There’s news every week now of the mayor’s administration scrambling to find another parking lot or piece of land for more tent cities and car camps in Seattle. Meanwhile, Seattle is chockablock with massive real estate developments and fresh tech recruits. This is a state of emergency, as declared by the mayor in November.
A local philanthropist is bringing in backup. The backup is 72-year-old Martha Rosler, an artist and a fighter. In 1989, she commandeered the Spectacolor sign in Times Square in her home city in order to smear the commercial center with the ugly facts of the nation’s poverty and housing crisis. That public artwork was called Housing Is A Human Right, which is also the title of Rosler’s new year of exhibitions, talks, and workshops in Seattle, starting this weekend.
The philanthropist is Shari Behnke, who founded The New Foundation Seattle with director Yoko Ott. This year, out of the blue, the foundation announced the $100K Prize, to be given every two years to an accomplished female-identified artist. Rosler is the first recipient.
To a person shivering in a leaky tent, giving $100,000 to an artist makes no sense at all. None. It’s money that could buy food, shelter, and warmth right now. Dismissing that perspective is only easy if you’re not in need of food, shelter, and warmth right now.
Yet that $100,000, spent directly, could also amount to nothing more than a one-time show of charity, like the tokens occasionally doled out (to great fanfare) by corporations. After charity goes home for the day, then what? There is no shakeup.
Maybe Rosler’s work, popping up all over the city for a year, instigating conversations and refusing to disappear at the end of a single-season exhibition, can contribute to some form of shakeup. We'll see.
Rosler won't make new work for her visit to Seattle. She’ll reconstruct past exhibitions (at The New Foundation’s gallery), join and promote discussions with affected people and the activists who support them (beginning at the Central Library on Saturday), and show her two most famous series of photomontages (at Seattle Art Museum through July). More events will be held at the University of Washington, Seattle Design Festival, and Northwest Film Forum.
Rosler has always meant her art as a means to action. In the last few years she’s become something of an art legend but she was never an insider in the gallery world. She spent her career critiquing the injustices baked into American life with respect to war, poverty, urban development, and women’s bodies. And she’s been an equally ferocious critic of the way that art can fortify wrongs rather than redress them by playing into the terms of a system that creates the problems in the first place. Her career has been a steely voyage across the rocky waters of simply trying to do no harm.
I talked to Rosler on the phone from her studio in Brooklyn before she left to travel west last week. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. I’ll continue to write about Housing Is A Human Right as it unfolds throughout the year.
When did you begin fighting for social change?
If you want to talk about origins, I’m from essentially the same era and the same place as Bernie Sanders, and I, too, was on the march on Washington for jobs, justice, and equality in 1963. I was too young to be a Freedom Rider and my parents would have murdered me. Neither of us is religious but our religion, which is Judaism, has as its main call social justice and so that was very much part of my upbringing. And I’m on the left: I can’t tolerate the idea that some people are more entitled than others and I just think this artificial gulf between us and them is a way of keeping us all subjugated.
I didn’t do anything because I was a young girl in a big city living in a community that essentially kept its girls cloistered. But whenever I could, I guess, I helped pass around civil rights cards and by the way in the ’50s you were raised to never sign anything because what happened to people who signed cards for various political things in the ’30s was that they lost their jobs in the ’50s under McCarthyism. I helped with minor organizing in my high school for the Congress of Racial Equality and SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], and I joined the antiwar effort and did as much as I could to help in the fight for equality. …There was a law that you had to take cover during air raid drills and I joined some of my fellow classmates and we stood in front of City Hall instead, where you could be arrested. Back then, it was a possibility that if you got arrested, you could never get a job for the rest of your life… Maybe the action sounds feeble compared to the protest culture of today, but my generation reinvented protest culture. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, it’s not so much what did I do, it’s with whom did I ally myself.
Once I was no longer in my parents’ house, my presence at antiwar protests was pretty constant. The montages [House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967-’72] were works that were not intended as art. I made them as Xeroxes. It used to be at demonstrations somebody would hand you this incredibly text-ridden sheet of mimeographs against war, and I had this idea not to have any text at all, just pictures to be handed out at demonstrations, and that’s where they went. Then subsequently, a couple of them went into the feminist antiwar newspaper in San Francisco that I was associated with when I moved there.
How did art people get them into museums?
