FIRST LADY OF PERFORMANCE ART
MARTHA WILSON with Jarrett Earnest
Under Martha Wilson’s visionary direction, Franklin Furnace has remained a vital force in the New York art world since 1976, holding fast to its mission of “keeping the world safe for avant-garde art.” For 20 years, its TriBeCa location at 112 Franklin Street was the fulcrum for much performance art history as well as a prime target for conservative ire during the Culture Wars. In the late ’90s Franklin Furnace sold its loft and “went virtual,” shifting its attention to “live art online”; to the Franklin Furnace Fund, its performance art granting program; and to the maintenance of its vast archives. The exhibition Martha Wilson: Staging the Self/30 Projects from 30 Years of Franklin Furnace Archive, curated by Peter Dykhuis, consists of Wilson’s personal work from 1971 onward as well as one project from each of Franklin Furnace’s first 30 years. It has been traveling North America for the past few years under the aegis of Independent Curators International and will reach its New York City finale as Performing Franklin Furnace in February 2015. She met with Jarrett Earnest to discuss recent news regarding the future of Franklin Furnace, dressing like Michelle Obama, and diagramming Henry James.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Let’s begin with “the news” about the future of Franklin Furnace—
Martha Wilson: A year ago I was busy turning 65 so the Franklin Furnace board and I decided we needed a strategic plan for what was going to happen to the organization over the long term. We got a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; hired Dunch Arts, the art world consulting firm; and they helped us write a strategic plan for Franklin Furnace, a small, in-your-face arts organization, to “nest” in the arms of a larger educational edifice—much like Rhizome did with the New Museum. I asked Jennifer Miller, who is a Franklin Furnace Alum (an artist we have presented or given a grant), if she would take this idea to Pratt Institute, where she is on the faculty. She presented it to Andrew W. Barnes, Dean of Pratt’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In August of 2012, Coco Fusco, the chair of Franklin Furnace’s board; Jennifer Miller and Martha Wilson met with Andy—and he totally loved it! Since that time, we have been discussing how Franklin Furnace and Pratt Institute might function together. We’ve reached an agreement: In the simplest terms, Franklin Furnace will be housed at Pratt, but we will each continue to be governed by our own boards of directors. One example of collaboration: each year we give grants to the weirdest of the weird through the Franklin Furnace Fund; those selected recipients could be guest lecturers in classrooms of Pratt. Another thing we’re doing is digitizing Franklin Furnace’s archives—all the slides, press releases, announcement cards, posters, video and “born digital” documentation of ephemeral practice will be digitized and published online so you can research Ana Mendieta even though you live in San Diego. Through collaboration with Pratt’s School of Library and Information Science we will be able to cook up ambitious projects to document and preserve ephemeral art practice for the long term.
Rail: Congratulations—winners all! Now, to shift to your artwork: you’ve done performances as Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Tipper Gore. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the first First Lady was a “Martha,” but what continues to interest you about the “First Lady” as a position or a figure?
Martha Wilson: Women are second-class citizens. The First Lady is not allowed to be in charge; she is allowed to beautify the roadsides or promote libraries, but she’s not allowed to run things. My Barbara Bush talks quite a lot about how actually she was the one who wore the pants in the family, but she put other players like Dick Cheney out front. It’s a power thing—I’m interested in the social realities of power. And we are all completely tuned into the power relationships out there, even though we claim we don’t care or are unaware. One of the works in the Martha Wilson Sourcebook (ICI, 2011) is about the roles women are allowed to play: the ideal goddess role is always in the background, lurking behind housewife, secretary, professional—all the ways our roles as women are played in a social context. I got started on First Ladies with Nancy because she was so much fun, so vacant. I could make her say anything; in one performance I have her saying that “cancer is the natural response to the environment.” Interestingly, I’m curating a series of performance artists for BAM and Clifford Owens wants me to perform as Michelle Obama because of my history of having done First Ladies, which adds the question of race to the whole subject of performance of the self. I’m hoping nobody throws a pie at me! It is for his ongoing analysis of what performance art is—he wants the audience to start yelling or asking questions.
