The slogan "This Faggot Kills Fascists" is emblazoned across an orange t-shirt; the back of a varsity jacket reads "Queer Fear." For one of six new capsule collections in his eponymous line, MELGAARD, Norwegian artist and infamous provocateur Bjarne Melgaard turned to Bash Back! for inspiration, a grassroots activist network of radical anarchist queers who organized nationwide chapters in 2008. They carried out direct actions, like counter-demonstrating against Nazis at Milwaukee's PrideFest or protesting against the Nike sponsorship of Memphis pride celebrations. Fast forward nine years, and the group's message and methods feel incredibly precocious as people are taking to the streets today to resist Trump's new administration.
Bash Back! Bomber from the MELGAARD collection, 2017 (Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York)
Melgaard, it seems, was prescient too. "The whole collection developed out of the current political climate, but it was produced before the election," he explains. "It was weirdly prophetic." While Bash Back! couldn't be a more relevant reference given the nation's mood, it's interesting the anti-fascist organization emerged at the beginning of the Obama era. The grassroots group formed in 2008, resisting that most gay activism at the time was being channeled into fighting for marriage equality. "I think the radical resistance of Bash Back! was a reply to complacent neoliberal politics of its time," contends Melgaard. The group's founders were disappointed that the mainstream LGBTQ movement was primarily concerned with assimilating into heteronormative society. Their values instead were about fighting for liberation, rejecting capitalism and opposing oppression.
Related | OUT100: Bjarne Melgaard
Melgaard's Bash Back!-themed collection, along with the five others will debut tonight at Melgaard's exhibition, The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment. With influences ranging from Chris Kraus' cult feminist novel I Love Dick to hating Rihanna, the collaboration from stylist Avena Gallagher and creative director Babak Radboy will find Red Bull Arts New York's two-floor Chelsea space transformed into a department store.
There will also be a jewelry department off-site at Gavin Brown's enterprise, featuring the collection Bjarne & Bjorg, which Melgaard produced with designer Bjorg Nordli-Mathiesen. The pieces are critiques of consumption culture with statements like "CHEATED FOR CASH" and "LIES TO MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER," as the entire multi-site exhibition wryly comments on psychologies of consumerism. On one hand the Bash Back!-branded collection introduces the group's radical mission to a new audience, but within this context, there's something ironic about embroidering the slogans of an anti-capitalist organization onto designer duds and putting them in a show sponsored by an energy drink company. "I guess part of the collection is a bit cynical about grassroots movements," notes Melgaard.
Suprem(e) "I Love Dick" Puffer Jacket from the MELGAARD collection, 2017 (Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York)
The Bash Back! movement was short-lived. Its demise came in the wake of an action disrupting Sunday service at Michigan's Mount Hope Church,which they targeted for its fundamentalist anti-gay teachings and its hosting conferences of "ex-gays" who'd been "deprogrammed." Bash Back! was sued, and in the end, settled, paying $2,750 in damages. But there were other internal conflicts in the grassroots organization, too.
In Bash Back! is Dead; Bash Back Forever! Tegan Eanelli notes that the Bash Back! project was initially spurred by queers from the Midwest and South because they had a more urgent need to fight for queer spaces than the coastal newcomers with liberal arts college backgrounds. These groups, she said, later joined and "emphasized non-violent communication" and "tame (if perhaps colorful) sidewalk marches and street theater." Eanelli said "Bash Back! takes as its starting point the reality of violence in the context of queer life," citing examples like teen suicide, queerbashing, AIDS genocide, exclusion at borders and enslavement in prisons. For Bash Back!, "the use of violence as a part of resistance and survival is always something to celebrate."
Related | Op-Ed: In Consideration of a Radical Queer Militant Movement In the Age of Trump
When Melgaard emblazons Bash Back! on a designer jacket, he's exaggerating the same kind of appropriation carried out by the Bash Back! movement, when violence was frequently more symbolic than of substance. "Will radical queers continue down the path of the image of militancy?" Eanelli asks. "If so... we can expect more celebration of riots forty years ago and uprisings across the ocean (accompanied of course, by condemnation of riot in the here and now -- by crying over broken windows and over-tipped newspaper boxes." Violence as abstraction is always more acceptable than violence in the streets, but as protests become more instagrammed and instagrammable, the difference between the two begins to blur. Still in 2017, Frederick Douglas's words are just as true as they were in 1857: "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
Bjarne Melgaard's The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment opens tonight at Red Bull Arts New York, 220 W. 18th Street. from 5 pm - 8 pm.