Transcript of Interview with Martha Wilson 2006

Interviewed by Lynn Hershman
May 12, 2006
New York, NY
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Lynn Hershman: What were some of your most vivid memories in the '70s and '80s? Things that influenced you?

Martha Wilson: I was thinking about, uh, what influenced me, and, uh, one of the stories I want to tell is, uh, well there’s a couple of sad stories, actually. Uh… one is about the environment for women in the ‘70s, which, I think women now don’t quite understand, uh, was hostile… openly hostile. For example, my mentor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where I was a young faculty member teaching English grammar to art students who didn’t want to read, uh, when I decided I wanted to be an artist, he said, ‘Women don’t make it in the art world.’ And then he said, ‘And serious art is black and white,’ which influenced me to walk across the street to the drugstore and buy a roll of color film and start doing, you know, performances for the camera. The camera was the audience, and so, uh, my early work was… performances for the audience of one, or two if you count the camera and the cameraperson. My internal sense of audience was the audience that I was working for.

Now, that, uh, the influence to do that work came from [laughs] a man, Vito Acconci came to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design… I forget what year that was. But anyway, he was using his own sexuality as his subject. Uh, and you know, famously in 1972 [1971] was masturbating under a platform at Sonnabend Gallery. This, this had a tremendous effect on me. The idea that sexuality could be… your subject, uh, was very, very important.

Um, Vito also recommended a book by a sociologist, Erving Goffman, called ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,’ and so early performance works were… I, I view them now looking back at that time. I view them now as experiments in sculpting a personality, cause I had been dumped by my boyfriend, and I wasn’t sure I had a personality, and so I wanted to create myself out of this vacuum that remained.

LH: Two things… Did you do it for an audience of one because you didn't think you could have a larger audience? And did you think you had no personality because your boyfriend left?

MW: Yes. Uh, I was… well, um… it was a big step to call myself an artist. My boyfriend was an artist. He was in the graduate program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, getting his MFA. I was across the street in the English Literature program at the, you know, Dalhousie University, watching what went on at the art school, going to a lot classes, auditing seminars by visiting artists, uh, looking at the art world, but I didn’t… I was too chicken, too afraid to call myself an artist and… I, I, actually was, uh, the first artwork I did, which is on that sheet of paper over there, is about, was done in 1971, and I can’t remember… I think Lucy Lippard came after this, um, to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She, she, she came to the college. She looked at what I’d been doing, these photographs, performances for an audiences of one. She said, ‘What you’re doing is art. And there are other women all over North America and Europe who are doing art like this, and, and I’m putting you in this catalogue called c. 7,500, which was, um, the catalogue consisted of four-by-six note cards.

Each note card was a single artist, and so you flip through all the note cards and look at all these other women’s work, and I found Alice Aycock, Jennifer Bartlett, Jackie Apple, Jackie Ferrari, I mean the list goes on and on. All, all of the women who are doing work, uh, in the ‘70s, um, it was a revelation. There wasn’t… any community in Nova Scotia. There wasn’t any support from the community. There was the hostile male-dominated [laughs], I should say white male-dominated environment in Nova Scotia, um, up until that moment, that’s the world that I was in.

LH: Is there any specific work that impacted you? And when did you first define yourself as a feminist?

[Technical difficulties]

MW: I’m going to read my… first, first artworks I ever made. These are called chauvinist pieces, and the date on here is September 1971. Unknown piece. A woman under ether has a child in a large hospital. When she comes to, she is permitted to select the child she thinks is hers from among the babies in the nursery. Determined piece. A woman selects a couple for the genetic features she admires. Good teeth, curly hair, green eyes, etc., and raises their baby.

Determined piece. A woman determines her child on the basis of some arbitrary system, a row of sperm bottles marked with colors, the letters of the alphabet, numbers, according to what color, letter, or number pleases her. Chauvinist piece. A man is injected with a hormone that produces symptoms of motherhood. So in, in these early works, I see all the, all the clues to my later practice. There’s, the, you know the, um, uh, marveling at the position of women in a society… where you are… I’m going to use the word trapped, for lack of another… you’re, you’re a woman. There’s no way out. You’re a woman [laughs] you have to deal with it. What, what, whatever, uh, your situation is. So um, trying to see this world, try, trying to create oneself in that world, anew, trying to see how you could be… I, you know, I haven’t found the word I’m looking for. I think I want to start over on this bit. Can I, can I have my glasses case back? So I can get rid of the glasses. Thanks.

