Riot Grrrl Collection Brings Femme-Punk To NYU

This semester, the Fales Collection’s much-much-blogged-about Riot Grrrl Collection will finally be available for students, faculty and scholars. The collection, available around November, archives papers (read: zines), audio materials and other awesome punk memorabilia from esteemed riot grrrls like scene-leader Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre), Johanna Fateman (Le Tigre), Molly Neuman (Bratmobile), Becca Albee (Excuse 17), Tammy Rae Carland (founder of lesbian record label Mr. Lady Records in 1996) and more.

Check out photos from the collection (including Kathleen’s totally radical stickered-up filing cabinet, which was once used to hold up a van seat during a Bikini Kill tour!) and a conversation with senior archivist Lisa Darms, responsible for the collection, below.

Often associated with third-wave feminism in the 80s and 90s, Riot Grrrl was an underground movement started in Olympia, WA, based around all-female punk rock bands who addressed women’s issues in their songs. Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill are widely cited as pioneers of the movement. As defined by Fales, Riot Grrrl was “a political and cultural movement encompassing fanzine writers, musicians, teen activists, artists, and others,” and the collection will “support scholarship in feminism, punk activism, queer theory, music history and more.” Read more (and check out a sweet 1991 Bikini Kill setlist) here.

Not just for anarcho-vegan feminist punks, but for scholars at large, collections like the Riot Grrrl Collection preserve crucial alternative histories that mainstream media coverage could not adequately document — because participants in Riot Grrrl culture often avoided the press. Thus, the history of Riot Grrrl depends on self-published zines. Check out Bikini Kill rock to “Suck My Left One” circa 1994 above, and read on to learn more about the collection.

How did you get involved with Riot Grrrl?

I moved to Olympia in 1989 to go to the Evergreen State College, and lived there on and off for the next 12 years. Although I was a punk and a feminist, and went to the famous “Girl Night” at 1991’s International Pop Underground, I never went to a Riot Grrrl meeting. I met Kathleen in the early 90s.

Can you talk about how you came up with the idea for the collection and what you envisioned it being?

There aren’t many institutions with the facilities to preserve things properly that also would want to collect something like a Riot Grrrl collection. So it was this idle idea I had years ago. I didn’t think of becoming an archivist until 2005. I started thinking, “oh that would be cool,” before I even started school. Then I did school, and I interviewed for this job. I’ve only been here for about a year and eight months. I had worked here before and I was familiar with Fales and the collection. I was familiar with Marvin [Taylor], the director, and I knew he understood things like Riot Grrrl because he started the Downtown Collection.

So I interviewed for this job, and after I interviewed, I went to an event here. The event was also for people who were interested in donating their papers to the institution. So I went to the event and I brought Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman, who I know.

Are they your friends?

Yeah, I’ve known them both for a long time. So we went to this event, and after that event Kathleen was especially really, really excited thinking about her archives.

Is Kathleen Hanna a professor here?

No, but she taught a class here. She got really excited about it. Then I got this job. After I’d been here about four months I mentioned [to Marvin] that I just had this idea and Kathleen was really interested in it. And he was really, really excited by the idea.

So I started writing a collection development policy, thinking about who the potential donors were, and at that point I started contacting people without really talking about the idea to anyone else. So at that point I probably contacted maybe twelve people.

How many people have contributed?

I have seven [collections], but they are tiny. [Note: None are currently available.] Normally [at Fales] with papers or manuscripts, we have somebody’s whole career. With Richard Hell, whose papers we have, it’s maybe 40 boxes from 1960s to present. With this collection, I’m looking at just the stuff they have from the period of time they were involved with Riot Grrrl. They obviously still perform as musicians or write or whatever, but I’m just interested in 1989 and 1996. So the collections are usually really tiny. Kathleen’s collection is about six linear feet, six banker boxes. And she has the biggest collection by far. She really kept everything sort of consciously as, “this is my Riot Grrrl stuff.” Whenever she moved she would bring the filing cabinet.

Of the six boxes, what percentage do you think are actually zines?

A very small percentage. I think there are flats and all the source material for about 5 or 6 zines. So only about half a linear foot, and the rest is all sorts of things, like lyric sheets. With Kathleen, two of the boxes are actually media. Video and audio tapes that we will be able to preserve and make accessible.

Then I have Johanna Fateman’s papers which are half a linear foot. Her collection is pretty much all zines. There about 20 zines by other people, then six or so of her own zines and all the source material.

Also, Becca Albee, who was involved in Riot Grrrl in Olympia in the early days, and was in a band called Excuse 17 with Carrie Brownstein [of Sleater Kinney]. I have her papers, and again it’s small, like a linear foot. She has a really interesting thing in her collection that I think is really cool; she lived in this apartment building called the Martin that a lot of people lived in, and she would leave these little notebooks on her door, and she has maybe ten of these. It’s like a pre-Internet record of passages.

People would just sign the book?

Like, “Hi Becca, came over and wanted to see if you wanted to go get ice cream or whatever,” (she’s a vegan so it probably wasn’t ice cream). It’s a really cool record of a time.

It seems with Riot Grrrl you can’t go to traditional media, you have to go to self-published, alternative media. What function do you think zines serve in this?

The two forms of communication for Riot Grrrl ideas were bands and zines. The importance of both of those mediums is that, again, in the pre-Internet age, they allowed the circulation of ideas.

So bands would go on tour and that’s how they would distribute their zines, but they would also perform and distribute their ideas through their performances. You can’t really talk about Riot Grrrl without talking about zines. In this collection, there’s no way you can divide it.

Zines in the Riot Grrrl Collection don’t just serve to help people research riot grrrl. There are a lot of different things they’re documenting. They’re documenting material culture, graphic design history, feminism, gender in general, a lot of it will expand into queer-core sort of stuff. Obviously music history. There are a lot of ways these will be used — not just for the five people out there who are historians of riot grrrl.

I think the unique way this collection will function is — obviously there are a lot of zine collections around the country — but this collection is archives and manuscripts. It’s the creative process that goes into zines; all of the other context surrounding the zine creation, and what informed it. You’re not just reading the zine, you’re seeing what they were writing to each other about the zines, or maybe notes they took, or photographs they used. Bikini Kill #2 has Polaroids taped into it that they Xeroxed, but it’s just so interesting to actually see the original Polaroids.

Is most of the Fales Collection comprised of alternative historical materials?

There are three main collections. There’s general special collections. First there’s books, documenting the history of the English and American novel. DeCoursey Fales was really interested in what people were reading popularly, which was an unusual way to approach book collecting at the time, most people are more interested in the rarified. So I think when Marvin Taylor founded the Downtown collection, he sort of was taking from that ethos.

Then we have Downtown, which documents Downtown New York art, literature, performance, music, etc from the 70s, 80s, early 90s. And we have the Food Studies collection which is new; we have some manuscript collections and we have 30,000 cook books. Downtown is definitely by nature alternative and I see riot grrrl as a really good outgrowth of that. The Downtown Collection is not explicitly punk, but there’s obviously a lot of punk stuff in there, and riot grrrl was a reaction to the male-controlled version of punk.

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  1. John Belle says

    I went to Fales at the beginning of fall semester but like the article says the collection was supposed to be ready by November? Any word on it? Anybody seen these amazing artifacts in person yet?

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