Exquisite Acts and Everyday Rebellions: 2007 CalArts Feminist Art Symposium
California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California
March 10, 2007
“The Personal is Political, Revisited”
Panel Speakers: Andrea Bowers, Dorit Cypis, Martha Rosler
Moderator: Audrey Chan
Audrey Chan: The name of this panel is, “The Personal Is Political, Revisited.” My name is Audrey Chan and I’m in the MFA Program in Art [at CalArts]. I’m so glad that you all came here today. I have to make a confession: I didn’t really know that feminist art existed much before last year. But I do have to say that once I started learning about feminist art, it really struck a nerve because one of the principles that I’ve been operating with and the reason why I’m interested in art at all is the idea that an artist is someone who pays attention. An artist is someone who pays attention, takes that knowledge, gives it their subjectivity, and puts it back in the world. So I think it’s very important to point out that it is artists who are speaking here today and I’m very interested in the idea of the artist as having an important voice in society.
A question that has been consistent for me in this whole project is “context”— not just the context of this room, of the Main Gallery [at The California Institute of the Arts], and of being in an art school but also our socio-political context right now. I think we need to acknowledge that we are looking at feminism and these bodies of thought in the context of war, in the context of incredible political apathy and cynicism and the belief that the individual voice is so readily co-opted by corporate structures, by hegemonic government policy, that the individual is very small. I wanted to invite these amazing women here today to talk about the fact that we are citizens. And what does citizenship mean? What does it mean to locate the self in the social structure that we find ourselves in?
The idea of “the personal is political” is often interpreted to mean that any individual experience that you have is political by nature of your unique characteristics. I think we need to remember that the statement goes both ways, “the personal is political” and “the political is personal”, to understand that there is no such thing as an isolated individual. For me, feminism coincided with that idea of art practice as the engagement of individuals and groups with the society that they live in. And something that I’ve observed recently among peers, reading about art and art that claims to have political subjects, art that claims to have political agency…there’s the idea that art and activism must be understood in different contexts, that the artist isn’t someone who has a legitimate voice to speak in society because they’re isolated in a little bubble of their studio. I would like to just put it out there that artists are citizens as well.
I would like to introduce the speakers I have invited here today. Martha Rosler does work on the public sphere ranging from the subject of everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment. Her work in video, photo, text, installation, and performance often centers on women’s experience. Rosler has long produced works on war and the national security climate that predisposes to war. She exhibits internationally and has a book of published texts called Decoys and Disruptions. Dorit Cypis is an artist and mediator whose work mines aesthetics and ethics, exploring relationships between the psychomythological, the corporeal, and the political. Dorit’s exhibitions since the late ‘70s are immersive laboratories that shed light on the paradoxes of identity through abstraction. Her public works and actions are social and political extensions mediating aesthetic abstractions into living life. Andrea Bowers is an artist whose work in drawing, video, and installation investigates the intersection of aesthetics and activism. Her recent exhibition at REDCAT “Nothing Is Neutral” drew upon the archives of the pioneering abortion activists known as the Army of Three. Both Andrea and Dorit are alumnae of CalArts, and Andrea is currently a visiting faculty member.
I would like Martha to contextualize this conversation, “the personal is political.”
Martha Rosler: Audrey has discovered a text on the subject that I wrote quite a few years ago, and I want to set the context of it a little bit. If I remember correctly, it was during the “Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists” show in 1980 in London at the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, that was curated by Lucy Lippard and Sandy Nairne. It was a show about “social works”—that is, works engaged with the social. There was a panel on questions of women’s art because, in effect, the public at the time demanded that there be such a discussion. I was asked to be on the panel along with a number of other women and the question was: is the personal political? I was so terrified to speak extemporaneously that I pulled out an envelope and on the back I scribbled these things which seemed to have some degree of coherence and it certainly came from the heart. I will say, it will smell a little bit of the language of the 1970s, but I think that it can to some degree set the context for this discussion. So here’s the statement from 1980:
Is the personal political? Yes, if it is understood to be so and if one brings the consciousness of a larger collective struggle to bear on questions of personal life in the sense of regarding the two spheres as both dialectically opposed and unitary.
No, if attention is narrowed down to the privatized tinkering with one’s solely private life divorced from any collective effort or public act and simply goes on to name this personal concentration as political. For art, this can mean doing work that looks like art has always looked, challenging little, but about which one claims that it is political just because it was done by a woman. There are in fact a lot of these claims being made.
Yes, if one exposes to view the socially constrained elements within the supposed realm of freedom of action, namely, the personal.
No, if one simply insists on protecting one’s right to autonomy and regards the triumph of personal politics as a publicly emancipatory act.
Yes, if one is sensitive to the different situations and people within society with respect to taking control of their private lives.
But no, if one simply urges everyone to free themselves or to change their lives.
Yes, if we understand how to make these demands for the right to control our lives within the context of a struggle for control over the direction of society as a whole.
Dorit Cypis: I’ll just introduce my position with a short explanation of and give a socio-political context to where my definitions come from. I was born into psychological and political hysteria—Tel Aviv, Israel in 1951, six years after the Holocaust, three years after the creation of the state of Israel. Things were upside down and backwards, full of neglect, hysteria, and quite a survivalist mentality, which often can become quite narcissistic when it’s not recognized. So that was my early context. I was innocent and unaware of the historical political context behind and beneath me. I only experienced in psychophysical directness the affects, the survivalist’s imperative at self-preservation and self-determination, with huge costs to all who just happened to be in the way. Today, we look towards the Middle East and we witness the sad results, a politics ignorant of its own psychology, its mirror, its shadow, a politic blind to the resemblance of the other, deaf to dissent, desensitized to fear, grief, and loss. My early beginnings really situated me, located me, in this situation of total chaos and hysteria without any understanding of where that was coming from, with no regard to a psychological context and so everything was externalized into a politic.
