Art as Activism: Beyond "The City Lost and Found"
As The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960–1980 enters its final weeks, I have been reflecting on the impact of the ideas and art featured in the project. Throughout the run of the exhibition this spring, a range of programs gave us the opportunity to see how the photographs, films, city plans, and other objects on view laid the groundwork for politically and socially engaged art practices in the 1980s and beyond.
Related film screenings and panel discussions were held in cooperation with the School of Architecture and the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, while a variety of interdisciplinary teaching efforts—including a course I cotaught, “Photography, Urbanism, and Civic Change, 1960–1980”—made use of the exhibition to critically examine the legacy of those makers who activated urban space and used mass media to demand change.
Luckily, once the exhibition comes down, we have works in the Museum’s collections that convey this legacy. One recent acquisition is a perfect example: The Compleat Portfolio by the Guerrilla Girls, which contains everything the collective has produced since they were founded in 1985, including each of their eighty-plus posters. Many of their projects over the years have relied on the play between text and photography, such as the front of their Art Museum Activity Book—exercises and tests that underscore the Guerrilla Girls’ deep passion for the politics of museums. A street photograph of four group members wearing their signature gorilla masks and holding protest placards in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is a perfect image to represent a media-savvy collective whose practice is grounded in agitprop, politics, and civil disobedience.
The Guerrilla Girls are a self-described “bunch of anonymous females who use facts, humor, and outrageous visuals to expose discrimination in politics, art, film, and pop culture.” The group’s first series of posters challenged the underrepresentation of women artists in a 1985 survey exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. They plastered these posters on the streets of SoHo, which was then home to more than two hundred galleries and arguably the center of the art world. This site-specific gesture of protest recalls the creation of the 1968 mural West Wall, an artistic response to the devastating riots on Chicago’s West Side following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The mural existed alongside Art & Soul, a new cooperative arts center, and was documented in a book—currently on view in The City Lost and Found—that paired Roy Lewis’s photographs with poems by Eugene Perkins.
The Guerrilla Girls’ engagement with both street performance and mass media can be traced to artists and activists in the 1960s and ’70s, like those featured in the current exhibition, particularly the Los Angeles–based Chicano art collective Asco. In one of Asco’s many acts of intervention into the urban environment in the 1970s, the group staged a fake gang shooting and then circulated photographs of the event to local television stations, simultaneously feeding and deriding the media’s hunger for sensationalist imagery of urban neighborhoods. Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Kelly Baum has said of the Guerrilla Girls’ posters: “They often read like PSAs, advertisements, the kinds of charts one might use in a briefing, motivational speech, or training session, or even the sort of questionnaires you might find in women’s magazines—all formats the Guerrilla Girls repurpose for very different ends.” One such example is their 1993 repurposing of a New York Times magazine cover featuring the director of New York’s Pace Gallery and his “Art World All-Stars” for a poster declaring “Hormone Imbalance. Melanin Deficiency.”
The Compleat Portfolio builds on the historical ideas traced in The City Lost and Found while joining a growing number of feminist and politically inflected works of art in the Museum’s collections that keep these ideas fresh for students today. Emily Scott, cofounder of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, a collective that develops guided hikes, field kits, and other interpretive tools to spark creative explorations of city habitats, was on campus this spring for the panel discussion “Artists Making Cities” at the School of Architecture. Scott notes: “Still completely exciting and relevant, I think, is the way the Guerrilla Girls’ work infiltrated the city, using public space to activate debate, including dissensus. In taking institutional critique to the streets, they not only collapsed any purported barrier between the art world and broader world, but also highlighted the structural sexism and racism continuous across both. I’m especially admiring of their radical circumvention of individual authorship (something valued as much now as ever) in order to put subject matter center stage.” I couldn’t agree more.
Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography