Naomi Fisher, Vizcaya, 2011, still from color video, 19 minutes.
Naomi Fisher’s latest video and installation, Jungle Sweat, Roseate, is a site-specific work commissioned by the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami as part of its Contemporary Arts Project (CAP). Here Fisher discusses the show, which is on view until January 16, 2012.
VIZCAYA IS a historic house that was built in 1916 as part of the Gilded Age expansion in Florida. It’s a miniature Versailles plopped in the mangrove swamp. When I was growing up in the tropics, it became a symbol for me of the balance between nature and so-called civilization. I was born in Miami, and I mostly grew up here; we also lived in Singapore. My dad’s a tropical botanist, and he was on a sabbatical collecting plants in Southeast Asia for a year. We’d go on rainforest expeditions in Malaysia and Indonesia.
While I was in school at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, I frequently found myself thinking, “Wow, there are a lot of brick row houses here, like the kind you’d see on TV––neat.” For me, conventional Northeast architecture was like the other, whereas for nearly everyone else, it seemed, the tropics were the other. So I had very different ideas than most of my friends about what is wild, what is natural, and what is primitive.
In the video portion of Jungle Sweat, Roseate, a woman comes out of the woods and finds Vizcaya. She then gets knocked out and ends up in a cage. The people who live in the house clean her up and dress her up and try to civilize her. She encounters the lady of the house, who tells her all of these stories about history that are not completely accurate.
Temporally, Jungle Sweat, Roseate twists around in a way that doesn’t resolve itself but puts things into question. The video starts out with everyone in period costumes. The costume that the woman is wearing is an antique ballet dress that looks like the dress on Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, but she’s covered in mud and it’s tattered. Having the woods creature dressed like a Degas dancer raised by wolves is, for me, a way to talk about the tragicomic element of the voiceless female subject. I know that my love for Gauguin, Nolde, and others who have depicted the female nude is definitely tied to an interest in the nostalgic depiction of nature versus female, and tropics versus conquest. But it also more simply connects with deep admiration for beauty and paintings that resonates with the life I’ve lived straddled between the tropics as my psychic reality and the American/European academy as my educated reality.
In the video, there are three women dressed in Grecian gowns with their ankles chained together. It’s based on a performance by an Isadora Duncan revival troupe that I saw at Vizcaya when I was in high school. The dancers were sixteen and seventeen, and they told me that doing the dance felt very restrictive. Later I read Duncan’s biography and was struck by how radical she was in her time––dancing barefoot, wearing diaphanous Grecian gowns without clothes underneath. She had this personal vision that was all about freedom. The reenactment that I saw was completely for aesthetics, and not a philosophical one. Duncan would never have performed like that. But to historically experience it, you have to restage it aesthetically, which is ultimately restrictive. Is something real because it looks real? Or is it real because it’s philosophically true?
A shirt made during a W.A.G.E. teach-in at Bard College, April 14, 2009. (Photo: Katerina Llanes)
W.A.G.E., or Working Artists in the Greater Economy, is a group of cultural workers advocating for the implementation of fee schedules within cultural institutions that contract their work. Here they discuss their first certification project at the New Museum and their upcoming work at Artists Space in New York, which commences with an event on January 6, 2012.
THE PROJECT WITH ARTISTS SPACE will be very different from our first certification at the New Museum primarily because we are now focused on certifying institutions rather than single exhibitions. Last fall, curator Lauren Cornell invited us to participate in the group show “Free” at the New Museum, but because we're not an art-making collective but rather an arts advocacy group, our participation involved negotiating artist fees for everyone in the exhibition. W.A.G.E. also submitted several other requests––some were met and others were not. Achieving the most important component––the payment of artist fees––made it clear that this was possible if mandated by the curator, and this became our first experimental platform for W.A.G.E. Certification. However, the museum administration refused to meet with us regarding the inclusion of artist fees in their budget as standard practice, and they still have no policy on this matter.
Our latest collaboration began with a discussion initiated in March by Artists Space’s director Stefan Kalmár and curator Richard Birkett about the payment of artist fees, among other hot button issues. Once we started talking, it became clear that paying fees and providing production support is very much a priority for Artists Space. We decided to work toward W.A.G.E. Certifying them but didn’t know what that would mean in practice: How much would a minimum artist fee be? Would it be different for solo and group exhibitions? Would it be relative to the size of the institution’s budget? Would fees be mandated by funders or by the organization’s board? Would there be oversight? Clearly, answering these questions was going to take time, investigation, and discussion, so W.A.G.E. proposed a temporary partnership with Artists Space to help us in that process.
