INCONVERSATION

ANDREA FRASER with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

What kind of aesthetic experience can be admitted by a hardcore, uncompromising, materialist, sociologically informed institutional critic as myself?

—Andrea Fraser, 20062

In many ways, my own work has been thirty years of grappling with the conflicted investments I brought to the field of art and internalized from it. I became an artist for a range of reasons, many of them in conflict, but I also discovered that art was an arena in which those conflicts could be explored, and potentially transformed. I understand all of my work as research into the conditions of the possibility of that transformation. Critique and critical art are hypotheses to be tested.

—Andrea Fraser, 20153

Installation View: Andrea Fraser, Down the River, 2016. Multichannel audio installation. “Open Plan: Andrea Fraser,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 6 – March 13, 2016. Photo: Bill Orcutt. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

I first met Andrea Fraser when she was nineteen and I was twenty-six. We were both in the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP) and loyal spawns of Yvonne Rainer, who taught there. Fraser was a shy, intense, sylphlike presence who was already on the verge of publishing “In and Out of Place” in Art in America4 and making, along with her association with Louise Lawler, founding pieces of what we now call institutional critique. When I taught at the Whitney ISP in the late ’90s we became close friends—drawn by our almost cartoon differences in looks, affect, and at that moment, my move away from ISP dogma and academic critical strictures towards an interest in Matthew Barney’s work.

Influenced by her experience living in Brazil, embracing samba and Carnival, she was on the verge of outing her inner exhibitionism and the art world’s creepy structures of complicity and monetary exchange in Untitled, 2003. Our conversations were always quite personal and full of ambivalence about our own roles and ideas about what art is—primarily the legacy of the Whitney ISP, which had been so fundamental to us both. When I read, in draft form, her essay “There’s No Place Like Home” (written for the 2012 Whitney Biennial) I was struck, yet again, by her courage and astonishing analytical clarity as she re-evaluated the terms of critical art practice itself using Freud’s notion of negation:5

While negations performed as judgments, expressed or implied in various forms of distancing and objectification might elaborate on […] contradictions and take the form of critique, what they signify as negations in a psychoanalytic sense are not conflicts in culture and society but rather conflicts in our selves, which are then manifest as contradictions in our own positions and practices.6

Fraser is never one to miss a chance to push the boundaries of her own self-reflection—which she makes into our own, and society’s, self-reflection; Down the River, curated by Scott Rothkopf and Laura Phipps for the “Open Plan” series of short-term projects for the gargantuan, column-less fifth-floor space at the new Whitney, struck me as an almost pitch-perfect moment in her development. As she was editing and installing the piece, we met over breakfast at The Standard Grill to discuss the project and the vicissitudes of her uncompromising commitment to the political unconscious that shapes, leaks, interrupts, and guides the institutions that divide and produce us all.7

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (Rail): Few artists’ work, except maybe Vito Acconci’s and Yvonne Rainer’s, is as propelled by conflict, contradiction, and ambivalence as yours. I see you as the genetic imprint of the patient in Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys From Berlin/1971. Jacques Lacan was the paradigm for both of us when we were in the Whitney program, but you’re no longer a fan of Lacan, right?

Andrea Fraser: No, not so much. I value psychoanalysis for uncovering the power of our emotional and unconscious lives, but instead of furthering an acceptance of unconscious forces, Lacanian approaches seem to promote a fantasy of theoretical mastery—which, in my mind, contradicts Freud’s fundamental discovery that we are subject to unconscious processes we can’t control or fully know!

Rail: Amen.

Fraser: When I re-engaged with psychoanalysis in the early 2000s, I turned to Anglo-American perspectives, particularly Kleinian, object-relations, and relational psychoanalysis, which are more rooted in clinical practice than philosophy.8 But even early on, I looked to psychoanalysis not only as a theory of the unconscious, subjectivity, sexuality, et cetera, but as a model for transformative practice. How is psychoanalysis supposed to cure? How does it bring psychic change? How does it transform relationships and subjectivity? If artists want to see themselves as agents of change, I thought we could learn something from people who spend decades on those questions. But it was feminism that brought me to psychoanalysis.

