Exquisite Acts and Everyday Rebellions: 2007 CalArts Feminist Symposium
California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California
March 10, 2007
“Strategies for Contemporary Feminism”
Panel Speakers: Andrea Fraser, Mary Kelly, Catherine Lord
Moderator: Elana Mann
Elana Mann: This panel is called “Strategies for Contemporary Feminism” with panel members Mary Kelly, Catherine Lord, and Andrea Fraser. What really excites me about this panel is the opportunity to examine the feminist strategies that these three women have been using for decades. The panel will focus on the pragmatics of feminism and history, why feminism is still vital, and how to activate a feminist critique both in art and a social space. Through listening to these women, we will hear about overt and covert aspects of feminist approaches, including the use of psychoanalysis and female subjectivity in artwork, methods of institutional critique and institutional change, as well as curatorial activism.
I was born in 1980 and I grew up in a time of media backlash and negativity towards the feminist movement. But because of my feminist Jewish upbringing, I was always marginally involved in feminist activities. It was only through working on this project in a time of extreme conservatism that calling myself a “feminist” in a very loud voice became a crucial political and artistic stance rather than just an idea I believed in. At CalArts, I have benefited from many brilliant professors who have offered classes on feminist art and theory and yet there are still institutional challenges here. I wonder how feminist theory can become practice, how feminist art can infiltrate life. This panel will address pro-active ways feminism can initiate critical responses and provoke change.
Mary Kelly’s theoretical writings and project-based art have established themselves as essential to the discourse of gender, sexuality, and identity formation in contemporary culture. She studied at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, England and is currently professor of art and critical theory at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]. She has exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally, and is featured in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the forthcoming “Documenta 12” in Kassel. Kelly is the author of Post-Partum Document (1990) and Imaging Desire (1996).
Catherine Lord is a writer, artist, and curator whose work addresses issues of feminism, cultural politics, and colonialism. She is currently a professor of studio art and also teaches in the Women’s Studies and Art History Departments at UC Irvine [University of California, Irvine]. Lord has written numerous critical essays and fiction, which have been published in books, magazines, and collections. She has exhibited widely and also worked as an Associate Editor of Afterimage. Lord has held many prestigious positions such as the Chair of the Department of Studio Art at UC Irvine, the Director of the gallery at UC Irvine, and the Dean of the School of Art at CalArts.
Andrea Fraser’s work has been identified with performance, video, context art, and institutional critique. She has exhibited and performed all over the world and won many prestigious grants and awards for her provocative art practice. Fraser has also published her own writings and been involved in collaborative projects such as the performance group, V Girls, the Orchard art gallery, and “Services,” a working group exhibition which toured internationally for seven years. Currently, Fraser is a visiting Associate Professor at UCLA.
As a young artist, I feel incredibly honored and fortunate to be moderating a panel with three women who have inspired and influenced me. Each panel member will speak for around ten to fifteen minutes, after which point, I will ask the panel a few questions and open up the discussion to the floor. We are going to begin with Mary Kelly.
Mary Kelly: Thank you, Elana, Audrey [Chan], and Theresa [Masangkay] for organizing this event and inviting me to speak in the panel with the ambitious title, “Strategies for Contemporary Feminism.” Although, when I first read this, I realized that the word “strategy” didn’t roll off my tongue quite as easily as it did thirty-five years ago. Now, I think I’m old enough to admit that at a certain level, I have no idea what we did then or what you should do in the future.
So, I think that perhaps because formulating a demand, which is the consequence of a strategy, is a collective process that is so absolutely contingent on the politics of the moment, this is one reason. But perhaps it’s also because in the Women’s Movement of the ‘70s, there was something deeply resistant to the idea of speaking for others. And I think because of this, I’m going to call my paper, “Three Non-Strategic Observations for a Few Artists Whose Work in Some Way Is Informed by Feminism.”
I have to admit they’re based on the questions that Elana threw at me earlier on, which regard the relevance of theory, the role of institutions, and the connectedness of generations. And with the first one, I see this more as a question of history and my subjective investment in a particular version of it. That is, I can’t think about the so-called “essentialism” debate of the ‘80s without returning to what was the formative moment for me in the ‘70s and to think of the Women’s Movement in some sense as an event—the one that [Alain] Badiou doesn’t talk about—a break with the ordinary that instigated new ways of thinking. Psychoanalysis could be considered an example of an inquiry that preceded it by exposing the absences in the established knowledge pertaining to gender at that time, which were just that gender was either biologically-determined or sociologically-constrained; there was nothing in between. So in the History Group, the London-based collective I belonged to in the ‘70s, we argued that the psychic economy was regulated in the unconscious by the laws of primary process and therefore it required a theoretical method appropriate to that object, namely psychoanalysis—Sigmund Freud’s, but more controversially, Jacques Lacan’s reading of it. We didn’t pursue this out of any academic interest. We just got the things that we could at the time, translated them, and in a sense, the urgency here was to change our lives and what we saw as the iniquitous conditions of all women’s lives at that time blatantly enforced in the workplace. Because you have to remember, equal pay was not enacted until 1975, and then, inequities were more subtly sustained in the home through what we called the naturalization of women’s role in childcare. Most importantly, I would say that we wanted to make sexuality pass into the grand historical narrative of social change.
