Bad at Sports

Women in Performance

Interview with Andrea Fraser, Part 2

By Bad at Sports October 22, 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) in the atrium of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 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 has been presented in two parts: Part I, published in Issue 4.2, delves into Official Welcome in depth; Part II, published here, picks up from Fraser’s comments about the strategies of appropriation, reframing, displacement, or estrangement with which critical art practices engage, and her belief that the progressive function of art lies in the act of negation. You can listen to the entire conversation podcast as Andrea Fraser: Episode 370, presented by our partner, Bad at Sports.

Image: Andrea Fraser. Little Frank and His Carp, 2001 (still); DVD-NTSC; edition of 25; TRT: 6 min. Courtesy of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis.

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Patricia Maloney: How does the concept of negation—that “critical moment of saying no”  as you have noted or of rejecting the world as it is—come into play in your recent performance inspired by the Women’s Building that you did for West of Rome as part of Pacific Standard Time?

Andrea Fraser: That relates to the shift of moving beyond some of the strategies of alienation. But the work is more related to the question of empathy, actually. Men on the Line, Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK 1972 (2011) is based on a live radio broadcast on KPFK Pacifica from 1972, in which four men talk about feminism.

One was Everett Frost, who was married to Faith Wilding, and was the director of cultural programs at KPFK. Another was Jeremy Shapiro, who studied in Frankfurt with Adorno and Marcuse and was teaching at CalArts at the time; he had just written a text called “Men’s Liberation.” I couldn’t find any information about the other two men, although one was a psychologist who was on the board of the National Organization for Women and some more mainstream feminist organizations at that time, working with men’s and women’s groups.

I was invited to develop a performance for Pacific Standard Time by Amy Fontana, who founded West of Rome, which is an organization that does public art projects in Los Angeles. She invited Vaginal Cream Davis, Mike Kelley, and me to develop performances inspired by the Women’s Building and to move women’s history into a queer theory context, thinking about gender from different perspectives.

I’ve been interested in group relations work for the past few years and was looking for a an audio/visual document from the Women’s Building that captured the group process, which was so central to the Women’s Building, and to the feminist art revolution—I think it’s absolutely legitimate to call it a revolution. I was interested in what kinds of group forms, relationships, and processes were being developed at that time.

Everything that I found was very edited and filtered; I couldn’t find anything that was a direct document of a consciousness-raising group or an active discussion or an organizational meeting. But then I went to the radio archive and found this one broadcast. It’s actually a very open discussion. It’s not a consciousness-raising group discussion because there’s actually dialogue; it’s more dynamic than a document of a consciousness-raising session would have been. And in the context of Amy Fontana’s concept for what she called a patrilogy of a woman, a man, and a trans-person reflecting on the Women’s Building’s history, I thought it made perfect sense to actually perform men here.

The whole process was really great and interesting for me. Much of the discussion’s content has to do with men struggling to empathize with women and with women’s struggles but then, also, finally, to empathize with their own femininity and to connect with each other. It’s actually very moving. My process with that piece as a performer was not so different from some of the other performances I’ve done, in that it was researched and then memorized. For a long time, I’ve thought about that process as a parallel process to our relationships with institutions. We relate to institutions by entering into them. We invest in them. We identify with them. We internalize them. We internalize their values, their discourses, their ways of being, their modes of perception and classification, and then we embody them and perform them in our lives. Finding our roles within institutions is a social process. That’s the parallel to the process of actually creating performances. I research and collect this material, and I take it in. I memorize it as a kind of internalization, and I embody it—I find it in my body. In that sense, there’s a very close relationship between the social process and the artistic process. Of course, it’s also a psychological process, which is what really interests me in performance as a medium, if we call it that. It’s the same enactment as far as I’m concerned, but it’s slightly more self-conscious, perhaps. Although the same things are at stake, ultimately.

Andrea-Fraser-Men-on-the-Line

Andrea Fraser. Men on the Line, KPFK, 1972, 2012 (still); performance at the National Center for the Preservation for Democracy, Los Angeles, January 23, 2012, in conjunction with the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival. Courtesy of the Getty Museum and LA><ART, Los Angeles.

With Men on the Line, the process included transcribing the audio, which I do myself, verbatim, including every “ah,” and then memorizing it through the audio. It’s a fifty-minute monologue I’ve created from a conversation between four men, whom I have spent an enormous amount of time with, taking them in. So I’m not only performing them trying to empathize with women, I’m performing my struggle to empathize with them in that process. I’m always me, and I’m not a man, and I’m not performing them, I’m performing a relationship to them, as they’re performing a relationship to women and to each other.