Rail: Yes, there is the essential feminist platform of all your work that makes the hard-edged, brainy critique you employ in your writing and performance so effective and nuanced. Your work comes from a very personal place and yet—

Fraser: —The personal always exists intersubjectively, which also means socially and politically. It’s not about individual biography, but about using myself as an instrument of research; using my own affective responses to things to locate the point of urgency in a situation so I can work on and from that point.

Rail: I noted that phrase—“point of urgency”—in one of your essays. Would you elaborate on it?

Fraser: The principle of interpreting at “the point of urgency” comes from James Strachey’s essay about the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis,9 which is an important reference for me. He says he got it from Melanie Klein (although I have never found it in Klein). The idea is that an interpretation can only be mutative, that is transformative, when made at a point of urgency.

Rail: Mutative—that is great.

Fraser: But what that tends to mean is that it is at a point of tremendous anxiety! [Laughter.] Which is why it can be so difficult to locate the point of urgency—it’s obscured by all sorts of defenses against that anxiety. And which is part of the problem I have as an artist: a project doesn’t feel worthwhile unless it makes me extremely anxious! And then I just want to retire. The essay I wrote for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, “There’s No Place Like Home” made me so anxious I didn’t know what day it was. I forgot the names of my students. I basically had to go back into therapy in order to write it.

Rail: Which makes sense—that essay is a kind of self-portrait.

Fraser: Uh-oh. So it reads as being about me?

Rail: Absolutely not. “Self-portrait” is overstating it, I’m thinking of the way you are reflecting on the very core of your practice. I found the discussion of Freudian negation amazingly clear and brave. In other words, coming to terms with a certain ambivalence you had begun to experience with institutional critique. For instance, this quote here:

The politics of artistic phenomenon then, may lie less in which structures and relations are reproduced and enacted or transformed in art, then in which of these relations, and our investment in them, we are led to recognize and reflect on, which we are led to ignore and efface, split off, externalize or negate. From this perspective, the task of art and especially of art discourse, is one of structuring a reflection on precisely those immediate, lived, and invested relations that have been split off and disowned.10

Fraser: I was trying to reflect on a range of processes, not just artistic, that are going on all the time. So, for example, reading this as a self-portrait or as being about my practice may itself be a way of splitting those structures off, of distancing and disowning them.

Rail: In the essay, and in the interview with Sabine Breitwieser for your retrospective at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg in 2015,11 you reframed critique into analysis, and present performance as “enactment.” Could you talk about what led up to these reformulations?

Fraser: It started with my participation in the 1998 Bienal de São Paulo, directed by Paulo Herkenhoff..12 The theme of the exhibition was cannibalism, rooted in the Brazilian avant-garde movement Anthropophagia. Ivo Mesquita invited me to participate in a section with artists associated with institutional critique and strategies of appropriation. Influenced, I think, by Klein—who is much more broadly read in South America than in North America—Paulo and Ivo emphasized the ambivalence of cannibalism as it paired destructiveness with identification. This thinking (together with my own experience in psychoanalysis) eventually upended my sense of institutional critique as a practice. For Klein, the capacity to tolerate the ambivalence of wanting and hating the same person or thing is the greatest achievement of humanity. It’s what tempers hate and destructiveness with empathy. Without that capacity we retreat into a paranoid-schizoid splitting of good and bad, idealizing and vilifying, intolerant of difference and complexity. I began to recognize that kind of splitting in artistic anti-institutionalism, in the way splitting off of what’s bad in art and our selves and our practices and using the “institution” as a container for all the shit we want to disown, for our bad conscience, for the failures of our art practices, for the failures of our politics, for our guilty complicity, for our shameful whatever. We put all of that into the “institution” and attack it as something separable from ourselves, denying our investment in it, our connection to it, and what is productive about it. That’s a powerful strand of avant-garde position-takings and also some conceptions of institutional critique. But I realized that institutional critique, with its self-reflexivity and site-specificity, is also an enactment of a profoundly ambivalent relationship to the field of art institutions. And I came to understand ambivalence, not as a problem for radical critique but as precisely what is productive about institutional critique. But I always have to stress that ambivalence in psychoanalysis is not, “I don’t know what I want.” No! Ambivalence is a painful confrontation between conflicting impulses and affects directed at a single object. It’s when we repress such conflict that we get that kind of wishy-washy vagueness, cynicism, willful naїveté, happy-go-lucky complicity, and a lot of very bad art.