So my position on the relationship between the “personal” and the “political” ends up being an imperative, as is suggested by the last text being read, that has to be dialectical. You can’t have a politic without a really clear understanding of the psychology behind it, beneath its position, references. To have a “personal” or a “psychology” without an extension out into the social sphere or the political sphere is narcissism, of the wrong kind, because there is a narcissism that is important. As I look back, I have a small exhibition up right now of my work in the ‘80s which was a time when I was looking at subjectivity and trying to understand my own interiorized emotions and relationships to my past as reflected through historical imagery both in art history and the political domain as incorporated in my body. And I see that that was a very difficult time for me on a personal level but it was absolutely imperative for me to have gone through that process to dig out and understand some of my own interiorization, my own personal, my own psycho-physical beingness in order for me to come out of it in the ‘90s and on as someone who’s very active with working with aesthetics, not just in the domain of the private but also in the political.
Andrea Bowers: So I’m actually going to read something because you all make me nervous and I want to make sure I’m clear, at least in the beginning because I’ll probably lose that later on. Also, I want to thank everyone involved and Audrey for inviting me and thank all of you for coming and listening to us and participating because I think these are really important issues to discuss.
When I think of the feminist slogan, “the personal is political,” I think of Elvira Arellano, who last August sequestered herself and her seven-year-old son, Saul, in a United Methodist Church in the Westside of Chicago. She is undocumented and her son was born in the U.S., so he is a citizen. They moved into the church on the day U.S. immigration set Elvira’s deportation. She sought refuge with her son in open defiance of immigration law. Her protest has raised awareness of the plight of U.S. children born to undocumented parents.
In the mid ‘60s, Pat Maginnis, Lana Phelan, and Rowena Gurner all experienced illegal abortions that were done improperly and nearly killed them. Due to their experiences, these three women came together and formed a society for humane abortion. They were also coined “The Army of Three.” Their organization tried to legalize abortions in this country. One of their projects was to develop a list of doctors who would provide safe abortions in Mexico and Japan, as well as a list of doctors who would defy the current abortion laws in the United States.
Since the 1978 assassinations of gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, Cleve Jones had helped organize the annual candlelight march honoring these men. While planning the 1985 march, he learned that over a thousand San Franciscans had lost their lives to AIDS. He asked each of his fellow marchers to write on placards the name of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. At the end of the march, Jones and others stood on ladders and they taped these placards onto the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The walls of the names looked like a patchwork quilt. Inspired by this, Jones and his friends made plans for a larger memorial. A little over a year later, he created the first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, in memory of his friend, Marvin Feldman. Today, the quilt has more than 44,000 individual panels, each commemorating the life of someone who has died of AIDS, which were sewn together by friends, loved ones, and family members.
During army specialist Suzanne Swift’s deployment to Iraq, she was repeatedly raped and sexually harassed by her commanding officer. After she reported the abuse, the army did nothing. On return from Iraq and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she went AWOL. After being arrested and taken back to her base, she was put back under the same commanders and was eventually court-martialed. As she awaits another two-year tour and faces being deployed back to Iraq, her mother, Sara Rich, has begun an organizing campaign to bring her case to national attention and shine a light on this too common occurrence in the military.
In March 2006, South Dakota state legislature passed an almost total ban on abortion. Cecilia Fire Thunder, a former nurse and at the time the tribal president of the Oglala Sioux Indian tribe, proposed building a Planned Parenthood clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Majora Carter, born in the Bronx, founded an organization called Sustainable South Bronx, which successfully opposed New York City’s plan for a waste treatment plant to process forty percent of the city’s garbage at a facility on the Bronx River. Making the connection between green space and health, Carter is working on a bike and pedestrian walkway, establishing a community market, and introducing green technology. In 2005, she received a MacArthur Fellowship.
These people inspire me and give me hope. Their personal experiences have led them to political action. In the 1960s, the women’s movement came together when women in the anti-war and civil rights movements noticed that their feelings of exclusion and exploitation were not uniquely individual but were instead shared. Through consciousness-raising groups, women in society then discovered that their situations in marriage, child-rearing, sex, culture, work, even language, were not unique but similar and that the cause of their suffering was not themselves but something systematic and political called “sexism” or “patriarchy.”
I know of consciousness-raising groups secondhand. As a young person, I probably would not have participated in these groups. I probably would have seen it as embarrassing or ridiculous. My generation lost interest in the group and became focused on the individual. I was part of the “Me” Generation. The focus on the self is more dominant today than ever. Even the U.S. Army has developed the recruitment slogan, “An Army of One.” We have become a country of consumers, not citizens. I fear the idea of “the personal is political” has been co-opted to mean the personal is self-interest rather than a way of developing a group-based identity. But we have to reclaim this idea and take it back. Social transformation and liberation can only be achieved through collective action.
Audrey Chan: One of the questions that inevitably comes up in the subject of politics is the notion of power. And I think we’re seeing a lot of examples of the abuse of power in politics currently. I was wondering how feminist strategies and ideas function in a competitive definition of power. Does feminism propose an alternate model that is more dialectic, as Dorit says, or can it participate in those ebbs and flows of various groups acquiring power over others at particular points in history and is thus a reactionary force over time?
Martha Rosler: Well, there are a lot of feminisms. I certainly wouldn’t be able to speak for feminism as a unitary concept, but for those of us who remember the matrix of the ‘60s, feminism, as we’ve heard, grew out of the social movements of that era and saw itself as part of a general struggle for the transformation of society—and we heard this several times on earlier panels today—and for the transformation of ordinary everyday life and the institutions of our society. For example, one would have to acknowledge that our sitting here on a stage high above you, talking at you, and soliciting one-by-one individual responses is certainly not what we had in mind. It’s a little bit daunting to see that we’ve returned to these institutionalized power displays and rituals. And yet, we are trying to retrieve from them a certain degree of utility among us. But one does have to mention that.
