Bad at Sports

Women in Performance

Interview with Andrea Fraser, Part 1

By Bad at Sports October 8, 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.

Women in Performance, curated by Jarrett Earnest and Patricia Maloney, is dedicated space for conversations with leading artists addressing the aesthetic and conceptual issues, historical precedents, and critical language shaping contemporary feminist performance.

Andrea Fraser, who is currently a professor in New Genres at the University of California, Los Angeles, rose to prominence in the 1990s for performances that deliver with humor and irony incisive critiques of the economic, political, and social structures of art world institutions. On July 13, 2012, she performed one of her seminal works, Official Welcome (2001), before a very crowded and fervently attentive audience in the atrium of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the performance’s notoriety derives from the moment in which Fraser undresses and eventually stands nude while continuing to speak. Bad at Sports contributor Patricia Maloney and UC Berkeley Art Museum Assistant Curator Dena Beard had the opportunity to speak with Fraser at length a few days following this performance. Their conversation will be presented in two parts: Part I, published here, delves into Official Welcome in-depth; Part II, to be published on October 23, includes a discussion of language, feminism, and museum architecture. You can listen to the entire conversation podcast as Andrea Fraser: Episode 370, presented by our partner, Bad at Sports.

Image: Andrea Fraser. May I Help You?, 1991 (still); performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Artist.


Patricia Maloney: Andrea, your name is synonymous with performative work that mines issues of feminism, economic structures, and, most notably, site-specific critiques of the cultural and economic power structures that shape institutions. All of these elements came together in Official Welcome, your recent performance at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) on July 13, 2012. So I thought we could start with that performance.

Andrea Fraser: I wrote Official Welcome in the summer of 2001 for a performance in October 2001. It takes the form of a situation in which an artist is introduced and then speaks. It may be an artist giving a talk, receiving an award, or being honored in some way, speaking at the opening of an exhibition, or one of the many situations in which artists are introduced before speaking. Such talks are sometimes arranged by collectors or art dealers but more often by curators, museum directors, critics, or historians.

I did extensive research, as I often do with my performances and other work. I looked at speeches by artists and others, listened to recordings of speeches at the Museum of Modern Art archive, and read a lot of interviews with, as well as statements and essays about, artists to put together a script that moves through eight different pairs of artists and the people introducing them.

This is a structure that I began utilizing in 1991 with a performance titled May I Help You? In this piece I moved through a series of about six or seven different positions. The idea in that piece was to perform a field instead of different characters. I was very influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist who developed a theory of social fields, which are social spaces, which are organized dynamically according to the relationships between different positions. Very often, they’re hierarchically structured in one way or another according to different values, such as economic value or artistic value, or what Bourdieu called social capital.

What I try to do in much of my work, starting with May I Help You?, is to manifest either visually through installations or print works, or in time through performance, these very abstract structures that exist in the relationships between different positions that we occupy in a social space. In May I Help You? it was a series of class positions and how we relate to artworks, culture, and even other people in different ways, given different class positions.

While May I Help You? was about trying to perform a social field in the framework of an art gallery or an art exhibition, Official Welcome was about performing a field of possible positions that artists occupy within the art world. I started my research with certain positions in mind and with different kinds of artists who would fall into each category, such as the theoretically informed political artist, the society artist, the AbEx guy who really did struggle and then bought into the whole humanistic postwar ideology, or the bad girl. They’re very identifiable positions that we could occupy as artists in 2001, and there were certain discourses and relationships that went along with each position.

That’s how I approached Official Welcome. Also, I started to think about the profound ambivalence that’s haunted so much twentieth-century art and particularly avante-garde traditions—the kind of love-hate relationship that artists have with art, its institutions, and the people who support them, which may be the core of institutional critique on some level.


Andrea Fraser. Official Welcome, 2001 (still); video documentation of performance at the Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany, September 2003. Commissioned by and first performed at The MICA Foundation, New York, November 2001. Courtesy of the Artist.

PM: As you were performing each of these positions at SFMOMA, I was fascinated by how astute the mimicry was. There was a definitive shift each time you took on a new role, which was instantly recognizable. Even if you’re setting up positions rather than characterizations, how do you hone that mimicry to so vividly manifest these characters?

AF: There’s only one person that I quote who I’ve ever seen speak, and that’s Benjamin Buchloh, who I studied with when I was eighteen or nineteen and who was an enormous influence on me. I listened to a couple other audio recordings of talks, but it wasn’t about trying to perform one of those figures.