Rail: Indeed. Obviously conflict is fundamental to Down the River.

Fraser: That’s a difficult segue, because all that being said, this project forces another kind of reflection on ambivalence and anxiety. It also has to be recognized that this kind of focus on individual subjective experience, even in relation to social structures, my capacity and my disposition to individualize, and my being interviewed here as an individual artist with a unique position, are forms of racial privilege. Down the River aims to link art museums and prisons in the age of mass incarceration. Art institutions, including both museums and art discourse, individualize and privilege individual expression. Prisons de-individualize and severely limit individual expression, while mass incarceration works not only to confine bodies in cages but also to confine individualities in racially-profiled groups, forcing a vilified group identity onto poor people and especially people of color. In this context, individual subjective experience becomes an entitlement of whiteness as a socially neutralized group identity that allows certain people to see and be seen as individuals rather than as members of a particular group. But, of course, such generalizations are themselves a product of these racial structures.

Rail: Tell us the back-story of Down the River.

Fraser: Scott Rothkopf invited me to do something in the Whitney’s fifth floor, an 18,200-square-foot space that was built to be column-free. The museum decided to clear out the walls and give the space to five artists for a series of short-term installations called “Open Plan.” I got to go first. My project developed as a response to this huge open space and the kind of spectacle it presents and demands and to the museum’s new location on the Hudson River. There’s no way I was going to fill that space with stuff, or a spectacle of projected images or bodies in performance. No, the challenge is to generate a critical reflection on that space and what it represents, where it is, and who we are in it. The title Down the River refers both to “being sold down the river”—betrayed, which originally referred to slaves being sold down the Mississippi river—and to “being sent up the river,” to prison, which originally referred to Sing Sing Prison, which is thirty-two miles up the Hudson River from the Whitney Museum. The installation consists of audio recorded in one of Sing Sing’s massive cell blocks.

Rail: Have you worked in prisons before?

Fraser: A few years ago I recorded in a supermax facility in California for a project at the Schindler House in Los Angeles. But the architecture of that prison is totally different than at Sing Sing and the sound is also totally different. Most modern cell blocks in California are like wedges of Panopticons, with control centers at the apex that have sight-lines to all the cells.

Rail: And Sing Sing?

Fraser: We recorded in Sing Sing’s A Block, which is a kind of anti-Panopticon. There are no sight-lines at all. It was built in the 1920s and is one of the largest prison housing units in the world. It has almost 600 cells and is almost 600 feet long. It has an immense block of cells in the center, with four tiers of cells on either side, covered by a shell with massive windows running the length of it. We entered in the center on one side where one of the control centers was.

Rail: What did you propose to the prison that made them open to you recording in there? Was there a great deal of negotiation? What time were you there and for how long?

Fraser: Our access was negotiated by Laura Phipps, one of the Whitney curators working on the show. It was not easy to get. The proposal focused on the architectural and functional contrast with museums. We agreed to let them review the material but in the end they didn’t feel the need. We got into the cell-block around 9:30 in the morning, after a lengthy security check and equipment inventory, when most of the prisoners were engaged in various activities out of their cells and the block. For a good part of the five hours that we recorded, the microphones were actually locked in empty cells. So in the beginning, it was relatively quiet except for the correctional officers.

Rail: Are those the voices we hear?

Fraser: Mostly, although there are also voices of prisoners. I spent a lot of time editing out intelligible speech, since neither the correctional officers nor the prisoners specifically consented to being recorded. What I left in were instances when people were speaking directly to us or the microphones or speaking to be heard across the block. There are three different audio zones in the installation, corresponding to the three different locations in the block where we recorded. The center zone just off the stairs and elevators corresponds to an area near the control center, while the east and west zones correspond to areas on either side of that. The east zone is where prisoners come in and out of the block so it gets very loud and full of voices. The west zone is the quietest, and the predominant sounds are the clanging of the massive heating pipes and birds—Cell Block A is full of birds! They come in through the windows and the prisoners feed them. That was a surprise. The cell block in California had a glassed-in control area and solid doors on the cells, making it either deathly quiet, when prisoners are in their cells, or extremely loud with reverberation when they are in the common area in the center. In A Block the cells and control area have bars, not solid walls or doors, so the sound is not contained at all. While it’s a space of confinement, it’s also extremely permeable acoustically.