Always on the agenda in quite a number of the social movements were the questions of: What is citizenship? What is social participation? The notion of civil rights and inclusion also brought with it, on the Left, a question of participatory democracy. This was a very fraught issue at the time, and I’m certainly not going to suggest that there was ever an answer; there were all kinds of infighting. But what I’m talking about is that it took two decades of struggle to redefine the notion of participation, both in the micro-politics of the family and small groups and also in the larger politics of nations and people in general.
Dorit Cypis: You know, Audrey, in the way you framed the question, a lot of responsibility is laid on feminism. I never saw myself interacting with feminism in that way as the catchall of the things that would give me the platform through which to be fully empowered and responsible as a citizen. In the ‘80s, I would not necessarily directly take on the word “feminism.” There were many labels I wouldn’t take on. I think there is a narrowing of focus when you take on a label and an exclusion of context, which is often so much more complicated and layered than the label. So, that is a problem. You know, when I look at my own histories and understanding of how I was able to become, or recognize my own power and use it, feminism, or the idea of understanding my identity as a woman in relation to a larger culture certainly was a part of it, but it wasn’t exclusive.
I grew up in Montreal, Canada watching on television and feeling incredibly empowered by the Civil Rights Movement. I was just a very young teenager but it was an extraordinary eye-opening representation for me way before feminism, as I encountered it. That’s just to name one example. I went to study sociology and psychology at a university before studying art, as an artist, very interested in politics before aesthetics. And not necessarily politics with a big “P” but understanding—and I didn’t have these words back then nor did any of us—cultural differences because I was so aware of my own, having had three passports and many overlapping cultures in my past. I say this because it was a kind of light bulb experience for me that may be helpful to others. When I started studying sociology, it was with the intention to get smarter about the difference of others and social justice. I understood very quickly—and this was in the late ‘60s and I was only eighteen, naïve but idealistic—that there was something extremely pretentious and inappropriate in my studying others when I couldn’t even start to begin to ask questions of, who was I? It was like an epiphany of recognition, of that bifurcation, that split, between having any kind of strategies for asking questions of subjectivity and the other. I actually dropped out of university because it felt so inappropriate and I flopped around for a while before I got the idea to become an artist, thinking that artists can ask these questions. I told you, I’m very idealistic.
Feminism came into the mix of aesthetics, for me, early on. It was through Miriam Shapiro, who was one of the founders of the Feminist [Art] Program here, and it was through a summer class on consciousness raising. I had no idea what it was. There was no context for it, except that—and this maybe sounds like it’s only about the personal but it was very political for me—it gave me a location. Feminism to me, in the beginning, was a location. It wasn’t ideology or even philosophy. It was about a location to begin to ask questions about my collusion, my responsibility, and my interiorized identities, which were for me a foundational language for then to ask the questions of, who are you? And, who are you to me? And, how does my identity change in relation to you? That was a huge process of empowerment. That to me is power, which is a different kind of power than institutional power. But without that, I was always flailing away at institutional power. You can’t flail away at power without being empowered yourself; it’s a hollow fight. You know, you’re always going to lose because the goal is always outside of yourself rather than within. So, it’s a perspective.
Andrea Bowers: I don’t know what the question is anymore. Can you reword it?
Audrey Chan: I’m just thinking about [the fact that] I’ve grown up with a very patriarchal definition of power that I almost cling to because it’s so concrete, it’s so visible in the world. We have the electoral process, which is inherently competitive. We understand power through categorization and labels that are ultimately very limiting.
Dorit Cypis: Let me just add a little context so that you don’t have to jump into this. I also came from feeling incredibly oppressed by patriarchal power. I never was outside of it until I started asking the question, what is it? And, who am I in relation to it? I had another epiphany in the struggle of asking the question, what is power? It was probably sometime in my thirties and I was running an organization called Foundation for Art Resources as an artist, trying to get collectivity around a certain discourse around aesthetics. After three years of being in a position of running this organization, I felt like my peers around me saw me as very powerful. I didn’t want that power because I wanted to create collectives. Anyway, long story short, it’s a constant process of uncovering and discovering. This issue of power is not stable. I mean, you can see it, you can think of it as stable and that you’re the victim of it. Or you can think of it as relational and then you engage with it. In my thirties, where I was banging my head against the wall of institutional power and patriarchy, as well as my own father who was quite a patriarch. It was literally in combating it from this position of the victim and being unsuccessful and having to again go back into looking at how I interiorized those beliefs and how my identification with it as the victim was part of the problem. It started to dissolve. I mean, certainly, the patriarch is still there and those institutions are still there. They don’t dissolve. But my relationship to them and my own sense of where else power lies changed.
Andrea Bowers: I’d like to say something that might actually be really unpopular, but it’s honest. I went to undergraduate school at Bowling Green State University and I wasn’t very versed in post-modern theory or much theory at all. I have to be honest, when I came to CalArts as a young woman, I didn’t want to be a feminist because I saw feminism as oppressive and that it didn’t speak for me and I couldn’t access it. I think there have been discussions about why young people don’t want to consider themselves feminist and I think that part of the academics of feminism, it’s so important, but at the same time it’s overwhelming and oppressive. I think it was my growth process and it was realizing how being treated as a second class citizen that sort of made me come to feminism and appreciate it and reading and becoming educated. But at the same time I think that, as feminists, we have to find a way to still make it more accessible for young people.
Audrey Chan: [Andrea], you talked about how you came to activism from a point of perhaps cynicism about it or believing that it wasn’t something that had to do with you necessarily. I’m just wondering if we can demystify what activism is, because I feel like my generation has grown up with a romanticization of the history of movements, especially of social movements in the ‘60s. But what was the movement before it was a movement? It was people meeting up and agreeing about shared principles, right?
