Image Events Guerrilla Girl Style: A 20-Year Retrospective
Christine Tulley, The University of Findlay
Enculturation 6.2 (2009): http://enculturation.net/6.2/tulley
The Guerrilla Girls have long been recognized as the voice of conscience in the traditionally male-dominated art world, and their signature style of rhetorical parody has changed little over the past 20 years they have been in existence. Initially blending old school “cut and paste” zine-style methods of collage and pastiche with the billboard format, and later expanding these techniques into all media sectors such as video, television, and the Internet, their activism repeatedly cultivates a media spectacle that reaches far beyond their original focus of combating discrimination in the art world. The Guerrilla Girls engage in this media plurality to ensure that their political acts of protest reach as many viewers as possible and thus raise awareness of their efforts to combat sexism in the art world and beyond. According to the manifesto on their website, the Guerrilla Girls are
a bunch of anonymous females who take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and appear in public wearing gorilla masks . . . we have produced over 100 posters, stickers, books, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and the culture at large. We use humor to convey information, provoke discussion, and show that feminists can be funny. We wear gorilla masks to focus on the issues rather than our personalities. Dubbing ourselves the conscience of culture, we declare ourselves feminist counterparts to the mostly male tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Batman, and the Lone Ranger. (“Interview” par. 2)
The Guerrilla Girls have a solid 20-year history of creating spectacles attractive to the media ranging from public protests outside the Whitney Museum, furtive late-night postering around New York City, and stickering in art museum restrooms, all caught on camera when actually taking place or even after the Girls have come and gone, and the only thing left is a signature Guerrilla Girl sticker. Via a carefully constructed and media-savvy approach, these anonymous “do-gooders” invite the public (even those who aren’t interested in the art world) to take notice of these image events. Despite engaging in a variety of media approaches to get their message across, “the group’s rhetoric coheres into a meaningful message because each poster, action, or book project confronts sexism and racism by revealing the incongruity between social ideals and practices” (Demo 138). As a result, every time a Guerilla Girl action is captured in the press it is considered a success because all publicity evokes awareness of their message. The message has extended internationally, reaching film festivals in Shanghai and Venice.
Although using a variety of media outlets isn’t a unique practice (indeed other social action groups such as MoveOn also use a variety of media), what is unique is how the Guerrilla Girls carefully orchestrate these events to feed off of each other in an endless cycle of postmodern images perfectly suited to today’s media-saturated society. As this essay will argue, the Girls utilize a unique, multi-pronged approach to creating these image events to get their message across: 1) they create an image event (for example, a public protest that they realize will be captured by the press or televised media); 2) they leave what I refer to as a “trace” of an image event, which becomes an image event in itself (for example, they secretly post a provocative poster, and then the poster becomes an image event as it is re-shown on the local news); 3) they create an image event or capitalize on the “trace” of another, usually non-related, image event (for example, creating “anti-grope” shields in response to the media report of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s alleged fondling of female co-workers, or encouraging other Girls to put up posters about other media events, such as the Michael Jackson trial, and leave them for the local news to cover these acts of vandalism, humor, or public scolding).
This essay details this savvy, multi-faceted approach to capturing media attention that has proven to be remarkably successful over the 20-year history of the Guerrilla Girls and continues to ensure that the feminist rhetoric of the Girls remains in the public eye (the girls explain their work further on this YouTube clip, a talk at “The Future Feminist Symposia” at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] in New York City).
Unlike other types of feminist movements that, at times, may have had hostile relationships with the media, the Girls realize the media is the key to getting their message across; as a result, they only engage in acts that are attractive to media outlets. The end goal of their action is to create a spectacle, which is ironic as they claim to “focus only on the issues” in their above manifesto. Josephine Withers points out that they “prefer to use statistics and other verifiable data that demonstrate general patterns of discrimination against women and minorities and tend to focus on practical and material results” (288). Yet, without the spectacle, the focus on the issues may not be heard or, if heard, may quickly fade from public interest. Their multi-pronged approach ensures that viewers can be reached (and then reached again) on a variety of media levels even if the spectacle in itself is at least, if not more, enticing than the message. Viewers can choose to read an article about the Girls in USA Today while also driving home from work and seeing a billboard not by choice. By saturating the public scope, the Guerrilla Girls become easily recognizable, even iconic.
