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Features / Miscellaneous

Doing It Differently: Tavi Gevinson and Minna Gilligan in Conversation

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2014

Words by

Liv Siddall

Illustrations by

Minna Gilligan

Two billion people in the world have internet access and every week, over four million of them visit Rookie, an online publication for teenage girls created in 2010 by Tavi Gevinson.

Back then, Tavi was already famed for Style Rookie, a detailed, erudite blog that documented her sartorial inspirations and cultural passions, garnering her an impressive following even then. It was on this platform that in April 2010 she posted about the state of “teen girl” magazines and how something needed to be done to address topics beyond sex, hormones and make-up. This post received such a tidal wave of response that Rookie was born later that year, and became the first magazine to speak directly to a new generation of online teenage girls swirling in a vortex of paranoia-hindered creativity and angst. Remember what a rough ride it was to be 14? Now add the internet. Like the teen magazines of yore, Rookie offers craft tips, style-guides and to-the-point sex advice. On top of that it promotes passion, creativity and exploration, encouraging millions of girls of all ages worldwide to grab life by the horns in their own unique way.

Minna Gilligan is a fellow blogger and Melbourne-based artist whose beautiful lo-fi collages have accompanied some of the best Rookie articles from the word go. She and Tavi are close friends and steadfast collaborators whose shared values are obvious in their respective online platforms. With that in mind we asked them to have a discussion on the theme of “doing it differently,” something which they both achieve extraordinarily, effortlessly well. Their preferred choice of interaction? Gmail chat.

Tavi Gevinson: Hi! How are you?

Minna Gilligan: Good! Looking out over the ocean. How are you?

TG I’m good. There are a number of quotations I’ve been writing down in my journal as I plan this year and the year I’m taking off once I graduate high school in four months. “Build a good name for yourself, because eventually that will become your currency,” from William S. Burroughs to Patti Smith. That and the Madonna one you’re obsessed with.

MG “I have the same goal I’ve had ever since I was a girl. I want to rule the world.” But it’s not about ruling the world in a dictatorship kind of way, it’s about ruling your own world, being the queen of yourself, and your empire.

TG For me it’s not about looking over the New York skyline and going, “One day, I will own this town!” It’s about knowing what is important to me and who I will give my time to when creating stuff publicly tends to attract a few assholes. “Doing it differently” means knowing what is important to you and living by those values. Like when Jamia (Wilson) said that Beyoncé’s album is about being the CEO of your own life, not trying to climb to the top of someone else’s ladder.

For the first time since I started blogging at age 11, I finally feel like I do indeed have a place in these fields where I’ve always had a bit of impostor syndrome. And yes, I do think that we as girls are taught to be afraid of our own power, like it makes us dirty or unsexy or scary or threatening. It is a radical act to step outside that and go after what is yours.

MG Exactly. I guess from an art point of view I like to think about it as curating my life. Knowing what’s important to me and putting that (people, relationships, projects) in my gallery. Haters and the “few assholes” can come and look and write bad reviews in the paper but they’re still not in the exhibition. This is a corny metaphor but that’s how I think of it.

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In Australia we have this thing called Tall Poppy Syndrome which I’m fascinated by. It’s when people start to do too well in their field, get lots of opportunities and recognition and people start to tear them down for no good reason. I feel this usually happens to women. Feeling as though you deserve something can take a lot of work to come to terms with; it’s a radical act to stand up and own what you’ve done and be proud of it without giggling or minimising it into insignificance. Actually, you’re the one who taught me to say thank you when I get a compliment, instead of being like, “Oh, it was nothing.”

TG That’s a Norwegian thing; you’re supposed to undercut any compliments you get. And it’s certainly specific to women as well. It’s like that Amy Schumer sketch where all these women are standing around complimenting each other and always replying with stuff like, “What are you talking about? I look like shit!” Then one woman comes up and they compliment her and she just goes, “Thank you!” And one by one, they all kill themselves, right there. It’s one of my favourite sketches from any show and captures that phenomenon so succinctly.

One reason why I’ve loved having you in the _Rooki_e community is that the idea of success among all of us has always felt like something for everyone to define for themselves. I understand older people being bitter about the way the internet debunks some of the hierarchical structure that they’ve spent years working within, but the internet also allows for a new hierarchy to emerge: quality. Of course, it’s not pure either, because different kinds of privileges still inform who gets an audience and who doesn’t. But I do think it offers a lot more opportunities for people who otherwise might not get them. That’s part of why Rookie is so immensely satisfying to work on; I get to assemble an amazing staff and see you all take off.

I am a firm believer in sharing that love. Even though we were just talking about being CEO of your own life, there are also parts of the world outside that I want to shake up completely. I want to use all of my power. Not out of ego, but out of an interest to change who gets to be heard and why.

MG Ha! That’s it. I was thinking about that Tweet of yours about selfies. There’s a lot of stigma around them because it implies that you like the way you look and the implication is that there’s something wrong with that. Selfies for me have been great because I can document times in my life that are important to me. They’re a record that I will totally love looking back on when I am 60.