I think the punch, the punch line of this bit is… Nope, no, no… I’m not going to read that again [laughs]. Um… I want to move on to the next question because I don’t know where I’m going with this exactly.

LH: What's Disband?

MW: Oh what's Disband? That's too far ahead. I want, I want… to talk about feminism… and discovering I'm a feminist [laughs].

Okay, so I, I discovered I was a, well I thought I, I thought I’m a woman, I, I think that the word ‘feminist’ was not in my head in the early ‘70s. I didn’t… I knew I was a woman artist and that was like enough problems right there. Um, so my, my boyfriend was interviewing for a job in California, and so I went with him. This is very early in my art-making career. The pieces that I read—the chauvinist pieces—are from 1971. This was probably 1972. I had, at this point, done, uh, several performances for the camera, one of them called, ‘Posturing Drag,’ in which I dress up, I prete-, I imagine being a man trying to look like he’s a woman, so everything was. The hair is fake, the fingernails are fake, the eyelashes, everything. Uh, so it’s a double sex transformation, again for the audience of one. I’m the only person who’s able to tell if it’s a successful performance or not.

Or, um… ‘Painted Lady.’ ‘Painted Lady’ was an experiment in whether makeup is a hindrance to expression or an aid to expression. So one of the shots is me with zero makeup, and the other one is me with tons of makeup to see what the expression, how the expression reads. Uh, and another one, uh, piece, early piece was called, ‘Captivating a Man,’ in which I dressed up my boyfriend to look like Rrose Selavy, Marcel Duchamp’s female character with a hat and the fur coat and the… he looked like Marcel Duchamp and that was one of the devastating reasons I was so unhappy when he dumped my ass, cause you know, he’s so beautiful. Beauty being one of the issues that, that um, women dealt with, er deal with, deal with constantly.

Anyway, I had done this work. I’d done this work, and he was going to California. So I went to California to… Judy Chicago had started the, uh, women’s program at, it was at Cal Arts at the time. It hadn’t moved, yet, to the women’s building. It was just a big room with a lot of women in it, and Judy was there with Sheila, as I recall, and so I called ahead, made an appointment, showed my work, um, and the walls of the room were covered with drawings of breasts and flowers. I thought it was hideous. I thought it was prescriptive. I thought it was… amateurish. I thought it was awful, really. So Judy said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ You know, looking around, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, it looks prescriptive.’ And she just laid into me [laughs]. She started yelling, ‘Don’t you understand what we’re trying to do here?!? We’re trying to support these women!’ You know, I was so… overcome. I started to cry. And I really… you know, I’m 58 years old today, and I’ve never forgiven her for making me cry as a baby… feminist. I thought, ‘Is this feminist behavior?’ I was really mystified by the whole thing [laughs]. And then, this work is not valid? I mean, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’m… you know, I’m trying to express what it’s like to be a woman in my view. This is… this is my work. Why, why is this not valid? Why is this not valid expression?’ So…

Okay. Um, feminism was an [laughs] a difficult term. Um… but I knew I was a woman, so I kept on [laughs]. You, you know, you can only create work, I, I, I've figured out that all art is autobiographical.

