Archive Grrrls: Scoping the Fales Library, NY

Doctoral researcher Laura Cofield and I have just returned from a research trip to New York in order to scope the Riot Grrrl Archive in the Fales Library.  There are hundreds of different zines in the archive across 18 individual collections that cover the years 1974-2003.  The trip was funded by the Santander Mobility Fund and set up by Simone Robinson, Tracey Wallace and Paul Roberts from the Doctoral School at Sussex.

Laura’s in the first year of her doctoral research looking at the c20th and c21st history of pubic hair removal as a way into women’s experience of their bodies and the relationship between pornography and feminism. Laura and I were totally inspired by our visit. Everyone was incredibly helpful, going out of their way to help us, from Anthony on the desk at Gem hotel Soho who filled us in on a quick history of the queer politics of Wonder Woman, to Campbell the security guard at Fales who not only recommended where we should get lunch, he rang ahead and made sure we would get in, to Marvin Taylor the Fales Archivist who shared his prize acquisition of a set of homoerotic photographs from 1905 with us.  But to top it all off Steve Haugh was our Angel of New York and toured us round Manhattan in his beautiful Jag.

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Although my role was largely to support Laura scope the archives, my own research has been taken in a new direction by the trip – particularly in terms of how subcultural icons negotiated their own status as fans which I will write up for this blog in the next few weeks.  Not least this was inspired by how much of a Kathleen Hanna fan I am and how excited I was by the possibility of spotting Taylor Swift in SoHo.   Laura and I hope to produce our own zine inspired for by the trip, based on our own conversations about feminism and popular culture and our hunt for Taylor Swift.  The zine will pick up on the Riot Grrrl’s resonances in contemporary feminism’s anxiety around privilege and intersectionality – issues that zines in the late 80s and early 90s were already taking seriously.

Riot Grrrl is the name given to the early-90s post-punk feminist movement originally rooted in DC that is exemplified by DIY zines and band culture, and queer friendly women centred performance spaces.  Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill became Riot Grrrl’s icons in the US and UK.

But the purpose of this blog post is to set up some of the ways that working with Laura has helped me think through subcultures, and about feminism, through supervision as a process of shared research. The Riot Grrrl archive helped us work through the methodological issues raised by working across a wide selection of types of evidence, the analysis of the archive as a historical structure and how to approach an archive for the first time.

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The Riot Grrrl archive is built up of collections of individually donated personal documents and artifacts relating to key figures in Riot Grrrl’s emergence (e.g Kathleen Hanna, Tammy Rae Carland), individual zines (e.g Riot Grrrl, I (heart) Amy Carter, Thorn), events (Lady Fest) and record labels and distributors (e.g Mr Lady, and the Riot Grrrl distribution Catalogue) documenters of the movement (e.g film maker Lucy Thane and anthology editor Sheila Heti), Life History writing in the form of personal documents like diaries and notebooks and in its more public forms such as the use of personal experience in zines and in press interviews.  These are complemented by a variety of types of evidence that mark out all the difference ways in which subcultures, and feminism, can be recorded and can touch people’s lives: recorded music, photographs (self taken and formal publicity shots), and graphics, flyers and adverts, news clippings, computer files, publication documentation, resumes, tax returns and administrative files, storage, merchandise (T-shirts, tote bags), clothes, vinyl, cassettes, and videos as well as the folders, suitcases and filing cabinets that they were originally held in.  The archive doesn’t just let us understand how Riot Grrrl worked and was experienced, it shows us how it was documented, stored and catalogued, at the time and since.

The first thing we did on visiting the archive was to identify the types of holdings that would best fit Laura’s research in terms of the way that feminism moves between the public and private, and individual and collective forms of identity.  We also thought about how to sample an archive, thinking about where to start and when you know you’ve done enough – or how you justify how much you actually had a chance to do after the fact.