TG I said that as long as there are Reddit threads where guys post pictures they took in secret of a girl’s butt, we should be allowed to take pictures of ourselves because we feel fucking good and in control of our image. I’d rather teach girls who already love it that they can use it all as a vehicle for agency, instead of calling them narcissistic for growing up in this culture and being attracted to those parts of it. It reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s whiny, elitist rants about technology and the internet. He accused Jennifer Weiner of being tacky for promoting herself on social media, as if it cheapened the quality of her work. And she was like, “Hi, white CIS man, not all of us can rely so readily on being written about by other people, so we have to promote ourselves.” I am all for that.

MG I do think the internet is a great equaliser in that it allows everyone to shout from the rooftops, but you’re correct in saying that different types of privilege can dictate who has an audience and whose voices are the loudest. The best thing about Rookie is that it’s a space where we represent different voices with equal significance. In order to feel fulfilled I want to feel as though those around me also feel fulfilled, and as much as we’re talking about ruling our own worlds, I want other people to be happy in ruling their equally significant worlds too.

TG Since we’re talking about doing it differently, one reason that I love your art is because it doesn’t look like fine art. It looks like diaries and zines and all the documentation people have always done for themselves when their stories weren’t being told in mainstream culture. Do you ever face skepticism because you’re not making traditional fine art?

MG I think about this so much. My work has always had like the DIY, lo-fi vibes – it woke up like dis, you know? I was really self-conscious of my work when I first went to art school because it was about my feelings, not about an essay by a philosopher that I read, or about some random art theorist’s bookshelf from 1932 or whatever. I still feel self-conscious when I show in certain gallery spaces and alongside certain work that has a particular conceptual weight. The illustration side of my practice, where I do take on commercial jobs for the money, can be frowned upon sometimes.

I’m really inspired by an artist called Martin Sharp, who did the album cover for Cream’s Disraeli Gears and was also a fine artist and illustrator. He walked the line between commercial and fine art which is what I want to do. I think that because of the internet, artists are becoming really multi-disciplinary now. There are so many outlets and I want to absolutely make the most of them all. I think that idea of being an expert at one thing is a bit outdated.

TG I love that. Also it is by no means evil to make a living off your art! And the people who claim that it is or shame people for “selling out” usually come from money, as in, they can afford to do stuff for free and to call someone else impure for having to buy food and pay rent.

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MG Oh yeah, totally! I don’t take any bullshit shame from people who are like, “Why would you want to do that illustration for that company?” It’s like, well, because I get paid for it, and that gives me the means to make more art for your eyes and for the world.

TG Yep. I want Rookie to have lots and lots of money so that we can do lots and lots of amazing stuff that our readers don’t have to pay for and that doesn’t have to be monetised. And if we do monetise it, we’ll use that money to do even more stuff.

MG I have to say as well that I really try and be like a business woman. Not with the 1980s blazers or anything, but I want to have some knowledge of all parts of my practice, and that includes invoicing and working out how much to charge and writing up contracts and stuff. I find that stuff makes me feel really powerful and like I’m ruling my empire as well.

TG It’s so true. There’s an interview with Lena Dunham and Miranda July where they talk about that; how you don’t need to brand yourself so much anymore as specific to a certain field, as having honed a specific craft. I once did a Q&A at a Rookie event in Toronto where Sheila Heti asked what I consider to be my domain. My first thought was, well, my domain is me. Not in an exhibitionist way, which is also fine, but in the way that I have access to so many different outlets.

I never find myself considering what I am trying to do or say in the context of everyone who has worked in that medium before me and what I am contributing to the medium as a whole. I know my own life best and I love documenting it and doing so across different media. Rookie of course is not about me, but the years that I kept up my blog were certainly invaluable for how they formed my point of view and my taste. And Minna, I think of you as someone who really practises that “my domain is me” thing. I’m in awe of how you’ve created your own space and identity and image, down to your lipstick and your nameplate necklaces; how you seem to kind of live your art. It’s inspiring.

MG I really used to think I was a bad artist because I’m not very good at drawing figures, but when I started scribbling in my journals and using materials like Textas and coloured pencils I was like, “Wow, this is how I can say it,” you know? The idea of being a jack of all trades but a master of none is stupid, because I really do think the best way to express yourself and your points of view is to try it all; to make the most of everything you have available. I watch this show called The Hoarder Next Door and the psychologist in it has this saying that’s like, “There’s a little hoarder in all of us.” Hoarding is about surrounding yourself with things you want in your life as a means of coping with loss. There definitely is a little hoarder in me that gathers things that make my world how I want it to be.

As creative people, the entire way that we live becomes our practice, and it’s about curating your life and sticking pictures up on your bedroom wall and Tumblring away with pretty pictures and dressing a certain way and acting out who you are. I share so much stuff on the internet because it seems more real to me then, and I love the idea that it’s out there.

I listen to the radio a lot and I think about the airwaves and how the radio DJs just talk, but they could be talking to no-one or there could be one person listening. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s there for you to tune in for some company any time you want.

TG Totally! I want my words to live in the world. I don’t want to live in my own little hermit bubble in the woods just yet. I want feedback and criticism and bonding and funny comments. It’s not as much of a psyche-shifting problem as people think it is. And people write these horror story-style think pieces about it like it’s a form of narcissism and performance but I always feel like I’m performing for myself. I was sharing it because I wanted to be heard.