This September, in the shadow of the beaux arts arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, a small wooden newsstand was impossible to miss. Its bright pink color caught the eye from quite a distance. Passersby of all stripes gathered to observe its wares: dozens of postcards, zines, posters, and art objects, all created by women artists. But the newsstand’s distinct signage stated “Not For Sale.”
The newsstand was the work of Girl on Girl Collective, a group of young feminist artists committed to championing the works of women and creating art outside of the confines of a gallery. True to its name, nothing on the newsstand was for sale; instead, conversation was currency. Over the course of my two visits, I observed people chatting with GOG members about misogyny and motherhood. I overheard eighth-graders talking about protesting restrictions on their school uniforms. After interviewing GOG members with my five-month-old daughter by my side, I walked home with a women’s suffrage button set against a yellow board that read “Your daughter needs feminism.”
Created in 2012 at Syracuse University as an online platform to showcase the artistic work of female students, Girl on Girl Collective has since evolved beyond the campus. After graduating, several GOG members moved to New York City, where their focus is building a community of feminist artists, through exhibitions, gatherings, critiques, and workshops. Chapters of GOG continue to operate at Syracuse as well as in Los Angeles. My conversation with members Annie Pettinga, Olivia Alonso Gough, Patrice Gonzales, Kati Rehbeck, and Mara Tuccio traversed participatory art, the utility necessity of community, and the trendiness of contemporary feminism.
—Lauren LeBlanc for Guernica
Guernica: Can you talk about the origins of the Not for Sale newsstand?
Olivia Alonso Gough: I kept thinking about Art with a capital A. The kind of art that people look at and say, “I don’t get it.” Before art school, I had fantasies of walking into a gallery and watching other people so that I could properly mimic the way they were interacting with the artwork. I wanted to make something that was different enough that people would stop and look but not so different that people would feel intimidated and not interact with it. So I thought of a newsstand. I brought this shell of an idea to GOG and then we all started to talk about the logistics of it.
Kati Rehbeck: We were aware that there have been other newsstands filled with artwork that have popped up around the city, but we all shared this fear of being labeled basic or copycats, so we knew that there had to be more to it. I remember being in the shower, thinking about the elements we knew we wanted in the show then considering how a traditional newsstand operates. We wanted ours to look very pink and soft, but also filled with tons of work by female identifying artists. The GOG pop-up shows we did in Syracuse were great at creating a welcoming environment for people to linger. A normal newsstand is that standard city green color. It’s full of tabloids. No one wants to spend more than a few seconds there. It’s a place where sex, sweets, salt, and cigarettes are sold fast. Ours would be the opposite of that, so if we really wanted to provide a contrast, we couldn’t “sell” the work that we would showcase. So without money in the equation, we started to realize that it was a great platform to look into where consent falls in a capitalist system. Once we submitted the proposal to Art Slope [an arts festival in Park Slope, Brooklyn], they loved the idea! And since we weren’t “selling” anything, it was easier from a legal/commercial standpoint for them to accept us, since we aren’t actual vendors. It’s sort of hilarious how our fairly conceptual newsstand ended up being very practical for the Parks Department to get us our permits.
We’ve created this larger representation of what it means to be a woman. And that is a feminist statement.
Guernica: Why is the collective interested in exploring feminist issues through art?
Annie Pettinga: Girl on Girl is all about bringing female artists together to create and collaborate with one another. Because we are all female/female-identifying, the work that comes out of that collaboration is inherently feminist. We did not tell the women whose work is exhibited at Not for Sale to submit or create explicitly feminist art—only to create and submit material that could be found at a newsstand. But art is often an exploration and expression of self—and all of the ninety-something artists are women! By putting that many female artists’ work together in such a small space, all of which reflects their lives and experiences, we’ve created this larger representation of what it means to be a woman. And that is a feminist statement.
Kati Rehbeck: Exploring feminism through art seems pretty practical. Art creates a setting for discussion and also objects to discuss. With our shows we want to use art to open up topics that might be uncomfortable, or to explore experiences that are deeply personal. I think if we can get people to relate to textures, sounds, places, colors, then we can get people to relate to each other. Hopefully, from there, we can learn more about worlds outside of our own.
