This past weekend I joined the audience for the day of panel discussions at the Brooklyn Museum organized by The Feminist Art Project as part of the annual College Art Association Conference. I was only able to stay for the first three and a half panels, in a day that included five. But in those three and a half panels, a clear through-line started to emerge, at least from my perspective. That through-line involved the idea of creating collective histories, of asserting a history that complicates singular narratives, and that makes it clear that whole communities of differing experience and perspective participate in the making and supporting of the arts.
This idea of collective histories seemed, in some way, to respond to the larger question evoked in the opening remarks by Catherine Morris, curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. In those remarks Morris mentioned her own desire to focus more on how feminism could be used as a methodology rather than a label identifying a person’s political viewpoint. Being in the position of curating work that somehow falls within the framework of feminism she expressed that she was tired of worrying or being asked to worry about whether individual artists explicitly labeled themselves as feminist. What I gathered is that instead she was more interested in understanding how she could build on, find, or use feminist principles and ideas when putting together shows or considering the work of a variety of artists. And it was clear that many on the panels shared this interest.
The topics of the panels that I stayed for ranged from representing or embodying queerness within museums, mapping the history and communities of the many women who helped found many of New York City’s major art institutions, archiving an artist’s work, and how feminism can influence curation.
As bell hooks has put it more than once in her writing, feminism is a project to “end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”
Given the academic setting, some of the talks were predictably jargon-heavy, and this likely explains the heavy focus on understanding and challenging history. But the jargon didn’t negate the fact that the speakers and the event itself were invested in a fundamentally political project that has everyday ramifications beyond classrooms and scholarly journals. As bell hooks has put it more than once in her writing, feminism is a project to “end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” The latter term, “oppression” purposely has no qualifier in her definition, because feminism of today, and some feminism of the past, is rooted in an understanding that systems of oppression are intersectional.
That term itself, “intersectionality,” comes from black feminism and critical race theory, highlighted early on by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It grows out of the acknowledgement that many different power structures can act on a single person — for women of color, it’s both racism and sexism; for poor women of color, it’s racism, classism, and sexism; etc, etc. Crenshaw and hooks are grappling with the reality that no one is comprised of a single identity, and further, they are complicating identity politics by showing that there is no one way to be anything: black, Latina, female, lesbian, etc.
The Feminist Art Project, and those who are looking at ways of using feminism as a methodology within the arts, appear to grappling with one of the primary struggles of the 21st century — how can we be different together successfully? How can we acknowledge, incorporate, and embody difference within institutions and histories, without trying to assimilate those differences into a mono-culture, while also resisting the urge to create strict hierarchies and power structures that once again exclude people?
Here are just a few of the points from the panels that I listened to that reinforced these ideas:
The artist, writer, and curator, Harmony Hammond used her time to discuss in plain terms the importance of archiving one’s own work and research, and then finding ways to make it accessible to others, as a literal way of placing outside voices into this history. She has spent a considerable amount of time over the past few years putting her own papers and works in order. She has created a database of all her own artworks, including high resolution digital images of each piece. She has also archived and filed the research she did for her groundbreaking book, Lesbian Art in America, as well as research she has done since then, again, making sure to include high resolution images of art by the artists she has researched. As she noted, she now has better images in her personal archive of works by some of the artists she has researched than what can be procured from the artists themselves, and certainly better than what can be found on the web. Her overall point was that, particularly for those operating outside the mainstream culture, you can’t wait for someone else to archive your work, you have to do it yourself.
Martha Wilson has undertaken a similar project for Franklin Furnace, the organization she founded over 30 years ago, an organization that focuses specifically on ephemeral and performance work that is difficult to document and archive. She spoke about the ongoing creation of a searchable database with imagery and/or video of every performance that Franklin Furnace has presented and/or supported. And pushing the notion of a collective history idea further, she added that she’s interested in allowing artists to then add written reflections on the work to the database, along with reactions from audience members who were present at the performances/events. Further, she added that she’s interested in exploring a way for those engaging with the work in the present, through the database, to add their own thoughts about the work. In this way, each document would be multi-dimensional, acknowledging both its past and its present.
Thomas Lax, assistant curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, spoke about an expanded sense of genealogy in considering the context for an artist’s work. Many queer people, particularly queer people who have strained or no longer existent relationships with their biological families, have created families of their own (here I’m not talking about gay marriage or queer families with children, I’m talking about literally building an extended family that is largely or wholly non-biological and can be comprised of a variety of romantic and non-romantic relationships). When you read biographies, most often they begin by tracing the maternal and paternal bloodlines of the subject. But the reality is that literal bloodlines can have little to no influence over many queer folks, after the biological influence. A prominent example of the implications and complications of queer genealogy vs. biological genealogy is happening right now with a very important American artist, María Irene Fornés.
