Teaching to Transgress in the Virtual Classroom: Tools for Implementing the Guerrilla Girls’ Art of Complaining

by Jamie L. Palmer-Asemota

Teaching to Transgress in the Virtual Classroom

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks provides many of the core tenets of a feminist classroom and, for some educators, may introduce a new, and perhaps controversial, idea that “the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring” (1994, 7; emphasis added). Excitement is perhaps one of the most elusive and absent features, for teachers and students alike. Moreover, the typical goals of a feminist classroom feel less attainable in a virtual forum filled with little Zoom boxes or Canvas discussion boards. And making learning exciting can seem nearly impossible in a space where many students leave their cameras off and keep their mics on mute. After all, hooks states that to make the classroom exciting we must cultivate a learning community in which we listen to one another and develop a level of intimacy “in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence” (8) because excitement is “generated through a collective effort” (8). Therefore, this leaves us with the question: How can we, as feminist teachers, make the virtual classroom an exciting place?

I propose we return to hooks who reminds us of the importance of “transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries” (12), because, as she points out, “to encourage excitement [in the classroom is] to transgress” (7). She also proposes that we must “teach in a manner that cares for the souls of our students” (13) and that “[regards] one another as ‘whole’ human beings, striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world” (14-15). The pandemic, which moved education and our classrooms to a virtual space, perhaps only further highlights the need to consider our whole selves—in that we cannot deny the impact COVID-19 has had on all our lives. While the virtual classroom often feels impersonal for all who participate and can make it hard to see one another in this way, much of our lives today occurs online. Teaching to transgress may guide us in navigating this space as our whole selves, a key to growing our knowledge about “how to live in the [virtual] world” (hooks 1994, 15) in all its various platforms. If we confront and move beyond the boundaries of these little Zoom boxes, we too might be able to create a path for virtually transgressive pedagogy. This lesson offers one way forward though an assignment called “The Art of Complaining,” which I adapted from the Complaints Department activity instructions (Guerrilla Girls 2020; see also “The Art of Complaining” online). It is transgressive in that it makes the virtual space exciting through a collective effort to “speak” and “listen” to one another’s experiences and concerns about the world today.

What Is “The Art of Complaining”?

A group of feminist activist artists who first emerged in 1985 to raise awareness about gender and racial inequities in the art world formed the Guerrilla Girls. These anonymous Guerrilla Girls reclaim women’s art herstory, each adopting the pseudonym of a famous (dead) woman artist. They use art, namely “humor, wit, and pointed political critique” (Lustig 2004, 276), to draw attention to institutionalized social inequities and discrimination through integrating data and social facts. One example is How Many Women Had Solo Shows at NYC Museums? Recount 2015 in which they create a comparative report card on the abysmally low inclusion of women artists in leading New York City Museums in both 1985 and 2015.

In 2016, the Guerrilla Girls created a new interactive exhibit entitled Complaints Department at the Tate Exchange, which invited individuals to “post complaints about art, culture, politics, the environment, or any other issue they care about” (Tate Modern 2016). Borrowing this idea from department stores, their goal was to create a space in the art museum for visitors to reflect. The installation serves as “protest art” where participants are encouraged to “complain” using statistics and their knowledge about systemic inequality to creatively consciousness-raise about an issue relevant to their lives. The best practices, as laid out by the Guerrilla Girls, are to brainstorm with others, narrow the issue of focus, identify your target audience, find a way to catch your audience’s attention, and carefully craft a message (Guerrilla Girls 2020, 94).

Adapting “The Art of Complaining” to the Virtual Classroom

Like the aims the Guerrilla Girls lay out for transforming museum visitors from passive observers into critical participants, my goal is to similarly transform the virtual classroom space. Following my “Art of Complaining” assignment guidelines, each student creates a virtual poster to raise awareness about a social justice issue they’d like to complain about and show how it is gendered. Students choose their topic, brainstorm the issues, narrow it down, identify a target audience, craft a message (using social facts), and test the effectiveness of their strategy of complaining by asking others “what does this communicate to you?”

