Foundation Interview with fierce pussy in Curve Magazine
Interview: fierce pussy
An interview with the queer women art collective, fierce pussy.
In an ongoing series on social justice and making art in a time of crisis initiated by The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Rehan Ansari, Brooklyn-based writer, playwright and artist, along with Rubin Foundation staff Sara Reisman and George Bolster, sat down with fierce pussy, a lesbian art collective (Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Zoe Leonard and Carrie Yamaoka), and Gonzalo Casals, Executive Director of the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, to talk about fierce pussy’s 2018-2019 window installation at the museum and their ways of doing activist art.
fierce pussy: So you don’t need to refer to us as individual artists, all responses from our side are by fierce pussy. We are fierce pussy.
Rehan: How are you responding to the current time of crisis? And since you have been around as a collective since 1991 what were you responding to then? Was that a time of crisis or urgency, and how does that compare to now?
fierce pussy: We were definitely responding to crisis. We were involved in ACT UP and watching our friends get sick and die, and going to demonstrations and trying to do anything that could possibly make a difference to save somebody. We put out a call to ACT UP to have a meeting open to any other women there. We were thinking specifically about lesbian visibility. The first project we did that night were the lists. It was to reclaim derogatory language and make it an affirmation of our collective identity. Pervert, dyke whatever, and proud! They were done on a typewriter. We worked at Conde Nast Traveler and GQ and that's how a lot of ACT UP posters got printed. So we have to thank Conde Nast! After work we would put them in our backpacks, get on bikes, go down to an ACT UP meeting or meet up to paste. It was very quick. We didn't have a lot of money so it was really all on us to make things happen. I think if the one thing that occurs to me about now is how right after the election in 2016 the first thing I thought to myself was oh my God, I have to get back in the saddle!
We never really got out of the saddle. But we mean it in the extreme sense of that time in the early 90s. At the height of the AIDS crisis it was life and death. Since ‘91 it has felt like the climate in the United States has been moving primarily in a forward motion. With this administration it is just devastating. They are knocking down everything that you love, that you fought for, that you thought you had, and it is tumbling down. It feels really hard to stand back up. The call we put out to ACT UP in ’91 was really an art action; we became a collective. We wanted to make images, and the typewriter was the tool that we had at hand. We knew it was beautiful and we liked that typewriter and the sound it made. We’d look at our letters, we typed them several times, we backspaced, we made decisions around which letters are heavy, and we worked together on all those choices.
We also moved quickly. We made a poster at one meeting and the next meeting we were out on the streets pasting. It was a lot of us and it was a changing group of women at that time, addressing lesbian visibility specifically.
Rehan: Could you describe the lists?
fierce pussy: There were three different lists and some of the derogatory terms were mannish, muff diver, pervert, amazon, lesbian, butch, stone butch, femme, girlfriend, queer and proud. We put that together, queer and proud. We were speaking in the first person, we were speaking to our cohort, and not trying to address the mainstream at all. “I am a, you are a, we are a” conjugation. When we say lesbian and visibility, or being invisible, those are words that get said but that run really deep. To be not seen and not recognized. It's huge for a life and especially a young life. It was a parallel to people with AIDS not being seen. They weren't being seen as people who were sick and who had lives. They were just being thrown away. We learned a very quick response from ACT UP: there was no time to fear. I think that that immediacy is something that we really pulled into fierce pussy as a way of going forward and I think that's still true in terms of your question of what is similar between then and now. What we're doing is as it was then, only now I think we're talking to a larger queer community which is much more inquisitive. I am also thinking about how with the facade Leslie-Lohman has become a safe space for people to go to. So this too is different from back then.
Rehan: When you said you feel like you are being bulldozed, that things are being rolled back, what is being rolled back?
fierce pussy: The Kavanaugh confirmation. We all know what happened with Anita Hill, watching those hearings again it's even more shocking that we have not moved out of this position. Why are these women not being believed? What is that about? That has not changed.
