In the video work Our Bodies, Ourselves FIG.1 FIG.2, the artist Oriana Fox (b.1978) lip syncs to scenes from Sex and the City while wearing retro, paisley-patterned clothes and stitching a Judy Chicago-esque vagina quilt. By anachronistically fusing 1970s signifiers with millennial pop culture, the film generates a wry entanglement of feminist and post-feminist ‘moments’. In her new book, A Time of One’s Own, Catherine Grant identifies this mode of creative historicism as a powerful tendency in feminist art of the twenty-first century – one in which artists treat history as a restless source of ideas and icons to be excavated, unpicked and restitched in fresh configurations.
One of Grant’s key arguments is that ‘artists, writers, and curators are turning to feminism’s histories not as dutiful or rebellious daughters but as creative fan-scholars, learning from history by anachronizing its scenes and narratives’ (p.146). Her book advances a subversive epistemological claim by championing an anarchically queer attitude to ordered historical time that privileges subjective desire and community-building in the present. The ‘fan-scholar’ is a figure driven by ‘excessive attachment and desire’ to remix the fragments of an incomplete and restless past. Whether it is the collective LTTR’s punkish zine quotations FIG.3 or the evocative re-enactments of Mary Kelly (b.1941) FIG.4, such works of art ‘perform a moment of collectivity that is based on a shared fantasy of the past’ (p.41). This fantasy allows history to be reread, cut up and rewritten, with the ‘psychic and political pull of the past on the present’ facilitating pedagogic encounters (p.46).
Across five chapters, A Time of One’s Own examines works of art made between 2002 and 2017 to argue for embodied archival encounters as a sustaining political force.1 The multimedia ‘hell house’ Killjoy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House FIG.5 by Allyson Mitchell (b.1967) and Deirdre Logue (b.1964), for example, reveals how contemporary art can reactivate the buried histories of grassroots Black, lesbian and feminist organisations. Contemplating the installation’s polystyrene gravestones inscribed with now-defunct groups FIG.6, Grant describes her own ‘fierce desire not to lose the histories of all the communities represented’ (p.65) as she embraces the work of art’s invocation to research, study and commemorate feminism’s elided pasts. The installation’s audit of omitted Black and queer experiences is, Grant contends, an invitation ‘to take responsibility as historians of our feminist communities’ (p.57). Yet, drawing on the description of re-enactment by the performance scholar Rebecca Schneider as an ‘embodied enquiry’ (p.69), such research might take unconventional forms. In an especially compelling analysis of filmed performances, Grant considers whether feminist knowledge can be learned by rehearsing bodily gestures, restaging encounters or re-reading scripts to become closer to previous historical moments. Faye Green’s obsessive, amateurish attempts FIG.7 FIG.8 to replicate the dance performed by Yvonne Rainer (b.1934) in the work Trio A (1978) is exemplary. Only able to copy Rainer’s movements through descriptions and video footage of the work, as Grant states, ‘[Green’s] learning is visceral, felt in the body in a manner akin to a hysterical symptom, not a good student but a ravenous one, one ready to steal what is needed’ (p.83).
Inspired by Lucy Reynolds’s A Feminist Chorus FIG.9, in which participants clashingly read excerpts from historical feminist texts FIG.10, Grant looks at group-activated works that share ‘an understanding that coming together to rehearse, read, and discuss is a powerful act of community building’ (p.108). While remaining alert to their coercive or indoctrinating risks, these study groups and reading sessions are said to evince ‘an interest in the formation of feminist communities’ through ‘collective acts of respeaking’ (p.87). Grant deploys the citation tactics of the feminist theorist Clare Hemmings – tactics that privilege ‘the renarration of the same story from a different perspective’ (p.89) – to evoke a fluent sense of historical tempo and change. The past might have happened the way it did, but where we choose to focus our attentions and energies fundamentally reorders that history. Grant foregrounds syncopation and dissonance – essentially how time feels – to explore how feminist subjects are situated diversely in relation to mediated political histories. She describes a situation that will be familiar to many readers: ‘Rather than becoming feminist in the historical moment of the Women’s Liberation Movement, I became a feminist in feminism’s histories, helped by friends, teachers and books’ (p.70). The pioneering Kelly, Rainer and Lubaina Himid (b.1954) are included as examples of artists who lived through the second-wave moment and also think back on it through creative practice – it is a lightly offered but significant point, that no one – not even those who were there – has unique purchase on these pasts.
