By Ellen Lesperance

When I met Nic, she was living on a feminist separatist commune in the hills outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was well into the summer of 2005, and she was one of only four women in residence. I was there with friends to stage a photograph for an art project, and in return for our use of the land, I was to have my seven-months-pregnant belly painted with henna by Nic, who was interested in building her own portfolio. She had been trying to make a living selling homemade jewelry to tourists at the flea market, a formidable task when faced with crowds looking for cheap turquoise. This is where the henna idea comes in. My friends and I had brought in water and groceries for her but we ended up eating most of them because many were perishable and there was no electricity. Nic picked sage for us outside the back of her living structure and added it to browning butter cooked over a propane heater: sauce for some packaged ravioli. She had a desiccated lemon wedge stored above her sink that she offered us with the tea she served. She told us how much she was looking forward to a drive into the city later that day to take a hot bath at a friend’s place. She showed us how to use the pit bathroom out back, how to cover our waste with a handful of ash.

I was deeply affected by the strangeness of this setting: Nic the steward of a land lying dormant and scattered with the debris of an earlier era. There were still at least a dozen woman-built structures used for domiciles; they were small and in various stages of disrepair. One was an old delivery truck painted over all in turquoise, slivers of paint from its peeling windows were curling off and littering the ground. There were Styrofoam cooler parts and plastic water jugs littering the landscape, especially – due to the pitched incline of the acreage – collecting at the base of trees. There was the continual sound of tarps flapping in the wind. Nic’s house was one room, maybe ten by twelve feet, jutting out from the side of the hill. Inside, she had space enough for a double bed and a roller-top desk, a loaded bookcase and some elaborate shelving above a sink basin. For hours she sat beside me on her bed as she drew her elaborate design on my stomach, and in this time my mood became more and more downcast as I struggled to imagine what it might be like to live as Nic lived: marooned, susceptible, completely disenfranchised. I strained to understand Nic – who for her part seemed affable, undeterred, talkative. And it was Greenham Common that she wanted to discuss. Nic had come to this place after leaving Greenham Common.

During the Cold War, the Greenham Common USAF/RAF Airbase was the location of the largest depository of nuclear “Cruise” missiles in Europe. Since the 1600s, these 1,200 acres of land had been reserved for common-use; for many citizens who had no private assets, it provided grounds for hunting, for gardening food reserves, for recreation and picnicking. It had, nevertheless, been utilized off and on by English troops throughout its extensive history. In times of peace, the acreage could be accessed and utilized, in times of war, this access was often revoked by the English military. In 1979, however, a decision was made in a secret NATO Headquarters meeting to convert the Greenham Common into an American airbase. In this closed-door meeting, the common was designated a more permanent role in the ongoing Cold War as it was earmarked for conversion into: one million tons of concrete and asphalt paving, twenty-one petroleum fuel stations, countless underground fueling tributaries, and storage holdings for ninety-six nuclear warheads, each with the capability to destroy a city a dozen times the size of Hiroshima. This was an era of an explicit understanding in Mutual Assured Destruction, M.A.D. If the U.S. struck, the Russians would retaliate, and they were likely to retaliate by bombing Greenham Common.

In her 2004 essay, “Jailbirds I Have Loved,” Rebecca Solnit considers the contemporary feasibility of Thoreau-style civil disobedience in the U.S. and, instead of coming down predictably on the issue where one might expect in a post-Patriot Act era, she finds examples of stunningly effective recent protests: the shutting down of the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle, the continuing anti-military work of Code Pink, (and I would add, of course, any number of regional direct action campaigns that find against-the-odds successes). “If people could stand up to Pinochet,” she writes in her essay, “if the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo could march in Buenos Aires during the time of the generals, if people could speak up in Prague in the 1980s, we can here, far more than we do.”

The idea of a “Euroshima” or a limited nuclear war that would be played out in a strictly European theater led to the deferment of hundreds of American nuclear missiles to Europe: to Greenham Common, to another English site in Molesworth, as well to sites in Sicily, West Germany, Holland and Belgium. These American military installations made it likely that it would be the English (or the Sicilians, or the West Germans) who would face the wrath of potential American aggression and not the Americans themselves. It is important to connect this Cold War-era occupation with current U.S. occupations and to recognize how our contemporaries in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in a very similar way have suddenly found themselves living in the target zones of an American War on Terror. In England in the early 1980s, 87% polled were sure they would not survive if a nuclear warhead was dropped on England and 49% thought this was indeed likely to happen (1). This population “was marked” by these installations: “If there is a nuclear war, I am sure I will die. I will either die from the initial blast, be vaporized or crushed, or I will die in the ensuing weeks from radiation sickness” (2).

There is a constellation of reasons why I believe the Women’s Peace Camp that formed at Greenham Common should be brought into the light for further examination. Not the least of which is its ability to serve us as an inspirational and pertinent model right now. The question of this essay is whether that pertinent model can be both a civic model and an “artistic model.” In an article in the July/August 2010 issue of “Art Papers” entitled “From Artistic Activism to Geocritique,” theorist Brian Holmes laments: “We need a concept and a practice of transnational, cross-class collaboration that go way beyond the old ‘intellectuals and workers’ model, but manifestly, neither is available.” Indeed, this concept and practice is the legacy of many Creative Direct Action campaigns, and yet these activist histories fall outside of standard art discourse. A remarkable component of the camp that developed at Greenham Common was its reliance on visuals, primarily performative and sculptural display, to command the creative opposition that provided, in many cases, the backbone of these women’s efforts at civil disobedience. Creative Direct Action is a category of creative making that provides powerful models for politically-inclined artists, and offers a methodology that makes dissent visible in the public sphere. Contemporary Relational and Social Practice artists are afforded cultural cache for far less effective dissent practice. Is it worth our while to examine the vast creative projects that exist and have existed within activist campaigns?

