Left: Tania Bruguera, Awareness Ribbon for Immigrant Respect Campaign, 2011. Right: First public reading of the Migrant Manifesto at the United Nations Student Conference on Human Rights, December 2, 2011.
Tania Bruguera is an artist whose work explores the role art can play in daily political life. For the past year she has worked with Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art on her project Immigrant Movement International, which seeks to redefine the immigrant as a global citizen and to stimulate artists to create work that can be actively implemented into social, political, and scientific issues. As part of her project, Bruguera has planned a worldwide open call for artists’ actions to take place at 2 PM on December 18th, designated International Migrants Day by the United Nations.
WHEN DREAMS ARE CAST ASIDE AS IMPOSSIBLE, when social promises become utopia, when equality is co-opted, this is the point at which my art begins. By creating a parallel universe where daily affairs can unfold differently, my work functions as an exercise in accountability—people are forced to confront the “what if” moment. Behavior is the way through which my work communicates, and facts are my metaphors. Art becomes political when it achieves actual results: Politics are not a subject in my work but the material I use to create. As reality functions as my field of action, I employ art institutions as spaces from which to propose models of civil society—a place of education, where people can allow themselves the room to think and consider a different future. In my work, education is the process of learning how to redirect failure and frustration back into society: Failure is an operative and tactical element that has to be repurposed.
IM International began when I was living in Paris in 2005. It was clear to me then (and now) that the ability to move freely between nations is a hallmark of progress; however, it is treated like a special right available only to privileged few. Those in power have degraded human existence by enforcing laws that obstruct the movement of immigrants—laws that run counter to the ideals of an enlightened society. In Paris the outcome of the riots in that year was too intense for me to seclude myself in a purely fictitious dream space where this was not happening. Reality and dreams had to work for each other: Art for me has to be able to implement dreams. It was at this time that I first identified as an immigrant. I felt impotent and realized I had no other resource but art to address this situation; therefore, art had to be useful.
I decided then to create the Party of Migrant People, now IM International. Immigrant rights is for the twenty-first century what civil rights was for the twentieth century and what slavery’s abolition was for the nineteenth century—a means of eliminating an obsolete irrationality. For me, political art is working with the consequences: This project explores the way art can be part of the decision-making process in politics and operate in the realm of the political present tense instead of acting as commentator after the fact—as the news does, for instance. A vast majority of artists are immigrants themselves, and artists have a better networking support system than most immigrant groups. Thus on December 18, we are calling for artists who are not from the place where they live to identify themselves as immigrants and demonstrate with a simple action the need to respect immigrants and defend immigrant rights. People must do what their governments are not doing. My aspiration for this project is to exceed the art context and act as an exercise in civil society. My aspiration is not for everybody to become an artist but that all artists use the powerful tools they have to become responsible citizens. Herein, I am not an author or an artist but an initiator, commencing a project with the hope that it will become common property, and incorporating the creative process to advance the chances that immigration will become a collective, inalienable right.
From left: Lydia, Lovey Guerrero as Santa, and Ann Liv Young as Sherry. (Photo: Michael A. Guerrero)
Since graduating from Hollins University’s dance program in 2003, Ann Liv Young has riled and thrilled audiences with her performances. Integrating music, movement, and direct engagement, in recent years Young has begun to make work that leans more toward improvisation than choreography. Here the artist discusses her alter ego Sherry, the subject of a “mid-career retrospective” (in Young’s first solo gallery exhibition). “Sherry Is Present” opens at Louis B. James in New York on December 7.
“SHERRY” IS A TOOL that I made when I was pregnant. I thought, “How am I going to make art and support a child?” I decided that if I made something indestructible then I could do it. And it really is working, which is amazing. Sherry is indestructible. Her show cannot be ruined. There’s this idea in theater that we have to impress the journalists and that people have to like the performance. And Sherry’s just like, “Fuck all of you. This is my show.”
Sherry is clear and direct. She acts like a mirror to whoever she’s looking at and she wakes people up. If I were to go out onstage as myself and try to do what Sherry does, I don’t think it would work. I’ve learned how to communicate by pretending to be this other person. She’s a sculpture. And she’s so kinesthetic. She reels people in with her costume and movements. I studied dance for a long time, so I’m hyperaware of where I am in space—where my head is, where my pelvis is. I’m very particular about Sherry’s mannerisms. It’s not so much that I can’t say what I need to say as myself; it’s that I need Sherry to make people listen to what I have to say.
During my show at the “Politics in Free Theater” festival in Dresden in October, there was a woman who looked angry and totally put off. I asked her, “What’s wrong with you?” and her response to me was: “I feel sorry for you.”
“Oh, do you really?” I said. “I feel sorry for you. Why don’t you leave if you hate this show so much?”
“I have to be here for my job,” she said. “You need me.”
It turned out she was hinting that she was a juror for a contest I didn’t even know about, that awarded fifteen thousand euros to three of the sixteen artists in the festival. Had I known about the contest I definitely would have said I didn’t want to be part of it.
She became the crux of the show and I was really hard on her. The other jurors told me later that they were considering me for the prize until I pissed her off so much. But it was so important for Sherry to be able to speak directly to this woman and say, “What is wrong with this picture that you think that I need you? You need me, because I am helping you so much more than you’ll ever help me.” The art world is full of people that think that they have the authority to say, “This is good, this is bad. This is art, this is not. This is worth fifty thousand dollars, this is worth nothing.” Sherry goes deep into those problems and tries to tear them apart.
I used to make work that was so rehearsed I wasn’t living my life. My performances were so much about perfection and everything was choreographed, down to the blinking of the eyes. I would have dreams that the blinks would be off and I would flip out on the dancers. I realized that was not OK. So I started going in a different direction. I wanted to make a show that I didn’t have to rehearse, with no preparation other than me living in the world. And I’ve lived in the world long enough to know what I want to say. So all of the Sherry shows are pretty much improvised.
Sherry is a good person with good intentions. A big part of her work is helping people, and at Louis B. James she’ll be doing one-on-one and couples therapy. She’s throwing a tree-trimming party for old people, where Sherry will teach them how to trim their bush. And she’s doing a Christmas lecture and a post-Christmas performance dealing with holiday stress. If you didn’t get what you wanted you can bring in those gifts and exchange them for things that Sherry has, or for other people’s things. She’s also having a bake sale in front of the gallery where she’ll sell her homemade lattés and cakes.
Mostly she’ll be selling her sculptures, which consist of her used items—wigs, heels, nails, and tampons—in Plexiglas boxes. Sherry believes these objects are good for people. She gives people specific, personal instructions, like, “Take the top off of the box at 6 PM every night and smell the object. This will enlighten you to become a better person.” In some ways she’s like a traveling salesman, because she is a bit of a swindler. But she also really believes that her sculptures are tools to help people become better. They’re mementos of their experience with her and they’re her way of saying, “This experience is never going to leave you. I’m so important to you, whether you know it right now or not.” Because that’s the thing: Even when people hate the work, it still changes their lives. It’s direct and potent and like something they’ve never experienced, no matter how much they try to get away from it.
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.