Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz want to make sure I can’t see them. The disembodied voices of the women who assume these dead artists’ names repeatedly confirm that I can only see the angry gorilla face in their Skype window. No one knows the real identities of the people who make up Guerrilla Girls, except the other sixty women who have been in and out of the group over the past thirty years, and maybe a couple of their moms. While their anonymity has drawn much attention to the group, even more attention is due to their bluntly sardonic approach to subverting the practices of the art world, primarily the underrepresentation of women and artists of colour in major museums and galleries. Through their tough, outrageous and humorous approach, the group have more recently broadened their targets to such issues as economic inequality and corruption.
I understand you’re coming right from an event. What did you have happening?
Frida: We did an unannounced projection on the Whitney Museum last night, which was a little letter explaining that we really understand that art is so expensive and why people who buy art can’t pay their employees living wages. We have this new campaign about the super-rich who control a lot of art in the United States, both by buying it and by influencing museums because they sit on the boards and donate money.
Was the goal to bring to light and criticise the fact that they can build these expensive new buildings but not pay their interns, for example?
Frida: All the employees, really. At least in the United States, art has become a luxury commodity. It’s become this investment tool of the top 1% of the 1% and they present it to us as “our culture.” We want to ask some big questions about that. Isn’t there a problem with that?
Kathe: We’re talking about the incredible income inequality in the United States where the rich get richer and the middle class is left way behind. This is something everyone here is concerned about but not enough people are rising up to do something about it.
Frida: Especially in the art world. Everyone wants to think that they’re progressive, but they play into this system because it’s the system of the economy under which they live.
That economic discrepancy is very real for artists since the vast majority of them live right on or under the poverty line, but there’s this small elite that make huge amounts of money. Meanwhile it seems like funding for the arts is getting slashed across the board.
Kathe: We don’t really have much funding in the US now for artists. But the world of artists is great. Artists will always make their work, luckily. We’d have no culture otherwise. The art world right now is just really problematic and it basically sucks. In the US most artists have always had some kind of day job. Now the real problem is that not only are artists in that situation but people working everywhere are in that situation, including all the people who work in areas of culture. They’re not getting paid enough to have a decent life.
Frida: We were involved in a demonstration at the Guggenheim Museum on Friday about the dead-bondage under which the labourers in Abu Dhabi are working on the new branch of the Guggenheim in the Emirates. There are lots of deceptive labour practices under which these people are building this museum. And in the process of protesting here in New York we discovered that the guards at the museum are paid as little as ten dollars an hour, which is poverty. That is to protect precious, priceless works of art. It is scandalous that there is this triangulated system where some people at the top have so much and so many people at the bottom have nothing.
You’ve both been in the group since the beginning and you say that things are hugely problematic in the art world now. How does it compare to when you first began?
Kathe: The system is always changing and we’re always trying to deepen our critique of it. In terms of galleries and museums, they are now, at least at the entry level, showing more women and artists of colour… But! It’s not that much. Many if not most museums of modern and contemporary art still have less than 10% women in their collection and it’s the rare museum that has 30%, and it never really goes above that. The museums that have 30% have really been trying to do better.
Frida: There is also the issue of tokenism. When you show one or two women artists or one or two artists of colour and think the problem is taken care of, isn’t that just as bad as exclusion in the first place?
Kathe: Cultural institutions have to cast a wider net because we want museums to contain the real story of culture today. If they’re missing whole segments of the population in every country then they don’t have the real story. The artists are all out there. They need to be collected, they need to be appreciated and they need to be able to get on with their work and have it preserved for the future.
How did the term “guerrilla” come into creating that approach and what significance does it have now?
Frida: The art world is such a clubby little well-mannered upper-class place. We decided we wanted to be guerrilla, freedom fighters, because it’s so tantalizing to make the art world imagine that there were guerrilla fighters in their midst. We wanted to team it up with “girls” not only because it sounds so great, but also we wanted to reclaim that word that had so long been used to belittle women. Now the gorilla mask is another layer on top of that. We were trying to find a disguise because guerrillas are always anonymous, and we were really bad spellers! One of our early members spelled “guerrilla” as “gorilla” and we said “wouldn’t that be interesting.”
What have been some of the advantages and drawbacks of concealing your identities?
Frida: An advantage is that we can speak our mind without fear of reprisal. Put a gorilla mask on and see what it does to you. You’d be surprised what comes out of your mouth when your identity is protected. It’s also really good because we can depersonalise the issue. The issues are not about what we do and don’t have in our real lives. We are speaking for a condition. One disadvantage is going to an opening as yourself, and someone asks you what you’ve been doing and you just say, “Oh, I’ve been really busy!” “Doing what?” “Oh, a lot. Stuff.” (Both laugh)
Have there been any specific actions you’ve taken over the course of the 30 years that have stood out to you as particularly successful or effective for questioning the system?
Kathe: I would say that, without question, the work of ours that has changed the most minds is our poster “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” We update it every so often and the statistics are still bad but what I think is great about that is that if you actually look at that poster and you read it, enjoy it and think about it, you can never go into a museum the same way again. You have to look at what’s on the walls, who’s on the floor and who is there and who is not there. In a way, the Guerrilla Girls function as an artist, even though we’re different people all the time, but in a way that [billboard] is kind of the essence of what we wish we did every time. It’s a game-changing piece of work.
On your site there’s a recent version of it, targeting the ratio of female-to-male nudity in music videos. Was there a reason for shifting the focus to that medium?
Frida: Well (chuckles), we were invited by Pharrell Williams to be in an exhibition that he curated at a very fancy gallery in Paris and I suspect it was because his “Blurred Lines” video got a lot of trashing from feminists and women all over the world. It was a problematic invitation so we decided the only way we could accept it was if we were critical of the gallery and also of the music video business. That’s when we got the idea to recycle that and ask the question, “Do women have to get naked to be in music videos while 99% of the men are fully dressed?” The female figure that we plastered over it was actually from “Blurred Lines.” Anyway, we ended up declining the invitation. We actually didn’t ever hear anything back from Pharrell, did we?
You can catch Guerrilla Girls at Bíó Paradís on June 6 at 14:00.
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