This was the context in which I began Post-Partum Document and I think my practice as an artist was integral to this kind of process of interrogation that was instigated by this transformative event for me. In Europe at that time, though, for some women an account of subjectivity that was grounded in psychoanalytic theory was very problematic because it questioned the explanatory power of experience, which had given the movement a certain coherence in the form of consciousness raising groups and as an aesthetic strategy in undermining an essential libidinal relation between the woman’s body and her brush, so to speak. So in the U.S. in the 1980s, this became the central focus in what was called the feminism and post-modernism debate. This was the context in which Post-Partum Document became a kind of caricature of the constructivist or constructionist position. When I first came to CalArts in 1987, I was expecting to have this debate because this had been the site of the initial Womanhouse program. And no one remembered it. It just wasn’t spoken of. It wasn’t there.
But to go on to the second point about institutions, I could consider this as mainly a question of the way modernism’s renunciation of the feminine was transformed into post-modernism’s marginalization of the feminist. And I think this took place not only in what we think of as the dominant practices of the museum, and the discourses of “great art,” but also in the strategies, as we said then, of opposition.
I just want to give a few examples of all women shows, this is not at all definitive, these are just some examples. For one, there was “Feministische Kunst International” in 1979 in the Netherlands in which the organizers defined feminist art as a separate movement comprising a definite set of conventions and constituting an international style. Then you had, a little later, Lucy Lippard’s show called “Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists” that was about social strategies by women artists in London in 1980. “Issue” set a different precedent because [Lippard] was posing this united front of politically engaged art against the divisive claims of both cultural and socialist feminisms. And then a show that I think has been kind of forgotten in the “WACK!” survey was the 1983 exhibition called, “The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter,” organized by Jo Anna Isaak. This was the first exhibition in which the politics of representation were foregrounded and it acknowledged that there was a division between these kinds of theories of cultural construction and so-called “essentialism.” And it defined a certain kind of agenda for debates of that time in the ‘80s. And then, in 1984, some may remember that Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock organized an exhibition for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Their exhibition was very unique in cutting across both media and gender to emphasize the issue that was stated in her title, “Difference: On Representation and Sexuality.” So there were men and questions that were addressed there that I feel in some way we retreated from after that moment, and this may be a point for discussion. In some way, Connie Butler’s project for MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles] that has just opened, “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” returns to a gender exclusive strategy but in the exhibition genre of a historical survey that attempts—I think, ambitiously—to make sexuality or sexual politics in the form of specific works by women artists pass into the grand narrative of 20th century art. But in a certain respect, I see all of these important initiatives as part of an effort to clean up the cultural confusion of that period from 1968 until the mid-‘80s that we call the ‘70s.
I think a discourse of periodization always has repetitive formulas for establishing what are representative practices of pre-given durations and it has really designated feminist art in a sense as marginal or as an alternative to something. And this is taking the stance of either the separate history, the unique genealogy, the definitive style, or the thematic rupture. But the question that remains for me is: the alternative to what? There was a significant absence of a unified aesthetic in the ‘70s. When you go to that show, this comes across very strongly. But I think there was some very irritating, irreducible heterogeneity in the means of expression that characterized that interval. Although I would say that there is a certain legacy of innovation that is forged from this kind of critique, what seems forgotten is that feminist art—although Holland Cotter did say that in [his New York Times] review today—to a certain extent, feminist art infiltrated or overtly influenced every art making process of that moment in very distinct and irreversible ways. One way would be that it transformed the phenomenological presence of the body into an image of sexual difference, and Yvonne Rainer’s work comes to mind and certainly many others. Also, in extending the interrogation of the object to include the subjective conditions of its existence, and Leslie [Dick]’s reference to that early conceptual work pointed very directly to that. Then, the moment that political intent was translated from an idea of personal accountability into what later became the question of authority within institutional critique. And I do remember Hans Haacke saying to me that, yes, it was feminism that made him feel he had to be accountable for the political in his work. I think that havoc and this material uncertainty or discursive complexity launched on the institutions really hasn’t been resolved. That is, the social movements of the ‘60s have not been easily assimilated, especially in this increasingly market-oriented cultural economy.
The third point was about generations, or as Elana put it to me, “Do we always have to reinvent the wheel?” I think that there was a certain stylistic division that was launched in this moment we refer to as “post-feminist” in the ‘80s, and it became the visual embodiment of a general dissension in the 1970s that signaled a far deeper but less visible divide which concerned the unexpected consequence of feminism’s influence in the public sphere. I think this is particularly true here in the U.S. where there is constant talk about breaking the glass ceiling, or the canvas ceiling for that matter.
Finally, there’s the front line in the recent war where we’ve now asked for the right to go to the front and kill. With equal access this may be a logical thing to demand but I think the ethics are cause for reflection about what is actually at stake here in the demand for equality if it includes that initiative. During the first and the current invasion of Iraq, there has been a promotion of this kind of “kick ass masculinity” as a support for an aggressive nationalism that dramatizes the way that social pathologies are propped up by the psychic disturbance of sexual difference. So, within the military institution, for example, it seems that gender stereotypes are recruited in the service of rank and hierarchy. A demand for equality by women, by gays, by lesbians, in that context is obviously limited but it’s also symptomatic of a more elusive restraint and that is the unconscious desire to identify with an ideal of masculinity that inevitably entails the denigration of the feminine term. So what interests me in this is that in a relation of power, the woman’s assumption of the masculine imago describes a psychic structure, which is radically divergent from the concept of the masquerade that we relied on earlier.
