[Theme music plays]
Martabel Wasserman: Fierce Pussy is really about an active intervention. They're always taking it into their own hands. So literally crossing out words on the page so that it reflects their desire or changing the names of streets in New York city to have the names of lesbian heroes. They just take it into their own hands.
Kate Eichhorn: I think Fierce Pussy has very intentionally engaged in b oth constructing and deconstructing what queer history looks like. And that's part of the importance of the work.
Nora Daniels: Welcome to Articulated I'm Nora Daniels, Advancement Associate at the Archives of American Art.
Thomas Edwards: And I’m Thomas Edwards Assistant to the Director and Deputy Director.
Support for this podcast comes from the Alice L. Walton Foundation
In the previous episode, we talked about queer activist art that emerged in response to the AIDS crisis, and in this episode, we will discuss the history of Fierce Pussy, a group that formed from ACT UP members and worked for lesbian visibility. For more context on the AIDS epidemic and queer art, go back and listen to the previous episode.
Nora Daniels: Throughout the twentieth century, civil rights activist groups sought to remedy systemic failures and imbalances, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic decimated the LGBT community, people of color, and people without housing. Homophobia and racism slowed the national response and dulled its urgency for those in power, galvanizing activist groups towards action.
Alongside the need for research, treatments, and support, there was also a need for understanding, acknowledgment, humanization, and community. Fierce Pussy is a collective that began as an outcry and conduit for lesbian visibility.
Thomas Edwards: Joy Episalla, an artist who works between installation and the photographic and moving image, recounts the origins of the group in her 2016 oral history with Cynthia Carr:
Joy Episalla: We started Fierce Pussy in 1991. And basically, most of the women that became part of Fierce Pussy, which we considered a lesbian visibility art collective, had been in ACT UP. So the core members, I'd say at that point, were Zoe Leonard, Nancy Brooks Brody, Carrie Yamaoka, myself, and probably Suzanne Wright eventually, and Jean Carlamusto was around that time too. And so there was a bunch of women who had been in ACT UP as well, and so we would go to one of our houses to have a meeting, and this was all going on at the same time, so the ACT UP meeting was on a Monday night so– I don't know,
Cynthia Carr: But what was the impetus to start it? Like was there something that happened that said, "We've got to get together?"
Joy Episalla: I think we all felt slightly invisible in ACT UP in a certain way. You know we were in the trenches and we were taking care of our comrades and, you know, our very good friends and lovers and you know, whatever, right? You know, the women's issues on the floor were–they would come up, there was a woman's caucus–but we thought that our visibility, lesbian visibility, was not really out there. And I guess because we were so politically charged and charged in general about fighting the AIDS crisis, it just seemed like, you know, pretty–it made sense.
Nora Daniels: Nancy Brooks Brody, an artist who deploys paint, drawing, and sculpture, was one of the first members of Fierce Pussy as well. In her 2018 oral history with Svetlana Kitto, she walks through coming out as an integral part of her activist work and how the desire for community drove Fierce Pussy's early efforts:
Nancy Brooks Brody: I don't know, I can't say, because I don't know another way, because that's how I came out. But the timing was such where being gay and doing activism was–and then that's where, you know, we were doing all this work. The lesbians did a lot of work with ACT UP and there was a way in which the guys, I think, had a lot of bonding time. Guys tell amazing stories about being at demos, but then, like, going all out together afterward, to sex clubs and, you know, having–
Svetlana Kitto: Mm-hmm [affirmative] .
Nancy Brooks Brody: And the lesbians, I think–you know, because of invisibility and visibility, we formed Fierce Pussy. We did an open call on the floor of ACT UP, for all lesbians who wanted to. And a group of us met at Zoe's, and we made those first Lists, you know, using the words that were used against us to reclaim and put them on the street. It was like we–there very much was an ACT UP sensibility in terms of not a lot of processing around actions. Like, you make it and you–we just went right out onto the street the next day.
And that was when the city was–you know you got your information from the walls. You saw bands, clubs, events, were all on–
Svetlana Kitto: –wheat-pasting.
Nancy Brooks Brody: Wheat-pasted. You know, you literally saw a wheat-pasted sign and it was like, "that's happening at CBGB’s or the Mudd Club." And now it's like, "I am a lezzie butch." You know, we just joined right in. But we also decided to target other neighborhoods where maybe there wasn't so much wheat paste happening, like the Upper West Side. I don't know if I should go on.
