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news / journal 03.01.2018 Words:Jemimah Tarasov
Artwork: Lukas Benson

The Radical Potential of the Collective?

The ‘arts’, and particularly artistic collectives occupy a bizarre space between the activist and the elite. On one side, there is a strong tradition of artistic collectives being used to dissent against repressive societal/cultural narratives of their time. Think Pussy Riot, Guerrilla Girls, Ai Weiwei or Group Material, for example.

Group Material, AIDS Timeline (Berkeley), 1990. A work which ‘meticulously demonstrated how official and mass media representations of AIDS had a part in producing the epidemic’s material conditions, including its disproportionate effect on gay men and intravenous drug users’.

Conversely, each of the groups that I have just mentioned, have (to varying degrees) ironically been absorbed into the very structures they have attempted to dismantle. That is, their messages of protest being disseminated so widely only because they are also able to be marketed/commodified as “counter-cultural” – and hence on-trend.

The latest video from Pussy Riot (a Moscow-based protest punk rock/art group) for example, features Hollywood it-girl Chloë Sevigny and was profiled in Vogue (!!!). The (very corporate and definitely mainstream) magazine easily assimilates Pussy Riot’s genuinely radical call to ‘establish alternative power structures and networks’, by gleefully extolling its readers

“ If you’re feeling fed up with the current state of affairs, watch Pussy Riot’s antiauthoritarian video above”.

(As if Vogue readers can get their quick ‘radical’ dose for the day through watching similarly white rich Sevigny protest against the evil Russian police state- without any mention of [what is effectively] the police state perpetrated against black America in 2017).

(Institutionalized police violence as an aesthetic? Sevigny posing with baton for Pussy Riot video).

This sense of cognitive dissonance is likewise present in media coverage of c. 1985 feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls. The group uses ‘culture jamming‘ (a form of ‘subvertising’, whereby mass media is used to produce satirical commentary about itself) — to critique a lack of diversity in the Western art world.

Today, however, the Guerrilla Girl collective has been essentially assimilated into the very art institutions it purports to critique- commanding exhibitions at Tate Modern, MOMA, Walker Art Centre, and so on. As with Pussy Riot, the group’s radical message has been effectively pacified and regulated to something “trendy”, and easily consumable. This is despite a present where “work by women artists makes up only 3–5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe”, and “The top three museums in the world, the British Museum, the Louvre, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art have never had female directors.” Moreover, the collective (Guerrilla Girls) itself has been dismissed as ironically incredibly nondiverse (read: “mostly white”), and “largely mirroring the art world demographics that they critiqued.” The group has also been accused of tokenism and whitewashing.

“Yeah, their whiteness was such that they didn’t always get it. They didn’t get it, and they didn’t understand that blacks were being put in a completely separate world in the art world, that black male artists and black female artists are completely separated, completely segregated to this day, and they didn’t get it.”

— “Zora Neale Hurston” (pseudonym), former Guerrilla Girls member, in an interview with Judith Richards at the Smithsonian Institution, 2008.

As with Pussy Riot then, another radical female collective has been made “safe” for mainstream consumption, while retaining its counter-cultural appeal.

(and I can’t help but think of Chris Kraus’ aside in I Love Dick…

“I’m wondering why every act that narrated female lived experience in the ‘70s has only been read only as ‘collaborative’ and ‘feminist’. The Zurich Dadaists worked together too but they were geniuses and had names…”)


Jemimah Tarasov writes regularly for Overland and Feminartsy & edits Overpass magazine. You can see her work here: https://www.jtarasov.com

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