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fierce pussy

in conversation with Adrianne Ramsey

Formed in New York City in 1991 through their immersion in AIDS activism and during a decade of increasing political mobilization around LGBTQ+ 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, their own baby pictures, and the printing supplies and equipment accessible in their day jobs. Four of the original core members—Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Zoe Leonard, and Carrie Yamaoka—reunited in 2008 and continued to work together. Recent public manifestations of fp’s work include Transmissions (2016 to the present), Leslie-Lohman Museum windows (2018), Vote posters (2018 and 2020), and arms ache avid aeon: Nancy Brooks Brody / Joy Episalla / Zoe Leonard / Carrie Yamaoka: fierce pussy amplified Chapter 7 at Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2023). This interview was conducted over Zoom in June 2023 and was the last interview of the four founding members of fierce pussy together. We are sad to acknowledge the passing of fierce pussy member Nancy Brooks Brody on December 8, 2023.

AR

What drives the collective? What are your desires and how do you enact them?

fp

fierce pussy has always been interested in questions of voice and audience. Our work comes from and speaks to queer and trans experiences, exploring ideas around identity and representation, including expanded definitions of family, desire, and solidarity. We’re drawn to working with spaces where the personal and the public intersect. We’re thinking and working very much in the present tense, but also interested in legacies of queer life historically and envisioning possibilities for liberation and queer lives in the future.

AR

I’m speaking to the four of you today, but there were more members in the beginning, correct?

fp

fierce pussy started in 1991. We made an open call on the floor of ACT UP and everyone who showed up just started working together. Originally it was an open collective, a cadre of people coming in and out, and we were very active for about three years. We were all members of ACT UP, but the four of us had known each other beforehand and stayed close friends. In 2008, AA Bronson from Printed Matter approached us about doing a fierce pussy retrospective. We put a call out to everyone we could think of who had been in fierce pussy, even just for a moment. We made a date for a meeting, and only the four of us showed up! [Laughs.]

AR

How did you all feel banding together to work collectively again?

fp

We were excited about working together again. The four of us had stayed friends and had done some other activism together in the intervening years. The retrospective felt like a great opportunity to revisit the old work. We made a remix of the three List posters of derogatory terms like lezzie, butch, bulldagger, dyke and changed the last line, so instead of reading “AND PROUD” it reads “AND SO ARE YOU.” Some people at the opening of the show said, “Oh my god, I ripped one of those posters off the wall in the 1990s and it lives on my fridge! I didn’t know it was you all!” It was incredible, and that’s when the four of us realized, “What if we just continue on?” We all really like each other and also realized that we still had things to say. The way that we re-visit our own material also has to do with understanding that language is a living, breathing entity that is being remade all the time. We’ve started incorporating non-binary and trans language into our work, folding everything in as it feels like it is part of our landscape.

AR

Would you say fierce pussy has a signature style? A particular look?

fp

Don’t forget, our early work was made during the early days of the AIDS crisis, when there were no effective treatments for HIV – people were dying, so it was life and death, down and dirty, and getting it done. We would meet at someone’s house and make the posters, Carrie and Joy would run off copies at their job, the next week we’d all meet again, mix up some wheatpaste and hit the street. That immediacy was reflective of the moment we were living in. We all brought our artistic sensibilities, but we weren’t thinking about this as artwork for a gallery wall – we were thinking about creating a presence on the street that both acknowledged our existence and was also a way of making other queers and dykes feel safe and seen. We weren’t interested in asking if straight people were engaging the work or not, and we weren’t even thinking of it as “public art.” But we did care about how things looked; when we wheatpasted, we would often “bomb” a whole wall, combining posters to make a composition. Even though what we were doing was illegal and we were rushing with our buckets of wheatpaste, we were still making a composition. We all have our separate practices and have shown in museums and galleries individually, but fierce pussy as a collective has its own way of working within institutions, which has evolved over the years. In recent years, we’ve been invited to show in museums and galleries, and we’ve figured out a way to do that that feels in line with our ideas and politics. We often make a stack of giveaway posters, or we work with windows, doorways, or outside space where the work is visible to any passerby. We generally don’t sell our work; fierce pussy doesn’t have any money. It’s all about getting the institution to fund the work and pay for free distribution. As artists, we’re aware of how it looks – the balance on the wall, are there enough copies of a certain poster – and we’re thinking about who will see the work and what it means. We bring all of our history with us when we show our work in museums and institutions.

AR

Is the intention to transform institutions?

fp

We approach the institution as another platform through which we can deconstruct different institutional hierarchies and disrupt the way that the museum normally functions. This brings up questions about who museums are for, who feels comfortable in them, and who is going to feel welcomed by our work. We think about language, about different forms of address, and how language is used to construct gender, class, and race, but can also be used to dismantle hierarchies, to liberate and to connect. Viewers in a museum aren’t used to being addressed directly or being able to take a work of art back home with them. We’re saying: this is for you.

Another form of distribution we’ve used recently is the mail. We were invited by the Ford Foundation to make a work for an exhibition, INDISPOSABLE: Structures of Support After the ADA. We made one of our “Transmissions” posters, Transmission VI (2022), which they distributed through a large-scale mailing as well as showing it in the gallery. We printed braille over the type, so you can read it by sight or with your hands, which we see as another way of physically distributing work, expanding how it moves through the world.