In addition, the Girls are not protective over their name or image; in fact, they encourage other “Girls” (who may be non-artists, men, or just supporters) to create image events under the Guerrilla Girls’ name, such as printing bumper stickers off of their website and putting them up in art museum restrooms around the country. This means that the Girls do not have to be directly involved or even present for a Guerrilla Girl image event to occur.
Furthermore, as noted earlier, the Girls are not just members of the formal, original NYC-based group of Guerrilla Girls. Girls can be members of the NYC group, anyone who posts a sticker in Guerilla Girls’ name, or any local "chapter" of Girls that posters in other cities, such as San Diego. This extension of the network is not organized in a global sense but is still a calculated move to foster media spectacle, because common sense would dictate that more numbers would enable more bodies to create image events and thus more awareness for their causes. In fact, as the Girls note: “we’ve done enough lecturing across the U.S. and around the world that the Guerrilla Girl chapters just sort of spring up, but they’re more like franchises. They’re independent from us” (Gablik 218). As a result, the multi-pronged approach of the Girls extends beyond just the initial group and encourages a larger chain of media spectacle that continues the cycle. Guerrilla Girls are always careful to remain in the public eye lest they, and the message they present, be forgotten.
Who Are the Guerrilla Girls?
By now, many are familiar with the Guerrilla Girls’ signature gorilla masks, bananas, and billboards scolding the art world, and several useful histories of their actions have been written (For a detailed history in the Girls’ own words, see the 1995 publication Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls). The Girls are notorious for wearing gorilla masks atop sometimes overly feminine outfits including high heels and skirts; this image serves to contrast with corporate male America by providing an eye-catching visual contrast where the Girls play on gender assumptions and actively work to subvert them. As Joel Schechter argues in Satiric Impersonations: From Aristophanes to the Guerrilla Girls, “Their rubber-masked persona is a cross between a guerrilla soldier, a guerrilla theater actor, and a guerrilla” (26). In addition, “like guerrilla theater, their masked visit to an art gallery lecture hall prompts strong pro and con reactions from spectators, as they toss bananas to strangers in the audience who answer their questions correctly” (26). Guerrilla Girls often cite public awareness as their goal, calling attention to discrimination in artistic fields in hopes of dismantling it. In short, they “see men in high places working for their own advantage by inflating the economy as women’s paintings earn less attention and less remuneration than men’s,” though admittedly this initial goal has been broadened to address other areas such as homelessness or AIDS (Schechter 31). A running list of actions reveals that the Girls publicly comment on a wide range of social injustices.
While this goal may seem noble, this broadening of the scope of the Guerrilla Girls’ watchful eye has not been without criticism as Elizabeth Hess points out. Hess argues that their postering in New York City has recently fallen by the wayside as they have taken time to author books and go on the road with public presentations. This lack of hands-on action by the core group is the direct result of becoming more mainstream, and as an indicator of their mainstream popularity, the Girls were even were invited to be featured in an ad campaign for The Gap, though they turned it down (327). Hess notes, “Outside of New York, the Girls continue to be in demand, getting abundant local press wherever they go. The Girls argue that the group is needed more—away from home—where audiences have not yet felt the full force of a renewed feminist movement” (329). They also have certainly extended their watch from their initial critique of the art world, but as noted on the site, they point out that other focuses beyond the art world were always central to the mission of the Guerrilla Girls. They argue,
Almost from the beginning, we did campaigns about homelessness, abortion, and war, among many other issues. We've never been systematic; we just go after one target after another. (There are plenty to choose from.) Recently, we've been attacking the film industry for the pathetically low numbers of women and people of color behind the scenes. We're also working on more political posters, a body image campaign and an attack on the music industry. (“Interview,” par. 9)
It is clear that there is some disagreement on the direction the Girls activism should take by the Girls themselves and their supporters. The fact that their mission has already expanded beyond the art world concerns some feminists such as Hess. Still, these arguments could be presented by unmasked women, but they could be accused of complaining because they have not yet had their own art exhibited at the Whitney or the Modern. Yet, “no one can accuse the masked Guerrilla Girls of covering up their own failures. It is possible they are immensely successful” (Schechter 31). Still, any success does not equal popularity. The Guerrilla Girls are not always welcome or embraced (public presentations often bring out dissenters), but they are always aware of how to attract media coverage, and thus are skilled directors of image events. We never know for sure, because of the ever-present Guerilla persona obscuring the real women behind these actions.
