somewhat ironic embrace from the art world has dulled their acerbic commentary any. At the recent opening of the Eli Broad gallery at LACMA, the Guerilla Girls protested the under-representation of women artists and artists of color at a tax supported museum, whose mission is purportedly to “educate a culturally diverse population.” When the curator of the Broad collection claimed that Cindy Sherman has forty-nine pieces on display, the Guerrilla Girls responded with another letter, pointing out that there were only four female artists out of thirty, and one black artist out of thirty. These numbers don’t coordinate with the number of women artists, and of artists in minority groups just in the Los Angeles area. It runs into the problem of museums, as elucidated in the Guerilla Girls activity book, as “places where rich people put their stuff.”
Not that they are limited to the art world; they have pointed out similar failings in the Hollywood system, and especially recently in the problems of government. My favorite is the “estrogen bomb” a poster and billboard campaign to bomb the various houses of government with estrogen pills to chill them out. They approach everything with a sense of humor; “communication is really important to us… if you don’t have a sense of humor we cannot speak to you.”
It was in that swinging sense of humor that she ended the presentation by getting a guy into skirt. There’s a cool story behind it, of course: the New York Times published an article and accompanying photo entitled “Arnold Glimcher and his Art World All Stars;” all of which were white men. The Guerrilla Girls did a responding poster entitle Hormone Imbalance Melanin Deficiency, catching the attention of Village Voice art critic Betsy Hass. Hass called Glimcher to ask him about his collection, and the skit was a re-enactment of the transcript of that telephone conversation. The guy from the audience was called up to play Hass; the Guerrilla Girl took on the role of Glimcher. It was both funny and disturbing, especially Glimcher’s lines—“we only represent artists who fit into our program,” and the suggestion that they continue the conversation “maybe over lunch.”
For the Guerilla Girls, it’s not a matter of men versus women, but of enlightened human rights and equality for all, and for not settling for tokenism. Their verve and jocularity were refreshing and inspiring, especially in the recent political and social climate, which considers the battle for equal rights basically won, and demonizes feminism. And their attraction isn’t an isolated phenomenon. They apparently receive tons of mail, especially in response to one of their earlier posters “Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” from female artists, most of which tend to be musicians, saying that this is the story of their lives.
By the end of the talk, the general excitement was such that the news that the Guerilla Girls weren’t looking for any new members, that in fact they preferred to stay small, and so didn’t solicit members in any way cast a tangible pall of disappointment over much of the room. She advised us to “find your own crazy way to be an activist… Speak out against what you think is wrong. The art world is a very f*cked up place.” She ended with this call for more activism, with undertones of addressing the type who make up the USC community especially--young people with all the advantages of education. The most important thing is to be active; after all “you wouldn’t be paying attention to a woman wandering around in a gorilla mask if it wasn’t attached to a body of work.”