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In Conversation with Martha Wilson

In Conversation: Martha Wilson

This piece is part of a special project of mapping performance “ecologies” in New-York, created for TAR Magazine in 2015. We met Wilson for a conversation at her archive environment at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to discuss Franklin Furnace and its currencies.

Lital Dotan: How did you arrive at performance art? 

Martha Wilson: I was raised a Quaker girl in Pennsylvania, I graduated from Quaker college in 1969, and I didn't want to be here during the war; also my boyfriend at the time didn't want to be drafted, so we decided to get the hell out of here and move to Canada. The coolest art school at the time was the art school in Nova Scotia, and I went to Dalhousie University across the street to study English Literature. But I was hanging at the art school all the time because my boyfriend was there and the kids were cooler. They had a very ambitious visiting artist program where they invited the leading conceptual artists of the time--mostly white men—to visit. Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Dan Grahm, Joseph Kosuth, Peter Kubelka--the whole raft of conceptual artists of the day were coming through the school.  I got my MA in English Literature and then made a proposal for PhD which wasn't accepted because they said it was “visual art”: I wanted to diagram or build a model for each of Henry James' novels.  (This was before interdisciplinary studies was in vogue.)  So I went across the street and talked to Garry Kennedy who was President of the art school, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and he said their English teacher was about to leave and invited me to become the English teacher. So now I was faculty--I was able to use their video equipment, audit the classes, through the largesse of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design I became educated as an artist.  But--I'm a girl in a male-dominated environment.  When I told my mentor I wanted to be an artist, he said, “Women don't make it in the art world...” which made me mad... and I remember walking across the street and buying a roll of film.  I thought what I was doing was performance art, it actions that were experiments to find out who was in there: dressing up as a man trying to look like a woman, dressing up as a man to invade Men’s Rooms, dressing up as a 50 year-old women who is trying to look 25, dressing my boyfriend as the female persona of Marcel Duchamp, Rrose Selavy…all of these performances involved composing my features for the camera.

LD: So you were using photography but actually doing performance art-

MW: Yes, I was using photography but I was trying to sculpt my personality. So one fine day in 1973 Lucy Lippard came to Halifax, saw my work and said, oh yeah, this is art, and there are other women around the planet doing similar stuff. She put me on a show, the first of her number shows. This one was called c.7500 because it started in Valencia, California, population circa 7500. Each of us got the front and back of a 4”x6” notecard, and the catalogue was this unbound stack of notecards.  I looked through the notecards and thought, oh my god, there are all these women doing all this great work!  So I moved to NY and became a part of the feminist art movement.  We were inventing the feminism of the 70's with conscious-raising groups and exhibitions, and at the same time that this was happening the Post-modern scene was being invented.   Artists were not happy doing conceptual art that had no impact on the world; what if Sol Lewitt permutates every single line possible, north-east-south-west on the wall? It doesn't affect anyone.  The Post-modernist generation artists like Christy Rupp designed posters for the rat population of NYC and then postered them on the curbs so that rats could have something to look at (“Rat Patrol” was a work in response to the sanitation strike of 1979 [l.d]).  Or Jenny Holzer designed Inflammatory Essay posters and posted them anonymously around New York, in an effort to connect with an audience that was not the art audience. And publications--tiny little pamphlets, accordion books--Claus Oldenburg created these booklets in the 60's which he called the Ray Gun Comics, and handed them to people who would just throw them right into the trash. Now they are probably the most expensive artist books on the planet. I took my artist book to MoMA and said, “You had did the Information show in 1970; can you sell my book to the public?” The manager replied, “Look, lady, your book costs $5 but it costs me $5 to do the bookkeeping so we're not gonna handle your book.”  I thought, oh, so the uptown institutions are not really paying much attention to what the downtown community is up to, so I'm gonna start a book store for artist books. And the bookstore immediately turned into a performance art venue, installation space, bookstore.

LD: So the Franklin Furnace project on Franklin street started as a bookstore?

MW: Yes, for three whole months. Then, at the same time, Printed Matter was forming. But they were being formed by a collective so they couldn't move quite as quickly as Martha could. We had some meetings and discussions; they wanted to work on publishing and distribution of artist books and I wanted to be exhibiting and preserving artist books, so we re-divided the pie: Printed Matter assumed responsibility for publishing and distribution, and Franklin Furnace for exhibiting and archiving. 

LD: Were you living there at the store on Franklin street?

MW: Yes, I was living upstairs on the mezzanine with two roommates, because $500 a month at the time was considered a very large amount of money.  Then first one roommate left and then the other left and then I got some other roommates and then after a while they left and I left while Franklin Furnace kept getting bigger and bigger. 

LD: And the first exhibition at FF, what was that?

MW: It was a bunch of artist books--I think we got some 200 titles by opening day, plus one-of-a-kind works. We didn't make any money at all; I had some money left over from breaking up with my boyfriend, I mean, my boyfriend broke up with me in Canada, and paid me for my equity because we owned a building together.  That's how I bought the hot water heater. I started Franklin Furnace because I saw a vacuum, and I thought, “What's the worst that could happen? I'd have to be a secretary again.”

LD: When did performance become part of the program at the bookstore?

MW: Pretty quickly, because one of the artists wanted to read from her dream journals that were in the collection; but she didn't just read--she brought a costume and a stool, and showed up as a persona, so immediately the performance art program started, in June, three months after Franklin Furnace opened in April. 

LD: And then when did it become part of the regular programming?

MW: In the Fall. We took the summer off and kind of adjusted ourselves, and I started publishing calendars--although I kept calling the performance art presentations 

“Artists Readings.”  I was trying to link the performances to the artist book archives. We didn't have all these terms—“artist books”--there was no such term.  Performance art, installation work--these terms were invented later by art historians.  To us, it was all one big blob, and the art medium used was the one that was most appropriate to the concept being presented.