In January, we’ll begin the first in a series of public forums and think tanks at Artists Space involving artists, activists, grant makers, arts administrators, curators, sociologists, and the public in an extended conversation about the economic practices of arts organizations. Each event is designed around a specific set of concerns relevant to W.A.G.E. Certification––and to the economic health of the community as a whole––in service of our goal of having fully established the tenets of W.A.G.E. Certification at the conclusion of the partnership. And if compliant, Artists Space will become the first organization to receive Institutional W.A.G.E. Certification.
Artists Space and W.A.G.E. will host and participate in this critical dialogue, but the equal participation and feedback of the community is also essential. How the discussion takes place is still a question that we’re going to answer with the help of the exponentially expanding arts activist community coming out of Occupy Wall Street.
But we can tell you about a few of the subjects: The first event, a presentation by artist and economist Hans Abbing, author of Why Are Artists Poor: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, will take place at Artists Space on January 6th at 7 PM. “Unionizing and Other Models” will bring together international artist-activist groups to look at ways of organizing art workers around alternative economic models; “Funders Talk” will be a discussion between key government and foundation funders about the viability of establishing a verification process to ensure that funds are indeed being redistributed to artists in the form of fees and other support, essentially creating a system of accountability between nonprofits and their funders; and “Profit Sharing” will be a discussion about the problems of support and exploitation between commercial galleries and nonprofit organizations in the commissioning and production of artworks.
We’ll organize and facilitate viable and productive activism among statistical researchers of artist communities, legal advisers, institutional directors, alternative economy activists, artists, performers, independent curators, and union organizers. Artists Space is being very transparent with their budget and institutional structure, which helps us to enter into dialogue with their staff and board members to develop strategies that will increase pressure on––and implement necessary change within––the arts community.
We’re also going to release the 2010 W.A.G.E. Artist Survey results as part of our work with Artists Space. An important hard fact is that 58 percent of the 577 survey respondents who exhibited at a nonprofit organization or museum in New York’s five boroughs between 2005 and 2010 did not receive any form of payment, compensation, or reimbursement––including the coverage of any expenses. These conditions are unacceptable to us.
Curated by PictureBox’s Dan Nadel and artist Mike Kelley, the first retrospective of work by the original members of Destroy All Monsters, the Ann Arbor, Michigan–based collective comprising Kelley, Carey Loren, Niagara, and Jim Shaw, opens at Prism Gallery in Los Angeles on November 19 as part of “Pacific Standard Time.” Here, Niagara discusses what it was like to work with the group from 1973 to 1977.
WHEN WE MADE ZINES, there were only like three channels on TV, and we could only get certain books . . . but we were all still on the same wavelength. It was like the Universal Mind. The way information is available now is interesting; I don’t think it’s worse, but it used to make more sense: People knew where everyone was going. Now, it’s like an octopus with a million legs, a crazy acid-trip scramble. Half the people are into nostalgia—learning history is good—but everything’s thrown together into a big goulash, and we’re just drowning in it. On the other hand, the man on the street can take his BlackBerry and look up anything. Information is at his fingertips. And that’s a nice learning tool, because people who didn’t care about school can have access.
It was Dan Nadel’s idea for the catalogue and exhibition. He’s brilliant, very organized, and he knows what he wants even if it’s just junk in my basement. It was great to see how he put the book together. Everyone from the group has his or her own chapter, but the art is all mixed together. Usually, when you think of Destroy All Monsters, if anyone remembers, there are just so many pictures and things that might be moldy. Prism is a gorgeous gallery. The main floor will have collages that Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw made a long time ago, much later than when we were together as a group. They’re images from all over Detroit. Jim’s an amazing draftsman and he’s really funny; his early work was humorous. The amount of Cary Loren’s photos I found surprised me. Cary and I made films, and Cary has been putting on different D.A.M. things, just like it’s a scrapwork quilt. Anyway, I’ll be on the second floor.
Access to Xerox and mimeograph machines came through the school; some guy we knew worked in the art department and University of Michigan store. We could work all night and we didn’t have to pay. At that time, we were all good friends in a band together. I wasn’t aware that our printed matter has been shown much recently, but I do know that anything that happened thirty or forty years ago is much better than when it was happening, no matter what time you’re in. Even if it was fabulous when it came out, nobody will like it until later.
I wasn’t conscious of being a woman in the group, you know, because everyone loved me . . . I was a man! I didn’t make images of women because I’m a woman. Females have been portrayed in art forever. I don’t know why. But I do turn it around, since my images were kind of hard-core, druggy, and the characters usually had a weapon. In the paintings, the genders are definitely switched at times––I just couldn’t believe when I was little, hearing men say things like, “Don’t worry your pretty little head.” I wondered where that came from. It wasn’t like I was acting like Little Bo Peep or something. It wasn’t femininity all of the time.
