Interview with Martha WilsonMay 3, 2012
Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.
The following is an abridged transcript from an interview at the Hand in Glove conference, which was organized by Three Walls and took place from October 20 to 23, 2011, in Chicago. In this conversation, Bad at Sports contributors Duncan MacKenzie and Patricia Maloney speak with artist Martha Wilson, who was a featured presenter at the conference, about her work as a feminist performance artist and founding director of Franklin Furnace, whose mission is to “present, preserve, interpret, proselytize and advocate on behalf of avant-garde art, especially forms that may be vulnerable due to institutional neglect, their ephemeral nature, or politically unpopular content.”
Patricia Maloney: I’ll start by asking about your practice in Nova Scotia in the early 1970s, when you were working with mostly male conceptual artists. How did you found your voice in and amongst that?
Martha Wilson: The Vietnam War cranked up to a high point when I graduated from college in 1969. The Kent State shooting was the year after I graduated. The only thing that was clear to me was that I didn’t know what the fuck I was supposed to be doing on the planet. So I applied to graduate schools, and I got a fellowship in Canada. My boyfriend got into the art school across the street.
We took it as a sign that we should leave this great nation of ours and go to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was in the English department and studying only men. We didn’t read women. They didn’t allow it. I wrote an MA thesis and started working on a dissertation; they rejected it as visual art. So I got all huffy and went across the street to teach grammar at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD).
I hung out at the art college when all the white male conceptual artists of the day, from Vito Acconci to Lawrence Weiner, were coming through. It was an amazing time because it included European artists like Joseph Beuys, Ian Wilson, and Alastair MacLennan, and many, many others—but few of these artists were women.
Duncan MacKenzie: Who was governing the NSCAD program at that point? It was so progressive in terms of art at that moment, even if it was not terribly progressive in regards to gender.
MW: It was Garry Neill Kennedy, who had gone to Ohio State or Ohio University, where he had met [Gerald (Jerry)] Ferguson. Jerry Ferguson was my painting teacher at Wilmington College, in Ohio, and when Garry became the president of NSCAD, he brought Jerry Ferguson up to Canada. Jerry told us, “You have to come here; this is going to be the center of the art world even though it’s way the heck out there.” And they turned over two salary lines to the visiting artist program. So Vito Acconci not only came, he stayed for months.
And Vito is the artist I credit with giving me the idea that sexuality could be a legitimate subject of art. Because he had done Seedbed, in 1972, and he came to NSCAD in ’72. He was hiding his penis between his legs; he was biting his arm; he was burning the hair off his chest. We didn’t use the term performance art yet; we were calling it Body Art, which I think is a better term for playing around with the image of the male sexual being and of the female sexual being.
So a light went off and I started to do an experiment in personality change. I dressed as a man trying to make himself look like a woman and tried to do things like pass in the men’s rooms. The performance was for my internal sense of audience.
My boyfriend dumped me, though, in the middle [of being] there, and I realized that I had been living through him vicariously and didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know if I liked living in a messy environment or what kind of music I liked. These were experiments to create a personality in the vacuum that I felt was left.
PM: I want to ask you about Self-Portrait from 1973. That was a piece where you sat posed on a stool, handed out note cards to the audience, and invited the audience to write down their impressions of you—to define you. I’m curious about that work with regard to producing these works that were experimentations in establishing your identity.
MW: Self-portraits are usually an artist describing himself or herself. In this case, I was letting the audience project onto me whatever they wanted to. The comments were great. They ranged all the way from: “You look like a very sweet girl” to “What a horrible bitch you must be.” It proved my point that we don’t see anything outside of ourselves. We project upon the world what we need to see. So the portrait ends up being a portrait of my audience instead of a portrait of me in the end.
PM: At that time, were you looking at any specifically feminist performance that was emerging at that time, or was your primary filter these conceptual artists?
MW: There was no information available at all. Carolee Schneeman was working, but she was not discussed at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. There were a few women who came in, including Simone Forti, a dancer at Judson; Yvonne Rainer, a dancer and filmmaker also at Judson; and Jackie Windsor. Very few women visited in relation to the number of men who were coming through. And the environment was hostile toward what was perceived as feminist practice. I went to my mentor and said, “Look, Jerry, I want to be an artist.” He looked back at me and said, “Women don’t make it in the art world.”