Rehan: Or is it worse?
fierce pussy: It's worse and with this present administration and the Republicans and the way in which they bulldozed yet another sex offender onto the Supreme Court, the whole thing with the Mueller investigation and everything else. Treason is okay in this country and anything that doesn’t agree with them is fake news. The press is now the enemy of the people.
Rehan: It's worked before.
Gonzalo: Previously there was denial of the existence of a community and now there is a very strategic, proactive attack to the community. Denial was really bad and that's what the campaign of Silence=Death went up against. But what we're seeing is that now that we're visible there is a direct attack.
fierce pussy: We've only really had this ground for a very short time. In terms of any kind of history it's a veneer of time. ACT UP generated a lot in terms of the curriculum in schools and colleges, gay studies for example, and what we've had in television and film, but it hasn't really taken hold. The only choice we have now is to work together. Not just in the queer community, or in the women's community, and all the way across the progressive board. I know a lot of young people do not think it's important to vote because they feel like they may be voting for the lesser of two evils. I say to them that isn’t true because soon you won't even have the decision to vote.
Rehan: Do you feel your activism, strategies and tactics have to change as you get back in the saddle?
fierce pussy: I have a feeling that looking somebody in the eye still might be the best strategy. Social media has its place. We should use everything in the moment and get the most out of it. We’ve done other things with other groups of people in other ways not under the name fierce pussy. After the election in 2016 we had conversations amongst us about ideas for future projects that we have not yet had time to realize that dealt more directly with misogyny and issues around sexual assault and rape, partly as a way to respond to the Trump Administration and so we're not just speaking about LGBTQ issues. We made The Transmission which talks about a lot of what we're discussing now, this imagining of this voice from the future. We didn't quantify or name what that voice is or where exactly it's coming from. It's a naïve voice of somebody who can't even understand killing, or rape, or jail. It was coming from this utopia, a voice to posit the things that we all have problems with and another way of looking at them. This voice first landed at the Visual Aids Gallery; we wanted to have it arrive in these different places and one is Leslie-Lohman's archive. The third iteration of the voice was printed in a magazine. There will be another one in the coming year. So each time certain things have changed in the transmission as in the voice’s attitude we haven't heard from you, we're trying again. (laughter). Maybe the next time the voice will say, ‘we're really serious, we can see you, we know you have it in you,’ it could be really good.
Sara: So how do you keep a collective going for 27 years and how does the flow of work change? Has it always been activist-oriented or are there times when it's more exhibition-based?
fierce pussy: The exhibition stuff really started in 2008 when we got back together. We were very active from ‘91 to ‘94 then we all kind of went on hiatus until 2008 but in that interim period we were involved in other kinds of direct actions together and in an adhoc way and not always under the umbrella of fierce pussy.
In 2008 Printed Matter called us out to make this book and gave us their back space on 10th Avenue to do a kind of retrospective. Again we put a call out to everyone that we could remember or had contact information for to come and bring whatever they had from their collection. Lots of people came but we were the ones that were like oh, here we are. We decided on the book, and then we also said let's re-paste the windows of Printed Matter and we made a remix of the three posters back from 1991 and this time instead of it saying ‘I'm proud' we had it say, ‘and so are you.' When we were halfway through the pasting we took a lunch break and when we came back the police were there. Printed Matter had had so many calls and many people thought the window had been up for two weeks. But in fact it had been up for two hours and it wasn't even finished yet. The people that called were worried about their children. They were offended by Butch, Lezzie, Amazon, Feminist and Pervert. And Joy looks across the street and there is this giant billboard of a Courvoisier ad with this woman straddling the bottle. That is somehow okay for their kids to see.
Rehan: Do you work with each other beyond institutional commissions?
fierce pussy: We're all visual artists and have our own practices. We talk about ideas together in a whole other way than the voices we have developed as fierce pussy. All of our own practices are very different from one another. fierce pussy is a place I can put all of these things into something tangible that I wouldn't in my own practice. However, nothing is in its own bubble, there is osmosis and we have always been activists.