Of course we were a “collective,” but we never used that word. Art-wise, we didn’t work together with Mike and Jim that much, though Cary and I did movies and photo shoots. But no matter how you stirred the population of Ann Arbor, we would end up together. Nobody else would be in the group but the four of us. Mike has done some beautiful writing on this. He said that we all had our own imperialist ideas, and that we fought for them. That’s what we spent our time on––fighting. We had different tastes in music, Cary and I were more similar while Mike was seeing one thing, and Jim was into vintage and dreamy ideas. As for the music, we didn’t see eye to eye but when we played together, it sounded like crap! Maybe you thought I would say something different, like, it all really came together. But, no, it all happened in this weird way, and that’s why I thought the old tapes would be horrifying. I hadn’t listened to any of it in a while. I remember it was interesting to do, and we were doing our best. They’re pretty funny to listen to. There are moments where it’s melodic; it goes in and out. The old music weaves moments of noise and beauty together.
John Jasperse, Canyon, 2011. Production shot. Photo: Tony Orrico.
The New York–based dance artist John Jasperse has produced fourteen evening-length works and is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including a Bessie in 2001. His latest piece, Canyon, has its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, November 16–19.
I’VE HAD SUCH an ambivalent relationship to dance. There’s a deep passion, but also a lot of reservation and suspicion. And that conflict has been embedded in my work for twenty years.
With Canyon I had this fantasy that there wouldn’t be any language—or even pictures—that would precede your experience in the theater. When you put out photography from your shows, there’s this bizarre, inorganic way in which people experience the work waiting for the moment of the photograph to occur. It’s a constructed way of viewing that relates to their experience of marketing. I even considered doing a press release that had no words. Maybe just have some link to a video that wasn’t a document of the performance but was more like a vestibule to an experience that you would have with the dance.
I’ve read so many reviews where I feel like the writer just spat back the press release. It’s like they want to make sure that the language they use corresponds to the language that I use. We think about meaning as this fixed place, but “understanding” or “meaning” exists in this triangular relationship among content, form, and perception. Form is how the content—sonic, physiological, visual—is organized in time and space. And perception is what the audience member brings to it. It’s a dynamic triangle, and every person who comes to the piece is going to create a different meaning. So the idea that there’s this one location that’s tethered to language, that’s fixed and can’t be moved, really gets in the way.
Dance is an intrinsically abstract form, even when it’s grounded in concepts that you can speak about in language. Look at the form of story ballet. There’s the story of Sleeping Beauty, but that’s not what the dancing is. In the twentieth century there was a stripping away of relationships between dance and story, and narrative was often replaced by “concept.” But the concept is still principally linguistic, so people think, “If I understand the idea then I’ll ‘get’ the work.” But while those concepts inform and ground your experience, they aren’t the experience proper.
I’m the first to admit that the whole construction of “I’m going to go to a theater and sit in a chair in a dark room and look at people do fancy things that I know are hard” is a problematic performance paradigm. There’s an entire generation of people who have aggressively rejected that. Some of this has involved a stylistic judgment of anything that smacks of skill. Like the trained body is something that we need to escape from.
I became much more known in a career sense in the mid-1990s, which is around the time that Jérôme Bel made Jérôme Bel, and Xavier LeRoy began to make his work, which often examined modes of deskilling. Even during this time, I continued to make dance that engages with skilled bodies. It’s a body that can also fall apart, where moments of noncoordination are rendered equal to moments of skill, but I’ve never been ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And that’s really placed me in a different position vis-à-vis most of my peers. I’m neither in New York nor in Europe. I feel like a raft in the middle of the Atlantic.
I don’t go to Europe nearly as much as I used to. I’ve certainly entertained trying to move. Early on, Bill Forsythe was like, “What are you still doing around the United States?” But this is where I’m from. I love the irreverence of America. We’re a really problematic culture, but I want to participate in that problem. I don’t want to abandon it to the Tea Party.
Jem Cohen is a distinguished filmmaker whose work is currently on view in New York at the Jewish Museum and in the group show “September 11” at MoMA PS1. Below, Cohen discusses the short newsreels he has recently made about Occupy Wall Street. The newsreels are screened, one per week, before features at the IFC Center and are also available here.