So, if authority is not encoded primarily as visible affects, then what theoretical devices can we use to track it? Or, could we use something like the concept of display extracted from Lacan’s discussion of mimicry to help us distinguish that gesture of intimidation from an aim of seduction? And if you remember a show that Marcia Tucker, who died recently and who contributed so much to the art world, did for the New Museum [in 1994] called the “Bad Girls” show. This was kind of a phenomenon everywhere out here and in London. This example raises the question that the curators seem to be suggesting that women artists were ironically miming a master discourse of the avant-garde. But here we were seeing something that had already been institutionalized, in terms of the transgressive femininity that’s assumed by the artist as a form of virile display. Just think historically of Breton’s relation to Nadja, Warhol’s Drella, or Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy. So, even if the “bad girls” would flaunt difference, unlike the generation of women that preceded me that tried to “pass,” or my generation that wore it on their sleeve, even if they did flaunt this in a way that seemed very self-conscious, they didn’t do it out of deference to heroic conquests of the visual turf inspired by feminism in the past but in defiance of all restraints. In a certain way, the masculine ideal persists because, in effect, they’re miming a man masquerading as a woman in order to be the universal term, which is “the great artist.” You can come back to me if you can follow that one.
I think in the course of distancing ourselves from the fussy femininity of the post-war era, we’ve also divided women into “us” and “them.” That is, those who, like us, are liberated and the others who still live their lives as women. I think that rift, in so far as it’s socially and economically circumscribed, has actually deepened. One consequence of this would be that what was once a claim for unity, that is, that all women shared at least the subjective moment of their oppression, now defines a cause for separation since subjectivity must account for the internalization of real or imagined forms of empowerment as well. And, for another, what transpired in the 1970s as a simultaneous effort to change the legal system of discrimination and to alter the understanding of its ideological support through theoretical work on representation. At this point, that becomes a further cause of division.
So while theory in the 1980s evolved into the ever more subtle elaborations of theories that described the psychic complexity of sexual difference, we had at the same time conservative governments that delivered ever more blatant setbacks in civil rights legislation, for example: abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action recently, not to mention the current Patriot Act. So in such circumstances, the legitimate desire for unity can encourage some people to say that theory is culpable and activism is blameless. But all is not lost because I think this has also incited a new kind of opposition that I think of as “good girls disguised as very bad girls” who have tried to reclaim something of the past, not by repeating it, but rather by thinking of it as a creative process. This is something that one of the members of LTTR said to me recently. She said, “We’re trying to continue the legacy of activist feminism but still be flexible.” So seen in this way, what I described as a historical discontinuity might not be thought of necessarily as some aberration that you needed to “straighten out” but more like the very conditions of existence for a feminist politics at the current moment. In that case, division might actually be tolerable and provide the impetus for more “exquisite acts and everyday rebellions” in the present.
Catherine Lord: I feel that this is a serious occasion, as serious as the exhibition that Leslie was describing, and I must say that I feel inadequate to it. I would feel inadequate anyway, but unlike Mary, whose talk I think has been very helpful, I am pretty much incapable of following instructions or answering questions directly. This may actually account for any contribution I made to feminism at CalArts when I was dean. I’m just going to read something and it’s quite a different thing from Mary’s. Responding to the questions Elana posed, here we go.
I worry too much about the way other people use words. I worry too much about other people’s language. And lately, for me, the language about which I think has been the cloud of words surrounding the “F-word” and “F-art.” I am not spelling out the “F-word” because as you may remember or may have read or may have heard, about ten years ago The F-Word was the title of another student organized CalArts symposium. The title had wit, considerable wit, so much so that it’s still being used as a title for events that seem to have become very popular in the first six months of this year. The “F-word,” I think, is an advance over the other names, the other consonant words that work by at once reviving and repressing an epithet. The “N-word”, for example, or the “C-word.” The instruction given by saying “the blank word” is to suppress the thought while at the same time thinking it. But unlike the “N-word” or the “L-word”, the “F-word” is a twofer word. You know what twofers are, right? The “F-word” implies that having the former, that is, “a good F” or “any old F” is better than confessing to being the latter, that is to say, “an F.” In so doing, the “F-word” brilliantly confuses sex and gender.
So, here we are 10 years later. Perhaps because we now have The L Word, it’s possible to spell out the “F-word.” It is plastered not just on one but two museums--not just MOCA but the Brooklyn Museum. Various activities have been spawned by reactions to these blockbuster exhibitions-- lectures, performances, small exhibitions, film screenings, spin-offs, complaints, reactions, reorganizations of entire museum shops, branded products, reprints of classics, increased sightings of the color pink—resignified, of course. Oh fuck, we feminists are the victims of our own success. We’re being clobbered by a thesaurus of linguistic bombs, the kind that get you before you see them coming.
“Post,” for example, to cite one of Elana’s questions. “Post” is almost always fatal. To make “post” a prefix to “feminist” is to keep every ambitious woman in line by suggesting that it would be better for her career and for her sex life to put as much distance as possible between herself and those kill-joy stiletto theorists of the 1980s, not to mention those hairy-legged essentialists of the 1970s.
“Wheel” is another form of shrapnel. Is she reinventing it? Are we reinventing it? Must they reinvent it? Did you? Will you? Could you please? Why haven’t you already? While you’re at it, could I have a bigger one? Or even more than one?
And then there’s “wave.” Waves can knock an “F” off her feet. First-wave feminism, second-wave feminism, third-wave feminism, et cetera. If you have noticed, as I have, a certain amount of surreptitious counting on fingers, it’s because nobody can keep it straight which wave they’re supposed to be riding or which wave they used to ride, when they were young enough to ride. But the point of waves after all, the reason we like to sit at the ocean and stare at them is that it is impossible to tell where one wave ends and the next begins.
I take the linguistic cloud and psychological anxiety that settles over the eight-letter “F-word” as a means of control and a huge distraction, particularly as there is, these days, some urgency about activism and strategy. The reactions to “WACK!” suggest the strained relationship between something called a “feminist” and something called “history." There’s a manifest anxiety printed and private—that is, reviews and back-story and buzz—about whether or not “WACK!” is good history. There is as much anxiety about whether feminist art is good art as there is about the risks of incarcerating feminist art in a museum.