Svetlana Kitto: Yeah, no, please do.
Nancy Brooks Brody: Well, Fierce Pussy did so much together.
Svetlana Kitto: Just remember. Yeah, you know, just tell stories about it.
Nancy Brooks Brody: Well, I mean, that was at that same time. We didn't stop going to ACT UP. We just were like–and we wanted to do something a little more joyful, you know.
Svetlana Kitto: Or life-affirming.
Nancy Brooks Brody: Yeah, exactly. Something for us, something that wasn't about death. It was about life and living and being who we were, and having fun.
Thomas Edwards: Carrie Yamaoka was also a founding member of Fierce Pussy. A painter based in New York, Yamaoka worked for Conde Nast alongside Joy Episalla, and the two of them used copiers at work to duplicate their activist materials for distribution. Here's how she describes the intensity and camaraderie of those years in her 2016 oral history with Alex Fialho:
Carrie Yamaoka: those were–I mean I don't know–those were very intense days, Joy and I were working for magazines. We were working for Conde Nast. So we were working freelance, so there was Conde Nast. Then there was ACT UP. Then there was Fierce Pussy. Then there was some ad hoc activist work we'd be doing with some other group, and then there was an attempt to still maintain our studio practice, which was really, really rough in those couple of years. This was before anybody had cell phones or email. We were just going, going, going all the time. It's amazing to me, actually, when I think back on it.
And in many ways, we started Fierce Pussy–we got together with all of us–because it was a little bit of an antidote to ACT UP. In ACT UP, you had to sit through many, many meetings with Robert's Rules of Order and listen to a million people that you might not have the patience for, and things had to be really hashed out and talked out. It might take actually quite a while for an action to take place, and that wasn't true of the affinity groups, which acted on their own. But also part of the impetus for Fierce Pussy was that we needed our own space separate from the guys. We wanted a celebration of our own identity. And we wanted to address issues of visibility and identity and who we were. And we also made a rule in the very beginning that out of every meeting there had to be a work created. So we were not going to sit around for ages and debate the wording of this, that, or the other. We had to hash it out right then and there, and then produce it, get it out on the street at the next meeting.
Nora Daniels: Carrie Yamaoka goes on to describe some of the earliest Fierce Pussy projects, which were executed quickly during their meetings for lightning efficiency.
Carrie Yamaoka: Well, the first project was the List posters. And part of the reason why they were–
Alex Fialho: And that was created in one meeting?
Carrie Yamaoka: Yeah, it kind of was actually, and part of the reason why there were three List posters is because we couldn't narrow it down to just one list, and so instead of hashing it out and taking the time to decide on the wording for just one list, we just decided to do three.
Alex Fialho: What did they say?
Carrie Yamaoka: They say, "I am a mannish muff diver, Amazon pervert, lesbian, and proud." I'm mixing it up for you, it’s not verbatim.
We would all get together with wheat paste and buckets and brushes, and we'd go out on the streets, and we'd take our xeroxes, because they were all xeroxes, mostly that Joy and I had run off at Conde Nast in our spare time. Conde Nast was responsible for so much of the poster work, our early poster work.
So we had these piles of xeroxes–there'd be one or two. It was also a roving band of people, so there might be 20 women that would show up for wheat-pasting, and those 20 women weren't necessarily there when we made the poster, but they were game to kind of get it out and put it up on the street.
So there'd be two or three people doing look-out for the cops because wheat-pasting is illegal. And then teams of us with buckets and brushes, and just wheat-paste them up all on the walls of let's say the East Village because, in those days, there was a lot of wheat-pasting everywhere.
Thomas Edwards: The use of copy machines to mass produce works was a key feature of activist groups during this period. Before the Internet as we know it now and at a time without media coverage, artists had to work with materials at hand in order to spread their message and activate public awareness.