A Time of One’s Own remains optimistic about feminism’s historical mindedness, yet in identifying and delineating the contours of this artistic tendency, the study signals some critical edges that will continue to demand reflection. To understand the feminist fan, Grant turns to the scholar Henry Jenkins’s ‘idea of a “rogue reader,” a rewriter of the text that has inspired the fan’s desire in a way that radically reforms the fan object – in this case, the historical moment of second-wave feminism’ (p.22). This impulse to rewrite and reformulate echoes across the book’s case studies. Killjoy’s Kastle for instance, ‘demonstrates how reenactment’s historical returns do not have to be factually accurate but can play with our mythologizing and fantasizing about feminist pasts’ (p.48). While the ‘rogue reader’ is persuasively mobilised to conceptualise how learning communities might form around shared attitudes to the past, this fantasising outlook signals a provocative challenge for contemporary feminist historiography. That is, how to honour history’s concrete material pasts while admitting that mediation will only ever be partial and subjective. It is true that feminism’s ‘need for history is concurrent with a dismantling of the conventions and traditions of history writing’ (p.135), yet the book might be clearer in distinguishing creative anachronism as art practice from creative anachronism as an art-historical method.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History approaches the subject of anachronism as she tries to understand the afterlife of those words first written in an article of 1976.2 The phrase had been taken up as a motto of feminist disobedience, printed on t-shirts, stickers, mugs and posters. Ulrich does not criticise this ‘roguish’ appropriation but puzzles over the phrase’s appeal and the historical implications of its rewriting: ‘It is hard to tell whether this is about feminism, post-feminism, or something much older. One thing it doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with is history, at least not the kind that comes in books’.3 In her essay historicising the unassuming and obscured everyday lives of early American women the phrase was entirely disconnected from the rebellious and unruly modern femininity for which it had since been taken up as a model; thus pointing to the distorting effects of time, desire and rereading the past through a present lens.4
Creative historical encounters can indeed be life-altering: ‘Books and learning come to life, not to be read carefully, but as symbols of a politics that can be both enticing and dangerous’ (p.59). However, as Ulrich writes: ‘Details help us understand the precise circumstances that allowed Artemisia Gentileschi to become an artist, or Harriet Jacobs a writer. Details keep us from falling into the twin snares of “victim history” and “hero history.” Details let us out of boxes created by slogans’.5 For feminist fans the renewed task will be to balance affective mobilisations that can activate the past, making it ring loudly for contemporary audiences, without detaching enquiry from a materialist conception of history or fetishising complex histories into slogans, ideas and symbols. As Ulrich’s ‘badly behaved’ fans demonstrate, historical fragments may be re-parcelled in ways that are inaccurate or incomplete, thus the challenge – one that is ethical, political and historiographical – is for feminism to continue confronting the friction between history’s substantive and discursive qualities.
As Grant states, ‘the argument that threads through the book is that, for many writers and artists influenced by feminism, the present moment can be understood only through an intense, embodied engagement with history’ (p.4). Yet we are now, in 2022, nearly as far from some of the earlier projects as they were from their objects of historical reference – for instance the book opens with a discussion of LTTR’s first zine, produced in 2002, which references photographs by David Wojnarowicz made between 1978 and 1980. This stretched presentness seems symptomatic of a wider temporal slipperiness concerning ‘the now’ and illuminates the difficulty of periodisation in contemporary art – something Grant addresses in the book’s introduction. What does it mean for twenty years of feminist cultural production to understand its ‘present’ through prior political moments, and does this disordered attitude to time impact the articulation of precise feminist strategies and goals? In 2009 the writer and curator Dieter Roelstraete defined the ‘retrospective, historiographic mode’, describing artists who re-enact, reconstruct and recover, siding with the downtrodden and forgotten or revealing traces long feared gone.6 Yet he was pessimistic in his assessment, observing that, ‘art’s obsession with the past, however recently lived, effectively closes it off from other, possibly more pressing obligations, namely that of imagining the future, of imagining the world otherwise’.7 Grant offers a counterpoint, ‘look[ing] at reenactment as creating a time of one’s own made up of disparate historical moments that, when brought together, become alive and vital for the present and the future’ (p.68). Given the continued prevalence of archival practice in contemporary art, resolving these two views is an ongoing political challenge for art historians to tackle.
Grant’s evocative writing delineates the affective contours of collective art participation, and she vividly transports the reader with her on various expeditions – to an outdoor group performance in a wintry Trafalgar Square, to cacophonous choral readings of feminist texts or sitting alone on the last quiet days of a gallery exhibition. One of the true pleasures of the volume is its deep attentiveness to the textures, materials and experience of works of art, interwoven with the author’s compelling account of how cultural encounters strengthened her feminist consciousness. The book is underpinned by an ethical urging for readers to ‘take responsibility’ as historical caretakers sensitive to queer, raced and gendered experiences, foregrounding ‘the experience we have of historical material in a particular moment of time, with a particular group of people, and how that informs our sense of identity’ (p.88).