“WACK!” is said to be a rough draft. “WACK!” is said to have failed in not offering sufficient cultural context or sufficiently diverse cultural context or sufficiently lengthy wall labels or a sufficiently coherent historical narrative. Further—this is my favorite argument—“WACK!” is said to offer substandard art because while they were storming the citadel, women artists had to forget about form, and form is art. You may recognize this argument. Worse, “WACK!” might actually be propaganda for the greed and status driven edifice that is the art world. Some of the writers who put forth these propositions are smarter and more appealing than others, but still, what a mess: bad history, bad art, too bad. But “mess” is precisely the strength of the show. The effect is to demonstrate that it is not as important when and where one enters as it is to enter somewhere, anywhere, somehow and figure it out, to make your own connections, to make something useful for yourself. To do so is not to reinvent the wheel or to waste time, but to move forward by ignoring what was not yours to forget. I am trying to dig my way out of the generational impasse that erupts in all sorts of oppositional movements.
With thanks to my students for certain painful lessons, I summarize the impasse as follows: the younger generation resents the older generation for obstructing their path with a melancholic attachment to their own failed history. The younger generation accuses the older of being out of touch, of withholding their approval, and—this is after all the art world—withholding about financial help. The older generation resents the younger for stealing their ideas, wasting their time on the fucking wheel, manifesting cultural amnesia, and—this is the art world—for actually making money because their work is cheap.
The younger generation wants their own fucking wave.
This is just way too Oedipal. Which is to say, that as a model of cultural transmission or intergenerational dialogue or social change, it is archaically “heterosexual.” So for the hell of it, I propose the longest “F-word” yet: forgetting. As a strategy to make room for others forgetting is in and of itself an everyday rebellion and an exquisite act. It is also as a way to clear space in one’s head for unexpected minutiae, for queer attachments, for re-written contexts, for partial histories, for making up exactly what it is that you need. I think the point is to recognize the turbulence that a detail can create rather than quibbling about waves or wheels or posts.
One of my chores as a professor in a large state university is to serve on a committee that recommends hirings, promotions, and tenure. What this actually means is sitting for hours and hours far away from any waves at all in a room with windows that don’t open at a conference table made of fake wood. I have to say that this is like being in the CIA. There’s a special room, the door locks, you cannot take any material out of the room, any notes you make on any person will be eventually shredded. It’s a job I do because I can occasionally block the moments of bias that go by so quickly as to be almost invisible. I keep my own set of private notes, of course, on injustice—for example the propriety of giving a guy a hefty raise because he invented a better kitty litter while a woman loses out because she took time out for childbearing. In my notes, though, something else surfaced, a metaphor that seemed to me more useful than waves or wheels. It was the hypothesis that the ocean itself is memory, and that as memory, as an archive, the ocean predicts and produces major storms. The memory of the ocean resides neither at the bottom of the ocean with the shipwrecks and the dead computers nor on the surface of the ocean with the waves and the cargo containers that have fallen off ships. The midlevels of the ocean are the memory. And this memory is the best predictor of major disruption. And it’s that memory that I would like to connect with ideas of feminism, of feminisms, of history, of histories, of actually putting those things to use.
Andrea Fraser: This is an extraordinary event and it’s all the more extraordinary for the fact that the organizers took it on their own accord spontaneously, initially with no institutional motivation, and found their own support. It’s really an honor to be participating in it, especially with Mary and Catherine. And talk about feeling inadequate. I’m not going to be able to get through this without weeping. What I will have to say now will probably be long on affect and short on just about everything else.
I’m not sure exactly why, but when I started to think about what I was going to say, of course I immediately started to think about my mother and couldn’t really get very much past that. I suppose I will be able to take up a little bit from where Catherine left off on the generational question, of being a representative on this panel of a following generation. And I do describe myself as a “second-generation feminist” as opposed to both a “second-wave feminist,” which I was not, and a “third-wave feminist.” My experience of feminism exists first of all in biographical time. My mother got involved in the Women’s Movement in the early 1970s, participating in consciousness-raising groups and helping to create a counseling center for victims of domestic violence in San Francisco. She came out as a lesbian shortly after, went back to school to get a PhD in Psychology, and later became a founder of what I think was the first gay and lesbian mental health clinic in San Francisco. From eight years old on, I lived in an all female lesbian feminist household. I marched in Gay Pride [parades] with my mother and her partner under banners that were painted on the kitchen floor. In the eighth grade, I cut school with a classmate and took a bus from Berkeley to San Francisco to attend a pre-opening of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party at SFMOMA [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]. My classmate’s mother had worked on the project. I sat around with my mother and her friends looking through the catalogue and talking about the vaginal imagery; they would joke about it. I dipped into her copies of Virginia Woolfe and Tillie Olsen, Susan Griffin, and memorized poems by Adrienne Rich, who was one of her favorite poets.
When I moved to New York in 1981 and drove into the base of the moment, I was a bit confused to encounter a feminism that rejected the feminism I had grown up with, in the context of the post-modern debates about feminism, dismissing it or aspects of it as separatist and essentialist. Whether or not that rejection was tinged with a kind of embarrassment, as it sometimes seemed to me, I was aware that it resonated with a latent shame I felt about my unconventional childhood and then perhaps more than now, non-traditional femininity. That shame, or at least the anxiety that may have been connected to it, was made more acute by a transcontinental jump from the capital of hippie counterculture to the center of East Coast cultural establishment. Complicating matters more, I was not only a second-generation feminist but also a second-generation artist or aspiring artist. Moving to New York, I was retracing my mother’s steps as she had left Puerto Rico, also at sixteen, to study on the East Coast, eventually at the Art Students League [of New York] with George Grosz and others before making her way west with my father. Despite having five children, my mother painted almost everyday for almost twenty years. She stopped painting in 1968. She continued to pursue other forms of art making for a few years after that, including performance, but her giving up painting had everything to do with the despair of accumulated rejections. She was a very good painter, I can say now in my biased but informed opinion, but she was never able to show professionally. And I have no doubt that that had everything to do with the fact that she was a woman.