The beginnings of the Greenham Common Peace Camp began as a September 1981 march by a group of primarily Welsh activists calling themselves “Women for Peace on Earth.” They walked for seven days from Cardiff, Wales to the site to deliver a letter to the then-Secretary of the State of Defense, Francis Pym. In the letter, they called the arms race “the greatest threat ever faced by the human race and the living planet” and challenged him to a debate. Pym was dismissive and in fact invited the group to stay as long as they’d like. That is how a peace camp of nearly twenty years found its beginnings: an impassioned desire to communicate dissenting opinion being met with casual disregard. During this era, approximately twenty such camps were erected outside of military bases around the world. The ones in Seneca, NY and Kent, WA in 1983 are examples of more temporary U.S. installations, while the protest by the intrepid Concepcion Picciotto across from the White House in Washington D.C. is an example of one that continues to the present. These camps, and their nonviolent campaigns of direct action against the smooth functioning of the might of the military-industrial complex were effective in many ways, keeping the nuclear debate at the very forefront of local and international media coverage notwithstanding.

For many women like Nic, the steadfast protagonist of this essay, there was no other moral choice but to head for one of these camps. Solnit again reminds us of Thoreau’s incantation against loss of faith in her aforementioned essay: “I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” And indeed, many first-hand accounts presented in the multiple small-press publications that came out of the Greenham camp attest to this sentiment: that there was no other ethical choice but to go. Women of all ages and walks of life made their way to the Greenham Common camp – including Green Peace activists, Miners’ Wives union groups, and a Manchester-based Prostitutes’ Collective – to unite under a common goal of pacifism. Many were self-identified mothers who were fearful of the world their children would inherit. Some traveled from afar to attend one of the camp-planned events, some were frequent visitors who would remain for short stints or stay weekends away from school, and then there were the women that made the Peace Camp their home for multiple years – Nic was one of these women.

And they were “all” women. After a debated but early decision, men were disallowed. They were barred for essentialist reasons, although it was an essentialism that history itself had done a very good job underscoring: that women did not have the aggressive social tendencies that brought about wars. Many early campers had accumulated experiences from prior activist campaigns, and had felt the strong arm of patriarchy present even under the most benevolent of campaigns. Camper Leslie Boulton in “Greenham Women Everywhere” explains: “They find that it’s a very bureaucratic set-up, invariably run by blokes... We all sit down and we are informed and we find ourselves talking to the backs of each other’s heads... I want to express what I’m feeling, but there’s no space for me to do it.” These women did not want a male spokesperson for their cause, one they saw as, in part, a TAKE THE TOYS FROM THE BOYS-style direct confrontation against the masculinity of the military industrial complex. They wanted to band together to support one another in an expression that they considered to be more caring, more nurturing, of one another and towards the history of the planet.

The women who collected at the base were there to upset the smooth functioning of the military compound in its zeal to convert itself into a nuclear holding facility. Around-the-clock residence at the site enabled the women to closely watch the activities on the base and organize themselves to mobilize the appropriate disruptions. By the end of 1983, nine distinct campgrounds or “gates” were established around the nine-mile periphery of the Greenham air base, distributing the campers to all reaches for observation. These gates were named for the colors of the rainbow and each had distinctive attributes and populations that made them more or less desirable to any new camper. Nic recounted to me the way that women who were new to the premises would undergo a sort of social typecasting to ensure that they “fit in” where they decided to make camp. And it is interesting to note the various sub-categories of leftists that she identified to me as she made clear that the vegan anarchists preferred to consort with their own (at the Turquoise Gate), as did the hippies, as did the intellectuals, as did the population of campers that she labeled specifically as “the flag burners.”

The campsites themselves were ramshackle and ever changing. Evictions of campers and the early-morning destruction of campgrounds began early on, as it was decided by the local authorities in the Newbury District Council that no permanent structures were to be allowed. This meant that sleeping, eating and protecting oneself from the elements – all basic human needs – came with extreme difficulty. A type of structure called a “bender” was born of the need for impermanent shelter. Still attentive of the pacifist ethic to do no harm, live sapling trees were not harvested but simply bent over and securely weighted to the ground, providing the framework required for overlays of tarp, canvas and plastic sheeting. These were low to the ground, burrow-like, and typically large enough to house one or two women. Other shelters consisted of tarps hung over clothing lines to create rudimentary tents. These provided some protection from the elements but very huddled sleeping quarters.

To get at the quality of life at Greenham, the remarkable contrast between the opposite sides of the fence needs to be imagined. For many, the vast military compound – its austere, stripped landscape, its behemoth architectural structures, the mechanics of its orderly operations, its uniformed population of trained soldiers – is possibly the easier of the two sides to conceptualize. To call to mind the other, one must do one’s best to envision a fully outdoor encampment housing potentially hundreds of women that was in the process of being made up anew every few days. Imagine the litter, the wind-tossed debris, the piles of sacked trash, the accumulating residue of past shelters, the unidentified belongings. Imagine the perennial dampness and the layer of plastic sheeting draped on and underneath absolutely everything. Here and there, folding tables were erected and covered with the food that had been donated or scraped together for the week: loaves of sliced bread knotted shut against bugs and the weather, jars of peanut butter and preserves, powered milk, a water-filled basin for washing. Clothing lines hanging heavy with sopping fabrics were strung from every intermittent tree that wasn’t already being used to create shelter. The campfire was central and typically had a tripod erected above it from which an oversized cooking pot hung. This is where the standard fare was cooked: porridge, curried lentils. This was where a kettle boiled water for tea.

