Have You Scene and Herd? (2007)
Inspired by 1960s Tupperware party hostesses, the Brainstormers demonstrated possible activist responses to gender inequity in the art world for their 2007 performance at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
The latest work by the feminist collective Brainstormers is currently on view at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center, as part of Then and Now, a group show comprised of almost 50 site-specific works commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which marked the start of the gay rights movement. The Brainstormers’ piece, “May I Please Have A Sip of Your Power?,” is a simple sound installation whereby a generic computer voice resonates from hidden speakers. It asks a loop of questions, among them, “Do you think you could scoot over so that I can access some healthcare?” and “Would you please donate some of your control? It’s tax deductible.” Both courteous and insistent, the intentional pauses between questions are unsettling; one is caught off-guard by the provactive queries framed in a tone of normalcy. Danielle Mysliwiec, a member of the Brainstormers collective, notes, “We wanted to couch subversive, confrontational questions in the kind of super-polite language that you would find in an etiquette book, in order to contrast and critique the way feminists have historically been portrayed as bitchy, aggressive, and whiney.”
The Brainstormers’ members—Maria Dumlao, Elaine Kaufmann, Anne Polashenski, and Mysliwiec, along with Jane Johnston (no longer a member of the collective)—met while pursuing MFA degrees at Hunter College. All visual artists—Mysliwiec is an abstract painter, Dumlao works in a variety of media, including photography, installation, sound, and video, Kaufmann appropriates images and texts into her work, and Polashenski uses combined media—they frequently shared their thoughts about gender inequalities that women artists continue to face despite recent, albeit fitful, progress. Although performance had not been the primary medium for any of these women as individual artists, a new kind of art grew out of their conversations. “It was truly collaborative,” says Kaufmann. “The work had a relationship to our studio practice but was also unique.” Not unlike the wave of feminists who came before them in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Karen Finley, Laurie Anderson, and Meredith Monk among them), Brainstormers have embraced performance as a vehicle for creative and political self-expression, eschewing the more traditional mediums of painting and sculpture that have long been dominated by men.
Get Mad (2008)
Brainstormers and the Guerrilla Girls organized a street action in Chelsea that invited both feminists and anti-feminists to speak out about the unequal exhibition opportunities for men and women.
The Brainstormers’ private ruminations first became public in 2005, when P.S.1 was in the process of mounting its Greater New York survey of emerging NYC artists, and the four observed that the show would be featuring a disproportionate number of male artists. On the day the show opened they painted their faces pink, donned pink and yellow feather wigs, and black T-shirts that read "33% < acceptable,” a reference to the fact that Greater New York was more than two-thirds male. Four additional volunteers joined them, and for six hours the group stood in front of the museum, pointing to it as the 3,000 visitors who came that first day made their way inside. They neither moved nor spoke; instead, their silent but colorfully punctuated presence served as an indictment of the inequality displayed within the museum’s walls.
Other volunteers handed out flyers with the group’s research documenting the gender breakdowns of emerging artists and art grad students in the greater New York area. Although the numbers of men and women enrolled in MFA programs were essentially equal, there were 107 men out of the more than 160 artists represented in the P.S.1 exhibit. Kaufmann elaborates, since “Greater New York” largely drew from the population of recent MFA grads, we were shocked that the curators included almost twice as many male artists as female artists. We posed the question ‘How did the Greater Majority become the Greater Minority?’ on the flyers.” On the other side of the flyer the Brainstormers demanded, among other things, greater curatorial transparency and inclusion. The 3,000 people who came to see the show that first day were intrigued. Media picked up on the event and the Brainstormers collective was officially born.
How Good Are You (2006)
For their performance at the Armory Show, Brainstormers created this map, modeled on the popular Gallery Guide, to expose which Chelsea galleries disproportionately represent male artists.
The Brainstormers readily acknowledge that they did not emerge from a vacuum; they drew inspiration from A.I.R Gallery, the first artist-run, not-for-profit gallery for women in the United States, and the older, more established Guerilla Girls, whose printed projects and actions have exposed sexism and racism in politics, the art world, and the larger culture since 1985. But unlike the Guerrilla Girls, who are an anonymous collective, the Brainstormers chose to reveal their identities to the public. Polashenski elaborates: “We felt that we wanted to separate ourselves from previous activist groups, namely the Guerrilla Girls, but very well knew that they made it possible for us to be open about our identities.” Mysliwiec adds, “The Guerrilla Girls also have separate art practices as well, but during the era of their activism, the number of women represented was so low that there was a safety in anonymity and a freedom to be outrageous. Today, we feel it’s important to have our names be known and to connect our identities to both our artwork and our activism. Too many women feel angry but fear that speaking out will damage an already fragile career.”
Since 2005, the Brainstormers have been primarily trafficing in facts, devoting considerable hours to research, which they then utilize to create their performance-based works. One of these, the “2006 Weather Report,” is a mock-weather broadcast providing coverage of BCBD—Biennial Cumulus Bionic Darkness, a menacing black cloud heading straight for the Whitney. Another of their performance works occurred in front of the Armory Show in 2006, when they confronted visitors with their performance, How Good Are You?. Dressed as scientists, the Brainstormers engaged hundreds of people in a survey about art world ethics while also handing out the Brainstormers’ “Gallery Guide,” a publication that includes research about commercial galleries' disproportionate representation of male artists. In May, 2008, the Brainstormers collaborated with the Guerrilla Girls on Get Mad by inviting anyone “fed up with the Chelsea galleries that show at least three times as many male artists as female” to participate in their Mad Libs-style postcard campaign. Their website offers documentation of these performances as well as the thorough research they’ve done over the years. One of the most condemning pages of their site, “Top 30 Offenders,” provides the website main page of 30 New York galleries with shockingly low statistics of women who are represented. Galleries on the “Top 30” include Tony Shafrazi (one woman out of 25 artists); Sperone Westwater (four women out of 34 artists); Paul Kasmin (four women out of 24); and Marlborough (5 women out of 43). The Brainstormers have certainly made a case for their relevance and importance through persistent exposure of gender inequalities and power imbalances that still run rampant throughout the New York art world . Yet their work and actions are not about an end-all solution. As Maria Dumlao elaborates, "Our work and actions are meant to inform, excite and provoke people in a dialogue. We encourage them to act on their own terms."
Yona Zeldis McDonough’s third novel, Breaking the Bank, will be out from Pocket Books in September.
Brainstormers' first performance was outside the Greater New York exhibition at P.S.1, pointing out that almost twice as many male artists than women were featured in the exhibition.