Artist-comedian Justin Cooper and artist-comedian–professional magician Ross Moreno are the coconspirators behind Chuckles+, a comedy/performance project they commenced in 2011. On February 9, 2014, they will perform at Harbor Gallery in Queens, New York. Here, Cooper and Moreno speak about their upcoming performance and its hybridism.
CHUCKLES+ began as a simple framework to explore different approaches toward performative projects; since 2011, it has evolved into an ongoing investigation into the intersection between comedy and art. We think conventional “showbiz” structures—the variety show, the comedy club, the telethon, etc.—are beautiful sorts of things unto themselves. But they’re also fantastic vehicles for far weirder impulses, such as experiments with duration, repetition, and disjointed narrative. The name Chuckles+ implies that our project will deliver on the funny but with an addition. The definition of this “plus” is what we attempt to articulate with each new event. The experience is deeply rooted in the history of performance art, but it’s also a place where one can laugh.
For the next iteration of Chuckles+, we have been exploring the dynamics of the host-performer relationship. In it, the “next guest” introduction will be repeated over and over again and the traditional roles associated with the variety show format will constantly shift. Our long-time music collaborator, DJ Joey B, and April Bruckner, a talented ventriloquist, will also be part of the performance, which is really like A Prairie Home Companion on acid.
We’ve been fortunate enough to perform at various major institutions—Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; SculptureCenter, New York; Neues Museum, Nuremberg—but these opportunities have not necessarily carried more importance than our performances at our friends’ backyard birthday parties. There’s no hierarchy for us. We bring the same level of gravitas to each performance because what we do can be shaped to fit virtually any kind of venue and any type of audience. We don’t ever want Chuckles+ to classify our viewers, like the “art” audience versus the “mainstream” audience, for example. If we’re successful, each type of audience will take away something unique and deeply personal—a curated emotive experience that has played with their expectations. With an art audience, we’ve found that there is a collective sigh of relief when they realize we’re out to make them laugh. There’s so much tedious, tortuous performance art out there that it’s pretty easy to get those people onboard if they know we’re going to be funny.
In David Robbins’s book Concrete Comedy, he outlines a definitive history of “high entertainment” but does not present strategies for the artist-cum-comedian-practitioner. We recognized that a viable place for a pure hybrid of art and comedy hadn’t really been established at the start of Chuckles+. Now there are a few others, like Scott and Tyson Reeder, the creators of Club Nutz—the world’s smallest comedy club, held in spaces like broom closets and booths at the Frieze Art Fair. They, as well as Jim Drain and Naomi Fischer, have been great allies and collaborators. There’s certainly no dearth of talent out there to invite to the “clubhouse,” so Chuckles+ will always have a built-in refresh button.
Beverly Semmes, Pink Pot, 2008, paint on magazine page, 7 1/2 x 10 6/8".
Beverly Semmes is a New York–based artist who has exhibited internationally since the late 1980s. Her latest shows span the US: Los Angeles’s Shoshana Wayne Gallery is presenting two of Semmes’s large-scale dress works, produced in 1992 and 1994, from January 11 to March 1, 2014. In New York, Semmes will show selections from her ongoing Feminist Responsibility Project, as well as ceramics, at Susan Inglett Gallery from February 6 to March 15, 2014.
IN THE EARLY 2000S, I inherited a stack of 1990s-era porn magazines. It’s a long story in itself, but basically I was helping a friend in upstate New York who wanted to get rid of them but was too embarrassed to take them to the town’s recycling center. I took them home. Not long after, I was working in my studio and I thought: I need these. As I was cracking them open, I had the idea to get some paint out. The first pieces were essentially cover-ups—fluorescent censorships. This is how the Feminist Responsibility Project began. I wanted the FRP works to have a protective aspect: protective to the viewer, protective to the subject. The covering up is nurturing—in a grandmotherish way—and it’s complicated. The redactor is spending a lot of time with the imagery, censoring to keep you from getting/having to see the original material. The images break out of the control: There are rules, but these codes keep getting broken and content slips forward.