There’s just, you know, you can look at a Clyfford Still painting and you can say, ‘That’s a Clyfford Still painting.’ You can tell by the gesture. He can’t do anything but his own work. He can only do Clyfford Still. We all do our own… we only can do our own work. So, um, another charge that was leveled at women in the ‘70s was, ‘Oh that’s autobiographical,’ or, ‘That’s self-indulgent, self-indulgent.’ Oh, those were terrible things to say about people. So women, you know, resourceful as they are, uh, turned that on its head and made the personal political, which was a brilliant, brilliant move of the feminist, um, movement, and has had a deep impact on the culture. I think we, we, like I said, today we don’t recognize the strides that were made by women of the ‘70s in changing, slowly but surely, public opinion about, uh… Sexual harassment is another stride. When I was at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, [Carl Andre] came to the college and destroyed the personality of a young woman who was, you know, in love with him. He took her out on dates… I don’t know what happened, exactly, but… and then he dumped her of course, he left and went to New York and left her high and dry, and she was a mess. And I think it, you know, maybe doesn’t go on quite as much now, but I’m not really sure [laughs]. I think art colleges are not the best environments for, for um, women, young women students who see, um, men… you know, there are more women in art school than men, and then the men do better when they get out of art school, so… whatever. It… it’s a difficult-, it’s still a difficult environment for, for women.

Okay, now what's the next question?

LH: Since you're performing as yourself, why did you do works that included, for instance, Barbara Bush?

MW: Ah… thank you. It’s a very good question to ask how I got from completely self-involved personality sculpting to political satire, which is the obverse of, of that, and I think it came through Disband, through, um… I was doing autobiographical work for, from 1971til 1978. I had moved to New York in 1974, started Franklin Furnace 1976, started Disband 1978.

Disband. What is that? That’s an all-girl band of women who couldn’t play any instruments. And it was just a bunch of girls who would get together and our songs were, um, sometimes only one word, like the sad song consisted of the word ‘sad’ [laughs]. Um, “Every Day Same Old Way,” we made nuclear cooling towers out of Colonel Sanders’ chicken buckets. We built them on a table and then we’d bat them off and then, you know, recycle them and go through the assembly line again. Um, “Iran-y,” I-R-A-N dash Y, was done with a bed sheet, uh, Donna was completely covered with a bed sheet and she had hotel bells on her breasts. She’s playing her breasts and I’m using a bed sheet [laughs]. Um…

LH: Who was in Disband?

MW: Who was in Disband? Um… Martha Wilson, Diane Torr, Donna Henes, Ingrid Sischy, and Ilona Granet. Uh, worked together from 1978 to 1982. Uh, we went to Italy in 1980 and Diane just stayed in Italy. She never came back. Well, she came back later, but… Disband was five, and then it become four after 1980. Um…and, uh, we just had a ton of fun.

One of our last performances was “Disband in the Dust Bowl” at the Kitchen, in which we proposed that the Eastern Seaboard was going to fall off and that Ohio would be the new SoHo, you know, the new border, uh, to the Atlantic Ocean. When I look at the lyrics to the songs, um… oh Barbara Kruger was in the band in the early days and she wrote two songs, one called “Fashion” and um, she’s a very bright girl, Barbara’s lyrics were… so we used the lyrics after she left. Um, they’re very depressing, very dark. We thought the world was going to end. We really lived with a black cloud hanging over us, and it’s a little hard to recreate that time but I think it was Vietnam, or something. There was some… there’s the nuclear threat, and then there’s the current conflict, and then there’s feminism, the efforts of women in the face of all that, uh, but… there wasn’t any obvious… progress or success. So it turned out to be feminism in the ‘70s, I think, was an absurdist effort, an exercise in trying to do something that you knew full well was probably not going to work. But you had to do it anyway or you’re going to go nuts, so you may as well just keep try to do it.

So Disband was part of this e-, ebullient, absurdist response to this black backdrop that we were living against. Uh, now looking back at that time, from the point of view of being director of Franklin Furnace for the last thirty years, I see that as the golden age. It’s so funny [laughs].

LH: So the political standpoint of Barbara Bush… how did it go there?

MW: Oh, okay, so I think… I think from autobiography to, to collaboration, basically, Disband taught me that there are other points of view in the world, and, and I got to know these women well enough that I could predict what Ilona would say about her landlord, or whatever. So at the end of Disband, we had formed the members of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, and my persona was Alexander M. Plague, Jr. So Disband disbanded. It was kind of devastating for me. I didn’t want it to end, but only two people showed up in the audience. It was a performance in upper, the upper reaches of Central Park and there were four of us, and two of them, we thought, ‘Okay, that’s a sign’ [laughs]. Uh, so we disbanded.

