This is a weird thing: I have been asked to write about a show that I'm in. I have been encouraged to write part review and part personal tangent, which is what I do on my blog, Translinguistic Other. Everything that follows is, therefore, either an "insider's view" or a steaming heap of self-promoting conflict-of-interestness, depending on how you look at it. Or both. I hope you enjoy it.
The show is Tether Design Gallery's Thunderbitch: Women Designers in Northwest Rock 1966–2010, an ambitious exhibition of poster art, album covers, fanzines, and ephemera organized by Daniel R. Smith, the curator who previously brought us the Seattle-Moscow, Seattle-Tehran, and Seattle-Havana poster shows. Smith's latest curatorial effort represents the first attempt to document the influence of female designers—from DIY Xerox mavens to professional poster artists—on the visual aesthetic of Northwest rock and its related subcultures.
While the core of Thunderbitch is composed of some four dozen posters and several LP covers, I was particularly taken with the handmade publications, especially Lilith (1968), a mimeographed pamphlet published by a group of activists that included Weather Underground member Judith Bissell (who later participated in a plot to bomb the University of Washington's ROTC building). An engrossing precursor to the riot grrrl zines also documented in the exhibition, Lilith fuses the visual impact of 1960s underground comics with feminist content ranging from an essay about the word "lesbian" to a treatise advising African American women not to take the pill because it is the "system's method of exterminating Black People."
Thunderbitch's evocative title refers to a pseudonym used by the endlessly fascinating Catherine Weinstein, a seminal 1960s and '70s illustrator from Portland who, in addition to being an erstwhile female race-car driver who excelled in the male-dominated field of professional gig poster design, happened to be a gun enthusiast who once shot a neighbor for making too much noise at a party celebrating the birth of his child. One of Smith's key inspirations for organizing Thunderbitch occurred when he noticed that there had never been a retrospective exhibition nor biography documenting Weinstein's colorful life and production. Her story is recounted in the essay Smith penned for the exhibition's 40-page catalog, which also traces the path of Northwest rock history from the old-school Portland hippies who fled the overrun San Francisco scene—there was rock before then, but no designs attributed to women—to the post-punks of Seattle's underground heyday.
From Thunderbitch, we learn that some of the most iconic album covers of Sub Pop's golden era were designed by women, including Nirvana's Bleach and the Dwarves' Blood Guts and Pussy. Indeed, Smith could have used the explosion of grunge onto the international mainstream as an easy (albeit depressing) stopping point for his survey, but thankfully he pressed forward, admitting the work of several present-day luminaries into his inclusive canon. Thunderbitch introduces us to Kim Kalliber, the official designer of Seattle's all-female hot-rod club Piston Packin' Mamas, as well as Marianne Goldin, who produces graphics for current bands and teaches silk screen to tomorrow's Thunderbitches at the Vera Project.
This is also where I come in. Two gig posters I made earlier this year for my band Midday Veil appear in Thunderbitch; one of them is the most recent item in the show. Like many of the women featured in the exhibition, I started making posters because I wanted to promote my own events. For me, there is a certain irony here, in that I never set out to become a designer, but I used to think of myself as a visual artist. (In art school, they teach you that "fine art" is done for its own sake, never in the service of other pursuits.) Old self-definitions die hard, and in the two years that have passed since being in a band has taken over my creative life, I've often thought to myself, "Well, shit. Can't make art again this weekend, I have to make another show poster."
But then a funny thing happened: Those posters ended up in an exhibition alongside a bunch of other artifacts that, when taken as a whole, speak volumes about the shifting sands of the culture that produced them. One thing I have taken from Thunderbitch is a heightened awareness of how the visual objects that are produced in the service of our musical subcultures function as the physical embodiments of our shared experiential history. Every album cover implies a listener. Every zine implies a reader. And every show poster implies a rock-and-roll ritual. In an era where our contact with music increasingly occurs via MP3s, tangible artifacts are potent reminders that music is not something that can be contained in zeroes and ones, at least not completely. Music is an experience. So is art, which is why I feel lucky to be working with a growing contingent of local enablers from both camps (NEPO, TARL, Dumb Eyes and the Portable Shrines Collective) who share my interest in exploring multimedia, event-based approaches to combining the two. (One way I am re-entering the art world is as half the site-specific performance duo Hair and Space Museum, which will host a musical sleepover at Seattle University's Hedreen Gallery on September 18.)
If it seems that all I have is praise for Thunderbitch, it is because, admittedly, I do not know the history it covers well enough to spot its omissions. Certainly, there are countless worthy female designers toiling in obscurity. And one imperfect detail was that the opening night festivities featured a live performance by Rachel Flotard of Visqueen (good) opening for Damien Jurado (also good, but clearly a dude). I'd have recommended Portland's thunderous all-female power trio Purple Rhinestone Eagle as the perfect present-day avatar of the Thunderbitch spirit.
Maybe it's not too late to get them involved. I could see this exhibition traveling. Thunderbitch cannot be contained.