Between ads for fashion labels, films, and cars, Kilo Kish looms large on digital billboards above Times Square in New York and on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. In her three-minute video titled “American Gurl” (2022), the rising multimedia artist and performer dons different outfits including a beauty pageant dress, an Evel Knievel-style jumpsuit, and a fringed cowgirl get-up as she poses in front of green screen backdrops of a farmhouse, museum, and the Grand Canyon. “American Gurl,” which runs through October, is the centerpiece of the fourth iteration of Womxn in Windows, a platform showcasing women filmmakers and artists of color. “With her combination of pop, camp, and fantasy, she’s questioning what success and power look like,” Zehra Ahmed, who co-curated this year’s lineup with Kish, told Hyperallergic. Kish will give a public performance in Times Square on October 14.
Alongside Kish’s video on digital billboards, this year’s program presents work by seven other artists who are featured in a print campaign on trash receptacles in Midtown Manhattan and included in a screening in Los Angeles on October 22 and accessible via QR codes. This is the first year that the program will take place in New York and Los Angeles concurrently.
Womxn in Windows was founded by Ahmed in 2019 with six video installations in the windows of art spaces in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. The jump to digital billboards came from a recent partnership with Times Square Arts and their Midnight Moment program, billed as the “world’s largest and longest-running digital public art program,” that coordinates video art nightly on nearly 100 digital billboards in and around Times Square from 11:57pm to midnight (except for New Year’s Eve). To commemorate their tenth anniversary, Midnight Moment decided to showcase women artists from April 2022 to March 2023. “It felt like the perfect fit and the next step,” Ahmed told Hyperallergic.
For the Los Angeles component, Ahmed reached out to the owner of a building at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Olive Drive in West Hollywood that has prominent digital billboards on its facade. After a six-month review process, her proposal was approved, and Kish’s video began illuminating the intersection on October 1.
The artists, filmmakers, and musicians featured in “American Gurl”— which was inspired by and borrows the title from Kish’s recent album— explore and challenge the meaning of that moniker, and the associated intersection of identity, femininity, and consumerism. It is something that Ahmed, who moved to the US from Pakistan almost two decades ago to attend college, can relate to firsthand, but she still says she can’t “completely identify with being American. Born in Pakistan, we were fascinated with the idea of the American girl, this singular idea.”
In contrast to a “singular idea,” the artists in “American Gurl” offer myriad depictions of women in America. Ayanna Dozier’s “Softer” (2020) critiques the societal demands that African-American women “soften” themselves, specifically through their appearance. Christine Yuan’s “Hoyeon as the International Woman of Mystery” (2022), originally commissioned by Vogue, casts Korean model and Squid Game star Jung Ho-Yeon as an Irma Vep-style vamp who remakes herself for international (read American) consumption. “iGurl” (2022) by Sarah Nicole François is a disturbing digital vision of endless surgical enhancements in search of bodily perfection. “Can we keep up with the aesthetic pushed onto us?” questions Ahmed. “Can these surgeries actually work on us as fast as we can change ourselves online?” Other participating artists include Christelle de Castro, Kasey Elise Walker, Kitty Ca$h, and Leila Jarman.
Integrated into the very medium it critiques, “American Gurl” offers subversive alternatives to aspirational mass media. “I think advertising in general gives us clues on what’s deemed important and relevant in a culture, what we value, and what we crave,” Kish told Hyperallergic via email. “‘American Gurl’ as a project for me was exploring all of these ideas. Having the work bookended by the typical advertisements feels right.”