By Angeli Sion
Editor’s Note: This interview will also appear in our print edition this May.
Martha Wilson is a New York-based pioneering feminist artist, and founder of Franklin Furnace Archive. On April 1, 2016, I interviewed her at the Furnace. At moments interviewer becomes interviewee, as they begin to unpack issues of identity, forms of relation, and emotional ethics towards affecting change through the lens of transformation. The philosopher Spinoza derives an ethics from an ontology to maximize our being, from what enables, whether that is joy or sadness. An inter-generational dialogue has begun. This is the first in a series of texts researching the transformation of the body.
Angeli: Having encountered your work around various points in time in different contexts, I was most interested in talking to you about the transformation of the body, and what that could mean in your practice. I’m thinking of your most early embodied performative acts and photo/text works before moving to New York in 1974, if you could start there. How did it start?
Martha: How did this start? … Art school environment. I was technically not in the art school. My boyfriend was in the art school. I was technically in the university across the street. But the art school environment was full of visiting artists who were conceptual artists of the day, Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Beuys, and Vito Acconci. They were coming through and doing projects with students, so we not only got to see what the end results looked like, but how you got to the end results.
It was pretty cold stuff. Not related to what was going on in the real world. Except for Vito. Vito was using his own sexuality as his own art medium, and was, you know, masturbating under a platform, following people in the street, or waiting at the bottom of the stairs with a pipe to bash whoever came in.
These were works that took sexuality as a subject, so that opened the door to me to take my sexuality as a subject, and my body is female. So I was coming from the embodied female perspective, and he was coming from the embodied male perspective.
Now in those early days, I didn’t know the term “feminism.” I didn’t know what that was. It was never used. The art school environment was male-dominated and hostile basically towards women. (laughs)
I think I tell this story about my mentor, who taught painting in college and then went to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and became a professor— he told my boyfriend, Richards, “You have to come up here. It’s the coolest art school in North America.”
So I said, “I wanted to be an artist too.”
And he said, “Women don’t make it in the art world.”
A: Oh, no—
M: Which sounds bad, but what it did was made me mad. It made me angry. Made me want to prove him an asshole.
So I started doing performances and asking my boyfriend to document them.
Also… let’s see, we went on the rocks twice, I think— Richards, my boyfriend, and I, went on the rocks a couple times, during the 5 years we were together. I was living in Halifax. At a certain point, when we broke up, I realized that I didn’t have any friends of my own. He was like the prow of the ship. He would go through society and make friends, and I would follow along behind and have friends that were first made by him.
So when we broke up I figured out, “Oh, I don’t really have a personality. I don’t know who I am, even.” The pieces were experiments to find out who was in there. And transforming my body physically was an effort to get to a different emotional place, a place I’d never been before. To look around in that new place, and feel it out. Find out what it’s like.
Dressing in drag was a voyage from female, from the person that I am, to male, and then that person trying to become female. It was an emotional voyage that goes out and kind of comes back, but not to the same place.
But then of course you’re always — we are all performing all the time. Vito Acconci recommended Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), through which I understood that we are all performing all the time.
That actually freed up a lot of emotional space to understand that everyone is performing all the time. It’s something that can be crafted, understood and used.
A: In this essay “Martha Wilson: Not Taking It at Face Value” (2001), Jayne Wark is talking about your Posturing Drag (1972), where you pose as a man posing as a woman. She quotes you as saying, “Form determines feeling. So that if I pose in a role, I can experience a foreign emotion.”
So it seems a lot of this was coming from an impulse to try to get to know yourself—
M: Yes. (nods)
A: — or, navigate a positionality. Was that the impulse to transform?
M: Yes, very much so. Well, I think where your question is coming from— let me ask you the question: are you asking if transformation is a permanent condition or state? That you’re changed and then you’re in this new sphere…
A: I think it’s a process. I see the relationship between appearance and identity. Where does the emotional voyage take place? Is it through changing your appearance? Is it after having changed your appearance? Is it after the work is out there for an audience?