We spoke with Kate Eichhorn, Associate Professor of Culture and Media at the New School, about the importance of those copy machines for activists in the 1990s:
Kate Eichhorn: So in the case of Fierce Pussy, more than one member of the collective was working for Conde Nast, at the time people were still doing paste-up, and they would be brought in to work at certain times of the moment. And they had access as a result to copy machines.
but people in that, this is something I talk about in my book and it came up again and again, it wasn't just artists who were doing paste up at Conde Nast. People were using copying machines. In all sorts of corporate offices–including law offices–all over New York city. So the fact that, I think it was the Lesbian Avengers, they even, you know, said quite explicitly that, you know, anyone out there who has access to a Xerox machine, this was considered to be a great benefit to any kind of activist or artist group. and we don't know the extent to which, AIDS activism and queer activism in the eighties and nineties were basically underwritten by huge corporations, but there's a strong sense, looking back that. thousands and thousands of flyers posters and all sorts of propaganda was produced in those offices. So I think that that's a really kind of fascinating history. I make the argument in my book that unknowingly, it was probably the first benefit extended to queers and their communities and families by the corporate sector: Xerox access.
Thomas Edwards: These posters often dealt with the language around queerness. Joy Episalla catalogues those early works in her oral history:
Joy Episalla: And so we started to talk about it, and we started to talk about the things that lesbians were called. Derogatory terms.
Cynthia Carr: Oh yeah.
Joy Episalla: That was the first meeting. and the first posters–there were three ``list" posters. It said, "I am a–" and then there was a list of words. So it could be–
Cynthia Carr: –like "bulldagger ,"
Joy Episalla: "Bull dagger," "amazon," "feminist," "pervert"–
Cynthia Carr: –"butch."
Joy Episalla: "Butch." Yeah. You got it.
Cynthia Carr: [Laughs.] Things like that, yeah.
Joy Episalla: "And proud."
Cynthia Carr: Ah, yeah.
Joy Episalla: –was the last tagline.
Nora Daniels: The recuperation of homophobic, misogynist slurs is an important vector throughout Fierce Pussy's work, and it works in tandem with pride as the group reclaims hateful terms as means to unite community.
Nancy Brooks Brody found this approach even more resonant in their later work. Here she describes a show at Printed Matter in New York City that included Zoe Leonard, Joy Episalla, Carrie Yamaoka, and herself:
Nancy Brooks Brody: Now we jump to, like, 2008. Fierce pussy got – AA Bronson maybe it was, who called us out to do a quote-unquote retrospective in the back of Printed Matter, and we were also invited to make a book. And we wanted to make more like kind of a bound book, and I suggested we make it with a spiral at the top, kind of calendar style, and put a hole in it, so that people could take all of our posters and sort of handle the book closer to how we intended the work to be in the world. Like, you could put a nail on your wall and have it up and out, so it wouldn't just be this closed book. And people could Xerox them and share them, tear them out if they wanted to.
And one of the things we decided to do, we were like, "Well, let's not just show our stuff as this, like, history. Let's make something new."
So we decided to make a remix of all those Lists that we had made. So instead of it saying "And proud" at the end, we said, "And so are you." Like, "I'm a lezzie butch, femme," "mannish, muff diver"–we chose our favorite words from the three Lists and made this one remix, "And so are you." And we asked if we could do the entire window façade, a storefront of Printed Matter.
While we were installing that, we were like halfway done and we decided to go for lunch. It might have been almost all the way finished. We had lunch, came back, and we hear that the police had been there. There's been many, many, many calls. In fact, the cops thought that the façade had been up for weeks, for the amount of calls that he said that they received.
Svetlana Kitto: Oh, my God. Wow.
Nancy Brooks Brody: And this is like–I mean, it says "I am a femme, butch, dyke, mannish." And so the people who worked at Printed Matter were scared. They said, "Oh, the children– there are schools in the area, that this language was upsetting." In the meantime, Joy looks up and we look at this–there's a huge billboard of this woman straddling a Courvoisier bottle, which is like a giant yoni, like, "Oh, nobody cares about that."
So then we realized–we were like, "Oh, my God, our work from 1992, and now we're in 2008, these same fricking words are offending people." We were like, "Oh, my God," this shit is still really relevant.
Nora Daniels: We spoke with Claire Grace, assistant professor of art history at Wesleyan University, about how those works operate in a variety of contexts, from the streets of New York to bathroom installations:
Claire Grace: One of the things that's so interesting about the list is that it's a first person declaration. I am a, and then there's this list of radically distinct terms and epithets that don't necessarily all align as one kind of characterization.