I’m often putting this body of work to the side while I focus on another project, but then I end up returning to it. At this point it’s been more than ten years, and I’ve made hundreds. They’ve taken on a painterly surface; they are structured in response to the absurdly concocted magazine scenarios. I make these drawings at the kitchen table. There’s a lot of editing afterward. I’m rethinking and reworking them all the time. There will be pieces in the “not working” category that later become my favorites. It evolves.
I recently installed my show at Shoshana Wayne in Santa Monica—the main gallery is an expansive rectangular space—and the 1994 piece I’m showing there, Buried Treasure, fills the room. Re-seeing this work after many years, I was struck by how much of a drawing it is. There’s one long sleeve and it drapes around the floor. The black crushed velvet is very light-absorbing; it has an oily burnt wood quality, a superblack, like vine charcoal. Many of my sculptures from the ’90s were designed to take up space. The viewer is pushed way to the side; you can’t really walk into the room. Like the FRP, there is a graphic sensibility to my sculptural work of this time. The Feminist Responsibility Project is more intimately aggressive.
As the Susan Inglett Gallery show in New York approaches, I continue to ask myself about the relationship of the drawings to my ceramics. The question has been hanging over my head for at least five of the ten-plus years I’ve been doing the FRP drawings. Ceramics has been my most consistent medium—the one I continue to return to. I began working in clay right after I finished school. The pieces are hand-built. I begin with a lot of very wet clay and then build them up over time, adding handles. They are heavy and off-kilter, and there’s no goal of perfection or lightness as with traditional craft. The glaze has a skin-like aspect; the works are extremely tactile. The ceramics enter into the gallery space as outsiders, as “anti-,” and on some level I’ve always thought of the FRP drawings as doing the same.
Beverly Semmes, Money, 2013, ink on magazine page, 10 1/2 x 7 7/8".
Beverly Semmes, Blue Dress, 2005, paint on magazine page, 6 5/8 x 5 1/4".
Beverly Semmes, Urn, 2006, ink on magazine page, 10 1/2 x 6 1/2".
Beverly Semmes, Cat, 2005, paint on magazine page, 9 3/4 x 5 3/5".
Beverly Semmes, Eight, 2013, ink on magazine page, 10 11/16 x 7 3/4".
Beverly Semmes, Floating Hand, 2012, ink on magazine page, 10 5/8 x 7 7/8".
Beverly Semmes, Dalmations, 2013, ink on magazine page, 10 5/8 x 7 7/8".
Beverly Semmes, Gloves, 2011, ink on magazine page, 10 11/16 x 6 7/8".
Beverly Semmes, Seven Handles, 2009, ink on magazine page, 10 3/4 x 7 5/8".
View of “Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries,” 2014.
Born in 1943 in Paraguay, Faith Wilding is an artist, activist, and professor emerita of performance art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Wilding was a key figure in the the nation’s first feminist art programs, at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) in 1970, and at CalArts in 1971, and she continues to work with the collective she cofounded called subRosa. “Fearful Symmetries,” her debut retrospective, is currently on view at Threewalls in Chicago through February 22, 2014. The show coincides with Wilding’s lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art. She is currently writing her memoirs.
FEMINISM, in my experience, is not really studied these days. The language has changed so much. After a recent lecture I gave, many of the questions people were asking made it seem as though they weren’t aware of feminist history. Perhaps the millennials aren’t interested. What does it mean to be a feminist today? To become the head of Yahoo, making billions? It’s a disgusting power thing. We still need to think politically about capitalism and patriarchy, and how they are basically wrecking the world. I find that so much of social networking—this kind of maker, DIY stuff—is apolitical. But it’s attractive, of course, and it’s very ’60s; I’ve seen it before. Too much of it does not seem to have politics. Are any of these “social” networks inclusive? Are we creating a common good? A very favorite author of mine, Silvia Federici, talks about this. She’s a strong socialist feminist.
I grew up in a puritanical Christian commune in South America. It was all God the father, Jesus the son. Women’s bodies were always covered, and there was a strong gender separation between the males and females. At about twenty, this didn’t work for me anymore. And that’s what really drove me to feminism: As a kid, I felt like I never got any of my questions answered.