A lot of the artists that I perform are amalgams. There are a few that pretty much came from one artist, such as Damien Hirst, although the language and the words are usually from different sources. And I never try to do a British or a German accent; I’m not trying to do that kind of characterization. It’s more about capturing what is in the body and the attitude, in how certain kinds of positions are embodied in ways that we relate to people who might be in the audience or introducing us. And where that comes from, it’s hard to say.

The way that I develop this kind of performance—and I’ve done a few performances like this with these different positions that were researched and structured, although this is the most complicated one—is to start with the language. By the time I get the script done, the performance is almost fixed. The voices, the attitudes, and the affect are all there, and it’s very hard for me to change it. So it’s a funny process. It’s different from how an actor might work on a script that they’re arriving at in some other way. It feels very organic. Of course, it’s also based on my experiences in the art field, and that’s what I’m processing in doing work like this.

Dena Beard: I was watching your performance with an artist who works in performance and another artist who works with sound and spoken word, so I had these two warring perspectives around me. One person was only focused on the performance quality, and the other was focused on the language, and then me—a former devotee, now self-imposed exile of the October school. I’m frustrated with the tautology of Rosalind Krauss, and I’m interested in moving forward toward a more action-based, less ironic language which we can use to talk about art with the same kind of dialectical viewpoint. But as a result, I’ve become hugely invested in performance and also invested in ideas of language.

Talking afterward, the artist that worked with performance
was very frustrated with the irony [in the work], but she
didn’t quite see what I did, which was the dialectic that happened. The smack in the face, the thing that regrounds it is your disrobing; that’s the moment when it becomes


Andrea Fraser. Official Welcome, 2001 (still); video documentation of performance at the Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany, September 2003. Commissioned by and first performed at The MICA Foundation, New York, November 2001. Courtesy of the Artist.

Dena Beard (cont.): something that’s a true disavowal but also an embrace of another possibility. The language breaks at that point, as well as the possibility for the viewer to relate to the performance. The relationship of the viewer changes from one of detachment to engagement.The language itself changes so much during the course of the performance. How much have you honed that? How much have you’ve changed that from the original performance in 2001 to now?

AF: There are sections of that performance I try to rewrite and I can’t. There are sections that I continue to be dissatisfied with, but to change it would mean going back to the original source material, because I don’t want to just rewrite it; that’s not what it is. So the language doesn’t change.

PM: In creating these positions and creating these roles as part of your research process, I wonder at what point does empathy come into play for each of the positions, especially around the ambivalent position that the artist may be occupying?

AF: One of the last times I did this performance, people were saying, “Oh, it was such a great scorched earth!” One of the comments from somebody with a theatre background said, “You’re a really good performer, but acting in an acting context is all about empathy, and there was no empathy.” That was perceived anyway. It’s a complex question.

It’s one of the few performances that I’ve continued to perform, partly because it’s situationally specific, not site-specific. And it changes, of course, because the art world changes, but also because my position changes. To a certain extent, it’s very much about recognition and legitimization. When I wrote it, I was less legitimate; I’m more legitimate now. I’m at a different point now than I was in 2001 in my relationship to the recognition that so much of the piece is about. It means something different when I perform it now than when I performed it then.

But in many ways, most of these positions still exist, and much of the language through which they’re being articulated or manifested in the performance is still perfectly relevant. It’s aged extremely well. What I’m getting at, though, is that my own thinking about what performance is for me, what I want my work to do, and how I want to do it has changed quite a bit since 2001. Since Official Welcome, I’ve been trying to move beyond a set of strategies that I feel that I inherited, and also participated in and developed, in the 1980s that have defined much of what we consider to be critical art practice and that ultimately derive from [Bertolt] Brecht.

There’s very little that we think of as critical art practice that does not in some way operate through strategies of appropriation, distanciation, reframing, displacement, or estrangement. In the past few years especially—although this has been a development that’s been evolving for the past ten years for me—I’ve come to think that rather than being part of the solution, those strategies are often part of the problem. That is, through those strategies, we in the art field often end up distancing what, in fact, are very immediate, material, lived investments in what we do.

PM: When you say distancing, do you mean distancing from yourself or from your audience?


Andrea Fraser. Official Welcome, 2001 (still); video documentation of performance at the Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany, September 2003. Commissioned by and first performed at The MICA Foundation, New York, November 2001. Courtesy of the Artist.