Rail: It’s interesting to see how it will work for you to play Michelle Obama because in an earlier interview someone asked if “you are going to be Michelle now” and you avoided it by saying, “oh no, she’s too hot”—so it’s not just about race but also about age and body-type, which is very complex. How are you going to deal with that?
Wilson: I’ll wear a girdle—that’s for damn sure! And I’m hiring a make-up artist who is going to make me up. Clifford and I had discussions about blackface. We’re not going to do blackface, but I’m going to try to wear Michelle’s skin tone. I have a wig and maybe I’ll wear false eyelashes—I’m going to really try to look like Michelle—but she’s got those guns!
Rail: To look back to your early ’70s performances and your recent exhibitions at P.P.O.W., Martha Wilson seems as much a persona as any other, like when you referred to yourself in the third person. How do you see the relationship between yourself and Martha Wilson?
Wilson: That is a good question. I’m doing some new work for a show at P.P.O.W. based on an old piece I did in 1973 called “Mirror, Mirror” where I’m holding a mirror in front of my face so you see just the outline of my hair. I still have that mirror so I took a new photograph a few weeks ago. The original text said, “The schizophrenic looks in the mirror knowing that the self is absent.” The new text is going to say “This artist”—distancing myself again!—“sees the dual citizenship that we all hold in self-love and self-loathing but doesn’t really want to look into the darkest places.” We don’t want to know a lot of things about ourselves! Maybe we see those things in glimpses from time to time but we are very wily in finding ways to not see it anymore. It’s a piece about that inventive quality that we all share in knowing and yet not knowing who’s in there—I think that has been driving my work the whole time: knowledge of the self. Vito Acconci came to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and told me to read The Performance of Self in Everyday Life—no! That’s an interesting slip right there. It was Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which is about how we are performing for multiple audiences: our selves, our notion of history, as well as the people in the room. Performance is at play at all times, and that is fascinating to me.
Rail: Humor is very important in your work. When did you first start thinking art could be funny? A lot of conceptual art you talk about being exposed to at NSCAD was definitely not funny.
Wilson: No, it was not. In fact that was one of the first things that I reacted to. “Breast Forms Permutated” (1972) was a critique of Sol LeWitt’s vertical, horizontal, diagonal right, diagonal left lines—the grid obsessions and the permutation concepts that were so big at the time. What annoyed me about conceptual practice was that it didn’t matter. Who the fuck cares that you can enlarge the territory of a bird by moving the bird feeder three feet a day? It doesn’t have an effect on people’s lives. I don’t know if I ever thought to myself, “how can I make that funny?” but I do make work that comes out of the condition of being a woman in relation to society, which is an absurd place because you are second-rate and at the same time are raising a family and thinking of the long-term benefit of the planet. Women, because they have babies, are stuck in a tactile relationship to the world that we live in. There was a moment in the early days when I was doing my work when I thought about Faulkner—I was really interested in Faulkner when I was a college student—there is a part in Sanctuary (1931) where the girl is raped with a corncob, which is a horrible thought but it’s funny at the same time. I want to know how we can get to that place that is horrible and funny at the same time—that is my goal.
Rail: I love your relationship to literature and I suspect that part of the problem with a lot of writing and thinking about art right now is that people aren’t reading poetry or literature. Were you always reading and writing?
Wilson: I was a biology major at a small Quaker school in Ohio called Wilmington College, where I thought, “this pond is too small for this fish—I’m going to go to the University of Washington in Seattle to study oceanography.” I got out there and was required to use the electron microscope to do an experiment during a 45-minute window. The first week I didn’t complete the experiment, so the second week I had to complete the first week and try for the second, and by the third week I’m failing the course. I went to my guidance counselor and she said, “You have really good grades in English, why don’t you switch majors?” Well, that sounded good, but then why was I in Seattle instead of my small liberal arts college in Ohio where you get a lot of personal attention? So that is what I did: I went out for one semester, failed miserably, came back to Wilmington College and graduated in English in 1969.
Rail: Then you went to graduate school in Canada to write on Henry James?