What Message Is Captured in an Image Event? Rhetorical Strategies of the Guerrilla Girls
Before turning to the specific approaches used by the Guerrilla Girls to foster media attention, it is important to examine in more detail the rhetorical strategies they use to get their messages across when their images are captured. These rhetorical strategies are, in themselves, carefully calculated moves designed to be media friendly, and beyond the strictly written or spoken rhetoric, the Girls also use visual rhetoric to package their entire message in a mass-media-oriented, visually stimulating way, whether they are presenting a billboard or a speech on a college campus.
In “The Guerilla Girls’ Comic Politics of Subversion,” Anne Teresa Demo argues that the Girls rely on three rhetorical strategies of incongruity (first described by Kenneth Burke in 1954) to get their message across, including mimicry, “an inventive re-vision of history” and strategic juxtaposition to prompt feminist resistance (134). These rhetorical strategies are useful for creating media spectacle because they rely on strategies other than the “angry” or straightforward political rhetoric associated with the feminist movement of the 1970s while still raising consciousness to the plight of female artists. The Girls have been very careful to make sure that their rhetoric retains an element of humor when packaging a message about feminism. In fact, on their website, the following Guerrilla Girl, going by the pseudonym of Eva Hesse, claims, “we found out quickly that humor gets people involved. It's an effective weapon” (“Interview,” par. 10).
While some could argue that humor might create an ambivalent message regarding feminism, parody, or mimicry, it is actually a key element in creating an image event for the Guerilla Girls to package the feminist message. Joel Schechter also confirms that despite the fact that the Guerrilla Girls do public appearances, release videos, and conduct televised interviews, their real strength lies in their ability to use printed material to spoof current events and to address discrimination. Therefore, the actual public appearance of the Girls is no longer the only image event in itself, because “in person they could not offer the precise wit and inventive visual imagery of the videotape and wall posters” (27). As a result, while the presence of the Girls can and does cause a stir, the repeated visual imagery combined with a carefully constructed rhetoric of feminism can also constitute a media event, as even the presence of one of these controversial posters outside the Met invites media attention, even if the Girl who posted it has retreated into the darkness. In other words, it isn’t only what the Girls say in public appearances or even directly, it is the entire media package, most notably strengthened by the rhetoric of the bumper stickers and posters.
Indeed, the Girls have often argued that the writing (and by association, the rhetorical strategies they purposely use noted by Demo) is often the cornerstone to prompt media attention. In a 1995 interview, one Guerrilla Girl notes, “I don’t think any of us as individuals has the possibility of changing the system, but writing, I’ve found has some effect in the world; it does the one thing I think it is possible to do, which is to influence people toward a change of heart, or a change of consciousness” (Gablik 224). Clearly, the Girls strategically attempt to change consciousness using their writing as a launching pad toward public attention.
Despite having a well-known public persona as a group, ironically, the Guerrilla Girls also use parody in their written rhetoric in such a way as to become impersonal. In their postered “thinking statements,” “to ensure that the borrowed language will not be mistaken for their own . . . the Guerrilla Girls refrain from use of their own names in their satires and repeatedly quote or paraphrase their adversaries” (Schechter 28). For example, they will take statistics provided from the museums praising the number of women artists including in an upcoming exhibit and then turn on the museum by publishing a sorry track record. The contrast captured by these brief factual snapshots on posters presents a powerful, sound bite friendly message for the mainstream media.