Eyal Perry: Did you reach out for press at all?

MW: For ten years, I kept trying to make a distinction in the press between performance art and theater, because we are not theater, performance art is the opposite of theater. Theater convinces you that you are somewhere else; Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it the “willing suspension of disbelief.”  Performance art rubs your nose in real time--the fact that it's Friday, it’s raining, and the artist is flinging mustard and ketchup into the audience.

EP: You mentioned that you were exposed to all these great artists, were they an influence?

MW: Yes, certainly, because they were publishing--Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler--they were all doing these little books. Seth Siegelaub was an important publisher of artist books; he published this wonderful thing called the Xerox Book on 8.5x11”paper, containing works using the properties of this new technology, the Xerox machine. From day one we also never said, I like that book and I don't like that book. We just accepted anything that an artist claimed was a book including a block of concrete called Concrete Poetry. Again, we were trying to undermine the commercial system which says this is salable and this is not. We wanted to be more democratic, more open about what is allowable as art.

LD: And were there any situations that were more difficult in trying to maintain that place, after the excitement of the beginning?

MW: Oh it was very exciting, but we were eating rubber bands for dinner, we were very poor. I applied to Jerome Foundation, the best foundation in the universe, but they were not sure I knew what I was doing and that I was gonna last so they didn't give me any money for multiple years.  Then when they saw I was showing performance art  they asked me to administer their grants to performance artists; this is the 30th anniversary of Jerome Foundation support of the Franklin Furnace Fund through which Franklin Furnace gives money to crazy artists.

EP: I want to go back to your democratic approach to performance where there is no curation, or criticism, how do you develop criteria at all? Or not?

MW: First of all, Franklin Furnace did have a curator for the first four years. My friend Jacki Apple was the curator, I was the director, and my friend Barbara Quin was the director of development who taught me how to raise money; she was also a painter and sculptor. I met Jacki through the c. 7500 catalogue that Lucy Lippard put together.  She selected Jenny Holzer to do her Truisms in the front window, for example. When Jacki moved to California, I didn't want to be the curator, so we started the peer review system we still use today:  We invite a panel of 4 or 5 artists to sit around a table, we look at all the proposals we have received, and we dish out the money later on in the year.  I don't vote on these panels but of course I do yell... I'm proud of this system because we don't necessarily know where the art world is going, but there has to be something astral in play, because we get proposals from all over the world--and when an artist from Istanbul and another from Iowa are thinking of the same thing, it says something.

LD: Do you feel the definition of “crazy artist” had changed over the years?

MW: We gave money to an artist who started as a woman and became a Hasidic man; I'm very proud of that grant because where else could you get money for your sex change operation as a work of performance art? You never really know what the panel is going to give money to; it depends on the proposals we get, and the composition of the panel and the mood of the art world.

LD: Were there any restrictions for performances?

MW: There was a big discussion on the board level with Franklin Furnace moving to Pratt Institute because they were asking us the same thing. How can we be sure you are not going to select an artist who would do something inflammatory? And we said, it will happen!  But we will give you enough notice to create a considered PR response.  The reality is that the artists we give grants to will probably not be presenting their work on Pratt’s campus.

LD: Last Sunday, when Raphael Sanchez was performing at Participant Inc. he had to change his performance at the last minute, could you explain what happened?

MW: Raphael had wanted to spear a pig and then slice pieces of bacon, and wrap it around loosie cigarettes, then hand them to audience.  But the director of the gallery, who is an animal lover, did not agree.  We only found out about it at 12 noon, but Raphael made an adaptation, and I feel he did a beautiful work.

LD: Was the Sunday event at Participant Inc similar in spirit to those held at the Franklin street FF?

MW: We fought continuously with our neighbors at 112 Franklin Street.  Artists would exhibit vats of wine, not cover them up at night, so the fumes were going up the elevator shaft.  Or they would cover the walls with honey and mice and ants would show up. Or exhibit historical and contemporary dildoes. They were doing inflammatory stuff all the time, so it was a rocky rocky road all the way through.

EP: And it wasn't disturbing to you?

MW: Being raised as an outcast was normal to me, so it was no big deal.

LD: Could you talk a bit about the evolution of FF over the years?

MW: We moved three times. We were the bookstore/performance/exhibition space at 112 Franklin Street for 20 years. And then in the middle of these 20 years the Culture Wars showed up. and we were identified as an “obscene organization” because we showed artists like Karen Finely, Annie Sprinkle, giving grants to John Fleck and Holly Hughes, so obviously whatever we did was obscene as well. At first we thought we were going to renovate the loft and turn it into this art emporium, but by the 1990s the artists had all moved to Brooklyn, and the Internet had changed things so we thought maybe the next “free zone” is not a loft in Tribeca, but the Internet-- we are going to go virtual and be a place where artists can express themselves freely.  We “went virtual” during our 20th Anniversary season in 1997, and moved to an office on John Street.  Then in 2001 the World Trade Center got hit and I got an invitation from the BAM Cultural District; they wanted to attract art organizations to the area around BAM so we applied and got accepted in a building called 80 Arts on Hanson Place along with BOMB Magazine, Bang On A Can, Witness, Cool Culture, StoryCorps and several other not not-for-profit organizations.  We were there for 10 years, during which time we started to transform into a research resource. It didn't really matter where we were located because we were giving money to artists to do their work elsewhere--in public parks, online, other organizations’ spaces--and we realized that the history of the last 20 years is valuable to people, it's the history of the contemporary avant-guarde art world.  We applied for and received an NEH grant to digitize our first 10 years, and then we got another to digitize the second decade of event records.  We are basically making it easy for people to stay home in their pajamas and study the contemporary avant-garde online.