“Untitled” (2003) was initiated in 2002 when Andrea Fraser approached Friedrich Petzel Gallery to arrange a commission with a private collector on her behalf. The requirements for the commission included a sexual encounter between Fraser and a collector, which would be recorded on videotape to be produced as a DVD in an edition of five, with the first exemplar of the edition going to the participating collector. The resulting videotape is a silent, unedited sixty-minute document shot in a hotel room with a stationary camera and existing lighting.
In a small Italian restaurant in the East Village we spoke over lunch.
Andrea Fraser: Most of the interviews I’ve done in the past didn’t even start with a recorded conversation, and if they did I rewrote them extensively. I’m usually quite involved in the rewriting and structuring of these things. So, this will be a little different process—which is fine—although I will still be involved in the editing, right?
Rail (Praxis: Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey): Yes. We’ll talk about that process as it unravels. First, let’s talk about your childhood and early influences.
Fraser: Well, I was a hippie kid and my mother was an artist. My mother went to the Art Students League in the fifties and continued painting for many years. In the late sixties she stopped painting and did performances and installations, film, photography, got involved with writing. She also got involved with the Women’s Movement pretty early on. So, to talk about first influences I would have to go back to that childhood environment. It was formed by the California counterculture of the sixties and seventies, but also had very strong links to Modernist and historical as well as contemporary avant-garde traditions. You know, I grew up with some sense of art history.
Rail: Through your mother?
Fraser: Through my mother, through the books that were in the house, and going to happenings when I was a child in Berkeley, and going to museums sometimes. And I was still very young when I started art school because I dropped out of high school. I moved to New York and started at the School of Visual Arts when I was sixteen.
Rail: Your father?
Fraser: My father studied philosophy and then became a Unitarian minister.
Rail: When did he become a Unitarian minister? How old were you?
Fraser: Well, I was born in Montana. He was born in Montana. My parents met in New York and then moved back to Montana, and I think I was about two when he decided to go to the Unitarian seminary in Berkeley. So we moved to Berkeley from Montana in ’67. And my father—
Rail: Wow. That’s the peak of—
Fraser: It was the peak, and it was a huge culture shock, it was like an explosion in my family.
Rail: So was he a very hip minister?
Fraser: Well, Unitarians—
Rail: I know, they’re already pretty cool, but that area, that time, that’s when the church was becoming a little bit more radicalized. Was he involved in the arts?
Fraser: Well, he was married to an artist.
Rail: What does your mother think about “Untitled”? How does she see it?
Fraser: My family has been very supportive. When I found out that the New York Times Magazine was going to run a piece about “Untitled,” I thought I should let my family know.
Fraser: No. Most of my family already knew about “Untitled,” but I wanted to let them know that they might be reading about it in the papers. So I called my mother, I called one of my sisters, and I called my father. When I first told my mother about the piece—it was some time ago—she didn’t blink. I imagine it’s not easy for her, but we haven’t actually discussed her experience of it. I had a retrospective in Hamburg where it was shown for the first time and she came for the opening. At the opening I also performed “Official Welcome,” in which I take my clothes off, which probably wasn’t easy for her either, but I don’t know. I hadn’t actually talked to my father about “Untitled” directly, although he did have information about it. So I called my father and I said, well, you may have noticed in the Hamburg catalogue there’s a picture of me with a man in a hotel room—And he said, “Oh yeah. Oh yeah, I thought that was a good idea.” OK. And then he said, “you know what, when I was at the Unitarian seminary, in my second year, I had to give a sermon for the entering class”—the first-year class, they were just starting—“and I gave a sermon about the minister as prostitute.” Can you believe it!? He sent it to me. It’s in verse.
Rail: It’s in verse?
Fraser: It’s pretty radical. It’s not really so much about the minister as prostitute; it’s more about the hypocrisies and narcissism of the ministry.
Rail: The minister as prostitute? Is that the title?
Fraser: I don’t remember exactly what the title of it is, but that’s how he described it to me, as about the minister as prostitute. So, that’s my family. One of my sisters, who lives in Massachusetts, came to see the show.
