Saturday, March 7, 2009

Collective Consciousness

Way back at RISD me and my best gal pals took a class about Andy Warhol taught by the artist Deborah Bright. At the end of the semester we had to give a presentation to the class as a group, so we chose the topic of collectives and group art making. We got really into it, Kathleen and I were up till 4 am researching Kenneth Anger and creating sleep deprived hypotheses about Warhols similarities to Charles Manson (you should see how we talk about artists we don't like!). So in class we ended up going way over time and leading the class in a huge debate about weather Andy Warhol was sexist or not. He wouldn't even give Viva keys to the Factory!

So since that project I've been interested in researching the concept of collective work.....from HaHa to Drop City. Recently I've read two really great pieces about women's collectives. Collectives of women tend to be incredibly diverse - from Redstockings to Alapine to the Dirt Palace.

The New Yorker recently had an amazing article about the Van Dykes. Founded by Heather Van Dyke this lesbian separatist group got together in the 70s. They piled in a van, changed their last names to Van Dyke, and took to the road, exploring everything from Mexico to S&M. The Van Dykes attempted to only stop at womyn's land (land or farms where only women lived). They ranged from straight women who had given up men for the sake of the sisterhood to lesbian separatists who refused to even talk to men. Heather Van Dyke was a 6ft tall charismatic charmer who discovered her love of women while living in Germany with her fugitive boyfriend. She went to a women's conference, started sleeping with a house guest and never turned back. Along the way she collected many Van Dykes, some of whom developed relationships with her other lovers. The Van Dykes were adamant about being part of the sexual revolution and though they sometimes fought over shoes or lit each others vans on fire, many of them remain friends to this day. Heather, now Lamar Van Dyke, lives in Seattle where she ran a tattoo shop for a while and has since been reunited with her daughter and granddaughter. I can't really do the article justice so check it out here or buy the latest New Yorker.

I also recently read about the Jane Collective in the book Group Material, put out by Temporary Services. Jane was a faction of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. In a time when abortion was still illegal and many women paid huge amounts of cash to terribly inadequate underground doctors, Jane offered cheap and safe abortions. Heather Booth and a few other women began the operation by finding a reliable doctor for desperate women. Yet, they quickly found that the man performing the abortion was not in fact a doctor, and he was still charging more than most women could afford. So, the Jane collective decided to take charge. They taught themselves how to perform safe abortions and set up a comfortable system for the women. Jane kept track of the women's medical information and would counsel them before hand. If it became clear that a woman was being bullied into the decision by her family or partner, Jane would refuse to perform the abortion and would instead provide counseling for the family/ partner. If the woman was sure she wanted the abortion she would arrive at "the front" where she could leave her children or a partner/husband in the care of other Jane members. The woman then went to another location where Jane provided pain killers and walked her through the procedure in an inclusive way. Over the years over 100 women were members of Jane and over 12,000 abortions were performed. Jane advertised in student papers and was even listed in the phone book as Jane Howe. Despite police busts, Jane existed until Roe Vs. Wade made abortion legal.

For me there was a similar realization while reading about Jane as when I read about the Van Dykes. Times have changed and its easy to be critical of the methods of the past, yet you can't knock it till you've been there. I read about Jane and thought 'I'm pro-choice but could I really have been there and done that'. Yet without the context of the situation you can never say never. As one woman said of Jane " it was just shocking what people had to go through. Cook County (Hospital) was getting hundreds of (victims of) botched abortions a month. Abortions were unsafe and they cost thousands of dollars." If you decided to keep the baby it was not uncommon to be shunned by your family and expected to give up whatever schooling and career you might have desired so your equally confused boyfriend could provide for you. Reading about Jane made me appreciate living in a time when there are more options for birth control, more options for keeping or adopting babies, and more options for abortion.
When reading about the Van Dykes I kept thinking of their tour de womyn's land as some sort of physical embodiment of the Internet. At a time before cyberspace these women were creating their own connections through out the country in the most authentic way possible -with a gas tank and an eager libido. Lamar Van Dyke rips into my generation for letting the Internet do our work for us. Connecting over the web pretty obviously takes a lot of the fun out of human relationships and subcultures, yet, sometimes its so much easier. However, as with Jane, the women who were working to create womyn's land were dealing with a whole different breed of men, a patriarchal society so intense that writing off men all together didn't look so bad, even for straight women. As Lamar points out, young people need to think beyond fitting in (aka gay marriage and gays in the military) and not be afraid of being revolutionaries. Working as a collective is usually more effective than working alone - so who's ready to start the revolution with me? Also check back in with me in 10 years when I'm running my commune up state..... anyone have a band that wants to play there?

1 comment:

nan said...

Smartie pants!
Do you want a
"?" after done that in Jane piece?
Love the van dykes part.