I WENT TO WALL STREET ON SEPTEMBER 17, the first day of the proposed occupation, and to be frank, I left dispirited. There’d been a call for twenty thousand to descend on the area––rather high hopes––but what I saw outside of the absurd stretches of barricades was largely empty streets and a few hundred protesters at Bowling Green going through what looked to be the usual motions. I roamed around, shot a roll of Super 8, and left. A few days later, I heard people had actually set up camp in nearby Zuccotti Park, so I went down with friends who wanted to deliver supplies, and this time it seemed more interesting. By my next visit it felt really interesting and I knew my initial impression had been way off base. Something was happening down there.
Soon after, John Vanco, who runs the IFC Center, asked what was going on film-wise; he said, “Where are the newsreels?” I told him OWS was being documented to an almost ridiculous degree. Many long-form documentaries would probably result and there were already short advocacy pieces being made, propaganda for the cause and not necessarily inventive on a filmmaking level. But the notion of the newsreel began to rattle around in my head and suddenly I was making my own. Happily, they’re showing them now at the IFC, like theaters did in the 1930s and ’40s. I see it as one way to bring some sense of what the movement is like to a random sector of people who aren’t necessarily going down to Zuccotti.
The films are modest, small observations rather than broad declarations. There’s nothing definitive about them and they’re sometimes bumpy, searching experiments, like the movement itself. Some were shot in a day, cut the next, and just put out there. I didn’t want them to be precious. As a “film person,” I’m also just finding my footing with high-def digital––recent technologies that allow immediate turnaround proved irresistible here. That said, the omnipresence of HD, which can make everything look slick and “cinematic,” concerns me. Some of the pro-movement pieces I’ve seen have such a polished veneer; they speak in the language of advertising. While I understand the urge to make TV-ready tools that might be effective for a mass audience, I’m leery of both the prettification and the very idea that everything––including a movement inherently critical of corporate takeover––demands “branded messaging.” Luckily there are other traditions; each of my films is dedicated to a deeply engaged yet deeply renegade filmmaker (Dziga Vertov, Humphrey Jennings, Joris Ivens, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker).
My concentration has been on making simple documents of a movement unfolding in daylight, rain, darkness, and in a moment of vital expansion––the Times Square mobilization of October 15. Of course, it’s never actually simple, especially with a movement changing so rapidly––there are things going on that are so inspiring and others that are really a drag. Do you document them both? And how do you do it without betraying either ideals or actualities? I am, after all, making these films in solidarity, as a participant, but I have real qualms about the suppression of ambiguity that almost invariably marks agitprop. And I don’t have a plan about how to jack these into the frontal lobe of the masses; my priority has just been to make and deliver them, both to the theater and online. Contrary to current belief, not all filmmakers are made to be publicists . . .
The people at Zuccotti Park are tired of having cameras shoved in their faces. The constant watching and recording––it’s curse and blessing. But hopefully everyone can understand that documentation has to happen to bring this movement to the wider world. The mainstream media cycle is inherently against focused attention and complexity. It’s already falling off, another reason I feel we have to make these things for reasons and angles and timelines outside of the usual ones. I’m interested in how these newsreels will look twenty years from now.
Chris Marker sent a symbol of a cat in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s a humble, beautiful reminder that a logo can be a sign instead of a brand, a measure of camaraderie rather than targeted marketing. It’s also a reminder that even those who’ve witnessed countless such struggles, with all their naïveté, stumbling, and repetition of past mistakes, can still find hope and fascination when some small action catches and flares into unforeseen possibility.
Jem Cohen, NEWSREEL No. 2, 2011
Mary Beth Edelson in her studio, 2011. (Photo: Emily Hope)
Mary Beth Edelson has lived in New York since the 1970s. Active in the civil rights movement, she was a founder of the Heresies collective and journal as well as an early member of A.I.R Gallery. She is a key voice from the first generation of American artists to base their practice in feminist issues, and she has shown her paintings, collages, installations, and photographs worldwide. “Burn in Hell,” two solo shows of collages, opens at Balice Hertling & Lewis in New York on November 10 and at Balice Hertling on Paris on the 17th.
THERE IS A FEMINIST ADAGE: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. To which I say: Let’s get some other tools! Fuck his house—who goes there anyway? I’ve always felt that we can claim our own tools by deeply examining history, by researching the eras when women were revered in a different way—or so the myth goes. This is why I am so interested in ancient goddess figures—for example, the enigmatic Baubo, the trickster Sheela-na-gig, an Egyptian bird goddess, and Minoan snake goddesses. All four of these figures can be reinterpreted and repurposed, and thus they show up over and over again in my collage work.