Wilson: Oh yes—that was my Ph.D. thesis idea, but it was rejected. My idea was that Henry James had drawn a graph or built a model for each of his novels before he started writing. I was going to prove it by reading all his novels and recreating these models. In the early part of his career, for instance, Roderick Hudson (1875) is built on a compass so that there is a character at North, South, East, and West, and then there are interstitial characters in between. It’s a pretty simple structure. Then somewhere in the middle of his career, for The Princess Casamassima (1886), he’s gone 3-D—he’s built a roof: the whole first half of the novel, up to the word in the sentence, is preparation for the denouement, which is the second half of the novel. By the end of his career, he has gone even further; The Golden Bowl (1904) is a carriage wobbling with one wheel missing—three characters you hear from, but not the father, even though he’s there the whole time. I thought this was a completely obvious idea but my advisors said, “you can’t do that—it’s visual art.” I got all steamed up and went across the street to the art college where I was hanging out anyway. I spoke to the president of the college who told me that the English teacher was leaving and asked if I wanted to teach English to the art students. They did not want to read; it ended up being more of a policing gig than anything, but then I was on the faculty of NSCAD so I could audit classes, meet the visiting artists, use the video equipment—through the largesse of NSCAD, I trained myself to be an artist.
Rail: To continue the Great Books theme, the very first thing in the Martha Wilson Sourcebook is an excerpt from Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759 – 67). I think I understand why it’s there, but I want to know why you chose to start with it.
Wilson: It’s so important. We’re back to Wilmington College in Ohio. For one of my English courses we read Lawrence Sterne, whose character, Tristram Shandy, used the page as art space in a very fluid manner—drawing plot lines, reproducing a page of marbleized paper, or another entire page of black paper to depict depression. It’s great! I didn’t know what to do with it but I put it in the back of my brain. When I got to NSCAD, Lawrence Weiner came to town with his artist book Statements (1968). One of the statements is:
One regular rectangular object place
d across an international boundary a
llowed to rest then turned to and tu
rned upon to intrude the portion of
one country into the other
It’s a performance—you could go out and enact these things, or you could read about it. It exists as a visual text in the book because he doesn’t put the word breaks in the “right” places—he makes a brick out of it—so the word is being used as an image.
Rail: One of the books that I believe is extremely important in performance art is Simone Forti’s Handbook in Motion (1974), published by Nova Scotia College of Art and Design Press, and precisely why I think it’s so important is because it works right at that place between book and performance, between text/image/action. When you first moved to New York you stayed with Simone Forti. Knowing that, and that you started Franklin Furnace as a space for artist books, which became a space for performance art—all that flows together in a way that makes total sense. How did you meet Simone Forti?
Wilson: She was invited to the college to work on that book, and she taught some workshops at the same time—she was in Halifax for almost a month. We interacted in different social contexts. I think I was Kasper König’s assistant for her book, maybe because I knew how to copy edit. Then when she was leaving she said, “if you ever want to move to New York you can crash with me”—I never forgot that. When my boyfriend dumped my ass, I called her and said, “I’m moving to New York, can I crash with you?” She had a giant loft at 537 Broadway. She slept on the loft bed and I just put a palette on the floor. Her kitchen was way over at one end, and she would walk into the loft in a big arc over to her notebook to write something down, then she’d walk again, circling around the loft, and then write something down again—she’s as good as her word; she’s all about movement in space. What impressed me greatly was that she didn’t know where the rent was coming from from one month to the next. I observed her for a month and I thought, “I cannot live with that kind of uncertainty—I’m going to go get a job.” I was reading the paper and I saw an ad for an “editorial assistant that had art history training.” I knew it was either Praeger or Abrams, so I took a chance and went up to Abrams at 8:30 in the morning. Margaret Kaplan liked the fact that I didn’t bother to use an agency, I just walked in the door and she liked my résumé, which was completely naïve—I said I was blonde. That information has no business being on a résumé! So Margaret hired me to work at Abrams, which was really important. The reason I wanted to work for an art book publisher was I thought my visual art training and my interest in literature would be combined, but that is not what happens in a publishing company. I was assistant to the managing editor; the individual editors bring you a pile of paper and you write down every single thing that is in that pile and then you send it over to the design side; then they send it all back but with the design next to it, and it goes back to the same editor. So I was like an air traffic controller—not losing stuff was my job. The way you don’t lose stuff is that you have parallel systems so that if you do lose it you have a way to get back to the original. Today Franklin Furnace keeps a chrono file, which is a chronological pile of every single piece of correspondence that goes out of Franklin Furnace—and I cannot tell you how many times we’ve used it. You remember you wrote that letter when it was snowing outside, so it was sometime between November and February—and find the damn letter written in 1988! I learned more from working at Abrams in one year than I learned at graduate school reading out of books, because it’s actually happening. There was a time I assigned the wrong ISBN number to a book—they had to take the books off the boat on the dock and stamp each one with a new ISBN number; they didn’t fire me but I understood that it was totally real!