The other aspect of that work, which I’m very interested in, and which also exists in my other work, although I just started to think about it recently in more psychological terms, is the individual/group relationship. In many of my performances, I’m performing a whole bunch of people and a relationship to them. You can think about that just in terms of an artistic trope, which is this traditional virtuosity, but it’s also about how we as individuals contain groups, and all of our various group identifications. What we internalize are actually relationships, and those exist inside us to the extent that we’ve invested in them and they’ve become part of us. That fluidity between what in psychological terms are intersubjective versus intrasubjective relationships has also become very important to the way that I think about my work. Whether it’s actually there for other people is always the question.

PM: In enacting your relationship and enacting the struggle to relate, what is your aspiration to take this historical material and create a contemporary contextual relationship?

AF: I didn’t have to think through that on my own because that was the logic of the context for the piece that Pacific Standard Time provided, but it’s a process for me. My mother got involved in the women’s movement in the early 1970s, or even the late ’60s, and came out as a lesbian in 1972; my parents separated. So those men are my father—those men who were struggling with their partners becoming feminists and struggling with how that redefined not only their relationship to women but also their relationship to themselves and to masculinity. And that struggle not being simply one that exists within men or women. That’s a struggle that I also internalized.

There’s an aspect of that history being an internalized history. It’s a history that certainly many people, from my father’s generation to mine, lived. And then there are the legacies of that history. I teach at UCLA and, of course, I have female students and male students. One of the things that I’m sensitive to, in part because of my experience of this history, is that young men struggle with masculinity a lot, but they don’t have a language for that struggle, at least not as much of a language as young women do because of the history of feminism. But if you look at the early ’70s, there was a men’s movement that was developing in response to the women’s movement—for example, Jeremy Shapiro, who is one of the people I’m performing, wrote an essay, “Men’s Liberation”—but it was hijacked by a whole other agenda and got lost.

And then queer theory developed, the gay rights movement emerged, and in that context, there have been many resources that have come out of the LGBT movement and out of queer theory for queer men. But straight men don’t have as many resources to engage these questions about gender identity. I feel very sensitive to that, partly because of my teaching and the young men that I work with and partly because of my own history.

PM: You’re suggesting that they’ve haven’t the opportunity to develop a language that is not just an evacuation-of or a

PM (cont.): reaction-to but is a generative language about reforming these relationships. So, to shift directions a bit, how do these relationships form in a public sphere, and how might cultural institutions, specifically museums, function as public spheres, where, as you described, we embody our behaviors and our critical responses in relation to the activities that we see other people engage in? One of my threads of research is how museum architecture can facilitate or repress it.

AF: The lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was a perfect place for Official Welcome (2001) because it’s so of the era of the flashy environment that developed in the ’80s and that is still with us in those sites of the art world, the more commercial sites.

One of the things I have realized is how the field of art and its instititions as we know them today really didn’t exist before 1970 or 1975. And what I realized this past spring is that institutional critique, which we think of as emerging in the late ’60s from certain conceptual practices and developing in the ’70s, arose when there were only a handful of institutions there to critique! It was a tiny field by comparison. So, in fact, to think about the development of critical practices—such as institutional critique or the alternative space movement or the neo-avant-gardes of the ’70s—as a reaction against an established institutional field is historically wrong because that didn’t actually exist in 1970.

When you look at museums of the ’70s, such as the Gorky Art Museum, which opened in 1974, and the Oakland Art Museum or the Pompidou in Paris and the Sprengel Museum in Hanover (where I’ve done work), it’s a very interesting era for museum architecture. There were museums that architecturally were struggling with the question of their public function, and while Brutalism is terribly alienating on some level, it’s also a radically different architecture than either the architecture of high modernist museums or of classical beaux-arts museums. It’s all about trying to integrate the museum, art, and culture into urban space, opening it up and fracturing it using materials that are not precious or rarified. Then in the ’80s and into the ’90s, with SFMOMA and the Guggenheims and so forth, there’s a dramatic turn from that model. Suddenly, you have the Carrara marble in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the black marble here in San Francisco, the soaring spaces and the return to all of those paradigms of architectural spectacle that go back to the nineteenth century.

Andrea-Fraser-Projection

Andrea Fraser. Projection, 2008 (still); two-channel, high definition video projection. Courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.

And of course, people have made all sorts of populist arguments for that, but it’s a corporate populism. It’s a populism of spectacle, rather than a populism of communitarian public space, and that’s where we are. There’s very little to be seen in the art world that actually is moving against those trends, at least within the institutional field. Certainly, there’s a very strong movement in the field of social practice and the criticism around social practice and around other critical discourses. But we don’t see it in institutions, and we don’t see it in architecture.

Dena Beard: I’ve been involved in conversations with what has been called the Occupy Art Movement here, about alternatives to museums, and thinking about how to reactivate any kind of exhibition site with a more interesting model. I was wondering, with all your research and all your understanding, do you have any insight?

