Friday, 27 May 2011

Artist Amalia Pica's upcoming Chisenhale Gallery project

Amalia Pica: I am Tower of Hamlets, as I am in Tower of Hamlets, just like a lot of other people are

2 July 2011 – 29 June 2012
Launch event: 1 July 2011, 6.30-8.30pm at Chisenhale Gallery

Amalia Pica has been commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery to produce an offsite artwork to take place in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. I am Tower of Hamlets, as I am in Tower of Hamlets, just like a lot of other people are, (2011) is described by Pica as a nomadic sculpture which will leave her studio at the beginning of July 2011 and over the course of one year will be hosted by residents of Tower Hamlets.

I am Tower of Hamlets, as I am in Tower of Hamlets, just like a lot of other people are, stems from research made during Pica’s year-long residency at three Tower Hamlets’ secondary schools through Chisenhale Gallery’s A Sense of Place programme. Now in its third year, A Sense of Place, is Chisenhale Gallery's flagship exchange programme for three secondary schools in Tower Hamlets and artists with specific interests in collectivism, collaboration and direct engagement with social and cultural contexts. Chisenhale Gallery has received an investment from Deutsche Bank and Arts & Business to develop their education programme. The Arts & Business Investment Programme is funded by Arts Council England.

The project launch takes place as part of the CREATE11 festival ( Now in its fourth year, the CREATE11 festival celebrates Europe's largest cultural quarter, the 2012 Olympic Host Boroughs.

Hand carved by Pica in pink granite, the sculpture is based on the Echevaria plant (the name is a mis-spelling of the surname of the 18th century Mexican botanical artist, Atanasio Echeverría y Godoy), a species native to South America but popular in domestic environments world wide due to its ability to thrive under any condition.

Residents of Tower Hamlets are invited to look after the sculpture for one week, then pass it on to the next participant. This exchange will happen every Saturday throughout the year. The sculpture’s travels will be recorded on a ‘lending card’, serving as a document of the meetings and exchanges between neighbours that made its journey possible. In June 2012, the sculpture will return to the gallery where it will be on display and an event will be held to commemorate its return.

Pica’s wide-ranging practice includes sculpture, drawing, photography, installation and film. I am Tower of Hamlets, as I am in Tower of Hamlets, just like a lot of other people are continues Pica’s interest in exploring the frameworks and cultural resonances of public sculpture and interventions into public space, while addressing ideas of collective memory through the precise materiality of the sculptures she produces. The work addresses the conventions of participatory art practice and the immediacy of individual visual perception grounded within an intimate encounter with the artwork.

On 1st July 2011, 6.30-8.30pm Chisenhale Gallery will host a launch event at the gallery prior to the sculpture’s travels around the borough, where the sculpture will be on display and Tower Hamlets residents will be able to sign up to participate in the project.

To host the sculpture please contact

Amalia Pica was born in Neuquén, Argentina in 1978, and lives and works in London. She was a resident artist at the Rijsakademie in Amsterdam in 2004 and 2005. Group exhibitions include Hayward Gallery, London (2010); Kunsthalle Basel (2008); Encuentro Regional de Arte, Montevideo (2007); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2007); Platform Garanti, Istanbul (2006) and the Liverpool Biennial (2006). Solo exhibitions include C-sale at Malmo Konsthall, Sweden (2010); Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam (2010); Marc Foxx Gallery, New York (2010); and Artis Den Bosch (2008). Pica is also one of the participating artists in the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale 2011 and currently has a solo show at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

“Eff Off Hef!”: Feminists fight the reopening of London Playboy Club

Feminist campaigners are to stage protests at the opening of a new Playboy Club in London ’s Mayfair on 26th May and 4th June. 26th May is the Playboy Club’s press night. Campaigners will be present outside from 8.30pm. Playboy Club is situated on 14 Old Park Lane, Mayfair, London. W1K 1ND. 4th June is the official opening night of Playboy Club. The protest Facebook event is here.

