Art

Past, Present, and Future Feminism

The guest book on opening night of FUTURE FEMINISM at The Hole, NYC, September 11, 2014 (All photos by author for Hyperallergic.)
The guest book on opening night of ‘Future Feminism’ at The Hole, September 11, 2014 (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

“Tenet 7: Advocate for feminine systems in all areas of governance.”

One of the most important tools for helping feminism reach a wide audience in the 1960s and ’70s was the consciousness-raising (CR) group. Thousands of small and large groups gathered across the US and beyond in homes, public libraries, church basements, and elsewhere to discuss feminist ideas, primarily by sharing stories from people’s lives and then teasing out the politics at play in those experiences.

Today, one of the singular strengths of the internet for 21st-century feminists is the way it can, when not eating itself alive, serve as a venue for public and large-scale consciousness raising through personal testimony and political discussion. But, in tandem with these online CR activities, bits of evidence keep appearing to indicate that some people are returning to the in-person form as well, even as popular culture continues to ridicule ’70s-era groups with caricatures of housewives holding mirrors between their legs or persistent myths about bra burning.

One of the last places I would have expected to walk into a CR group is The Hole gallery on the Bowery in New York City.

“Tenet 2: Future Feminism requires the participation of all people.”

Crowds gathered at The Hole for opening night of 'Future Feminism' (click to enlarge)
Crowds gathered at The Hole for opening night of ‘Future Feminism’ (click to enlarge)

Future Feminism is an exhibition and performance series put together by a group of five multidisciplinary artists, the bulk of whom are best known for making music. The group comprises Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons), Bianca and Sierra Casady (of CocoRosie), Johanna Constantine (performance artist), and Kembra Pfahler (of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black). Joining them for the performance series is an impressive lineup of artists and writers, including Kiki Smith, Marina Abramović, Lorraine O’Grady, and Terence Koh, among many others.

Hosting a show focused on feminism, featuring a number of highly respected and/or well-known artists, seems like a bit of a coup for a space that many associate with the dramatic changes that have been happening over the past decades on the Bowery. The Hole, run by former Deitch Projects curator Kathy Grayson, in many ways typifies the shift in the neighborhood toward extreme wealth and celebrity in the face of a century-long history of deep poverty and neglect by the city.

Which is part of why it felt so strange to encounter there a kind of old-school CR event, even at a time when the term “feminism,” if not the meaning behind it, has been enjoying popular acclaim.

“Tenet 13: The future is female.”

FUTURE FEMINISM video installation view. In the video frame (from left to right): Antony, Sierra Casady, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady, and Johanna Constantine.
‘Future Feminism’ video installation; in the video, from left to right: Antony, Sierra Casady, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady, and Johanna Constantine

Walking into The Hole for the opening, two things hit me right away: the strong stink of paint fumes and the heat generated by the large crowds of people gathered inside and out. By the second night the paint fumes had mostly died down, but the crowds remained.

Beyond the performances, which seem to vary widely based on the artists involved, the exhibition consists of 13 large discs cut from solid pieces of rose quartz with the 13 tenets of “future feminism” chiseled into them. Each disc hangs in relative isolation on a white wall, bathed in its own glowing light. The mottled coloration of the thin slabs evoked nothing for me so much as Caucasian flesh. But rose quartz, in mystical and Wiccan traditions, is associated with unconditional love, compassion, and healing — qualities that have for centuries been associated with the idea of femininity, particularly idealized mothers.

Standing in front of the discs and reading the tenets — whose topics range from changing gender norms to challenging male-dominated religions, to the subjugation of women and the Earth — I couldn’t help but wonder what had drawn all those crowds. I listened to and spoke with people, whose reasons varied: some wanted to be part of a popular event; some were fans of the artists involved; others expressed a genuine, if occasionally cynicism-laced, hope that something here might help point them, in some tiny way, toward a feminist future.

“Tenet 8: Build political structures using a circular model.”