So the poster is interesting for lots of reasons. I mean, in its initial presentation, on the streets of New York, it was a work that, was engaged in the politics of queer visibility, but in a more subtle sense, I think too, it kind of registers the potentially contradictory or at least multiplicity of queer subjects of any subjects, really, not just a non-binary subject, but also the sort of proliferation of gender formations that can exist including in a single person.
Thomas Edwards: This spirit of multiplicity suffused other works as well, such as Baby Pictures, which paired pejorative terms with group members' childhood pictures to accent the dissonance between the labels and the humans degraded by them. Listen to Carrie Yamaoka describe those works and their lesbian street name project, which honored other trailblazers:
Carrie Yamaoka: We wanted to insert ourselves into this list. And so one way to do that was to use images of ourselves as children and apply those derogatory terms to those pictures. And so you'd have this juxtaposition of this very sweet baby picture with this derogatory name like "muff diver," or you know, "dyke," emblazoned on the image of the baby.
And then we did some other projects. Like we did another project where we named streets for gay pride, where we stenciled them on the sidewalk and made signage that we put over the street signs. So it would be like, "Martina Navratilova Way," or "Audre Lorde Lane." We'd rename streets after lesbian heroines.
Alex Fialho: How did that exist in the world? A sign over a sign?
Carrie Yamaoka: Yeah, a sign over a sign. For gay pride weekend. Because we knew it wouldn't last, but it was way to make our presence more felt.
Nora Daniels: Fierce pussy took a multivariable approach to the interlocking issues of queer liberation, sexism, homophobia, and building intersectional community. Joy Episalla details some of the other projects they took on during the 1990s in her 2016 interview with Cynthia Carr:
Joy Episalla: So what it was about was that one evening in 1993. John Bobbitt came home drunk and raped his wife Lorena in their Virginia apartment, and Lorena got up afterwards, went to the kitchen, got a knife, and cut off John's penis while he was sleeping. Then she took off in the car and flung the severed penis into a field. The police searched, found the penis, and reattached it. And so this was our response to that. So here was the redacted text that said everything. And then next to it, again in our typewriter font thing that we'd been using, it said, "Next time we'll bury it. Fierce Pussy."
And so it was the early '90s. The right wing and the Christian Coalition embarked on a campaign using phrases like "no special rights for homosexuals." And a slew of legislation across the country made it legal to discriminate against queers in the workplace, housing, parenting, healthcare. And so their homophobic language created a climate which encouraged violence against queers across the country. And so there were countless bashings and murders and fire bombings. And Fierce Pussy responded with this poster campaign appropriating "No Special Rights." And so to ask heterosexuals the questions, you know, like "How would it feel to have that hatred directed to you?" So the posters–and there were a couple of them–and it would be like this nice shot that we'd pull out of a magazine of, like, a man and a woman sitting on a staircase, you know, like maybe he's going to become engaged to her or something. And so underneath, the text said, "What if we firebombed your house because you were straight? Fierce Pussy." And then like a stamp across it diagonally, it said, "No special rights for heterosexuals."
Nora Daniels: As part of their effort to spread the word, the group pasted these posters on the sides of a truck
that they drove throughout New York City, which they called the Fierce Pussy mobile. Joy Episalla goes on to describe the posters, which appropriated pop and political culture:
Joy Episalla: One of the posters on one side of the truck– and now we were getting to use color–you know, whoohoo. It had this like starry background, right, like the universe. And up coming from it, like zooming up, it said, "Dyke: the final frontier.”
To explore, you know–you know, new civilizations, "to boldly go where no man has gone before." And it looked like a movie poster. So that was one. And on the front of the truck, it said, "Fierce pussy." And on the other side of the truck, it had a poster that I shot–there was footage from the original Stonewall, of the Stonewall riots.
And I shot footage off the TV. so you see these protestors, and there's all this stuff going on. And so it's black and white. And again, we used all derogatory terms–and it was yellow on this black-and- white image of these people protesting at Stonewall–that queers were called.
And it said, "You're here, you're queer, fight the real enemy." Was the tagline. So that was on the other side of the truck. And on the back of the truck, we did this AIDS poster, And it said, "To do." And it was script, and it said, "Start an IV. Hold a hand. Pick out a coffin. Bury your best friend." And then it says– "AIDS: Be Enraged. Become Explosive." So there were two of those, and they were pasted on the back of the truck. So we took turns driving it all over New York City during that weekend.
