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Feminist Activist Talk Talk Talk

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I attended this year’s College Art Association conference in New York last week. In a room mobbed with hundreds of women, an exciting panel took place as part of the Feminist Art program. It was organized by Suzanne Lacy with her guests Martha Rosler and Nato Thompson. (Lacy is the social sculptor who wrote about “new genre public art” ten years ago; Rosler is an internationally famous political artist; Thompson is the curator who organized the Interventionist show at Mass MOCA, and is soon to move to Creative Time in NYC.) Here are my raw notes with interpolations in brackets.

Suzanne Lacy – Connie Butler’s show WACK! in LA about global reach of feminist art shows that it was a massive movement, with lots of feminisms. Then the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements drove the cultural work. Today it is the war and occupation in Iraq, and income disparity, and a government committed to doing nothing to relieve it.
Nato Thompson – Dada.
Martha Rosler – Dada is dead in the frame, but we are still alive, most of us.
NT: In a museum an object is simply less work, “You just put it there,” and you’re done. Exhibiting the social presents lots of practical problems.
MR – But there is also the problem of the curators’ attitudes. At the Venice Biennale in ’03 she did a collaboration with students, called Holyanna (?) and the Fleas. [It was a full dress collaboration, but the curators insisted on listing Martha Rosler as the artist as if she were the headline act, you know, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts not the Beatles.] This “damaged the trust” between the younger artists and Rosler. This was very like the Dia project “If You Lived Here” from on the theme of gentrification. Many artists and artists’ groups were part of it, but it was billed as Martha Rosler’s project. She worked there as curator. At the last Whitney Biennial interventionist and activist groups were included, but as “secondary citizens” in the exhibition. There is tremendous resistance by curators to this kind of work, even though the collaborative and processual in art is robust. Like the work of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it exists and thrives regardless of what the institutions and organs of publicity are doing.
[Here I wanted to ask {that is, leap to my feet and blather on} about the relational, the participatory, the whole parallel critical discourse that owes so much to activist practice worldwide, but whose theorists do not mention the global movement of the social and its spectacular demonstrations that promote the political ideas much of the work reflects. “Social media” work also draws on community art and feminist new genre public art which is not acknowledged by the contemporary critics who seek to define it. Consequently, much theoretical work that is going on now seems like yet another appropriation of political art, albeit in new genres.]
SL: I made the work I did and then went to the museums and asked them if they wanted to sponsor it.
NT: Among people who work in this mode there is a “paranoia of cultural capital,” that is, who is going to leverage personal advantage out of collaborative practice?
MR: I don’t care if they profit, so long as they don’t trample others. Certainly I am projecting. There is an amnesia about collaborative work. We’re nasty apes, but also loving apes, and “we screw each other in every way.” It is still seen as threatening for women to have a role in the public sphere, whereas it is seen as natural for a man.
SL – Describes projects she did in Aberdeen [not surprising, since the UK supports community-based cultural work directly through government grants.] There a group of younger artists reprised the Dinner Party idea as a participatory piece. “There is a generation that can get tenure on this kind of work.”
NT: It’s an aesthetics of social organizing.
MR: Meals eaten together, this is something that the artworld did, and it goes back hundreds of years. [There was the great banquet Picasso threw for the Douanier Rousseau, so memorably described in Roger Shattuck’s book Banquet Years.]
A woman in the audience spoke up to recall the Art Table project, which celebrated its 25th year, in which women in the arts came together, put aside their roles, and mentored each other.
MR: Community and competition, we hold these both within us in a competitive environment.
SL – Strategies we developed are being used in superficial ways. We came out of a social movement, and we faced down power in our hundreds. “Deep strategy is missing from contemporary work.” We developed sophisticated media strategies, cross-racial work, organizing which is lost to current discourse. In a 1970s anti-rape campaign, she made a rape stamp “a la Vito Acconci,” and a friend asked why put it in the gallery? She said, “Oh, yeah, you’re right,” and took it to the street. The idea is implanted that you can only symbolically represent change rather than make change.
MR: I am regularly asked by students why get together and demonstrate, why go out in the streets, it doesn’t work. And the thing is, that is what we were told by an older generation. But people in the street attract the attention of everyone in power because people on the street is how governments fall. Curators in Europe are interested in activist work, but not curators in the U.S.
NT: When people say nothing’s going on, I ask where do you go to get your information? Of course this is not covered in Artforum. The platform for that kind of work is not the mainstream platform.
MR: The period now compares with the 60s. Now as then there is no tolerance. Hans Haacke’s show at the Guggenheim was cancelled and the curator fired because of the Shapolsky piece. Today so many publications are on the internet, but then “you don’t see them lying around on the street.” The information is sequestered among the cognoscenti.
NT – Print material has a real function to it. [Temporary Services and Red 76 regularly produce both.] Zines are popular. [The one-day Madison Zine Fest I saw at UWM last fall had dozens of tables with exhibitors.]
SL – It’s a question of where the work is sited. On the other panel, the artist who makes fake bombs [NAME?], what does that work do but scare the museum audience? She recalled an artist [NAME?] I saw present at Thing in ’05 who had purported to make a gun that fires a pellet with a UPC on it so demonstrators could be marked, followed home and arrested out of sight. He took it to an armaments trade show and was approached by Chinese buying agents. It’s a question of where you link your work, to what philosophies and ideas.
NT – The gallery model is not functional for my activist friends. Steve Kurtz and the CAE were big on the “geeky art circuit” in Europe before his bust. The question arises of reforming the gallery model. Is it worth it?
MR – Yes. But you won’t change it. Many galleries are looking for young artists with enough “ironic distance” to be safe. But those artists follow the Yes Men who were braver.
SL -- I trained as an activist and community organizer and then chose to be part of the art world. Allan Kaprow, who recently passed away, was deeply ambivalent towards the art world. He kept his practice cultural, but oriented toward daily life. [And non-political.] Now his archives are under glass at the Getty, like Carolee Schneeman’s. The question is how to keep it alive and fresh: What model do we use? [There is the Fluxus tradition of recreation, as per Hannah Higgins remake of Kaprow’s “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” which she presented at another panel.] Lacy describes a show she was in in L.A. with the white male mainstream artists in a big room, and the women and the Mexicans in another room. In the reconstruction of history it’s important to remember that feminism was not a single gender movement. Today it includes the queer and transgendered directly. Feminism is a social justice movement.
Questioner – What is your public? One of the points of making public work [then] was about nurturing that activist group on the street.
Questioner, Yong Soon (sp?) – The “deep strategy” of today concerns activism and technology. Internationally it’s been embraced, like with the labor movement in Asia.
Beverly Naidus – We need to support socially engaged teaching practice. Many of us teach activist art. My students don’t go into the artworld, “it’s not their site.”
NT – Great point. A lot of artists I work with have teaching jobs. We need a critical language around that practice.


The name of the bomb maker is Gregory Green
and the name of the GPS gun manufacturer is Jakob Boeskov.