On the commune we made our own clothes and shoes. We learned crochet, ceramics, handiwork, woodwork, and leatherwork. I also read like a demon and began to draw. Many of my early feminist abstractions come from nature. I grew up in a very lush tropical environment. The commune sent me to college in the US, so that I could train to be a teacher. When I got there I joined the student peace union, and before I knew it I was going to the March on Washington, and getting involved with the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. And then came the feminist movement.
In 1970, my husband and I got to Fresno, where I met Suzanne Lacy. She and I started Fresno’s first feminist consciousness-raising group. Fifty women joined immediately when they heard that we were going to talk about orgasms. We initiated a course called the Second Sex; we read Beauvoir and Woolf. Around that time I met Judy Chicago in Fresno and Mira Schor at CalArts, and we started doing research in art history, looking for women artists. We were only reading novels and books by women, and whatever Marxist texts were available at the time.
Today, I am very aware of generational gaps. I want to be a mentor and a resource. That’s really why we did all that work in the ’60s and ’70s: so future generations of young women and men wouldn’t have to; so we’d have a different world. Perhaps we have only done a bit, but that’s my bit.
Duke University Press recently published Sex, or The Unbearable, a long-form critical dialogue between theorists Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman. Through a series of close readings addressing the work of Larry Johnson, Miranda July, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and the short story “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis, the book examines the often unbearable pressures and cleavages sex can producefor good and for ill. Berlant and Edelman variously mitigate and amplify the theoretical, structural, and vernacular ambivalencies of intimacy, collaboration, and collective life. Berlant states in the book’s coda: “I do not read things: I read with things.” Indeed, she is known for producing readings with texts, objects, and events that are as incisively surprising as they are politically alive. Berlant here considers what “reading with” would look like if theorized as a methodology.
PERHAPS I SHOULD BEGIN BY SAYING THAT MY THOUGHT IS ELLIPTICAL; that is to say, it both tracks concepts and allows for unfinishedness, inducing itself to become misshapen in the hope that by the time you return to the point of departure, so many things will have come into contact that the contours of the concept and the forms associated with its movement will have changed. How can our encounter with something become a scene of unlearning and engendering from within the very intensity of that encounter?
If I were to theorize “reading with” as a method, I might begin with something about which I’ve recently written, William Pope.L’s Forlesen, an installation that was on view last year at the Renaissance Society.¹ The title sounds a lot like the German word vorlesen, which means “to read out.” In that piece of writing, I describe ekphrastically the process of learning to read with Pope.L’s work. When I walked into Forlesen, the first thing I saw was a peeling wall, and then I looked around and I realized: It’s a cock and it’s an architecture at the same time. I understood that the cock was providing the infrastructure for my encounter. Covered in a dark ketchup, the walls were racialized and also about surfacing. The architecture was undoing itself, drying out. The room was scattered with glasses of water, too, so the work is also about evaporation, the hunger of the world for your juices, for what animates you and the earth, holding it all together. Liquid is liveness, but it’s a medium for loss, too. At the same time, we are drying out together, though not identically. What’s the force of the overpresence of the cock?
The first time I entered the room I felt a little defensive or grumpy, like, “Oh, I have to enter into this cock now and follow out its journey…” And then I thought, “Well, I am kind of defending myself from the encounter before I get in there.” Whenever I encounter my own resistance to learning the thing that I have gone out of my way to take in, I have to laugh and try again. I have to reboot the relation so that my encounter with it is not mainly a defense against it. Forlesen is a multiple complex architecture. On one side of the room is a sculpture of the bottom half of W. E. B. Du Bois—upside down, legs flailing in the air—and on the other side of the room is a picture of the artist’s son. We move through the cock from Du Bois to the son. Inside the cock there are literary and pornographic archives, and the room is saturated with the noise of a little girl’s speech about the artist and Martin Luther King mixed with droning sounds of sexual arousal sourced from the porn loops playing there. At some level, moving through all that felt like moving from the political to the private.