Martha Rosler: Well, first of all, we need to point to the demographic of the time. We’re talking about the Baby Boom—more than half the American population in the ‘60s was under thirty years old, which is why a common slogan was “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” It was a certain social cohort involved, and it got commodified as “youth culture,” but people who had any degree of involvement with the various social movements understood it as something very different, which was that it was a group ethos that had to do with the idea of remaking society and its oppressive, conformist institutions. We were coming out of the horrendous era of the ‘50s, which was all about the worst kinds of things possible: Never speak up. Never get noticed except in very stereotypically buttoned-down ways. The Organization Man was written then, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—highly stereotypical stylized expectations of women and men that were just created at that moment … but we didn’t know that as we were growing up. I mean, we thought this was the history of time immemorial. That, by the way, is why one talks about second-wave feminism, because after a while, women realized that feminism—as I guess Aileen Kraditor called it in her book The Longest Revolution—had been a very potent and successful movement in the 19th century and actually began with writings of women like Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century. So we periodized ourselves by talking about the fact that this was a “new” second feminist wave.
Of course it was the Civil Rights movement that really began it all, with the direct confrontation of a group of idealistic young people. We were all trained to think that America was the beacon of hope and freedom in the world and that everybody looked to us for all kinds of ideals and that we were the ideal society. And here was the gaping wound of racism and Jim Crow discrimination, murder, and of course war, and the erosion and attack upon workers’ rights, because we have to remember that a lot of the Left movement came in relationship to questions of unionism and workers’ rights. So, it was in this context of the new social movements that we saw ourselves forming and, as you said, in which women in the anti-war movement recognized, there’s a question here about us women. So, I would say that one of the ways in which we understand feminism as a political movement is that it’s about solidarity. It’s about solidarity with other women, but beyond that, solidarity with others and the opening of the question of difference, which, in fact, none of the other social movements had addressed quite so directly as to say, “This is about difference.” That difference is not merely about your position in the working world or in race politics but also questions of gender, identity, national origin, and so on. That’s what differentiated feminism and made it a movement in the public sphere, and it was by recognizing that this was about us.
It was a very different moment in terms of numbers and also ideas. That is, what are the ideas that we can take on? But I do want to say two things: In the early ‘60s one never imagined bringing questions of the war to institutions like schools or localities or cities because it was considered inappropriate and would have been shut down by all administrations. The war, we were admonished, is not a fit subject in a pedagogical institution, and it’s not a fit subject for municipalities since they don’t get to control foreign policy. So there was a stifling of discourse and it all had to take place on the street. The mobilizations were also anti-nuclear, but the already existing groups Women Strike for Peace and Mothers for Peace were considered weird. To be identified as women against war made them seem like “crazy ladies” because women were not supposed to appear in the public sphere, end of story. Once you step out of your domestic role, you were degendered and turned into a demon, and this happened repeatedly with women who were seen to have acted in public in some way or another, even by just speaking. We had to remake the notion of a “public space” for participation of citizens outside electoral politics, which was supposed to contain everything relating to citizenship. Of course, this shut down on discussion and debate—which should sound very familiar—created a huge presence in the street of young people who didn’t have a lot to lose. People will say that people protested the war because of the draft. Yes, that’s true, but you also have to understand that men protested the war not because they might be drafted but because they wouldn’t be drafted: It was a class issue. Men were enraged that they had student deferments and that other men, working-class men, did not have the same opportunity to get deferments. Also, it was the first time when it was very clear that men of color were disproportionately bearing the burden of fighting while the white, middle-class guys were in school. All this is why the draft lottery was instituted.
There was an explosion of interest in actually participating in public discourse, in changing the institutions—the society—and demanding that people who had no voices and were assumed to have no right to a voice, whether it was Native Americans or women, that people would voice their identities and their demands and would do it collectively, individually, ensemble or even in groups pitted against one another, but that this was an appropriate notion of power, social power stemming from below.
Here’s what they told us in the ‘60s: Don’t demonstrate. It’s been done. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s old. It can’t do anything. And, You demonstrated, what good did it do? And, You can’t change City Hall. And, That was the ‘30s but now everything has to be done according to channels, through legal institutions. And so on. The reason I want to say this is because it is exactly what every generation is told that doesn’t carry within it the direct personal memory of the fact that it’s only demonstrations that work and only demands for power outside the prescribed institutions that make administrations and groups in power and political elites listen and adjust.
Audrey Chan: Andrea, could you talk about your experience working with activists in your art practice?
Andrea Bowers: It’s extremely positive. I sort of had this notion coming out of an art academic situation that it wasn’t okay. It was like: I make representations. They actually did something. They acted. I made representations. I’ve found it to be an incredibly rewarding collaboration and that they don’t feel I’m objectifying them and it’s an incredibly shared experience. I started making work about activists because I was here in Valencia videotaping a tree sitter who was trying to save a 400-year-old oak tree. I was trying to stay in the background and just record the crazies and the collection of crowd members that formed around this tree. It was the tree sitter who handed me a walkie-talkie and said, “Who are you and what are you doing?” And I thought, “Oh, shit.” I thought I was going to be interrogated by him but actually he was thrilled by my interest and involvement and really involved me more. I got involved with the other activists that were working on this issue. So it was a learned activity and I’ve continued to do it because it’s extremely rewarding because I find that my work functions in a lot of different realms and it’s a very fluid relationship. And it can occur in the gallery and it can occur outside the gallery and it takes a lot of different forms and I never really know what that’s going to be and it’s an ever-evolving process. It’s really exciting and fun for me and empowering, speaking of power.
Audrey Chan: I was wondering if we could more directly address the context of the Iraq War because I noticed that this year of feminism is happening several years into the occupation in Iraq. I’m just wondering, is our discussion today isolated from that political reality? I would like to believe that it’s not.
Martha Rosler: I’d just like to call attention to the shirt that I’m wearing. Normally I don’t like words on my body, but what can you do? It says: WE WILL NOT BE SILENT. It may ring a bell for those of you who know about the White Rose. The White Rose was a couple of high school kids, Sophie Scholl and her brother, in Germany toward the end of [World War II]. They decided that it was their obligation as German citizens to point out to other German citizens what their country was doing to people, in case they had missed it. They wrote all these leaflets and passed them out repetitively, and they signed themselves, “The White Rose Society.” They were caught and they had the opportunity to recant but they refused and were put to death.
