Martha Wilson 5c flyer_opt


On Friday and Saturday I was lucky enough to attend two feminist cultural events in LA: one centered on a double revisit to the feminist art scenes of the 70s and early 2000s (“Revisiting the revisiting of feminism,” part of a fifteen day celebration of the fifteen years of X-tra in LA,) the other an organizing meeting for feminists in the UC system working in and around technology (UCFemTechNet, a local initiative or iteration of the larger FemTechNet project of which I am an organizer: you can join our listserv here.)

The lucky part is that I live in a complex and populated enough urban environment that multiple and diverse events can occur in a short time around the banner of “feminism and.” And of late, lucky we’ve been. In the past five years LA has been host to a large number of feminist-flavored art and technology events including, of course, the mega-shows In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States,  WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, and Doin’ It in Public Feminism and Art at the Women’s Building (on which I was lucky enough to work), and much more feminist art gingerly scattered across the larger PST effort.  And smaller local acts pepper our city every day including, to mention only a tiny few that quickly come to mind, Womynhouse, Breaking in Two: A provocative Vision of Motherhood, Andrea Bower‘s or Cathy Opie‘s current work showing at their respective galleries, etc. etc.)

While occurring within only a few miles of each other, and sharing a notable cast of linked local characters, histories, institutions, and shared concerns, this weekend’s two events could not have been any more different from each other, in ways that are telling about the complexity of contemporary feminist organizing given that feminists now populate a variety of fields, are schooled in disparate and even competing traditions, have any number of current goals to link our work and struggle, and use many manners of feminist pasts to muster our strength and bearing. Of course, perhaps problematically, so much of what we do as feminists has always been to look back: to that time just before our reach, when things seemed to be really happening. Much of my own work has looked longingly at the 70s from the position of daughter. And feminists yet a generation or more younger again take up their version of the revision knowingly and lovingly: say the women who stage the Feminist Tea Party, or the oeuvre of Emily Roysdon, or recent work of Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst.

But the strangely timeless, or dare I say dated, conversation at the X-tra event, while also looking back as we are so wont to do, seemed to be entirely unconnected to our lively feminist-present (and the scores of women artists in the room who had come, I think, to make sense of their current practices in light of feminism’s constant changes and rethought histories), eerily circling back to the ever-more, herself-dated and so-easily maligned straw-man Vanessa Beecroft, and odder still, a particular and early image of  a naked and self-righteous Lynda Benglis that our panelists kept using to re-establish that, to be clear, they themselves were “anti-essentialist.”

But that fight—who was and was not an “essentialist”—was fought and won, decades ago, leaving its binary to be revisited, deconstructed, and repurposed by any number of contemporary feminists delighting in body-based practices and asking different political questions:

Rheim Alkadhi, Hairs

Rheim Alkahdi, Housekeeping

“Yes, the old system of transcendental essentialism is still our enemy, we do not want to return to a politics of essential purity in which only certain subjects are dominant and all others are consigned to alterity; but at the same time, the new system of transient anti-essentialism is our enemy too, for we also reject the new customized micropolitics of identity management, in which each human soul is captured and reproduced as an autonomous individuals bearing affects and identities.” Alexander Galloway, “Does the Whatever Speak?” in Race After the Internet

And that’s not even to begin to mention the amazing work by contemporary feminist art historians also revisiting past work with today’s questions and needs, as my once-teacher Yvonne Rainer reminded us at the event about my once-student Julia Bryan-Wilson’s recent queer revisit of Rainer’s Trio A. Why weren’t we sharing our current feminist work, and weirder still, why weren’t the panelists able to hold on to feminism, which kept skittering off the stage as if something somehow currently unknowable?

Now, Mary Kelly, ever articulate, dead-on, and inspiring, was the first to remind us how the complete capitalization of the art market has changed the conversation for contemporary artists, as well as our lifestyle and community (we spent quite some time bemoaning missing couches where people used to smoke and chat outside MOCA). And that efficiently gets me to my other event, and my invitation, too. For, of course, we all know that things can and sometimes do work outside markets on the Internet, and there people sometimes meet, and chat, and share their work. I am certainly not one to celebrate the digital (my work mostly does the opposite), but at least in the feminist conversations this weekend that organized about and sometimes in that space there seemed more than ample room for both connection and possibility, to things past, present and future.

At UCFemTechNet, another diverse group of women and men, from a range of disciplines, ranks, campuses, races, and sexualities, used their time together productively: to plan for the building of networking tools and platforms, places to share work, and even a possible retreat in a yert. Interested, too, in salvaging and archiving feminists and feminist theory past, this meeting was at the same time dynamic and interactive, perhaps because of its quite practical goals and processes, and because our hopes were not just to reflect upon communities lost, but ways to be a community here and now.

The next event is a feminist, anti-racist wiki-storm, where we will come together for three hours to learn how to and then correct, augment, and build out Wikipedia to hold the people, work, and theories that matter to our shared record. There, in person and also online, we will work together to archive our feminist past and current work, across fields, including, if offered up and taken on for editing, the transforming practices of decades of LA feminist artists. As times change, the words and practices that motivate community and activism must also transform, even as we pay homage to and remember what got us here. Feminist technology and art are interwoven media used for political gain: if this remains your commitment, we’d love for you to join us!

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?