34: Martha Wilson
visual and performance artist

photos by Mary Kang

Martha Wilson is a feminist artist and founder/director of Franklin Furnace, an artist-run performance space which “champions the exploration, promotion and preservation of artists’ books, installation art, video, online and performance art.” Wilson’s work is both visual and performance-based and has been recognized with two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, an Obie Award, and a Bessie Award, among others. Wilson has taught at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Brooklyn College, and Pratt Institute, to name a few, and will soon begin a residence at Artpace in San Antonio, Texas.

Mary Kang is a bi-coastal photographer and photo editor currently splitting her time between southern California and New York City. She holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for Photography and Imaging and covers a wide range of topics and subjects focusing mainly on portraiture and fashion photography.

This interview was conducted by Nicole Blackwood on April 29, 2017 in Martha Wilson’s Brooklyn apartment. Mary Kang photographed and witnessed the conversation.

NICOLE: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.


MARTHA: Girlhood! Okay: I was a boy. I was a tomboy, and we lived in a small town in Pennsylvania that was surrounded by farmland. My mother, whose family was Quaker for 350 years, sent me to the Newtown Friends School, which had giant fields surrounding it, so I would run madly around the field there. I wasn’t really interested in school. [laughs] I was interested in running around. Then my mother decided to pull me out of the Friends School, and for fourth grade she sent me to the public school. In public school, I started to get a different cast on what school and social life was about. It wasn’t so much about running around; it really was about learning how to tell time or learning the history of South America. In 9th grade, my mother put me back in the private school – George School, a Quaker preparatory school right in our town.

I should talk about camp. Academic life was – kind of a drag.


[both laugh]


MARTHA: I lived for the summers, when camp would come along, Quaker camp in Buck’s County. When I first went to camp, I was probably too young. I remember crying when my mother came to pick up the laundry; I wanted to go home with her. By the third year or so, I had a boyfriend, Froggy, and a best friend, Jill. And the year after that, I got another boyfriend who would win the corn cob-eating contest.


NICOLE: [laughs]


MARTHA: I made friends at the camp whom I met again when I went to this Quaker preparatory school. But the social condition of camp and the social condition of school were very different. Phoebe [a girl from both camp and school] didn’t cut me dead when we went to George School, but my enthusiasm in seeing her she met with, “Why are you enthusiastic? It’s school.” [laughs] I had to become socialized yet again with upperclass values, because the school was for rich kids. There were Quakers, like myself, and townies, like myself, but the boarding students who were rich kids from all over the world were in charge of the social environment.

High school is the most terrible time, because you’re learning about boys, and you’re learning how to get along with girls, and you’re learning how to get along with adults who are teaching you and supervising you. I was an athlete, I played hockey, I was a swimmer, and in the spring I played lacrosse.

Not the kind of artist who’s a good painter, but the kind of artist that looks at the social fabric instead of the physical fabric.

NICOLE: Can you speak about how all of that structuring and restructuring of identity influenced your development of your early femininity? Because you played all of those sports, and you said you considered yourself a tomboy.


MARTHA: When I got to George School and I was an athlete, Linda [a teammate] cut me dead out on the hockey field. She wouldn’t shoot a ball back and forth with me, because I was socially inferior to her. How is social structure determined? It’s beauty, it’s money, it’s race, and it’s obviously money and class. So my girlhood, because I was at the same time athletic and therefore eager, was defined by my being shy and not very socially accomplished. When I got to college, I felt like, "Oh! Nobody knows who I am. I can reinvent myself here. I can be somebody else that I want to be." And the whole idea of identity becoming a fluid took hold. But that was, you know, college. In high school, you kind of can’t escape.


[both laugh]


MARTHA: I think that the training that I got in girlhood, high school, and college prepared me to be an artist. Not the kind of artist who’s a good painter, but the kind of artist that looks at the social fabric instead of the physical fabric.


NICOLE: So if we’re moving chronologically, we’re now in your twenties. In your lecture at Rutgers, “Staging the Self,” you said that you were told women don’t make it in the art world. I’m very interested in the ways female ambition is complicated by male dismissal – when you’re told you can’t do something, your personal ambition is complicated by the fact that what you’ll do will be viewed as an attempt to prove men wrong, or perhaps it really is. Either way, an unwelcome voice has joined a very personal inner conversation, which is something I think happens to many women. Can you speak about this complication in female ambition generally, and more specifically about your experience navigating the art world in the twenties, knowing that you were unwelcome, at least to some?