I am affiliated with a group that formed spontaneously the summer before the [Iraq War] in New York with the statement, “Not in Our Name,” lest you think that artists agreed or didn’t notice; we are against the war. A couple of people in New York put out a call on the grapevine that is the Internet that said, Do you want to get together and talk about what we might do against the war? We met in 2002 in the summer and formed a group called Artists Against the War. We have engaged in all kinds of events since then. From just before the war started, sitting inside the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum in the Mesopotamian Galleries and drawing the artifacts and telling visitors, “This is the kind of thing that will be destroyed”—handing sketches to visitors and just having conversations; to wheeling strollers en masse down Fifth Avenue during a demonstration that pointed out that half the Iraqi population was under fifteen. To standing in Grand Central [Station] and “trashing the Bill of Rights” by putting copies of it through a shredder and handing out little bags of the shreds to passersby. To making a banner that many of you may have seen, based on the Italian Pace, or Peace, flag that says: WE THE PEOPLE SAY NO TO THE BUSH AGENDA. We made 25,000 of them and gave them away during the 2004 election season. They have been seen around the world. We have a free or low-cost three-channel DVD called Disarming Images, offering a war timeline and a timeline of protests against the war. A subgroup called Critical Voice has produced this t-shirt and I’ll just very quickly say that you can get it online for very little money at criticalvoice.org or on the website of Artists Against War NYC, aawnyc.org. We recently unfurled a gigantic series of banners on the day of inauguration of the new Democratic Congress in the Hart Office building in D.C.: WAR, TORTURE, LIES. WE WILL NOT BE SILENT. We brought in 10,000 white roses to the office building and threw them in the pool. Of course, all of these things wind up on the Internet. One of the t-shirts is in Arabic and English, and a blogger named Raed Jarrar decided to wear one; he is an Iraqi architect who lives in San Francisco. He was boarding a JetBlue airplane in New York when they stopped him and said, “You can’t wear that t-shirt on a plane.” He was completely shocked. He said, “It just says in Arabic and English, ‘We will not be silent.’” They said to him, “To wear a shirt in Arabic on an airplane is like going into a bank with a sign saying, ‘I am a bank robber.’” Now, the interesting thing is that this event was covered on all the media, including the broadcast channels, and has led to our shirts being produced in every possible language that anyone wants. And as I said, you can get them as well.
Now, the reason I’m saying this is that [in Artists Against the War,] we are all artists; and interestingly it’s 99.9% women. We are of every generation that you can think of, including women of my generation and older, down to very young women, thinking together of all kinds of different ways of using art and activism as a unitary way of just keeping on protesting the war. Going on the subway train, which has these slogans, IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING, and holding up signs that detail some of the crimes of the Bush Administration along with “if you see something, say something”…just every way you could think of handing out postcards of flag-draped coffins, putting stickers on buildings with historical quotations about liberty. Every little action is another drop in the bucket relating to critique of the war. That’s the basis of the White Rose notion as well: that every action builds on every previous action and on everybody else’s actions. I do want to say to that feeling of powerlessness that they all hope to instill in us, those who have the capacity to do so, that it’s the wrong message. And whatever it is that you feel can gain public attention and it doesn’t have to be global public attention, it can be your local community. However you can hook in to anti-war activity, please do so.
Andrea Bowers: You know, maybe the wars we’re involved in right now are causing people to be looking for models of political agency. And maybe that’s why there’s an interest in feminism right now.
Dorit Cypis: Can I add something that’s indirect? It is about war, but not specifically the Iraq War. I do have to applaud you [Martha]. What you and the others are representing is laudable and it takes a lot of time and effort and commitment. It’s really very important.
I haven’t been as involved in public protest of this particular war. But I spent most of the ‘90s working with homeless children and they all come from little wars, private domestic wars in this country. I worked for nine years with kids from the ages of fourteen to twenty, all homeless kids who had chosen their homelessness to survive, to get away from families that were so abusive, so drowning in social problems of poverty, depravation, lack of education, drugs, incest—war. It was an extraordinary education for me to move into this and to do this. I created a program called Culture Club in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul. I’ll just share one incident that I remember really clearly right now as I’m hearing you all speak.
I took a group of teenage kids to the Walker Art Center to see a film by Spike Lee, “ Little Girls”, the documentary that he did several years ago on the church that was burned in Birmingham, Alabama, in . The teens that I took were mixed race. The Walker happened to headline this event by bringing to a colloquium after the film the elders of Birmingham who had witnessed the bombing. The elders were now mostly in their eighties, Afro-American men and women who had lived with this memory in their body-minds since [‘63]. It was an extraordinary event for everyone. For the teens, this was their first time they were immersed in any kind of real life context around social strife and domestic war, racial war. I remember a question, one of the girls, she was maybe a fourteen-year-old mixed race young girl, who after she heard the elders speak and share their memories of what it was like for them to live with these memories, said to them, “How come I never heard about this before? I studied Afro-American history in high school. They never raised [the subject]. I never saw any images, anything close to what was represented by Spike Lee. I never heard any discussion about it.” The elders looked at each other and there were tears in their eyes and they said, “Because we never spoke up. It was too painful and we just buried it.”
Do you know how many stories of domestic war are buried within us that are not shared, that we are not allowed to review, commiserate, grieve? That is an issue of the personal in relation to the political, which I just want to add when you ask the question of how do we go against the Iraq War.
Audrey Chan: Thank you, Martha, Dorit, and Andrea. I would like to open up the conversation to questions from the audience.
Audience: Listening to the panels at this conference really makes me think of sort of perhaps the difficult moment that the students who are now in graduate school have grown up in and how politically repressive the culture has been. Many of you were born perhaps during Reagan’s presidency. And many of you perhaps have never had much experience of an active public culture. For faculty, it’s sort of an odd moment where the students are more politically conservative than the faculty. So there’s this sort of strange imbalance in a certain sense and as we talk today, I feel this resonating in the room and there’s a tension there as a result of it. But we are living in a very politically repressive moment where it’s hard to get information and we’re living in a difficult time in the United States. And I think perhaps we can talk more about how that’s sort of inflecting our conversations today.
