Interview with Martha Wilson

EH: Language is a strong element in your work, and performance is an analytical, expressive and reflexive way to make art and engage with spectators in very direct way. How did you become a conceptual artist and how did you model your identity through performance?
MW: My parents raised me as a quaker, the quaker is where the big weirdos went in England in the 1600´s, and they got thrown out and found Pennsylvania  so I was raised in Newton Pennsylvania, and then I went to a quaker college in Ohio and we were fighting the Vietnam war when I graduated from Wilmington College in 1969. Pretty much at the hight of the Vietnam war, we had something called the “Kent State shootings” the following year the 1970, when the national guard just shot students in the campus in Ohio,  some miles away from Wilmington. So, my boyfriend didn´t want to be drafted and I got a better scholarship from Canada, anyway, and we moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1969. He was getting a Master in Fine Arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, I was getting a master in English Literature at Dalhousie University, so I come from language to art, so we get there and it´s the coolest art school in North America because they were bringing all the conceptual artist of the day through the school Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Joseph Kosuth, Joseph Beuys, Peter Kubelka, also European artists, most of them boys. most of them white. Lawrence Weiner, Richard Serra, Ian Wilson. Anyway, There´s a piece by John Davis that really annoyed me. He was moving in a public park, where he stablished a bird feeder, and a bird used the bird feeder and he moved the bird feeder three feet everyday through the park, so he was enlarging the territory of the bird.
Who cares, this is not vital, somehow, to life on the planet. First of all, I didn´t know whether I could call myself an artist, I was an english literature major, whatever, I hanged out at the artist college because the kids were cooler at the art college than at the Dalhousie University. I started doing conceptual… concept based work, that critiqued the kind of conceptual art that I felt men were doing that did not actually engaged with what was really happening in the world. So, the first work of visual art that I ever did was called “Breast forms per-mutated” which looks at the shape that has no limit. Every single woman in the planet is going to have different bubs. So it´s a spoof of the work of Sol Lewitt, Sol Lewitt was doing line drawings…Let´s se.. he would hang out instructions for his drawings,so, all lines going North - south, east and west, red and blue, he gave out the instructions he didn´t do the the drawings he gave out the instructions for the drawings on a 3 by five card, so the locus of the art is not on the 3 by 5 card, and actually not on the wall on either it´s in the concept for the drawing so I started doing concept based work that I thought engaged with my female body and other female bodies.
EH: In the video Deformation, you show how to make yourself look the way you fear to look like, you talk about the angle of the camera and put some make up on. Somehow, you are representing what´s currently happening with those youtube tutorials that show the opposite, tricks to look yourself better by analyzing the angle of the camera and putting on make up. How do you think that stereotypes and identity have been modified with time from 1972 to 2015 with the selfie?
MW: The artist who used to be separated from society and standing on some mountain over here, it´s now equal with everybody because everybody has phones and everybody is taking selfies so everybody can participate in the discourse about how you look and the images that you present, I think that the discourse is definitely changing. There is a lot of discussion about weight you are allowed to be fatter now than you were allowed to be… certainly when I was a young woman, you had to be a stick, you had to be a pencil really really thin, that was the ideal. Now I think we are softening that ideal, because of the influx of real people, and real images.
EH: What´s so interesting is that seeing your videos make people thing that is so easy to be aware of your identity, context, frontiers, limitations and expectations, but it is not. How did you realize that you wanted to point out these subjects specially thinking specially about the position of women in a society dominated by men?