The course that my own artistic development took has everything to do with that history. I quit painting when I was eighteen instead of thirty-eight, ostensibly under the influence of Conceptualism and critiques of the cultural commodity. But I was also motivated by a visceral fear of having to live my life surrounded by unsold inventories, material reminders of unrealized dreams. Consciously or not, I determined to escape my mother’s failure by rejecting her aspirations, or rather, by embracing a practice of interrogating such aspirations and the conditions of their production. Great artists, perhaps like women, like femininity, are made not born. And they are a made by the field of art and its institutions. Whereas my mother encouraged me to sign and date everything I created, when I was eighteen I decided never to sign my artwork again, though I haven’t held to that.
I turned to institutional critique and my first work in that mode began as a little book in the form of an exhibition brochure and it began with two artistic signatures under erasure. I put them over each other so you couldn’t read them. I pursued a critique of art historical representations of women, but also more importantly to me, of the artists and how mythic, idealized, masculine painting subjects were constructed in art history. I examined the roles of women as art appreciators like docents who are often triply dominated as women, economically as low-level volunteers in a field of big money patrons, and intellectually or educationally as non-experts among museum professionals. And with the performance group, The V-Girls, I examined intellectual authority and the construction of a great mind, and so on.
While not all my work has revolved around gender-based hierarchies, my approach to institutional critique has always been organized around what I consider to be a feminist methodology, a feminist site specificity, and a feminist approach to critique born of consciousness raising and the political investigation of the personal which taught me that struggles in critiques, in struggle, in critique, we have to start from where we’re standing with our own histories and relationships, interests and fantasies. It’s also important to remember that our personal experiences and individual histories are always only particular instances of the possible, of whom and what it is socially and historically possible to be and do. The generation of women represented in “WACK!” transformed the field of possibilities for all of us who came after. Thank you.
Elana Mann: Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your personal history with us.
Andrea Fraser: That’s often what people say when they would really rather… Anyway, that’s the only thing I can really do.
Elana Mann: And thank you to the other panelists. I would first like to know whether any of you had questions that came up for each other when you were listening to each other speak and if you need a minute to think about that, that’s okay. I certainly have some questions and I know that the audience is brimming with questions as well but I wanted to give you all a chance to talk a little bit.
Catherine Lord: Oh, you go first.
Elana Mann: Well, I have the difficult charge of representing people my age on this panel, and something that has come up through doing this project is that a lot of people my age feel very worried about connecting themselves with feminism. And I’m just curious as to why you think that is and also why this has been such a big year for feminism in different institutions.
Catherine Lord: Why do you think it’s so difficult?
Elana Mann: Well, I think I addressed that in my introduction, just the fact that people in their twenties grew up with such a backlash against feminist thought and practice, and have a real disconnect with that history. But you’re all teachers, so are there certain strategies that you use pedagogically to talk about feminism or broach the subject with a group of people that are potentially resisting feminism?
Mary Kelly: I think it’s the “return of the repressed” because you can’t keep a good “F” down, right? But the other thing is that I don’t think any of us would ever force the “F” on to our students. What has amazed me and really inspired me to do some new work about this is that it seems that there is now a real generation, that is, thirty years. We’re in a moment where most of you were born between ’65 and ’80, or somehow part of what you think you remember of where you came from is there. And actually, I meant that seriously about the “return of the repressed” because it’s more a question about where you came from, I might call it the “political primal scene,” and what you think you know about your parents, and Andrea’s simulation of affect here about her mother.
Catherine Lord: Those were real Kleenexes, Mary.
Andrea Fraser: That’s what happens when you’re a performance artist. You can’t get away with this stuff.
Mary Kelly: I think that was perfect because it explains something about the question that [Elana] had. It’s not that [Andrea] planned it or that it actually emerged. There was this affect attached to the memory of that moment. And I think there are genuine ways that people want to go to that place now and find out what it was.
Audience (Orlan): Pour moi, je voudrais dire que nous sommes tous mêmes images, quelles nous vivons les mêmes choses. Nous sommes bien vivants au même moment et nous sommes dans les mêmes changements en société. Le même questionnement ce soit dans ma vie pratique ou que ce soit philosophiquement.
[English: Personally, I would like to say that we are all the same image and we live the same things. We are alive at the same time and we fall within the same changes in society. I apply the same process of questioning to my practical life and philosophy.]
Audience (Raphael Cuir): Orlan wants to say that we all have the same age because we all live the same situation, in the same time, so…
Audience (Orlan): Practically, philosophically…
Audience (Raphael Cuir): Philosophically, practically, we share the same time so we all have and all are in the same age.
Audience (Orlan): And I don’t like the discussion about generation. For me, it’s a very old idea. I don’t like that. And also, it’s a new idea because in this society and particularly in art, all the time people want very young artists and for me it’s a very sexist, very masochist way to put in “WACK!” the old and in the Brooklyn Museum the young. For me, it’s only very interesting the problematic…but not that. Or, the blonde hair and the black hair, it’s crazy. All my life, I try to break the roles between culture, Western culture, non-Western culture, color of the skin, generation, sex, and also artistic/practical. And now together, you, we make that again. And for me, it’s very strange.
