ARCHIVIST LISA DARMS has devoted considerable time and effort to documenting a cultural and musical movement that once took great pains to avoid mainstream documentation via a self-imposed media blackout.
Associated with acts such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear and Team Dresch, the Riot Grrrl movement was exemplified by its use of raw and raucous punk rock to foster the exchange of ideas surrounding feminism, queer identity and grassroots political activism. Still, "everybody wants to call it a zine collection," laments Darms. And if there’s one thing Darms is adamant about, it’s that the Riot Grrrl Collection— open now at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections department—is not a zine collection.
In fact, as it stands, zines are only a modest component, numbering somewhere between 40 to 50. Sure, handmade zines and master copies from the movement do comprise an important component of the archive, but the collection boasts a vast variety of equally relevant and defining artifacts. To illustrate her point, Darms unfolds a navy-blue baby doll dress, and identifies it as the dress worn on the cover of Bikini Kill’s seminal Pussy Whipped album. Perhaps the collection’s most prized object is the actual filing cabinet used by Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna to catalog the various clippings, documents, articles and reviews related to Bikini Kill and other prominent figures central to the movement. Hanna started archiving her own personal collection chronologically since 1989, and used the cabinet to house zine masters, liner notes, recording masters and photography, in addition to examples of other people’s work. Although the cabinet has functioned as a storage space for important documents, it has also been cataloged as a vital artifact in its own right.
The cabinet itself has certainly seen better days, as evidenced by its smattering of dents and layers of faded and peeling band stickers.
"Kathleen has even toured with it. At one point, it held the seat up in the Bikini Kill van," explains Darms.
It’s certainly an impressive collection, but one that is cloistered away from the public at large. The catch is that you have to be a scholar to access it. If you’re writing your dissertation on feminist theory, you’re in luck. If you just want to see the blue dress because Pussy Whipped changed your life—and, if given the chance, it certainly will—that’s another story entirely.
In addition to these items, Darms pulls out some old fliers and handouts, one of which consists of a variety of quirky slogans, declarations and bullet points posing the question of why boys aren’t called sluts (pictured here) and urging the reader to cry in public.
Darms sees this handout as not just representative of the anger Riot Grrrl espoused, but also of some of the underexplored ideologies within the subculture.
"Sure, the whole angry thing came across, but the ideas expressed also included the deconstruction of cool and not being jealous. It functioned almost like a self-help group," Darms explains. Although that notion seems a little crunchy, it makes sense.
The collection itself serves as more than just a resource for the history of a certain subset of punk rock. Scholars from all over the world have expressed interest in accessing the archives for a number of research topics, including feminist manifestos, zine circulation, the history of activism, queer and gender studies, D.I.Y. culture and even food studies, as veganism is a prominent aspect of the punk lifestyle.
"I’ve been building this collection for about a year and a half," explains Darms. "I plan to be building it for the next 10 to 20 years."
Although gathering and processing all the materials has been a nearly overwhelming endeavor, the project has been something of a labor of love given her personal connection to the culture and ideals of the scene. Darms was introduced to the punk scene back in 1984 when she started going to shows. In 1989, she moved to one of the movements’ epicenters, Olympia, Wash., where she attended Evergreen State University at the same time Hanna and other key players were laying down the roots for the growing movement. Although Darms never identified herself as a Riot Grrrl, she certainly can’t deny that the developing scene influenced her own world view and burgeoning sense of feminist politics.
"It was an incredible time and an incredible community," Darms reminisces. "For me, Riot Grrrl is theoretically sophisticated and smart. It challenged institutions, but not intellectualism."
The archives will be further augmented by the inclusion of Hanna’s personal journals. Although it’s likely that the collection won’t receive the journals for quite some time—it is set to inherit the documents only after Hanna passes away. And while we’ll be deprived of juicy scene gossip—remember when Courtney Love socked Hanna backstage at Lollapalooza?— here’s hoping we’re still around to read about it, assuming we’re getting our doctorates in rock ‘n’ roll catfights.