Elissa Auther: “Feminism” is back, and ready to party, at MCA

The museum's “Feminism & Co.” series celebrates 10 years with a music-filled, weekend-long bash. Co-founder Elissa Auther talks about the state of feminism now and how it has evolved over the decade.

Marching in Denver, January 2017. Photo by Daniel H. Tseng.

This weekend, MCA Denver will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its “Feminism & Co.” series with three days of events, including lectures, exhibition openings, and an all-day music and performance bonanza. One Good Eye’s Rupert Jenkins called program co-director Elissa Auther to talk about the series Auther and Gillian Silverman started at The Lab art space back in 2007.

RJ: Elissa, let’s begin at the beginning. How did Feminism & Co get its start ten years ago?
EA: I had come to Gillian with the idea…I imagined a program that could connect art and ideas to feminism as a politicized way of life. For me, that seemed a great way to think about feminism. We started the program during the first of Hillary Clinton’s bids for the Presidential nomination, so there was a huge upswing of public discussion about politics and the history of the feminist movement. “The ‘L’ Word” was on cable – that was huge, the way it made women who were living feminist lives very sexy and powerful. And in the art world, there were a couple of very important survey shows in 2007 that went back to the 1970s and ‘80s, looking at feminist artists of that period – one was at LAMOCA and one was at the Brooklyn Museum. People took a lot of notice of them. They really put artists of that generation back on the map, and that continued. Since then there’s been a tremendous upswing of interest in feminist artists and feminist art, historic and contemporary.
There’s a fantastic exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum now called “We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85” that focuses on a large group of African-American women artists who are deeply involved in feminist issues and the feminist arts movement, and who were also central to African-American art circles in this period. It’s a good example of the diversity and intersectionality of feminist art, although the written record doesn’t necessarily reflect that, which is why exhibitions like this are so important.

Gillian Silverman and Elissa Auther co-founded “Feminism & Co.” 10 years ago.

RJ: The Lab in Belmar was an exploratory art space, radically different for the Denver region at the time. How did it work for you as a venue when you first started?
EA: The Lab’s mission was to connect art and ideas, and by extension lifestyle, so Feminism & Co. was a good fit. The first season was incredibly successful. Once Adam [Lerner, The Lab’s director] became director of MCA Denver, it was one of a couple of programs that came over to MCA – the other was Mixed Taste, which is another good example of a program about art and aesthetics and ideas and politics.
The vision of The Lab, and of MCA, was to create programming and exhibitions that were serious but also had a playful element. So our style was a combination – you could expect a serious level of discussion, but it was also very open and accessible, designed for a general audience.  We immediately found there was audience for this — it was surprising to us. We weren’t going to make apologies for feminism — we just got up there and everybody knew what we were talking about.
Feminism & Co. has always brought together three sites of feminist practice – the university or academy, the nonprofit sector, and the art world. So it’s all about bringing people together from these different realms of feminist practice and politics that normally would never share a stage in public. We found that bringing issues and practice into a sort of creative collision was essential to creating a dynamic public discussion.
RJ: This year’s program is more of a festival than the usual format of panel discussions. What was the reason to switch it up, and for the emphasis on youth this year?
AE: We wanted something celebratory for the tenth year anniversary. We had started out planning it the usual way but decided we wanted something that was more of an extravaganza, so that’s how it ended up being more of this weekend type of festival. We don’t always do programming that directly connects with young people, especially teenagers, but on the occasions we do come up with something we’ll go for it. This time around, with a festival-type event, we decided to stick to music and there’ll be workshops during the day on Saturday. It’ll be an all-day and all-night event so that if you’re under 21 you can spend the whole day at the museum if you want to. There’ll be time for talk and discussion, and in the evening there’s another set of acts that are equally interested in music as a form of political expression related to feminist or queer identity.

“Feminism & Co” coincides with an exhibition of paintings by Jenny Morgan.

RJ: Quoting from the MCA website, you and Gillian are going to “reflect together on the past decade of feminism, and how the movement has gone from being a malediction to a popular phenomenon.” I I had to look up “malediction” to make sure I’ve got it right – was the feminist movement really a curse a decade ago?
AE: I think Gillian used that term. For years we’ve both been teaching in women’s studies and also, for me, in art history and for Gillian, in U.S. literature. There was a long period of time where you’d have a small self-selected group of students interested in those courses, and then about 5-7 years ago there was an explosion of interest and those courses became very popular with students. It went from a political commitment that people made fun of, or derided, or didn’t want to associate themselves with, to something that was suddenly very hip. So that was a very pleasant surprise, and not one that either of us saw coming, despite the mini upswing of interest in feminism when we initially started talking about the program.

RJ: So has the term “feminism” been rehabilitated? There’s no stigma involved with being a feminist for young people?
AE: From what I can tell, it’s almost completely evaporated. It’s quite remarkable what can happen when you have what I would call cultural spokespeople – recording artists, movie stars – who have really decided to step up and claim a feminist identity in ways that maybe even five years ago their PR team wouldn’t let them touch with a 10-foot pole. It has really altered the dialog and the perception of feminism.