Thomas Edwards: As a collective responding to evolving needs, Fierce Pussy has had distinct periods of activity. Their mode of address has remained constant, as they reach out to fellow queer women and nurturer community. Painter Carrie Yamaoka describes both the group's progression and their distinctive tactics even among lesbian collectives working at the same time:
Carrie Yamaoka: There's actually two phases of Fierce Pussy. There's the early phase, in the '90s, when we were this big, amorphous group of women, and then there's the later phase, more recently, when it's the four of us. But Dyke Action Machine! was also using the tropes of mainstream culture to subvert them.
Alex Fialho: Yup.
Carrie Yamaoka: Which is a very different language, and a very different strategy. We were kind of doing the opposite. We were just using our own very low-tech, very fast means to try and draw attention to ourselves. But really not to–I feel like Dyke Action Machine! was interested in talking to a larger audience that was not, not necessarily the audience of their peers, but could include their peers. And Fierce Pussy was not interested in the larger audience; we were only interested in our people, basically. [Laughs.]
Thomas Edwards: And Kate Eichhorn, Associate Professor of Culture and Media at the New School, elaborates on Fierce Pussy in relation to other activist groups and the importance and intimacy of their work:
Kate Eichhorn: You know, one of the things that distinguish the work of the collective from let's say the work of a Gran Fury, who produced all those posters in the context of the aids activist movement, including the Silence = Death poster. What was so different about Fierce Pussy's work is that their intention wasn't necessarily to speak to the general public. Their intention was to speak to other lesbians. Itt was in a way not that long ago, it was only 30 years ago, but the visibility of queer women at that time, wasn't what it was today. so if you were walking down the street and saw their posters, you felt...they were speaking to, they were speaking to other dykes, other queer women. They were speaking directly to you in a public space. This is the way many lesbians experience their work as reclaiming public spaces at a time. And, that was still really kind of radical and unusual intervention, but I think it's really important to bear in mind that their audience, wasn't so much the general public, but other other queer women.
Nora Daniels: In 2009, Harvard University hosted an exhibition that examined the early history of ACT UP, including a conference and several Fierce Pussy installations. Here's Claire Grace, Assistant Professor of Art History at Wesleyan, and one of the show's co-organizers:
Claire Grace: The Fierce Pussy residency and installations at Harvard were part of the exhibition ACT UP New York: Activism, Art and the AIDS crisis, 1987 to 1993, which was co-organized by myself and Helen Molesworth. The show and the coinciding conference that we organized was really crucial to how Fierce Pussy projects at Harvard were received and contextualized. And I think one of the things that might be useful for listeners to flag is that at least in my experience, I was a graduate student, a third year graduate student at the time, and in my experience and my dialogues with with Helen we were really struck by what seemed to be just a lack of understanding, lack of knowledge, and a lack of recognition at all of the history of AIDS activism among students, my generation graduate students and also college students. I mean, if obviously there were exceptions to this, of course, but just in general, I mean, I remember Helen describing when she first started talking about the project on campus, among students just being met with kind of blank stares. It's interesting to think about the exhibition 2009. It kind of coincided with what turned out to be a larger kind of quickening I think of interest in the history of queer activism, among college students and in a larger sense as well.
Nora Daniels: As part of their residency, Fierce Pussy had several installations on campus in student-focused spaces. Nancy Brooks Brody recalls the works they brought to Harvard as well as the controversies and painful memories they stirred:
Nancy Brooks Brody: We then got invited to go to Harvard. There was this very big ACT UP oral history project being curated by Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace. They were doing this big ACT UP oral history show where they were going to show that project. And Helen came to interview Fierce Pussy, and we basically talked a lot, spoke a lot to her, and she got excited about the idea of Fierce Pussy coming there. And so we spent a week or so at Harvard, and we did the bathrooms there with students, and we did a workshop at the Women's Center, I think. And we also got to install Gutter at the School for Architecture So we did several projects there. So we did our brand new Gutter project, and we did the old posters, floor-to-ceiling wallpaper of Are You A Boy or a Girl? And our Lists.