Andrea Bowers and Dorit Cypis: Maybe Audrey can talk about it.
Audrey Chan: I think I was interested in feminist theory and art and ideology because, for me, it seemed like it was like a zero sum game choosing between art and politics. And [feminism] provided this hybrid of the two and a way for the artist to be a social actor. It was incredibly empowering to attempt to take on that project even if it wasn’t under the guise of a gendered thought process. So, I think the questions that I was asking today were the nagging questions that are in the back of my mind. This is the second Bush [administration] that I’m growing up under and I think the utopia/dystopia conversation happens a lot and I’d like to believe that we’re somewhere in between. But it is the rhetoric that, whether I like it or not, does influence what I believe to be the realm of possibilities. Because when you don’t have something concrete, like a meeting to go to or a protest to attend, you begin to believe that you have to reinvent the wheel, and that is incredibly disempowering. So, a lot of my questions kind of came from that place, but I would like to believe that we’re not so conservative.
Andrea Bowers: There are meetings to attend and there are protests to attend. I’m curious as to why you think there aren’t. That’s what I don’t understand.
Audrey Chan: Actually, the summer before coming to graduate school, I did participate in grassroots campaign organizing. I entered the experience having to balance a sense of idealism and hope that you need to do activist work, to be able to put in ten-hour days. But at the same time, there’s a chilling realism and pragmatism that you have to take on simultaneously entering into those kinds of activities that you are participating in a longer struggle.
Dorit Cypis: Granted, Audrey, I remember when I taught at CalArts in 2002, I made a collection—and it ended up being a pile that was maybe almost two inches high—of student invitations to their own art exhibits. And I realized what the peer pressure was in dominance here. That’s not all that was happening but certainly it was a dominant framework through which an artist going to an art school—CalArts being an example, it’s not the only one—is measured. And I think that is a chilling effect.
I taught a class in 2002 that I sort of kept under wraps. It was at the Justice Superior Court House in the City of San Fernando. I wanted the students to spend a semester at the courthouse. Basically, the classes were held there, not here, exploring what justice meant in America through the architecture, the interior design, the language, the signage, the people that moved through the space, the workers, the staff, the judges, the secretaries, the bailiffs, the sheriffs, and the publics. We interviewed dozens and dozens of people and explored it for sixteen weeks. The objective was for the students to create activist-like, performative or not, aesthetic expression critiquing the justice system and to exhibit this in a courtroom at the courthouse. The audience became all of the people we interviewed. The students kicked and screamed for two-thirds of the semester, saying, “Why can’t we just do a gallery show?” because it was hard work. I asked them to use their faculties and their strategies—aesthetic strategies, theoretical strategies, strategies of perception and looking and deconstruction—to look not just at art but at life, at the justice system, for god’s sake. You talk about power and how to understand power. Those were your peers. They came out with astounding work. It was amazing what happened in the dialogue, the two-hour dialogue that happened in that courtroom between judges and bailiffs and secretaries and the public and CalArts students. [The students] were freaked out they could do it but it was like pulling teeth to push through that other measure of success.
Martha Rosler: I had some slightly random thoughts on this. First of all, I realized yesterday that most people who are students now were born in a period of backlash—very specifically, a backlash against the goals and expectations and culture of the ‘60s. It was a very conscious effort on the part of people who gained power— that is, the Republican elites—to destroy the culture of the ‘60s and fight what they called the “culture wars,” which had to do with ideas of social inclusion, self-empowerment, more accessible democracy, and democratization of wealth, the equalization of wealth, to some degree. They simply decided it was time to revoke the social contract of the FDR years that were creating the welfare state, which of course obtains in Europe still, though it’s under the same neoliberal stress. This is not a conspiracy, this is a description of the course of history and what people who are in power now had in mind, and we know this very clearly from their own documents and their continuity.
I was thinking about what a burden it was to have to take on a label that belonged to another—any label, feminism, -ism—that was formed in another era. But there’s also a problem with the fact that we had such tremendous success in installing ourselves within universities as what came to be called, derisively from the Right as “tenured radicals,” people who codified discourses, which then became the portals of access for students who naturally want to rebel against this. But we didn’t get our politics from books. It’s really very important to understand that it was activism that led us to develop our politics, and it was a long, nasty, hard, exhilarating, and wonderful process. But it didn’t come from books. It’s not because we read some smart woman telling us what feminism was that we discovered ourselves to be feminist or named ourselves “feminist.” We didn’t even want to be called “women.” In those days, we were girls and it was painful to accept the idea that we had to be adults. I’m from the generation that discovered perpetual childhood; it’s not the next generation, it’s my generation. You know, we were all Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. So, this problem of tenured radicals means that we were located within universities producing academic discourse and giving very short shrift to activism, if we even did it. Though, let’s say, we did go out and demonstrate against the wars in Central America, for example, and against nuclear war. But it wasn’t our primary self-identification as carriers of social change. The other obvious problem, particular to art, was the emergence of a red-hot art market, starting about 1980, which produced the success machine that we’re a part of today. Chitra [Ganesh] referred to the professionalization of the art school, and I think that’s really the issue.
I want to step back to the Republican “conspiracy,” or plan, which is centered on how to take back the universities. Now, what happened at the beginning of the ‘70s is that the Trilateral Commission, which was sort of one of those international early neoliberal groups, put out a book called The Crisis of Governability of the Democracies because all over Western Europe and the United States, all of these “rotten” young people and Native Americans and Latinos and Asian Americans and African Americans were demanding inclusion in an electoral process that formerly they had been passive bystanders to. This was making the democracies “ungovernable,” in their words, because it created a cacophony of voices. One of their main recommendations was the transformation of universities into glorified job training institutions as opposed to institutions of self-development and cultivation that was called the “liberal university.”