As noted on their website, the Girls note that the following is their group philosophy toward making the activist art via parody present on their billboards and bumper stickers. They argue,
We try to be different from the kind of political art that is angry and points to something and says “This is bad.” That's preaching to the converted. We want to be subversive, to transform our audience, to confront them with some disarming statements, backed up by facts—and great visuals—and hopefully convert them. We carefully craft everything we do. We try to twist an issue around and present it in a way that hasn't been seen before. (“Interview,” par. 8)
Beyond using mimicry, historical revision, as noted by Demo, is often another strategy used by the Girls to achieve Kenneth Burke’s perspective by incongruity. This strategy is a cornerstone of The Guerilla Girls’ Guide Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (1998) where they re-wrote art history to include female artists previously ignored. In addition, despite being known as a collective, each Girl takes the name of a forgotten female artist to reclaim her and to raise awareness in public appearances where the Girls are often introduced to the audience by their “names."
Finally, Demo argues strategic juxtaposition accounts for the third rhetorical technique used by the Girls to present information in a new way to attract attention. Indeed one of the Guerrilla Girls' most famous images that has been produced and reproduced often on television, bumper stickers, and billboards is the reclining nude wearing a gorilla mask. The nude figure, taken from Auguste Dominique Ingres’s Grand Odalisque (1814) and clearly recognizable to those familiar with classical art or an introductory-level college art class, is repeatedly appropriated by the Guerilla Girls. It is even featured on the cover of the Bedside Companion. As Demo points out, “Ingres’s odalisque is a classical symbol of patriarchal art; by defacing it, the Guerilla Girls use the odalisque to critique the very institution that canonize such images” (149). Juxtaposing the fierceness of the Guerilla Girls/gorilla mask with the submissive posture of the nude female, clearly posed to be looked at via a male gaze, offers a new way to re-read the message (see a representative poster).
All of these rhetorical strategies described by Demo and Schechter are used to package a message for the media that is carefully crafted to be sexy, interesting, and above all, a media spectacle. For example, in the poster described above, the nude female combined with the message provides a short, yet eye-catching unexpected message. We are used to seeing a passive reclining nude, and the link to the percentage of 85% makes us realize just how pervasive the concept of woman as sex object is. This may be more effective at capturing the public’s attention than a lecture.
Visual Rhetoric Creates Presence
As the billboard above would indicate, the Girls’ message would not be possible without the use of visual rhetoric to create a presence or awareness. As summed up by Charles Hill, “Presence . . . refers to the extent to which an object or concept is foremost in the consciousness of the audience members” (28, original emphasis). One example would be the gorilla mask that the Guerrilla Girls always wear. Hill suggests that “skillful rhetors attempt to increase the presence of elements in the rhetorical situation that are favorable to their claim because they know that elements with enhanced presence will have greater influence over the audience’s attitudes and beliefs” (28). The Girls actively utilize visual elements that will increase this presence; for example, by repeatedly juxtaposing familiar art tropes such as the nude odalisque or famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa with statistics highlighting gender discrimination.
Demo argues that one of the reasons that the Girls’ rhetoric is so strong is this reliance on visual elements to enhance the strategies of mimicry, historical re-vision, and strategic juxtaposition in visual as well as written arguments. She points out that “the group’s visual style maximizes the resources of popular culture—specifically an advertising aesthetic—in order to foster identification with those who would typically reject or ignore feminist rhetoric” (154). In our media-saturated, pop-culture-laden society, cultural references or styles often can reach those who are unaware of or who might not otherwise be receptive to the Girls because their skilled use of popular culture makes them impossible to ignore, as they are eye-catching and funny.
The Girls not only use the tried-and-true black-and-white stark statistical billboards; they also use billboards that feature overly stereotypical female images and some that contrast the two, such as one featuring the odalisque that visually questions accepted and expected gender norms. The case of the odalisque with the Guerilla Girl mask is one of the most notorious and written about campaigns because of this careful use of visual rhetoric. Ironically, this specific image was never actually produced as a billboard; the billboard company objected to the picture of the female nude holding a fan, which they argued looked phallic. They did not object to the nudity of the female pictured, even though the heading read “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?” indicating that nudity was indeed a requirement. This refusal to publish the billboard was cleverly turned into an image event by the Girls and demonstrates the tactics they use. Even though the first billboard never aired, the Girls sponsored a second one that critiqued the censoring of the first one, and this gave the first billboard notoriety as viewers wanted to see the original that sparked so much controversy (Heon et. al 57). Using a billboard as a first public action was useful to spark this kind of image event. The billboard is a powerful medium because by “usurping the spaces of advertising, they challenge more than the distinctions between high and low, art and design, gallery/museum and commercial work. They ask implicitly if artists are capable of communicating directly with the general public, if art today is able to create even temporary disturbances in the fields of mammon” (Heon et. al 15). The Guerilla Girls use this built-in questioning to their advantage as they bridge the gap between the art world (of which the Girls are a part, even if they are discriminated against as women) and the general public. The combination of visual and written rhetoric approaches serves to make them media-friendly as the message can be spread in a variety of textually and visually oriented media outlets.