And there too, one of the students, Martabel Wasserman–who made a beautiful catalogue for that show as her project, her thesis–found that Harvard installed: "These bathrooms may contain offensive content." This is Harvard. On the outdoor of the bathroom. Like, what about any of this is offensive? "I am a–and so are you." "Are you a boy or a girl?" I mean, it was just–and people were offended, and Martabel would take off those signs as part of her project So it was just kind of amazing, how that material was still–
Svetlana Kitto: –so relevant.
Nancy Brooks Brody: Yes. And that was a really intense time because that was a revisiting of a lot of people from ACT UP. There were panels. Joy was on a panel, many people were on panels. And we all hadn't been together, and I think revisiting that material was–it was so moving. And it was so clear and for me, really shocking, how much mourning we didn't actually do. How much was still in our bodies.
I was just floored by how much was in there deeply, deeply, deeply buried inside, that had never been really parsed out or unpacked and mourned. Because when people were dying, we just kept going.
Nora Daniels: We spoke with Martabel Wasserman, who created the catalogue to the show and is now a PhD student in art history at Stanford, and she told us about the institutional issues provoked by Fierce Pussy's residency.
Martabel Wasserman: The institution put up the sign and the signs said "This restroom contains a site-specific artwork, dealing with gender and sexuality that is part of that exhibition ACT UP New York: Art, Activism in the Aids Crisis 1987 to 1993 on view at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Parents and guardians of school aged children might want to preview the work. Alternative restrooms can be found on the second and third floors of the building.”
The collective did not want this in the bathroom. And so one of the things that I did, which felt really important to me at the time, was that I would go and take them down every day and they would put them back up.
And then at some point the institution was like writing notes on the back of them. Like, why, why are you doing this? Like we welcome dialogue or some sort of like silly thing like that. Of course, because there is no real dialogue with an institution. So then I started writing texts on them back. Like, why is text about lesbian pride, inappropriate for children?
Thomas Edwards: In her 2016 oral history, painter Carrie Yamaoka talked about the trauma and friction that the Harvard conference and show brought to the surface:
Carrie Yamaoka: I think during the worst of it–of those years–I think the feeling, the sense of displacement came from feeling very embattled, feeling like, you know, one's friends and one's immediate community and circle of activists or people in ACT UP, our people were the ones that–it was like an "us," and it was an "us against them" mentality.
And I think that a lot of us got very entrenched in that and got very hardened by that, and it was–it was also hard to work our way out of that, you know, in the mid-'90s. I should speak for myself, but just emotionally, emotionally, and I think some of that had to do with the fact that none of us had any time to grieve back in the day at all, because there was always, when someone died, there was always work that needed to be done or loved ones that needed to be taken care of or actions that needed to be performed or demonstrations that one needed to go to, and it somehow made the work even more urgent.
And so there was no downtime of stepping back and actually processing emotionally what one was going through, or what we were going through as a group or as a community, and that became very, very clear up at Harvard, and a lot of people gave presentations and spoke, and it was almost like a kind of reunion of a lot of people that had not seen each other in a long time, and there was a lot of...that touched a kind of very raw nerve in a lot of us, and there was a lot of tears that were shed in that conference hall.
We talked about how so much of our grief was unexamined, so much of our mourning was not done, and also how to try and–how do you make that understandable to a generation of people that didn't live through the AIDS crisis, that were too young?
How to convey that sense of loss?
Thomas Edwards: While sifting through and processing the horrors of the AIDS crisis, all in unleashed and revealed Fierce Pussy, continued their efforts to establish a new queer history, one full of joy and hope. Here's how artist Nancy Brooks Brody described the work gutter that they installed at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard during the residency.
Nancy Brooks Brody: And then from being there and looking through all those pulp fictions, we made a project called Gutter, we looked at the pulp fictions, and we Xeroxed these pages that we then redacted and changed to some–
We just circled or whited out or magic markered, Sharpied out, and kind of tried to make a new story out of the stories. Because all the stories in pulp fiction are these lesbians that, like, eventually die, or are alcoholic, or they sleep with men. And we wanted to reclaim those. And we called it Gutter, because of the gutter of the book, and also like elevating something from the gutter.
Nora Daniels: Claire Grace, Assistant Professor of Art History at Wesleyan and a co-organizer of the ACT Up show at Harvard, told us about the importance of Gutter
Claire Grace: The artists proceeded by photocopying pages of these books and redacting the text by blacking out or masking passages and words, circling keywords.