AF: Both. One of the things I’ve been writing about a lot in the past couple of years is negation. Negation has been a central term of art discourse in the postwar era, largely through the influence of the Frankfurt School, people like [Theodor] Adorno and [Herbert] Marcuse. One of the things that exists in art, which doesn’t happen in other arenas of culture—in popular culture or commercial culture or consumer culture, which is all about affirmation—is the questioning of what is. This can be thought of in terms of that critical moment of saying no: “This is not what’s real, this is not what’s right, or this is not what we want to be.” And that’s also been central to how we’ve conceived what many of the critical and progressive functions of art can be in society. It happens through those operations of negation or rejecting the world as it is in some way.

Of course, I’ve been very invested in many of those operations. There’s also a lot of aggression that gets played out in those strategies, but negation has a different meaning in psychoanalysis, where it is a defense mechanism. It’s a way in which we say no in order to disown or to deny something, but anything that we’re thinking about or that we’re engaged enough with to make a work about is not something that’s over there. It’s something that’s already inside us and that we’re deeply invested in on some level. By calling it critique, or by using these strategies of distancing or estrangement, we can deflect something that’s actually inside us and put it over there, saying, “That’s not me. That’s not what we’re doing. That’s not what we like.” That’s what we want to deny.

That’s my problem with Official Welcome now. Even though Official Welcome was very much part of my process of rethinking those strategies when I performed it, the work is about the ambivalence and bad faith that haunts the various positions in the arts.

So while I can say that it’s about some very recognizable figures who we all love to hate, such as Damien Hirst, of course it’s about my relationship to those figures. And through Official Welcome I eventually realized that I’m never performing other positions; I’m performing my relationship to those positions. And what partially defines those relationships, and certainly did in 2001, was a tremendous amount of professional and personal resentment and envy and a deeply competitive relationship that is very hard to engage or recognize in any field, but certainly in the art field. That competition is partly what haunts and drives us as artists and is one of the things that I’m performing in that piece. Yes, it is a critique, but it is also a performance or an enactment of these very real, immediately felt lived structures and relationships. It becomes a question: Do these structures and relationships get buried in the fiction and the structure and the performance? Or do they get revealed? And how does the audience relate to that?

PM: I’m really glad you brought that up because in this performance, one of the most notable things occurs when you take on the role of this postfeminist artist and you disrobe. In the context of the performance at SFMOMA, in the very crowded space, it felt like the audience was intensely responding to that moment, and there’s a decided vulnerability in that position. But for me, it is the last role that you assume, in which the artist expresses that she just wanted to make art, she just wanted to be an artist, that seemed simultaneously both the most enacted and the most vulnerable.


Andrea Fraser. Official Welcome, 2001 (still); video documentation of performance at the Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany, September 2003. Commissioned by and first performed at The MICA Foundation, New York, November 2001. Courtesy of the Artist.

AF: There are these two moments in Official Welcome. One is the disrobing, when I take off the dress and reveal the Gucci underwear and the Gucci shoes.  I’m still wearing the same underwear and the same shoes from the first performance! It’s a very specific costume. It’s a Vanessa Beecroft reference, but in that moment, it’s not Vanessa Beecroft or one of her models who is standing in front of you in her underwear, it’s me. It is my body, in this underwear. And then I take the underwear off and I’m nude; I joke that, yes, I finally joined the grand old tradition of nudie performance art. And my other joke is that I’m not really nude because I’m in quotation marks. But, of course, I am.

Part of the reason I decided to do that was precisely to close that gap, to collapse the distance between myself as the artist named Andrea Fraser and these other positions that I was performing. And to make that distancing more difficult and problematic.

The other moment that you mention is the section in which I’m actually speaking as myself. I’m always very interested in whether people in the audience for either the video or the live performance are laughing or not at that moment. That’s the core moment where the problem of empathy gets posed, as well as the question of a defensive distancing versus a distancing that is productive because it enables us to connect with something. It’s this ethical moment for me with the audience. Am I going to take this only as ironic, as another performance of cynicism, only as negative and defensive, or am I going to see through what all of this is and recognize that there’s more at stake here?

For me, that’s the most important moment in the performance. It’s when I’m not going to not be performing anymore and I’m standing there saying, “Here I am. This is what matters to me about being here.” That becomes a moment of, I wouldn’t say redemption exactly, but something beyond the scorched earth.

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