M: You know, there’s something about performance itself. In high school, I was elected president of the Girls’ Day students at a Quaker preparatory school in Pennsylvania. And I had to give a speech to the students. And I held a clipboard against my waist so that my hand wouldn’t shake. I was so… nervous about performing: standing up and emoting in front of people. I had to have some tool, some way to keep myself from just falling apart. Performance itself is transformative because it’s an emotional process that you are going through.
Right now I am performing as a competent artist for you and for the magazine. I could also perform as a goof ball. Or as a bitch.
And those performances take you, the observer, and me, the performer, through different mental states.
So some of the performances operate from the premise that if I change my physical environment or appearance, I can then affect the emotional landscape. Others look at the emotional landscape and try to use it somehow to effect change.
I didn’t even understand that it was art in a certain way. It was more of my kind of psychology experiment to see what would happen if I composed my features into the mirror, or if I composed my features into the camera to see which set of features looked more genuinely miserable, or whatever it was that I was trying to achieve.
A: Did you mean for it to be art? Necessarily, at first?
M: I was documenting it. I kept asking my boyfriend and friends to document it. But there was a long lead-up period during which time I didn’t feel confident enough to call myself an artist. And then when I talked to Jerry [Gerald] Ferguson, my mentor, he said that thing about women not making it in the art world.
A: So maybe you already answered this, but I was wondering at what point does transformation happen for you?
M: Well, there’s an interesting phenomenon that goes along with putting on the wig if I’m turning myself into Barbara Bush. You put on the hose, you put on the heels, you put on the suit, you put on the jewelry. Then you put on the wig. When you put on the wig, then you can step out of your own body and go into the bitch body that is Barbara Bush. And it’s the wig! I don’t know what it is. I think it’s because our face, you know, the face, is the prow of the ship, the thing that moves through space, and tells the world who you are, that when you alter the face, when you alter the head, you are able to believe yourself better. You’re able to let yourself go into that new person, that new personality.
A: Which is interesting because some of the earlier works are referred to as self-portraits. Do you see all of them as self-portraiture? At what point does it stop becoming self-portraiture?
M: (pause) Because I’m trying to escape from my body at the same time I’m having these pictures taken… I don’t know the answer to that question. Let’s leave that one on the side and come back to it.
A: Okay, I’m going to backtrack a bit. I was reading about Transformance: Claudia (1973), the collaboration with Jacki Apple, after Lucy Lippard curated both of your works into the group exhibit c. 7,500 (1973-74), in which both works, Lucy observed, fell into a section of work dealing with transformation primarily of the self. Could you tell me a bit about Transformance: Claudia?
M: Lucy put me in this show and I found out there were other women in the world who were doing work like what I was doing. I was living in Halifax and I came to New York to talk to Jacki, and we discovered that we were both… well, by this point Lucy had used the term feminist so that I understood that I was a feminist artist. And Jacki was a completely relaxed and unabashed feminist artist. She was a few years older than me and had been living in New York all her life.
We decided to invent a character who would exist in the space between us, and take the character out to lunch where she would be comfortable. We named her Claudia. We took her to the Plaza Hotel. Jacki invited her friends to be there too. So we were a gang of women, about 7 or 8 of us, and one man who paid for the limo. (Because we needed the limo.) And what I was experiencing was anxiety. I thought that we were going to be discovered, I was going to be outed, and the whole thing was going to crash and burn because we were not the confident, wealthy and privileged women whom we were pretending to be.
Jacki was the opposite. She was completely happy and relaxed, enjoying having lunch at the Plaza Hotel Palm Court. We hired two photographers to circle the table and take pictures of us, and we instructed the photographers to agree with whatever the tables around us would say. In other words, if someone said, “Oh, is that Vogue magazine having lunch?” then the photographer would say, “Yes!”
It ends up being a composite portrait of not only us, but the people surrounding us. I couldn’t move my neck because I was afraid of being discovered, so I was like this (pulls shoulders forward and down, neck stiff).