The event is convened by OBJECT, the human rights organisation which campaigns against the sexual objectification of women, and UK Feminista, the national network of activists campaigning for equality between women and men. Picketers will greet Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who is flying over from Los Angeles for the launch, with calls to, “Eff Off, Hef!”

The new club comes 30 years after its predecessor establishment, which was also based in Mayfair , closed after a police raid for suspected gambling irregularities (5). Playboy clubs are just one of a myriad of products licensed by Playboy Enterprises, an international pornography corporation whose outputs include a mix of pornographic films, websites, TV programming and children’s stationary.

Kat Banyard, Director of UK Feminista says:
When it comes to today’s pornography industry, all roads lead back to Playboy. It was Hugh Hefner who laid the political and cultural groundwork for the brutal, violently misogynistic pornography that now floods society. But sadly for Hefner, you can’t trademark sexism, and Playboy’s retro brand of ‘gentleman’s porn’ can no longer compete with the extreme degradation of modern internet pornography. Hence we see this endless diversification into nightclubs, video games, clothing and even children’s stationary.

But whatever product Playboy stamps its logo on, the basic brand concept is the same: woman reduced to sex object for man’s sexual satisfaction - and Playboy’s financial gain. Naturally Playboy Club London embodies this brand, offering champagne and sexism. So Eff off, Hef. And take your club with you.

Anna van Heeswijk, Campaigns Manager of OBJECT, says:
Far from a symbol of sophistication and class, the opening of a new Playboy club in London signifies a worrying step backwards in the quest for equality between the sexes. It entrenches the legitimacy of a porn empire which makes its fortune out of degrading women as fluffy animals who exist as sexual playthings for wealthy men. It opens the floodgates ever wider to the pornification of our popular culture. And it serves to embed further a porn emblem which insidiously grooms girls into accepting and embracing sex object culture by marketing its brand to children through playboy pencil cases and bed covers.

It is time to cut through the crap of the Playboy PR machine. Sexualising and objectifying women as bunny rabbits is not sexy and it is not empowering. It is sexist, and everyone knows it. This is why hundreds of women and men across the country are signing up to the OBJECT and UK Feminista campaign to object to the opening of the new Playboy club. Our message is clear - ‘Eff off Hef and stop degrading women!

For further details and interview requests please contact Anna van Heeswijk on 07783 887 154 /  or Kat Banyard on 07775 855037 /
Visit Object here and UK Feminista here.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Shut up, ladies, can’t you see we’re trying to talk?

On Friday 20th March 2011, Radio 4’s Today programme featured 28 men, including the 2 male presenters, and 1 woman. The previous day they had gone completely mad, doused the studio with oestrogen, chocolate, pink paint, puppies, salad, shopping bags, hairspray, makeup and domestic cleaning products, shoes, chick lit, Pilates apparatus, flowers, babies, Feminax, hysteria, exaggeration, overreaction, emotions and tears (all the things women like) and gave us Ladies’ Day: 7 whole women spoke, including presenter Sue Macgregor, alongside 21 men. The day before that it was a much more acceptable 4 women and 19 men. I have no idea what that spike on Thursday 19th was about. 7 women! Using up the space that men could have occupied! By Friday, thank Patriarchus, He That Knoweth, natural order had been restored.

Downstairs in the Starbucks nearest Broadcasting House in Portland Place is a coffee table with old Radio Times issues incorporated into its design. It’s a nice local touch and an interesting read. The Radio Times of January 2nd, 1931, Southern Edition, announces itself in a slim and snooty font as “The Journal of the British Broadcasting Corporation.” Underneath this is an even prouder motto: “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation.” And then some small administrative details: “Every Friday. TWO PENCE. Registered at the GPO as a Newspaper.” This first Radio Times edition of 1931 is a handsome thing with a hand-drawn black and white illustration on the front, inspired by an art show no less international and well curated than the current exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan on at the British Museum. You’ll have noticed the posters for the latter: a bright gold fold-out crown for ad hoc, off-the-cuff coronations.