AF: Of course. It’s something I think about all the time, and I’m very pessimistic, but it’s where I distinguish institutional critique, as I understand it, from social practices. And it’s not that I—and other artists associated with institutional critique—haven’t been involved in trying to kind of produce alternatives or positive models. I have been involved in a number of initiatives, but fundamentally what’s productive in the practice of art and the art field is something I don’t want to call critique so much, anymore. It’s a space of an ongoing investigation and reflexive analysis. What I always get very uncomfortable with—and I think we do this in the art world very often—is the strong desire to jump over that investigation and say, “OK, now we know what the good thing is to do. And we’re on the good side. We can be on the right side of things. We can be on the good side of politics, of progressive social movements, of the fucked-up economy—if we do this.”

And that’s a defensive maneuver as far as I’m concerned. It gets very tiresome, and it certainly gets tiresome for me, I’ll tell you. In all of my work, I have a firm belief that it’s much more productive to not say, “OK, now we’re doing the right thing, we’re good people,” but to say, “No, this is how we’re not doing the right thing. This is how we’re doing the wrong thing. This is how we’re participating in the reproduction of steeply hierarchical and unequal relations. This is how we’re participating in the reproduction of economic inequality. This is how we’re participating in relationships of domination.” And it’s very unpleasant to just focus on that.

But that examination is exactly what art and certain artistic traditions have made a space for and have developed as a paradigm. Because of the intense contradictions of the art field, I think that it’s problematic to not engage in some of that questioning, at least.

Sociologically, I think about the art field as a structurally conflictual social space. I get this from Bourdieu’s work, and there are different ways you can think about his work. In his classic model, it’s a space of struggle between economic and cultural capital, between economic principles of power and valuation and principles of power that are rooted in competence, in education, in what he calls cultural capital. You see that throughout the field. And the art field is radically divided between these extreme poles of enormous social, economic, and political power on the one end, and at the other end, an arena of people who are convinced that they are the ones to take down that power. They are very identified with the powerless, not the dominant but the dominated, and the struggle of the dominated. Then there’s this space in between where those two poles mix, and that’s where most of us are. It’s an extremely uncomfortable place to be, it’s an extremely painful place to be, but it’s precisely the place where that contestation happens. And it’s where I often argue with some of the positions in the art field.

From my perspective, even if you’re at the other end of the spectrum from the art fairs and the top two hundred collectors, and you don’t want to have anything to do with that, you’re still in the art field, and you’re still structurally related to all of that. You ignore that at your peril because we can do all of these things—community-based practices, political work, activism, social practices—outside of the art field. And in many ways, if we’re talking about political and social effects, it can be much more effective outside of the art field.

So what does it mean that we’re calling it art and that it’s in the art field? One of the things that it means is that it enters into that social space, and that has to be dealt with. If it’s not, there can be symbolic and economic and ideological consequences to that, which can be really problematic.

Andrea-Fraser-Income-Inequality

Andrea Fraser. Index, first published anonymously in Artforum, Summer 2011, p. 431. Produced for 24 Advertisements, a project by Jacob Fabricus, with design assistance by Santiago Pérez Gomes-de Silva, Studio Manuel Raeder. Graph represents the Mei Moses 2006 annual all art index and S&P 500 total return index (1956-2006).

A factoid that ended up in my essay for the Whitney Museum is that in the past decade, contributions to nonprofit cultural institutions have been consistently increasing, whereas contributions to social service organizations has been declining. It’s fairly clear that the trend has been that cultural institutions, and visual arts institutions in particular, are becoming these vacuums, sucking up resources in the arts. The whole phenomenon of art museums incorporating dance and performing arts is part of that because dance is almost bankrupt. So museums in the art field are growing and taking on more cultural and social functions. It’s not a bad thing in itself, but I think it’s very tricky when that means those resources are being drained from other fields. The questions of what that means, why it’s happening historically, and what does it actually enable are very tricky.

PM: The potential is for the institution to function as a set of conduits and not just receptacles.

AF: Yes, and I think that when it comes to, for example, identity politics—as opposed to economic politics—the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, queer politics, and minority politics in the United States have found places in cultural institutions. They have been able to use the authority and the legitimacy of those institutions in ways that have been tremendously valuable. But when it comes to economic struggles, it’s a different set of structures. It’s very difficult because the whole nonprofit sector in the United States developed not as an alternative to the for-profit sector but as an alternative to the public sector. It’s a product of anti-tax, anti-government, anti-public-sector politics that go back to the nineteenth century. And we see it intensify as state and city governments, museums, and universities become increasingly dependent on private individuals. But in the description of the museum as a conduit, the museum can be a platform for how we might use its power and the authority in a good way, to legitimize positions and politics.

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