MARTHA: So now we’re going to talk about the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I did not go there; I was going to school across the street. But my boyfriend was going there. We graduated from Wilmington College in 1969, and the Vietnam War was raging at the time. When we left Wilmington, I applied to various graduate schools, and [my boyfriend] got into Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which was the coolest art school in North America, according to our painting teacher, Jerry Ferguson. I got into Dalhousie across the street, and we thought it was a sign from God we should go to Canada. The art college was a white, male-dominated environment, as art colleges were and probably remain, in many, many cases. For example, Carl Andre came to town, picked the most beautiful girl on campus, Cinny, and said, “You’re the most beautiful girl on campus, you’re my new girlfriend, and I love you.” And she believed him. [laughs] And then he left, and she was emotionally destroyed by the fact that she had been picked up and embraced and then just dropped like a sack of potatoes. The point of the story is that men ruled, and this was normal.

When I decided to become an artist, I asked Jerry Ferguson what he thought about that, and he said, “Women don’t make it in the art world, but if you’re serious you’ll make black-and-white art.” I thought, “Fuck you, buddy,” and I walked across the street and bought a roll of color film. The very first thing I did, “Breast Forms Permutated,” was in black-and-white, the second thing I did was “Posturing Drag” with color film, and I never looked back.

My boyfriend helped me make my work. He was not helping me conceptually but he was helping me take photographs, and was a really good sport all the way through, even though I dressed him up to look like Rrose Sélavy. And then we broke up, and he married my college roommate Marcia, who was a cheerleader, a beautiful, redheaded girl with plait-blue eyes, a gorgeous creature. I saw Marcia driving the Mazda that I had been driving a week ago down the street and I thought, “I’m not going to stay in Halifax.” So I thought Montreal might be good, or New York, and the worst that could happen is that I’d have to get a job as a secretary, and I know what that’s like.

When I got to New York, we were consciousness-raising. I was taken under the wing of Judy Stein, who was publishing a magazine at the time. She wanted me to find the right group for myself, so we went to NOW, the National Organization of Women, and various groups, and I ended up in an art group. The punchline of the story is that…[bangs on table] men bad, women good. Things were very clear. We were learning how to value ourselves as women, because that had not been done. It had perhaps, had been done a hundred years earlier by the suffragettes, but they were trying to get the vote. We were trying to feel valuable at all, feel like we were equal somehow to these men-creatures.

Nowadays I get email inquiries from young people who want to know if there was any discussion of transgender issues at the time: no. Nothing. Nada. Zero. [laughs] We were just trying to figure out: if we were feminists, whether that meant we also had to be lesbians, if we were allowed to wear makeup, if we had to subscribe to central imagery, could we be in a band that had boys in it? Like, what are the terms of feminism that we’re trying to hash out here? I really liked a show Connie Butler curated at MOCA called WACK! because it lays out the dozen different schools of feminism that were in place at the time; for example, the goddess worshipper. Now we’re looking back at that time and we’re using this term “feminism,” which means…something. But at the time, there wasn’t any agreement as to what the term meant. I didn’t apply the term to what I was doing until Lucy Lippard came in from the outside in 1973 and said, “Oh, you’re a feminist.” I thought, “Thank you! Oh! How wonderful, to have a term!”


[both laugh]

NICOLE: Your biography on your website says, “Wilson's early work is now considered prescient. In addition to being regarded by many as prefiguring some of the ideas proposed in the 1980s by philosopher Judith Butler about gender performativity, many of her photo-text pieces point to territory later mined by Cindy Sherman, among many other contemporary artists.” Your work was pioneering these ideas –


MARTHA: Without knowing what the hell I was doing!


NICOLE: [laughs] But being the first to break ground, and even just claiming space in a male-dominated field can often mean isolation from other women. Can you speak about how, now or then, you avoid or grapple with that isolation, and what burden you think pioneering can require a woman to bear?


MARTHA: Thank you. That’s a great question. We’re back in Halifax. I’m starting to make art. I don’t know any other women who are making art. I feel completely alone, really. The other women I do know who are making art are enrolled in the art college. In 2013, I was invited to return to Halifax to get an honorary Ph.D. in Fine Arts from the College, which was really very nice of them to do, and somebody came up to me after my lecture and said, “You know, you were a model for us!” And I thought, “Why in God’s name didn’t you tell me?”


[both laugh]

This is a central dilemma in my work: you have to believe that I am a woman trying to feel like a man who’s trying to look like a woman.