Audience (Raphael Cuir): You might want to answer both of us at the same time. For me, it’s very strange to hear that you cannot connect to feminism because I guess we are of the same generation. And I have no trouble to connect to feminism because I think that the right of abortion is very important for women and everything that was won at that time and is going to be lost again, likely to be lost again, everything that was the purpose of this fight in the ‘70s I understand one hundred percent and I subscribe to it. So, really, I don’t understand why you can’t connect spontaneously to this fight and this movement.
Elana Mann: Just to clarify, I identify very strongly as a feminist and I identify incredibly strongly with the Feminist Movement. What I asked in that question had to do with feelings of resistance to feminism and feminist art and practice that I have experienced in this institution, and not only in this institution but elsewhere as well from people my age. So wanted the members of this panel to speak to that. I completely agree with what Orlan was saying about this desire to divide generations and to specify one age group versus another age group. It’s a very divisive technique and I guess what I was interested in was hearing from the panelists up here about their pedagogical strategies and how they talk about feminism with their students and how their students are talking about feminism.
Catherine Lord: Again, it’s a sort of linguistic mine. If you begin describing one thing called “feminism,” you’ve already lost the war. There isn’t one thing called “feminism.” “Feminisms” were connected to various other liberation movements of the late 1960s and ‘70s. They informed each other, there were exclusions, there were arguments, there was ripping off of ideas, there was a giving of ideas. It was something in constant motion. Some older women are also embarrassed to call themselves a “feminist.” There are women in the “WACK!” show who have hastened to say, “But I’m not a feminist. I’m in the show but I’m not a feminist.” Anyway, I think that to fall into that unifying dismissal of feminism is obviously to shut down the discourse rather than understanding gender critique or the critique of gender in and of itself as an expansive kind of practice. One of the most puzzling questions about the histories of feminism that are being constructed are the ways in which this creature called “the lesbian” drops out of the history. To fall simply into something called “feminism” as an analysis of oppression by gender is to lose the opportunity to make another more expansive critique based on ideas of gender, based on ideas of gender as performance, based on ideas of class as performance, of race as performance, which would open things up a lot more. And what I don’t get is why people don’t do that.
Audience (Christine Wertheim): I don’t really have a question. I just have something I wanted to say to address this question of how to think about so-called “gender” and “generation” today. In the 1980s, a feminist writer, an American called Alice Jardine, wrote a book called Gynesis, which seems to have fallen out of theoretical favor. Nobody reads it anymore. I think it’s an absolutely brilliant book and what she proposes in that book is that the Oedipal model in which the family is structured around the relationship between a male child, basically, and a very present mother and an absent father is no longer appropriate as a model for, possibly, the English-speaking world in general, but at least the American world in particular.
What she proposes is that American society is perhaps more accurately modeled on the myth of the Oresteia in which the major battle is between the son and the mother. In the model of this family, both the daughter and the father are killed off and are totally absent. And it’s my view since living here and because of the work that I do that in fact maybe in the 20th century in Europe, there was a gender-generational social organization in which sons and parents were somehow the major social organization, and I don’t think there’s ever been even in psychoanalytic theory a real explanation of feminine subjectivity. But I believe that now we have a state where there are simply the sons, the individual ones that want to be “his majesty the baby” and be glorified and all the mothers who look after them.
It seems to me that all of this behavior of many women trying to become like men…it’s not that they’re trying to become authority figures. They’re not trying to become fathers. They’re trying to become the adored infant, the son, the Jesus Christ. And it seems to me that, in fact, that that’s what has happened to men as well; men are no longer trying to become fathers. They’re trying to become the adored infant. And the battle is between who gets to be the adored infant and everybody else, who are all the mothers who are supposed to take care of them and love them. And it seems to me that that is exactly what George [W.] Bush is. It isn’t about authority. It’s about being the baby, as Freud said, “his majesty the baby.” And that cuts down the problem of “men versus women” because we’re all the mothers to those who grasp for themselves the position of the adored infant. On that level, I don’t think the issue is whether you are male or female or gay or lesbian, it’s how can we stop those megalomaniacs who want to be the adored infant from forcing us all into the position of caretaking for them?
Elana Mann: I think that really ties into what Mary Kelly was saying about the unconscious desire to identify with masculinity and the way women are involved in warfare right now.
Andrea Fraser: I always find it very difficult to understand why any woman would not identify herself as a feminist or with feminism. I find it very difficult to understand and that probably has something to do with my background. But it seems to me that in the context of the current art world, more specifically than in the current political climate, there are very specific conditions to that don’t only apply to feminism but to any kind of political or specifically theoretical-conceptual…or maybe not theoretical-conceptual more generally, but certainly any political orientation. I think there’s a very basic question about the future of the art world as a site of critique and a site of contestation of any set of political conditions, of any hierarchies, of any norms and conditions of domination, that the art world as a site of feminism, as a site of feminist critique, as a site of investigations and reflections on subjectivity, sexuality, and many other things is under threat right now because of the marketization of the art world and the corporatization of its institutions. I think that there is a kind of cost-benefit perhaps kind of calculation that we’ve internalized—I use the word “we” very generally—from that marketization of what the benefits are of identifying with a particular politic relative to the potential costs. This is particularly disturbing in the context of an art world that still has as its primary legitimizing discourse a discourse of critique and a discourse of contestation. I think that that is the kind of question to ask ourselves as we make these kinds of choices, of how we identify ourselves and how we position ourselves. What is the basis of those choices and what kind of values do they reflect?
