Riot Grrrl: Traces of a Movement (11/06/2010)
Printed Matter’s annual New York Art Book Fair is one of my favorite events of the year. Featuring many vendors that utilize do-it-yourself modes of production and aesthetics, it is an event that appeals to my artistic practices, and often my political ones as well. A conference accompanies the book fair itself, and among this year’s sessions was the panel "Riot Grrrl: Traces of a Movement."
The panel featured Sara Marcus, author of the latest and seemingly most complete riot grrrl history, Girls To the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution; Lisa Darms, Senior Archivist of the Fales Library and founder of their Riot Grrrl Collection; Molly Neuman, drummer of riot grrrl band Bratmobile, music-biz-aficionado, and founder of Simple Social Kitchen; and Jenna Freedman, Coordinator of Reference Services at Barnard Library and founder of the Barnard Zine Collection. Assistant Curator for MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, Gretchen Wagner, moderated the panel.
Concurrent with the trend of nineties nostalgia, 2010 has been a year of bringing riot grrrl back, so the conference’s nod to the subject seemed appropriate. To my excitement, "Riot Grrrl: Traces of a Movement" addressed the pertinent issue of historicizing and archiving the movement, rather than simply retelling the riot grrrl story or discussing its ephemera.
Neuman provided a fresh perspective, and the audience came to understand riot grrrl as being on a continuum of punk, music, politics, and community that culminated in zines, bands, and political organizing. Reflecting on how the founding participants of riot grrrl decided to write their own zines and play in their own bands, Neuman remarked, “I don’t know why we thought we could do it.” This sentiment is perhaps the most salient and exciting for me, and her words pleasantly reminded me of feminist artist Mary Kelly’s “Seemed Right”: “seemed right… just made sense… like a lightning bolt!”
Darms provided a much-needed history for riot grrrl’s aesthetic, and compared it to that of late queer artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, as well as other relics like fliers from Richard Hell shows and issues of Punk magazine. Darms named the establishment of the Riot Grrrl collection “just one of the ways to preserve and disseminate riot grrrl history and help place it in the continuum of history and not just popular culture.” As a women’s historian and amateur archivist (whose research focus is on punk cultural production and identity), this historical emphasis speaks to me as music and musical sub/cultures seem to finally be getting their due.
Having started the research for Girls To the Front in 2005, Marcus didn't have the “luxury” of accessing riot grrrl collections for the duration of her project, and she expressed concern about the harm that publicizing these collections could do; namely, robbing the zines of their context. Darms echoed this, emphasizing that digitizing zine collections could further this phenomenon by making it possible to extricate parts of a zine from the whole.
Ending on a high note, Freedman displayed slides of original riot grrrl zines in juxtaposition with contemporary zines that have been influenced by that aesthetic. Importantly, Barnard's collection has a focus on zines by women of color. As riot grrrl (and punk more generally) has often been critiqued for its White exclusivity, this emphasis on women of color zinesters is crucial. Showing that the DIY feminist continuum doesn’t end with riot grrrl gives an impetus to discover what’s happening in grassroots feminisms today.
After a lively question and answer session, I left with a better understanding of riot grrrl and the imperative of documenting grassroots feminist work. I walked out reminded that queer and feminist cultural production is completely essential to our history as feminists, and we must continue to be ardent documentarians who advocate for and attest to this fact.
Photo by Dragana Drobnjak