Right around this time, luckily for me, Lucy Lippard was invited to come up to NSCAD. She looked at what I was doing and said “Yes, this is art. Yes, there are other women around the Northern Hemisphere who are doing work like this.” She devoted ten years of her career to doing shows of women’s work. She decided men had had enough coverage. She put me in a show through a catalogue, from which I met Jacki Apple, who I collaborated with in New York, and met artists I would know and hang out with when I moved to New York in 1974.
DM: So what prompted the move to New York? Why leave the paradise of Halifax, Nova Scotia?
MW: Well, my boyfriend not only dumped my ass, he also married my college roommate. I would see her driving around in the Mazda that I used to drive, so it was time to go. And I thought I would either move to Montreal, which had a happening art scene, or New York, and the worst that could happen was if I didn’t make it as an artist, I could be a secretary again.
DM: So what tipped the scales? Why not join the kind of Concordial army in Montreal?
Listen to the full interview on Bad at Sports: Episode 345.
MW: I think my M.O. and the M.O. of every artist—you're an artist, Duncan, so you can confirm this or not—is that you try to do the thing that scares you the most, right? So the thing that scared me the most was moving to New York. I thought the women artists would hate me. It was just the opposite, but I didn’t know that from the outside.
PM: How soon did you start performing after you arrived in New York?
MW: Pretty quickly. The avant-garde art scene was happening in lower Manhattan. Alanna Heiss had started the Institute for Art in Urban Resources. It was an organization that used vacant spaces owned by the city of New York. The first space that I saw was a warehouse on Reade Street, where Virginia Pearsall [Kirkwood] had a film projector strapped to the front of her body and another strapped to the back of her body. She wore roller skates, so the projected images are getting larger and smaller as she’s skating around the loft.
I was in heaven. I just thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. The center of cool at that time was in lower Manhattan. Virginia told me there was a ground-floor loft available to lease in this building on Franklin Street, so I went in and looked around and thought, “Oh, it’s a bookstore.”
When I got to New York, I started publishing things—postcards and booklets—and all my friends were also publishing things. None of the major institutions were taking it seriously, but we knew, because we were the practicing artists on the scene, that this was the only important thing that was going on. There was a vacuum, a place, that was not being filled in the art world.
There was another group of people who saw the same hole. It was the collective that started Printed Matter: Sol Lewitt, Pat Steir, Lucy Lippard, Walter Robinson, Robin White, and I can't remember who else. I opened Franklin Furnace’s doors on April 13, 1976, and they opened five or six months later. A few months in, we had a meeting about how we should divide up this artist book pie. I took the exhibition and archival stuff, and they took the publication and distribution stuff. That’s how we reallocated the resources.
Printed Matter is now at 10th Avenue and Chelsea, and Franklin Furnace is now an office in [Brooklyn], but the original impulse was to pay attention to the broadcast of artists’ ideas. That’s what artists’ books were there for. It was the best technology available to broadcast artists’ ideas.
DM: How do you bifurcate yourself into an art-administrative self and a performance artist self?
MW: Ah, excellent question. One fine day I was resentfully complaining to a friend of mine, Ann Focke, who had started And/Or Gallery in Seattle, that I resented how much time I was spending on administration and didn’t have much time left over to do art. She said, “Why can't we consider our administrative practice to be an art practice?” At which point I thought, “Then I only have to keep one notebook; I don’t have to keep four of them. I can put the dreams together with the ideas that occur in the shower for a work of art, and then the idea that occurs in the middle of a conversation with another administrator for another work of art, and then administrative ideas can occur on the toilet.” That was very liberating.
PM: At what point did the mission for Franklin Furnace start to crystallize?
MW: It was going to be devoted to artists’ books, but my attorney, very smartly, added one sentence, which was: “And to do any other act or thing related to this purpose.” So we just kept expanding the definition of a book to include performance and installation, which is not a stretch. Nobody was saying, “I’m a book artist and you’re a performance artist.” Art historians were saying that, but we were artists and we were using any medium under the sun that was appropriate to the idea. I called the performances Artist Readings for two whole years, but in reality, right from the beginning, artists used all kinds of tools to mess with the notion of reading. It became the performance art program instantaneously, as soon as the first artist performed in it.