People tried from the ’70s and I refused, but first, one of them was published in Artforum by Benjamin Buchloh. I always, always show them at talks to young artists. I show them, “Look, this is easy, think about this, you can do this, too.” So at some point a dealer asked if he could have a show of them. I called up a friend and said what do you think, and he said, well, be careful there’s a fad for that now but—and I always say this about my friend’s remark—he was a critic, he said, if they wind up being shown in the art world, they will do what you want, which is to say look this is easy you can do this too, and the other half is that your name will be associated with it. I said oh, an appeal to history and to ego. I mean, this was literally what my reaction was: You got me on two counts.
Let’s go back to Bernie Sanders. What did you think about the Black Lives Matter protesters who challenged him in Seattle?
You wanna be a politician, you need to deal with the changing of constituencies. I’m not here to defend Bernie Sanders. He proved his bona fides way back in the ’60s, but… what he hasn’t done was realize that he couldn’t talk as though everyone would understand what he was saying. He needed to take into account that there are specially targeted, specially disadvantaged populations that needed to be part of his rhetorical address in order for people to get on board. I think he needed to be told “Listen, we don’t hear enough about one of the most potent issues of the moment.” You cannot keep on talking as though you are talking to white people in Burlington.
I assume you think he’s the best candidate in the field running for president?
I think he is the best candidate. It’s absolutely, in my opinion, essential to support him. It’s absolutely crucial that the things he wants to talk about get talked about. For instance, everybody should see the movie The Big Short. Even though it cuts corners, it’s still really necessary to remind people why we are where we are.
Your archive reminds people why we are where we are, too.
A project like the one that we’re trying to put together at the New Foundation in Seattle is designed as a catalyst about what can people in Seattle do to save their city from being simply sold off to the highest bidder.
How do people organize within communities? How do they demand from their elected reps—from Kshama Sawant on down—to make Seattle actually be for Seattleites. So the idea is not to look at a show from the past, but to say, “Oh, I hate that! We should do X instead.”
So somebody calls you up one day and says, you’ve won $100,000.
It literally came out of nowhere because [the award] didn’t exist before. I had no idea… I’d never heard of them [the New Foundation].
In addition to the money, various venues in Seattle will host a year of events talking about your work on the issues of housing and gentrification, starting with the archive of your 1989 shows at Dia in New York, called If You Lived Here...
If You Lived Here… consisted of three shows. When I did it, I’d actually been invited to have a solo show at Dia, and I decided that didn’t make any sense. Because a lot of people had actually worked on the same issue, a lot of artists, but almost all of them non-art-world artists or artists outside of New York City. I felt that there was a blind spot in New York on this issue, and that I should be organizing a show rather than having a show.
I didn’t think anybody would even talk about it afterward. I was very surprised that I was invited to speak about it in foreign countries and then places wanted to show pieces from the show or documents of the show. I was interviewed by foreign press but not the American press; it was all very odd to me. We didn’t document the shows properly because I really didn’t expect it to be more than a momentary effort to draw the art world together to talk about homelessness and housing. So periodically this show gets invited various places and starting in 2009, the actual archive of documents started traveling because there’s been a resurgence of interest in the archive.
How do you show the archive, and how do you re-activate it?
I’m really a believer that when people go to a show they want to see images. After the first version, which was just boxes, I started putting back up photocopies of the shows themselves.
I won’t ever, except in certain circumstances, show this work without having a local component that deals with the now, because it’s really morally untenable to be showing work about homelessness from the late 1980s when in fact this is an ongoing crisis and encompasses not just homelessness but questions of neighborhood pushback and city planning. So it’s about gentrification, to put it succinctly, and neoliberalism.
Dia gave you space to create If You Lived Here… but put restraints on the project, too. Can you talk about how you get away with what you do in an increasingly market-driven art world?
There were two faces of Dia. There was this rather cloistered high art almost completely white male white cube showing space: very, very high art, modernist aestheticist work, some of it quite compelling.
But they also had a really wonderful series of public panel discussions and books called Conversations in Contemporary Culture, which I think were published by Thatcher Bailey at Bay Press [of Seattle, now-defunct] and I’d actually participated in one of those, giving a talk. Those were much more socially engaged, shall we say. So they [Dia] were kind of shamed by Yvonne Rainer, who was on their advisory board, into having some shows that reflected that. And so they invited me and Group Material.