So I kept going with Alexander M. Plague Jr. I did one performance at A.I.R. Gallery as Alexander Plague, and then I tried Ronald Reagan for a video, Hymie Davidovic had asked me to do a video, so I tried Ronald Reagan, and then it was the time when Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America was happening, and I was invited to perform at the Taller Latin Americano, and I hit on Nancy… Nancy Reagan. And this was just a, a revelation. All I had to do [laughs] was read the newspaper and find these quotes… these things that she would actually say. I’d write them down, and I had, you know, half my script right there. Uh, and then I would just make up the rest. For example, she, she said, um, my Nancy says, ‘Just say no to arms control,’ or, ‘Cancer is the natural response to living in the environment.’ Um, so Nancy had a long and, and brilliant career. I think, uh, because [phone rings] that’s my cell phone!

Political satire became a way to incorporate songs, which we used to do in Disband, to incorporate my personal view, uh, and political commentary all in one place. Uh, plus to be funny, which I think is important, to get unpalatable messages across, sometimes it’s a good idea try any way to be funny. Um, so I hit on Nancy and, and was Nancy for two terms. Uh, then reluctantly became Barbara. I didn’t really want to be Barbara, at first, uh… then I, then I got the pearl… I was in [laughs] I was in um, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and I went to Nordstrom’s, the very big department store, and explained that I needed Barbara Bush pearls and they said, ‘Oh come right this way!’ They had a whole case of pearls. So I got the pearls, go the wig, uh, found the pumps, got the suit. Um, so I was started doing Barbara Bush for a while.

Then Clinton was elected and I didn’t want to do Hilary because I wanted healthcare. I didn’t want to satirize her. I wanted a woman to be strong and to be coequal… well that didn’t work out. But Tipper, now if you remember back in the ‘80s, Tipper and Frank Zappa had had a big fight…

[Interviewer interrupts]

And she, during the inaugural ball, was booed off the stage. The MTV inaugural ball, the youth had not forgotten that she wanted to label records so their parents so their parents could deny them, uh, and they… First, Bill comes out… that’s right. Bill comes out with, playing saxophone, that’s okay, and they’re dancing, Hilary and Bill, and Al comes out all stiff, you know, and then, and then Tipper comes out and they just start booing and I thought, ‘This is great! I have to do Tipper.’ So I had a gig in Florida, which was lucky, cause I went to a wig store and said I wanted a Tipper Gore wig and they said, ‘Oh come right this way!’ And her, when I put the wig on, her head is like out to here. So one of her lines is, uh, ‘I was frighteningly intelligent, and blonde,’ blondes being stupid, uh, so it was very difficult for Tipper. She, she was in a band when she was young. She was in a band called the Wildcats, and she was the drummer of the band, and they apparently smoked a lot of pot, she and Al smoked a lot of pot. So of course that, all that went in, and one, one of the performances is called “The Weight Thing,” uh, you know, she was in this band and she, she was the drummer so she could burn the most calories, and, but then she’d smoke a little pot and then eat an entire bag of chocolate chip cookies smeared with peanut butter. The weight didn’t come off. But then this, this stiff, this guy, her friends thought he was a stiff, uh, uh, wanted to fuck her even though she was fat, so her advice to young women is if he, if he can see how fat you are and he fucks you anyway, then marry him. So that’s Tipper’s advice. So I love Tipper. Tipper, well, and Tipper was frightening because she’s also, you know, we’re the same age.

Then George W. was elected, and I, you know, I had a lot of advice. People wanted me to maybe be Martha Stewart, or Lynne Cheney, or you know, Laura. Why don’t you do Laura? But, but being the mother of the president has, has been very, very good for me [laughs]. Barbara’s very popular. She’s got gigs all over the place. She’s… just a few days ago, she was gigging for, uh, a benefit at [White Box], and… I’m very happy being Barbara. I don’t know what it is. It’s very, uh, liberating.

LH: What was your initial frame of reference?