One theme that repeatedly surfaces in the literature coming out of this camp was the theme of “not knowing” – not knowing if a Red Alert was an exercise or if in fact a catastrophe was eminent, not knowing if the warheads on the road were in transport or if they had been deployed. This lack of security created an ongoing, palpable anxiety for these women that functioned powerfully as a window out through the layers of apathy that had once immobilized them. No longer were geopolitical issues to be debated abstractly. A lifestyle was maintained that enabled them to feel the veracity of the fact that they were under direct nuclear threat, that they could be killed – at any instant – and that everything that they loved would be killed along with them. They managed to implicate their survival instincts, and at that point it was impossible to remain passive.

All direct action was nonviolent, and relied upon the women courageously putting their bodies on the line. This presented a physical reality that the authorities struggled to respond to: hundreds, sometimes thousands, of defenseless female bodies and the attentive media nearby. In 1983, when the first of the cruise missile convoys started appearing at the base (these convoys would continue for seven years until 1990), trucks would enter and leave the airbase virtually every day. Every day provided another opportunity for protest: the laying of one’s body down upon the roads, the disruption of the assembling of pipeline, protest against the transportation of plutonium along the countryside’s roads, the disruption of military exercises, Creative Direct Action campaigns.

In the regrettably still relevant 1895 Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story “An Unnatural Mother,” a gathering of fictional townsfolk repeatedly maligns Gilman’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther, the child of a widower, is represented as out of conformance with the array of social forces that would have shaped her into a proper young lady. Seemingly, this divergence caused her to do the unthinkable in Gilman’s story: warn the villagers of an imminent dam break before rescuing her own infant son from his crib. To the reader, Esther is indeed the most ethical of heroines, singularly responsible for the survival of three villages of people. By the rescued, however, she remains spited for proving no aptitude to her appropriate duties. Likewise, the media attention showered upon the women who took up the cause at the airbase was stereotypical and far less than favorable (“harridans” and “a fairly gruesome bunch” in “The Spectator,” “burly lesbians” in “The Sun”), as was the response from many of the local citizens whom the Greenham campers were indeed looking to forewarn and protect (3). In the nearby town of Newbury, posters advertising vigilante groups forming ‘against’ the women were posted. These groups destroyed and threw feces and blood onto the women’s campsites; they threatened to disable the local standpipes the women relied upon for water.

This animosity serves to remind us of the power of direct political intervention. In her 2007 essay “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe presents her ‘agonistic model’ and persuades us that public space (such as the space that surrounded the Greenham airbase) is an ideological “battleground” that gives rise to a particular type of conflict: conflict that she recognizes as ‘the necessary factor’ for a working, thriving democracy. In her article, Mouffe values the way that many art practices are aimed at challenging dominant hegemonies and accomplishing the kind of agonistic affront she champions. She argues that “[what] is needed is widening the field of artistic intervention, by intervening directly in a multiplicity of social spaces in order to oppose the program of total social mobilization of capitalism.” It is hard to confront this theoretical model and not be moved to better consider the activist-oriented spaces where Creative Direct Action has thrived. These are not art actions in art spaces but better conjure up picket lines, human blockades, banner drops, student occupations, and street theater performances. Work like that of Code Pink, with their stories-tall “pink slip” banner drops. Work like the graphic BP = BAD PEOPLE signage that infiltrated a live congressional press conference and ended up on the front page of “The New York Times” (May 11, 2010), or the concrete use of real, dripping oil on recent spill disaster protest banners. Work like that of the Greenham campers.

It is evident that the women at Greenham were questioning the dominant hegemony, and that their critique was totalizing and covered everything from the vast ethics of nation states to the smaller ethics of partnering with other individuals and with the land. Interestingly, they were not always most maligned for their disruption of the military installation as much as for their transgressive affront to a much broader net of commonplace societal expectations: their lack of “femininity,” their sexual preferences, the fact that they frequently shaved their heads (a practical tactic given the circumstances), their public breastfeeding (although other mothers, like Gilman’s Esther Greenwood, had left their children behind, and either solution to mothering was seen as inappropriate), the slogans they wore on their bodies, the disarray of their campsites. Here was a lack of regard for the sorts of measures that one takes in a public space to display one’s compliance with a shared symbolic order. A transgressive disavowal was at play, niceties melted away, and, in comparison to the obscene display of military wealth represented by the new air base installation, squalor developed on the other side of the dividing fence. When I met Nic on the hillside commune in New Mexico, its destitution struck me as a marker that its idealism had faltered, and indeed this is a commonplace reflection that I hear made by those who visit communes still extant from past decades: that they are disorderly, that they are squalid and impoverished. Yet, in reevaluation, these challenges to delicate status quo sensibilities seem to prove quite the ‘opposite’ of faltering ideological commitments.

As I have discussed, the women at Greenham faced incredible hardships. They were frightened, angry, and uncomfortable. Many were arrested and served multiple prison sentences (primarily for, of all things, “causing a breach of peace”). Nevertheless, they stayed. Many were convinced that the more protest activity they generated, the more ‘visible’ their dissent would become; this, they believed, would rattle other women around the world from the sanctuary of their passivity. This need to make ‘visible’ is a sort of a call for visuals. In an interview with Suzi Gablik in “Conversations Before the End of Time” (1997), Performance Studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett defines the artist’s role as one of turning “value into form.” Indeed this was the practice at play at these camps: developing a symbolic visual language through which to argue their particular ethic. In many cases the protest actions gained their effectiveness through the creative components, as these components continued their argumentative role when reproduced as images in the press.