Rail: That’s a pretty amazingly supportive family, though, that’s great.
Fraser: Yes, it’s great.
Rail: It’s a very impressive background from your father, too—very open. And your mother?
Fraser: Well, when the New York Times Magazine article came out, my mother immediately called me to say that she absolutely hated it and thought that it had no redeeming features and she wrote me a long e-mail, ripping it apart, piece by piece.
Rail: The article?
Fraser: Yeah. I think she basically felt that it was misogynist, and I tend to agree that it was. Not that I think Guy Trebay intended it to be. I think he probably meant to write a supportive piece. And it was supportive in many ways, but in other ways it was very much like a tabloid piece. So that was a bit difficult for me. I mean, the article was difficult, but it was also difficult to get that response.
Rail: From your mother, you mean? Or from the writer?
Fraser: Both. I think it has to do with the question of the work’s relationship to feminism. Is “Untitled” a feminist piece? Is it an anti-feminist piece? Is it a post-feminist piece? I don’t feel that I’ve really worked through that question.
Rail: What was your experience?
Fraser: My own experience of doing the piece was really very empowering and quite in line with my understanding of my own feminism. It was my idea, it was my scenario, I was producing a piece that I would own, I was very much in control of the process. I never felt used by the collector. In fact, I was much more concerned about using him. And showing it has also been empowering—terrifying, but empowering. Almost everyone I know has now seen me have sex on camera. In a way, I am now impervious to physical exposure and voyeurism. So, that was my experience. But I know I can’t project that onto sex work generally, or prostitution. I think it’s sort of ridiculous to say that the piece was prostitution. You know, people certainly can argue with this and Guy Trebay argues with this, but it really was a very different kind of relationship, one in which I had an enormous amount of power—
Rail: Well, the piece is art, to begin with.
Fraser: Well, yes, it’s art, and the question I’m interested in posing is whether art is prostitution—in a metaphorical sense, of course. Is it any more prostitution because I happen to be having sex with a man than it would be if I were just selling him a piece? In fact, I remain much less comfortable with selling the DVDs of “Untitled” than I was with producing the piece. The “normal” sales situation that one has in the art world feels much more exploitative to me than any aspect of my relationship with, or the exchange with the participating collector. That’s where I lose control of it. That’s where the speculation begins.
But back to the question of feminism: one thing that I’ve been reminded of with the presentation of the piece here and my sense of the response, is that my own experience of producing the piece is only one part of it. On the one hand I can say that it was an empowering experience that is consistent with my own feminism—and I describe myself as a second-generation feminist, not a post-feminist. On the other hand, however, when you produce a piece that goes out into the world, it exists and circulates as a representation that may have very little to do with your experience of making it or your intentions. It becomes a screen for people to project things onto, or an opportunity to produce or reproduce certain stereotypes.
Rail: Everyone projects their own idea.
Fraser: For example, it’s been fascinating to me how people assess the sex in “Untitled.” People have had a whole range of ideas of what kind of sex it was.
Rail: What do you mean?
Fraser: At first, when I was only doing private screenings, most people said they were surprised at how intimate the sex seemed. But then a lot of people who saw it in the gallery seemed to think it looked really stilted. “Oh, it’s so boring.” Then other people found it really sexy. Then, you know, “oh, you’re doing all the work,” and “oh, he’s doing a lot of work.” People were just really all over the board. It’s been fascinating.
So you put something out into the world and it circulates, if not as a piece, as an object, then as a representation of a piece, and people make all these diverse interpretations. Until recently all my work has been extremely site specific, and part of the logic of doing site specific work for me had to do with controlling the circulation of my work: with being very precise about who the work is addressed to and where it’s presented, about who the real audience is and not just the imaginary audience in one’s mind, like art critics and other artists, and thinking about what kind of demands it makes on that real audience. Untitled is not really a site-specific work. It exists as a commodity that can circulate and be shown in different contexts. But the presentation in Chelsea, at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, was site-specific. That’s the gallery that brokered the piece. I could also argue that “Untitled” can function, if not site-specifically at least with a kind of critical reflexively, in any context touched by the art market. But what happens with a work like this that becomes sensationalized is that it leaves the art world and gets taken up by the non-art media, then as an artist you really lose control over it. Another part of site specificity, for me, is the idea that artists have a responsibility for the representations that they produce and for the representations that are produced of them, you know, that artists become the support of, even if they’re not the representations artists intended. I do believe that there are social and psychological structures to which all those representations and interpretations belong that govern the way representations are produced, the way we make meanings, the way institutions make meanings of our work, the way the media makes meanings of our work or of us, as artists. And I believe that we can understand those structures if we educate ourselves well enough.