The Radio Times of 1931 has fatter, squatter proportions than our current A4 but is slightly larger than it and cleanly typeset with spindle-legged capitals. On the front is a short list of articles which are as fresh as anything to be found in a magazine like Time Out today and certainly more serious than anything in this century’s trashy Radio Times:

The Persian Exhibition Opens On Wednesday
First Talk to be Broadcast on Friday:
Article by R H Wilenski on Page 7

I can’t read Wilenski’s article because it’s been pasted into the surface of the Starbucks table, then laminated. But I do enjoy a rather bossy advert from one of the inside pages, placed by Mullard Wireless Service:

See to it that your value holders are always Mullard Equipped.
Mullard The Master Value.

I certainly shall see to it, Mr Mullard, forthwith.

By April 21st 1950, the Radio Times – this time the North of England edition – has changed its look a touch. The title is in solid stamped black capitals, the peacefully speaking nations are gone and the British Broadcasting Corporation is sufficiently secure in its identity to give itself a jaunty moniker: “Journal of the BBC.” It still costs tuppence. And you know what else is running? The headline on the cover reads

Woman’s Hour Celebrates its 1,000th Edition on Friday.

Upon seeing this I am filled with the wholesome, homemade, bunlike warmth of sisterly solidarity. Oh for the good old days when life was a never-ending costume drama adaptation of Stella Gibbons, the Mitfords, Dodie Smith, Agatha Christie, Barbara Pym and other purveyors of a charming world in which an Asian like me would be spat at on the street. Woman’s Hour wasn’t the only thing on the wireless waves (thank you, Mr Mullard, I hadn’t forgotten) that week. You could also hear the following, advertised thus:

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company in Measure for Measure on Shakespeare’s Birthday (Sunday)
Twenty Questions: returns to the air this Thursday evening.
Boxing British Middleweight Championship (Monday)
World Flyweight Championship (Tuesday)
Speeches from the Royal Academy dinner broadcast from Burlington House on Thursday.
F A Cup Final commentary from Wembley on Saturday
Racing at Newmarket: Two thousand guineas (Wednesday) and One thousand guineas (Friday)

What a sexist world it was in radio then, eh? A bit of women’s stuff, little bit of culture, then onto the real business of men’s politics, debate, club-making and sport. Nobody, Patriarchus forbid, would point out the underlying homoerotic thrust of an entire nation of post-war British men agape at the runnings and jumpings and bodily prowess of fit young lads a-boxing, footballing or energetically riding muscly steeds. How exactly they could justify the domination of the wireless by these kinetic  enthusiasms and men’s network power reinforcement behaviours, then tuck all women away on the one ladies’ show per day, is beyond me.

The large cover illustration of this issue is one pert flourish of patronage. It shows skinny, curvy, avid, delighted-looking women in pinnies, dusting, sweeping, rocking a baby, washing the carpet and shopping, all with one hand to their task and the other tuning the wireless to listen in to Woman’s Hour. A woman’s work is never done and always dull. During the wars women were engineers, pilots, fighters, activists, organisers, resisters, drivers, technicians, factory workers and worldly, strong heroines. Indeed the vote was extended to us pathetic females partly because of the value of women’s war efforts. But, come 1950, there we are, back doing the repetitive, boring, routine, unchallenging work and being made to look like we love it.

I am so glad that times have changed so profoundly.  Oh – pardon me. I beg the forgiveness of Patriarchus. They haven’t changed a bit. I did a survey of the numbers of different presenters on a variety of radio stations and networks from 6.30am on Friday 20th May 2011 until 6.30am on Friday 27th May 2011. From the worst offenders, with a 7% female presentership, up to the dizzying Pankhurstian heights of feminism, with 25%, here we are:

  • XFM has 13 men and 1 woman (7%)
  • Kiss has 24 men and 3 women, one of whom presents the breakfast show with two male colleagues
  • BBC Radio One has 28 men and 4 women, of whom one is Annie Nightingale doing one show on Thursday from 2am until 4am
  • BBC Radio Two has 38 men and 7 women
  • BBC 6 Music has 23 men and 4 women, of whom one is not a regular but is presenting a one-off six part series
  • Heart London has 12 men and 3 women, of whom two are in mixed duos
  • Absolute Radio has 12 men and 4 women
  • Magic has a cosy routine of the same 6 men and 2 women regular presenters, as well as one afternoon show on a Sunday presented by Kim Wilde
  • Classic FM has 12 men and 4 women (25%)

In seven full days of the week, monitored across 24 hours, the number of women presenters anywhere on nine different stations never gets above 7, which it does only once, on Radio 2… alongside 38 male presenters. On the other eight stations the highest number of women is just 4. XFM, supposedly the cool new strand that’s breaking all the rules with its original playlist and passion for music, actually follows the rules of marginalisation very faithfully. It is not rebellious but deeply traditional: a white men’s club. The medieval monastic gentleman, his script far pre-dating the Radio Times, believed that women ought neither to be seen nor heard as our aimless clucking, vicious tendencies and stunted minds were closer to the animal world than to man’s sophistication, let alone God’s perfection. XFM guy is right there with him.

Looked at more broadly the firm enforcement of the marginalisation is shocking. Radio can do anything at all except employ women as speakers. The formats, styles of music, styles of presenting, bandwidth, network, audience profile, balance of music and talk or news and arts, the balance of live and pre-recorded material, types of output, areas of focus and topics of discussion are dazzling in their variety, but the sexism never changes. It is the one thing that holds steady no matter what else is going on. There are no rules except the unspoken one tacitly banning women. Because giving a woman a voice rather than using her for her labour away from the mic is just a step too far.

In reality, though the people in power may loathe the stench of it, women are 52% of the population. Men are 48%. On the radio men are given between 93% and 75% of all presenting jobs. You might ask, whither equality? Whence this disparity? Is it down to psychology, to culture, to evolutionary biology, to timidity and shyness and innate female mimsy syndrome (and other victim-blaming insults)? How can it be that the majority of workers being exploited, overworked and underpaid behind the scenes are women – executives, producers, broadcast and studio assistants, researchers, runners and gofers – but the people who get to speak, are relatively well paid and put into starring roles are men? How can it be that there are many influential women in radio, yet so many behave like man-worshipping, submissive little grovellers? What, I wonder as I gaze in worship at a nude bronze effigy of Patriarchus, could it possibly be?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

From one brilliant woman to another

On 26th May Jude Kelly, director of the Southbank Centre, will be giving the The Mary Neal Lecture at the English Folk Song and Dance Society at Cecil Sharp House in Camden. Mary Neal was a reformer, suffragette and radical arts practitioner. A great spirit behind the early 20th century folk dance and song revival, Mary set up The Espérance Club in Somerstown teaching young working girls and children folk dance, among other things. In this annual lecture, Jude will be celebrating Mary’s pioneering social educational practices and the impact they’ve had on society. You can find out more by clicking here. The event is at 7pm for a 7.30pm start.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