In “The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments,” J. Anthony Blair points out that visual argument can often be even more appealing than actual words or speech. He writes,
The advantage of visual arguments over print or spoken arguments lies in their evocative power. Part of this power is due to the enormously high number of images that can be conveyed in a short time. Television commercials today show between one and four dozen different moving visual images in a 30-second spot. We have no processing that much visual information . . . visual images can thus be used to convey a narrative in a short time. (51)
The posters containing images that reference the grand narrative of the history of Western Art then become alternate narratives questioning the dominant system in a way that invites public curiosity and confronts the public with an alternate choice.
A Multi-Pronged Approach to Image Event Creation
As the earlier discussion of rhetorical strategy points out, the Girls are well aware of what attracts the media’s eye and construct messages that will also work to the media’s advantage as a further incentive for these outlets to cover their events. Still, as Lucy Lippard argues, “The Guerrilla Girls challenge the mass media on their own ground with a ‘hidden agender,’ as they put it” (Pink 256). If the mass media isn’t always the kindest to women, the Girls make sure that the camera captures the spectacle they offer in hopes of giving airtime to an alternate message. No matter if media coverage is positive or negative, curious or scornful, the Girls’ scolding, yet humor-laden, message of rejecting social injustice permeates the media via a multi-pronged approach of creating an image event, leaving a trace, addressing an unrelated image event, and leaving a trace of that action (for example, several YouTube “collage” videos now exist of their billboards and posters). All four of these actions are designed by the Guerilla Girls to perpetuate indefinitely, creating not just one image event, but a whole series of events to maintain their place in the public eye.
In contrast to the Guerrilla Girls’ relative success, other women’s art groups such as the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) have failed to remain as publicly relevant. Elizabeth Hess argues that “WAC, during its brief peak, had the ability to act faster than the Guerrilla Girls and to mobilize hundreds of women—in just days—for a demonstration” though the two groups collaborated to demonstrate outside the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo in 1992 (323). She notes, in this particular protest, “There were few gorilla masks outside the Guggenheim; the masks were functioning better in performances than in demonstrations. WAC was more suited to the moment than the Guerrilla Girls. WAC membership was open, growing week by week, and identities were known, even flaunted” (324). Yet the WAC did not have the media savvy or the ability to create image events or streamlined signature events that captured public interest. Despite the brief rise of the WAC, Hess acknowledges that “WAC would become relatively dysfunctional by the end of the year, while the Guerrilla Girls, as usual, were still answering their phone” (324). Guerrilla Girls, I argue, have most likely survived due to this four-pronged approach, which creates a continuous cycle of image events.
Image Events: Guerrilla Style
In “Constituting Nature Anew Through Judgment: The Possibilities of Media,” Kevin DeLuca describes a variety of “image events” that environmental activists conduct, such as tree sitting and “chaining themselves to the gates of landfills,” and notes that for groups such as Earth First!, “the aforementioned image events staged for mass media dissemination comprise the central rhetorical activity of these environmental groups as they attempt to produce social change” (73). The events of the Guerrilla Girls mimic this rhetorical activity because their events, such as posting controversial billboards, vandalizing a bathroom wall in the Met by posting a sticker, or encouraging visitors to their website to print off signs for rallies, all encourage a similar type of media coverage and notoriety attained by environmental groups such as EarthFirst!. However, the Girls’ rhetoric, I argue, is even more pervasive because they also trigger image events even when these actions are one step removed from activities of the core group. In this case, the NYC base is the catalyst to foster this social action.