Rail: But now you’re talking about the media in the non-art world?
Fraser: Not only. I’m talking about reception generally. One of the most important legacies of Minimalism and Conceptualism for me is the idea that what constitutes an art work is not just the thing, but all the conditions of the production and presentation and distribution of the thing. Because, to a large extent, that’s where the meaning, the social meaning, of an art work is made. So even if “Untitled” is not a site-specific work, I still consider all those aspects a part of the piece. The conditions of production of “Untitled,” the relations of exchange, are obviously central to it. But I also consider the conditions of presentation and distribution as central to the piece. The DVD edition is actually sold with a lot of restrictions. The buyer does not have the right to make video stills or distribute any representations of it, the buyer does not have the right to make any excerpts or broadcast any excerpts, the buyer does not have the right to loan it, I have the right to review any publicity material that’s generated about it, and I must be consulted before it’s shown publicly. They’re pretty stringent restrictions. I didn’t have a contract with the collector, and that’s also a very important aspect of the piece. It was about taking the economic exchange of buying and selling art and turning into a very personal, human exchange. It had to be based on trust.
Fraser: A verbal agreement. No contract and no release. At any point I suppose he could decide that he doesn’t want it shown and then we’d have to have a dialogue about that and I’m not sure what would happen. But the people who buy the DVD have to sign a contract, and they have responsibilities to me. All of these conditions are an important part of the piece.
And who I talk to about “Untitled” and how I talk about it is also part of the piece. Not talking to Fox News is part of the piece, and not going on MSNBC is part of the piece, and not doing an interview with, you know, Nerve.com is part of the piece—even though I like Nerve, but that’s not the context of the piece. “Untitled” is about the art world, it’s about the relations between artists and collectors, it’s about what it means to be an artist and sell your work—sell what may be, what should be, a very intimate part of yourself, your desire, your fantasies, and to allow others to use you as a screen for their fantasies. It’s not really about sex work, it’s not really about prostitution, and it’s not about getting my fifteen minutes. You know, and it’s not about reality TV.
Rail: Right. And that’s what people are bringing in.
Fraser: And to some extent, I can make choices about how it circulates. For me, the choices that I make about those things are part of the piece, and I see it as part of my responsibility as an artist to make those choices and to decide, OK, I’ve done an art work, what does it mean? What do I want it to mean? What can I do to keep it on track, as far as those meanings are concerned?
Rail: And this is a tough one, in that regard.
Fraser: Those issues have always oriented my approach to institutional critique and site-specific work.
Rail: But in this case that also becomes about controlling the media or to whatever extent you can, which is, you know….
Fraser: Which is a beast, so it’s probably pretty much impossible. And then of course, one is also confronted with one’s own ambivalence about that kind of reception, about fame, about notoriety, and yes, I am ambivalent about it. On the one hand, sure, it’s great. I’ve always wanted attention, although I would have preferred to get this kind of attention for some other things I’ve done. “Untitled” is not the only work I want to be remembered for, you know. So there’s that ambivalence. I’ve also done a lot of work about that kind of ambivalence. If institutional critique is a reflection on how art works circulate through institutions—not only museums, but the whole institution of art, the market, the gallery, the press, and so on and so forth—institutional critique was never only a reflection on those institutions, but also on artistic practice and the way that artists feed those institutions.
Fraser: So, the site-specific dimension of that practice has its roots in an attempt to refuse that dynamic; to refuse to supply, to refuse to lend oneself and one’s work to that apparatus.
