Review:Twenty Years of Make magazine: Back to the Future of Women’s Art for Art Monthly

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Twenty Years of MAKE Magazine: Back to the Future of Women’s Art

How do you narrate someone else’s history? It is a perennial issue facing curators and writers who are responding to a previous generation’s cultural output. This is further complicated when the history one is talking about is specific to gender or racial concerns other than one’s own. It is a problem that Mark Fell and Luke Fowler recently encountered when commissioned to make a film about Pavilion. To the Editor of Amateur Photographer, 2015, traced the history of the Leeds organisation’s genesis as one of the UK’s first feminist photography centres, and the film was met with resistance from many of the participants. Writing a review of Twenty Years of Make Magazine: Back to the Future of Women’s Art, brings up similar issues. In other words, can a man born in the 1980s talk about women’s art from that same era?

Edited by Maria Walsh and Mo Throp, the book offers a timely appraisal of the achievements of MAKE magazine. Published by the Women’s Art Library over a 19-year period from 1983 to 2002, the magazine operated under many different editors and names. Bringing together interviews, profiles and essays from the archive, the authors have done a fine job in stitching together the polyvocal concerns of the era. It is a book to pick up and dip in and out of rather than read cover to cover, intended as a ‘pedagogical tool’ rather than a comprehensive portrait of the magazine. The authors’ decision to frame each thematic chapter with a short introductory text and to resist chronology amplifies the recursive qualities of cultural discourse. Ideas and questions are repeated and reworked over many years, posed as though new and contested by younger generations. The chapter titles – sexuality and the body, representation, feminist discourse, the technical image, race and ethnicity and feminist histories – sum up the generational concerns.

While the book brings together many disparate voices, they remain allied to a clear aim: to articulate a counter-hegemony against all forms of institutional orthodoxy. Through the prism of identity politics, psychoanalysis and critical theory, the magazine and its myriad writers championed the non-normative in both content and approach. Anti-patriarchy, for many of the artists and writers here, is loosely defined as anti-market, non-institutional, democratic and collaborative. It is against the idea of the singular genius, defining itself against the canonisation of Modernism (as well as masculine conceptualism). Feminism embraced the quotidian, the diaristic and the domestic precisely because they were under-represented within cultural production and ‘outlawed’ (to use Griselda Pollock’s terminology) by the heavily policed boundaries of modernist practice. Of course, seeking to define anything is a business fraught with danger, and although the artists and writers convened in the book are diverse, the reader is left with an impression of deliberate and focused targets.

While a lot of the writers and artists mentioned in the book are well known (Susan Hiller, Helen Chadwick, Donna Haraway and Laura Mulvey et al) many others were new to me. My Google bookmarks are now full of artists and writers for further research. Many of these figures’ relative invisibility to the market and institutional programmes would bear witness to the oft-repeated claims in the book of marginalisation. This predicament is picked up on in Aoife Mac Namara’s essay ‘Cherchez Le Femme’, with the author suggesting that, with feminist’s identification outside the normative models of the gallery system, much of the primary material remains obscured. With many feminist artists embracing performative models and interventions, or showcasing their work in libraries, colleges and magazines, it would seem that the job of the curator is that much harder. Interestingly, Namara’s example of the Hackney Flasher’s invisibility is particularly pertinent as Tate has recently acquired the Flasher’s archive. The current display of this material alongside Jo Spence at Tate Britain amplifies some of the institutional problematics in showing the work: the display of documents in vitrines seems to keep the material in ontological purgatory. Is it artwork or archival material? Much of it was intended to be used as teaching aids and the group’s collaborative approach and fluid relationship to authorship, like many feminist artists, resists easy assimilation into dominant art-world structures.

Throughout MAKE magazine questions abound: Whose body? Who speaks for whom? Is pleasure OK? Theory or practice? Who establishes value? One can sense the persistent desire to connect the often hermetic field of visual art to broader social and political issues. According to Griselda Pollock, ‘feminism’s aims were to establish a continuum between the art world and other imaginary including advertising, pornography and cinema’. These concerns pinpoint the urgency felt by a new generation of artists, writers and curators. Figures such as Laura Guy, Kathy Battista, Siona Wilson, Giulia Casalini, Helena Reckitt and Rozsa Farkas (alongside Walsh and Throp) to name just a handful of people, are re-evaluating these legacies. So, has anything actually changed? From Margaret Harrison’s recent exhibition at MIMA to Tate Britain’s acquisition of works by Alexis Hunter and Jo Spence, public institutions in the UK seem to be catching up, slowly. The book ends with a question by Namara, written in 2000: ‘Perhaps now is a good time to return to the archive and to look at what else was going on?’ The questions remain the same and each generation refines them, claiming them in their own voice. To quote the authors, the book enables a context for the ‘re-narration’ of feminist histories, offering a ‘historiographical imagination in the present rather than the truth of the past’. In other words, history is only valuable if it is useful to the current generation and this book offers a good place for them to start.

Twenty Years of MAKE Magazine, eds Maria Walsh, Mo Throp, IB Tauris, 2015, 256pp, pb, £16.99, 978 1 780767 58 1.

George Vasey is a writer based in Newcastle and curator at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland.

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About georgevasey

George Vasey is a curator and writer. You can contact him at georgegrahamvasey@gmail.com

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