In the 1990s, Ceci Moss was a teen in the San Francisco Bay Area who was introduced to Riot Grrrl through bands like Bikini Kill. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Astria Suparak had also gravitated towards the youthful, punk and indie rock-influenced feminist movement. Years later, the two curators have joined forces to build "Alien She," a traveling exhibition currently stationed at Orange County Museum of Art that explores the history and influence of Riot Grrrl.
"Alien She" is a testament to the power of young people motivated to spreading a message. It also reflects how artists evolve after discovering their power in the midst of a large, international youth movement. For the curators, there are personal aspects to the show.
"Riot Grrrl instilled within me the idea that if you're not seeing yourself represented in your community or in popular culture, or your interests and values reflected, then one of the things you can do is to create your own version of whatever it is you want to, or need to, see," writes Suparak, who is currently based in Montreal, in an email. Suparak says that her work as a curator is related to her connection to Riot Grrrl. "I see curating as a creative practice and a platform for artists and projects, ideas and politics that I believe in. And curators can make important choices about under-representation," she writes. "They can bring new audiences to these works and ways of thinking."
Riot Grrrl's origin story is largely tied to the Pacific Northwest and musicians like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile, but the movement spread quickly and globally. Thanks to small, homemade publications called zines, young people were able to communicate with each other about topics ranging from pop culture to politics. Touring bands brought messages of feminism and activism to their shows as they traveled from city to city. College radio stations played the new, politically-charged music, while friends turned each other onto the songs through mix tapes. People banded together to form their own Riot Grrrl chapters and build local events focused on feminism and music. Through this DIY network, people were able to exchange ideas and make statements about body image acceptance. They could stand up against violence and for LGBT rights.
By the end of the 1990s, Riot Grrrl had faded from the public eye. The original group of young women affiliated with the movement, though, never dropped the message. Hanna went on to form Le Tigre, who made electronic dance music with a strong feminist message. Wolfe kept on with music too, and has played in a few other bands since Bratmobile. Miranda July, who made zines along with film and performance related art projects in the 1990s, became a critically acclaimed director. Sleater Kinney, one of the better known groups of the Riot Grrrl Wave, became better known in the early 2000s. Guitarist Carrie Brownstein, though, is perhaps best known as half of the duo responsible for comedy series "Portlandia." Indeed, the Riot Grrrls of the 1990s went on to lead interesting careers and have used their influence to inspire another generation of young people who are currently making their own zines and spreading their political messages on social media platforms like Tumblr. All this informs "Alien She." July is featured in the show. So is photographer Tammy Rae Carland, who produced the influential zine "I ¤ Amy Carter" in her early career.
The exhibition includes both historic pieces and newer works. Pieces like Stephanie Syjuco's "The Counterfeit Crochet Project" reflect the look of more contemporary designer handbags. Allyson Mitchell's t-shirt pieces, titled "Women's Studies Professors Have Class Privilege" and "I'm With Problematic" reflect issues of class and privilege that have marked many recent spirited debates within feminist communities.
Yet, there is a wall filled with flyers that date back to the 1990s Riot Grrrl heyday. There are advertisements for shows at venues like 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley and long-gone Los Angeles space Jabberjaw. There are cases filled with old zines and cassettes and various band-related memorabilia. There are works that originated in Washington and Brazil, California and the U.K. Some came from the curators' personal collections, but much of the ephemera was acquired for their networks and calls for submissions. Suparak says that she hears from people who have spotted their own zines and flyers for their old bands' gigs in the show, items that they hadn't seen in years.
Co-curator Ceci Moss says that one of the goals was to present Riot Grrrl as "a living history." There are still active chapters, including groups in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Plus, there is a new generation inspired by Riot Grrrl and channeling that influence into music, art and writing. The exhibition celebrates the new school in its zine section. Each stop on the tour features a selection of locally made zines. For the OCMA exhibition, the curators worked with Aimee Murillo of OC Zine Fest and Fatima Manalili (former assistant curator for OCMA) to develop this section.
"I think that we still struggle with misogyny and sexism in our culture. As long as that exists, feminism is still real and still vital and important," says Moss. "I think that, unfortunately, a lot of the things that people were rallying around and the issues that people were angry about in the '90s are still with us." Just as feminism is still necessary, so is Riot Grrrl, which makes "Alien She" as relevant now as the movement was when it started.