Audience (Orlan): I understand perfectly why the new generation of artists in “WACK!” say “I am not feminist.” Maybe it’s possible to have another reason, but the first is, if you say, “I am feminist,” you have immediately one yellow star on your back, do you understand? And also, it’s possible to have seduction with the world of the men. It’s very easy if you say, “I am not feminist.” It’s easier for the market, it’s easier for all, all the time, and it’s clear. It’s when shows look like the CAPO [Capital Arts Patrons Organization], do you understand? It’s a wedding with the power, immediately. Do you understand?
Mary Kelly: It’s just this preoccupation with the market. They say there’s one thing that’s even more unpredictable than the weather and that’s the market. So there’s no sense predicting how you can be in opposition to it or accepted by it. In a way, I think that it’s much more relevant to try to maintain what your kind of project is in spite of that. Because didn’t Michael Moore say, “You could sell a capitalist a rope to hang himself if he thought it was profitable”? I just wouldn’t be surprised if any kind of work could be accepted or as Holland Cotter already said in his [New York Times] review [of the “WACK!” exhibition], “These works are just a market-ready canon”, or something. So that’s really for me not a place to start in terms of trying to understand where you should go with your work.
Catherine Lord: Okay, I don’t think anybody has really answered why everybody is suddenly dying to be interested in feminism or anxious to disavow themselves from feminism or to decide if they’re going to call themselves a “woman” and not a “feminist.” There’s an epidemic of signification around feminism. But in my cynical view—this is a proposition and I’m not an economist—feminists of the ‘70s were trying to make our own little economies. We were making our own little credit unions and saving and loans, if you think about all those women’s galleries and newspapers and so on. The guys learned from that, but what they did in the 1980s was invent the hedge fund. They did it in big style and they made big bucks. And now what’s happening in a wobbly economy is a market for “feminist work” or bodies of work that sell cheaper. I think that’s why you “re-discover” somebody like Jo Baer or mount a show called “High Times, Hard Times” or re-look at the work of Howardena Pindell. There’s a hope that you can move earlier work into a contemporary market. Sorry, I am cynical. The other thing to think about, that maybe we can talk about, is not simply feminism as an analysis of gender or a critique of gender but the ways in which the word “feminist” itself has become a gender. That is not to say that “feminism” is gendered as female. It’s gendered as suspect, as abject, as maybe lesbian, as not liking pleasure, or as I say to my students, not liking shopping and having no sense of humor. Feminism is in itself a suspect category of gender.
Audience (Claudia Parducci): This might be obvious but in terms of why there would be this sudden resurgence of interest in feminism and who is and who isn’t and the shows and what not. I’m also of the generation that was raised by a mother who was very active and had consciousness raising. I was raised amidst enormous optimism for my generation to just assume that, you know, go for the stars! We broke this ground and you can have anything you want! And I think it’s taken this long for the children of second wave feminists to wake up and get it, that this just wasn’t true. I don’t think that we came in to be fighters and I think that we were simply, in rejecting the mustiness of our parents’ politics, it seemed like a very safe rejection. It seemed like the ground had been won and we didn’t have to fight that battle and we weren’t prepared for it.
Audience (Leslie Dick): I wanted to say very quickly that one of the things that I feel is that there’s an enormous amount of pain around this question of feminism, which is why I found Andrea’s presentation deeply moving because it’s very painful to recognize your subordination and it’s very painful to recognize that that ground that we thought was won isn’t, and that the battle goes on and there are no guarantees of success. And it’s lived experience in everyday life, not just in theory or in institutions but in our homes, with our children, with our partners, in our bedrooms, and this is what it means to be a feminist. Who would choose that kind of pain if you thought you could get away with it, if you could avoid it? The truth is, people come to feminism because they can’t avoid it, in my view.
Andrea Fraser: Linking that to the question of generations, and the Oedipal model keeps being evoked as something that we want to reject when considering the relation between generations. I actually recently have become a bit more of a Kleinian and one thing that Catherine said that resonated for me, “the older generation’s melancholic attachment to their own failed history.” [Melanie] Klein didn’t reject the Oedipus complex but talked about the depressive position as being primary and being the condition of the Oedipus complex, and that primarily the depressive position is the relationship to the mother not the father. It’s the moment one perceives that the mother is a whole object as a person about whom one has ambivalent feelings, right? To me that is so central to where I experience myself and my relationship to that history. For Klein, the depressive position is an enormous achievement. It’s the achievement of ambivalence, it’s the achievement of being able to experience and recognize negative affect, pain, shame without reverting to and regressing to strategies of idealization and splitting and omnipotence, and retreating into a fantasy world where we believe we can and have changed everything and we’re free, and it’s all finished. It’s from that standpoint that I think that to some extent that women today…both that feminism gets demonized but also is rejected or embraced in a kind of post-feminist mode of a sort of total freedom, which of course does not exist. So that’s to shift the terms slightly.
Audience (Sally Stein): I really welcomed hearing Catherine talk about feminisms, its both multiple sources and multiple influences. I will say I was at the same time disturbed that a few minutes later, ten minutes later, about the invocation of hedge funds. It seems to me that one dilemma that all of us interested in feminism face is whether our main object is to figure out how to get a piece of the big action or how to think about other networks and alliances. I think our discussion of feminism today, especially in the first world—to move back to the rhetoric of the ‘60s, in “the belly of the beast,” more true now than ever—is to think about the impossibility right now of “overthrowing the man” except by making global connections. Hillary Clinton, who clearly wants in to the hedge fund of power, is certainly not my model for how we can begin to think about changing all natures of human relations, which is where I see feminism best rooted. And I think that we all have to think about in our positions of varying but relative entitlement and privilege in a global perspective, how we want to size up our own situation and our own visions and dreams in relation to others.