MARTHA: There also wasn’t very much critical mass in Halifax. When I got to New York, I found 12 other weirdos like myself who were working in the same direction, so I started a band [called DISBAND], the all-women artists who couldn’t play instruments, so we could be weirdos together on a weekly basis. This was in part because the process of making art is a very solipsistic one, where you’re stuck inside, and you’re not relating outwards. I got sick of it! I wanted to talk to other people and learn how Ilona Granet would respond to exactly the same situation. And in the course of working in a band for four years, I got to know these women so well that I could predict what Ilona Granet would say or do as a result of some situation. They’re still my best friends in the world.


NICOLE: I wanted to talk a little bit about the idea of documentation and the camera. Your performances are all taped, including live performances, and some which are not live. In “Premiere,” you state that “the self others deal with is the image we project into a scene of action and what is at stake is whether this image will be credited or discredited.” Your view of womanhood, or at least a small part of it, is comprised of projected images, real or imagined. I’m interested in what the camera adds to the projection of image, and whether you think that image can really exist without documentation or perception? Because I think of the camera adding a certain degree of scrutiny, and scrutiny that exists later, so I’m wondering how that factors in, in your view.


MARTHA: The camera was invisible to me at first, because I was performing for my internal sense of audience, and it was documenting my performance. There was nobody else in the room; I’m all by myself, so I’m performing for myself. And in a lot of cases, I’m looking at myself on the monitor, too; that’s how I can tell what I’m doing. At the time, there wasn’t as nuanced a discussion as there is today about documentation itself. It was just how you captured the performance. Actually, this is a central dilemma in my work, which is: you have to believe me that I am a woman trying to feel like a man who’s trying to look like a woman. There’s no evidence for that. It’s just the text underneath the photograph. So I’m trying to take you on the internal voyage that I’m on, through the documentation.

When I got to New York, and when I started Franklin Furnace, there was a lot of discussion [about documentation]. Multiple artists, Julia Heyward being the most famous and visible one, refused to have the camera in the room, because it would change the performance. She’d be performing to the camera instead of performing to the audience. And then years go by, five or six, and she calls me on the phone and says, “Martha, do you have any video of my performance at Franklin Furnace?” [laughs]

In the early days, you’re taking a still photograph and you don’t know until you get the photo back from the lab whether it turned out. Or maybe you’re taking a video of a performance, but unless you have the monitor hooked up, you can’t tell how that’s turning out, either. It was pretty crude. Nowadays, you can Photoshop images and you can edit video and it’s no longer straight up-documentation; it’s the work. You’re manipulating the work.

I recently I got selected for something called Artpace, which is a residency in San Antonio, Texas, and I’m going to be doing a piece called “Makeover Melania.”


NICOLE: [laughs]


MARTHA: My friend Nancy Berson, who developed the software to help try to find Etan Patz when he disappeared in 1976 or 7, has created an aging software. It’s your face, and then it gets longer, it gets wrinkled, it starts to look older. She also enabled us to turn our faces into Elvis, or turn our faces into Andy Warhol. So in this case, we’re going to start with Martha’s face, and we’re going to turn me into Melania. And why am I telling you that story? Because it’s all about the technology and Photoshop. There’s no shame in using technology now to alter the work.


NICOLE: Still speaking about performance, and your view of how literal performance connects to female performativity – in an interview with Hyperallergic, you said, “As women, we find ourselves performing all the time to meet society and the culture’s expectations about what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to look, what we’re supposed to think.” Selfportrait was all about the creation of identity, and as Jayne Wark put it, “Selfportrait suggests that identity is neither self-defined nor projected, but rather interactively negotiated.” Can you speak at all about where you see yourself, or women generally, performing, and how much of this routine performance is negotiating an identity?


MARTHA: Oh, boy. [laughs] Well. Vito Acconci died yesterday. He was an artist-in-residence at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and I was at that point faculty, teaching English to art students. I’m talking to him about my work, and he goes, “You should read Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Erving Goffman, sociologist, wrote this book in 1959, a little, slim volume, and it’s about how we’re all performing all the time. All the time. We’re performing for our internal sense of audience, we’re performing for the people in the room, we’re performing for a sense of history, we’re performing one way in relation to the male person in our relationship, or the people in our family…so it was like, Oh, my god! This is great! The door opened, and I realized that performance was the common denominator of what I was doing, regardless of whether it’s live performance, or could be recorded, or could be a photograph and video, and all that. It’s completely equal. I hadn’t quite understood what I was up to, until he gave me this clue.


NICOLE: What about outside of performance, just in ritualistic, everyday life for women?


