Recently, I screened The Punk Singer, the new documentary film about Kathleen Hanna, the feminist activist and lead singer for the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre who co-founded the riot grrrl movement in the early ‘90s.
In the film, Hanna talked about her first solo project Julie Ruin, which she recorded by herself in her bedroom. She said she wanted the album to reach other girls who were also in their bedrooms and also making things. I was able to ask her about what exactly she meant by that. I also asked Tavi Gevinson and a few other girls and women about their bedrooms and the things they make in them.
Why did you decide to record Julie Ruin in your bedroom?
“Well, I didn’t have the money to go into a studio, but I know I could’ve figured it out because I figured out a lot of things in my life. I think I chose not to because I didn’t want to deal with male engineers and typically, at that time, it was really hard to find female engineers to work with in the studio. Any engineer really I didn’t want to work with because I was scared of listening to my own voice back. You know what it’s like. You’re going to listen to this interview back and be like, “My voice sounds so stupid.” Or maybe you won’t, but nine out of ten people are like that. When you’re singing in the studio, they a capella you completely dry to find the best performance. You have to sit and listen to yourself. It’s like looking at pimples on your butt in front of a bunch of people. I was always horrified by that experience.
Also, sound mixing: I couldn’t understand it. I took an audio class and I couldn’t understand anything out of the book. I felt like the book was the mom from The Peanuts talking. But when I got behind a mixing desk, I intuitively started working and realizing I was just painting. I was painting with sound and I wanted that experience again. I wanted to get better at it and I wanted to learn how to listen to my own voice without losing my mind and feeling freaked out. Besides finding my identity away from Bikini Kill, it was about finding myself as a producer and as a music maker who doesn’t just sing—one who is also making beats, playing the guitar and bass. It gave me so much confidence with Le Tigre when we went into the studio. I realized what I like. I like A LOT of treble on the guitar.”
In the film, when you were talking about Julie Ruin you said you wanted to connect to other girls who, like you, were creating things in their bedrooms. Who did you imagine them to be and what were they making?
That’s interesting, nobody’s ever asked me that. I guess the only thing I had to go off—the only thing you really ever have to go off—is yourself. And I had a real impulse at the end of that record to throw it in the trash. I really was more frightened with that record because it was me.
I was really scared about how it would be received and at the time like forty people bought it. Now it’s like costs $100 to get it on eBay so I know somebody wants it, now, like twenty years later it’s a big deal and nobody cared about it when it came out (laughs). I mean I really did literally shove it under the door of Kill Rockstars and then walked away. Nobody ever called me to say, “Oh we got the record.”
I was, sort of, I was embarrassed of it. But I did it anyway. I was thinking about how many essays and photographs and paintings—how many things that women make—that end up in the trash. That record was this close to being in the trash. I just thought about how much other feminist artwork ends up to being in the trash. And that gave me the will to make my album and the push to push it under the door.
TAVI GEVINSON, Founder Style Rookie, Editor-in-chief Rookie Mag
Do you, or have you ever, used your bedroom to make art or other creative projects?
“Yes, all the time—zines, diaries, Rookie, Rookie Yearbooks One and Two.”
Do you think there is something special about girls using their bedrooms as a place to foster and produce creative projects?
“Yes. The bedroom is where you as a teenager create your own world while trying to figure out your place in the one outside, and to make the setting of such extremely personal experiences also a place where one creates things to share with the world outside is to bridge the gap between both worlds, offer a bit of yourself up, draw on the most private of details. You are surrounded by your stuff and your memories and your interests. It’s a way of creating in which you feel inspired by yourself.
It makes people (especially grown men) uncomfortable to put this together because people (especially grown men) know that this is also where you get dressed and undressed, maybe have sexual encounters (alone or otherwise), etc. Sometimes that even leads to invalidation of artwork made by a teenager or girl or both because there’s that whole kneejerk opposition to anything by women that feels too ‘confessional’ or ‘personal,’ and the insistence that anything you made as a teen holds no lasting truth and is just embarrassing bad Nirvana/Plath knock-off stuff and let’s all be embarrassed by our former selves because we’re much cooler now, and also because grown men are generally scared of teenage girls.
Art made by teenage girls that doesn’t pretend to be anything else seems silly to lots of people — it makes one think of diaries and fangirling and crushes and it all seems juvenile and too feminine to be anything but frivolous. What I see in the Rookie community, in zines, and on Tumblr is a kind of reclaiming of that overtly teenage and feminine aesthetic. It’s not just a zine-like DIY aesthetic, it’s girly. It’s more diary than zine. It’s often used intelligently to drive home points about feminism, being a girl, being a teenager, or hating everything. Its usage often seems ironic, but there’s a lot of sincerity behind it. Chris Kraus: ‘The Ramones give ‘Needles & Pins’ the possibility of irony, but the irony doesn’t undercut the song’s emotion, it makes it stronger and more true.’”
