Exquisite Acts and Everyday Rebellions: 2007 CalArts Feminist Symposium
California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California
March 10, 2007
Introduction and Presentation of "c. 7,500"
My name is Leslie Dick, and I have been teaching here at CalArts in the Art Program since 1992. Today I wanted to say something about my own early encounters with feminist ideas, with art informed by feminism, and coincidentally, with CalArts.
In 1973, I was nineteen years old, in my first year studying English Literature at Sussex University, which is near Brighton, England. My strongest influence at the time was David Bowie, who had inspired me to go off to college looking (as I instructed the hairdresser) “like David on the cover of Aladdin Sane.” My hair was ceremoniously bleached white and then dyed fluorescent orange using 'crazy colour,' a recently developed chemical dye that produced extremely unnatural effects. I stalked onto the university campus with vertical orange hair and silver spray painted platform boots, which together extended my height to just over six feet. Not surprisingly, few people wanted to know me. I think maybe I was a bit too terrifying.
At precisely the same time, August 1973, I bought a copy of Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, my first feminist book! My best friend from high school had gone to America and discovered the Women's Liberation Movement, she drew the female symbol with a clenched fist on the back of her letters home, so I wanted to find out what it was all about. Sexual Politics is, in part, a work of literary criticism, and I vividly remember thinking, as I read it, this explains everything. Now I understand – everything. Patriarchy, sexism, the oppression of women – it was all suddenly clear. It explained why I was so unhappy, why everything was so difficult, why I didn't have a boyfriend. The sheer impossibility of being a woman came home to me in a moment of anguished enlightenment. In a kind of reflex action, I zipped up my silver platform boots, grabbed my girlfriends, and without hesitation threw myself out into the world again, looking for love, or at least to get laid. Sadly this project was not wildly successful. I think I was a bit too terrifying.
Such were the contradictions of that period: the sexual freedom we went after included the gender fluidity and celebration of bisexuality that “glam” culture offered. Dressing up, masquerade, and identity games were woven into the exploration of feminist ideas and practices. It felt like we were producing ourselves, as woman, out of nothing, out of bits and pieces of discarded culture, raiding thrift stores and jumble sales, old movies, pop songs, using hair and makeup (which we called “face paint,” as if to distinguish our use of it from the dominant culture), shoes and drugs and sex, to shock ourselves out of femininity as an oppressive social construct, into another reality.
There was a certain amount of violence to this – a certain amount of aggression – and plenty of room for misunderstanding, particularly within and among the women who were living out these contradictions. I remember in autumn of '74, setting up an actual consciousness-raising group with a bunch of other students at the house I shared in Brighton with Judith Williamson and Christine Muirhead. Some of the conversations that took place in that group I found infuriating. In this supposedly “non-judgmental” setting, women kept talking about nature, and instincts, the maternal instinct, the genetic imperative to reproduce and nurture, and I didn't believe in any of these things, I thought they were wrong. I would slide out of these meetings and go downstairs to watch a BBC TV series called The Love School, which was a costume drama about the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and their various doomed love affairs with their models and muses, etc. etc. It was a bit like Grey's Anatomy in 19th century drag, and like Grey's Anatomy, it provided a strange consolation.
A year later I read Juliet Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism, and found another way to think about femininity, instincts, impossibility – and writing. Later I wrote: “When I am blocked, I read Freud. This is because I am interested in sexuality and language, and that is what psychoanalysis is all about. As Luisa Valenzuela told me, Freud was, 'my main porno book, psychoanalysis was how I found out about sex.' I would put it slightly differently: psychoanalysis was how I found out about writing.”
My friend Deborah Law was studying painting at the Slade in London, and in April 1974, she asked me to work as an unpaid gallery sitter for an exhibition at an alternative space in central London. The exhibition was “c. 7,500,” organized by Lucy Lippard, and it consisted of the work of 26 women conceptual artists. Lippard had organized a big show which she titled after the population of the city where it took place: in Seattle in 1969, it was called “557,087,” and the second version, in Vancouver in 1970, was called “955,000.” In 1971, in Buenos Aires, it was called “2,972,453.” This fourth show, in May 1973, included only women artists, “by way of an exasperated reply,” she wrote, “to those who say ‘there are no women making conceptual art.’” “c. 7,500” referred to the estimated population of Valencia, California, at that time, because this exhibition started out here, at CalArts, upstairs in A402 [Gallery]. It subsequently traveled to nine different places, including 48 Earlham Street, Covent Garden, London, which is where I coincided with it.
