Washington State punk rocker Kathleen Hanna self-published the Riot Grrrl Manifesto in 1991 “Because us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to us.” Twenty four years later, the feminist DIY movement continues to bear fruit and gain followers.
The Punk Singer documentary about Hanna and her ferocious band Bikini Kill came out last year; Portlandia co-creator Carrie Brownstein re-united in January with fellow members of Riot Grrrl trio Sleater–Kinney on a critically acclaimed new album; one-time zine maker Miranda July just published her first novel The First Bad Man; and in Russia, all-female collective Pussy Riot continues to rock against censorship by starting their own news outlet.
To celebrate Riot Grrrl then and now, touring exhibition Alien She opens February 15 at the Orange County Museum of Art showcasing vintage fliers, stickers and cassette tapes from the ’90s along with 21st-century artworks inspired by the movement’s ethos of “creative resistance,” as curator Astria Suparak describes it.
“Riot Grrrl was a reaction to the sexism and homophobia in the punk music scene as well as the culture at large,” says Suparak, who organized Alien She with co-curator Ceci Moss. “The idea of what is alternative and independent was much more clear in the ’90s than it is now, but there’s still injustice, there’s still sexism and homophobia and racism in our culture.”
The original Riot Grrrl phenomenon gained momentum one local scene at a time, says Suparak, who experienced the activist punk scene firsthand as a Southern California teenager during the mid-’90s. “I spent a lot of nights driving all over Los Angeles and Orange County staying out very late,” she says. “That was a very important part of my growing up. You’d learn about the bands through friends and cassette tapes, then go to a music show where you could pick up zines.”
Alien She documents activity, largely from the ’90s, through a zine archive and vitrines filled with fliers, stickers, mix tapes and other ephemera culled from regional hot spots including Washington D.C., San Francisco, Brazil, and Holland.
The exhibit also includes an experiment in snail mail collaboration by contemporary artist Miranda July. “Years before YouTube came along, Miranda July’s video chain letter was something she put together by herself as a way for ‘lady moviemakers’ to connect and see each other’s work,” explains Suparak. “You could send Miranda your video on VHS tape, and then you’d get the VHS tape back with your video and nine other movies. That was very influential for a lot of current video makers and filmmakers.”
In addition to its ’90s-era collection, Alien She features recent work by seven artists whose projects embody the Riot Grrrl aesthetic. Suparak says, “One of the inspirations for the exhibition was that Ceci and I realized a lot of the people originally in Riot Grrrl when we were 15, 16, 17 years old are still involved 20 years later in art, music, education, and activism.”
They include Stephanie Syjuco, whose Counterfeit Crochet installation playfully outsourced the knitting of fake designer handbags to women around the world. LTTR co-founder Ginger Brooks Takahashi is represented by her Bookmobile, which has traveled the country packed with artist-produced booklets.
And Allyson Mitchell’s “Lady Sasquatch” sculpture salutes a wild woman archetype typically shunned by mainstream media. Suparak says, “Allyson talks about the Female Sasquatch as embracing a feral sexuality outside of heteronormative notions of beauty, outside common notions of lust, like the Sasquatch as being like too hairy, too big, too fat for people’s comfort.”
Beyond the confines of the exhibition itself, Suparak and Moss maintain an interactive map that tracks Riot Grrrl activity in 30 states and 24 countries.
Suparak points to the proliferation of Girls Rock camps and the popularity of actress-writer-fashionista Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie magazine as natural extensions of the Riot Grrrl aesthetic. “Tavi talks about being influenced by Riot Grrrl. It’s a feminist magazine for the teen girls who weren’t even alive when this began, which I think is fantastic,” she says.
Alien She, which travels to Portland in September after its three-month run in Orange County, makes the case for Riot Grrrl as a female empowerment mindset that morphs with the times. “It’s often been pigeonholed as this subgenre of music that only affected a narrow demographic of girls in the Pacific Northwest–‘Oh its just this harsh shrill sound’–but we want to show in this exhibition how Riot Grrrl is really a social movement that has global reach and encompasses a lot of creative forms.”