Uptown we were taken as being who we claimed we were, successful, well-dressed, and articulate women, having lunch together for some reason we didn’t know. And then we got into the limo, down to Soho, into 420 West Broadway, which was the belly button of the art world at the time. Leo Castelli Gallery, Sonnabend Gallery, and John Weber Gallery were in the building.
We went into Sonnabend Gallery and started taking pictures, which was not allowed in a commercial gallery. But we were not taking pictures of their art on the walls, we were taking pictures of ourselves.
They were skeptical right away. They threw us out.
In a commercial gallery situation, we were seen as weirdos, impostors, not something good, something that should be ejected.
A: Which brings me to fantasy. Fantasy implies hopes, wants, fears, and needs, often extreme ends of desire. What role does fantasy play in your work?
M: Desire is the operative word. Desire to be someone else, or experience someone else’s personality or interior landscape with the overall goal of change. The story of gripping the clipboard so I wouldn’t be visibly shaking in front of my school mates contrasts the present because now I can perform in public. I still have to prepare but once you have survived performance, then you can do it, then you do it again, then you have survived it twice, and it becomes a cumulative skill set.
A: I often think about dreaming as an act of creativity. How would your work enter into a politics of dreaming, if so, if at all? How does dreaming implicate identity?
M: Do you write down your dreams?
A: I used to.
M: Oh, you no longer write down your dreams? I write them down faithfully if I can remember them. I don’t know why. I don’t necessarily go back and try to analyze them, but I like to capture them. Now that we’re having this discussion, last night I was dodging live gunfire. Wasn’t particularly dangerous, but it was live gunfire. I had to move out of the way.
A: What, gunfire? How come?
M: Not sure. Let’s see if I can dredge that dream up— how were you thinking of dreaming?
A: I was thinking about dreaming as a space that allows for you to try on something else, and when does that thing become appealing, and when and if that ever loses appeal.
M: I was figuring out how to use my personality as a medium, and how to change it. I was not a happy girl at that time. I’m a lot more happier person today than I was.
A: Out of all the personalities you’ve tried on, was there a particular one that told you something about yourself?
M: I liked the bitchiest ones because I’m not the bitch that I am impersonating, so then I get to have it both ways. I get to act like a horrible bitch, and then step back from it and be a regular person again. But I get to go there again and find out what it’s like to be a horrible bitch. (laughs)
A: Was there an emotional state associated with that?
M: Uncaring. Barbara Bush is, I believe, the brains of the Bush family. She must have been a complex figure of motherhood, because her sons turned out so… so…
A: It’s almost unspeakable! So we’re talking about experiencing a wide range of emotions, yes?
M: Yes, and there’s an element of liberation. Maybe everyone’s afraid of our worst impulses. The demons are loose, but they’re loose in a controlled, alternative universe where you can be Barbara Bush.
A: That seems to deal with taboo perhaps, like the earlier work.
M: Taboo, yes. Two things made me grow up to not understand where social boundaries are supposed to be. One of them was being born an outsider, being born a Quaker, and the other one was my father who, well, we don’t know what happened. He crossed lines. Consequently, I didn’t know where the lines were supposed to be because my behavior just went over that line, which means there is no line, which is a horrible emotional place to live in. But, it means that I can do work that other people wouldn’t do. They would come up to the line, and they would stop. But I don’t. I just keep going. So it ends up being a liberating feature in my work rather than a determining one.
A: Right, because then you’ve easily learned where the threshold is, and where to cross it.
M: Yes, yes, you know, I don’t have any sense that I’m crossing it. There’s no trigger that says, “No, the line is here. You shouldn’t go over that line.” I just wander on.
A: It seems then it’s not about crossing it or not crossing it, but about just being in that territory of emotions.
That also makes me wonder about the later photo/text works at your most recent solo show at P.P.O.W Gallery, Mona/Marcel/Marge (2015). There seems to be more of an outward looking eye and playful social engagement with historical figures, and dialogue with your younger self. For me, there was an awareness that was less introspective, but one that looked towards the future, and backwards from the future with acceptance and humor.
