Theoretical Grrrl

The Legacy of Kathy Acker

She was always rethinking representation, and this certainly fit the visual art of the '80s: Sherry Levine's appropriations, Cindy Sherman's masquerades, Barbara Kruger's disrupted representations. Sometimes Acker seemed more at home in the art world than in the literary world. Few female novelists have addressed these issues so directly.

Artist Nayland Blake (also a symposium participant) says his work "was my response to her work. In terms of directness, in terms of retelling stories, in terms of reconfiguring things that were already there." Somehow, that turned into a stainless steel workstation, for example. Acker then wrote a catalog essay for him, somehow coming up with a riff on Hansel and Gretel. He then built one of his better-known recent pieces, a gingerbread house. What mattered in this "dialogue," says Blake, was Acker's attitude, "how she constructed a model of her own thought. It gave me a kind of permission to figure out what type of artist I could be."

She was a riot grrrl ahead of her time.
photo: Kathy Brew
She was a riot grrrl ahead of her time.

Sometime in the late '80s or early '90s, Acker did a workshop in Seattle. One of the participants was Kathleen Hanna, now of Le Tigre, then a college student ditching a class and taking a Greyhound to meet someone who was "a huge huge huge part of my brain." Acker gave Hanna some advice: "If you want to be heard, why are you doing spoken word? You should be in a band."

So, says Hanna, who will read from Acker's work at the end of the symposium, "I went home and started a band." Eventually this became a really important band: Bikini Kill. And Hanna went on to be one of the founding Riot Grrrls.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must add that Acker was a dear and much missed friend who included me in her will. I knew her to be a feminist by instinct, at war with feminist orthodoxy. (She fought all orthodoxy.) But I've come to think of her as a Riot Grrrl ahead of her time.

"Lust for Life: The Writings of Kathy Acker" takes place November 7 and 8 at NYU's Fales Library. Other participants include David Antin, Richard Foreman, Diamanda Galas, Kim Gordon, and Sarah Schulman. The event is free, but attendees must register: Go to, then to Programs & Events.

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