An open letter, a closed culture

My desk is an old kitchen worktop cut to size and set into the window bay, just below the windowsill. From far left to far right these are the books within reaching distance: French author Margeurite Yourcenar’s classic Memoirs of Hadrian; Classics academic Mary Beard’s non-fiction book It’s A Don’s Life; acclaimed memoir Travels With A Circus by Katie Hickman; a review copy of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; Angela Carter’s novel Nights At The Circus; Jesus by A N Wilson; an academic work on masculinity during the earliest Christian period called The Manly Eunuch by Mathew Kuefler; a clutch of Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters, aka Edith Pargeter; French crime fiction by Dominique Manotti; contemporary crime classic What Survives by Joan Smith; Susannah Clapp’s illuminating and beautifully written biography of Bruce Chatwin, With Chatwin; In A Dark Wood, one of my favourite novels by Amanda Craig; Mud, the short story collection by Michele Roberts; historical fiction The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett; an international family memoir by Tamara Chalabi; about a dozen academic and history books for a future project by authors including Larissa Juliet Taylor, Timothy Wilson-Smith, Vita Sackville-West and Marina Warner; science fiction novel Spirit Gate by Kate Elliot; 2010 Orange Prize winning novel The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver; The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde; award-winning Kenyan non-fiction investigation by political writer Michela Wrong; science fiction novels by Jacqueline Carey and Mary Gentle; historical fiction by Fiona Mountain, Suzanne Dunn and Hella S Haase; Orlando by Virginia Woolf; Rachel Polonsky’s Russian literary history/sociology/portrait/adventure Molotov’s Magic Lantern; Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism; Clare Clark’s novel Savage Lands; comedy A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene; Jason Goodwin’s historical sleuthing saga The Bellini Card; Bodies by Susie Orbach; science fiction thriller The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist; Indian mythology, spirituality and folklore collections including The Ramayana, The Upanishads,  The Rig Veda and the Mahabharata; a short story collection called On Becoming A Fairy Godmother by Sarah Maitland; Bulgakov’s Russian classic The Master and Margarita; Jennie Rooney’s novel The Opposite of Falling; a beautiful Everyman edition of Middlemarch; Naomi Alderman’s second novel The Lessons and a collection of Angela Carter’s journalism. Then, stacked on my far right at the end of the desk are books by historian Bettany Hughes, memoirist G Willow Wilson, war writer Romeo Dallaire and novelists Kathleen Kent, Dawn Garisch, Annabel Lyon, Jenny Erpenbeck, Louise Doughty and Emma Donoghue.

Most of the books above are by women and most were picked, by me, out of the bins at work, in radio stations, TV stations, newspaper offices, magazine offices, arts venue offices. The reject bins, the recycling bins, the unwanted pile, or ‘the box of crap’ as I christened one particularly capacious depository. All the books above are excellent and did not deserve to be thrown away. They were, in many cases, infinitely superior to the books we eventually covered in the newspapers, on radio, on TV and at book events. That coverage was dominated by male creators, while women creators were ignored, even though most of the events were put together by women organisers and producers. To be totally blunt, I read most of the chaps' little whimsical books that are feted with buzz and prizes and congrats and am always astonished by how often they are totally shit and openly and thoroughly sexist. Then I look at all the women who come to lick the floor at these men's feet and I think to myself, God, how you must hate yourselves.

I have for nearly twenty years observed and railed against the ubiquitous cultural ignoring, belittling and downtalking of women’s work, but nothing I have said has made any difference. I feel despair about this and about the way women who point this out are themselves punished. When perpetrators, many of whom are women, are asked to explain their discrimination against women, they do what perpetrators always do when women are attacked: they victim-blame. They say that women are not pushy enough, not shrewd enough, don't care enough, are not driven enough, are not energetic enough.

They are lying. They are lying through their teeth. At events which have been set up deliberately to celebrate women - like the WOW festival at the Southbank - each available slot for a writer, artist, thinker, speaker, eperformer or any other female authority or creativity figure is triple- and even quadruple-booked with potential candidates willing to be involved, to suggest other women or to contribute in some way. Each woman has countless anecdotes about putting herself or other women forward at other events, simply to be ignored outright or lightly put down or to find her work sabotaged or limited in some way. For every anecdote that is told, most of the women in the audience nod in recognition. Everything you have heard about misogyny, about female misogyny, about the glass ceiling, about the rigged game, is true. The shocking thing is that many of the perpetrators are women.