Elana Mann: Thank you for that comment. It ties into another question that I’ve heard a lot from my colleagues, which is, talking about strategies again, whether it’s possible to infiltrate into certain institutions and social constraints and make change, or whether that’s impossible and the only solution is to create alternative contexts. I’m just wondering whether any of you, the panelists, have any response to that.
Catherine Lord: I don’t think one has to choose between them, basically. To go back to what Sally said, I’m not a big hedge fund person. It’s all about the alliances and networks, in reality. I think that if one buys the model of infiltrating an institution and then it turns out that you can’t change the institution, that in and of itself produces a kind of despondency. I think it’s important —this is a cliché—to work on multiple levels, to assess your goals, and to realize that even really small things can make a huge difference.
Audience (Carol Ann Klonarides): I just want to say that we have made a real huge difference. When I started to go to art school, there was only one college in the state where I grew up that was co-ed. So I really didn’t have any choice. The first year I went to painting class, I had to wear a dress; there was a dress code. There were no female instructors and there wasn’t a large percentage of women in the class. I think that’s changed dramatically in the thirty years since I went to art school.
I just wanted to also address the idea about market. Everyone sitting up at that table has a job in an institution and some of us don’t have that. One of the things that you have to consider is a way to make a place in the world for yourself. There are lots of contradictions and dilemmas that you come up against in making those decisions. I was of the generation where I bought into the idea that I would make it on my own and I would define myself and now I struggle to figure out how to pay for health insurance, and also how to make it as I’m in that invisible age of over-fifty. So one of the things that I’d like younger artists to think about is the fact that there are lots of women artists right now who are making money in the six figures and they’re doing it in their own way, making their own decisions, and it’s not a completely negative thing to do that.
Elana Mann: I want to thank all the panelists and thank the audience for their great questions.
||ANDREA FRASER’s work has been identified with performance, video, context art and institutional critique. Major projects include installations for the Berkeley Art Museum (1992); the Kunstverein Munich (1993); the Venice Biennale (Austrian Pavilion, 1993); the Whitney Biennial (1993); the Generali Foundation, Vienna (1995); the Kunsthalle Bern (1998); the Sprengel Museum Hannover(1998); and the Bienal de São Paulo (1998). She has created performances for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1986); the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1989); the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford (1991); inSITE, San Diego/Tijuana (1997); and the MICA Foundation, New York (2001). She has also performed solo work at the Whitechapel, London; the Dia Art Foundation, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, Vienna; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, among other venues. A survey of her video work was presented by the Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, in 2002. In 2003, the Kunstverein in Hamburg organized the retrospective AndreaFraser: Works 1984-2003. Her essays and performance scripts have appeared in Art in America, Afterimage, October, Texte zur Kunst, Social Text, Critical Quarterly, Documents, Artforum and Grey Room. Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, was released by MIT Press in 2005. Fraser was a founding member of the feminist performance group, The V-Girls (1986-1996); the project-based artist initiative Parasite (1997-1998); and the cooperative art gallery Orchard (2005-present). She was also co-organizer of Services, a “working-group exhibition” that toured to seven venues in Europe and the United States between 1994 and 2001. Fraser has received grants from Art Matters, Inc., the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Art, University of California, Los Angeles.
||MARY KELLY studied at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. Currently, Professor of Art, UCLA. Recent exhibitions of her work include the 2004 Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and, forthcoming, Documenta XII, Kassel. She is the author of Post-Partum Document, Generali Foundation, Vienna and University of California Press, 1998 and Imaging Desire, MIT Press, Boston, 1996. A survey of her work, Mary Kelly, was published by Phaidon Press, London, 1997. images
||CATHERINE LORD, Professor of Studio Art and affiliated faculty, Department of Women’s Studies and Department of Art History at the University of California, Irvine, is a writer, artist, and curator whose work addresses issues of feminism, cultural politics, and colonialism. She is the author of the text/image experimental narrative, The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation (University of Texas Press), recently translated into French as L’Ete de Sa Calvitie. Her critical essays and her fiction have been published in Afterimage, Art & Text, Artcoast, New Art Examiner, Whitewalls, Framework, Documents, Art Journal, GLQ, X-tra and Art Paper, as well as the collections The Contest of Meaning, Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present, Reframings: New American Feminisms in Photography, The Passionate Camera, Hers 3, Space, Site and Intervention: Issues in Installation and Site-Specific Art, and Decomposing. Her curated exhibitions include "Pervert," "Trash," “Gender, fucked,” and "Memories of Overdevelopment: Philippine Diaspora in Contemporary Visual Art." Her work as a visual artist was included in the 1995 inaugural biennal of Site Santa Fe, and has been shown at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Post Gallery I(Los Angeles), the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, among other venues. She is currently working on a text/image project titled, The Effect of Tropical Light on White Men. She has worked as associate editor of Afterimage and Dean of the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts. She served as chair of the Department of Studio Art, UC Irvine from 1990-1995 and as Director of the UCI Gallery from 1991-1996.
||ELANA MANN creates artwork that investigates the struggle between communication and control in regards to gender, politics, and interpersonal relationships. She received her MFA in art from California Institute of the Arts and has exhibited nationally and internationally. Mann is currently a visiting professor at Scripps College and is co-chair of The Feminist Art Project's day of panels at the 2012 College Art Association conference in Los Angeles. elanamann.com
Cameras - Adam Feldmeth, Nicholas Grider
Video Editor - Audrey Chan
Sound - Emery Martin