I’ve been making art since I was twelve years old and have saved basically everything. The first task in trying to organize these exhibitions was to sift through and narrow down this massive amount of work I have produced—since I am really, really old. When I was in school, artists were either sculptors or painters, and for a long time I was just a painter, but I arrived at a point where I realized that I didn’t need to follow such a narrow road. In the early 1970s, I was living in Washington, DC, and very involved in a Jungian seminar. I was fascinated with Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious and tried to make work that depicted that—very presumptuous of me, but to some extent it was good and became important to me as a feminist. The critique that Jung made of the symbolic world, myths, and the figures therein was liberating, and around that time I began working with fire, photography, collage, and performance. I was still painting, too! Over time, though, I began to understand that what Jung offered was still in the end a patriarchal construct, and I broadened my approach and analysis, informed by feminism.
The title of the new show references a project I made in 1994, Combat Zone: HQ Against Domestic Violence, a three-month-long storefront space in Times Square that was sponsored by Creative Time. The most successful thing I did there was to invent ways for women in abusive situations to use self-defense. While working on that project I also started an artist’s book about Lorena Bobbitt, exploring what it meant for a woman to castrate a man, and what effect it had on culture. The book included eighty-one drawings and is the anchor for the Paris show.
My interest in Bobbitt is obviously a feminist one—I had a point of view about it immediately and wanted to examine and express that. I started thinking of her as Saint Bobbitt because she really did something for all women: She retaliated. In addition to the book, I’ve also created a lot of other drawings and a sculpture of a Kali figure that I made out of a mannequin. She has a number of arms and a girdle of knives around her waist as well as a bracelet of severed penises around her arm. In short, she is decorated. I first exhibited the work at Combat Zone and put this very dramatic lighting on it. It sums up my feelings about the Bobbitt situation, a situation that I feel the same way about today as when I first heard about it—I thought it was really funny. As someone once said: A hundred ten million women worldwide are survivors of genital mutilation, and then there is just John Bobbitt––one man, one name.
The Berlin-based artist Simon Fujiwara is known for his fictive autobiographical performances, installations, and lectures. He was the recipient of the 2010 Cartier Award and participated in the Fifty-Third Venice Biennale. His latest production, a Performa 11 commission titled The Boy Who Cried Wolf, premieres at Abrons Arts Center in New York on November 9 and 10.
THIS IS MY FIRST WORK FOR A THEATRICAL STAGE. Three short performances will be presented on a revolving stage, each with its own set. The first act is “The Mirror Stage,” and it is set in my hometown museum, the Tate St. Ives. It is a so-called coming-out story, in which an AbEx painting by Patrick Heron supposedly turns me gay. From theories about abstraction as the dissolution of figuration, to the use of the painting as a pattern for IKEA, the entire, absurd story is told to an eleven-year-old boy. The New York–based kid plays me at the age that I had this sexual epiphany but also plays himself, a child actor, asking questions about his own role in the story.
Act two, titled “Welcome to the Hotel Munber,” is set in a loose reconstruction of the bar my parents owned in 1970s Franco Spain, in which the story of a failed attempt to write an erotic novel based on my parents’ lives is told. Oscillating between erotic fiction readings and cool analysis of those readings, the story will be serenaded by a Spanish guitarist becoming, at times, like musical poetry.
The final part is new and was written specifically for New York. The title is “Proposal for a Wedding,” and it’s based on my last visit to the city, in 2010, when I came here to look for new material for this final act. I found nothing until my last night, when I got into a cab to visit some friends; I sat on something uncomfortable and discovered a camera. My first instinct? To tell the driver. Second? To see what was on this camera. The photos were a confusing collage of a number of weddings that the couple who presumably owned the camera had attended over the summer, and ended with their honeymoon-like holiday, starting in Paris, with photos of them in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and then finally in New York, which is probably the day leading up to the moment they lost the camera in the taxi. They have pictures of themselves in Grand Central, Times Square, and at a hockey match. The subject matter of the images is banal, the weddings visually repetitive, yet there are subtle differences among them; one couple has a wedding cake made out of a pile of cheese, while another has canapés presented on slate rather than on silver trays.
For this new work I’ve hired my best friend from high school, who is an actor named Phineas Pett, to play himself as the part of my best man in a farcical drama in which we attempt to restage all of the weddings from the camera onstage. Phineas begins by introducing the story : “I have no idea what I’m doing in New York, but Simon told me about this proposal he has for a piece about a wedding, and he said he needed a best man for it, so I’ve been brought over . . . ” In some ways it is an anthropological case study of these poor people’s lives that I’m showing on a giant screen. That in and of itself has its own moral implications about privacy. On the one hand, the photos are very intimate, because it’s material from another person’s life, but on the other hand, I feel comfortable using them because these people never take photos in which anything is actually intimate. This discussion is played out between Phineas and me until the climax, when I discover that perhaps I’m not as different from the happy couple in the camera as I would like to think I am.