Riot Grrrl movement still proves an inspiration

Years before she created her documentary “Handmade Nation,” which examines the culture of do-it-yourself craft in America, Faythe Levine belonged to a handmade nation of a different kind.

The artist and Washington state native found inspiration for her self-reliance in the Riot Grrrl movement, which started in the early 1990s and provided a worldwide forum for young women and teenage girls seeking to break from social restrictions. As bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile forged a path on the punk-rock scene, their followers published and distributed fanzines that covered pop culture, sexual politics and other sometimes taboo topics.

Levine, who now lives in Alabama, was among those small-scale publishers. And the zines she cut and pasted, photocopied and mailed to pen pals proved to be a formative experience.

“That was the exciting part of punk and Riot Grrrl,” Levine said. “There were no rules, and the permission-giving element of that community was what set the tone for my work.”

Now, Levine’s work is sharing billing with the Riot Grrrl movement itself — and with a number of zines from a quarter-century ago, if not any of her own. “Alien She,” a touring exhibit featuring work by seven artists who drew inspiration from Riot Grrrl, will make its latest stop this weekend at the Orange County Museum of Art.

Works by Levine, Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Tammy Rae Carland, Miranda July, Allyson Mitchell, L.J. Roberts and Stephanie Syjuco share the exhibit with artifacts from the movement’s history. In addition to browsing zines, fliers and concert posters, attendees can hear the music that sparked the movement at listening stations that represent different regions.

Given how much the Riot Grrrl movement relied on word of mouth and grass-roots support, it perhaps isn’t surprising that the curators, Ceci Moss and Astria Suparak, were part of it early on. And, yes, they both ran zines of their own.

“It was a movement that really spread far and wide,” said Moss, who grew up in the Bay Area and oversaw a publication titled Suburbia. “And some of the material in the show, I think, really captures that.”


‘Defiantly underground’

As with many grass-roots movements, Riot Grrrl didn’t have an official birth date or place of origin, but by the time it reached mainstream ears in the early 1990s, the two Washingtons — state and D.C. — were hailed as its epicenters. That year, both Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times ran stories about Riot Grrrl, with the latter proclaiming the culture “mean, mad and defiantly underground.”

The former, on the other hand, summarized it as “a support network of activist ‘girls’ from 14 to 25 who are loosely linked together by a few punk bands, weekly discussion groups, penpal friendships and more than 50 homemade fanzines.” That was the scene that Moss and Suparak knew two decades ago as they attended concerts, conventions and local chapter meetings.

The chapters, which Suparak described as informal and lacking official membership, sometimes took the form of support groups for young women and teens who wanted to share their concerns. In the course of assembling “Alien She,” the curators created a Google map showing the locations of Riot Grrrl chapters along with a brief description of each one and the years it was active.

Many of the groups are long gone (Orange County Riot Grrrl, based in Irvine, is listed with a life span of 1992-93), but others remain to this day. Meanwhile, some organizations that arose later took the Riot Grrrl ethos as a springboard. Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls Orange County, an Anaheim-based nonprofit that launched two years ago and leads music camps for girls and women, plans to lead silkscreen and drumming workshops on the opening day of “Alien She” at OCMA.

Co-director Candace Hansen said she was inspired to launch the camp after attending the Grrl Fair music festival in Orange County. In the girls and women who sign up for her annual camps, Hansen sees some of the need that originally sparked the movement decades ago.

“The thing that’s the most powerful for me sometimes is the women who come, because you can tell they haven’t had an opportunity to feel valid in the way that they want to tell their own story,” she said. “Sometimes, the ladies camp rockers will have the most drastic change over the course of two days.”


Grrrls on the move

When “Alien She” opens at OCMA, it will be firmly embedded in Riot Grrrl territory. Suparak, who grew up in the area, recalls attending punk shows at Koo’s Arts Cafe in Santa Ana, UC Irvine and even the Huntington Beach Central Library.

The exhibit, though, has worked its way across the continent to the Southland. “Alien She” opened in September 2013 at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where Suparak worked as director and curator. Since then, the exhibition has stopped in Philadelphia and San Francisco; Portland is on the schedule for later this year.

The featured artists, summarized in the show’s press materials as “seven people whose visual art practices were informed by their contact with Riot Grrrl,” cover a wide range of styles. Levine’s section contains slide shows based on her documentary films, accompanied by books. Other contributions include feminist- and lesbian-themed literary wallpaper by Mitchell and a video “chain letter” by July.

The exhibit’s title comes from a song by Bikini Kill, which sports the refrain, “She is me, I am her.” More than two decades after Riot Grrrl began, at a time when mainstream star Beyonce recently performed in front of a sign reading “feminist” and Time magazine polled readers on whether the word should be retired, does that phrase still evoke the same urgency?

Moss doesn’t take long to answer.

“Feminism is always relevant,” she said. “We’ve had this question come up a couple of times. Feminism is always relevant, because sexism is still a reality.”



What: “Alien She”

Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays, Feb. 15 through May 24 (opening day celebration 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 15)

Cost: $10 for adults, $7.50 for students and seniors, free for children under 12 (all admission free on Fridays)

Information: (949) 759-1122 or