This year, the independent art space Signal in Malmö has been a meeting point for diverse and sometimes contradictory positions on what feminism or feminist approaches to art might entail. Among the exhibitions and events which have taken place since March: Johanna Arvidsson’s exhibition Dark Spring, which took its starting point in representations of the female body in the quattrocento; a reading by art critic and poet Quinn Latimer from her 2017 book Like a Woman;and a screening of Agnès Varda’s “ode to female liberation” L’une chant, l’autre pas (1977), to name a few.
Our Friend, Valerie Solanas continues this development, albeit in somewhat harder-edged fashion. Dedicated to the playwright and author of the controversial S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1967) – a difficult and much-maligned document which advocates for the overthrow of government, elimination of the money system, complete automation, and the destruction of the male sex – this tightly arranged presentation pays tribute to women artists who, to paraphrase the exhibition text, find strength in fragility.
This is rendered most clearly in works by Ellen Cantor. The thirteen drawings presented here comprise the first chapter in her series Circus Lives from Hell (2004), also the storyboard for her posthumously completed film Pinochet Porn (2008–16), which tells the story of five children growing up during the Pinochet regime. Cantor’s tenuous yet assured mark-making at times barely even registers the coming-of-age tale of Manuelo, the son of a wealthy industrialist. Unsurprisingly, the protagonist never fully reaches maturity. Nor does he seem capable of developing loving relationships with women. It’s a pathetic, but all too ordinary account.
Chapter 1: Manuelo (the clown boy) is among the few contributions which have nothing to do with Solanas, who is explicitly referenced in half of the works on view. Ostensibly, this show is not ‘about’ her. Nevertheless, such emphasis reads as an invitation to take her seriously as a thinker and feminist forbear. Which begs the question: why Valerie Solanas now?
Solanas is perhaps best remembered for shooting Andy Warhol in 1968. This is alluded to in the exhibition by Pauline Oliveros’s plaintive composition To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation (1970). She is also something of a cult figure. In a recent episode of the Netflix series ‘American Horror Story’, for example, she is literally re-imagined as a cult leader played by the creator and star of ‘Girls’ Lena Dunham. Lili Taylor’s performance in Mary Harron’s indie classic I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) is likely a more accurate portrayal of Solanas, a paranoid-schizophrenic and survivor of sexual abuse who author Michelle Tea sympathetically describes as “queer when queer was illegal, a prostitute, woman who looked like a man living by her wits, an artist… pre-riot riot grrrl, pre-punk punk.”
If today Solanas’s brand of radical feminism has largely been discredited, then this is less due to her popular status than to the biological determinism and binary conception of gender on which it rests. Others, however, read her manifesto as a satire, S.C.U.M. (the society for cutting up men) as a literary device. Despite its vulgar rhetoric – as an example, men are referred to as “walking abortions” – some ideas in the manifesto do in fact resonate with the work of more esteemed thinkers such as Shulamith Firestone and Silvia Federici. Solanas’s arguments for automation, artificial insemination, and the elimination of the male sex are nothing less than radical proposals for the reorganisation of reproductive labour. And implicit in her rant about the male’s substitution of love with money is a critique of the exploitation of unpaid (domestic) work. These ideas are not inconsequential, much less the ravings of a lunatic.
Unfortunately, the exhibition doesn’t follow through on such insights, preferring instead to assemble “a group of ideal friends,” or what Solanas refers to in her manifesto as “conceited, kooky, funky, females grooving on each other.” Which is fair enough, I suppose. But despite the importance of safe spaces and communities of care, the merits of speaking only to one’s friends are, in today’s increasingly polarised political climate, debatable. Especially if this is viewed as a strategy for effecting structural change.
As Solanas writes, “what will liberate women is the total elimination of the money-work system, not achieving equality with men within it.” Such thinking arguably ought to provide the basis for a broad anti-capitalist feminism. Yet, channeled through Chiara Fumai’s strongly-accented English in the video Chiara Fumai reads Valerie Solanas (2013), this phrase sounds less like a rallying cry than the reductive sloganeering of today’s media landscape, where politics are measured according to their sign-value. Given that the artist modelled her address after Silvio Berlusconi’s inaugural communique as Italy’s prime minister, a certain aestheticisation of politics is to be expected. But if fighting fire with irony is still considered a viable political tactic, then as an artistic strategy, it feels cynical and exhausted.
This is partially made up for in the black-and-white video S.C.U.M. Manifesto 1967 (1976), a collaboration between filmmakers Carole Roussopoulos & Delphine Seyrig. Here, the two women flank a television set broadcasting images of protest and war. To the left, Roussopoulos takes dictation from Seyrig – who is perhaps best known for her performance in Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielmann, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – as she recites, earnestly I think, passages from the manifesto. The video is an ingenious scheme to redistribute Solanas’s book, then out of print in France. In this presentation, it comes across as superfluous.
Also overshadowed is Fumai’s complex and highly idiosyncratic video The Book of Evil Spirits (2015), another work in which Solanas does not figure. Here, the artist adopts the persona of the famed nineteenth-century spiritual medium Eusapia Palladino. Seated at a candlelit table equipped with Ouija board, crystal ball, several sheets of paper, and a pen, Fumai manifests a number of spectral female figures, whom she also plays. Among these ‘evil’ women: Red Army Faction co-founder Ulrike Meinhof, philosopher and activist Carla Lonzi, and the singer Roza Eskenazi. In other words, the video gathers ideal friends and alter-egos assumed by the artist in previous performances.
Ultimately, it’s not a lack of friends that makes this exhibition unconvincing. Aside from her riot grrrl cachet, no clear case is made as to why feminist artists should concern themselves with Solanas today. Especially when considering thinkers like Federici, whose rigorous historical analysis far surpasses the insights in S.C.U.M. Manifesto – if not its literary merits. Signal has clearly committed its program to responding to the urgencies of the #metoo movement and carrying its torch. But at a moment when feminism, both as a term and as a set of practices, has become so ambiguous and so contested, the importance of theoretical precision and political clarity cannot be overstated. Feminism is not a sign-value.