MW: Well, so I moved to Canada with my boyfriend, and then he dumped my ass, he broke up with me, which was at the time just a terrible thing, but it gave me the chance to put my personality back together by myself and not in relation to a man. This was all happening in an art school environment that was dominated by men, that was the way of the world at that time. When I decided to be an artist I went to Gerry who was my painting teacher at Wilmington College who had moved to this school and told us “This is the coolest art school in North America you have to come up here” I said I wanted to be an artist and he said “women don´t make it in the art world”. And it was true at that time. There was a critique, Lucy Lippard who decided to give ten years of her life to just curate shows of women, because women were so behind the curve of success so she put me on her show, I met other women artist through that catalogue and I automatically moved to New York because she told me “Yes you are an artist, and yes there are other women who are doing this concept driven performance work like you are”
EH: What´s your opinion about repressive societies and the role of women who are still fighting for their rights, but at the same time they are not allowed to speak out loud?
MW: There are so many repressive societies and even here in the United States there are very newly repressive laws being inactive for example the right to legal abortion is being challenged at all the time in the State of Mississipi, Texas, Alabama, Georgia. It is difficult to get an abortion. You don't have freedom of decision as a young woman.
EH: Are you aware of the impact and effects you have created around the world? Students and professors are watching your videos at Universities and you have been inspiring and changing other people´s minds and lives. Do you realize that you are being studied and you have a profound influence not only in USA, but in other countries where feminism is still a fresh new topic?
MW: You don´t think about that, you thing of the audience of one, the audience of the self, I am doing my work for myself, and if other people benefit from seeing it then I am really really happy. I mean, am thinking of things that are universal to you and to me at your age and at my age that we can both understand and hopefully even though I use a lot of language hopefully the action crosses language barriers as well, …. we share feelings, so.. if we can operate on that level we can live over those barriers.
EH: Can you tell me the story of Franklin Furnace Organization?
MW: … Let´s see. We were born in my living loft at 12 Franklin street, I was living with two roommates and Franklin Furnace was just a clearing in the front, starting as a bookstore and immediately an artist wanted to read from her books so the performance are programs to support and an artist stapled his book up the wall and across the ceiling so the installation program was born. So, for twenty years from 1976 to 1996, we were on, Franklin Street in Tribeca, which is in Lower Manhattan. And during those twenty years America went through  the culture wars when we were in the 70´s experimental artists .. were the “ darlings  “ of the art world, allowed to experiment freely and wildly in the 80´s we became suspicious because we were showing images of sex, naked bodies, that never changed. But politicians found out about it and they were true, because here is something we could divide and separate from the regular god feeding, tax payer people, they said artists are bad, the artists are the virus eating away of the health of the body of the politic. So, we experienced the culture wars, in 1994 when our show “Carnival  Knowledge” which consisted on installation work, artists books, performance work, which was looking at.. whether such a thing as   feminist pornography that was question the curators asked, but the immorality action community  picked up a brochure in our front desk and wrote letters to each of our founders complaining that we had shown pornography to 500 children per day when there were zero children coming to the show, there was all grown up people. But then we were on de defensive we had to defend ourselves with slides of the installations. It was a very difficult time, then a few years later, we got our performance space got closed down by the New York City Fire Department, somebody had turned this into an illegal Social Club. So, then we thought about: How are were going to get freedom of expression to the artists? and Where exactly is that freedom of expression is going to be offered? and we decided to go virtual, to go into the internet. Although, it won´t be free forever it´s freer right now. Then, so called real time and space, so we went virtual on February 1st 1997, and started collaborating with the Dot com to present performances out of the internet, pretty soon what the artists wanted to do got more complicated than the Dot com was willing to put up with so then we moved to Parsons School of Design because they had more software and facilities, and then after that we thought what we really had to do is just go for the concept that the artist has and try to find the venue that is appropriate for that concept and not partner with anybody, partner with everybody. You know whoever is appropriate for that idea. So that´s what we do today, we give money to crazy artists and help them to find a venue to do their projects and then we preserve the documentation of the event, because this work is ephemeral concept based usually performance work, but that does not mean that is not important just because is so ephemeral.
EH: Thank you so much. MW: You´re welcome, welcome.
by Emireth Herrera
Martha-Wilson
Martha Wilson PPOW Gallery New York 2015
  Video-interview in LARMAGAZINE