EMILY NILAND, Artist and Illustrator
“I read somewhere that you’re not supposed to work in bed because your brain associates the bed with activity instead of rest. That’s probably why I’ve always had trouble falling asleep before 3:00 a.m. My problem is that my desk invariably turns into a glorified shelf that is too cluttered with crap to actually work on. Also, the ability to be productive in complete leisure is much too satisfying to give up.”
JAMIE BRESSLER, Properties Artisan
“I make puppets and specialty costumes like the ones you might see on Saturday Night Live. In fact, I often work with Robert Flanagan at Den Design Studio to fabricate items for SNL, Jimmy Fallon, and a number of other shows.
I spend a lot of time putting my bedroom, and the workshop in it, together because I know it’s where I’m going to spend a lot of time. I work there because it’s an environment I can control. I have acquired a numbed of skill sets for my work—sewing, sculpting, wood-working, and painting—each one of those things requires a completely different set of tools and materials. Basically I’ve amassed a sizable, while still being considered small, work station that includes most notably: bins for all of my fabrics, a sewing machine, and a drill press. I’ve got my eye on a mini band saw to add to the family.
I’ve worked in a number of shops, but I always feel like a visitor. In my room, not only are all of my supplies where I think they should be, I feel much more comfortable and able to be creative without the prying eyes of the world judging me, or my work. It’s a place to experiment, to design. While most people would probably find working in such an intimate space distracting or stifling, I find being surrounded by my art, magazine clippings, and yes, even my Harry Potter memorabilia, helpful in keeping me focused.”
KACIE LAGUIRE, High School Student
“My bedroom is very special to me. It’s a major reflection of who I am now and has changed a lot over the years as I’ve grown. Sitting on my bed, music blasting, I will usually be found tearing out pages from magazines to make collages. Half of the things I find in magazines go up on my walls, and the other half are typically used on paper to make individual collages. I am a fairly messy and disorganized person when it comes to collaging in my room. Paper usually gets strewn about, with half-finished pieces on my desk and any other flat surface I can find. The best part of working in my own space is that I’m surrounded by things that inspire me. My walls are covered in my favorite things, and simply sitting in the center of it all gets my creative flow going.”
STEFANIE SAKATA, Photographer
“My bedroom is a safe haven of sorts. It is mine. It is quiet, spacious, and bright.
The walls are off-white with a few photographs, drawings, and mementos taped to them here and there. I never use the ceiling light, and instead prefer lamps.
I edit photographs and work on mixed media, music, costume, and craft projects in my room. I like working in my room because it is a closed space. It is much easier for me to focus when I am alone and know that I will not be interrupted, and can work whenever I want for as long as I want—and not bother my roommates.
It has always felt natural to make art, a very personal thing, in my bedroom, a very personal space.”
JENNY MCCLARY & ALLIE LEEPSON, co-founders of VEER NYC
“I work in my bedroom by default. It’s not a conscious effort to go in there and make things, but there are several factors here. It’s NYC and your entire home is basically your bedroom (just kidding…sort of). It’s really the only place I go to not work. So even though it ends up happening, I have nothing else I’m obligated to do when I’m in that space. Clear mind. It’s really easy to make things in my bedroom when my partner is also sharing a bed with me. So, when I get those slightly offbeat, but on track to something late-night ideas I can actually talk to her about them. They don’t just get lost in my sleep.
I’m totally with Jenny in that sharing a space/bed with my partner makes making things so easy. We come up with a lot of our best ideas late at night when we’re half asleep. Even when we’re not sleeping (or about to go to sleep), we seem to find ourselves rolling around bouncing ideas off of each other. Actually, thinking about it now… we end up doing a lot of our “busy work” out in the living room, but mostly all of the idea-making happens in our bedroom when we’re not really set up to work. There’s something about being in there that’s relaxing and lets the ideas flow naturally.”
SARAH STENSENG, Product Designer for Uncommon Goods
“The only real value my bedroom provides is that it’s a private space, my only private space since I share my Brooklyn apartment with two roommates. If I had the budget to have a separate studio or office in which to do creative work, I would prefer that to working in my bedroom. Privacy is very important to me when I’m working on something creative—I need the freedom to be able to try out different ideas without worrying about someone looking over my shoulder judging what I’m doing.
I record songs, draw, and paint in there. Since my space is limited, I have a pegboard mounted on my wall, on which I store tools, drawing/painting supplies, and instrument cables. This saves spaces and provides easy access to those objects. I also have instruments mounted on the wall.
After watching The Punk Singer and hearing what Kathleen Hanna said in it about wanting her record to sound like it was made in a bedroom and to be heard by other girls who are making things in bedrooms, I think was she was getting at was that she wants to encourage girls to share the extremely private things that they’re creating…to put themselves out there…to say ‘I did this; you can too.’”
Thanks for sharing, girls and women! All photos courtesy of the interviewees.
Laura Jayne Martin lives and writes in NYC.