It’s not that the art world lets me do anything. In fact, I’ve in many ways ignored the art world and done what I pleased, and it’s only by dint of continuing to work since the mid-’60s and living long enough to have my work shown in schools and on the internet and to have gotten popularly recognized for videos like Semiotics of the Kitchen. I’ve worked in disparate fields in art and in disparate ways, so I’ve become semi-ignorable rather than fully ignorable.
They always say about a woman artist is that she’s a splash when she’s young, ignored when she’s middle-aged, and discovered when she’s old. In a way that’s true, and it’s happened to a number of colleagues as well, the prime example being Louise Bourgeois.
Several of your works are firmly in the canon now: Semiotics; Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained; House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home; and The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems.
Notice that they’re all really different, which I am required for consistency and honesty to point out that that’s also made me a problem for the art world. They like people to have a signature style. I also write, which is even worse.
How do you relate to “participatory” art?
I would say that if you look at the work The Bowery, which is a photo-text work that I think you mentioned from the mid-’70s, it’s about not speaking for someone. So the term participatory, that is a kind of analytic frame that got hung on things later.
If you look at the work of my friend and actually former student Rirkrit Tiravanija, his work is in many ways participatory but it isn’t directed toward the political—it’s something else. I’m starting not with the idea of participation but of inclusion and inviting people to speak for themselves. If that’s participatory, it doesn’t stem from the Allan Kaprow idea of eradicating the space between the audience and the performer. Though I knew Allan ever since I was a teenager and very much respected him, his work was very much within the art world and expanding the discourses of art within art and not competing with mass culture.
I wanted my work to be more inserted into issues we were all thinking about, like nuclear war and the Vietnam War, and to include people not involved in aesthetic conversations, people not from the art world.
Conversations about social concerns seem more empowered in the art world today than they were five, ten, or twenty years ago. Is it just a cycle?
Yes, just as they were back in the ’70s and early ’80s. That’s when the Guerrilla Girls got their start. It’s always been part of the nonsanctioned, nonreviewed art world. One of the participants who was in If You Lived Here…—he was a white male, a squatter—said there were homeless people in lots of people’s shows back then because they were a very big part of the Lower East Side landscape and of course the New York City landscape.
This was not part of the mainstream art discourse, which always distances itself from these things until it can’t. Dia did it by putting me and Group Material in their SoHo building and not in their brand new Chelsea building. It definitely was a way of walling us off. And if you look it up, when Lynne Cooke was heading up Dia, they had a listing of shows at Dia and it didn’t include Group Material’s or mine, so I asked her about it, and she said, “I think we’ll leave it at things that were shown at the Chelsea building.” So even years later, there was a reluctance to acknowledge it.
But there was a whole cohort of artists showing on the Lower East Side who really were engaged in talking about many things that were actually social forces in New York City and the environs. And I guess that they, along with artists outside New York who had no access to the high art world in New York—and back in those days you had to be in or near New York to count—those were the artists who had been doing work about the issues I had been interested in for this show. There was Fashion Moda in the Bronx, and the South Bronx was the epitome of the failed neighborhood. People used to do bus tours showing the devastation there, showing the Third World in the First World. Now people are romanticizing New York in the ’70s and ’80s and there’s some reason for that, but it’s mostly wrong.
And now comes changing Seattle.
This is an effort on the part of the New Foundation to say how can we stop ourselves from being turned into San Francisco. Seattle of course is a lovely place to live. I used to live in San Francisco, which was a lovely place to live, and I used to visit Seattle a lot. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s a particular way of living in the environment, the environment that is the earth.
What do you mean?
I think one of the attractions of both San Francisco and even more so Seattle is that it brings with it—or at least that’s what it seemed to me visiting back in the ’80s and early ’90s—was that people really are not fully urbanized in the sense of someone who was just saying to me here [in NY] the other day, “I’m afraid of trees, I just want city streets, I don’t want to think about going outside the city and camping or any of that stuff.” I think the Northwest is a place where one considers that one lives in the earth and not in some artificial construct. And in which people take great pleasure in going out of the urban environment and experiencing a different way of being.
That’s funny, since Seattle is such an artificial construct, given the regrades of its downtown hills in the early decades of the 20th century.
Yes! When I was there in 1991, I wanted to do a work about how they bulldozed the city, but I didn’t have enough money to do that as well as the PSAs. I mean really, you did what? You leveled that hill!
Seattle’s first event around your work opens this week at The New Foundation. That’s just the beginning.
