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Guerrilla Girls

Two Local Radical Queer Feminist Artists Dive Into The World Of Art Publishing

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 7/13/2005

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If Laurel and Hardy were dykes to watch out for, they might look like katie rubright and Heidi Cunningham. The fine-boned Cunningham has luminous green eyes and a fuzzy rad-fem moustache, while rubright, with her blondish buzz cut and (contradictory to her all-lowercase name) room-commanding size, looks like an Easter chick that got sick of being called cute. But these two transplanted Baltimoreans have joined forces for your enlightenment, not amusement—they’re co-founders, co-designers, and co-conspirators behind 3rdfloor, a patriarchy-smashing cluster bomb masquerading as your friendly neighborhood art journal.

“One of the reasons for starting 3rdfloor was we had all these friends who got degrees in art but didn’t make any art,” Cunningham says. “Including myself.”

Cunningham, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, had focused on installation art, whereas rubright earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from James Madison University. “There were friends of mine who I fell absolutely in love with their work, and then they stopped as soon as they got their degree,” rubright concurs. “Because they didn’t have the tools or the time or whatever. So we were thinking, If we create a forum . . .

Beyond providing a venue for challenging art, the magazine’s manifesto makes 3rdfloor’s deeper mission clear. As stated in the masthead, “3rdfloor steps up and gives the finger to pre-packaged culture and art world elitism, cramming their glaring voids with revolutionary art created by and for everyday folks. Founded and edited by a pair of radical queer feminist artists, 3rdfloor prioritizes work by those often excluded,” a groupe refuse that includes “queers of all genders and women (past present and future.).” Them’s fighting words for 1991, but now, in 2005, when the Venice Biennale is curated by two women and includes a chandelier assembled from 14,000 tampons, hasn’t the situation changed?

Progress aside, rubright remains unconvinced. “The art world is completely sexist, completely racist, completely upper class,” she says. “That Sotheby’s auction world? It’s bullshit. It keeps important things like creative expression out of the hands of people when it should be going to everyone.” In other words, hooray for the tampon chandelier, but if a Lee Krasner is still selling for a 10th of a Jackson Pollock, nothing real has changed. And rubright and Cunningham are happy to step up and start changing the situation.

The pair considered going the traditional route—cobbling up a gallery space in some abandoned shithole, featuring cheap red wine and a rotation of the same 20 friends’ work, but that idea struck them as only semi-satisfactory. Why would anyone drive to some horrible neighborhood just to be intimidated by inaccessible work and a pretentious crowd? Couldn’t there be a better showcase for exceptional art?

“I get really romantic about magazines,” rubright says. “Like, how I read them? I’m in my bed, with a cup of coffee by my side—it’s very intimate.” Rubright echoes a Sunday morning ritual familiar to many. The notion of an art journal that operates like a suitcase exhibition—portable, affordable, self-touring, and permanent—was the solution. As she points out, “People aren’t intimidated by magazines.”

Both quit their respective jobs—“Have you ever waited tables?” rubright asks with a weary, seen-it-all look—and spent the next six months reading books about how to start up a magazine. They solicited artists via craigslist in every city they could find, and scoured the internet for other talent, finally laying out the inaugural issue on Cunningham’s computers. They are the magazine’s only staff—the entire design, publishing, marketing, editorial, and subscription service. (“It’s literally just the two of us,” rubright explains. “It couldn’t happen if we couldn’t do it.”) But you’d never guess the sparseness of the staff from the magazine’s polished, sleek appearance.

“I feel like we’re part of this general movement of independent media projects that are springing up because it’s easy to make something on a laptop,” Cunningham says. “You can run a record label out of your house. You can create an online journal. You can do these things now.”

Rubright sums it up: “I think the only thing that can sink us is if we start printing bad art.”

If the caliber of work in the current issue, No. 2, is any indication, 3rdfloor is catamaran-steady and bathysphere-tight. Among the standout works are Laura Splan’s “Blood Scarf,” where the artist wears a cozy-looking scarf knitted of clear vinyl tubing, one end of which is attached to an intravenous device poking from a vein on her hand. The blood flowing through the tubing (and beading tenuously at the tube’s open end) colors the plastic scarf a rich Fruit Roll-Up red, simultaneously keeping the artist warm and sucking her dry. Or there’s “A Nation Challenged,” where Karina Aguilera Skvirsky scanned New York Times combat photos and replicated their compositions in the cut-paper style of the desert habitat created by Chuck Jones for Wile E. Coyote, transforming Afghanistan’s hostile terrain into day-glo cartoon vistas and explosions into puffs of roadrunner dust. Or Amanda Ross-Ho’s “Illustration of My Investment in My Work,” a wall-sized illustration of a wage slave’s time card, stamped with the actual hours (and in and out times) she worked creating the piece. The current issue has its share of duds—no more rape poems ever, please—but the vast majority of works are so good you bypass “I wish I thought of that” and gape “Show me more.”

Gender outlaws aren’t the only artists 3rdfloor actively seeks. There’s a special emphasis on artists without formal educations. Cunningham admits that so far they’ve featured “professional” artists, mostly because “we’re trying to find people who have web sites,” she says. “But we’re seeking submissions from people who don’t consider themselves artists, who haven’t gone to art school, who always were interested in making art but didn’t have the courage or the venue for it. So we’re still into publishing high-quality art, but by people who don’t have that master’s degree.” (And hey, locals—even though there aren’t any in this issue, Cunningham and rubright are as happy to consider Baltimore artists as any other artists in the world.)

Rubright and Cunningham are waiting for nonprofit status to stave off the sinkhole of debt created by the first two issues. Right now what they need are subscribers willing to part with a very modest $18 a year in exchange for four quarterlies and a year-end DVD. But even in debt, they’d love if the already reasonably priced magazine cost the consumer even less than the $5 an issue it currently commands. “I would love it to be $2.50,” rubright says. “How it is now, 48 pages with a nice color cover for $2.50? That’d be awesome.” (Interested philanthropists, take note.)

Rubright and Cunningham’s monetary rewards may be pending, but the spiritual benefits of creating this new forum for artists are already arriving. “The coolest thing ever was when this girl got the magazine and she read this one piece and she said, ‘It made me just want to sit down and start writing,’” rubright says. “And that was like, damn. That’s exactly what we want. We want these kids who maybe have the inclination or have thought about it, and they haven’t for whatever reason, because they’re paralegals or they don’t think they can. And then they read this and think, I can do this. That would be amazing.”

Cunningham puts it more succinctly. “The more accessible the magazine is, the stronger we are,” she says. Encouraging that kind of forward thinking is the benchmark by which Cunningham and rubright measure their success. And if things keep going their way, they might just topple capitalism, patriarchy, false privilege, and banality one slim art journal at a time.

“I just feel like, if you’re not seeing something, then you’re responsible for putting it out,” rubright says. “You can’t not. In this day and age, you can’t not.”

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