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Feminist Art Activism Then and Now

In 1977 the artist Suzanne Lacy coordinated her first large-scale public artwork, Three Weeks in May, a media event designed to raise awareness of rape. Lacy quickly became known for similar events and her most reprinted written work, “Toward a Feminist Media Strategy,” reflected her belief that art activism required tight control of traditional media. In 2012 she offered the “recreation” Three Weeks In January (@3WeeksInJan) relying on new social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, websites, and blogs. 

Drawing on Katie King’s recent work, Networked Reenactments, I analyze the representation and re-presentation of identity politics, citizen journalism, and feminist activism in @3WeeksInJan to explore new models for online activism. This new model raises important theoretical questions for social movement activists using social media, as alluded to by the tweets above. What happens when artists used to manipulating traditional media move into new social media? How does blurring the lines between art and activism via social media reconfigure 21st century social movement strategies?

@3WeeksInJan drew power from its re-enactment of what is now an iconic moment of ‘70s feminist art history, yet as King argues, shifts in the ensuing decades make uses of history more complicated than a simple “representation” of the past. She identifies new forms of knowledge work, a new public culture, and forms of academic capitalism as central to “new epistemological melodramas of identity, national interest, and global restructuring.” These three factors play a significant role in determining the 2012 re-presentation of Three Weeks in May. King’s notion of “pastpresents,” leaving behind traditional notions of chronology, historiography, and narrative to offer instead "discontinuities" "discursive practices" and a "model of knowledge" in which the past and present are simultaneous are all at work in @3WeeksInJan. The piece offered narratives of declension and progress, by making implicit and explicit comparisons to the 1977 piece. The 2012 discourse expanded to include men and rape as a global war crime, while remaining centered on women’s collective identity as potential victims. Discourse, both the late 20th century iteration, and the discursive practices of the 21st, became a prominent subtheme of social media presentations of @3weeksinJan.

The example of @3WeeksInJan reveals that activists using new social media forces must develop new models that expand beyond narrow identity politics. Men’s participation, from male academics to one of the primary tweeters of @3WeeksinJan, led to broader discourses that carried the concomitant risk of diluting the central message. Citizen journalists, such as bloggers, functioned as alternatives to art world critics and the mainstream press, but drawing on them necessitated far more open-ended strategies than in the 20th century. Finally, because the opportunities for feminist activism are now dispersed throughout mainstream institutions, such as higher education and museums, participants are easier to reach, but the risk of depoliticization is far greater.