Reconsidering punk: how women are rewriting punk’s timeline
There’s more than two ways of being
There’s more than one way of going somewhere
– Bikini Kill, Resist Psychic Death
If you believe that punk’s story began with the fabled moment in 1976 when Sex Pistols had their first gig, you’ll likely believe that 2016 is punk’s fortieth birthday, and that punk is yet another movement that belongs to white men. That’s certainly the approach the British Library took when they wrote a blurb for a night of conversations on punk featuring one of the most important names associated with the scene, The Slits’ Viv Albertine. Upon reading the signage that named the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks as the godheads of the countercultural movement, Albertine took a biro to the wall, scribbling ‘The Slits’ across ‘Sex Pistols’ with a flourish, and later proudly claimed her graffiti on Twitter. Albertine’s well-founded frustrations rippled over music news sites, chiming with a new generation of punk women and non-binary people who are becoming increasingly exasperated with the regurgitated timeline of punk events that erases female and non-binary experiences and repeatedly, lazily, elevates men.
One institution that is welcoming a more elastic, inclusive reflection on punk is Bristol’s Arnolfini. For their summer-long Moving Targets season, the contemporary arts space is taking the unpredictable and innumerable connotations of punk and attempting to tell a story that veers away from any kind of proclaimed punk truth. While they are also taking this fortieth anniversary of punk as their starting point, the way they have approached this theme is quite different to the approach of the British Library.
Moving Targets takes its name from Mimi Thi Nguyen and Golnar Nikpour’s influential chapbook, PUNK. In the twenty-seven page-long pamphlet, Nguyen, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, and Nikpour, former co-ordinator of the longest running fanzine ever, Maximum Rocknroll, debate how punk history has been ill-recorded and co-opted by an established punk canon. PUNK places particular reference on how female punk, and particularly the punk of women of colour, has been largely erased by an overwhelmingly white, male set of Western storytellers. To conclude the publication, the punk scholars set about trying to analyse their own stories, but are confronted repeatedly by punk’s slippery connotations. The closest they can get to a definitive statement on punk is: “Punk is a moving target.”
The discovery of this chapbook was highly influential on the Moving Targets programme. “Finding the chapbook was a key moment for me,” says Bryony, Associate Curator at the Arnolfini. “I was looking for something that talked about this relationship between race, gender, diversity and punk, because there seemed to be something missing.”
Bryony’s struggles to find a less linear, more inclusive punk story rings true with an increasing array of frustrated female and non-binary punks. In PUNK, Mimi Thi Nguyen questions, “why are we burdened with reams of paper about the Sex Pistols, but little about Poly Styrene, or Vi Subversa?” while Golnar protests that self-presented punk authorities consistently fail to recognise that “their limited, probably dated experience may not be generalisable for all punks the world over.” In a recently-published ode to Poly Styrene, writer Ashley Reese blames a lack of promotion from “punk’s male, white gatekeepers” for her late introduction to her hero, and wonders, “Why weren’t black punk bands, like Bad Brains, included in my punk primer?”
Gillian Wylde, the artist behind the Arnolfini’s current foyer takeover, credits punk sentimentality for its stagnant image. “I think there’s a lot of nostalgia around punk,” she tells me over the phone. “That it should look a certain way. There was a tough thing at the opening event, actually. There was a bunch of old guys, white punks there, that were just kind of like, ‘this is shit, it’s got nothing to do with punk.’ In some ways, that’s kind of the right answer. It had nothing to do with them, and that’s what the problem was.”
Wylde’s approach to her artwork is defiantly DIY. Using a primarily collage-based practice, she blends fluorescent digital collage and appropriated materials (including rips from YouTube and Twitter), into sprawling, acid-hued commentary on the relationship between technology and art; high and low culture. “There’s a lot of crossover with art practise and punk practises,” Wylde explains. “You can make stuff happen, independent of mainstream culture. The way that I approach art practise is very low-fi, cut and paste, working with what’s there, working without money, and making the work collective.”