There was a type of visual language established at the camp that was specific both in its aesthetics and specific in its use of metaphoric symbolism. Of all other potential symbols to be claimed for meaning, these women selected two that were most frequently utilized in the service of their protest: the ‘snake’ and the ‘web.’ Both provided subtle but perfectly apt metaphoric language for the struggles they were facing. The snake is an animal that outgrows its skin and needs to entirely shed that encasement in order to move forward with its life. The lesson for humankind inherent in the use of this symbol was, for these women, a platform from which an event like their February 7, 1983 action grew. This action was staged on a day that the Secretary of State for Defense was visiting from Newbury. Three snake “costumes” were utilized that had been created from cloth yardage and sheeting. Each snake was long enough for approximately thirty women to crawl within, and together the approximately one hundred women removed some of the bolts from the bottom of the base’s perimeter fence to allow for their low, undetected entrance. One snake was able to “slither” the entire length of the compound before being forced off. Clearly, an action such as this develops meaning around a self-identified symbolic order, as, at the same time, it is a visible dissenting action ‘and’ calls attention to the security of a nuclear holding facility. On June 25th of the same year, an additional version of this event was enacted, only that time with 2000 women and a snake that grew to be over ‘four miles long.’

The ‘web’ provided an additional metaphor that was highly utilized in the service of political self-identity. Within a web, each singular strand is a tentative, delicate thing. However, the network of interdependence achieved, the strength of the whole, would never belie this. The spider, as well, is willing to spin and repair this network tirelessly. Weaving woolen webs around the camp was the single-most common creative act at Greenham. Web stringing was also utilized as a tactic for complicating access by the military and police to certain sites of protest. Jane Lockwood, a camper that kept a diary of her time at the camp explains: “we occupied the site where they wanted to begin digging... For an hour about 20 of us wove a huge web of wool and string across the whole area. We entangled ourselves in it, some women sat amongst the threads, others lay beneath it” (4). Additionally, woolen webbing that some campers associated with the practice of darning was commonly woven into the perimeter fencing to call attention to its damaged areas, the breaches in its security. This tactic, however temperate it may seem, is repeatedly represented in reports as having been particularly inflaming to soldiers.

Multiple web-centered events also transpired within the camps. New Years Day, 1984, is represented by an especially grandiose action in which a spectacularly huge web was first “spun” and then connected to hundreds of helium-filled balloons that lifted the structure to float suspended above the base. It is reported that there had been additional discussion by campers to fill those balloons with bits of tinfoil to prove how easily the base’s radar system could be dismantled; but this lesson was decided to potentially endanger more than it safeguarded.

A camper quoted in “Greenham Common: Women at the Wire” describes what the creative spirit of the camps looked like in 1983: “Today we got up to a bit of bother to put it lightly. We’ve been painting rocks with beautiful things; we’ve made signs and written words with them but it has to be seen to be believed.” Time in wait of activity on base was typically at hand, so the knitting of water-repellant wearables, the creation of signage, the painting and arranging of rocks, and the decoration of surfaces was quite commonplace. Video footage and photographs from the site document symbolic usage that extended far beyond snake and web imagery. Within the aesthetics of this camp and its actions, a veritable women’s history of symbol usage was at play. There were sweaters with knit-in ideological symbolism: double (labrys) axes, phoenixes, rainbows, anarchy signs, and women’s liberation movement fists. There were the “painted canvas” exteriors of the benders, many featuring goddess portraiture, landscape paintings and celestial maps. There were sheet music transcriptions of Greenham rallying songs and musicians playing in accompaniment: “Here we sit, here we stand, here we claim the Common Land. Their arms shall not command. Bring the message home.” There were women who performed extended “keening” sessions whereby they stood together and loudly wailed and cried out in lament. There were protest signs made on sheets and fabric yardage, and sometimes these were sewn together to create miles-long processions. And so it was “No Euroshima” embroidered in black on a ground of marigold floral that begat NO MISSILES IN EUROPE with the O in NO turned into an universal woman symbol that begat an appliqué black crescent moon on a ground of red starbursts that begat a left to right peace dove ascension that begat a painted depiction of people of all nationalities interlocking hands around the surface of the earth, and so on, and so forth.

The base’s peripheral fencing was additionally repurposed to transcend mere barrier designation and instead provide a surface for the display of every last cherish-able object that the campers held in their possessions: children’s clothing and toys, photographs of loved ones, letters from home and from supporters. There were, of course, the lovingly darned areas. There was an endless supply of abandoned scrap plastic that could be cut into various colored strips or rolled, knotted taut, and used as “fabric” to create woven designs in the fencing. There were expanses that were camouflaged natural with foliage and Christmas evergreen. There were elaborate cut paper installations and signage that pled, in hundreds of different ways, for peace. Chris Mulvey, a camper who came to the camps from Dublin, spoke of the perimeter fence not as a barricade but as “a womyn’s collage of life” (5).