The “Complaints Department” for this Gender & Society class is a virtual installation created through the compilation of individual “complaints,” in this case virtual posters/digital media, using Padlet. It is both student-centered and an exciting place because it frees students from the typical academic constraints, allowing creative ways of expressing an issue. One example that stood out to me is a video game where a student edited and filled it with the types of sexist comments research has found are typical of women’s experiences of the world of gaming. Turning this normative behavior on its head created a jarring simulation of what it feels like to be a woman gamer. Another student included a video that simulated experiencing the world as a deaf woman along with social facts about the everyday forms of discrimination at the intersection of gender and disability.

Having implemented this assignment in the face-to-face classroom, I was surprised that the virtual version more effectively allowed students to tell us about the issue, and we could experience, or feel, the complaint more palpably. Observing the breadth and repetition of themes through the online installation enables students to map connections among them in a way that in-person presentations cannot replicate. For example, one student remarked, as a comment on our virtual complaints board, “At first I was surprised, I couldn’t believe how many issues are gender issues. Like how is gun control a gender issue? But then you see the connections between gender and gun control and other complaints like domestic violence homicide and the stat that says a gun in the home increases the risk by 500 percent, and then school shootings… and it’s hard to ignore the ways that gun control and gun violence is [connected to] gender.” In addition, the assignment facilitates the development of a critical lens on our virtual worlds—an issue of paramount importance today!

Lesson Plan for “The Art of Complaining” in a Virtual Gender Studies Classroom

Throughout the term I incorporate steps to provide the background necessary for our own “Complaints Department.” I have outlined these steps below:

Step 1: Background Reading

The assigned reading, “How and Why Did the Guerrilla Girls Alter the Art World Establishment in New York City, 1985-1995?” by Suzanne Lustig (2004) introduces students to the historical context behind the Guerrilla Girls’ use of complaining to raise awareness and push for social change in the art world. It articulates why and how the Guerrilla Girls emerged as an activist group and reveals the creative strategies they have used to draw attention to discrimination in the art world.

Suggested Supplemental Texts

Guerrilla Girls. 2020. Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Guerrilla Girls. 1998. The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York: Penguin.

Seager, Joni. 2018. The Women’s Atlas. New York: Penguin.

Step 2: Watch “Complain Creatively”

The video “Complain Creatively” (2016), which I link to in my assignment instructions, shows how the Guerrilla Girls test their claims by collecting data on women and people of color and representation in the art world. Specifically, they interrogate the notion of “progress” by comparing discrimination and inclusivity today with their original findings from the 1980s and by encompassing different social contexts: New York and Europe, among others. For these reasons, the video and the Guerrilla Girls serve as a model for how we as a class might critically test, evaluate, and identify the scope (social context) of our own complaints.

After watching the video, students post responses to the following discussion questions:

  1. Why do they call themselves Guerrilla Girls?
  2. Why are they anonymous? Why do they use pseudonyms?
  3. How is complaining akin to protest?
  4. What did you learn about the Guerrilla Girls, social movements, and social change?
  5. What role does art play in protest, movements, and social change?
  6. The Guerrilla Girls, as an anonymous group of artist-activists, have grown over the last four decades. Originally beginning in New York City, they now have chapters around the globe and over one hundred members in this transnational collective. What do you think has made the Guerrilla Girls so appealing and long lasting?

Suggested Supplemental Texts

Guerrilla Girls Talk the History of Art vs. The History of Power.” 2016. YouTube video, 6:23. Posted by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, 14 January.

Complain Creatively.” 2016. YouTube video, 8:53. Posted by The Art Assignment, 4 November.

Step 3: Examine Guerrilla Girls’ Projects

Before creating our own protest art, it is important to examine key pieces and examples in this genre. For this activity, students examine pieces from the Guerrilla Girls’ projects. This step serves two main purposes: it allows students to reflect on what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of this group’s protest art. And it often serves as an example for students to come back to when creating their own unique protest art.