And then re photocopying those pages, to form a kind of variegated grid. And it's just such a, such an interesting word that they, as they've discussed, the, the novels share, one basic feature, which is basically like an ending that results in kind of short-circuiting lesbians' love or desire by death or illness, or, return to heteronormative domestic life. And so the artists edited the novels by redacting them. they redacted them in a way that articulated this or that theorized this literary tendency and that also kind of exacerbated it
in a way that maybe prolonged or intensified desire. So the ending, the ending doesn't culminate in–the ending doesn't happen. All that happens is the desire, all the good parts.
And there's a really great passage from the mural where there's a sort of two page spread that, all the kind of disappointing elements of the storyline are blotted out. Everything legible is blotted out, except for the phrase, “She always craved” something like that on one side of the page. And then on the other side, there's just the sort of zigzagging spray that descends down the whole page of the name, Joan that's repeated six or seven times on the page, and that's all the text that's available, which is so wonderful because of course, Joan is a homophone for crave.
So it's just, she had always craved and then Joan or jonesing, Joan, Joan, Joan. So it's just, it just really like lingers on that sense of desire. The way that artists use the photocopy machine in this work and maybe other works too, it just becomes this incredibly sensorial instrument of mark making so that the book pages suddenly feel like the crevices of like the edge edges of book pages are the place where the book pages come together at the binding. Just seems sort of corporeal suddenly, or like bedclothes orbodies bodies in some sense.
What was so cool about it is they like this passageway becomes a space for the narration of desire of, of queer desire. And the artists talk about his work. And also I think their work more generally as kind of pivoting around on the one hand the social invisibility of queer people in many contexts.
And then on the flip side, the kind of hyper visibility of queerness in public space as a target of violence.
Thomas Edwards: We asked Martabel Wasserman to reflect on the influence that Fierce Pussy had on her as an artist and scholar, having created their show catalogue as an undergraduate:
Martabel Wasserman: Yeah, I think Fierce Pussy has an incredibly generous spirit. I really try to reflect back what I learned from them, which is to take seriously the perspectives of people younger than me, as well as people older than me, and to really build cross generational political movements and artistic dialogues.
Fierce Pussy is really about an active intervention. For example, the piece Gutter that they did in which they, crossed out texts from these pulp novels from the early 20th century to kind of reinscribe their own perspective as lesbians and to overwrite the narrative that was more exploitative or fetishy.
They're always taking it into their own hands. So literally crossing out words on the page so that it reflects their desire or changing the names of streets in New York city to have the names of lesbian heroes. They just take it into their own hands. That is really important for me as an artist, activist and academic, when sometimes it just feels so hard to make any change or to make yourself heard, to come together. That really like it can be as direct as crossing out words on a page or reframing something so that it reflects your position.
Nora Daniels: Kate Eichhorn, Associate Professor of Media and Culture at the New School and author of The Archival Turn in Feminism, told us about the urgency of Fierce Pussy's work as it both mines and generates the archives of queer history, making something new while preserving the past:
Kate Eichhorn: I guess I see their work as part of a kind of broader impulse among lesbian artists of a particular generation; it's not just present in Fierce Pussy's work, but of lots of other lesbian artists who have very intentionally not only gone back to mine their own personal archives, right, but also to mine all sorts of institutional and DIY archives, To reconstruct lesbian histories, broadly defined, but not with the intention of creating a linear narrative or suggesting that there's only one history.
The impulse is almost always about how that history can inform current struggles. So I think it's part of a broader movement to re-imagine how we think about history and queer history, not as a kind of linear narrative of progression.
And I mean, I don't need to say that we live in a time when one can see that historical gains can be very quickly rolled back for women, for queers, for transgender people.
So from the early nineties onwards, I think Fierce Pussy has very intentionally engaged in both constructing and deconstructing what queer history looks like. And that's part of the importance of the work.
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Michelle Herman: For show notes, works cited, and additional resources visit aaa.si.edu/articulated.
This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. It was edited by Hannah Hethmon of BetterLemon Creative Audio.
Our music comes from Sound and Smoke composed by Viet Cuong and performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble with Harlan Parker conducting. Special thanks to Nora Daniels and Thomas Edwards for narrating this episode.
The Archives of American art at the Smithsonian Institution is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from individuals like you to sustain our ongoing operations and special programs like Articulated. To support our work, please visit our website aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.
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