In New York, there was always a consciousness of both the audience and the camera in the room and of the presence of documentation. There was a lot of debate in 1976 about whether performance should be documented because that would change the nature of it. Now I’m sorry that we didn’t document everything.
The definition of performance and performance art evolved, and it continues to evolve as the Internet came on the scene. Now the audience for performance consists of not only the body of the artist, the body of the audience, but the body of the ’net.
DM: So from an archive that you wish you had kept to an archive that you did keep, do you want to talk about the artists’ book archive that Franklin Furnace put together and those archives that now reside at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)?
MW: What ultimately went to MoMA was not only the collection of artists’ books but what are called the vertical files, which includes their statements of intention in publishing the work. We had the largest collection of artists’ books in the United States, and the [Franklin Furnace] loft was made of wood. So we thought maybe we’re not the ultimate home for this material. The director of the library at MoMA at the time was Clive Phillpot, who had served on my board in the early days. He had made it his business to collect vertically. For example, everything Vito Acconci ever published, he had. We had made it our business to collect horizontally. We had artists’ books from Central and South America, Japan, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, North America, Mexico, everywhere. So when you combine the vertical and the horizontal collections you get the largest collection of artists’ books in the world.
It’s the only open collection at MoMA. So if you have a book and you want to send it in tomorrow to the Museum of Modern Art, the address is 11 West 53rd Street, New York 10019. It’s called the Museum of Modern Art Franklin Furnace Artists Book Collection, and it’s housed in the library, I believe.
DM: So you were collecting broad, and they were collecting deep. How were you collecting? Who was deciding what was acquired?
MW: We did not decide anything. Once the artists’ community hears there’s a place to send their stuff, it starts to come. Russia was behind the Iron Curtain at the time and stuff got smuggled out. Completely heartbreaking stories; for example, a 1972 work of art from Argentina appears to just be nonsense on the page. But what it meant to the visual art community was that the government was allowing gibberish to be published. The censors let it go, but we could tell what the artist’s intention was when we received it.
PM: At the moment MoMA acquired the collection, in 1997, the museum had two exhibition web pages, and the conversation was just starting to happen as to whether or not MoMA should have its own website. That same year, they announced the finalists to design their greatly expanded museum building. That is the same moment that Franklin Furnace is deciding, “We’re just going to go virtual. We’re going to relinquish the shackles to a physical space and we’re going to go online.” The simultaneity of those two things is astounding. It was just so forward looking; no institution at that point in time was thinking of themselves as virtual entities.
MW: During the culture wars, the performance space was closed by the New York City Fire Department because the exit goes past a boiler room. I was never closed before, but then they found a way to close the space.
So I thought, “Fine, we’re going to raise a ton of money and get it designed by Bernard Tschumi. We got a grant, and he did an absolutely great design. We’re going to have handicapped-accessible bathrooms and a ramp that goes from the first floor down to the basement performance space. That summer, in 1995, I was sitting in my sister’s kitchen looking out the window at Mt. Rainer off in the background, and I thought, “I'm going to spend the next ten years of my life raising money for a handicapped-accessible bathroom, and that’s not important. The program is the only important thing, and it can happen on the street; it could happen in a garage. Nobody in art history is going to care if I have a handicapped-accessible bathroom.” So I was raising money for all the wrong reasons.
I went to the board and said, “Look, I don’t want to do this anymore.” We had already sold the artists’ book collection to MoMA, so the idea of dematerializing had already been introduced to the atmosphere. And we had gone into exile after the performance space was closed; we were performing in other people’s spaces. It was only the next step to say that the whole thing could go virtual. We could sell the loft, which was now worth a ton of money.
DM: You do the opposite thing to what every other institution on earth does, which is get a magical box and then try to figure out how the hell they're going to still afford to put art in it. And I feel that is a chronic problem. Ever since Bilbao, we’ve been having this conversation about spending a lot of money to build these crazy boxes by magic architects, and then there’s no money left to deal with the programming in any sense. But you guys decide, “Wait a minute, we’re actually about the program.” That almost seems too perfect. But it also seems like the place that you’ve always been, right? On the artist’s side of history. Because you got into a lot of trouble with Franklin Furnace over and over again in the ’80s and early ’90s, when Republicans don’t like art, unless it has Jesus in it.
