In the last blog post I shared some impromptu reflections on the intricate relationship between the individual and the collective. Continuing along the same train of thought, this text returns to the topic by discussing the separatist approach that characterised some instances of the second-wave feminism movement and that indirectly intersect with some reflections on the theme of (in)visibility in socially-artistic contexts engaged.
Feminist separatist groups served as exclusive spaces for women in which they could share, work and debate free from the male gaze. It involved a physical separation of women, not just from men but also from patriarchal institutions that were predominantly male-dominated and male-defined. The women thus often gathered in private homes and, over time, in spaces self-managed by the groups themselves. The 1970s witnessed the emergence of numerous feminist spaces and bookshops, such as LaSal in Barcelona, Milan Women’s Library, Le Lieu-Dit in Paris, and the Women’s Free Art Alliance in London.
Similarly, during the same period, artists began to create groups (more or less formalised) to organise women-only exhibitions. These served as platforms for showcasing their artwork and engaging in discussions about the discrimination and oppression they experienced both as women and as artists. The exhibition spaces, in addition to displaying art, often doubled as meeting places where events and debates were held.
While this approach initially provided a necessary foundation for women to safely engage in their healing and politicisation process, it soon became subject to questioning. On one hand, women recognised the potential risks of self-segregation, which could reinforce social isolation and fragmentation; on the other, this separation made collaboration with other communities and engaging in public action more complex. In order to achieve broader and systemic changes, it became clear that building alliances and collaborating not only with other women but also diverse groups was crucial. This was especially important during a historical period marked by significant political upheaval, where the impact of collective action was greatly magnified.
How can we weave alliances if we don’t open ourselves up to the world? How to open up without compromising the methods that have been produced? Every interaction presupposes a change, an adaptation and a negotiation. In socially engaged art projects, communities are often asked to welcome external intervention that are not always required. How can we protect the cultural and social conditions that pre-exist the artist’s entry? And how to decide which ones to abandon instead? Returning to Piper’s words shared in the previous post, the mutual recognition between groups and the resulting psychological and political strength is the culmination of a longer process of identity negotiation (individual and collective) which is often violent and tiring.
Adding another element to the discussion/monologue, communities not always exist but can be artificially created on the basis of a project. In this case, the processes of identity creation and negotiation are several and parallel. How then to ensure that this can happen in a safe way? I here return to the idea of separation as an instrument of protection. The project as a separate space, as a moment of imposed or ensured consciousness-raising through the mechanisms of art. However, this often happens according to times and methods that are not organic but commanded by funding bodies. Similarly, the need to communicate and circulate what is done, the results achieved, and the metrics go against the very basis of separatism and the will to not engage with the hegemonic institutional structures. How to collaborate with communities ensuring a truly free and inclusive space while escaping the diktats of visibility politics imposed by the art system?
At the end of the Seventies many groups dissolved, strained by years of internal discussions on the (im)possibility to actively participate in a system that was being harshly criticised. Some, as in the prominent cases of Carla Lonzi or Lee Lozano, have chosen to leave the artistic system completely, denying the very possibility of a coexistence between art and political commitment. Others chose to persist, maintaining their dedication to the feminist cause in parallel with their other responsibilities or even using their past as a means to advance their current endeavors, potentially commercialising their history and legacy. Or they downplayed or disregarded this significant phase of their lives altogether.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that numerous spaces that emerged during those formative years have endured, progressively opening up and welcoming everyone and becoming vital hubs for meetings, training, and protection for systematically excluded or oppressed individuals and communities. They still stand as strongholds and testimonials of a “minor” history, playing a critical role in preserving the collective memory of past feminist movements and serving as reminders of the progress made and the ongoing fight, even in the bleakest moments.
Hence, I arrive at the impasse of every conversation I have with myself or with my friends and colleagues. When reflecting on art and politics in the current capitalist system, is it really possible to be within and against? Should we stay (resist and persist) or should we go?