With the internet clearing the way for fourth-wave feminism almost as rapidly as it revives DIY culture, references to Riot Grrrl – the underground feminist movement that first sparked in the 1990s – are everywhere. Nowhere more so than in Teal Triggs’ living room. The educator, writer and historian is living in a monument to feminist self-publishing, and it’s constructed out of brown A4 archive boxes stacked almost six feet high.
Growing up in a liberal household in Austin, Texas in the late 1960s, Teal was immersed in the graphic language of the avant-garde from an early age. “My dad ran his own design studio, so he had copies of some of the underground publications that were going around in the States and somehow things gravitated from the studio into the home. That sparked off my own visual interest.”
Teal started picking up zines and flyers at gigs in the 1970s. “At that point you don’t really recognise what it is you have in your hand,” she explains. “It’s a piece of information that somebody at a gig has given you, maybe it relates to the bands you’re interested in. You just put it away.”
It was only when she moved to London in 1985 and began teaching at Central Saint Martins with designer Jonathan Barnbrook that Teal’s interest was renewed. “One day Jonathan said, ‘Look what I found in the bin! It’s an old issue of Sniffing Glue.’ It was in absolute pristine condition! So he gave it to me as he knew I was interested, and we’ve been friends ever since.” It was a very British reawakening. “Here was something that in the States I would only have had access to through museum collections, and we had just found it in a bin, because an old punk somewhere had thrown away all of his zines. That reignited my interest in collecting. I thought ok, let’s look at what’s happening here.”
When the 1990s began, Teal naturally found her way towards the Riot Grrrl movement. “Coming out of a household of liberal thinkers I grew up being a feminist, so when Riot Grrrl started bubbling to the surface in the 1990s I thought, this is really interesting, this is the next wave.” Gone was the radical bra-burning of the 1970s and in its place an inclusive movement that embraced generational gaps and community activity, as well as a new culture of print. “The fanzines coming out of there were actually talking about what it felt like to be a young woman; issues of the body, of sexuality, of the day-to-day contemporary issues that resonated with young women. I found it very inspiring, and I got very interested in the graphic language.”
As often happens with underground subcultures, music became the vehicle by which Riot Grrrl was adopted into the mainstream, with bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Huggy Bear signposting the way. “If the bands were any good it travelled by word of mouth, and zines were quite key to that activity,” Teal explains. “In a way they were publicity forums.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Riot Grrrl publications is the way these zines subverted imagery from contemporary media, reworking them in a diary-like format; the archetypal 1950s housewife, love hearts and Hello Kitty all played their part. “Mainstream imagery from magazines collaged back into a commentary – whether it’s punk or Riot Grrrl – is a visual language. It’s been used by John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch all the way up to Peter Kennard as a way of making a political statement about contemporary conditions, and I think there’s a real, necessary relationship between the mainstream and the underground in developing that graphic language.” The lack of refinement is key to the Riot Grrrl message. “Rawness is not to be seen in a negative way. There was an energy in what the Riot Grrrls were doing – it wasn’t about neat little tears or cutting something out carefully. It was about the need to do something quickly. There’s an immediacy to it. These zines became documents of the period of time in which they were created.”
Teal’s own collection – consisting of the self-published, the hand-drawn and occasionally held together with safety pins – is a testament to the beauty of the physical archive, but she’s quick to recognise the potential for feminist media to be circulated online. “It fits the ethos of punk because it’s about dissemination and giving access to zines that were created in the 1970s. These creators aren’t concerned about copyright or being precious, they want to share with other like-minded individuals.” Still she concedes, tactility provides something extra. “Ultimately when you handle the material you see things in a completely different way. A photograph of a zine online may mean that you miss that six point, hand-scrawled note in the left-hand corner in the margin that’s half-covered by a staple. It’s the act of opening it up and there being a little surprise there, a delicious little bit of content that lets us access what this individual wants to say. We gotta keep that going.”