Martha Wilson 5c flyer_opt

A Feminist R(t)e(a) Party

October 28, 2011

I joined Suzanne Stroebe and Caitlin Rueter yesterday for tea. They are the Feminist Tea Partiers: young women artists who stage kitchy klatches where face-to-face discourse about feminism, rather than local gossip, is the preferred subject. I enjoyed our little chat. These refined lady artists were warm, engaging, and driven. Yet I couldn’t also help to feel a little remorse twinged with a more profound pain that comes with the endless been-there-done-that cycle which seems to define so much feminist experience and art.

The need to playfully restage and thus reinvent our feminism after its “loss” by ironically using our mother’s (or mother’s mother’s) costumes and conventions has itself been done. The image above is from Ann Magnuson and Kenny Scharf’s show East/Village West, for PST, and shows Magnuson’s generation (late 70s) staging hauntingly similar parties. Women at the LA Woman’s Building in the early 70s did similar work (i.e. the Waitresses, or Ilene Segalove, or Womanhouse as only three examples visible in our show Doin’ it in Public at Otis for PST).

Also from E/V W. Campy eighties ladies.

I’m not blaming the new tea-partiers, in fact, someone needs to (re)do the thankless work which sadly seems to be the ongoing, never-ending, tedious but necessary first-step project of feminism, enabling young women to 1) call themselves feminists (in the face of a (re)circulating set of fears of the term, the position, or the movement) and 2) educate themselves in their feminist pasts. I do this work just about daily as a Woman’s Studies professor, and have done so now for twenty-one years, as have a huge number of people I love, respect, and honor. So why doesn’t it stick? Or better yet, where does it stick? Why can’t we build? Or better yet, where do we build?

As far as this current tea party goes, I would love to ask the ladies their thoughts on two questions (hereby beginning, I hope, an online feminist tea conversation):

  • I am left to wonder why the fifties motif and not, say, a seventies one?
  • Where does gay-male camp fit into your drag?

All in an LA Day

October 18, 2011

First stop: Occupy LA. Joined marching Cal State Teacher’s Union members who emerged magically before me as I was watching a town meeting on the steps (but not: we’re all in the 99%).

Then to MOCA’s Under the Big Black Sun.

Oh, and led the walk-through for Doin’ in in Public at Otis with my lovely lady scholar team: Jennie Klein, Jenni Sorkin, Michelle Moravec.

The links? This often inhospitable city (which opened itself to me), its difficult but real public spaces, walking, activism, art, community, history and teaching. Sometimes life delivers…

I’ve been lucky enough to attend three PST events thus far, and look forward to many more:

  • the opening of Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art and the Woman’s Building (for which I was one of the academic advisers): the show, thanks to curator Meg Linton, and adviser Sue Mayberry, does a truly amazing job presenting the ephemera of a movement, the residue of organizing, the strange after effects of activism, and the wily output of collectives.
  • a panel of the curators for MEX/LA: Mexican Modernism(s) in LA 1930-1985 where Jesse Lerner, Rober Ortiz-Torres, and Harry Gamboa Jr. spoke compellingly about the inspiring inter-relations of Mexicans, Anglos, Chicanos, and Angelenos, as they lived, traveled, toured, stole, shared, learned, and represented across and between these regions and ways of living.

  • a lovely, funky, fancy brunch hosted by Ann Magnuson and Kenny Scharf who gave a generous and detailed walk through of their East Village West show (charmingly, idiosyncratically, definitively unrelated in any visible way whatsoever to PST, given that the show presents the work of themselves and their friends, most of whom are lost to AIDS, in and about NYC in the 1980s, but all the more telling for that jarring, strange geographic and temporal twist).

The show as a whole, built from all its amazing parts, exhibits the wonderous if chilling power of high-quality deep-pocketed patronage. By conscientiously supporting institutions, scholars, and curators with enough hard cash to do our best work, the Getty is going to single-handedly change the story of art in LA. We thank them/it for it. While I am proud to have played a part, happy to have been paid, and pleased to learn from all the amazing shows that will flower across the city, the fact that this could never have happened using solely the resources of the academic, artistic, and cultural institutions of this city lead us to consider the place philanthropy will take in setting the stage for knowledge and culture in the near future.

On Friday I was honored to participate in a day long symposium at the Getty, Questioning the Standard, an event anticipating Pacific Standard Time, their impending year-long, city-wide opus on art in LA from 1945-1980. Proudly a member of the “diversity panel”—the feminist and assorted people of color curating some of the feminist and ethnic shows from sixty-plus participating venues—our placement at the day’s end (speaking to half the full house who had attended the earlier sessions, perhaps fleeing in fear of our anticipated politicized feelings) was a prime example of the hows and whys, ups and downs, of “safe spaces” in public (dominant) settings, the very subject of my talk!