Rail: Suggesting violation, or a kind of aural Panopticon, meaning every sound can be heard, which is the experience of standing in that Whitney space. The sound is jarring and confrontational even if one has not read the wall text yet. There is no “artist” present, except in the wall text, which is deceptively simple.13

Fraser: Artistically speaking, it’s very much a Minimalist piece that functions phenomenologically—although it makes me feel a little sick to describe it in those terms.

Rail: But it is the experience, the visceral wash through our bodies, of the sounds of Cell Block A as we stand in that “open plan” of the museum that makes the piece, not just the intellectual response to the wall text. It’s an example of why your preference for “enactment” rather than performance is so important.14 Down the River is about us—any and every viewer, as we stand in that open space with expansive views of downtown New York on one side and the Hudson on the other, each and every one of us with a different experience with art world privilege, racism, and the prison system. We are smack in the middle of the horror of mass incarceration and racism, in the clattering and violent confinement of the prison sounds, and the beauty and privilege of the museum space. Because it is sound, it is hard not to tear up, to experience the blatant contradictions as a punch to the gut. The critical distance induced when reading the text is collapsed into affect—critical affect if you will—and, most importantly, into a sense of one’s own accountability, of our relationship to the museum and prisons. Like Laura Poitras’s exhibition on the eighth floor, it locates a “point of urgency” that forces us to enact and reflect—in her case on surveillance and war, in yours on confinement and privilege. Race is critical to both.

Fraser: And tremendously urgent.

Rail: How does this piece relate to your earlier work on the museum? For instance, Museum Highlights and Welcome to the Wadsworth, which are also on view in a side gallery on the fifth floor.

Fraser: One of the most important early frameworks for institutional critique was Foucault’s analysis of institutions of confinement and particularly of prisons. This was taken up by Douglas Crimp very early on, and in a more skeptical way by Tony Bennett. And then I took it up in in Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989), except with a shift. Museum Highlights is not about museums and prisons but about museums and poorhouses, which were one step away from debtors’ prisons in the 19th century. Museum Highlights is an investigation of the development of museums as private nonprofit institutions in the United States, in contrast to public institutions as they developed in Europe, looking at the museum in the context of private philanthropy and social policy, including welfare policy. But the central juxtaposition in Museum Highlights is between the museum and the poorhouse, functioning like a carrot and a stick to inspire and deter. Museums in the U.S. have long been identified with freedoms of various kinds. At the new Whitney building, this ideology of freedom and access is even built into the architecture. But as privately governed nonprofit institutions, U.S. museums tend to identify those freedoms with wealth and privilege, while in reality public institutions are starved and denigrated as institutions of last resort—if not of punishment. These structures go back to the 19th century, but they have returned in force since the 1970s, with the dismantling of public welfare programs and the parallel boom of museum and prison expansion in the context of neo-liberal policy and growing inequality.

Rail: The museum (and by association, art) as freedom and mobility; a place for the public (supposedly a democratic space for the public), the tourist, the revenue of the city. When and how did you get from museums and poorhouses to museums and mass incarceration?

Fraser: It started a few years ago when I met the architect Joe Day, who was working on a book about museums and prisons called Corrections and Collections: Architectures for Art and Crime (Routledge, 2013). It was Joe who called my attention to the parallel between museum and prison booms in the U.S.—I used some of his numbers in the wall text for Down the River. Not long after I started speaking with Joe, Michelle Alexander’s devastating book The New Jim Crow came out, examining mass incarceration as the direct heir to segregation in the post-Civil War era, amounting to a “legal” means for barring black men from employment, housing, and voting. The other important reference for me is a sociologist named Loïc Wacquant, who worked very closely with Pierre Bourdieu. He did a book with Bourdieu called An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, which has been one of my go-to books for understanding Bourdieu’s work since it came out in 1992. But since the late ’90s Wacquant has been working on mass incarceration in the United States and Europe. In 2009 he published a book called Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. In his introduction he describes the book as written partly in reference to a book called Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (1972), by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, which was a central reference for Museum Highlights. Wacquant looks at mass incarceration in the United States in the context of the dismantling of New Deal and Great Society programs starting in the ’70s, as the replacement of the social safety net with the drag net, as well as within the context of racial politics. In the United States all politics are racial politics.