One of the things that surprised me  was the extent to which mine and Laura’s shared knowledge of literature around mass observation and on the Riot Grrrl archive itself worked together.  We thought about the implications of using work by Annabella Pollen and James Hinton on mass observation to shed light on a different sort of archive; the Riot Grrrl collection.  As well as being familiar with the set reading on Riot Grrrl Sarah Marcus’s Girls to the Front, we had both read Matt Worley’s forthcoming article on punk zines. Worley uses local zines from across the UK to map the punk scene far beyond the usually privileged stories of Kings Road and Bromley in order to recover the political content of punk zines and place them in the lineage of the history of political pamphleteering. As well as recognizing zines as a form of hand-made political manifesto, the structure of the archive that they are held in at Fales also became an important part of our discussion.  We had both read Kate Eichhorn’s forthcoming work on the archive (The Archival Turn in Feminism, 2014) which meant that not only did we understand the archive’s background, we had a sense of why that matters.  We also had a sense of Eichhorn’s important innovations in the recent field that will inform our own future research.  Eichhorn puts the 90s into the history of feminism through her case study of the Riot Grrrl archive. The archive was set up by Senior Archivist Lisa Darms who utilized her own biographical connections with the scene and her personal networks with key players in early Riot Grrrl.  Interestingly for an archive engaged with new forms of political networks and identity work, the structure around individual key donors felt like a transgressive take on the traditions of top down elite archives.  The archive therefore functions like a zine, a new take or inversion of established forms,  and is itself a way into the public/private of feminist history.   It literally maps the networks that built up a subcultural and political scene.

Looking at the content of zines alongside the records of how they were distributed, marketed, and funded, and the letters from zine fans alongside the personal letters written by zine producers about how they felt about writing them, put them in a whole new context.  The different types of evidence worked together to help us make sense of the intent behind graphics and zines as manifestos, but they also helped suggest how producing these documents changed people’s lives.

Each individual’s collection has a personality of its own, framed through slightly different cataloging styles.  The archive creates individual life histories of the donors but the edges of the individual collections blur.  Kathleen Hanna’s own collection, for example, sets up a narrative of the price paid for her high profile involvement in Riot Grrrl.  It shows her early zine work, traces her growing popularity and success and the longer term challenges of maintaining a public role based on cultural production that shares her own personal experiences over time.  But there is another version of Hanna that emerges across the collection as other zine writers talk about the way in which she has inspired them.  Letters between Hanna and other donors bridge the individual collections. In Hanna’s correspondence with Johanna Fateman, for example, we saw the everyday statements of sisterhood that kept many an activist or performer going when times got tough. We saw British band Huggy Bear, through the lens of film maker Lucy Thane who was following Hanna’s band Bikini Kill on tour in the UK. It seems that not only was Riot Grrrl the product of particular local, national and trans-Atlantic networks, so were the strategies for dealing with the impact of success, notoriety and moving on. So were the ways in which it has been archived.

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What’s in there? Becca Albee Riot Grrrl Papers (4 boxes – 12 Folders of music and zine related content), Ramdasha Bikceem Riot Grrrl Collection (7 boxes, 145 folders), Tammy Rae Carland collection in 2 separate archives, (13 boxes 274 folders), Teresa, Carmody (3 boxes 33 folders), Zan Gibbs (9 boxes, 235 folders), Kathleen Hanna, (14 boxes 190 folders), Sheila Heti, (5 boxes  93 folders), Elena Humphreys, (5 boxes 100 folders), Milly Itzhak, (3 boxes 67 folders), Kelly Marie Martin, (7 manuscript cases, 1 box, 199 folders), Mr. Lady Archive, (6 boxes 33 folders), Molly Neuman, (8 boxes, 65 folders), Mimi Thi Nguyen Zine Collection, (2 boxes, 41 folders), Outpunk,  (5 boxes, 46 folders), Riot Grrrl Publicity, (1 box, 8 folders), Lucy Thane (40 tapes) (from my notes, so might be a bit aproximate)

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