This site was created as an antidote to the under-representation of women in culture such as at the New Yorker, or generally on the literary scene (click the links in this last article for even more hair-raising stats) and the prize circuit in all different genres. This is down to misogyny, the double standard and man-worshipping (women's particular perverse internal disease - thankyou, 3000 years of patriarchy!) and nothing more. I want to write about the countless works of women's genius, examples of activism and displays of energy that, every day, I literally or metaphorically pick out of the discards pile. But I and other women deserve more than that. I and we and they deserve to be paid for this cultural labour. I and they and we deserve proper credit in the establishment and the mainstream, in history and posterity. We deserve more. The perpetrators must be fought, challenged openly, made to squirm, defeated, overturned and replaced. We must remember that when they defend their crimes, they are lying. They cannot be permitted to get away with cultural femicide.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Women Make Sculpture

Christie Brown, Lost and Found

The Pangolin Gallery in London (Kings Place, 90 York Way, N1 9AG) is launching Women Make Sculpture, which will run from 19th May until 18th June.

Despite the huge success of a handful of sculptors such as Barbara Hepworth, Elisabeth Frink and Louise Bourgeois, women are still under-represented in major art shows, galleries and museums and under-valued on the art sales market. The Royal Academy’s current exhibition Modern British Sculpture which has received so much criticism for leaving out established male sculptors such as Antony Gormley (ha!) and Anish Kapoor. But what about the women? Is such a meagre selection really representative of the current state of British sculpture? Pangolin London thinks not.

Coinciding with the centenary year of International Women’s Day, Pangolin London will celebrate female achievement in sculpture with the exhibition Women Make Sculpture, an all female show highlighting the diversity and creativity of women sculptors today. The exhibition will bring into the spotlight a number of established female artists including Sarah Lucas, Dorothy Cross, Ann Christopher and Alison Wilding as well as emerging names such as Polly Morgan, Abigail Fallis, Rose Gibbs and Briony Marshall.

Women Make Sculpture provides an opportunity to focus on a selection of sculpture inspired by topical issues that concern women today such as war, mental health, sex, childbirth and science. Director of Pangolin London, Polly Bielecka, notes: “The exhibition is not intended to tackle gender superiority; rather it hopes to question whether female artists bring something different to contemporary British sculpture.”

The exhibition will include an eclectic mix of work in a variety of media ranging from Almuth Tebbenhoff’s powerful yet intricate steel wall pieces to Polly Morgan’s taxidermy constructions, and from Deborah van der Beek’s emotive horse head Collateral made from the detritus of war to Rose Gibbs’ controversial Mountain of figures and penises violently expelling bodily fluids.

Pangolin London is well-placed to do a survey show of this kind thanks to its unique affiliation with Europe’s largest sculpture foundry Pangolin Editions and its remit to promote sculpture in all its forms. Pangolin London will also host a panel discussion to coincide with the exhibition on Monday 23rd May at Kings Place. This will include both artists exhibiting in the show and guest speakers to encourage a lively debate.

To book tickets please click here.
A fully illustrated catalogue will accompany the exhibition.
The Pangolin Gallery is open Tues - Saturday 10am-6pm

This text is taken from the Pangolin's press release.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

What is society's birth rite?

On 9th and 11th May the art collective Enemies of Good Art will be participating in the Birth Rites Symposia.

The Birth Rites Collection is holding two days of symposia to explore the visual representations of childbirth. A range of academics, artists and curator will discuss the social, political and artistic implications of work
around the subject of childbirth in contemporary art. There will be discussion on the following: sexuality and childbirth; changing art practice post childbirth; Taboos and censorship around the representations of childbirth; the implications a lack of the representation of childbirth has on the status of women within society; and the male perspective on childbirth.

Speakers include Lisa Baraitser, Jemima Brown, Matt Collier, Dominique Heyse-Moore, Helen Knowles, Martina Mullaney, Liv Pennington, Imogen Tyler, Eti Wade, Johnathan Waller and Hermione Wiltshire.

The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester - 9th May 2011, 10am
The Whitechapel Gallery, London - 11th May 2011, 11am

Find out more and get your tickets here.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Paradoxical Undressing by Kristin Hersh

Kristin Hersh’s memoir is a spiky scrawl of memory, music, the muse and amusement.

