When I think of spaces “exclusively for women,” I think of teenage sleepovers, and gynecologist’s offices, and long lines for the bathroom stalls. This is where my childhood friend unknotted my curls, where I quietly gasped about that time of the month, where I shared silent nods with strangers as we both wiped mascara off our cheeks. “Art” rarely happens in these spaces. “Art” has historically strived for universality. “Art” belongs in public institutions; its cultural worth legitimized through its accessibility. “Art” seemingly hangs on clean white walls above the power structures that continually divide and define the people who make it. “Art” has no gender. But as art critic Lucy Lippard wrote, artists do.
Female artists need no reminder of this. Even the fact that I have to write “female” in front of artist to reference a specific subset separate from the neutrally understood “artist” proves a point. Female artists work within an impossible paradox. They are charged to stand as representatives of a historically suppressed “female gaze,” while still remaining “relevant.” They risk either denying their identity, claiming the falsity of a genderless artist, or seemingly becoming pigeonholed into single issue one-hit-wonders. What hangs in the balance is the legitimacy of the boundless artistic expressions of “femininity.” Especially as they intersect with expressions of race, sexuality, and gender orientation, femininity as subject is neither limited nor trite. Art by Female Artists is vital and generative because, not in spite, of its singularity.
So what does art look like when it happens in the all-girl sleepover? How is art changed when its context becomes “exclusively for women?” Nine female artists and writers performed behind close doors to a women-identified-only audience at last week’s gURLs. Held at TRANSFER gallery in Brooklyn, this event celebrated women-centric work within the web, attempting to bring these connections IRL. Curated by Zoë Salditch, gURLs featured art that celebrates girl culture within social media, dissolving the line between digitally rendered performances and online-based poetry. The result of the “no boys allowed” ban was not exclusivity or irrelevance, but the beginnings of a community of artists and writers working unapologetically within and throughout female identity.
Social media and blogging sites, especially Tumblr and Twitter, have become the haven for a new wave of feminist performance. Social media, which rewards identity-formation and over-sharing, has become the natural platform for a certain “teen-girl aesthetic.” This digitally rendered femininity takes on a hyper-self-aware, confessional, and often-humorous tone. Girls online are vulnerable, but not weak, immediate but always in flux, and self-involved while providing mutual support. They take up space, exposing themselves while seeking exposure. They affirm a view of femininity that is not inherently biological or binarily defined, but self-created and self-affirmed.
Girls performing as girls online often find themselves slipping between object and subject. Indeed, particularly within Tumblr, nostalgic imagery of women “posing” in the name of sexual objectification—cheekily documented in gURLs performer Kate Durbin’s Tumblr project “Women as Objects”—becomes the primary source imagery for online girl culture. As gURLs performer Ann Hirsch writes in her essay “Women, Sexuality and the Internet,” “The women who self-represent often portray the same conventions of television, films, and magazines […] illustrating a cycle of identification and internalization of stereotypes, rather than subversion.” Much like real life, performing female sexuality comes at the unavoidable price of sexual predation. Just like women walking in short skirts “ask for” sexual harassment, artists performing femininity on the web must share their space with pornography. These female artists find a way to appropriate objectified stances with a wink, deploying humorous irony and theatricality to begin to subvert, and all the while condemn, objectification.
The female-exclusive nature of gURLs aimed to cut some this objectification. This of course worked at the expense of limiting the show’s audience, causing some contention even among gURLs performers. Genevieve Belleveau wrote that initially she felt a ban against boys attitude “only further propagated a binary attitude in art making.” Angela Washko also echoed, “I think a lot of people have reservations about making events ‘women only or female identified only.’ On paper I understand that reservation—being exclusionary surely doesn't help create more interest in women's perspectives across culture and broadening the idea of what kinds of women can be presented as valuable or desirable.”
Yet what was perhaps lost in the name of “a broader audience” was gained in sanctuary and sustenance from the women in attendance. Many described the all-female filed room as a “safe space.” A “safe space” does not imply that all existing power structures melted away behind the closed doors of the gallery. Sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination continue to be at work, regardless of whether a space is all-female or not. But the sense of safeness translated to a certain liberty and comfort that comes when you are surrounded by your peers. It’s the same comfort felt when you sleepover with your best friends and whisper into their ears. As Salditch explained, “When I think of examples of safe places, I think of summer camps and therapy sessions. These are spaces where you can feel safe to ‘be you’ (or some version of you, rather) that you don't typically exhibit to anywhere else.”