Genealogy was also evoked by the work-in-progress that Andrea Geyer shared. The sketch of the project that Geyer shared consisted of a video in which she read aloud an excerpt from an essay by Gertrude Stein that focused on the idea of being able to simultaneously speak and pay attention. Here’s a brief snippet of that excerpt from Stein: “One may really indeed say that this is the essence of genius, of being most intensely alive, that is being one who is at the same time talking and listening.” While the text was being read she placed numerous postcards, one on top of the other, on a wooden tabletop. The cards looked like something you would buy in the gift shop of an art museum — photographs of prominent women, artists, and their works. But the reality is that Geyer made most of the seeming postcards from her own research in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and they featured individuals and works of art that are largely out of public view. Specifically, she was interested in tracing a genealogy that acknowledged the three women who founded MoMA: Lillie Bliss, Mary Sullivan, and Abby Rockefeller.
In Geyer’s framework what could be said to be the genealogy is a literal map of the worlds and social contacts that these three women had — social contacts that did of course include some powerful and wealthy figures, but also included politically radical people invested in major reforms (labor, voting rights, socialism, etc), as well as those engaged in openly queer relationships. Geyer’s point is not to evoke scandal or gossip, but instead to show the social milieu and context that gave rise to MoMA, as well as other female-founded institutions of the time, to understand how histories have been changed or reshaped to fit new narratives, and to use these ideas to talk about what is happening today with the re-shaping and putting away of histories. Geyer’s project resonated strongly with Harmony Hammond’s discussion of creating archives when Geyer mentioned that all of Bliss’ papers were burned following her death, and that she has been unable to find a single image of an artwork by Mary Sullivan.
Pushing the idea of challenges to institutional narratives, Kim Anno, artist and professor at the California College of the Arts, spoke about the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and their long-standing refusal to accept work by either Filipino or Asian-American artists. In reaction to this policy, one young artist, Imin Yeh, a student of Anno’s, brought together a larger group of artists to stage a series of interventions at the museum, including a day-long event that sought to expose and challenge the framework that the Asian Art Museum operates within. In their work, Yeh and others are pointing out that the museum’s definition of “Asian” is inherently colonialist and that it attempts to put strict and highly problematic boundaries around Asian identity. The insistence on holding on that definition is further complicated by the fact that the museum was founded by a white man who participated in the trade of ancient artifacts from Asia which were looted, acquired during war or violent conflict, or bought under exploitative circumstances.
Throughout the above talks the idea of gaps in knowledge came up. Catherine Lord, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, mentioned the “fantasy of an archive where you could find out everything that you could ever want to know” about a person. Lord spent a good amount of time working at the ONE Archive, an LGBTQ archive that is part of the University of Southern California’s library system, where she also created the installation To Whom It May Concern. In response to a question from the audience, Lord noted that the challenge is to be as specific as possible, but to also reflect how that specificity intersects with or reflects threads and ideas in the dominant culture.
… How to acknowledge, incorporate, and embody difference within institutions and histories, without trying to assimilate those differences into a mono-culture, while also resisting the urge to create strict hierarchies and power structures that once again exclude people.
Her comment returned to that central challenge in applying feminism as a methodology: How to acknowledge, incorporate, and embody difference within institutions and histories, without trying to assimilate those differences into a mono-culture, while also resisting the urge to create strict hierarchies and power structures that once again exclude people.
The same evening I attended another feminist event, this one in a very different context. The second event was put together by Black Women’s Blueprint, a black feminist organization based in Brooklyn, NY, which has a number of different programs all aimed at “provid[ing] the tools for community members to hold each other as well as policy-makers, elected officials, and community leaders accountable for the personal, social and economic rights of Black women and girls.” The event was a fundraiser, an awards ceremony, a community organizing event, and an arts presentation. Over the course of the three-hour event, titled “Mother Tongue Monologues: For Lesbian Ancestral Wives and Revolutionary Women Speaking the Unspeakable,” a variety of artists and writers presented monologues and dances, along with music and speeches, to give voice to black women, particularly black lesbians, bisexuals, and gender-non-conforming people. And also to strongly assert that their feminism was intersectional and inclusive of varied sexualities and genders.
The night used the arts as a means of inspire change, to acknowledge difference, and to draw together community. In some sense it flipped the impulse behind the panels I attended earlier in the day, using the arts as a methodology within feminism.
In the opening to the event Farah Tanis, one of the co-founders of Black Women’s Blueprint, spoke about the problematic relationship that people of color and also queer folks have had with feminism in the past, when straight white middle and upper class leaders within feminism excluded voices that weren’t similar to their own. At the time those leaders believed that strategically it would be better to focus their attention on one issue at a time, but in the end that belief ended up mimicking the power structures they were fighting against. But Tanis reminded the room that women of color, working class and poor women, queer women, have always been part of feminist struggles and that they can and should re-embrace and reclaim the term and the politics because it was always theirs to begin with.
What the evening event shared with the day’s panels was again that sense that history is collective. And that one small piece of practicing feminism is asserting those collective histories, filling, or at the very least, acknowledging the gaps.
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