It is impossible for me to describe the impact of this almost accidental encounter: I spent hours and hours alone in the gallery, surrounded by art work which I found perplexing, intriguing, moving, curiosity provoking, and incomprehensible. When I say “alone” in the gallery, I do not exaggerate. There were few visitors to this show. Yet this was the first time I ever heard of CalArts, the first time I really thought about conceptual art practice, recognized the playful dimension of conceptual art, which I'd previously dismissed as dull sheets of typewritten paper pinned to the wall. The work in the show was varied, hybrid, contradictory, involving bodies, texts, performance, masquerade. It was often autobiographical, and yet without sentiment, or its familiar self-loathing. It was funny, and deathly serious; it had that energy, that aggression which I recognized as mine, an internal conflict, a dynamic, that seemed to me to speak from a place that no one knew about, that place where women live out our contradictions.
Each of these exhibitions that Lucy Lippard organized had a catalogue which took the form of an envelope containing index cards, with a card for each artist. (She said at the time that you could discard the index cards which referred to the work you weren't interested in!) I would like to show you the catalogue for “c. 7,500,” which was up at CalArts for precisely one week: 14 – 18 May, 1973. I want to point out that some of the artists in the show were students at CalArts at the time, while some of them were established artists, similar to the “Exquisite Acts and Everyday Rebellions” show that's up right now. At least six of the artists were not American. Four of them are in the “WACK!” Show at MoCA: Eleanor Antin, Ulrike Nolden (Rosenbach), Adrian Piper, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Some of them are well known now for making work which is not generally regarded as “feminist art,” some are famous, and some are hard to trace. And I find myself surprised there isn't more research work on this show. Taking place fourteen months after Womanhouse, “c. 7,500” seems like a significant event in the history of feminist work at CalArts. That research remains to be done.
Reflections by Leslie Dick (2010)
Exquisite Acts and Everyday Rebellions opened up a space for the consideration of the relationships between women thinking about feminism and feminist art today, and women in the 1970s, both in the context of the WACK! show at MOCA, and the art exhibition at CalArts. Invited to introduce the one-day conference at CalArts that coincided with the EAER exhibition, I took advantage of this space to contextualize my own discovery of feminist ideas, feminist conceptual art, and coincidentally CalArts, within the frame of Lucy Lippard's exhibition of women conceptual artists, c. 7,500. This exhibition started out at CalArts in 1973, the number 7,500 referring to the estimated population of Valencia at the time(!). It later travelled to a number of sites, before arriving at the alternative space at number 48 Earlham Street in Covent Garden, London, where by chance I found myself gallery sitting for it. To trace the trajectory that took me from Earlham Street in spring 1974, the place where I first heard of CalArts, to my experience of teaching at CalArts for the last 18 years, is impossible. The hypothetical sequence is invisible to me, however destined the whole thing seems! Nevertheless, c. 7,500 made a very strong impression on me, and I wanted to reach out across the great divide, to speak to the young women participating in EAER, to give them a sense of the complexity and contradictions of feminist thinking and women's experience in the early 1970s.
I enjoyed the amusement generated by my descriptions of my hair, dyed an emphatically artificial orange, and my spray-painted silver boots. I was committed to outlining the crazy juxtapositions of my own experience at that time: dressing up as David Bowie, while simultaneously reading Kate Millett's Sexual Politics and arguing about biological determinism with my friends. We really didn't know how to think about motherhood, sexuality, representation, make up – it was all up for grabs, and I am certain that discussion is ongoing and necessary. I am always a little dubious about the simplifications that can arise when looking back at feminism in the 1970s, as if our encounter with feminist ideas clarified things, rather than making everything more complicated, as well as more intensely passionate and more painful. I hoped to give a sense of the impossibility of being a woman which was central to my experience of feminism, then and now, and I wanted to generate curiosity and research into these contradictory histories.
After my presentation, during which I listed the artists who participated in c. 7,500, and stated that I had no idea who Bernadette Mayer was, Christine Wertheim informed me that she is a highly regarded experimental writer. I hadn't made the connection, and only later did I realize she was the same Bernadette Mayer who collaborated with Vito Acconci from 1967 to 1969 on the journal 0 to 9. I regret my failure to put these facts together at the time, and would like to insert my erratum here. Otherwise, I regret nothing!
Leslie Dick is a writer who teaches in the Art Program at CalArts. Her recent writings on art have appeared in X-tra magazine, including essays on Hannah Wilke, Louise Bourgeois, Walid Raad, and the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. In April 2010, she presented Jacques Lacan's essay on the mirror stage as a multimedia performance superimposed on Martin Kersels's installation at the Whitney Biennial.
Cameras - Adam Feldmeth, Nicholas Grider
Video Editor - Audrey Chan
Sound - Emery Martin