Rail: Absolutely.

Fraser: The deep-seated American hostility to the public sector, to government, and any kind of redistribution of wealth is fundamentally rooted in and legitimized by racism. I hope that Museum Highlights provides some context for Down the River in terms of social policy and class. Shown together with Museum Highlights is another early performance-based video called Welcome to the Wadsworth: A Museum Tour (1991), which I hope provides some context in terms of museums and urban segregation. The Wadsworth Atheneum is in Hartford, Connecticut, which at the time I did the performance was one of the most racially and economically segregated regions in the United States. The piece examines the contradiction between the liberal Yankee self-representation of the museum and its segregated context, and links the very idealized vision of the region’s colonial past that that museum institutionalizes to the white flight that produced its segregated present, “a purified America.”

Rail: I want to ask a personal question. Your mother is Puerto Rican, yet that rarely rises to the surface. Perhaps it’s not important but it’s striking within the context of this work.

Fraser: There is a letter that I used to show with Welcome to the Wadsworth in which I discuss how on my father’s side I could be a member of Daughters of the American Revolution, but on my mother’s, I’m Puerto Rican, like much of Hartford’s population. But in the piece I perform my DAR side, not my Puerto Rican side. This is connected to how I understand institutional critique and distinguish it from a lot of other political art. I put it this way: except in the most extreme cases, we all occupy positions of relative privilege as well as relative privation. We can work from our positions of privation but that runs the risk of denying our privilege and simply amassing more of it, potentially resulting in more privation for others. Or we can work critically from and on our privilege, which is how I understand institutional critique. It attacks domination from the position of the dominant rather than the dominated. Which doesn’t mean that I am not also a woman with Puerto Rican and mixed-racial heritage or that I am not subject to forms of domination.

Rail: So you also have ancestors who were slaves?

Fraser: My great-grandmother, who I met a couple of times, was the daughter of a freed slave and a plantation foreman. But I appear white and I have not lived my life as a Latina. I have my father’s Anglo last name and I grew up monolingual with almost no contact with a Puerto Rican community. And yet, I know that I did inherit some of the trauma of colonialism and slavery as its gets passed down through—and not despite—assimilation. It gets passed down in the shame that can motivate assimilation and the loss of heritage and family connection that often result from assimilation.

Rail: I sense these questions bother you, like I am trying to pin you into something you are not.

Fraser: I understand race and ethnicity as social rather than personal or biological identities. They have less to do with how one identifies oneself than with how one is identified socially by others. Race is put into you as a social identity by others. I am not identified by others as Latina or mixed-race even if I may partly identify myself as such. Almost all Americans have some African or Amerindian heritage. Fred Moten talks about “those who are called white and who answer to that call.” I’m called white. Of course, one can’t leave out the part about answering to that call, about one’s participation in that social identity. So I work from a profoundly—[She pauses, turns her head to the side, and begins to cry.] You know there’s a lot of complexity to—[She reaches into her bag and pulls out a tissue.]

Rail: You know, I wanted to ask about tears. They’re not unusual for you. I’ve seen you cry a few times while speaking in public, often at unexpected moments.

Fraser: I don’t cry as much as I used to. I’ve even been able to make it through a few lectures recently without crying.

Rail: Your crying is fascinating to me, especially because you have such a formidable presence of control and authority. To me, along with your humor,15 the tears are what makes what you brilliant not just smart. I’m fascinated by the moments the tears erupt. Although I won’t psychoanalyze you, to me the tears are the moment when we see why you aren’t a Lacanian. You push your critique to the point where the unconscious kind of turns on you and slaps you in the face and something is triggered in you, which is the difference between, say, you and Mary Kelly. There are those who ask whether the tears are real or if you’re acting.