The New Foundation Seattle has a gallery, so we’re going to have three shows that in some way conform to representations of the three discrete shows that made up If You Lived Here… at Dia.
For Seattle, there will be about 50 videos. This year I finally decided to reconstruct the videos that were an integral part of the show at Dia but which no one ever writes about because you’d have to sit down and watch those videos. I got tired of those writings and reviews being about what was on the wall when it was about public meetings and events and a library.
The rubric for the year’s programming is based on a Times Square animation that I did called Housing Is A Human Right but the three shows are made up of archival material. There are no original materials in terms of the actual works that we borrowed in 1989.
Do you consider whether your work works? Whether it helps?
Isn’t this a moment to quote Martin Luther King that the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice? No social problem is ever solved in a minute. For instance the question of Black Lives Matter. Or feminism in its first wave. Things move forward and then there’s backlash and backlash and backlash, and then a new generation says, “Hey, our grandparents were talking about this stuff so now we’re REALLY angry.” So I never try to second-guess that. I will say that the Bowery essay [In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)], which I wrote about 7 years after The Bowery, actually had a significant effect on the production of documentary. There was backlash, and people saying I wanted an end to all documentary, and I’ve had to say please look again, that’s not what it said—but really, one just always tries to move forward. I also think that you can never ask an artwork so did it work? Because it’s not art that brings about social change. It can only help.
Do you ever experience hopelessness?
Only about the fact that we’ve managed to destroy the earth as a habitat for many species including our own, but otherwise no. I would say I’m a cautiously pessimistic optimist. But I am worried about small things like, oh, the fate of the earth.
What new work are you making now?
I have a lot of old projects to catch up on, because I keep being invited to redo old works! But I’m trying to edit footage I shot in Russia, footage I shot in South Africa, both in the early ’90s. And I think I’m about to publish a book called The Art of Cooking, which is a mock dialogue between Julia Child and [restaurant critic] Craig Claiborne that, in talking about is cooking art, is a rethinking of the questions of aestheticism. I wrote it in the mid-’70s. The first chapter of it was published by Anton Vidokle as the first contribution of substance to something called Supercommunity, which was for the Venice Biennale. It’s an e-flux project.
I should probably ask what you’ll do with the money.
Oy, yoy, yoy. Pay my assistants. I’m retired now from my teaching job, which was the main source of my income even though I do sell work. I have at the moment six people working with me. This will keep me able to pay them without having to completely spend all my savings.
Because you’re in demand, you have to pay assistants to work with you, and therefore because you’re in demand, you have no money.
All true. All true. And I know this sounds ridiculous and carping but finding the people who had made all those 50 or so videos that I showed back in 1989 and persuading them to find their old work and get it to me in playable form has been extremely time-consuming and even expensive, and the labor of a number of people in the studio here for a year. That’s just the backstory on a small element, but I really think it was important for getting this work back into the public eye.
A couple videos were made by local television affiliates, some are public access, some are made by television workshops for young people, the bulk were made by artists, one or two were made by actors who decided they couldn’t stand it anymore and took on a role, some were made by filmmakers and videomakers, and some by church groups, a very small number. At the time, we did a search of what was available on the issues of housing, urban planning, mental illness, people living under pressure, people living on the streets, people in shelters and halfway houses; that’s how we put them together originally. There’s even visual poetry by some of the videomakers talking about the meaning of place or home or having one’s own room.
You often use the term “housing” rather than “homelessness.”
It was really important to me when I decided to do a show on homelessness that it not be a pity party, and therefore it became three shows in which the center one was about homelessness, but the first was about urban fightback and the third was about architecture and urban planning. So it wasn’t about homelessness, which coincided exactly with neoliberalism and its relationship to the right to the city.
And of course Seattle does have a quote-unquote homelessness problem: there’s always a way to try to blame individuals but I think you quickly find out there’s always the issue of displacement. I think in Utah, they just decided to give the homeless homes. In Florida, they decided to give veterans homes; somehow veterans are more worthy than ordinary people. This is about what can we do to say, “We’re here, our neighborhoods are under threat, and we want to stay here.” The conversation can’t be, “Good news, your neighborhood’s coming up!” “The bad news: just not for you!”
Most of all, it’s not a conversation about us and them. I’ll have none of that. I’m just not interested in that.
There was one rule when we put out the open call and I was very clear about this. I will never have a picture of a person lying on the street in these shows because if you want to see a person lying in the street, go outside.