Undeniably, the Girls are clever at saturating all avenues of the media with their events and were provocative from the outset, which helped their popularity or notoriety. Hess confirms their popularity when they first started in 1985, noting,
Initially, the media was hungry for their story; the photo-op was irresistible. Articles popped up in papers ranging from the Village Voice to the Daily News; the Girls were modeling their masks in the choices women’s magazines including Mirabella and Ms . . . the Girls have appeared on minor and major television networks and chatted on radio talk shows all over the country. There is nothing like having a talking gorilla on your couch for ratings. (Hess 316)
This widespread approach broke barriers with the mainstream media, which covered their protests in exchange for irresistible interviews and photo captures of media spectacle of a sexily dressed female in a fierce gorilla mask. Years later, the Girls remain clearly aware of the media attention they attract and openly seek to cultivate it as they often acknowledge in interviews or in public presentations. Take the following example. In a 1995 interview, Guerilla Girl Suzi Gablik was asked about the love or hate mail they receive. The Girls claim: “You really find that people love gorillas. It’s also a photo opportunity. Everyone wants to have their picture in an art magazine with the Guerilla Girls, which accounts for a lot of our success!” (220). Rather than changing tactics to combat injustice, the Girls maintain these same rhetorical tactics because they realize that they cause photo opportunities and enticing sound bites that work well in the current system of 24-hour, ever-changing news. They also acknowledge that the message would be less interesting if they were unmasked. Still, as Guerrilla Girl Käthe Kollwitz notes, due to their continuing popularity, her work would actually be worth much more now if she revealed herself, though the group members have made a pact not to reveal past or present members (Hess 328). The mere presence and enduring popularity of the Guerrilla Girls triggers an image event. The spectacle becomes at least as, if not more provocative than, the message conveyed.
Trace of a Claw Mark
Beyond public appearance, image events are often fostered even after the Guerrilla Girls have left their mark. In initial postering around NYC in the 1980s, sometimes the poster itself captured media attention (even if just briefly noted in the local paper as a form of vandalism) long after the Girl who had placed it had left. Therefore, the physical presence of the Girls isn’t always needed to trigger the event. Recognizing this power and then repeatedly cultivating it is a smart and calculated move by the Girls. Because the posters, wall stickers, and protest signs all “allow satirists to leave highly visible traces of themselves without ever appearing in public,” publishing these items up on their website and then encouraging other followers to repeat the cycle also ensures that the cycle of image events will continue, even though the Girls are now only indirectly involved (Hill 27).
Take for example The Guerrilla Girls Art Museum Activity Book. In the description provided below by Girls, they claim to see the text as
a comic-book style call to action, and a parody of those cutesy books museums produce to teach children to respect High Culture. After sleuthing around in the galleries, board-rooms and financial portfolios of the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, we came up with seven fun and funny activities designed to encourage readers to fight discrimination, unethical behavior and conflicts of interest in museums everywhere. Included are quizzes, a connect-the-dots museum floor plan and a do-it-yourself museum store complete with arty sex toys and t-shirts with slogans the museums don’t want you to see. (“Activity” par. 5)
In the sample pages, there are calls for trespassing (by posing as a tour guide) and vandalism (by stickering art books and restroom walls). All three activities are clearly designed to catch the museum-goer's eye (and then hopefully coverage by the news or paper as word gets out), even if the visitor was initially only interested in seeing Monet’s Waterlillies. The more of a spectacle is created, the more it is likely to picked up by media outlets and continues the cycle of image events.
In this same manner, the website has also proved to be an attractive, media-friendly resource for would-be Girls. Beyond encouraging viewers to print bumper stickers to post in art museum restrooms (which is essentially vandalizing), in an even more public image event, viewers are encouraged to take posters provided by the Girls via the website to rallies. The four posters on the site read “I decide”, “You decide”, “We decide” and “They DON’T decide” and are designed to be carried by masked Girls. The simplicity of the message combined with the signature Guerrilla Girl masks continues to ensure their message is reaching all sectors of the United States and beyond.