Rail: To refuse to be kind of corrupted by the—
Fraser: Yeah. Of course, it’s impossible to refuse completely, because then one would simply cease to exist within the field of art and it would be impossible to have any effects within it. But one can try to participate in the most conscious and determined and critical way that one can. So, as a limited edition video, “Untitled” is sold and is thus destined to circulate as a commodity. The fact that it’s a commodity is important, because the piece is about the art commodity, you know, so it’s got to be a commodity. But I can try to control that circulation contractually.
Rail: And then there’s the representation….
Fraser: Right, it exists as a commodity, but it also exists as a representation, and it’s even more difficult to control the circulation of representations than commodities. And that’s also where, for me, the question of the sexual politics of the piece really emerges. Here I’ve produced something and have lent myself and my work to certain kinds of representations, including the kind of misogynistic representations that I think we’ve already seen in the press. What is my responsibility for that? That’s the issue for me. How and to what extent can I, as an artist, or should I, as an artist, take responsibility for the representations that are made of me, as a woman, in doing a piece like this, even if those representations have little to do with my intentions in producing it and my actual experience of producing it and my actual position in producing it?
Rail: There’s a control issue.
Fraser: It’s an interpretation issue. It’s an issue of how meanings are made. You know, classical psychoanalysis deals a lot with the problem of the patient’s resistance to the interpretations of the analyst. But Lacan once said, “the only resistance to interpretation is the resistance of the analyst.” On some level, the patient is always right. So is the audience is always right? Okay, to put it in another way, what’s often said in the art world when an artwork arouses public hostility or public controversy is basically, “the public doesn’t get it,” you know, doesn’t understand art or what the artist intended. My position has always been, “no, the artist doesn’t get it, the art world doesn’t get it.” The artist doesn’t get who their public is, doesn’t get what art means in a broader social context. Of course, the issue itself only arises when art leaves the art world and inters into that broader social context. And the irony, the ambivalence, of that kind of reception is that it basically only happens when art becomes sensationalized. I remember during the controversy over the "Sensation" show, which I wrote a long essay about, the New York Post, in effect, criticized the Brooklyn Museum for trying to get into the pages of the New York Post! It really becomes absurd. Like this right-wing guy on Scarborough Country accusing me of doing “Untitled” to get attention, when I absolutely refused to go on the show or participate in any way. I hate to say it, but the conviction that artists are somehow “asking for it” bears a striking resemblance to the logic once used to justify rape. It’s what Melanie Klein called projective identification, when people disown their own ideas and feelings and impulses by putting them into another person, making another person responsible for them. I don’t want to be subjected to that. But I also don’t want to do that myself.
Rail: Of course.
Fraser: But that doesn’t mean that those representations are not there, in the work on some level.
Fraser: So, you know, on one side there’s the idea that artists have a responsibility to be specific about their publics, to try to manage if not control the way their work circulates and the kinds of displacements it’s subject to. But on the other side, artists also have to acknowledge and recognize the diversity of interpretations, even hostile interpretations, as legitimate. They are all true in the sense that they arise within the framework of objective structures that exist and that we are a part of. They don’t come out of thin air. If those interpretations are not what we intended, it may mean that we made a mistake, and they represent the failure of our intentions. Or, they may represent a kind of unconscious of our work and reflect “intentions” we have not acknowledged. Or they may arise from a kind of social unconscious, a social context we have not acknowledged. But I think in most cases of art controversy the artist is either being consciously provocative and aggressive while not wanting to deal with the consequences, or is suffering a kind of art historical amnesia about what is aggressive in their work, right?
Rail: Right, amnesia can play a role—
Fraser: You know, because for us it’s old news, for us, it’s 20, 50, 60, 100 years old, for us, who are insiders. But when you’re presenting your work to people who are not insiders, you know, they don’t share that history. It’s not old news to them. Things that artists can see as beautiful, because we’ve been trained in the history of Modernism and avant-garde art, can still be terribly, aggressively, insultingly ugly to people who are not party to that history. For me, one of the clearest signs that “Untitled” is a successful piece is that it didn’t only upset people outside of the art world, but a lot of people inside the art world as well.