MARTHA: I think we’re performing all the time. For example, didn’t Hillary say, “I don’t bake cookies,” or something? And she got in so much trouble, because the performance of motherhood and care is embodied in those cookies, and so that means that you’re not really respectful of the 99% of women in America who bake cookies to demonstrate their homemaking promise. Or something.

NICOLE: This is speaking super theoretically, but you bring up this concept of a “vacuum” a lot. In your Rutgers lecture, you speak of “A Portfolio of Models,” the description of which says “you’ve tried them all on for size,” speaking of the many models – goddess, housewife, working girl, professional, earth mother – “and none has fit...The artist operates in the vacuum left when all other values are rejected.” You said in your “Performance” essay that “After my beautiful artist boyfriend…dumped me, I recognized I had no friends, interests, passions of my own—that I had been living vicariously through him. So my early work was created in an effort to sculpt a personality in the vacuum that remained when his was gone.” You spoke of your Nancy Reagan performance as a vacuum as well, speaking of her obliviousness and saying “I thought I could make her say anything I wanted in that vacuum.” Can you speak more about this vacuum that comes up so much in your work, and speak about how you think the vacuum may be reflective of the female experience?


MARTHA: I have another one! The vacuum that was in Lower Manhattan when I founded Franklin Furnace. Basically, the uptown institutions were not paying attention to what the downtown community was doing, in large part with the participation of women. Women were equal with men, they were collaborating, they were doing work in public, they were forming bands. Franklin Furnace is not a feminist institution, but certainly if you look at the record, it’s 50% women. And now, larger and larger percentages are artists of color, and since around 1999, gender issues have become more and more present. So a vacuum is a good thing. That means you can jump into it, and put something in it that wasn’t there before. There was a need for Franklin Furnace, and so I created Franklin Furnace to fill that need.


NICOLE: You’re talking about having been rejected from every possible image, model, and space; in your view, that is the vacuum. So if men can’t be rejected from every other space, then is the vacuum exclusive to females?


MARTHA: …Nah. Men suffer. There were men creating postmodernism and women creating postmodernism, and postmodernism itself is what was, I think, created to protest modernism and hierarchical, male-dominated, white social structures.

Now we should talk about the Guerilla Girls for a minute, because the Guerilla Girls made it impossible, as Jerry Saltz wrote in one of his essays, to put up a show of all men anymore, because people will write about that. They’ll say, “This show is all men, and where do they get off?” When the Museum of Modern Art installed its new building, Jerry Saltz went around and said, “Well, 14% of this section is women.” [Martha laughs] He did the Guerilla Girls’ work for them, and put gender on the front of the stove. Everybody’s conscious, now, of race and gender.

You wear yourself with panache. You wear yourself without apology at this age; what are you going to do?

NICOLE: And I have a question that segues neatly from that – in an interview with art21, you said, “Back in the day, it was men=bad, women=good. It was easy to rail against patriarchal society or to create an artwork that critiqued the role of women and men. Now it isn’t easy. Gender has gone all over the place.” How do you now see your role of critiquing gender, and in what ways have you had to adapt modes of thinking within your artwork specifically?


MARTHA: I’m having fun being an old lady, and talking about age. Suzy Lake and Cindy Sherman are doing that, too. We have to; we’re old ladies now, and it’s yet another absurd chapter. [laughs]

I’m going to tell you the growing old story now. I went to Europe in 1978 with a bunch of DISBAND friends. We all hennaed our hair together, and I decided I liked it, because blondes are considered to be stupid but redheads are considered to be alcoholic, and it’d be better to be considered alcoholic than to be considered stupid. So I hennaed my hair from 1978 to 2008, at which point I was 60 years old, and I realized that for half of my life, literally half of my life, I had been a redhead. So I let it grow out and took a photograph every time I got my hair cut. I did a piece called “Growing Old” which shows my hair growing out for a year. So then I’m walking around on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn with gray hair, and this guy bumps into me, and I’m still walking on the street and another person bumps into me, like I’m not there. And I thought, “Wait a minute. This is – ”


[both laugh]


MARTHA: “I’m invisible.” So I did a piece called “Invisible” at the deli across from where I used to live. Then I cut my hair like Bill Clinton and I took a portrait of myself as Bill Clinton, and then I did a Cruella de Vil piece, where it got longer and I colored half of it red, and the photographer said, “Are you going keep it like that?” And I thought, “…yeah. I’m going to keep it like that.” Kids on the street say, “Oh, hi, Cruella.” So I’m a recognizable, popular figure.