Many of the first-hand accounts by the women who lived on the base described a recognition that befell them: that the act of ‘creatively changing something’ was a sort of an opposite of violence. Many saw creativity itself as a gesture of anti-violence. Creative Direct Action is the already extant term for the visual accompaniments that coexist alongside many activist campaigns. According to the forest defense movement’s The Ruckus Society and their self-published and freely downloadable “Creative Direct Action Visuals” (2007), these projects additionally “unify your group, amplify your message, invite people to have a personal interaction with your work, and provide a visual story through symbols that clarify the issue.” In this handbook, The Ruckus Society asks that the artist/activist creating visuals considers the site of her action when considering its scale and the appropriate medium. They advise that a message is kept “short and sweet” and that it is tested out “on a lot of people before you commit” to “[m]ake sure it makes sense to your target audience and to the general public, and not just insiders.” This insistence on clear, unequivocal messaging is what, I believe, keeps Creative Direct Action on the periphery of art discourse while, at the same time, it provides the strategy that makes the work effective.

In “Greenham Common: Women at the Wire,” Babs Schmidt, a camper and drama student from Germany, recounts a Hiroshima Day Creative Direct Action event staged on August 6, 1982 which demonstrates the effectiveness of such clear messaging. First, she and other campers collected 100,000 stones. Each stone represented one of the 100,000 people killed during the first instant the bomb dropped on the city of Hiroshima in 1945. These stones were brought to Newbury’s war memorial, a WWII monument that read “For the Glory of the Dead.” The women bravely stood beside the heap of rocks asking of the townspeople, over and over again: “This is one person’s life, do you want to honor it by placing it with the others?” Because of the clarity of this action, Schmidt reported she was slapped in the face by a war veteran, screamed at by a woman whose husband had died in the war, and spat upon.

Claire Bishop’s 2006 “Artforum” article “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” cites the “mixed panorama of socially collaborative work” as today’s artistic avant-garde. In these relational practices, collaboration between the artist/author and the audience is initiated (and in so doing making those very terms obsolete) and the atmosphere of democratic community-making is, in many instances, the construction. In many cases, these are controlled micro-utopias wherein it might be imagined that a palliative social encounter can cause some (albeit temporary) alignment to befall the community. Clearly, a social conscience is at play (although at odds with Mouffe’s ‘agonistic model’). In the Pacific Northwest, where I live and where a beacon Art and Social Practice MFA program is housed at Portland State University (PSU), food-based events are very common Social Practice events, as food provides a sort of baseline connectivity, whether it be initializing new micro-economies for food exchange, designing specialty beers for museum-goers, providing exposure to regional foods, or educating around ecological sustainability concerns. In these projects, social practitioners (artists) will often align themselves with grassroots activist traditions and specific political causes, even while imagining that what they are doing is activistic but ‘different’ than activism.

A program such as PSU’s, which offers a concentration in Social Practice within its MFA, is not alone in offering a student an expensive degree in this growing field (there is another at the California College of the Arts, another at Carnegie Mellon). This access to cultural capital is denied to standard Creative Direct Action activists. The effect of this castigation is twofold. Not only does it sweep aside the creative merit of what they do, but, to my mind, it participates in the suppression of dissent messaging by denying coverage. During the protests at Greenham, it could be certain that depriving the women of media attention deprived them of cultural capitol because what they did – regardless of its scale, regardless of its creative excellence – was rendered invisible. Nic spoke to me about how, years into the activities at the air base, brazen, unchecked civil disobedience was adapted to confront this suppression. To provoke a response, bold actions like the July 25, 1983 base break-in were planned during which seven brave women did an estimated 2.5 million pounds of painted-peace-symbol damage to the U.S. Air Force’s (then) most elite spy plane, the U.S. Blackbird. So wary was the military of revealing its vulnerability, or – through media coverage – of indirectly inviting more women to join the cause, that the women were never reprimanded.

What gives a practice cultural cache? Unfortunately, in her 2004 “October” essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” Claire Bishop is willing to dismiss the activistic realm of relational practice as the realm that fails to produce works of merit. In it she writes: “I am not suggesting that relational art works need to develop a greater social conscience – by making pinboard works about international terrorism, for example, or giving free curries to refugees.” For her the criteria for success within relational practices is ultimately an ‘aesthetic’ criteria to be enforced and not, as Creative Direct Action campaigners would have it, linked to a project’s ability to confront a social goal (6). Moreover, the aesthetic criterion that she ultimately lists maintains a surprising attachment to an artistic tradition of obscured intentionality. For example, she asks that relational works “scuttle between sense and nonsense” and “allow multiple interpretations” (7). Santiago Sierra, one of the relational artists that consistently makes Bishop’s cut, can, in a piece such as “Laborers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain in the Interior of Carton Boxes” (2000), therefore speak broadly about exploitation and capitalism with his audience at a contemporary art venue in Berlin while at the same time preserving a tension between hidden Chechen refugee bodies and a perverted, Donald Judd-like presentation.

To my mind, to assign cultural cache to relational works that allow for “multiple interpretations” is to imagine that political directness has little place in Bishop’s contemporary avant-garde. “I can’t change anything,” is Sierra’s working ethos. “There is no possibility that we can change anything with our artistic work. We do our work because we are making art, and because we believe art should be something that follows reality. But I don’t believe in the possibility of change” (8). In his 2008 novel “Diary of a Bad Year,” J.M Coetzee, Nobel Prize-winning South African author, echoes Sierra’s conclusions through the voice of his protagonist, Señor C, a man who compiles short essay responses to various issues of controversy. Under the subject heading “On Guantanamo Bay” Señor C writes: “Someone should put together a ballet under the title “Guantanamo, Guantanamo”! In describing this ballet, the protagonist imagines the type of restrictive costuming that might be designed for the troupe of dancer-prisoners and the regalia and prop weaponry that might accompanying the troupe of dancer-guards as well as the orchestration of movements a choreographer might find appropriate to each constituency. (He also thinks to include in his production a leading role for Donald Rumsfeld.) But as arresting and apt such a work of art might become, as popular and potentially global as its run might prove to be, Coetzee concludes: “It will have absolutely no effect on the people it targets, who could care less what ballet audiences think of them.” Although Coetzee’s critique is written under the protective umbrella of fiction, it nonetheless joins Sierra in offering a stark indictment on the value of what we ‘as artists’ can do politically.

