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Weekly Alibi Guerrilla Girls Attack Santa Fe

Anonymous activists speak--and act--out.

By Jessica Schurtman

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  On Nov. 19, the Guerrilla Girls appeared "in full jungle drag" for their public lecture, "Conscience of the Art World," part of the College of Santa Fe's Fear and Desire series on the creative process.

It soon became obvious how starved New Mexicans were for this kind of subversive, in-your-face activism as the audience packed the seats and aisles to learn the Girls' guerrilla tactics. They stared at a minimally lit, empty stage as bodiless voices emanated from the sound system, saying that NEA cuts were all men's fault, and if they wanted to help, they should cut off their, um, willies and send them to Sen. Jesse Helms with the message: "You won't being seeing any more of these in public art."

This is the Guerrilla Girls' modus operandi: part irony, part shock value and a potent message. They get their point across with startling statis- tics, attention-grabbing images and a liberal use of humor, usually on posters with which they plaster the streets and subways of New York City.

As much performance as lecture, the Guerrilla Girls made their entrance clad in their signature gorilla masks, tossing bananas to a cheering audience.

But why do they wear those masks? Mostly, they say, to keep the focus on their agenda--raising the consciousness of the art world about discrimination against women and minority artists--and not on their personalities or careers. When they first organized in the early '80s, they feared backlash and wanted to protect their anonymity; plus, you have to admit, gorilla masks are a lot more attention-getting than, say, your traditional activist's garb.

A synergy rose in the room, as the audience raised questions like why class issues aren't part of the Guerrilla Girls' agenda. The Girls agreed that this was something they needed to focus on in the future. They're also grappling with whether they should confine their actions solely to art or if they should include other issues, such as women's body image and affirmative action legislation. While encouraging the crowd to start its own groups--to be their own Guerrilla Girls and baboon boys--they admitted that their selection of new members isn't exactly democratic; you must be a friend of a Girl, or invited, to join. They wouldn't reveal statistics on the demographic makeup of the group, saying only that they are diverse and that people just had to trust them. (Couldn't the galleries they critique say the same thing?)

But the response was overwhelmingly positive. As one attendee noted, what the Guerrilla Girls are doing in their activism is art.

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