MW: Ah, well, um, I started it aft-, I started Franklin Furnace after moving to New York 1974, I believe because… my work had been marginalized and the work that other artists, my friends, were doing, was being marginalized by the major cultural institutions of the day… the MOMA, the Whitney… so I thought to start an institution that would show the work of marginalized, show marginalized work, um, specifically artist books. We didn’t call them that at the time, but they came to be known as artist books. Um, and along with that, because the same artists who were doing published works—books, posters, postcards, tabloids—were also doing installation works, and performance art works, and street events. Um, we immed-, well, an artist wanted to read from her published work three months in, so the performance program was born immediately, and so was the installation program born right because there are artists who were doing both published and also one-of-a-kind op-, you know, books that were crazy objects. So the installation program started right away. So it, for twenty years, was in my home on Franklin Street, 112 Franklin Street.

First just the clearing in the front, then my two roommates left, and then I left, and it took up the whole place and then also the basement in the 1983, we got the lease on the basement, also. Uh, showing… for lack of another term, time-based, time-based work. Um…

Then we got in trouble during the Culture Wars, multiple times. Um, we started to think about also, also we had gathered the largest collection of artist books in the United States by the ‘90s, so we started to think about, ‘Books are made of paper, loft is made of wood, maybe that’s not a good formula, for the, for the, um, long-term,’ so we made a deal with the Museum of Modern Art. So now the Museum of Modern Art/Franklin Furnace/Artist Book Collection is up there and it’s the largest pile of this material in the world, probably. Um… and that’s good because I have the third copies and we can get coffee on them, and they can be stolen. It’s not, it’s not… we don’t want that to happen, but it’s not a big deal because the pristine copy is uptown, so we’re not worried about it anymore. The, the spirit in which the work was made can be honored by us. We can, we can use them freely.

LH: Starting with an audience of one, did it surprise you that the museums and institutions did not [inaudible]?

MW: Well it did surprise me greatly that the Museum of Modern Art, which had shown the information show in 1970, uh, uh, uh, a landmark show about conceptual art taking, taking over the scene, was not particularly interested in the offspring of conceptual art, which are these, uh, books, and pamphlets, and things that can be mailed out.

Uh, so I went up to the Museum of Modern Art and I asked them if they could handle this stuff in their bookstore and they say no. It cost, you know, the book cost five dollars, but it costs us five dollars to book keep the five dollars that we just sold the book for, so, you know, forget it. I should’ve known at that time that I wasn’t going to be making any money from, um, presenting, exhibiting, conserving, and displaying artist books, but it’s a good thing I didn’t know what I was doing because I wouldn’t have done it, probably, if I’d known.

LH: Did you become angry about the under representation of women? And what did you do about it?

MW: Um, here’s, here’s another sad story for you. Uh, so I ca-, started calling myself an artist then and did early work in Nova Scotia, moved to New York 1974, um, I thought if, this is after the beautiful artist boyfriend dumped me, I thought, ‘If I’m going to put my personality together somewhere,’ and I thought the women would be hostile, too, when I got to New York, and that turned out to be just the opposite. Uh, I may as well put myself together in New York, and try to call myself an artist and see, see what happens. So I moved to New York, called myself an artist, started doing work, um, and one fine day, [Jackie Apple] and I went to [John Gibson] Gallery to show our slides, um, and he was not there. His wife was there, and she was, she loved it. She thought our stuff was great, so she said, ‘Well, you know, come back on Tuesday next week.’ So we came back on Tuesday next week, and he, he said, ‘I’m never going to show your work,’ you know, ‘this stuff, I think this stuff is horrible!’ [laughs].

He um, it was so… debilitating that I never showed my slides ever again to a gallery [laughs]. And to this day I can tell you that any success I’ve had is from people like you who might know about my work, and then talk about it to somebody else, or Lucy, or, you know… it’s, uh, it’s been through… word of mouth and not through trying to go the commercial gallery scene. It was, it was just too… I was too young, or it was too awful, I don’t know. I just never did it again.

LH: Do you feel successful now?