When is art with political messaging pertinent? How can art truly do what Mouffe asks of it: “foment dissensus... make visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate” (9)? Is it possible that Sierra’s “I can’t change anything” motivational credo is a luxury maintained by politically rankling an esoteric arts audience? Surely there are polemical discussions suitable to be art, the Feminist Art Movement provides interesting examples of such projects. In terms of context, here was political struggle that was ‘suitably art’ because much of the redress that was sought was art-based. Many radically confrontational works were designed to express art-based dissent, both in content and in form (think of the Pattern and Decoration movement): to agitate arts institutions, art markets, and the very narratives and mediums that underscored value within its frameworks. Lorraine O’Grady, participant artist in this year’s Whitney Biennial, for example, is possibly best known for developing Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, a character she produced to confront the segregated 1980s art world. Crashing art events and openings wearing a dress made up of tiers of white gloves, she spat out protest messages and recriminations. In many cases, the raw, direct aesthetics and the tactics employed by artists and artist collectives such as The Guerilla Girls, Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, Women’s Action Coalition, and Feminist Art Workers, make this work indiscernible from Creative Direct Action. And yet, we as artists make our acquaintance with ‘these’ histories.

The Greenham Common was eventually returned to the public in the late winter of 2000. First to go was the perimeter fence, and although it opened the acreage to the populace, no longer was the common what it once was. For example, it took five years for its poured concrete and asphalt paving to be broken apart and hauled away (including all the material from Greenham’s boasted “longest runway in Europe”). Almost two-dozen fuel stations and their adjoining systems of pipelines also needed to be dismantled, and, in doing so, many were discovered to have leaked. Hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of this polluted soil, too expensive to landfill, needed to be aerated (10). The Women’s Peace Camp closed the same year, nineteen years after the September 5, 1981 march by the “Women for Life on Earth” group, and nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War. The last action by the group was the securing of a memorial on the site that commemorated the political activity of the camp and the women who had dedicated themselves to it. Known as New Greenham Park, this memorial includes two commemorative sculptures and a garden planted for Helen Thomas, a young Greenham camper who was killed by a police vehicle in 1989.

I think about the sort of bestowal that occurred when Nic shared with me her story and traced symbolic outlines upon my pregnant belly. I wish that, at the time, I had known the history of Greenham Common and had not instead further marginalized such an indomitable woman with the insult of my blank-faced unfamiliarity. My son is five now, he’s into superheroes, and upon watching the terrifying back-story of the infant Superman, he will from time to time ask: “Mom, will our planet ever be on fire?” I don’t know what to say in those instances, when to hope and to wish with profound reserve that the answer is “no” is not to provide an answer. Keeping alive a tradition of ecological consciousness is one thing, but as Barry Sanders points out in his devastating 2009 book “The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism”: bike to work as much as you can, reuse and recycle, but it’s military activity that is by far the single largest pollution source in the world – from innumerable exploding chemical bombs to unthinkable amounts of fuel consumption, to the literal littering of nations with depleted uranium detritus. “I know lots of people try to push this into the back of their minds, but I think it is getting harder to keep it there now,” writes a Greenham camper known only as Mrs. Smith in the edited collection of first-hand accounts “Greenham Women Everywhere.” “I’m sure most people are getting the feeling that we are heading towards some dreadful calamity.” There is, of course, urgent work to be done. As politically inclined artists, we need to select the methods by which we might best, in Mouffe’s words, “oppose the program.”

On December 11, 1983, pre-cell phone, previous to ready access to the Internet and our present-day assortment of available hand-held computer devices, the women at Greenham Common were able – through initiating grassroots activist tactics: telephone trees, vast letter writing campaigns, leaflet distribution, radio announcements, word-of-mouth persuasion – to gather an estimated ‘35,000 women’ at the air base for its second annual encircle-the-base event. On this occasion, it was decided that the symbolic use of mirrors be employed, and metaphorically for that afternoon, these women contained the evil of the air base within their grasp of hands. They forced it to reflect back upon itself, and forced the watching world to themselves confront such reflection. An action such as this might epitomize the agency of a creative act, and in learning of its example, we allow its message to resonate.

March 2011


1. Alice Cook and Gywn Kirk, “Greenham Women Everywhere,” London: Pluto Press, 1983, 15.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 95.
4. Barbara Harford and Sarah Hopkins, “Greenham Common: Women at the Wire,” London: The Women’s Press Ltd., 1984, 70.
5. Ibid., 92.
6. Grant Kester, “Another Turn,” “Artforum” (May 2006): 22.
7. Claire Bishop, “Another Turn,” “Artforum” (May 2006): 23.
8. Sierra, quoted in Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” “October” (Fall 2004): 71.
9. Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” “Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods” (Summer 2007): 4.
10. Ed Cooper, “Swords and Ploughshares: The Transformation of Greenham Common,” in John Kippin, ed., “Cold War Pastoral,” London: Black Dog Publishing, 2000, 10-12.