Having the opportunity to do the facade at Leslie-Lohman was really good for us because it has us revisiting the List-making project, enlarge its scope and include more identities.
Rehan: Can you say more about the process of creating the commission at Leslie-Lohman?
fierce pussy: The baby pictures were part of an early project that we did in ‘91 using our own baby pictures. They were not bigger than 11 by 17 and we pasted on the street. At that point, we were talking about children and whether sexuality is biological. It was very satisfying to us and to our tribe to say “we are here and this little kid in the little dress is a dyke.” But I think as we started to think about this project recently, if the baby pictures were blown up really big then they would have a monumental sensibility. The other part of it was that we were definitely going to do a remix List, bringing in more terms that are very much a part of our conversation now and invite friends to do a poster with their baby picture. We were so close to the baby pictures that we didn't realize how powerful they could be. The thing about naming is you go through the world and those names affect you negatively or positively. Everybody can relate to a child because we all have children in us. I think a lot of people can place themselves in the classroom, the photo booth, the school picture, being asked are you a boy or a girl. Also, the idea of the future manifested in the installation because it's not just about our past as children and our baby pictures but this child could grow up to become a dyke. And then we invited a couple of friends, Justin Vivian Bond, Barbara Hughes and others to add theirs, so they were the new posters. Leslie-Lohman lit the windows from behind which we didn't expect to happen and now they're on till midnight, they glow.
Rehan: How did the Leslie-Lohman Museum select fierce pussy?
Gonzalo: It was a very intuitive decision as to the whole project, the queer façade, and the choice of fierce pussy. I was offered the job not even a month after Trump became president and I was just thinking it was a moment in which I felt very disempowered, and I was seeing our communities, not only queer, marginalized. I was also aware that the history of the museum is very much focused on the gay male experience. And I realized that 300,000 people walk past that museum every year. With this façade of faces, very diverse faces, younger faces, we're sending a really strong message that there is something going on inside these walls and it is an invitation to come in and belong.
Rehan: In an interview we did with Sur Rodney, looking back at the history of AIDS activism and that though it's often remembered as gay white men activism, he pointed out how much of the activism and organizing was done by women.
fierce pussy: The first part of that observation is true. It is how it is framed in the films and books that have been written about that era. However, bear in mind we were with Visual AIDS as the organization contended with the issue. If it wasn’t for those white men with their privilege, ACT UP probably never would have gotten off the ground. White privilege fueled their rage when they were ostracized because of HIV AIDS. To see them demand something and say they deserve it made us as women go “oh…“ It didn’t take us very long to learn that though. (laughter)
Well, we wanted a seat at the table too and a lot of things were organized and developed by a lot of women in ACT UP. Yes, all primarily white people. Though there was a Latino caucus and a Black caucus. There was the women's caucus. The way that AIDS/HIV specifically behaved in a female body was different. There was the issue of changing the definition for the CDC. We women had to really step up in that regard. That would not have happened if there weren't women in the room.
Gonzalo: What I hear about that time is is that there were complaints about lesbians taking over, and that the same people sometimes told you that at the hospitals the lesbians were the ones taking care of the gay men dying of AIDS.
fierce pussy: Because that's what women do, we take care. I think women for the most part, and especially queer and more Butch identified, have had to find themselves in male culture or have to use our imaginations in film and television all the time and maybe it's harder for the male body to do that in reverse. But I think you can find yourself here if you just look. There is plenty of very femme stuff and of lots of switching over that you might do. I think misogyny stops you. I said to Carrie at the opening at Leslie-Lohman, I don't know if people who identify as men would be able to find themselves here. And this young gay man sashayed right over, leaned against DYKE and said he’s found himself and he had his picture taken and he was so psyched. I think younger people are a little more fluid. I think that fluidity when presented to all of us allows us to acknowledge our own fluidity. That's where I find myself.