I have had on the door of my academic office for the last twenty-two years a chart put together by a student newspaper, a national newspaper consortium that showed students’ expectations. At the start of the ‘70s, it was the development of oneself as a human being. Eventually, somewhere around the early ‘80s, the graph shifts and the expectation was to be successful and have a job, to make a good living. Of course they’ve completely changed places from there being a consensus in the idealistic 60’s that, as we were told, the point of education was the development of oneself as a citizen, which is the ideal of the liberal university, as opposed to the idea that you will get a damn good job but you won’t get one if you don’t go to law school or whatever it is.
I think this has been a particular problem for artists, the success machine model which has taken over so many schools, getting rid of critical studies, get rid of anything that is a discipline that’s unsalable, the idea that you should be a painter or a sculptor, that your work should not be too difficult to “get.” We were talking about disciplining earlier; this is the most potent and powerful discipline on an artist. You should know how to present your work, how to do PR for it without having to actually speak about it because actually that interferes with your ability to be an artist, and that any minute spent outside the studio is a betrayal of the ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty thousand dollars a year that you are spending, or your parents are spending, on your education. Further, that it’s your responsibility to leave [school] in command of your craft to the point that you can make a living. That’s what professionalization means. I think that all of these things have conspired against people feeling empowered to do something in the world. But after saying all that, I just want to close by saying it’s young people who reinvented activism; it’s not old people, even though there are always the professional and dedicated activists from every generation. The fact is that with the ecological movement, in the ‘80s, and the anti-nuclear and Central America movements and then with the anti-corporate globalization movement of the 1990s, it was young people who said, “I’m not going to kill myself in professional school. I’m going to devote myself to social change.” These were particular campaigns, not some kind of unspecified free-floating activism.
Audience (Leslie Dick): I just wanted to say very quickly in response to that that I’m very aware that I got some of my feminism and other ideas out of books and some I had to drag around and figure out. I never went to a class at university where I was taught any of this material. We set up reading groups at our house and sat on the floor and read Lacan and wasn’t it wonderful! And it was the ‘70s, and I was there! So, what do you do when you’re this generation and you go to the store or the library and there are literally hundreds of books about feminism and you always know that once upon a time, it was this thing that came out of activism or this thing that came out of some sort of commitment to pursuing a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a woman? But now your teacher is teaching it, the library has it, it’s all been done. I think we have to recognize that that’s a very different moment.
Andrea Bowers: It’s overwhelmingly large, the history, right? It’s a huge library.
Audience (Leslie Dick): Yeah, exactly, and I’m glad those books exist. Catherine Lord, at the walkthrough [of the “WACK!” exhibition], said something like, “In those days, we never imagined a show like this.” I imagined a show like that! I imagined shows like that all over the place. I’m glad those books are there. I’m glad it isn’t something that has to be invented but can be something that can be built on, I hope.
Audience: It was actually really great to hear [Martha Rosler] say that people had told [her] that people had protested in the streets and it had been done before because I’d actually never heard that people had heard that before, so that’s really refreshing. In terms of talking about professionalization in the arts, and knowing that when I came to CalArts a couple years ago, I was the youngest person at twenty-three in my grad program but seeing now more and more people are coming to [graduate] schools right out of another school experience. What do you have to say about eighteen-year-olds coming to art school, and that just seems to be the trend, and people in their young twenties in grad school without really having been in the world. My undergraduate experience was in the streets because I went to [UC] Berkeley. I was really lucky to have actually been through this activist life before I came here, [but] then feeling really distant from it. So what do you think about that?
Dorit Cypis: Why? Why are you going from one school straight into another—any of you? Why are students younger and younger? Why don’t you stop school and have a life?
Audience: I think it’s a matter of economics.
Andrea Bowers: It’s expensive.
Audience: There aren’t opportunities, but I think they shouldn’t be accepted into school at that age. I mean, if you’re ready, you’re ready, but I can’t imagine that I was ready.
Martha Rosler: It seems to me it’s the marketeering also. Where I teach, we used to look at the age of the applicant and try and take the older ones; we were very doubtful about taking younger ones because we felt that what they made might be an artifact of the school experience and that they weren’t drawing on anything personal. But there’s tremendous pressure on faculties—I know this isn’t a university, obviously, but I am speaking about universities—to go through the success model where if you take young artists, you can then have a critic and a curator come to their studios, see their work, and get them into the market soon. And even though that sounds insane, that puts the pressure on us to take the younger students. In fact, that’s the way it works even though it’s not acknowledged.
Dorit Cypis: So then why aren’t many artists—us—who are teaching in all of these professionalization programs, using the opportunity of teaching to reorient the students in other directions? I mean, I think it’s our responsibility. I think we have to claim to our own collusion. You know, a system is a system only if you agree to it. There are all kinds of ways to intercept that agreement, little and small. So, again, why are we being victims? I mean, clearly, you can’t change the overall structure but there are certain ways that you can behave within it.
Martha Rosler: I will speak for the untenured, although I am tenured. I think we’re 50% adjunct in most schools, if not more, and there’s a tremendous expectation that you will perform to expectation by the institution or they won’t rehire you. And for junior faculty on tenure track, it’s maybe even worse because you have the chance of tenure and if you step out of line, it’s gone.
Dorit Cypis: I’ve been an adjunct faculty since 1983 and I take these questions very seriously to every class I teach. And I don’t always teach because I do other things to make a living and I never wanted to professionalize my teaching capacity. I teach in the high schools as well as the universities and in other populations so I have a different relationship…I try not to professionalize my own profession. I throw the question back to all of us who are invested in the profession. There are even small things you can do even with a fear of not being rehired. There are lots of things you could do in the folds.