Fraser: Yeah, I think that question is a defensive response to vulnerability. It’s also based on a misapprehension of what acting is. What would unreal tears be? Like putting onions to my eyes? If there were no emotion motivating tears, you would know. The question is whether that emotion belongs to the immediate context or is consciously displaced from another context. I think that question arises from a need to imagine conscious control and shame associated with the lack of such control.

Rail: When the tears come, is it a surprise?

Fraser: No, I’ve always been pretty weepy. When I was growing up and I had to go in and talk to a teacher I’d cry, and then feel terribly ashamed at not being able to control myself. When I started giving public lectures I sometimes cried, but I always tried to control it, partly by avoiding talking about things that might make me cry. The turning point for me was the performance Official Welcome when I scripted it in. That is to say, I scripted something for myself to say that I knew would make me cry. For me that is a more momentous part of that performance than taking my clothes off, and probably more exposing! My joke about that piece is I’m not really naked because I’m in quotation marks, since I’m quoting other artists as I strip down. But not when I cry. I imagine it’s quite common for people to avoid talking about things for fear of crying, consciously or not, and I think there’s a tremendous loss in that, a loss of contact with what matters to us and a loss of capacity to communicate what matters. As an artist I developed in a context in which a lot of emphasis was put on developing intellectual capacity and theoretical competence. I still think that’s important, but only to the extent that it enriches our experience with understanding. Unfortunately, I think theory often ends up impoverishing experience, especially emotional experience, rendering it shamefully dumb and banal while serving to defend against that shame. But at a certain point I realized that it was also important to develop my emotional capacities, the capacity to tolerate anxiety, conflict, loss, guilt, frustration, shame. Wilfred Bion, a psychoanalyst who worked closely with Melanie Klein, says, “Reason is emotion’s slave and exists to rationalize emotional experience.”16 Reason can help us understand emotional experience or can help us repress it, but emotional experience is what links us to the social world and to what’s at stake for us in being alive.



