Alien She chronicles the queer women who were part of riot grrrl


Riot grrrl has seen a little bit of a resurgence as of late, with Sleater-Kinney reuniting, The Julie Ruin and The Punk Singer bringing Kathleen Hanna to a new generation and several books and think pieces being written about the pivotal time in the ’90s when young women were staging a revolution. But despite queer women being a huge part of the movement, their specific roles and work can take a backseat to other facets of the time.

Alien She, a traveling exhibition “highlighting the lasting impact of the pioneering punk feminist movement Riot Grrrl on today’s artists and cultural producers,” is one of the most queer-inclusive retrospectives on riot grrl to exist thus far. Having just opened at the Orange County Museum of Art from San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Alien She features work from seven specific artists whose work was pivotal to riot grrrl, including that of queer-identified artists Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Tammy Rae Carland, Miranda JulyFaythe Levine, Allyson Mitchell and L.J. Roberts. (Stephanie Syjuco is also highlighted.) Each of them has a section of the exhibit designated to their work, which ranges from sculpture, installation, video, photography, drawing, printmaking, new media, music and so much more.

At its heart, riot grrrl took on not just sexism but racism, homophobia, classism and inequality as especially felt by women. Curator Astria Suparak (along with Ceci Moss) says the queerness was a huge part of what inspired Alien She.

“Riot Grrrl is often criticized and oversimplified as a homogenous set of white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class, college-educated girls from the Pacific Northwest,” Astria said. “While many of the originators of the movement fit some of those descriptors, the movement spread widely and involved a range of people, and most people don’t know that. These stories are typically omitted or overlooked in popular histories of riot grrrl. “

Besides these individuals’ work, Alien She includes zines, flyers and other mixed media from several LGBT women, including curated “Music Vitrines” which display items from the personal collection of self-professed riot grrls like Donna Dresch, who was especially important to the queerness of riot grrl as she was the founder of Chainsaw Records and a member of the queercore band Team Dresch. You can listen to the songs through headphones and tiny attached players, too, which serves as the perfect soundtrack.

“Ceci and I researched artists who felt connected to Riot Grrrl and who have significant bodies of work,” Astria said. “In the mini-retrospectives in Alien She, you can see how the artists’ practices have developed, in some cases, over the past two decades, and how they’ve incorporated, expanded upon, or reacted to the Riot Grrrl’s ideology, tactics, and aesthetics. In the show there are zines they made in high school, their bands from college/early 20s, rarely seen works, as well as recent and new projects. Reflecting Riot Grrrl’s spirit of cooperation, all of the featured artists have worked collaboratively, and most have built platforms for other artists and under-recognized groups to connect, share resources, and self-publish. “

Tammy Rae Carland’s The Lesbian Beds series includes seven prints of unmade beds where queer couples have slept. Some of them have books nestled under pillows (Hothead Paisan and Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas among them). One has a black cat; another, Star Wars bedsheets.


Ginger Brooks Takahashi’s Feminist Body Pillow is a collection of stuff T-shirts that she or her friends created with LGBT symbols and slogans. Nearby, pieces of driftwood constructed to look like legs inside a pair of rainbow socks and worn work boots is named after a Judith Butler text: There is a group, if not an alliance, walking there too, whether or not they are seen.

Alien She_Ginger Brooks Takahashi_installation view

Stretched on the entirety of a wall is Allyson Mitchell’s Required Reading, a litany of book spines dedicated to important work from queer women and feminists, ranging from Karla Jay‘s Dyke Life to Jill Johnson‘s Lesbian Nation. The artist calls it “a celebration, memorial and documentation of key writings, feminist presses, bookstores and libraries instrumental to [her] life and work, named after the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn.” It also serves as a great reminder of how many great pieces of writing that have come out of our community, and what titles you might still have yet to read.

Miranda July’s video and audio work (prior to her features like Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future) also include queer characters and themes. Her women director video sharing service, Joanie 4 Jackie, includes short pieces from other out artists, including a short dedicated to the queerness of Kristy McNichol (titled Kristy) by Stephanie Gray.

L.J. Roberts’ Mom Knows Now is a giant pink triangle created from hand-knit yarn. An accompanying photo shows it being displayed on the campus of University of Vermont at the steeple of the Ira Allen Chapel in 2003 as a “coming out declaration.” Another piece of L.J.’s work, Gay Bashers Come And Get It, has also been used in protest at a 2011 Dyke March in New York City.

Alien She_LJ Roberts_ Mom

“We didn’t want to present the history in an authoritative, top-down way,” Astria said. “We wanted to give room for other voices and experiences, which is where the ongoing Riot Grrrl Census and Riot Grrrl Chapters Map research projects, the guest curated playlists from different regions and countries, the open calls for riot grrrl related flyers, the video interviews, and the critical zines come in. They provide an expanded oral history beyond the voices we’ve already heard from. It’s an open, ongoing history.”

Astria said they have documented chapters in 24 countries since 1991, some even still forming in the last few years. And what’s come from the movement, besides the incredible work that is part of Alien She, is that the conversations created around the topics so important to Riot Grrrl have expanded to become even more inclusive.

“Through their Facebook pages and Tumblrs you can see how many forefront politics and language that are explicitly intersectional, POC, queer, and trans*,” she said. “The most repeated histories and criticisms of Riot Grrrl don’t include these stories.”

There’s also a local element to the exhibit. Each city it visits will have a personal tie to the riot grrrls of its region, as the curators feature zines and other pieces of work from the area. After leaving the O.C. in May, Alien She heads next to Portland in September, making its home at the Pacific Northwest College of Art: Feldman Gallery & Museum of Contemporary Craft through January 2016. 

“These projects echo some of the ideas and tactics emphasized in riot grrrl,” Astria said. “The personal as political, community building and reflecting, and herstories—reclaiming history, honoring those that came before us and paved the way, creating a pantheon of personal heroes including peers, bringing attention to the overlooked and under-appreciated.”

In a time when queer women’s loyalties to feminism and general women’s issues are being questioned, Alien She is an ideal place to visit and be reminded of how integral we have been, and continue to be, to the forward momentum of Riot Grrrl.

Alien She is at the Orange County Museum of Art through May 24, 2015.

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