Agitprop artist: Carrie Moyer
- Published: 14 August 2010
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Carrie Moyer has a history of producing often controversial agitprop art, particularly through her work with Dyke Action Machine! She spoke with Katrina Fox.
Carrie Moyer’spaintings have been exhibited widely in both the US and Europe. During the 1990s, she designed seminal agitprop campaigns for the Lesbian Avengers, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, and the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, and Dyke Action Machine! (with Sue Schaffner aka Girl Ray). She is a contributing writer for such publications as Modern Painters, Art in America and the Brooklyn Rail. She is Assistant Professor of Painting at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Carrie, you have a history of being involved in producing agitprop works, through your work with Lesbian Avengers among others and Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!). How did you first get involved in this way of working and why is it important to you as an artist?
I'm very interested in the history of visual culture. In particular, I'm interested in how and why various 2-D forms – painting, posters, prints and so on – become exemplary containers for human feeling, aspirations and so on.
I see agitprop as a singular mode of expression. I like to balance my more private, expensive, museum-bound paintings with work that is immediately communicative, ‘cheap’ and ephemeral.
Please say something about your Painting for Propaganda collection.
These paintings were an attempt to join the graphic language of the street (in this case the radical iconography of 60s liberation movements, Mai '68 and Russian Constructivism) with the ‘private’ language of my studio (namely abstraction based on Late Modernism).
How did the idea for DAM! come about?
We met at Queer Nation in 1990, a time when celebrities were being outed and there was an attempt to unify the concerns of lesbians and gay men under the “queer” rubric. The name Dyke Action Machine! was both startling – try applying for a grant with that name – and playful.
Is DAM! an anonymous posse of superheroes? A man-hating militia? The name also signaled that lesbians had their own particular set of oppressions and social conditions, separate from gay men, that needed attending to.
In the early days you wheatpasted posters in Manhattan. What kind of spaces did you stick the posters up on?
The street was the logical location for our work. We chose various neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan because our work was directed at gay people, specifically lesbians. Putting our posters next to mainstream advertising imagery was a way of having a public conversation with the "Normals" (as John Waters calls them).
Our earliest campaigns: The Gaps Ads, 1991; Family Circle/Lesbian Family Values, 1992; and Do You Love the Dyke in Your Life?, 1993 got a great deal of attention from the gay and alternative press. In the early 1990s, culture-jamming and/or interventionist, street-based art seemed like a novel idea.
We gradually understood that our agitprop efforts would be subsumed by the endless cool-hunt of the advertising industry. We moved on to projects that employed the formal and social tropes of recognizable design genres such as action films (Straight to Hell, 1994), bridal magazines (Gay Marriage: You Might as Well Be Straight, 1997) and WPA propaganda (Lesbian Americans: Don’t Sell Out, 1998).
Which works in particular got the most or strongest responses and why?
Straight to Hell, 1994. It investigated President's Clinton's ‘Don't Ask. Don't Tell’ policy. It was beautiful and a four-color image. It was funny – humor is essential.
Gay Marriage: You Might as Well Be Straight, 1997. This was most upsetting to gay people, although some gay couples have been known to distribute the poster at their wedding – perhaps expressing their own ambivalence? Hedging their bets? Deflecting criticism from their gay friends?
Run Bush Run. The Lesbians Are Coming, 2004. This was cute, funny little campaign buttons about one of our most vile public officials.
Why did you stop putting up posters in public places where you must have got great exposure?
It stopped being fun and interesting. We began to feel like we were feeding our ideas directly into the Machine That Is Advertising. The form (culture-jamming) has been exhausted. Agitprop needs to find a new means of expression that fits the 21st century.
DAM began in 1991 but it wasn’t till 98 that you revealed your identities, I believe. Why did you stay ‘undercover’ for so long?
Actually we were non-committal about our individual identities for the first several years of our project. Dyke Action Machine! began as the lesbian working group of Queer Nation. We met there and began doing graphics on behalf of the group. When the working group dissolved, we kept working under that name.
