Sarah: We are in London today at Tate Modern to meet up with the Guerrilla Girls, who are currently operating a complaints department within the Tate Exchange Space in the new Switch House Building that opened this past summer. The Guerrilla Girls have invited the public to come join them in the gallery and post complaints about art, politics, culture, or anything you might care about. And the Guerrilla Girls are experts at complaining. They are an anonymous group of women artists who since 1985 have served valiantly as the conscience of the art world, using a wide variety of tactics to question and disrupt art world practices and to expose sexism, racism, and corruption in our culture at large. They are also here in London revisiting their 1986 poster "It's even worse in Europe" with a new display at the White Chapel Gallery based on questionnaires they sent to museum directors across Europe. They asked them about their representation of artists who are female, gender nonconforming, or from places other than North America or Europe. And the project aggregates these responses and shares new and revealing statistics. Playing upon the world guerrilla, as in freedom fighter, and gorilla, the animal, the group members where masks when in public, each choosing the name of a dead woman artists as a pseudonym. Today we're sitting down with Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz, who are going to talk with us a bit about the art of complaining, and prompt us to find our own ways to question the worlds around us.
Guerrilla Girls: Hi, we're the Guerrilla Girls. And this is your art assignment.
Kathe Kollwitz: Alright, so maybe, basically a lot of us were complainers, but mostly because we saw so much injustice in politics, of course, but also in our own little world of the art world in New York City, where we were artists. And we saw no opportunities for women artists and artists of color, and everyone was pretending that everything was okay. So we got this idea. Let's do something about it. And let's use some new, media-savvy techniques to break through people's ideas that whatever they see in galleries and museums is the best, which we knew so many great artists who weren't getting anywhere. So we decided to blame on group after another. We had this idea to do a new kind of political poster. We had a meeting in Frida's loft of a bunch of colleagues and friends, named ourselves the Guerrilla Girls, passed the hat around to pay to print the first posters, and the Guerrilla Girls were born.
Frida Kahlo: It's more than pointing your finger at something and saying, "This is bad." We have to figure out a way to change people's minds about things. And in the end, humor. If you can make someone who disagrees with you laugh, well, you kind have a hook in their brain, and once you're there, you just have an opportunity to change their minds.
Kathe Kollwitz: Your assignment is to think of something you really want to complain about.
Frida Kahlo: Then, communicate your message in a unique, creative way.
Sarah: So John, I really think that you should just sit and listen for this one.
John: Yeah, no, I agree.
Sarah: So if we think back through art history, we can really see a lot of art as various forms of complaining. You can think about abstraction as a way that artists are complaining about the way that things had been represented in the past. And, you know, complaining is really protest. And then that widens our consideration to all sorts of art: historical painting that thinks about war or inequities. But in thinking about what moment in history we're gonna talk about here, I couldn't help but realize I had a very handy resource for this: the Guerrilla Girls' own book The Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. And I'd love to just read you the beginning. It says, "Forget the stale, male, pale, Yale textbooks, this is Art Herstory 101!"
And I've actually selected one of the moments in art history, or art herstory, for us to talk about today from the Middle Ages. At the age of 25, Chrstine de Pizan found herself widowed with kids and a mother to support. She had been allowed an education, a rarity in medieval France, and became a copyist and writer to support her family. She achieved renown for her ballads, poems, and allegories as well as her vociferous objection to the popular 13th century poem The Romance of the Rose, which depicts women as wanton and immoral seductresses. She countered with her 1405 allegory The City of Ladies, in which three women personifying reason, rectitude, and justice describe an entire city populated by strong, virtuous women throughout history, told entirely by women and about women. Her story used fashionable tropes and techniques to counter the prevailing narrative of women as illogical and inferior. Rooted in Christian morality, her work got away with its harsh critique of patriarchal society and highlighted women for their skills and discourse in peacemaking.
Like de Pizan, the Guerrilla Girls have found their own mistressful way of complaining in their time. The question is, "What's your way in your time? And how will you use the culture of now to voice your dissatisfaction and dissent?"
Kathe Kollwitz: Alright, so, everyone's always said to the Guerrilla Girls, "You're just a bunch of complainers." So when we were invited to do some kind of interactive residency project at Tate, it suddenly seemed like a really great idea: Why not everyone else complain? We are complainers. We consider ourselves, you know, creative, kind of unique complainers, but it is what we do, and everyone had complaints, so we've invited anyone who wants to come to bring their complaints in, make their complaints, put them on the board, and it took about one day for all the places we have to put them to be filled up. And every day, people are coming with more things that they just have to get off their chest.
Frida Kahlo: It's kind of a rift off the old idea of complaints departments in department stores. It allowed the consumers to sort of complain. Well, we're allowing the audience of this museum to instead of come and be passive to actually come and think critically about what they've seen, about what bothers them, and to really think about how a lot of our art comes out of complaints, comes out of a very strong reaction to the world.
Kathe Kollwitz: You can't really think of a complaint as one thing, one time in a vacuum. One thing we've learned is that if you do one thing, put it out there, if it works you do another, and if it doesn't, you do another. So, this is true for all of us. You can't expect one thing to make a difference, but if you keep doing it, and keep chipping away, over time you can make a difference. Obviously, we have a unique way of trying to find a new idea about an issue, combine it with some weird things that don't really belong there, so you end up thinking about it in a different way. But there are so many ways to complain. I mean, try to stop people from complaining!
Frida Kahlo: It's great to brainstorm with other people, identify a target, realize that you probably can't deal with a huge issue all at once; you can only deal with some small aspect of it. And then to think about who your target audience is. What would catch their attention? What would change their mind? What components would change their mind? Usually, information is a help, and if you can twist something around. You know, you put out an outrageous headline, you back it up, and you try to do it in a way that you've never seen before. And then try it out on other people. Make sure that you're not just convincing yourself. Let other people test drive and say, "What does this communicate to you?" Sometimes being angry and complaining is a good place to start, but it's not a great place to end. You have to craft your message.
Kathe Kollwitz: And I think reading the other complaints, looking at their complaints, thinking about what they complained about is going to have an effect. It's had an effect on me, and I've been complaining for years.
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