For art to really make a difference—or to get someone to think about an issue—it has to be available to everyone. You shouldn’t have to pay an admission fee and need a degree in art history to enjoy and understand it.
Patrice Gonzales: With the newsstand, we were taking a problematic institution and putting it in the hands of women saying, “Hey, make this what you want. Show yourself as you want.” For over 100 female-identifying women from over ten different countries, they could represent themselves and the issues that were closest to them. That’s really amazing.
Guernica: To what extent is accessibility and public art important to Girl on Girl Collective?
Patrice Gonzales: For art to really make a difference—or to get someone to think about an issue—it has to be available to everyone. You shouldn’t have to pay an admission fee and need a degree in art history to enjoy and understand it. Our shows in the past have had a heavy installation element. We’ve turned a gallery into a high-school dance floor or a teenage girl’s bedroom, complete with a soundscape featuring Death Cab for Cutie and the pings of AIM. These shows were very well received by people both in and out of the art-school setting.
Kati Rehbeck: Creating welcoming spaces where one is able to view art becomes very important in terms of a larger exploration of feminism through art. I think that while a lot of people feel comfortable sharing in digital spaces in 2016, it is important for us to create physical spaces where people can also feel comfortable.
Guernica: How did you find artists to populate the Not for Sale newsstand?
Kati Rehbeck: There was an open call that we posted on our Facebook and our Instagram platforms. We ultimately reached out to a few hundred people.
Mara Tuccio: Something that we—and most artists—think about all the time is the way that the general public values art and art-making. A common misconception is that creative work isn’t worth paying for. While reaching out to artists, we made sure to let them know that their work literally would not be for sale, but instead traded for conversation. This allows for a more intimate connection with artwork—one that is actually worth more than any dollar-value. Many of the contributing artists loved the idea and were open to donating their work to be given away, while others respectfully declined to submit or requested that we return their work after the exhibition. If the artist chose to donate their work, we asked them to give us conversation cues or “rules” for viewers to receive their work. For example, Cayla Lockwood created a magazine made up of Victoria’s Secret catalogue pages with her illustration and commentary over the images. She asked the viewer to strip down to their underwear and send a photo to her, to be included in her next piece (which she would then mail to the viewer), to receive the magazine. So far two people have done it!
Patrice Gonzales: When we started getting in work it was like Christmas every day. As a young artist, I know firsthand that it’s really hard to find opportunities to showcase your work. For a lot of the artists in the newsstand, it was their first exhibition and they were able to show work next to some well-known artists, and that evens the playing field.
Guernica: What has been the public response to Not for Sale?
Olivia Alonso Gough: I told myself if even one person walked away with a new idea or feeling, I would feel like it was successful. But we have totally surpassed that. I’m so pleased with the diversity of our audience. It ranges from little boys and girls excited to see something new in the park to eighth-grade girls talking to us about their dress code to an old lady telling us the song we are playing was her favorite song in high school.
I think there is this myth about New Yorkers being closed off.
Mara Tuccio: We had viewers who stood in the hot sun for over an hour, just to stay and talk to us and to fully immerse themselves in the work. We’ve had viewers who came back every day, and some who came back just to hang out and meet new people. And of course we had viewers who did not like the newsstand, but they were still open to engaging in discussion about their opinion. I could go on and on talking about the people I’ve met at the newsstand: the moms who brought their daughters, the runners who postponed their workouts to come by, the curious tourists, the cyclists, the community leaders, and the women who were so moved by the work that they were brought to tears. I know there are many whom I’ll never forget.
Kati Rehbeck: I think there is this myth about New Yorkers being closed off—and maybe it’s true, maybe Brooklyn is special, but once you ask people a little more about themselves or their connection to the pieces, this awesome things start to happen. Like, there was a woman who was looking at a pin by Emily Dunlap that read, “you need reproductive rights,” and I asked about her connection to the pin and she explained how she works for Planned Parenthood and wanted to keep it with her at her desk at work. Then there’s Sonia, an eighth grader who came by with her mom and sister to drop off postcards for a readathon that she is organizing at the Brooklyn Museum to benefit the Malala Fund. We’ve heard from women who have set their own definitions of what it means to be happy. One visitor told me about how she went to good schools and studied microbiology but wasn’t finding happiness there, and now she walks dogs and feels so much more joy in her life. She walked away with a zine by Cindy Hernandez, Where You Don’t Belong. Another girl came by who was an art-school student turned nutritionist. She works to help people develop healthy relationships to food and ended up taking home the Food Girls zine by Lisa Kogawa. It’s great to see how excited people are when they can connect to something and take it home.