MW: Do I feel successful now? Actually, I, I feel… um, successful as a feminist of the ‘70s now that we’re in the new millennium, um, the work that I was doing thirty years back is in the WACK! show at, uh, MoCA in Los Angeles, and, um, in another show in Rutgers called, ‘How American Women Invented Postmodernism.’ Yeah!!! I mean, how great is this?! Of course we invented postmodernism. Fe-, the feminist movement is what created postmodernism, again, against the backdrop of Vietnam with all of the, you know, the Democratic National Convention, all the kind of horrible stuff that was going on, the protest marches, the, you know, ef-, the Civil Rights movement had, uh, given traction to public protest and efforts to right social wrongs. Uh… yeah, that’s, you know, uh, uh… high art and low art became equal, men and women were suddenly not, ob-, you know, you couldn’t just, you couldn’t just have shows anymore where there were no women in sight, you know, the feminist movement actually did make, uh, changes in public consciousness and… so… success has come late, but, but fin-, finally, I think.

LH: What do you think were some of the innovations of the feminist movement?

MW: Um, Lawrence Summers just got in a whole heap of trouble [laughs] for saying that, um, well women, you know, they’re not very good at science and math, well… how dare he make that statement now. I mean, what an idiot, to, to make that statement. He, he might… he might believe that but it’s no longer possible to make those statements publicly. Um, uh, there, there’s still plenty of evidence that women are not able to advance in, for example, there was a big article in the New York Times, uh, about how women in law firms don’t make partner. You know, very few women get up to the highest levels in law firms. Very few women get to the highest levels in brokerage houses still… there are some, but not so many. So there is still work to be done. It’s not like it’s, uh, over, but the fact that it’s discussed and that a male art critic—[Jerry Saltz]—can say the new installation at MOMA is at fault because of the lack of women, uh… I mean, the, the, the fact that there’s awareness is, I think, a big point of success.

LH: If you weren't in the WACK! show, would you still feel you're successful?

MW: [laughs] Um… I see. Course it's much better to be in the show [laughs]. Um… [long pause].

Well there’s success, and, and, uh, there’s the imp-, you know, the internal feeling of success. Those are, those are different things. Um, there’s fame, and the internal sense of who you are. Um… I, I like living in Brooklyn because you don’t have to put on your face to go out and buy a quart of milk. When I was living in Franklin Furnace in SoHo, you kind of had to be performing. You’re in Manhattan and Manhattan’s the center of the universe and so every time you go get a quart of milk, you have to be aware of who you are [laughs]. I would say no, actually. I would say it’s not, um, the fee-, I think if you feel… I, maybe this is just… if you feel, uh, if you feel that you have not achieved success, then you feel motivated to continue the absurdist struggle. So I think I don’t tell myself, ‘Well you can stop working now, you’re success.’ No. I don’t say that to myself. I, it was really nice, though, to get in those two shows because if you don’t tell yourself that and you are motivated to keep going with the struggle, it’s nice to know that, once in a while, there are people who say, ‘Look, look, look at this success!’

LH: What do you think were some of the artistic innovations that feminism contributed to contemporary art?

MW: Um… [laughs]… I think Mary Boone said something very disturbing, um, ‘It’s the men now who are emotional…’ Uh I forget where and when she said this. It was in, it was in a magazine article, um, wh-, um… Self-involvement was a, um, black mark. You were not supposed to be… your, your work was not supposed to be, uh, self-indulgent, self-involved, self-referential. Um, and then women turned that on its head, and took emotion itself and sexuality itself, uh, and domestic life, and other subjects that were not permitted to be, uh, the subject of art, and put that in the center of, of art-making, and then, um [Mary Boone] co-opted the… emotional achievements by saying, ‘Oh no, it’s the men now, who are emotional and soft… emotional and…’ I forget the second word [laughs]. It’s the men now, who are emotional! Like, ha, [coughs], you know, you try so hard, you work so many years and… and the men co-opted. Anyway…

Um, so I guess that's not a success, though, is it? That's not a…

LH: What about the financial success? The ceilings?