Like the earth friendly activist groups such as Greenpeace and Earth First!, the Guerrilla Girls often encourage and engage in activities that are illegal or border on being so. For example, their website encourages visitors to put up bumper stickers such as the “Don’t Stereotype Me!” sticker “where it is needed most” by printing it on adhesive paper (“Posters/Actions,” par. 6). Not only does this strategy save the Girls money and time since others are spreading their message, but it also encourages participation by viewers so the Girls function as a much larger group beyond the core base in New York City. This is where the web has most changed the Girls over the last 20 years. When the Girls were known only by their artist names in the NYC collective, they conducted all the action, and their image events were media spectacles for the rest of us to watch. Now, the rest of us can actually further their mission through direct instruction from the site and by becoming Girls ourselves. While hands-on protest activities are still sponsored by the core group in New York City (see, for example, an invitation for “feminists and non-feminists” to send postcards to “the most discriminating NYC galleries”), the Girls increasingly rely on activism via pubic speaking tours and website visits.
In true postmodern fashion, one media event often leads to another in an endless cycle of words and images. After a successful initial run, and after 20 years of action, the Girls now often build on media events to prompt their own image events. Take for example, the case of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In response to media reports of him allegedly “groping” women who have worked for him, the Girls’ offer this response:
We think all women in California should protect themselves by carrying our new, specially designed, “Schwarzenegger Shield.” This anti-Arnold armor can be used to block any unwanted advances, and insure that the new governor won't be able to grope, grab or sexually harass any of us, in any way. Don't go to the governor's office or mansion without it! It is clear that anyone walking around with a large shield will capture public interest and therefore the actions of the California governor will not be forgotten. By creating these media spectacles, even if the Girls aren’t themselves using the posters or shields, they remain publicly relevant and recognized.
The Implications of Guerrilla-Style Image Events
Because their identities are kept secret and traced only to names of female artists and their website or mailing address, it is impossible to pin these acts of vandalism on the group, though the Girls take pride in illegal action, even if they don’t actually do it. They realize that bad behavior is always picked up by the press and use this interest to their advantage. In one of their earliest actions in 1985, after a group of artworks by male artists was stolen, “The Berthe Morisot Brigade of the Guerrilla Girls” claimed responsibility for stealing the art and argued that it was a political and representative act that symbolized male domination in the art world (in other words, male art was the most valuable and thus the most likely to be stolen) (Lippard 20). They didn’t actually steal the art, but by claiming responsibility, they fostered an image event in the media and “achieved even greater immunity from prosecution and greater mobility for comic self-expression” (Schechter 32). Clearly the question of legality is complex because these actions raise the question if the girls are only effective when “caught” and the actions are covered in a manner similar to talk-show scandal. The Girls enjoy all publicity, but this would seem to send the message that social justice can only be accomplished illegally, social-“terrorist” style.
These small-scale actions by would-be Girls also raises the question: do we always need the standard media as a transmitter (i.e., press, television, Internet, billboards, books, magazine articles)? The actions of the Guerrilla Girls certainly seem to indicate that an image event can be fostered even if standard public media isn’t picking up these actions. Though all of their actions are media friendly, they are also carefully designed to reach the individual watcher. Therefore, the Girls use the mainstream media but end up subverting it at the same time. For example, a billboard criticizing the gender imbalance of art museums may end up as a work or display in the very art museum it critiques. As a result, an image event can occur when only a few people see a sticker on a restroom stall and then tell others directing the current of Guerrilla Girl action. Blogs tracking the Guerrilla Girls have grown increasingly popular as fans track campus visits and public appearances.
Ideally though, the Girls clearly still court public media coverage. In another recent action, they raided the Sundance Film Festival and subjected the festival to their critical eye. They claim
It was a real rush to work behind the scenes at Sundance, putting up our stickers on bulletin boards, in bathrooms and on movie posters. Then we'd hurry back to our hotel rooms and log on to Indie Wire to read what they were saying about our caper, and then check our email for press responses. Our stickers went all the way to New Zealand and we got an angry letter from a theater owner claiming that the film industry there wasn't nearly as bad as Hollywood. Great to snag him into the discourse! (“Posters/Actions,” par. 9)
They generally study how well events are picked up in media outlets to calculate their next move. Their example might eventually be a tactic other “girl power” groups aim to follow based on their years of popular attention, despite their link to illegal actions. However, other feminist organizations are not necessarily pleased by the media popularity of the girls. For example, bloggers often critique the “trendiness” of the Guerrilla Girls and how the recognizable Girl image is used to market other products. This image and simultaneous critique in one blog captures a Guerrilla Girl advertising an advertisement.