MW: I don’t know if you could put Jesus in it either, but certainly, they don’t like tits and ass, and they especially don’t like homosexual tits and ass. My fundraising consultant said in 1983 that I shouldn’t do the Carnival Knowledge show. It’s going to cause trouble.
DM: This is the first Annie Sprinkle show.
MW: That’s right. There were nine curators, artists, and activists who asked if there could be such a thing as feminist pornography, and they sent out a call. We received two hundred videos. I don’t know how many were ultimately curated into the show. The place was full. Upstairs we had a phone-sex line and artists’ books. In the stairwell there were these gossamer boobs that would brush against your face as you walked down the stairs. There was mud wrestling. There was a robust program of feminist practice that was erotic and didn’t denigrate women and children. The Carnival Knowledge show was so popular that the street was impassable.
When the show came down, I thought, “Oh, hallelujah, we made it through.” No, no, no, the religious right waited until the show had closed, and then they wrote their letters to all of our funders and legislative representatives and claimed falsely that we had shown pornography to five hundred children a day. We immediately lost several funders. They wouldn’t pick up the phone. The corporations were the first to flee.
The foundations, though, were still there for me. The New York State Council on the Arts was very solidly in favor of the idea that artists should have freedom of expression. Kitty Carlisle Hart was the chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts; her husband had been through the McCarthy era, and she said to me, “I don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t know if I approve of it, but I think you should have the right to do it.”
PM: That politicized, or at least certainly altered, the mission statement of Franklin Furnace. In a sense, you were now offering asylum to artists and enabling them to explore their practices unbounded in a time when there were so many landmines around offering artists those types of opportunity.
MW: The reason that major institutions are constrained in this regard is because the money comes from people who don’t want the institution to support certain kinds of expression. We were getting our money from the NEA, the New York State Council on the Arts, and some corporate, foundational, and individual supporters. The NEA sent Hugh Southern, the deputy chair, and Benny Andrews, the director of the visual arts program at the time, to New York to talk to my board. When they showed up, they slapped us on the wrist and said, “Look, if we give you indirect programmatic support for the whole season, don’t put us down on your brochure.”
That was the beginning of the NEA repositioning itself, slowly but surely, to only distribute project support. For project support, they want to know a year in advance who the curator is, who the artists are going to be, and what the works are that they’re going to show so that they can vet the list of artists and works before they stick their name on it. That’s what the function of the culture wars really was. It was a time when the funding structure was turned into a political animal.
PM: The idea that fundraising vehicles actually became tools for censoring activity.
MW: They always have been to an explicit degree.
PM: The Internet is a vehicle by which you have the opportunity for open expression and hopefully minimal censorship. How are things going forward, for Franklin Furnance, now that you are operating virtually?
MW: In the early days of the Internet, there wasn’t any consensus yet on what form art was going to take or the Internet itself was going to take. We were just riding the choppy waves there in the early days. I was still thinking in terms of television. I didn’t understand yet either where the Internet could go and where software could go.
I wasn’t alone. Now the Internet has had a profound effect on not only the art world but on the whole world, on the global village. We’re connected now all the time, and we are conquering the world by publishing our archives online and also by publishing high-resolution versions of the same images that we’re scanning through ARTstor so that the ephemeral practice of the last thirty-five years won’t disappear from art history; it will be used and discussed and debated, and scholarship will have to include it. That’s what we’re doing.
Martha Wilson is a feminist performance artist and the founding director of Franklin Furnace. Over the past four decades, she has developed and “created innovative photographic and video works that explore her female subjectivity through role-playing, costume transformation, and ‘invasions’ of other peoples personas.”
In 1976 she founded and became director of the Franklin Furnace Archive, which is dedicated to serving artists by providing both physical and virtual venues for the presentation of time-based visual art, including but not limited to artists’ books and periodicals, installation art, performance art, “variable media art”; and to undertake other activities related to these purposes.