By Nicole Gruter
“When the woman speaks, she names her own oppression,” remarked Martha Rosler, pioneering feminist artist. SPOOKY BOOBS, a collaborative of three Wisconsin artists, takes this sentiment to heart by using language and performance to help bring awareness, agency and empowerment to themselves as artists and to their audience. Their work uses elements of surprise, audience interaction and humor to place sexist words and attitudes experienced in daily life in the gallery’s public sphere.
Formed in 2014, the collaboration by then fellow grad students Amy Cannestra, J Myszka Lewis and Maggie Snyder was created in response to their shared experiences of misogyny, particularly as burgeoning artists.
“We all witnessed a lot of [sexism] as separate artists and realized it was bigger than us,” Cannestra says.
Joining forces, they embraced a feminist agenda, disarming the disdain the term can incite. The group chuckled while explaining that feminism is spooky and boobs are funny, funneling both their humor and mission. They chose to present themselves as a unified entity, giving credit in galleries to SPOOKY BOOBS rather than to each individual artist.
Their overt implementation of feminism “addresses how it’s a naughty word—the other F word,” says Snyder. “It felt liberating knowing that this was our purpose and it didn’t matter if some people wrote us off as a feminist collective because others will be excited about it.”
The collaborative has been intentional in being available to the public. For one installation, “Loud and Clear,” they wheat pasted sexist quotes from their experience at art school on the walls of the school’s elevator.
“We had a full-day reception to allow people to voice their opinions and come and yell at us if they wanted or come and share their stories,” Cannestra says. “It was a really grueling day…When women started coming up to us saying, ‘I thought it was just me, I feel so alone,’ I suddenly felt not alone, and they didn’t either.”
The collaborative uses text to form not only visual aesthetic, but to open up a literal dialogue. In particular, “You Have the Right to Remain a ____” asks participants to hold a sign “charging” them with societally nonconforming attributes (bitch, bossy, c**t, pu**y, frigid, over emotional, etc.) and pose for their mugshot.
Jolynne Roorda, visual and performing arts director of the Madison Arts + Literature Lab, says of the group’s 2018 exhibit there, “Participants had a wide range of reactions. Some people embraced whatever they were accused of, mugging comically for the camera and their friends. Others looked slightly disappointed—and it wasn’t always clear whether they were hoping for a better or worse mugshot label. Underneath the playful aspect of the performance, there’s anger and sadness. These are words and ideas that hurt and cause a lot of pain.”
The collaborative’s next project is a card game encouraging the creative use of non-gendered insults. “After making all this work pointing out these terrible words, it seemed like a disservice to not offer a piece that offers alternatives in our language,” Synder says.
Check out the SPOOKY BOOBS installations at the Wisconsin Triennial Oct. 19 to Feb. 16 at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.