I’m going to die (2014) for example stages your open coffin viewing, with your skeleton painted onto your skin, complete with a tee that says “I’m going to die” (which was also on sale at the gallery in S, M, L, and XL). While this could be seen as either the opening or closing work of the exhibition, adjacent works like Bear in mind/Bare in hind (2014) proffer the same total effect of black and white make-up but this time to costume you and your behind as a panda. Maybe you’re looking sideways as you’re becoming Catherine Deneuve in the photo and composite Makeover (2015)—
In Lucy Lippard’s essay “Making Up: Role Playing and Transformation in Women’s Art” (1975), she takes note of your work as going through archetypes of women as an “expansion of self.”
Do you ever feel like these personalities become a part of you? Or is it a self you try on that you then discard?
M: Using the different archetypes to go into different corners and find out what’s in there… When I do my old-lady exercises in the morning on the floor, part of it is expanding your chest cavity and throwing your shoulders back. I lie on a cylinder-shaped roller so that I can get that kind of expansion, and feel what it’s like to have a muscular capacious feeling in my body.
So the thing is, it’s not permanent. It would be great if this transformation work that we’re doing is a one-time event, but it’s not like that at all. You become aware of the fact that you are afraid that everyone is going to throw tomatoes at you and until it becomes an unconscious thing, you have to consciously put yourself in that body position in order to get into the mental state you want to be in.
A: Do you step out of these personalities?
M: Yes, you remember them and then you have a library of altered personas. No drugs either!
A: Has this affected the way in which people have related to you outside of your work?
M: People come up to me on the street more. You become a public figure somehow. The inside of your brain has been shown in your work, so people feel like they know you.
A: I see. And how has inhabiting, for example, the uncaring, bitch personality of Nancy Reagan affected how other people perceive you in life?
M: Regan was elected twice, and I performed as Nancy Reagan at The Kitchen on election night when he was being re-elected. People spat on me. Somebody came over and said, “THIS is not funny!” because I had been invested with the personality of Nancy Reagan. The avant-garde art world was pretty unhappy that Reagan was re-elected, so they took it out on the surrogate Nancy Reagan.
A: You were very believable then.
M: Or very useful. To have there to spit on.
People are not as detached from their emotional landscapes as you might think.
A: It brings up how transformation in live performance and transformation in the photo/text works can be quite different. The former in this case seems to have been the more volatile one.
M: Indeed. It’s scarier to do live performance. You can do over photo/texts works. If Michelle [Obama] didn’t have the right expression, I could have hired the same make-up artist and the same photographer and gone back in the studio and done it again. In live performance, you don’t have the do-over.
A: What’s really interesting is that now that I have been listening to you talk about all the personalities, it seems like it is a third person—
A: There’s Claudia, Michelle—
M: (laughs) I very often refer to myself as in the third person when I’m talking about Barbara.
Barbara is a bitch and she’s not going to smile. Just so you understand, that when I’m Barbara, she’s not going to smile.
And then people ask, “Do you always refer to yourself in the third person?”
I do because it separates Martha from Barbara, or whoever that character is. It gives me a tool to know that I am not all the way into Barbara. I still have one foot sticking out.
A: It’s a really interesting in-between place. Kind of like the classic Richard Schechner idea, it’s “not-me and not-not-me.”
M: I didn’t know I agreed with Richard Schechner!
A: And Gertrude. Earlier, I was looking at an excerpt of Gertrude Stein from 1914 that you selected in the publication Martha Wilson Sourcebook: 40 Years of Reconsidering Performance, Feminism, Alternative Spaces (2011). You selected the passage about roast beef, which is really talking about feeling evoking a quality of sand. It’s always re-positioning how we relate to objects and feelings, calling the status quo into question. I know your university and teaching background had been in literature. From the way you talk about the personalities and emotional territories, I feel the process of writing subjectivity may not be so different from how you perform it in your artistic practice.
Or maybe it’s just that we always carry the same fascinations through our mediums.
M: You came very prepared.
A: (laughs) Any last words?
M: I would like the readers to know that you came here with your notes on napkins. And the copy of the Sourcebook is dog-eared. It’s very reassuring. We still have a long way to go with this work, and it is yet to be finished.