Kristin Hersh is my heartbreak singer. Her solo album Hips and Makers soundtracked my teen weekends with its echoey beauty and wiry, soaring sound. Hersh’s solo work, as well as her output with her band Throwing Muses, established her decades ago as one of the handful of true genius songwriters, composers and performers working today. That reputation is stronger than ever now.

Paradoxical Undressing is the non-fiction telling of how Hersh became Hersh. With snappy cleverness and terse wit we come to know of her talent, her smarts and her clout as well as her internal creative struggles. It is, incidentally, a beautifully presented book featuring artwork created by Shinro Ohtake on the cover.

Factually, it reveals much about Hersh that fills the reader with awe. She was a child prodigy who formed Throwing Muses in 1981 when she was fourteen. They were an instant success, but this did not distract Hersh from starting university when she was fifteen. The intensity which came out in the Muses’ work was a direct result of their frontwoman’s intense talent. Her countless ideas, plans and inspirations could not all be sublimated in creativity in good time and eventually took their toll. She attempted suicide at eighteen and was ultimately diagnosed as bipolar.

Paradoxical Undressing’s unflinching and unsentimental look at mental illness succeeds because it is narrated by a fundamentally sound, frank, funny individual whose interpretations we trust. We are even frequently delighted by them. This is Hersh on the joys of canine prescience: “Zoe was never wrong. She could catch a Frisbee ten feet in the air and catch a problem ten minutes before it happened. She’d refuse to get in a car headed for the vet’s office, but she’d leap joyfully into one that was going to the beach. She loved children and cats and hated snotty rich people.”

Don’t we all? With its mix of darkness and quirky light, Paradoxical Undressing is the perfect book for a Hersh fan. In many ways it’s exactly what one would expect: witty, jaggedly perceptive, suffused with dense creativity and sensitivity. The book contains some of the most perceptive and interesting writing on composition I’ve ever read:

Play colours, I think to myself, as the swishing voices conspire against me. This song doesn’t sound like colours, it sounds like…machines. …There are notes in there, though. I find them and play them, reduce the industrial noise I hear to a pathetic plunking. That melody needs a bed and chords come only through trial and error. So when a sound the guitar makes matches the sound that’s filling the Bullet, I keep that chord and move on to the next one. It gets easier each time, as one chord will set up the next, words in a sentence, then voices in a paragraph.

Voices playing counter to the guitar parts then form themselves into a kind of phonetic melody. These syllables pile themselves up into words and say things that are hard to grasp, hard to control, and I plug my ears to their meaning. I know I’ve lived the stories they tell, but I never wanted to tell them; the songs do. I’m just playing along.

…If I try to jump into the song and write it myself, sorta hurry it along, my lyrics’ll stick out like ugly relatives. You can tell it’s me talking because suddenly the song isn’t beautiful any more – it just makes sense. Or worse, it’s clever.

The real song waits patiently for me to shut up and then picks up where it left off: time-tripping, speaking in math, bodies and dreams, landscapes, passed notes, pages from this diary, conversations, memories, newspapers and unmailed letters that crawled back out of the garbage – sometimes sweet, sometimes angry, sometimes funny, but always twisted up and painted in extravagantly ugly technicolour: well-rehearsed Tourette’s.

It’s not like I’ve embraced the songwriting process. I haven’t even accepted it; it’s too creepy. There’s an electrical component, for example – the lightning rod thing. I get all flitchy and my hair stands on end, like a seizure. With a heightened awareness of …meaning, for lack of a better word, that feels like possession. Whatever is important at that moment will jump up into the air and grab my electrified brain.

I have never witnessed an artist explaining themselves with such thrilling pithiness, ardour and (at the same time) mystery, and reading passages like these is exhilarating. There is also an ever-present wit which twangs laconically from Charlie Brown deadpan to wild mischief, an indie-rock imp laughing at the unnoticed absurdities of life: “According to Massachusetts law, because we’re too young to drink, we aren’t allowed anywhere in the building during business hours except the dressing room (where all the free beer is) or on the stage (where the rest of the free beer is).”