Audrey Chan: I guess I would like to pipe up and say that today happened because students really wanted to take on this very issue of, what is an artist? An artist can be an organizer, an artist is a person that can get two hundred people in a room to have an open conversation and I’m actually really glad that we were able to get these frustrations out in the open. I think feminism is a struggle and I want to believe that it’s a struggle because when you don’t recognize what you have to fight for, you don’t realize that you need to fight. So I just want to take a moment to recognize that the fact that you’re all here today is proof that something’s going to happen. I’m really glad that you all came. I really want to thank my fellow students for taking this on, taking the time out of our studios to, maybe, engage the public in a way that wasn’t market-driven. Or else, just recognizing the power that we do have, even if it’s within institutions. Institutions can be made to do a lot of good. I don’t know how to end this—I want to do this more often. Maybe someone else out there wants to take it up as well.
Martha Rosler: We actually took very few questions. So if there are burning questions or statements addressing the whole day, maybe you’d just like to keep them short if you want to speak or ask questions?
Audience: I don’t know if my question really can address the whole day but I was wondering why you feel like the institution…why change can’t happen in an institution or why it can’t be used as a tool to implement change, like structural change? I just graduated in June of 2006 with my BA and for some reason, the institution to me was where the most change could be made at the greatest level. I don’t have much experience protesting and I do think that there’s a place for it and there are people for that, but I think that at this stage, there needs to be people working both inside and outside the institution.
Andrea Bowers: I agree with you.
Martha Rosler: I remember dimly that there was a year in the early ‘70s when at CalArts, the students shut it down and everybody just did what was called re-evaluation co-counseling. There weren’t any classes, and the Disney family had a fit. So this is an institution where you really can bring about what you want … or it was.
Audience (Cynthia Genn): I just want to make a suggestion. [There] are people [here] from many universities, and I think two things are really important. One is a consciousness-raising group. It doesn’t have to be a class, it can be just a group, but even if it’s not an official class— because if you know the problems, if you’re able to examine them with other women or men, you can figure out what you want the solution to be. And the other thing is, I was shocked to hear that so many CalArts students don’t know women’s art history. You know, the women painters from the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th century and on. I think that’s really important, so all universities ought to have available at least once a year women’s art history because it’s just not taught in Janson’s [History of Art] and Gardner’s [Art Through the Ages]. This group is like the tip of an iceberg because a lot of people are involved in universities, or as teachers or students. There are a whole lot of people that you really impact—because I went to CalArts a long time ago—that have nothing to do with universities, that are off doing grassroots things, that are firmly entrenched in good opinions because of you, because of their fellow students, because of their teachers. And I just think this whole conference is really fabulous and thank you to the people who organized it.
Audrey Chan: I think that wraps up the day. Thank you very much for coming.
||ANDREA BOWERS has an MFA from CalArts and lives and works in Los Angeles. Recent solo shows include The Weight of Relevance at The Vienna Secession, Vows at Halle für Kunst in Germany, Nothing Is Neutral at REDCAT, Los Angeles and Eulogies to One and Another at Galerie Praz-Delavallade in France. Recent group shows include Tanzen, Sehen at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Germany, Personal Affairs at the Morsbroich Museum in Germany, Particulate Matter at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland and the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. She is represented by Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects in Los Angeles, California, Sara Meltzer Gallery in New York, New York, Mehdi Chouakri in Berlin, Germany, Galerie Praz-Delavallade in Paris, France and Van Horn in Düsseldorf, Germany. images | Ms. Magazine
||AUDREY CHAN is a Los Angeles-based artist whose projects in video, writing, performance, and organizing draw upon the rhetorical energy of argument and dialogue to investigate such topics as politics and public opinion, feminism, the environment, and constructed narratives. Chan received a BA with Honors in Studio Art and Political Science at Swarthmore College and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. In 2009, she was artist-in-residence at the École des Beaux-Arts de Nantes in France. She is co-chair (with Elana Mann) of The Feminist Art Project's day of panels at the 2012 College Art Association conference in Los Angeles. audreychan.net
||“Aesthetics, the philosophy of form, is like a swinging door for fools and wise alike. In its pure mission, aesthetics is vulnerable to consumption and co-option. An engagement with ethics is necessary to filter aesthetics through portals of criticality, fluidity, flexibility, and responsibility – to locate aesthetics in life.”
DORIT CYPIS is an artist (MFA, Cal Arts, 1977) and a mediator (Masters of Dispute Resolution, Pepperdine University, 2005). Her work mines aesthetics and ethics, exploring relationships between the psycho-mythological, the corporeal, and the political. Cypis’ museum exhibitions, since the late 1970’s, are immersive laboratories abstracting forms, positions, gestures, and meanings to shed light on the paradoxes of identity, while her public works/actions are social/political extensions, mediating aesthetic abstractions into living life. Here form truly meets function and ideology shifts back to experience. Through Foreign Exchanges, Cypis offers training, consultation and experimentation on engaging identity and social relations to leaders in culture, education, business and philanthropy. doritcypis.com
||MARTHA ROSLER is an artist working in video, photo-text, installation, and performance. She also writes criticism and lectures nationally and internationally. Her work on the public sphere ranges from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment, especially housing. Her work often centers on women’s experience. Rosler has long produced works on war and the “national security climate” that predisposes to war. Her photomontage series joining images of war and domesticity, first made in relation to the war in Vietnam, has been reprised in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan. Her works on systems of travel and their associated environments, including air travel, automobile travel and urban undergrounds, further consider the landscapes of everyday life. Rosler’s work has been seen in Documenta; several Whitney Biennials; at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and many other venues. A retrospective of her work has been shown in five European cities and in New York in 1999-2001. In 2005, Rosler received the Spectrum International Prize in Photography and a partial retrospective was held at the Sprengel Museum, Hanover, in conjunction with this award. In 2006, Rosler received the Oskar Kokoschka Prize, Austria’s highest fine arts award. In 2007, Rosler received an Anonymous Was a Woman award. Rosler will participate in the forthcoming Documenta and Skulptur Projekte Münster exhibitions. Rosler has published fourteen books, in several languages, and numerous other publications of art and essays. Her book of essays, Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001, was published in 2004. She lives and works in New York City. martharosler.net
Cameras - Adam Feldmeth, Nicholas Grider
Video Editor - Audrey Chan
Sound - Emery Martin