NICOLE: [laughs]


MARTHA: Old women say, “Oh, I’m going to do that, too,” and I always tell them, “Go, do it, absolutely. It’s really fun.” I’m no longer invisible. I’m not invisible, I’m something else. We don’t know what that is, exactly, but at least I’m not invisible.

NICOLE: A a lot of your work mirrors the way attractiveness builds perceptions at a very early age, which plays into what you were saying. How much damage do you think is irreversible –


MARTHA: [laughs]


NICOLE: – in terms of the way women experience their bodies, including their aging bodies? In other words, is your thinking and knowing and feeling differently about your body enough to remove the harmful fears perpetuated by others?


MARTHA: I think it is, because you wear yourself with panache. You wear yourself without apology at this age; what are you going to do? You hang out, as you are. When I see kids on the subway who are playing with their hair, doing half-purple and half-green and yellow stripes down the middle, I think, “This is great! This is absolutely great.” They’re playing with their identity as an art medium. They may or may not be artists, but they’re understanding that we can manipulate our image for enjoyment, and for fun.


NICOLE: I wanted to talk a little bit about your political satire. Before your recent performance as Donald Trump, you performed as Nancy Reagan, Tipper Gore, and Barbara Bush. To annoyingly bring theory into this, in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes: “She therefore calls upon other women to help define a set of 'local rules,' so to speak, a moral code specially for the female sex.” Speaking specifically about satirizing women, and in particular inhabiting them, as is necessary in a performance, it seems to me that some degree of empathy must exist, or desire to create “local rules.” Satirizing women, even women who do harm, is different than satirizing men for this reason. So what’s been your experience satirizing men, and why Donald Trump?


MARTHA: Well, the question gets more complicated, because I didn’t really satirize any men. I tried to do one performance as Ronald Reagan, and I did one performance as Alexander Haig. After DISBAND broke up, we were the members of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, and I was Alexander M. Plague, Jr. That was about my father. I was getting to my father through Alexander Haig, who had a bunch of issues. I tried to really understand Alexander Haig. I tried to go in there and dwell and figure out what made him tick. I discovered that we’re telling the same story over and over, the parental story. The relationship with the mother, the relationship with the father, and the power structures in the family influence everything that you do for the rest of your life.

So then Trump is elected, and I’m, as I have always done, trying to figure out how to go in there and figure out what makes him tick. And I couldn’t go in there. He’s so impulsive; there’s no there there. There’s no core set of values, somehow, that I could hold onto. And I just hated it. So when I do the performance as Donald, “Martha Does Donald,” I come out as Donald and I sing a song about how it’s the coming of the solid state, and then I turn into Martha and say, “Look, I couldn’t go in there.” And I’m Martha for 50 years, looking at the artistic and political scene for the last 50 years. Then at the end I go back into Donald, and – you’ve seen the one that’s on tape?


NICOLE: On your website, yes.


MARTHA: The one I just did has a new ending, because he’s been elected now. The new ending is: “On April 18th, The Daily Show figured it out; they announced I am a performance artist. I only want to de-fund the NEA to eliminate the competition! And talk about audience response: Have you seen how my approval ratings have gone up since I bombed Syria? You’ll see: I will go down in history as the President who made politics and performance art one and the same. Good luck!” and then I leave.


NICOLE: Did that make you think about your role as a satirist differently?


MARTHA: It’s still satire. The different one was Michelle Obama. I did a performance and a photograph as Michelle Obama, and there were two difficulties. One, is it ever okay for a white person to wear blackface? No, it’s not, it’s bad. But I did half of my face, as an admission of performance. And the other problem is: I’ve always satirized the characters that I occupy, and in Michelle’s case I wanted to give praise. How do you do that? How do you show your admiration? I don’t know the answer to that question.


NICOLE: What do you think women in the world need or can do for each other presently?


MARTHA: I think what women are doing for each other presently is collectively getting together and organizing mass protest; there was the Million Women March and then the Climate Change March. Whether we’ll be able to influence Donald Trump’s brain, I doubt seriously. He’s a white male who’s always considered himself to be the coolest dude in the universe, so we’re not going to change his mind. But Ivanka or Jared or somebody will notice that there are 300,000 people outside, and it’ll very slowly but surely have an impact on the way the culture moves. Because I’m older than you and I’ve been around longer, I’m actually optimistic about how laws take a long time to change and society keeps moving regardless of who’s in power. Women will gain more equality, gender will become more fluid. It’ll just keep happening. Some of us will live to see it.

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