Given the poise of the prose it’s amazing that much of the material in Paradoxical Undressing is from Hersh’s teenaged journals. Throughout, there is a dry humour and a pleasing circumspection about fame that frankly eludes many musicians of much more advanced years: “My band is very suspicious of its fans. We could stand to buy a little of our own hype. When people come to our shows, it confuses us; we can’t imagine what they’re doing there. We like Throwing Muses ‘cause we are Throwing Muses. But why do they keep showing up?”

Hersh’s comic timing and ability to keep the notes of a joke (and a song) going do make me think that should the musical muse every dry up, she could write straight up satirical TV comedy and not miss a beat. However, behind the jokes, wisecracks and observations, the vignettes about life on the road, the freaks and freakouts and the smart character portraits, is a sense of brooding heaviness. There is little empty air to breathe in the book. That which there is, is full of unwritten music, dry ice from gigs, cigarette smoke and dark anxiety. The atmosphere of the book is thick with fears, intimations, snags and songs. One has the impression of the writer scribbling her sentences, the writing too small and cramped, pressed hard into the paper, holding the pen in a strangling grip.

Ultimately the value of Paradoxical Undressing is that it does not represent Hersh as a girl-gone-wild, a lost girl, a crazy girl, a girl who got lucky or got saved or got inspired or any other belittling stereotype. Instead she comes across, with admirable frankness, as what she is: a woman of talent, intelligence, strength, complexity, standing and drive. This is a book about the power of creativity and the joy of music, the buzz of performance, the thrill of songwriting, the bliss of singing, the fun of touring and the absurdity of band life. Along the way there are fellow travellers, some creepy, some quirky, but above all there is a purity of purpose and a powerful sense of Hersh’s vocation – and her genius.  

Paradoxical Undressing is published by Atlantic Books.

NOTE: Hersh is a co-founder of the non-profit Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders ( who record and release music without a record company. Her current work is entirely listener-funded and is available free of charge and free to be shared via the Creative Commons license.

During 2011 Kristin Hersh is making available a series of four session recordings in which Throwing Muses performs songs inspired by Paradoxical Undressing. These collections will be available for download via her web site,, and will be released in four special edition CDs, The Season Sessions – Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer.

The Women's Liberation Music Archive launches

An exciting new online resource launches today: the Women’s Liberation Movement Music Archive.

This project documents the bands, musicians and musical projects that were part of, or influenced by, the great burgeoning of cultural creativity generated by the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1970s and 80s.

During this era, women’s music, film and theatre groups, visual art, literature, performance art, street theatre and other activities proliferated, fusing artistic activities with politics to develop and express feminist ideas. Feminist bands and musicians were not solely about providing great entertainment but embodied a world-changing commitment to putting politics into practice and advancing women’s rights. Challenging sexism and stereotyped gender roles, their lyrics and style reflected the values of the WLM. They were a vital and integral part of the movement, yet are often omitted from or marginalised by the media and historical accounts. Many operated outside the commercial mainstream or alternative circuits – or indeed were oppositional to them – and are not widely known about. Most were self-funded, grassroots groups who worked on a shoestring and many were unable to create lasting material.

Concerned that this part of women’s history is at risk of being lost, Archive Co-ordinators Dr Deborah Withers and Frankie Green believe the achievements of these music-makers should be mapped and celebrated. This work-in-progress collection comprises testimonies and interviews, discographies, gigographies and memorabilia including photographs, videos, recordings, flyers, press clippings and posters, plus links to ongoing women’s music-making and feminist activism. The project is an independent, voluntary and (as yet) unfunded venture. Funding possibilities and a safe eventual home for the physical archive are being investigated.

All women who were involved in women’s music – as solo artists, in bands, as DJs, MCs, in distribution networks, recording studios, photographers, journalists, events organisers, etc – are invited to contact and contribute to the project.


This text is taken from the wlma press release.