That immediate defensive response was less negative than exhausted. The wish, of course, is that reading with, like being with, is a natural process that unfolds. Over time, the bad defenses will peel away. Over time, you will lose your terrible attachments to likeness and alterity. Over time, the right things will end up on the floor while the rest is taken in. There is a reason we call that wish fantasy.
Oh yes, the ellipsis! I’ve been working on ellipses as infrastructures of relation. When I saw the black balloons in Forlesen, I had to laugh, because they appear as a kind of exploded ellipsis, and Ellipsis turned out to be their title. Pope.L was playing with the flesh’s thingly temporality. At the opening, all of the black balloons were inflated, and by the end the helium had gone out of them and they were all on the ground—shriveled, sexual, uncanny and more, but not identical. That’s part of the show’s orchestration of negativity too. The balloons look like afterthoughts, the way they are scattered, because they don’t take up the same kind of concentrated monumental space as the big wooden cock. And yet…
The thing about an ellipsis is that it has a set of contradictory meanings.
An ellipsis is a sentence that I don’t end because…I don’t know how to.
An ellipsis is a sentence I don’t end because…you know what I mean.
An ellipsis is a figure of return that isn’t symmetrical.
Ellipses might be a figure of loss or plenitude: Sometimes it is more efficient to go dot dot dot. Sometimes it’s also a way of signaling an elision. Sometimes the referent is beyond words.
1. The observations that follow derive from the essay that will be included in the volume Hinge, ed. William Pope.L and Karen Reimer (Chicago: The Renaissance Society and University of Chicago Press, 2014).
Marielle Nitoslawska, Breaking the Frame, 2012, digital video, 100 minutes.
Canadian Marielle Nitoslawska’s feature film Breaking the Frame (2012) is a portrait of the American artist Carolee Schneemann. A collage drawn from interviews, excerpts from her private notebooks, and music composed by the late James Tenney, the film celebrates Schneemann as a guide for subsequent generations of artists. Breaking the Frame’s US theatrical premiere will run at Anthology Film Archives in New York from January 31 to February 6, 2014, and will be followed by screenings at London’s ICA. Nitoslawska and Schneemann will be in discussion on opening night in NYC.
MY PREVIOUS FILM BAD GIRL surveyed different representations of sexuality by female artists and activists. When it was finished I wanted to take a deeper, more personal approach to the topic of the body. Schneemann’s approach was closest to me. For nearly fifty years, Carolee had subverted art in thinking deeply about the female body and sexuality. And so Breaking the Frame closely follows Carolee’s beliefs, as well as her activities, her artwork, and it gives context for how all these elements have evolved together over time. I hope that people who see the film in one-hundred years will still be able to get a sense of an artist who was living in a particular place at a particular time—a woman who came into her own in the late 1950s and early ’60s—but who is also alive and still working in the twenty-first century.
Carolee’s aesthetic has always been very close to me, especially her way of working with the materials of daily life. I saw her film Fuses (1965) in my twenties at a little repertory theater in Montreal and it stuck with me. What felt so powerful and surprising to me was how the film rendered the feeling of lovemaking. The solely physical aspect is subverted, and instead we get into a person’s emotional experience. I had never ever seen explicit images of sexuality before then, but I didn’t find it shocking. It was warm, even hopeful.
I’ve read most of what’s been written about Schneemann—as well as her own voluminous correspondence with peers—I knew that my film had to be about her ideas and to go beyond language. It needed to be tactile, and to show things in motion. So I made a visually layered work about Carolee’s life and work with a lot of archival footage as well as with Super 8 and 16 mm footage that I shot myself, and with a narrative structure less linear than ephemeral, taking you through her works as though they were pearls on a string. I would connect these to her personal life, as they were connected for her. I would try to evoke, not teach but enchant.
I would also try to tell another, larger story. In 1975 Carolee wrote, “By the year 2000, no young woman artist will believe that our deepest energies were nurtured in secret.” I felt that I would include my own voice, sometimes speaking about Carolee in order to create the presence of an active female artist from another, later generation. I am one of the women she was addressing, and I felt that through me viewers could enter a once-unspeakable story about women artists, a story that must be told and retold. Carolee has also said that when she first began painting, she was a “visitor in the house of male culture.” Today our situation is very different. That, clearly, is partly due to her work. In its light, many feel Schneemann deserves a major retrospective in one of the world’s top museums, just like several of her peers have received.