Printed with permission of the author, Ellen Lesperance. All rights reserved. Copyright by Ellen Lesperance, 2011. Special thanks to The Macdowell Colony and Ambach and Rice Gallery.
Karen Rosenberg In Conversation With Ellen Lesperance

With their precisely plotted birds'-eye and fair-isle designs, the paintings of Ellen Lesperance are clearly modeled on knitting patterns. But behind their intimations of warmth and coziness are stirring calls to action. The Minneapolis-born artist (who shows at Adams and Ollman in Portland, where she is now based, and Ambach and Rice in Los Angeles) finds her source material in the archives of Feminist activist groups and at contemporary protests (such as those affiliated with "Black Lives Matter" and the "Occupy" movement).
In an interview for Artspace's "Meet the Artist" series, Lesperance gave Karen Rosenberg some essential background on her life and work.

KAREN ROSENBERG: How did you first get involved with art?

ELLEN LESPERANCE: My mom was in charge of crafts at this miserable Christian camp that I had to go as a child, and I think my creative impulses have some relationship to this: to ducking out of Bible school to go hang out in the craft closet. I don’t have memories of a time when I wasn’t involved in making something with my hands.

KR: What other childhood experiences shaped you as an artist?

EL: I come from a really big mixed-race family in the early 1970s in the Midwest—my mom had five kids, adopted three kids, lost two kids. My closest sister is black. People on the street and kids at school called us names, and my family got kicked out of restaurants. I got into verbal and physical fights as early as I can remember. I grew up with raw, tangible feelings regarding inequity and what it means to fight for justice.

KR: What did you learn from art school?

EL: As an undergraduate I was a pretty straightforward figurative painter in a very traditional program. It wasn’t until graduate school that I really got into the visual vocabulary of knitting: its not-square but grid-based formatting, the conventions of its pattern layouts, its language for writing a pattern—American Symbolcraft. I have been working with that vocabulary for twenty years, knowing, loving, that it has implicit limitations and that it's inherently Feminist: because women knit, because the history of handiwork is a woman’s history.

KR: What were some important things that you learned outside of art school?

EL: When I graduated from undergraduate art school in Seattle in 1995, I found a union job as a city bus driver for METRO transit. I was really good at my job, but I was also constantly harassed by my coworkers—I was working out of a base that had very few female drivers. I started knitting what I see now as power objects that I would wear under my uniform: things that would change the shape of my body.

KR: Can you describe a pivotal moment in the development of your work?

EL: In 2005, I met a woman in a small Feminist-separatist commune in the hills outside of Santa, Fe, New Mexico. She had been a long-term camper at an all-woman, anti-nuke protest site called Greenham Commons in England in the 1980s, and she told me a few stories. I learned that a remarkable component of the camp was its reliance on Creative Direct Action. The campers' tents were heavily decorated, the razor wire fencing surrounding the base was adorned, elaborate performances were staged, songs were written and sung. I found images of Greenham women wearing the most incredible handmade garments: sweaters with inscribed words, with Feminist emblems like labryses and fists.

Through studying these campers, I recognized that Creative Direct Action provides a powerful model for politically-inclined artists like myself—but unfortunately it is creative making that exists outside the purview of contemporary art.

KR: What was the last indispensable show you saw and why?

EL: When I was in Seattle over the holidays, I saw “Counter-Couture: Fashioning Identity in the American Counterculture” at the Bellevue Arts Museum. It presents a lot of the work from a book that I have been obsessed with for the last thirty years: “Native Funk and Flash: An Emerging Folk Art” (1974) by Alexandra Jacopetti, which showcased folk art by garment-makers in San Francisco at that time. The press for the show is gimmicky—like, look at these groovy artifacts of our youth—but the pieces themselves vibrate with revolutionary intentions.

For me, the show also expressed contemporary ideas. People can decide to make their clothes themselves, because they don’t want to wear garments manufactured in a factory with unfair labor conditions. People can still decide to wear something that sets them apart in public spaces—our daily, ideological battlegrounds. There is a lot of bravery in this setting yourself apart, in terms of gender nonconformity or in terms of simply “opposing the program.”

KR: How do you find your subjects?

EL: I think I’ve bought every book and self-published pamphlet of the Greenham Commons Women’s Peace Camp that’s ever been printed. I also go through video and film archives and look for campers wearing garments which I can pattern. Last year, with the help of an “Artist as Activist” travel grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, I went to a partial campers’ archive housed at the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.

Outside of the Greenham research, just following contemporary activism is very important for me. I have found subjects here in Portland at local Black Lives Matters and Occupy protests, and many on the internet as I read stories and watch videos that run concurrently with events.

KR: What has been the most surprising response to your work?

EL: The Brooklyn Museum has a piece of mine in their Elizabeth Sackler Collection that is a combination painting and sweater. The painting is framed and goes on the wall, and then the sweater is displayed on a shelf. The museum kept having to ask visitors to stop touching the sweater—one person had even picked it up and brought it to the museum’s Lost and Found. I loved that—it was such a clear indication that the sweater seems out of context in a museum show. To me, that proves its vitality.

KR: What is art for? What does the best art do?

EL: In an interview with Suzi Gablik in the book “Conversations Before the End of Time” (1997), the Performance Studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett defines the artist’s role as one of turning “value into form." I love this idea, that art is the development of a symbolic visual language through which to argue one’s particular ethic. And I think this is what makes creativity effective, that creative components can take on an argumentative role.

I personally agree with the Greenham Commons ethos as well, that creative making serves as a sort of opposition to violence: that it is an affirmation of life, of intention, of joy, of beauty.

KR: What is the biggest challenge facing artists today?

EL: Debt. I know too many young artists who finish undergraduate school with debts that exceed $100,000. They can’t afford a studio, let alone the opportunity to travel, to relocate, or to participate in the culture that they so value. I think debt closes the door on a lot of very dedicated, visionary young artists. And then some of these young artists with this debt still think that they should go to graduate school so that they can get a teaching job—as if that’s the endgame, or as if it’s 1990 and they weren’t just going to be used as adjuncts.