For this session, I attempted to allow my current work about feminist spaces online and my earlier body of research on the LA Woman’s Building to triangulate our vision about what might be some current standards for showing and viewing the past and present work of politicized voices for whom public display might be otherwise endangering. I considered how the theories and practices of “safe spaces,” developed and refined in the seventies by women like those at the Building, and continuing to this day, might be relevant for establishment art shows in dominant (rather than alternative) spaces. In the seventies,  a huge body of art was produced in the safe space of the Woman’s Building about these very issues of women’s safety, danger and freedom. And then, so empowered, and by making art about experiences that other women shared, but had never expressed publicly, new spaces were opened for women outside the safety zone. Rape or sexual harassment, as two examples, eventually would become acceptable for discussing outside safe spaces and in the larger public because of the initial freedom allowed by the safe space. Another prime example is Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz’s 1977 public art event Three Weeks in May: Speaking Out On Rape, a Political Art Piece. This piece exemplifies the logical and ideal endpoint to a safe space–that it becomes no longer needed, that it moves into public, that it produces the conditions of its own dismantling: women find voices without the support of other women, women form coalitions with other folks, that which was once dangerous becomes defanged, that which was private becomes public, and the personal becomes the political.

So, given that safe spaces may sometimes create their own obsolescence, I then listed several other retorts expressed over the long and complex history of feminist debate about safe spaces, noting that:

  • safe spaces, by definition, are never safe for all.
  • safety is not the only powerful or empowering place from which to speak or be heard.
  • making safety the feminist priority also demands making danger, vulnerability, or disempowerment the a priori feminist stance as opposed to women’s anger, power, or pleasure.

Here’s Berenice Johnson Reagon from 1981 at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival:

“Sometimes you get comfortable in your little barred room, and you decide you in fact are going to live there and carry out all of your stuff in there. And you gonna take care of everything that needs to be taken care of in the barred room. If you’re white and in the barred room and if everybody’s white, one of the first things you try to take care of is making sure that people don’t think that the barred room is a racist barred room … Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home!”

Given that a significant amount of the LA art work we had seen presented earlier in the day had been about representing (and selling) a sunny, light-filled, modern, private, middle-class all-white home to both Los Angelenos and the world, Reagon’s old words took on a prescience for the present public curating of past artifacts of home and street, pleasure and danger, anger and safety, and allowed all of us still (safely) in the room to think about how curating is framing and space itself serves as a primary form of protection, contextualization, and mobilization for both safe and dangerous works of public expression.

And with these thoughts on why safe spaces are not the only kinds of spaces that feminist artists and their communities might need, then and now, and about why we always still seem to need them sometimes, I concluded with two more angles from which to consider what might be the necessary spaces for contemporary interactions with earlier feminist art:

1) Is it fair, decent, or even useful to show work that was made from and for a feminist safe space in other contexts and places? Another way to say this is: should some work stay within the safe spaces, the small and specific “diverse” communities and locales for which it was made, and for whom it will always have the biggest impact?

2) Are the Getty and its Pacific Standard Time different sorts of safe spaces, and necessary ones? A wealthy, air-conditioned, honored, well-staffed institutions that can keep the Women’s Building’s tapes from disintegrating, as they actually were until they were recently moved here? These tapes, no longer a part of anyone’s active process, and no longer as dangerous or perhaps even as empowering as they once were, are safe here: safe to become and reframe history.

I’ve worked with, written about, and been a fan of the work of Susan Mogul for quite awhile. A early practitioner of feminist video via her radical education at the LA Woman’s Building’s Feminist Art Program in the 1970s, Susan emailed me recently about the censorship (and related and ultimately successful on-line protest) of her seminal 1973 video, “Dressing Up,” by YouTube, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

And this is why YouTube bores me, even as I’m about (cross your fingers) to finally publish my YouTube book. YouTube hasn’t changed much in the three years I’ve been studying it seriously, other than getting larger in users, lengthier in videos, and more packed with corporate content. Don’t get me wrong: NicheTube rules, and there’s plenty to see if you ramble long and hard enough (garnering the site ad-revenue with every look), that is if the radical stuff you might like can last. For YouTube censors non-hegemonic (i.e. feminist) practices on the sheer philistinism of its beloved user/cops.

Please go to “Flow’s” Special Issue on The Archive to see a slightly modified selection (“The Views of the Feminist Archive”) from my longer essay “A Process Archive: The Grand Circularity of Woman’s Building Video,” which will be published in 2011 in the catalog for Doin’ it in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building, one of 15 Getty sponsored art shows, “Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA, 1945-80.”