Andrea Bowers, Courtroom Drawings (Steubenville Rape Case, Text Messages Entered As Evidence, 2013) (detail), 2014, marker on paper, dimensions variable. Installation view, Pitzer College Art Galleries.
Andrea Bowers is a Los Angeles–based artist whose work addresses issues of feminism, politics, and community. “#sweetjane,” her exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art and Pitzer College Art Galleries in Claremont, California, examines the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, high school rape case and its trial, drawing attention to issues of “rape culture” and the Internet-based activist group Anonymous, as well as to questions of ethics across social media platforms. The exhibition runs from January 21 to April 13, 2014, at Pomona, and from January 21 to March 28, 2014, at Pitzer.
I’M FROM A SMALL TOWN IN OHIO, and so the Steubenville rape case captured my attention. For this project, I decided to go to Steubenville to record some of the Anonymous protests, in which members rallied to end rape culture and to bring the alleged perpetrators to trial. Anonymous, of course, is an online hacktivist group that organizes and works mostly on the Internet, and they wear Guy Fawkes masks to retain their anonymity. It’s intense what they do, but I’ve become riveted by their Twitter account and a lot of their activities. The case concerned a high school girl who was either drugged or drunk and unconscious when she was assaulted at various parties by a group of boys, mostly football players. Two were convicted of raping her. It was one of the first public cases in which social media played a key role in the convicting evidence. The entire time she was being assaulted, those involved were Tweeting, texting, and posting videos of their actions online. The high school and local police didn’t seem to take the assault very seriously, and it was only through the efforts of Anonymous, also using social media, that this case got a lot of media attention and went to trial.
One of the things I found interesting about the case was the issue of anonymity. The victim, Jane Doe—a minor at the time—was kept anonymous to protect her identity. But this seemed to help the media focus more on the football players, because their faces, names, and backgrounds were publicly discussed. It seemed like it was so easy to dismiss Jane Doe simply because no one knew anything about her. I’m interested in how this type of anonymity is related to ethics: When someone is kept anonymous to protect their identity, how do publics treat them? And how is this related to social media? Is there a different set of ethics?
For the exhibition, I’m making a video composed of shots of the town, interviews with Anonymous members, and some of the news coverage and public responses to the case. I’m also using old footage of myself as a teenage cheerleader in Ohio, and pictures of women protesting in Anonymous masks. I grew up in the same sort of environment that Jane Doe is growing up in, where most of the young men were never told No and were culturally given the right to do whatever they wanted. This needs to change.
I’ve been working with many young women activists around issues of consent since my time in Steubenville. In the exhibition there are also some small figurative drawings of women wearing Anonymous masks while protesting. At first I was bothered by the mask, because it was white and male and women would wear it, but I noticed that some of the young women wearing them were afraid and used the mask as a form of protection. It changed my mind about how the mask functioned.
During my second trip to Steubenville, I was able to sit in on some of the trial. The day I was there, all of the text messages sent between the teens on the night of the rape were presented as evidence. Allowed only a piece of paper and a pencil, myself and two other reporters transcribed all of the text messages by hand as best we could. The reporters posted their notes online and I compared all three sets of notes, so I think I have the most accurate version possible, since the official court transcript hasn’t been released yet. I’m making a seventy-foot-long text-based drawing that displays this narrative. It is very violent and difficult to read. I’m also coming to terms with my own labor and aesthetic with this drawing. The entire negative space is filled in with different shades of blue marker and looks very beautiful, but the text is shockingly intense. It’s an experiment: Will I fail because I am aestheticizing atrocity, or will it work because it’s more than just a mechanically reproduced image?
When the official trial transcript becomes available, it will cost six thousand dollars. Still, one story of that night in Steubenville is told through these texts and hopefully in my work. What the boys said and how they behaved can’t be buried, forgotten, or silenced.