Consider the following scene: Two women wearing black, shimmery leotards over pale pink exercise shorts prowl around the perimeter of a dimly lit stage. The Pink Panther theme song fades in. The dancers’ heads are adorned with white faux-bones, in a speculative stone-age style reminiscent of Pebbles Flintstone. Around their necks dangle bananas, which bump against their breasts as they shimmy their shoulders. The duo dig their hands in the air and throw in a quasi-pirouette before coming together on center stage. The song breaks out into jazzy variations. Their muscular bodies playfully recite cabaret stock moves: the Egyptian, the snake charmer, the can-can. Splitting their arms back and jutting their torsos forward like divers about to leap, they chant in unison: “Karma karma on the wall, who’s got money for us all?” Then, “If Trump’s in the poor house, than we’re all in heaven.”
This is an excerpt from a Dancenoise performance, featured in Cave Girls + Trashy Fashions: Unseen Post-Punk Videos by Women, curated by Herb Shellenberger. Cave Girls + Trashy Fashions is a compilation of largely unseen archival footage made by women in late 1970s to early 1990s post-punk and related music scenes. The videos were digitized from obsolete video formats in 2013 as part of the XFR STN project at the New Museum and uploaded to a public Internet Archive. Following its premier at the U+N Fest in Baltimore, Cave Girls + Trashy Fashions was screened at PhilaMOCA on January 26, 2017.
The campy cabaret show by performance art duo Dancenoise (Anne Lobst and Lucy Sexton) comes from part of “The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980,” organized by the New Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Dancenoise is a New York based feminist performance collective which emerged in the late 1980s through performing at the famous lesbian performance space, WOW cafe. Their humorous acts spoof advertising, television, and pop culture. Underlying this humor is a powerful subversion of dominant culture. Hearing the Pink Panther theme song in the “Decade Show,” I’m reminded of the Pink Panthers LGBT rights activist group, founded by members of Queer Nation in 1990, the year of this performance’s happening. Citing the Black Panthers as their predecessors, the group organized to fight anti-LGBT violence in the Village. I also think of the multitude of very pink signs with slogans like “Pussy Bites Back,” recently held by protesters at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017. (A resonance which is redoubled by the duo’s condemnation of Donald Trump.)
TwinART, “Trashy Fashions”
A disarming sense of humor cuts through Shellenberger’s compilation. Fake advertisements for made-up products like “Poodle Paper” (toilet paper for poodles) and “Trashy Fashions” (trash bag dresses) separate the longer acts. These ironic, pop-promo music videos are excerpted from “Consumer Choice,” by post-punk duo TwinART. Like the work of many post-punks, these commercials respond to the rapid commodification of art. “Post-punk,” says Shellenberger, “subverted expectations of what ‘punk’ looked or sounded like, as it became commodified quickly. Post-punk was more difficult and challenging and gave more space for creativity and identity.”
The post-punk aesthetic goes beyond just music, explains Shellenberger: “There were women involved in post-punk in many different ways…Sophie Vieille was a fashion designer and nightclub promoter who set up film/music/fashion events at legendary NYC clubs like Hurrah and the Mudd Club. Artists like Kembra Pfahler and Dancenoise channeled the post-punk aesthetic into their radical performances. Videomakers like Carole Fischman and J. Kathleen White channeled the DIY aesthetic into their handmade, personal and unconventional short works.”
The compilation is the result of Shellenberger’s work over the past few years. He became interested in the XFR STN project as it was happening at the New Museum in 2013. “I was struck by how exciting a project it was in many ways,” says Shellenberger, “I liked the idea of bringing this kind of equipment into a gallery space and framing the project/process as an exhibition, making the work of digitization and preservation visible in some different way, as it usually takes place behind the scenes.”
Considering the impending return of Reaganite political logics, Shellenberger’s screening of 1980s queer and feminist video art couldn’t be better timed. Audiences at PhilaMOCA, many of whom came directly from the anti-GOP demonstration in center city, laughed and cheered at the screening. Like any good mixtape, Cave Girls and Trashy Fashions is also an invitation to remix, to return to the archive and reimagine another way in which its contents might be relevant, pleasurable and useful.