AR

As a collective, how do you approach developing a singular voice?

fp

We’re always thinking: what are the spaces we can squeeze ourselves into, how do we widen that crack, and make the work expand outside of the institutional expectation. We are interested in intervention, disruption, and making space to connect with and empower people who are marginalized, ignored, or discriminated against. The formal language that fierce pussy has developed over the years bears a relationship to the formal language of each of our separate practices, but also has its own terms. fierce pussy is an artist with her own distinct voice and aesthetic.

When we started, we used an actual typewriter to write our texts, working with the typewriter like an instrument, backspacing and going heavier or lighter on a letter. We still use a typewriter for some pieces, and for others we use fonts available on the computer; Joy does most of our digital layouts. We’ve always been concerned with the aesthetic of the page itself and with how the work looks on the street. Back in the day, we reproduced our posters by photocopying them on company machines, since both Joy and Carrie worked for Condé Nast. We love the visual “noise” that comes with each generation of copying.

For our recent window piece, “For The Record 7th Edition”, which we made for the exhibition, Expose*es, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, we printed the text on newsprint so it’s a little bit translucent. The light comes through the paper. We don’t ever print on vinyl; we really like it to be paper, so it doesn’t have that commercial look. It looks like skin once its wheatpasted; it will have small wrinkles or tears. You can see the texture of the wall or window surface. These wheatpasted pieces don’t feel like they are from the realm of the Internet, as they have a very physical presence. Although we have a website and use Instagram, when we install our work we’re thinking about the physical experience – not only optically, but the relationship of scale to the body, the texture of the work, and what it will evoke for the viewer when they encounter it.

AR

Can you talk about how your work almost creates a link between the past and present?

fp

We’re interested in being in the moment, rather than saying, “Back in the 1990s, we did this.” We’re actively interested in growing, expanding, and being part of a radical, possible future that will be more open, diverse, supportive and just; where people can express themselves and be themselves without fear. We’re not interested in solidifying an image of what we were in the past. In 2009, we participated in ACT UP NEW YORK: ACTIVISM, ART, AND THE AIDS CRISIS, 1987-1993, a show curated by Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace for Harvard Art Museums. When that show traveled to New York, we realized we wanted to make a new work that could be a bridge between what had happened then and now. How do you speak to people about something that’s almost impossible to describe? With Get Up Everybody and Sing (2010), we wanted to communicate not only the devastation and anguish of that time, but also that the loss of those friends continues, it is an ongoing, daily experience. By saying, “If he was alive today, he’d have you on your knees” / “If she was alive today, you’d be just her type” / or “If they were still alive today, they would finish writing that book” / “If they were alive today, you’d be texting them right now,” we bring it into the present moment, into everyday life.

AR

How should we be engaging with the politics of the AIDS crisis today?

fp

The AIDS crisis is still ongoing, but it’s important to look historically at the early days of the epidemic – before there were any treatments available, when an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence. People with less access may have died more quickly, but it was not a manageable illness for anyone at that time. Everyone was just dying of it. The show ACT UP NEW YORK really made us relive those days. There was a symposium associated with the show and it was this very strange, out of body experience that we all shared with each other afterwards, of listening and watching your own life and experiences become historicized in front of your eyes and having people speak with authority and describe how it was. We were so moved and undone by this – realizing how upset we all got and how much unprocessed grief we still had, because our grief has never really been acknowledged by larger society. To this day, there has never been an actual acknowledgement by the U.S. government or mainstream media of what we all went through in the first epidemic. How many of our brothers and sisters we lost and took care of, how many we buried and mourned, and are mourning still. We carried on in our lives and shoved those feelings aside, like this dirty secret amongst survivors, but the magnitude of the loss wasn’t acknowledged by our larger society and still hasn’t been reckoned with or addressed.

With the “if they were alive today” text, we wrote these quotidian sentences because we wanted to make it clear that the friends that we had lost well before an expected life span should still be here with us. Today. The loss didn’t end in 1992; we’re still processing it now and we’re thinking, “Well, where the fuck are they?” We wanted younger people who hadn’t been there to understand how real that was and how much that loss remains present. That’s also part of our commitment to be present with each other and to recognize that those we lost are still here with us.

We’re the witnesses to what happened, and we carry our lost friends with us. We’re trying to share as much information with the world as possible. We’re frank about the loss and the pain, but also recognize and honor the voices – living and dead – that give us strength, hope, and encourage pleasure and joy. We have a sense of solidarity, not only across any social, political, or cultural differences, but across time. ACT UP drew from the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement, so we sit on the shoulders of so many people who have sacrificed their light, their lives, and their brilliance. We have to harness that so we can move forward, especially in this moment in time when the next election we’re facing has so much at stake. This upcoming election is crucial. We have to think collectively and vote effectively. It really comes down to this: Do we hold onto democracy, or do we become a fascist country?

Next from this Volume

Douglas Crimp
with Gregg Bordowitz, Rosalyn Deutsche, Juan Antonio Suárez, Rachel Haidu, Jonathan Flatley, Jules Gill-Peterson, Morgan Bassichis, Marc Siegel, and Emmanuel Olunkwa

“Douglas’ insistence on emerging politically out of the confinement of being labeled a problem remains life-giving.”