MW: Yep, yep, yep… I haven’t managed to get that either [laughs]. Preparing my budget for a board meeting next week, and, um, I re-, realized nobody in Franklin Furnace has had a raise for ten years, since 1996, we have not… nobody has had a raise. We’re still in business, though [laughs], so we, we’re looking at success in slightly different terms.

LH: What about the conflicts between east/west and generations?

MW: I think there were. Absolutely. Um, I think the conflicts be-, I, I was not so aware of the conflicts between east-west, um, until Franklin Furnace did a show, um, called ‘L.A. London Lab.’ It was feminists from Los Angeles who were selected by Suzanne Lacy, feminists from London selected by Susan Hiller, um… The critic—there was a critic involved—the critic from Los Angeles was Moira Roth, who’s actually English, and the critic from London is Caryn Faure-Walker, who’s actually American, and that was kind of funny. Uh, the artists met here in New York, so L.A. London lab. This is 1983. Um… so Cheri Gaulke, and Vanalyne Green, and Leslie Labowitz, uh, and Martha Rosler, uh, met with Hannah O’Shea, Rose English, Rose Finn-Kelcey, um, uh, Sonia Knox, uh, I can’t remember everybody on both sides.

Um, what I noticed about this meeting was that the, the English artists were individualistic, and they were strong, and purposeful, and wore [hobnail] boots and ate brown rice and were… strong individuals, whereas the artists from California sat on each others laps, performed in each others work, talked to each other constantly about what they were doing, collaborated fully with each other. One of them, the um, Feminist Art Workers, was the one with the long forks where they can’t feed themselves cause the forks are too long, so they have to feed each other. It’s a piece about collaboration, about how critical it is to have relationships, and, and collaborate with each other. I thought, ‘Oh… the, the English artists are kind of going with the earlier version of feminism here.’ Well that didn’t go over very well, when I tried to talk [laughs] about it with them, but I believe it to be true. I think the California artists were out in front with, with collaboration. They understood that collaboration was a sign of the future.

LH: What advice would you give to young women now?

MW: What would be my advice for young women? Well, very often I tell them to try the not-for-profit route. I, I think that’s why the not-for-profit system was invented. It’s a, it’s a ladder. It’s a way to, you know, get your work seen in some context or other, and it’s… you know, Franklin Furnace now consciously positions itself as the, uh, the bottom of the, um, food chain, the art food chain, where we show artists for the very first time in New York, very often. This is their first… they’re from Croatia, or they’re from Australia—who knows?—and this is their first show in New York.

Um, and the other advice I have is, uh, that doesn’t matter either. You can also just show it on the street, in-, on-, on a corner, in a garage, or on the internet, or anywhere. It’s really… more important to show it than it is to worry so much about the context. And that’s, that’s more and more true now that the, uh, the networked environment is flattening the social, uh, hierarchy, which used to be so stratified in the art world. It’s [psht], you know, it’s really… possible for me, well, uh…

Some, some years ago at an opening at the Whitney, I couldn’t really speak with Maxwell Anderson, who was the director, he was the director, and I’m this person… from downtown. Uh, then email comes along, and I’m able to email Maxwell Anderson, and he will respond to me.

So this, this gap is closing, the social gap. So, um, I think it’s more important to just figure out a way to get your work shown, than to worry, necessarily, about success on the, on the, in the social hierarchy as it was constructed in the end of the twentieth century.

LH: In the '70s and '80s, who did you consider your 'community,' and what feminist art really got to you?

MW: So I first… When I first moved to New York, I was in a consciousness-raising group that was organized by NOW—National Organization of Women—and it was a bunch of women who were very depressed trying to pull themselves out of this pit by talking to each other, and I’m glad I did it, but I really can’t say that it gave me the lasting friendships that, uh, I was able to develop by… going to the art scene, going to the Kitchen, going to… At the time, there was, um, Alanna Heiss had organized… she called her institution, um, the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, and she would take over buildings that the city was not using, and put up stuff. She put up, um, performances, uh, Charlemagne Palestine, uh…

Virginia Piersol, who was a filmmaker at that time, mounted a super-eight projector on her front, and another one on her back, and then she had roller skates, and she’s roller-skating around this huge warehouse space, and the audience is, you know, watching the film, but the film is changing in scale as she’s moving around this vast space. It was just so fun. So looking at the art of the time, uh, I guess that was 1975, before I had started Franklin Furnace. I was working at Abrams… Harry N. Abrams, the art book publishers, um, and then running downtown…

Um, I don’t think it was necessarily the feminist community that was my first community in New York. I think it was… downtown people, people who lived and worked around Tribecca, the downtown scene.