And, in the case of the performances and poetry that were shared, their effectiveness and poignancy was only heightened by the all-female-audience. The art presented in gURLs, fixated on female self-determination, is best reflected and received by people who can appreciate the tenuous challenge of being a girl on the web. Belleveau follows, “This was a fantastic revelation for me as I really recognized that this feminine space was gift, and that overall the work we all created, tailored to the specifications of the evening, was completely unique to the female audience we imagined while preparing our pieces.”
The real power of the night will resound beyond the gallery walls, in the Facebook chats, and retweets, and Tumblr posts of the women who performed and attended. What was gained was the activation of a community, one that has been bubbling on the web in separate trajectories, and is just coming into its own. As Salditch explains, what was truly significant about gURLs was not whom it left out, but whom it brought together. She writes, “with gURLs two groups of young female artists that have been in dialogue with one another online—alt lit writers/poets and Internet performance artists—came together in a gallery context.”
gURLs is just the first iteration of rad women meeting on the web and taking those connections to the real world. Meet Female Artists (with a capital F) from gURLs.
Genevieve Belleveau's artistic practice muddles the separation of artist and audience, creating collective experiences of creativity rather than concrete “art objects.” This intent translates ideally into the social media and digital realm, where Belleveau incites communication and collaboration from participants. Examples include Facebook as a reality TV show and "Live Action Troll Play" as a method of social disruption in physical space or Live Action Role Play as metaphor for the theatrical nature of daily life. She is currently in residence at Belle Thalia Creative Arts Space in rural northern Minnesota. She tweets and blogs here.
Gabby Bess’s poetry and performances evoke the displacement and emotional labor of performed femininity. She is the author of Alone With Other People, her debut collection of poetry and fiction published this summer with Civil Coping Mechanisms, and the founding editor of Illuminati Girl Gang, a noted publication that publishes art and literature by women. She tweets and blogs here.
Considered the big sister of Tumblr-based female artists, Kate Durbin’s videos and performances explore the ways in which girl culture evolved with the advent of the net. She particularly focuses on women supporting each other’s come-of-age online. Her curatorial project “Women As Objects” that documents Tumblr images of women by women has been featured in Hyperallergic and Bright Stupid Conffetti.
Ann Hirsch’s videos and performances engage with the contemporary portrayal of women in media. Often acting as an amateur social scientist, Hirsch inserts herself into popular culture, reporting back her findings in the form of art works. Her upcoming performance Playground premieres October 4th at the New Museum. She blogs and tweets here.
Bunny Rogers’ performances and poetry destabilize notions of female adolescence, conjuring sexual introductions and sentimental longing for lost innocence. Her work has been exhibited in New York and Portland with an upcoming dual exhibition with Jasper Spicero in London. Her debut poetry collection My Apologies Accepted will be published in 2014 with Civil Coping Mechanisms. She maintains a personal website and a poetry blog.
Zoë Salditch is a community organizer of Internet culture. In the past she worked as Program Direcot of Rhizome and is currently the Communications Director at Eyebeam. She tweets here.
Martine Syms is a conceptual entrepreneur based in Los Angeles, California. Her work examines the assumptions of contemporary American culture, focusing on the relationships between commercialism, identity and experience. She documents various narratives, ideologies, representations and omissions of the Other within everyday culture. She tweets here.
Angela Washko is an artist and facilitator devoted to mobilizing communities and creating new forums for discussions of feminism where they do not exist through actions, interventions, videos, and performances—sometimes in video games. She founded the Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft in early 2012 as a platform for discussing gender politics in stereotypically misogynistic game spaces.She tweets here.
Rachel Rabbit White
Rachel R. White is a writer interested in exploring spaces between female friendship, spirituality, sexuality, and self destruction. She is interested in ‘life as a performance’ and in bridging the distance between viewer and performer. White has written hundreds of pieces of journalism and personal essays for publications like the New York Observer, NYMag.com, Thought Catalog and Vice. She assisted Zoe Salditch with the show’s curating. She blogs and tweets here.
Jenny Zhang released her first book-length collection of poetry, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, with Octopus Books this March. She currently lives in New York and writes for Rookie magazine. She tweets here.