After looking through the Guerrilla Girls’ work, students address the following questions:

  1. How did this piece stand out to you?
  2. What issues is the piece drawing attention to?
  3. Why (or why not) was this piece effective at drawing attention to the issue?
  4. What solution(s) are implicit or explicit in the piece?
  5. Would you do anything differently? Why or why not?

Step 4: The Gender Studies Art Assignment

In order to adapt “The Art of Complaining” (Guerrilla Girls 2020) to the gender studies (social science) classroom, I integrate additional parameters for complaining, or consciousness-raising. This includes paper and poster components as precursors to our “Complaints Department” installation.

  1. Paper Assignment
  2. Virtual Poster/Digital Media Assignment

Step 5: The Classroom “Complaints Department”

I use Padlet, as a group discussion board for our “Complaints Department” installation. For this final part of the assignment, we share and peer review one another’s “complaints,” which can be in the form of a poster or digital media piece that students post in the virtual space. For detailed instructions see the virtual discussion assignment.

“The Art of Complaining” as “Exciting” Feminist Pedagogy in the Virtual Classroom

“The Art of Complaining” not only changes how we might see or think about gender issues but is also transgressive: it creates new possibilities for speaking, listening, and seeing one another as whole human beings in virtual spaces. We do this partly by examining issues of concern in our lives, such as domestic homicide in Nevada, child marriage, gun control and mass shootings, female genital mutilation, gender and the environment, sexism in gaming, COVID-19 and housework, Black women and maternal mortality. Many topics are inspired by students’ life experiences as gamers, as environmentalists, as a domestic violence hotline operator, or as someone who was working on the Las Vegas Strip during the mass shooting in 2017 (#VegasStrong). To a great extent, the activity reminded us all how connected we are to one another and to these problems through virtual communities: classrooms, gaming, social media, and even #theartassignment. This changed the way we thought about many of the issues we complained about as well as the role of intimacy in the virtual classroom. Some class evaluation comments highlight the latter, such as one indicating that the assignment “created a safe space to discuss topics that are difficult.” Others note the transgressive nature: “I really appreciated that we were able to discuss difficult topics. . . let alone do it in an online format,” “I’m not sure how to explain it, but the class had heart despite being online,” and “I really enjoyed getting to know my peers and even build friendships, which has been really hard online.”

Therefore, I propose that “The Art of Complaining” helps achieve the goals of feminist pedagogy despite the constraints of a virtual space. By inviting us to think about our own experiences and what we want to complain about, it brings personal experience, emotion and intimacy, and the necessity of speaking and listening into the virtual classroom. And given that the Guerrilla Girls argue it is insufficient to just complain (“Complain Creatively” 2016), the assignment invites virtual conversations about “how to live in the world” (hooks 1994, 15) through how we might address the complaints we’ve raised. So, what do you and your students want to complain about?

Works Cited

Complain Creatively.” 2016. YouTube video, 8:53. Posted by The Art Assignment, 4 November.

Guerrilla Girls. 2020. “The Art of Complaining.” In You Are an Artist: Assignments to Spark Creation, edited by Sarah Urist Green, 92-95. New York: Penguin.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Lustig, Suzanne. 2004. "How and Why Did the Guerrilla Girls Alter the Art World Establishiment in New York City, 1985-1995?" In An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World, edited by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, 276-81. New York: McGraw Hill.

Tate Modern. 2016. “Complaints Department Operated by the Guerrilla Girls.” Tate Exchange.

Jamie L. Palmer-Asemota (she/her/ella) is an assistant professor of sociology at Nevada State College. She received her PhD in sociology as well as a graduate certificate in women’s studies from the University of Georgia. Dr. Palmer has received several teaching awards for her excellence in sociology and women’s and gender studies. Her teaching and research examine the intersecting systems of race, gender, and nation that inform transnational tourist spaces and collective memory. Her research has been featured in the Journal of Men & Masculinities, International Sociology, and more. She is currently working on a book entitled, Unpacking Empire. For more about Dr. Palmer, see jamiepalmerasemota.com or email her at Jamie.Palmer@nsc.edu.