Endnotes

  1. “Andrea Fraser in Conversation with Sabine Breitwieser,” in Andrea Fraser, edited by Sabine Breitwieser, Museum der Moderne, Salzburg (Ostifildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2015), 12. The quote continues: “It is an active process that takes place in an encounter and that involves investigation, analysis, negation and also recognition and reintegration. An artist may engage in a critique of an object, structure, institution, etc., but the result is only critique to the extent that it can activate that process for others in an immediate, immanent, <here and now> way. Because that <here and now> always includes the encounter itself, that critical process is necessarily reflexive. For me, activating a process of reflective engagement is much more important that the particular content of any critical analysis.” 12-13.
  2. “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?” Grey Room, Number 22 (Winter 2006): 30-47.
  3. Quoted in Andrea Fraser in Sabine Breitwieser (ed.), 2015: 19. For audio of the original talk, see Cubitt Gallery: soundcloud.com/cubitt-gallery.
  4. Andrea Fraser, “In and Out of Place,” Art in America #73 (June 1985): 122-8.
  5. Sigmund Freud, “Negation.” (1925) Standard Edition, 19, edited by James Strachey: 235-239. Simply put, negation is when one says, “Oh, I didn’t mean to insult you,” which according to Freud, actually means, “oh yes I did.” Or, “It’s not like I am attracted to him/her,” when indeed, the admonition signifies repressed content. “Thus the content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negated. Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed; indeed it is already a lifting of the repression, though not, of course, an acceptance of what is repressed.”
  6. Andrea Fraser, “There’s No Place Like Home,” in Whitney Biennial Catalogue, March 1 – May 27, 2012, curated by Elizabeth Sussmann and Jay Sanders (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012): 32. Fraser continues: “Negation, for Freud, is not only a defensive maneuver. It is also a step in the direction of overcoming repression and reintegrating split-off ideas and affects; it is central to the development not only of judgment but also of thought.
    [ … ] In this sense then, the role of crafted, self-consciously and conceptually framed elaborations, objectifications, and enactments of these social and psychological structures is not that of producing an alienation effect or a disinvestment, as many traditions of artistic critique would have it, but rather to provide for just enough distance, just enough not me, just enough sense of agency, to be able to tolerate the raw shame of exposure, the fear of pain and loss, and the trauma of helplessness and subjection, and to be able recognize and reintegrate the immediate, intimate, and material investments we have in what we do and that lead us to reproduce structures and relationships even while we claim to oppose them.
  7. This conversation was subsequently developed and completed in the period when the exhibition was up: February 26 – March 13, 2016.
  8. Melanie Klein (1882 – 1960): Austrian-British psychoanalyst, the first to use Freudian psychoanalytic therapeutic techniques on children. She is widely regarded as the founder of object relations theory. Her theory of development was based on the child’s violent and aggressive fantasies resolved in what she called the depressive position and the paranoid-schizoid position. Her major works are The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), Love, Guilt, and Reparation (1953), Envy and Gratitude (1957), and Narrative of a Child Analysis (1961). See melanie-klein-trust.org.uk for a discussion of key terms.
  9. James Strachey, “The Nature of Therapeutic Action of Psycho-analysis,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Volume 15 (1934): 127-159.
  10. “There’s No Place Like Home,” 32.
  11. Andrea Fraser, edited by Sabine Breitwieser, Museum der Moderne, Salzburg (Hatje Cantz, 2015). “Andrea Fraser in Conversation with Sabine Breitwieser,” 11-19.
  12. Cultural Anthropophagy: The 24th Bienal de São Paulo 1998.
  13. The Whitney Museum is New York’s newest architectural landmark, enjoying a high-visibility location along the Hudson River and at the end of the High Line. Its glass-walled lobby welcomes the public with a promise of transparency and access. Inside, visitors find airy, light-filled spaces and terraces opening out to endless views. Public spaces share glass walls with offices, exposing functions often hidden from view. Yet, nowhere is the openness of the museum more dramatically constructed than this 18,200 square-foot space.
    Thirty-two miles to the north, in the town of Ossining, Sing Sing Correctional Facility is also located on the Hudson River. It is surrounded by thick, high walls topped with razor wire and movement into, out of, and within the maximum-security facility is strictly controlled. Inside, inmates serve sentences up to life without parole in six-by-nine-foot cells. Sing Sing’s A Block, almost six hundred feet long and with six hundred cells, is one of the largest prison housing units in the world.

    Since the 1970s, the United States has experienced a boom in both museum and prison expansion, with the number of each institution tripling nationwide. During the same period, studies estimate museum attendance has grown by a factor of ten while the prison population has exploded by 700%, making the United States the largest jailor in the world. Beyond this parallel growth, museums, and in particular art museums, would seem to share nothing with prisons. Art museums celebrate freedom and showcase invention. Prisons revoke freedom and punish transgression. Art museums collect and exhibit valued objects. Prisons confine vilified people. Art museums are designed by renowned architects as centerpieces of urban development. Prisons are built far from affluent urban areas, becoming all but invisible to those not directly touched by incarceration.

    And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) their extreme differences, art museums and prisons can be seen as two sides of the same coin in an increasingly polarized society where our public lives, and the institutions that define them, are sharply divided by race, class, and geography. The gulf that separates art museums and prisons, and our exposures to them, is a product of this polarization and may also help to perpetuate it. Down the River brings ambient sound recorded in Sing Sing’s A Block to the Whitney’s fifth floor to link museums and prisons across this social and geographical divide.
  14. In the interview with Sabine Breitwieser, Fraser says: “My perspective today is that all art can and should be engaged as performance or enactment (a psychoanalytic term I prefer)—which for me also means experientially. All art activates structures and relations that are then enacted, perhaps by the artist, but above all by those who engage with it.” Breitwieser (2015): 15.
  15. I had anticipated speaking about how funny Fraser’s work is, and how most of the writing on her ignores that, but obviously, Down the River has nothing to do with humor or strategies of critical hilarity inherited from Duchamp.
  16. He goes on: “Sometimes the function of speech is to communicate experience to another; sometimes it is to miscommunicate experience to another.” W. R. Bion, Attention and Interpretation (Karnac, 1970): 1.

Contributor

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.

ADVERTISEMENTS