Rail: So you learned you were good at organizing things?
Wilson: I learned how to do it. Margaret would go to Japan, this was 1975—she hired me and she moved to Japan for three months because the printing was being done there. So I had to run the place. Margaret and I still see each other from time to time and she feels that she is responsible for Franklin Furnace because she trained me to be a businessperson—which is true.
Rail: As someone who has experienced the coagulation of language around performance art, especially in teaching performance art, how do you approach it as a discipline, which seems problematic?
Wilson: I like RoseLee Goldberg’s term, “visual art performance,” because it connects all the movements that happened in the 20th century—Futurists, Russian Constructivist, Surrealists, Happenings, Fluxus—if you look at the history of visual art there is a thread of performance going through it. Unfortunately nobody is using that term, even RoseLee doesn’t use it all the time. At Pratt this spring I was teaching a course on performance art as an “activist practice” because “performance art” was just too big. Dorothea Dietrich, with whom I was team-teaching, proposed we call it “Performance Art: Artist as Provocateur,” because performance artists are notorious for provoking their audience. RoseLee and I disagree on one point: she would begin performance art with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), a work of theater. I would begin with the fist-fight the Italian Futurist had with people coming out of church at Piazza San Marco in 1910 because the Futurists were confronting the public with ideas that didn’t make them happy and they were willing to fight about it—great! Here you have the confrontation of ideas and flesh at the same time.
Rail: The thing that is great about situating that Futurist action as the beginning is that it points to the importance of the document, ephemera—the flyers that the Futurists scattered. I think many of the people we think of as great performance artists are in fact also really terrific writers—writing about what they are doing. I keep trying to make an argument for Carolee Schneemann as a great writer; the same could be said about Simone Forti’s book. The reason I think Franklin Furnace is so interesting and important is that it was born with an understanding of performance as profoundly related to images and text.
Wilson: The reason artists’ writing is better is because it is concrete. It is about how your feet have to go in front of each other, or if you are hanging off a building how it feels to have your hair hanging down. It’s very different from “writer” writing.
Rail: When performances take place in museums nothing can go wrong, and that means that no one is actually concerned with what might happen because the museum is liable and risk has been ironed out totally; it also means the work has to be at a certain level so that it won’t be a disaster. However, the potential of being a disaster is part of what makes performance art exciting, and part of what makes it not theater. Is the current move to the museum an actual change in the nature of performance art?
Wilson: When we were in our own space on Franklin Street for 20 years, from 1976 – 96, we would give artists the keys and then we’d go home. On several occasions artists would perform all night long—sometimes the public on the street could see them through a video feed; Alastair MacLennan was still doing his trance-like walk 24 hours later. When the performance space was closed as an illegal social club by the New York City Fire Department, we started performing in exile, in other people’s spaces. As soon as we were in their space it was their insurance, it was their egress, it was their reputation that was on the line, plus you had to load in at seven and load out at nine—we couldn’t present 24-hour performances any more. I long for the days when we had control of our own space and we could just let the artist do what they damn well pleased! That is not happening anymore, and certainly not in Manhattan. I was talking to Jill Scott who had been at Marina and Ulay’s performance for which they stood naked in the doorway and she said there wasn’t much room between them—you had to actually touch their genitalia to get through. The orifice of the re-creation for her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was five feet wide, so you didn’t actually have to touch either of the performers—
Rail: In fact you were not supposed to touch them.
Wilson: If you did you’d get thrown out of the museum! And, if you didn’t want to get close at all, you could walk around—it was so stupid. What I didn’t like about that exhibition, The Artist is Present (2010), is that the look was there, but the intentionality was gone. All those nubile bodies were husks. Marina suffering downstairs was powerful because it was her—although my friend who waited in line and finally sat across from her said she was not home—she couldn’t really exchange gazes with all those people.