By way of John Grierson  and Tom Gunning, I come to the conclusion:

“Their process led to no product (other than its video documentation), but rather to affection, collectivity, and self-expression. But, I’m starting to bore myself. That’s their theory, and it is represented in everything they made. Where patriarchy, and its documentary see linear, singular, goal oriented processes resulting in commodifiable products and places, Woman’s Building video produced and preserved a multiple, messy view of the development of collective experience, voice, and growth en route. In the 1970s, women at the Building augmented their feminist art making and education with video recordings (now archived) to allow for a permanent record of their developing theory of process: a multiple, collective point of view reverberating and transformative in and across people and places, the present as well as the future. At the Getty Research Institute today, watching their compelling if confusing and often outsized archive of process, I am wowed by the complexity and originality of their view.”

I have been watching a lot of forty year old videos of designer, teacher, and public artist, Sheila de Bretteville, as part of my research for my Women’s Building video archive project. What a thrill, a delight, a deja-vu to see her as a rip-roaring, as eloquent as ever, in the flesh presenter (last week at Oxy)! In the 1970s, de Bretteville left Cal Arts to co-found the LA Women’s Building with Judy Chicago, Arlene Raven, and others, and in the uncountable hours of black and white videos they shot of their process, boldly developing a feminist arts education based on consciousness raising and its role in responding to women’s victimization, voicelessness and invisibility, she was a predictable beacon of intelligence, clarity and theoretical wisdom.

At 70, she shows a life’s work dedicated to including other people within the creation of meaning, a feminist and humanist commitment to participation and process. She says, “the way a work is made is part of what it means.” She thinks all humans have the right to leave a trace of their lives, thoughts, and experiences in the environments where they have lived, and just getting through a day without doing harm is the most powerful demonstration of heroism, deserving of a monument or perhaps a less austere trace (of public art) all one’s own.

Her gracious, generous, and self-effacing talk included the wonderful work of her students (above).

The archivist brings work to visibility by seeing it, knowing it in her way, and connecting it to other video and viewers that will frame and hold it: giving context, making friends, building arguments, forming associations. Unruly archives need curators. Their holdings nothing but inconsequential detritus until loved and re-purposed.

I have proposed a video archive love fest. I want to take the dead work of the L.A. Woman’s Building (recently archived at the Getty’s Research Institute) and re-purpose it on-line. Bring it back to life. Make it relevant. Make if visible and re-usable. Put it on YouTube.

A proposed (pending funding) continuation of my work with the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Project, I hope to move old tapes on-line linking this inspiring (and too invisible) retro-video-vision to the hyper-mediated now. I am eager to re-purpose YouTube as a productive archive of video art that addresses some of the contradictions engendered by this unique process archive. Women’s Building video was made and saved by countless (often anonymous) women who were mutually developing and enjoying a uniquely feminist theory and practice of video fundamentally informed by a consciousness raising that was itself conversant with contemporary art and primarily engaged with video at its inception. Throughout feminist art education at the Building (video) process was valued, and itself documented as well as being document, and all of this was meant to be made public (often through video), and then saved for history (as video), even, counter-intuitively, as it was also, most critically, marking something entirely internal and ephemeral.

In videos from the Building, there is a consistent and self-aware project that evocatively links video across this archive to both feminist process and preservation. I would continue this past project, by selecting videos from the archive, with the artists’ permissions put them on-line, and produce prompts, frameworks, and tools for their contemporary use. In so doing, I would be attempting to making this archive newly usable for present-day digital (video) processes, thus unmooring it from its obscure, frozen, and misunderstood place as feminist history, and encouraging it to better engage with our feminist present (which was once its under-theorized future), in the meantime allowing past work to remain relevant, become active, and embark in dialogue with the present.

I will speak on this Saturday at the ASA Conference.

On Watching Bad Video

June 10, 2009

I’ve spent a long day at an undisclosed location watching a load of bad video. As with all things tedious, cheap, people-made and yet somehow also pretentious, the hours enjoy the most unimaginable turpitude when marked by unedited real-time ramblings of the self-serious. And yet. I champion bad video across this blog, make bad video myself on many occasions, and somehow still believe my time was well spent today even as I sometimes (I hate to admit, what kind of researcher am I?!) scanned the tapes, while also secretly reading email, and picking my cuticles.

How can bad video be good for you?
I believe it might be helpful to begin to nuance this ungainly term. Here’s a quick attempt. More to come.

1) Is it bad on purpose? To what end?
2) Does it know it’s bad? Does it let you know it knows?
3) Does it not care it’s bad because it’s up to some other good?
4) Could it be good if the author had better access (to equipment, education)?
5) Where does talent fit in? Content?

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