RJ: I want to ask you about the article you and Gillian wrote for Slate recently, titled “’Lifestyle Feminism’ Gets a Bad Rap But it’s a Great Gateway to Activism.” I hadn’t heard the term “lifestyle feminism” before. Did you two coin that?
AE: No, lifestyle feminism is a phrase that started appearing around the time of the Women’s March, and it relates to the recent commodification of the popularity of feminist politics, like fashion designers who have appropriated phrases like “Nasty Woman” for T-shirts. But it’s also a term used to dismiss forms of feminist expression in music, media, or, in the example of the pink pussy hat, craft, as a distraction from “real” politics. Our piece for Slate is a defense of the political value of feminist visual and material culture as a form of politics rooted in lifestyle.

RJ: It seems that a lot of what you’re writing about is fun and enjoyment – what Lorna Bracewell and Nancy D. Wadsworth in their recent Washington Post essay called a “spirit of humor, pleasure, and play…in contemporary feminist activism.”
AE: Exactly, and in that sense this new phrase “lifestyle feminism” makes a lot of sense for us, because if you claim a feminist identity you make a lot of lifestyle changes that extend to the way you look, dress, eat, what you read, etc. Those are lifestyle choices; you can dismiss them, if you like, as purely commodified forms of American culture, or you can reach back into the counter-culture and understand such choices as an aspect of your political identity.

Wheelchair Sports Camp performs as part of “Feminism & Co Weekend.”

RJ: I don’t want to set you up, but I was interested that the program will be taking place at MCA during the Ryan McGinley show. I was interested in your thoughts about that.
EA: You know, I didn’t really think about that…. It’s an exhibition that’s very much about youth culture and Ryan’s particular circle. It’s not a didactic show, so if you see feminism as something that can only be didactic and positive, and has to promote a particular message, then it could be in conflict with just about anything in that exhibition, especially around sexuality.
One thing that happened, let’s say in visual culture, especially in media culture, is the appearance of the anti-heroine. We actually did a program about this a couple of years ago. Let’s talk about the emergence of programs like “Girls,” “Homeland,” or Issa Rae’s “Insecure.” There’s a wide range of media – films, TV shows, cable – that give you a much more complex female protagonist; she’s not someone you would necessarily identify with as a hero; in fact, she’s often unlikeable; there’s no intention to send out a positive didactic message about women and empowerment, but those shows are tremendously popular because they reflect the contradictions and problems that we all face as women in the real world. And so for Ryan McGinley you might see that as well – it’s not a heroic or positive reflection of youth culture, it’s a big messy abject scene that you’re given access to from the point of view of one of its members. It’s not presented as negative or positive, it’s just presented as: ‘here’s the complications and contradictions of contemporary life, and how you make your way through it.’

RJ: I have to confess to you that I’ve never attended a Feminism & Co. program. I don’t necessarily think it’s my place or my forum, and also I’m not young either. Am I wrong to feel that way? Do you even want men there?
AE: I was surprised by your question because we always have a lot of men at our events, for whatever reason. We used to add humorous graphic elements to the design of our announcements like ‘men drink free’ so we’ve always been open to including men. A lot of time it depends on the program. We did a program on “Women and Motorcycles” and there was a ton of men there. Anything about sex, it’s guaranteed almost half the audience will be men at those. So it just depends on your interest. In terms of the youth culture thing and feeling too old – if you like live music then you’ll probably have a good time.
The great thing about the MCA is that it captures a broad demographic of people in their mid-20s to mid-40s and then there are core supporters older than that – a sizable number, in fact. So it’s a little bit different from your average museum where you expect to see everybody over the age of 50. That never happens at MCA. So for me it feels very comfortable for a wide range of ages, and in this particular instance we are trying to make it more accessible to young people who might have to come with their parents, or teenagers who aren’t going to be out too late.

RJ: We’re going to post this in time for the Thursday evening talk. That’s a kind of intro to the weekend as a whole?
AE: Gillian and I are going to talk about the past ten years of programming, what the vision for this series was in the first place. Since it’s the ten-year anniversary it give us the opportunity to reflect on where we started, what’s happened since then in the world at large, and maybe even think a little about the future. We’re only going to talk for 20-25 minutes and then it immediately opens up into a performance titled “XX: Where’s the Power?” by Lauren Beale, Ondine Geary, Brooke McNamara, and Kate Speer.  The theme is power. I’m not sure what they’re going to do but I know it’s a little bit theatrical and also a little bit funny—I expect it’ll be terrific.

Elissa Auther is the Windgate Research and Collections Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design and the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. She co-directs “Feminism & Co.: Art, Sex, Politics,” a public program about gender at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver.

Rupert Jenkins is an independent writer, editor, and curator living in Denver. rupertjenkins.com.
“Feminism & Co. Weekend” program details at mcadenver.org.

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