Wylde’s work, as well as submerging the Arnolfini’s foyer in neon text, giant folded hands and conflicting colour, leaks into the shop and café and onto the big screen in Bristol’s Millennium Square. Her foyer takeover, named The Day Turned Day-Glo, is named after a song from X-Ray Spex’s 1978 debut (and only) album, Germ Free Adolescents. Talking to Mojo in 1978, Poly Styrene, the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, described the song as an observation on the relationship between punk and synthetic materials, and essentially, technology – another fundamental part of Wylde’s practise. The internet is where she’s finding out more about the punk scene (“it’s hard work to find things that are not just white hetero dudes, but as soon as you start it’s super exciting”) and where she sees the punk scene amongst marginalised groups developing now.
Intersectionality is another influence on her foyer artwork. “There’s definitely a sort of queer aesthetic in the work,” she reflects. “That’s something that’s interesting as well: what should queer work look like? What should a black artist’s work look like? You’re not going to forget that you’re a woman or you’re black or working class, or Northern, or whatever. It’s about challenging those hierarchies in culture and society.”
While being anchored by a more permanent exhibit that includes historical artefacts as well as an up-to-date zine reference library, Moving Targets consists of an array of events, including a drag king punk gig, screenings of DIY films, and a participatory zine-making project.
Talks are also part of the eclectic programme. PUNK co-author Mimi Nguyen will appear as a panellist at a discussion on archiving social movements, and co-curator Bryony is interested in the multiplicity of questions this subject throws up. “What happens when you get these materials?” she asks as she talks me through the programme. “For example, fanzines that are photocopies of photocopies of photocopies that have been handed from a brother to a friend? They are unstable objects that mean a lot to a small group of people, but the ways in which they move are volatile and insurgent and not attached to institutions. They’re very autonomous, very DIY. How can we talk about social movements and subculture retrospectively but also try to reconsider histories, and think about the archive as something that’s constantly reinscribed?”
Moving Targets also provides a platform for the next generation of self-publishers. gal-dem was created in 2015 as a reaction against the lack of diversity that continues to pervade publishing. With fifty women of colour now contributing, the gal-dem movement continues to grow and the team is anticipating the release of their first print issue next month. gal-dem staff will be taking on the concept of punk for a live radio show streamed from the Arnolfini, where Antonia, gal-dem’s music editor, and Liv, the site’s founder and politics editor, will be interviewing creative women of colour to find out how a DIY ethos has helped them and their heroes ascend.
Talking to me on the phone, Antonia tells me she doesn’t think punk has to be “associated with negativity” – she reckons “individuality” is a strong indicator of a punk attitude, and recognises this non-conformist energy in future-focused RnB auteur FKA twigs and gender norm-morphing rapper Young Thug. She thinks gal-dem’s conception was pretty punk, too. “Down to the very reason gal-dem exists!” she replies when I ask whether she thinks gal-dem inhabits any punk traits. “Liv founded gal-dem as a response to her white-washed experiences in academia and seeing a very monolithic portrayal of women of colour within the media. Once we realised we didn’t need the nod from anyone else… we just did it ourselves.” Spaces that only women of colour can access, like invite-only Facebook groups, were especially useful – Antonia met founder Liv through a support group for women of colour at Bristol University on Facebook, for example, and they continue to spread gal-dem’s content through the same streams.
“Punk has evolved to reflect the times,” Antonia continues. “You could say that grime is the punk of our age… It’s really exciting to see the restlessness of youth culture in a time when the government is really shitting on us and we’re having to suffer the consequences.” She commends Stormzy and Novelist for using their considerable platforms to talk about Jeremy Corbyn, Black Lives Matter, and issues that continue to affect young people of colour worldwide, and it’s not just grime’s artists that are pushing the political envelope – the photographers and journalists documenting the genre are also offering an alternate viewpoint on youth culture – constructing a new narrative. Antonia names grime photographer Vicky Grout and subculture specialist Ewen Spencer as part of this new guard of subculture archivists, saying, “Things are looking up!”
So while punk remains defiantly inconstant and definition-resistant, thought-provoking seasons like Moving Targets make one thing clear: punk mustn’t ever be reduced to something to be wheeled out on special occasions for another set of the same old punk punters. Questioning the stale status quo is infinitely valuable, and something punk should be proud of. As collectives like gal-dem prove, there’s another generation of DIY-influenced publishers already in the game, rewriting histories as they happen – and surely that’s pretty much as punk as it gets.