Perhaps for this reason, many people envisioned DAM! as an “army” of angry lesbians. Originally we were working underground since pasting posters on public property was illegal. Once we received grant funding we hired the same companies that pasted movie posters and were secretly sanctioned by many property owners.
As we received more and more notoriety, we decided to finally “come out” as public artists with our 1998 postcard mailer, Meet the Muffiosi: We are Dyke Action Machine! which featured a photograph of us.
In your 1998 Lesbian Americans: Don’t sell out, you urged queer consumers not to pander to gay-friendly marketing. Eleven years on and the pink dollar is an even more attractive concern to marketers and advertisers, with even queer enterprises jumping on the bandwagon (L Word merchandise for example). How do you feel about this now?
To a certain extent, DAM! was prescient in forecasting how and where capitalism would go in search for new consumers. I don't think we fully grasped its voracious nature when we began working together.
Our projects are first and foremost aimed at the lesbian viewer and the images of women function in a particular "insider-ish" way. In the beginning our work acted as a reminder that lesbians are rarely portrayed in mainstream culture while seeking to give lesbians visual pleasure within the same high-end, consumerist paradigm.
We used attractive, younger butch models to telegraph this dichotomy. Except when it comes to race, our projects play within the conventional parameters of beauty, mainly because we want the work to read as “advertising” first and foremost.
The hip young butch has since become the visual token for the mainstreaming of lesbianism, as in such television shows as The L Word and Bravo’s Workout, a reality TV series that follows the life of a lesbian fitness trainer.
I presume that especially in the beginning your activist/agitprop art was a labour of love, yet you’ve also become a successful artist and professor (and Sue a successful professional photographer). What advice would you give to young, queer creative activists wanting to follow in your footsteps – that is, do something radical yet still make a living without ‘selling out’?
Try to find a job that both gives you enough time to make art and keeps you in a community of fellow thinkers and artists. Academia, despite all its flaws, is good for this. This is essential.
Always opt for meaningful contact with your peers/the world before a bigger paycheck. Most money for work tends to be very isolating and alienating. Do something for your artwork every day: look up an artist who interests you, apply for a grant, email a curator or a collaborator. This is especially important on the days when you don't have time for your studio.
Where’s DAM! at right now? Is it still going?
Our collaboration was very long-lived, approximately 17 years. Our most recent project, DAM Inc., was produced in 2008. No doubt DAM! has had such a long life because it is primarily a two-person project. Collaboration is essential to our project in that it subverts the “master” narrative of the single voice/artist while simultaneously mirroring the inner workings of an advertising agency. In this case, DAM! acts as both the agency and the client.
From modeling to prop building to printing, the success of all DAM! projects depends on the support and services donated by various members of our extended community. In the early 1990s when it was more controversial to put a picture of a butch dyke on the street, many of our posters were defaced.
This collaboration of sorts was an inherent part of a type of activist art that doubled as part of the urban landscape.
How has the internet impacted on your work as an artist, and in particular your agitprop/activist work?
The internet has been critical to both my studio work as well as any activism I have participated in.
In the studio, the web is a used primarily as a kind of library. I'm an art history fanatic. On the other hand, Dyke Action Machine! would not have come into being without the proliferation of digital technology.
We started collaborating in 1991, around the same time that desktop computers became sophisticated enough to challenge professional-grade production methods. In 1995 when the web became the great leveler in terms of access to technology, everything changed even more. It was for a short time not about who had the most money, but who had the best idea.
We ostensibly all had the same corporate tools and now were in a position to target the same consumer audience. The ease with which DAM! circulates between the role of the Corporation, the Activist , the Graphic Designer, and the Historian is completely facilitated by the computer.
Visit the Dyke Action Machine! website where there is a ‘steal this’ section for you to download some of DAM!’s posters.
Check out Carrie Moyer’s artwork at her website.
Images from top: DAM! project Run Bush Run: The Lesbians Are Coming: Arcana: Carrie Moyer, Barbute, 2009, Acrylic, glitter on canvas. 90" x 72"; DAM! Projects Gay Marriage: You Might as Well Be Straight; Lesbians of America: Don’t Sell Out; Muffiosi.