There are cycles — in nature, in the heavens, in our bodies (even in yours, penis-bearers). And so too there seem to be cycles in feminism. By now most people know the ones that historians have marked out since the 20th century: the fights for women’s suffrage and legal emancipation from families and spouses; the post–Civil Rights struggles for equal treatment under the law regardless of gender; the resurgence in the ’80s and ’90s following the sex wars and the neoconservative culture wars, along with the increasing growth of intersectionality thanks to figures like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Anita Hill, and Gloria Anzaldúa; and now, today, a new cycle that seems much harder to pin down, taking in everything from Beyoncé to Ryan Gosling memes to #yesallwomen.

It seems, though, that the basic demand at the core of each cycle remains the same: equal treatment and equal access. Today many feminists have an intersectional approach, because, to quote Staceyann Chin, “All oppression is connected, you dick.” So, equal treatment is no longer limited in many (I wish I could say most, but we’ve got a long way to go) feminists’ minds to the female sex. The vanguard of today’s feminism embraces people of all genders, including trans and non-confirming genders, and struggles against oppression based not just on gender, but also on race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, and a host of other characteristics or demographics. Not to mention the recognition that exploitation and oppression of people is in almost every instance happening in tandem with the exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources.

Installation view of Future Feminists' XI: DECONSTRUCT THE MYTHOLOGY OF MALE SPIRITUAL SUPREMACY, 2014, Rose Quartz 50 x 50 x .75 inches.
Installation view of Future Feminists’ XI: DECONSTRUCT THE MYTHOLOGY OF MALE SPIRITUAL SUPREMACY, 2014, Rose Quartz 50 x 50 x .75 inches.

What’s odd about walking into a show called Future Feminism, then, for which the surrounding talk involves people hinting at a “new movement,” is that much of this is missing.

At the core of the 13 tenets proposed by these artists is a desire to break down patriarchy; to laud qualities that are viewed as traditionally feminine (the positive ones, presumably, not the part of the culture that associates being a woman with being abrasive, nagging, hysterical, passive-aggressive, too weak but simultaneously too strong, and small-minded); to align feminism and environmentalism; and to reimagine spirituality without male figureheads. What’s striking about all that is it very much mirrors the thinking of Ecofeminists of the 1970s and the utopian aspirations of many lesbian separatists of the same era.

I don’t bring this up to wag my finger, but instead because it feels curious and also worth noting that in the midst of a show that attempts to position itself as outlining a new kind of feminism, the tenets are anything but new.

Feminism is constantly being dismissed, denied, “rebranded,” re-costumed, and renamed. And at least part of the implication beneath Future Feminism seems to be that the feminism of the past has fallen short — which makes it doubly weird to see what feel very much like ’70s-era slogans adorning the gallery walls. These statements aren’t necessarily bad or outmoded (though the emphasis on gender roles in a couple of the tenets does feel strange at a time when breaking apart gender binaries is actually working in some arenas), but they seem to proclaim themselves as uniquely contemporary when their focus is almost entirely on gender, without acknowledging factors like race or class (a failing at the core of many critiques of second-wave feminism).

Artist Kembra Pfahler (in white dress) sits on stairs with audience members during the 'Future Feminism' performance/lecture given by Sarah Schulman on September 12. (click to enlarge)
Artist Kembra Pfahler (in white dress) sits on stairs with audience members during the ‘Future Feminism’ performance/lecture given by Sarah Schulman on September 12. (click to enlarge)

Patriarchy and white supremacy work very hard to erase and dismiss the struggles of women and people of color, to belittle, malign, and disregard their contributions to political movements and social change in this country. That willful erasure of feminist contributions, combined with the tendency of oppressed people to dismiss/downplay their own achievements, strikes me as among the top reasons why feminism is particularly prone to “reinventing” itself. If you and your history and politics are almost universally reviled and maligned, it makes sense that it’s hard to connect the past, present, and future of your cause. But without that legacy, and an understanding of its evolution, you risk positioning yourself as the new savior of the movement. You risk thinking you have the new answers that will overcome all the past difficulties, when in reality you’re walking down well-worn paths.

Future Feminism continues at The Hole (312 Bowery, East Village, Manhattan) through September 27. Check the website for performance information.

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