Rail: What does that mean about the relation of performance art to the museum?
Wilson: It’s a problem. It’s part of the broad reification of performance art to put it in a museum context. In my opinion none of the reconstructions Marina did at the Guggenheim were successful—like recreating Acconci’s “Seedbed” (1972), masturbating beneath the floorboards—the intentionality was missing. The river of time has flowed by: she’s female, the platform was round, it’s in a museum context, and people are having wine on top of it. The shock value, the things that made us think in 1972, were just not present for that performance in the Guggenheim. One of the things I did to teach my course was find original video of every piece we discussed, because as grainy and terrible as the video was you can feel the intentionality of the artist coming through. Here’s an example: There was an installation at the Downtown Guggenheim of Robert Rauschenberg’s work in which there was a little monitor on the wall that showed him moving in real time and space at Judson Memorial Church in 1970. It was 70 seconds, a loop, grainy black-and-white film, but I was so happy to see it because it proved that the fabric of time does change. As I’m standing I thought, “time moved more slowly”—the fabric of time itself was different. So performance has to live in that river and figure out how to function in the time in which it exists.
Rail: You once listed the two assets of Franklin Furnace as 1) its relationships with artists and 2) its archives as a pedagogical resource. With the nesting of Franklin Furnace within Pratt, which ensures the accessibility and safety of Franklin Furnace Archives indefinitely, how do Franklin Furnace’s archives change or open up the narrative of performance art as people know it now?
Wilson: I would say it’s not a narrative because there are so many different ideas being presented in the course of any one season: one artist might be talking about AIDS, another might be talking about feminism, another might be talking about religion, another might be talking about childbirth—there isn’t any consistency to the program. One of the things we want to figure out with Pratt’s School of Library and Information Sciences is how to improve the searchability of our stuff. Right now you can search by date, artist, and medium. But for example Karen Finley never used the term “feminism” in her press releases so if you search for “feminism” you’re going to miss out on finding her. Who should identify her work as feminist? The cataloguer? The director? The artist? The thin-ice territory that we’re skating on is assigning subjects to the work. But by going back to the artists, most of whom are still with us, to ask them about their intentions in doing that work in 1977, we’d develop a searchable cluster of words that can be applied to the field. If we get really ambitious we’ll try and ask audience members, if we can identify people who were there, to say what they thought happened as well. We didn’t have enough money so we didn’t videotape everything; we have a lot of slides. Getting intellectual access to the history of the avant-garde may take some time, but it’ll be worth it. Just because it’s ephemeral doesn’t mean it’s not important!
Rail: I like the story you’ve told about Judy Chicago yelling at you, and you wondering, “how is that the behavior of a feminist?” You have such a different reputation where everyone says, “We love Martha—she is so supportive!” Do you see that attitude of general support a feminist political act?
Wilson: I agree with that. Feminism contributed the “personal is political”; the idea that what you do on a moment-to-moment basis is a political act. You could argue that being an artist is political, even if you are doing landscape paintings, in relation to the larger social order. I totally believe that.
Rail: Do you feel there are any misunderstandings that people have about Franklin Furnace or you?
Wilson: Renaud, the director of ICI; Alaina, his director of exhibitions; Nick, the director of Pratt Manhattan Gallery, and I are trying to come up with a title for the grand finale of the current exhibition. The problem is we can’t figure out where Martha stops and Franklin Furnace begins. Some people say, “Oh, that’s Martha Wilson—she is Franklin Furnace.” That makes me uncomfortable; we use a peer review panel to select artists, so I’m not the curator; I don’t want to be the person who selects everything—it’s not about my taste. It’s really about what the art world thinks is necessary. I was very happy when Peter Dykhuis organized this show because it shows both halves of my brain: the administrative side that runs Franklin Furnace and the dark part where the art comes out. I was happy that he wanted to show the whole thing, the way my life is both of these things, but I am unhappy with how everybody thinks that Franklin Furnace is going to disappear as soon as Martha disappears. The move to Pratt is a way to say that this practice is valuable, it’s going to be preserved—and I could walk away. I could move to Brazil. I could leave it behind and it would be fine all by itself.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.