Patrice Gonzales: I’ve been surprised with how quickly people opened up and how honest they were. We had a girl visit the newsstand who had just moved to Korea and was back in New York for just a couple weeks and she fell in love with one of Zoe Hawk’s hand-painted postcards. We told her she could have it, but she kept saying how bad she felt just taking it. She came back a little later with a painting made by a woman from Korea and offered it to us as a trade. I also had a woman from Orlando who wanted one of the postcards, and I asked her what she was going to do with it when she got home. She told me that she already had a frame picked out for the piece. That a tree had fallen down in her front yard, and her brother made her a frame out of the wood.
Guernica: At the newsstand, we talked about a second-wave feminist challenging your use of the word “girl.” Could you talk about what it means for you to name your collective “Girl on Girl?”
Olivia Alonso Gough: Oof. Well, we initially said “girl on girl” because it sounds like lesbian porn.
Kati Rehbeck: I think a big reason we wanted to keep GOG going in college was because we all loved the name. After the founders graduated, we were all still in school and knew the space had to continue because there was still a need for it. The name is great because it allows us to use some provocative click bait to get people to explore topics that are easy to dismiss or ignore.
Patrice Gonzales: The name is great at drawing in the attention, and we used this same method with the newsstand by painting it bright pink. It’s attention grabbing, and on the inside there’s a space for all different types of work, many different feminist issues.
Guernica: As feminists in your early twenties, what does contemporary feminism mean to you?
Olivia Alonso Gough: I feel like feminism is almost trendy now. And I guess that can either hurt us or help us. Hurt because it’s maybe not taken so seriously and there is a lot of half-assed feminism that only benefits you, you know? But helps because it’s not a dirty word anymore, and because it is cool, there’s more of an audience.
My favorite aspect of contemporary feminism is about making a community for women to support and learn from one another. The internet is such an important part of this.
Kati Rehbeck: Contemporary feminism to me means actively seeking to improve the status of those who are oppressed, silenced, or treated without respect. Historically, women have fallen into this category—but it’s also POC, the LGBTQAI community, those with disability, and individuals and families in lower socioeconomic positions. Talking to so many moms and young girls this weekend has been inspiring because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the twentysomething bubble. It’s really easy to become very self-involved and self-affected when you’re a twentysomething (especially one in NYC), but being a part of a feminist community reminds you to listen to the world outside yourself and to unite to improve the areas where there is discrimination, stigma, and hurt. If we are entering the fourth wave of feminism, my hope is that it will allow us to stand united against the systems that disrespect or put down others. I’d like for it to fight for all people to feel secure enough to feel vulnerable.
Patrice Gonzales: My favorite aspect of contemporary feminism is about making a community for women to support and learn from one another. The internet is such an important part of this. To be able to have such a huge community of women educate each other and give advice and help you figure out what’s normal about your body and normal for your stage in life is really important. It’s hard to navigate life as a woman and to have this space to feel free to say, “Hey, it’s fucked up and here’s why” and “My friend was drugged at this bar, so be careful out there” and “Guys, I need to ask for a raise how do I do this?”—that is really invaluable at this time in our lives.
Guernica: What’s next for Girl on Girl Collective?
Kati Rehbeck: After this show I really want us to keep looking at experiences that can happen outside of galleries. The idea of doing workshops or panels that can become cross disciplinary social/educational settings would be rad. But [through Not for Sale] we also met all these young girls, and it feels like we should organize something that connects to these brilliant tweens and teens. Basically I want to go to grad school but can’t afford it, and would like to have a community of buddies to learn from, have crits with, and showcase alongside—that would be dope.
Patrice Gonzales: I think we’re excited to have some time to build a bigger community within Girl on Girl and to have screenings, open critiques, and workshops. We are in the process of copyrighting our name, and we want to have a workshop on that. And we met this artist who makes molds of the inside of her vagina, and we want to work with her to set up a workshop, too.