Gonzalo: I think one of you was talking about this idea that you took the identity that you were given, so it was lesbian as the only thing that was available for you, and you ran with it. Now there are more options?
fierce pussy: I didn't say it was the only thing was available, but I think politically at the time you had do that. You had to claim that you exist. That doesn't mean that you totally identified with that as the only thing. So when we talk about lesbian identity from back then and how we look at this project now it has changed, it's queer.
Rehan: The Rubin Foundation organized an exhibition in 2017 titled the Intersectional Self which considered feminism and gender through the lens of trans-possibility. We were interested in how feminism appears to have changed. Has gender changed? Or not? It doesn’t have to!
Sara: As we were planning that show on feminism we found it interesting to think about who claims feminism in a moment when gender is fluid. Who has a right to feminism?
fierce pussy: Asking questions such as whether the trans community is entitled to identify as feminist? Some say no, that the trans community cannot identify as feminist. The question is: who gets to claim your conception of lesbian identity? Will the movement change at a time where trans is more and more visible? This is interesting. I think we're all trans. I think that might be the place to be. I think that's what everybody is if you really acknowledged in some way how you think and move through the world and how you identify, and how you feel. The trans community should be acknowledged by anybody who wants to be a feminist. I think trans people are identifying as trans people probably in the same way lesbians once identified as lesbians because they have to be acknowledged as a community. We have to see this.
Rehan: It is a matter of life and death.
fierce pussy: Exactly, it's life and death. The whole idea of feminism, if that is the place where you get strength from or information, is great. But I think acknowledging multiplicity is really important. Just because we have the term queer doesn't mean we want to throw away lesbian. It’s very different walking through the world as trans. People need housing, jobs, safety, healthcare, the people have to live and survive. If there is something inside you that you know is very different than how you represent, and that's where visibility is very important. The more we come together as a community, the more we put ourselves out there, we learned this in ACT UP, the more then didn't die. There is strength in numbers.
The ground is not level in any way and I believe that's really because of misogyny and how women are viewed and are talked about, and how men are trained into it. A great deal of trans-phobia and trans-hatred at its root is misogyny. You're hated because you want to be feminized in some way.
If you want to present more female and you were born male, and equally if you were born female and you want to transition to being a male, well, you, you really have a pussy under there, you don't really have a dick so that's really a hatred of women in some ways. This is not the only lens to view from, but there is a deep-rooted hatred of women inside of trans phobia.
Gonzalo: In the whole craziness of doing this façade project, the Office of the Speaker of the City Council in City Hall gave you a plaque! That goes down in city records. You were talking about how fast things happen. How do you feel about that?
fierce pussy: On one hand it's hilarious, completely nuts and ironic because these are the same people who arrested us because we were wheatpasting, or arrested us at a demonstration. And now we get love with a plaque that said fierce pussy.
About fierce pussy
fierce pussy is a collective of queer woman artists. Formed in New York City in 1991 through their immersion in AIDS activism during a decade of increasing political mobilization around gay rights, fierce pussy brought lesbian identity and visibility directly into the streets. Low-tech and low budget, the collective responded to the urgency of those years, using readily available resources: old typewriters, found photographs, personal baby pictures, and the printing supplies and equipment accessible in their day jobs. Orginally fierce pussy was composed of a fluid and often shifting cadre of dykes including Pam Brandt, Jean Carlomusto, Donna Evans, Alison Froling, and Suzanne Wright. Many other women came to the occasional meeting, and joined in to wheat paste, stencil and sticker. Four of the orginal core members –Nancy Brooks, Joy Episalla, Zoe Leonard, and Carrie Yamaoka– continue to work together.
About Rehan Ansari
Rehan Ansari is a Brooklyn-based writer, playwright, and artist who also works as a political pollster and measures impact in the field of art and social justice. In 2016 his play Unburdened had a stage reading at Meet Factory, Prague and inspired an installation as part of Enacting Stillness at The 8th Floor in New York. He contributed an essay for the Rubin Foundation’s recent exhibition, Revolution From Without…, the first in a two-year series of exhibitions on resistance and revolutionary gesture at The 8th Floor, the Foundation’s exhibition and event space.
Read more at: Curve Magazine