Revisiting My Riot Grrrl Days: 'Alien She' Is An Exhibit Worth The Drive To OC
Like so many overprotected kids, I lived a lie in high school. While my parents were convinced that I was safe in a Denny's booth or immersed in girl talk at some slumber party, I was usually hanging out in a bad neighborhood, squished against some sweaty stranger in the audience of a really loud band. A Catholic school girl from Norwalk, I spent many deceit-filled Friday and Saturday nights at places like the Jabberjaw, a legendary coffee house and punk club on Pico Boulevard in Arlington Heights where bands like Nirvana and Weezer played before they made it big; the Macondo, a cultural space near L.A. City College that hosted mostly hardcore bands; or sometimes even a rented-out warehouse with terrible acoustics, miles away from home.
It was in those small, stuffy D.I.Y. venues that I got my first real eyeful of Riot Grrrl, the 1990s feminist punk movement from which bands, like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Heavens to Betsy, and Excuse 17 (the latter two would eventually birth Sleater-Kinney) emerged. When I first started sneaking out to shows, exactly who was actually playing was incidental to me—I was mostly just there to taste freedom and be around cool people that didn't go to my high school. But when Riot Grrrl bands started coming to town, usually traveling down from scene's flashpoint of Olympia, Washington, and taking to stages that had always been occupied by guys, I couldn't help but be captivated.
I was also inspired. Like many other young women who packed the audiences of those early shows (and got to stand in front because, for the first time, the bands demanded it), I saw the confident, pissed-off performances of Riot Grrrl pioneers, like Kathleen Hanna and Corin Tucker, as calls to action. It wasn't long before my friend Raquel Gutierrez and I had formed our own band called Tummy Ache (in our defense, we were like 15) and started playing the same clubs where we'd once only been voyeurs. It also wasn't long before we began moving within a community of local, like-minded girls, who in the best of times, offered each other the creative encouragement and space for safe discourse that hadn't existed for women in the traditionally male-dominated punk scene.
It's that ethos of collaboration and D.I.Y. spirit that's currently being examined in Alien She, an exhibit now showing at the Orange County Museum of Art. Curated by former California Riot Grrrls Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss, the touring exhibit, which takes its name from a Bikini Kill album, is the first to consider the enduring artistic and cultural influences of the Riot Grrrl movement through the works of contemporary artists: Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Tammy Rae Carland, Faythe Levin, Allyson Mitchell, L.J Roberts, Stephanie Syjuco, and L.A.'s own Miranda July.
In an article for Vice's music blog Noisey, Suparak and Moss explained that, in the aftermath of Riot Grrrl's heyday, these seven artists, informed by their exposure to the original scene, have continued to produce work that has "incorporated, expanded upon, or reacted to the movement’s ideology, tactics and aesthetics."
The exhibit explores such themes as interdependence, identity, and resistance through photography, video, installation, sculpture, printmaking, music and more. I was fascinated by photos from Levin's Time Outside of Time series, which capture the lives of alternative communities in the U.S. and their self-sustained environments. There's also weird and wondrous video and audio performances from July, who has numerous works presented here. Stephanie Syjuco's instructional guide for knocking off labels and logos, complete with knitted replicas of Burberry scarves and Chanel bags, served as provocative eye candy while Allyson Mitchell's life-size Ladies Sasquatch figures are still refusing to vacate my brain.
And as much as Alien She lives in the moment, it also looks back to Riot Grrrl's early days to build a context for these newer works. Summoning a fair amount of nostalgia straight away, the first room of the exhibit features a huge collage of approximately 200 flyers preserved from the '90s. On loan from those who had the foresight to collect these relics from the Xerox age, the multi-colored sheets advertise Riot Grrrl shows, meetings, events, and workshops. The movement's prolific urge to self-publish, which wasn't exclusive to this particular punk scene and extended into other factions of the subculture, is illuminated by a collection of over 250 zines, many of which were written by teenage girls and women under 25 and include titles like "Revolution Rising" and "Ragdoll."
There's also the music, of course—divided by geographical regions, a set of vitrines features tapes, stickers, concert ticket stubs, t-shirts, flyers, and set lists from bands who came from the scene's epicenters of Olympia, Washington D.C., Canada, and as far away as Brazil and the Netherlands. Listening devices uploaded with playlists from many of these bands are attached to each vitrine. I'm proud to say that the California section includes a long-lost Tummy Ache tape, along with treasures from old friends and contemporaries, like Switched at Birth, Crown for Athena, and Foxfire.
OCMA is located at 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach; (949) 759-1122. Alien She will be on exhibit until May 24.