KR: Who is your artistic hero?

EL: Artists of the Feminist Art movement got me really excited to make things—I love Hannah Wilke, Sylvia Sleigh and Nancy Spero. I have also always been inspired by Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Shapiro of the Pattern and Decoration Movement, and by the women weavers of the Bauhaus.

I love the work of Christina Ramberg, Diane Simpson, and Dorothy Iannone. Ramberg is obsessed with clothing items that have traditionally contorted the female body, like bras and corsets, and her paintings are intense reckonings with the power of female sexuality. Simpson's way of flattening and manipulating garment shapes is endlessly interesting to me. And I love the sex-positivity of the female bodies in Iannone's work. Their sexualization is mythic—her women have round vulvas as big as testicles and they are manifesting her righteous, empowering texts.

KR: What are you working on now?

EL: I am completing work for a two-person show, with Helen Mirra, that opens in May at the Armory Center in Pasadena. I am also starting a new series of paintings that are modeled not from activist garments but from the garments of the female Amazon warriors on ancient Greek redware pottery. On these artifacts the Amazons are differentiated from Westerners by these garments, combination pant/tunics that are very heavily patterned. They are arguably some of the first depictions of “otherness,” and for sure of Eastern-ness in Western art. I think they are a fascinating subject right now, in the current political climate.

I also have a web-based project at through which anybody can check out a battle-axe motif sweater, sourced from Greenham Commons, to wear while performing a (self-defined) act of courage. There have been almost 50 renters since the project started in September, and you can follow the documentation on Instagram@congratulationsandcelebrations. Or you can check out the sweater yourself—I send it round trip, free of charge!

ARTSPACE, January 8, 2016
By Julia Bryan-Wilson

Legend has it that there is a video store in Portland, Oregon with a whole shelf dedicated to Bigfoot porn. Now what this porn might entail is a matter much of speculation: Do these videos depict Bigfoot doing it with men or women? Or is it Bigfoot-on-Bigfoot? Bigfoot orgies? But one need not travel all the way to Oregon to see a sexualized Saquatch, given the recent art world interest in yeti, humanoids and wild men. In September alone there was a Saquatch- themed group show at New York's Sixty Seven Gallery and an exhibition of Allyson Mitchell's “Lady Saquatch” project at Toronto's Paul Petro Gallery. Much of this work seems designed to titillate, even if that titillation is thinly disguised as derision.

Taking a different tack on the apparently emerging genre of ‘Elusive Woodland Creature Art’ is the collaborative duo Ellen Lesperance and Jeanine Oleson's “Off the Grid.” Billed as “performance-based,” their large-scale photographs show the artists dressed (and undressed) as two characters—one a human woman in tattered knitwear, the other a naked, hairy she-critter—engaging in activities whose meanings remain obscure. In “Summer XIV” (2005), the woman, wearing a woolen bikini and wrist warmers, stands on a cliff overlooking the untamed ocean. Her upturned face receives a crimson line of blood that streams, alarmingly, and somewhat magically, from the sky.

In this piece, as in others, there is a tension between what is on-camera and off, between the action in the frame and the suggested apparatus that hovers just outside it. Because of this, the photos are ambivalent, and profoundly self-conscious, about their staginess. “Bigfoot & Nioka IV” (2005) captures the Sasquatch figure as she squats down in a clearing, clutching fistfuls of rock and dirt. Her hunched back is encrusted with filth and fur, yet the sun shines off her clean, smooth blonde hair.

Lesperance and Olseon are not interested in an archaic return to nature nor in a mokumentary-style “exposé,” but are ambiguous about the fantasy, longing and desire that mythic figures like Bigfoot elicit. Ancient rites are invoked without being explained. The two are shown after a kill in “Bigfoot & Nioka V” (2005), with a dripping cow's head, bloody hatchet and all, yet their faces betray both horror and confusion. In another photo sticks have been arranged around tree trunks, presumably by the creature that slinks off in the background.

The photographs evidence an interest in a contemporary fixation on place. Shot in locations like the Pacific Northwest and New Mexico, they nevertheless seem to exist in the space between somewhere and nowhere—a forest that is somehow too foresty, a stage set of a forest. Is there such a thing as primitive camp? Lesperance and Oleson mix deadpan humor and sly wit into their serious set of references to ethnography, feminism, and romanticized landscapes. By referring back to 1970s feminist performance that also made recourse to the naked body for political purposes, Lesperance and Oleson remind us that it might have also been funny-funny-sharp, funny-wise- to witness Carolee Schneeman outline herself in large messy brushstrokes (“Interior Scroll,” 1975), or see Judy Chicago's photo of a women removing a bloody tampon (“Red Flag,” 1971).

In “Bigfoot & Nioka III” (2003/05), the two characters recline a field of brilliant green grass. The grotesquely besmirched Bigfoot sprawls out- it is unclear if she is resting injured. A gold band on her ring finger glints among the matted fur and smeared mud. The human mountain mama, in her rags and feathers, and stockings, gazes down at Bigfoot. The look in her eyes is pure tenderness; if this is theater, it is theater as revelation. That expression transcends both the fetishization of and disgust for all this female flesh and hair and dirt and blood. Lesperance and Oleson push beyond the usual dichotomy of ridicule and sincerity, and suffuse their work with a humor that coexists with a genuine affective change.

ArtUS December 2005-February 2006

Exhibition review: Monya Rowe Gallery, New York, NY, September 8-October 8, 2005