LH: What about women now who don't want to call themselves feminists?

MW: Feminism is now considered a derogatory term, I guess because of the earnestness of the early ‘70s, the bra-burning part. That’s… it smacks fem-, the word ‘feminism’ still smacks of, of, um, an unsuccessful earnest phase, uh…

Before the Guerrilla Girls made feminism funny, which was an imp-, and important step, I think, in the, in the ‘80s, um… what, what, what would I say to feminists who, or young women who claim to not be feminists?

LH: Yeah, or just someone using the term as derogatory.

MW: What I really think about the term ‘feminism’ is it’s out-of-fashion now, uh, because a lot of the gains have been incorporated into daily life and consciousness. But, just wait until the right to a legal abortion is rescinded by the Supreme Court, or something like that, and I will… you know, bet you that, that the young generation of feminists will wake up really fast [laugh] and realize they have to organize. They have to be, you know, they have to go through the whole thing again, and, and, uh, that day has not come, and they’re, you know, relaxed about it, but… it could happen.

LH: How did the political climate change in the '80s, and how did that affect feminist art?

MW: Um, the Culture Wars, uh, are part of the postmodern story. Uh, the Culture Wars centered on the fact that artists can and do use sexuality as their subject matter, and the, the NEA Four consisted of artists who used sexuality as their subject matter. Three of them [coughs] are not only doing that, but also are gay on top of this. Uh… so, the Culture Wars are here to stay. They’re, they’re still with us. The, the city of New York closed an exhibition in Brooklyn, uh, last week, because of a, an installation that included a hand on a penis, a sculpture that was a hand on a penis, and there’s another one, another piece with a rat, uh… It’s, it’s, it’s shocking to me that Puritanism is alive and well, and doing just fine in America, um… I don’t think we’re going to outgrow it. I, I, I don’t, you know, I think, uh, it’s… the, the, the, the focus of the right has moved past the art world, now, and is, is on university system left-leaning professors, uh, other, you know, other stuff. So we can, we can kind of, um, do what we were doing before, but it, it’s… but Karen Finley will still be denied a gig in Georgia by University of Georgia. Um, that’s, you know, that happened a few months ago. So… the, the effects of the Culture Wars… are going to stay with us. I, you know, I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this [laughs].

What, what the Culture Wars did for me, was it, uh, the Culture Wars’ effect upon Franklin Furnace was very great, indeed, because, um, we figure out that our job was to provide freedom of expression to artists, and we looked at the loft spee-, space in Tribeca, the fact that the artists had moved to Brooklyn, that nobody could afford to live in Tribeca anymore. For a while we were thinking, um, we would renovate the space and create a downtown arts emporium, um, but the com-, if the community was not there, exactly for whom are we creating this, this, uh, space? And, and the most important thing is to provide freedom of expression, so maybe the internet is the place where… maybe not forever, cause we’ve been through the culture wars and we know that, it’s, you know, things have a way of closing down, but for a temporary period of time, this is where artists will be able to go crazy and go wild.

So we went virtual consciously in 1996-7, during that season—our twentieth anniversary season—to… uh, sell the loft, put the money in a cash reserve so we would have rainy-day money for the next Culture Wars, and, uh, to provide a forum that was, uh, uh, that accomplished a few things. It provided freedom of expression, but also provided a worldwide audience, which is what artists have been longing for from the early twentieth century when the Futurists were doing their manifestos, uh, and the Surrealists were making films. They were all intent on getting a broad audience for avant-garde expression, and so that is the mission of Franklin Furnace. That’s what we’re still doing today.

[End of Interview]

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