In Retrospective: The Future of the Guerrilla Girls
The Guerrilla Girls have been masters of the image event for over 20 years ,as they always have had one eye on how the media will cover their actions. The Girls have made a living off of making “learning about racism and sexism a pleasing, seductive spectacle” via their dedication to creation of the image event (Hess 327). Via a cyclical approach that ensures one image event will lead to another, they remain relevant and in the public eye.
While no one can be sure of their next move, they can be sure the Guerrilla Girls are ever vigilant. They “work fast, monitoring the scene and exposing the shameful statistic, their poster brigades striking late at night. No on is safe from their toothy grins and brandished bananas. They know if we’ve been naughty or nice, and their targets have been known to write craven apologies as well as outraged self-justifications” (Lippard 257). Even after 20 years they still invite curiosity as they continue to speak to packed auditoriums and enjoy strong sales of their books. By evoking such strong reactions, the Girls remain in our consciousness and in the endless loop of images on our television screens.
Art Gallery of Ontario. “What Is a Zine?” 27 August 2008. 9 February 2009. http://artmatters.ca/wp/2008/08/what-is-a-zine/
“Art Museum Activity Book.” Guerilla Girls 6 June 2005. http://www.guerrillagirls.com/books/activitymore.shtml.
Blair, J. Anthony. “The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Eds. Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. 41-62.
“Buy Guerrilla!” Guerilla Girls 6 June 2005. http://www.guerrillagirls.com/ .
DeLuca, Kevin. “Constituting Nature Anew Through Judgment: The Possibilities of Media.” Earthtalk: Communication Empowerment for Environmental Action. Eds. Star A. Muir and Thomas L. Veenendall. London: Praeger, 1996: 59-78.
Demo, Anne Teresa. "The Guerrilla Girls’ Comic Politics of Subversion.” Women’s Studies in Communication 23.2 (2000): 132-156.
Gablik, Suzi. Conversations Before the End of Time. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.
Guerrilla Girls. Brooklyn Museum of Art. 9 February 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvUKPhT5jHA
Guerrilla Girls. The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York: Penguin, 1998.
Heon, Laura Steward, Peggy Diggs, and Joseph Thompson. Billboard: Art on the Road. Cambridge: MIT P, 1999.
Hess, Elizabeth. “Guerrilla Girl Power: Why the Art World Needs a Conscience.” The Spirit of Art as Activism. Ed. Nina Felshin. Seattle: Bay P, 1995. 309-332.
Hill, Charles A. “The Psychology of Rhetorical Images: The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Eds. Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. 1-24.
“Interview.” Guerilla Girls 6 June 2005. http://www.guerrillagirls.com/%20interview/index.html
Lippard, Lucy. “Guerrilla Girls.” The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essay on Art. New York: The New Press, 254-257.
Lippard, Lucy. “New Feminist Artists Show They Have a Mean Sense of Humor.” In These Times 13 November 1985: 20.
Nichols, Peter, and Nancy Vogel. “Focus is Back on Groping Charges.” The Los Angeles Times 8 November 2003: B1. http://articles.latimes.com/2003/nov/08/local/me-arnold8.
“Posters/Actions.” Guerilla Girls 6 June 2005. http://www.guerrillagirls.com/posters/index.html
Schechter, Joel. Satiric Impersonations: From Aristophanes to the Guerrilla Girls. Carbondale: SIU P, 1994.
“Schwarzenegger Shield”. Guerilla Girls 6 June 2005. http://www.guerrillagirls.com/posters/schwarz.html.
Williams, Zoe. “Going Ape.” The Guardian 29 June 2006.
Withers, Josephine. “Guerrilla Girls.” Feminist Studies 14.2 (1988): 285-300.