Interview with Martha Rosler
Martha Rosler works in video, photo-text, installation, and performance, and writes criticism. She has lectured extensively nationally and internationally. Her work in the public sphere ranges from everyday life — often with an eye to women's experience — and the media to transportation, architecture, and the built environment. I met Martha Rosler in New York in November 2004, and we started to talk about her participation in Utopia Station and about her ongoing exhibition in Hannover, at the Sprengel Museum. Martha Rosler
Felicia Herrschaft: You’re a participant and a member of the Utopia Station project, so the question is, because Utopia Station always has ongoing conversations in exhibitions spaces, as in museums or the Venice Biennale is there something changing in, or is there a transformation going on in what an exhibition means, or what has this to do with changing categories in the art world or what does this have to do with your work? Is there something changing? What do you think about this?
Martha Rosler: I will start with the word 'utopia', which almost all of us rejected! But when it became "Utopia Station"-- because of Rirkrit Tiravanija building a station within the Biennale exhibition--it became much more acceptable as an idea. I think women don't very often feel comfortable with utopias because they usually give women a secondary place or are thought up by men to suit their own ideas, whereas women are looking for equality in this world before we can begin to think about how to produce another one. But 'utopia station' is an attractive idea because it suggests that we
can think about how we might get to 'utopia' sometime without having
to worry about actually getting there. In terms of exhibitions, Utopia Station is an interesting concept because it is not concerned with producing an exhibition as much as with producing a set of discourses that may or may not result in an exhibition in a recognized space. The group first came together around the exhibition of that name at the 2003 Venice Biennale, curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. But the curators explained that they were more interested in producing a book, a set of posters, a number of seminars, meetings, and conversations than they were in actually crystallizing an exhibition. Utopia Station held a conference in Poughkeepsie before the Biennale, and has held others since then. We can see from the last Documentas that it is possible to have a traditional exhibition and still have conferences associated with it, so maybe this is nothing new, but it seems that the curators just as soon hold the conferences and the publications, and the posters, and bypass the exhibition entirely. The group intends to attend the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January, not to hold an exhibition, but to do what is still not clear--except that it will be informal.
It may simply consist of having an open studio on the radio every night and perhaps we will bring posters and perhaps we won't. But our intention is to learn more about the social forum and what grass-roots organizers are thinking about regarding the possibilities of social transformation through routes other than governments and states and even non governmental organizations, which become an alternative government. The World Social Forum creates a kind of global public sphere every year where people exchange ideas. I am pleased that the group does not plan to bring "art to the masses" but simply to learn and to take part in the larger conversation. Utopia Station has also given us the opportunity to hold private meetings and talk about what art might possibly have to offer in such gatherings. In terms of my own practice I am interested in it for
precisely the reason that it's sloppy. It's not a neat exhibition idea, it's not interested in curating particularly and it's not interested in very high profile publications that claim it to be the new model. In fact, I find it rather modest and understated.
Felicia Herrschaft: In relation to your work as a painter--what does this have to do with making art now? You have the viewpoint of someone who has had a long period of making art and now you have conversations and interact with curators, artists and the public. What does this have to do with transformations of giving or making a picture? Installation art always has to do with transformation of who the viewer is; what the perspective of the viewer is and with what kind of perspective on art or on art in relation to the live world it has. This is changing in how you have the Utopia Station's meetings with audience. Is there a new hierarchy or is there no hierarchy between the viewer and the artist?
Martha Rosler: I wouldn't make such big claims about it. But it does provide a model of talking with members of the audience on a fairly equal footing, in as comfortable a situation as we can manage, and we did try to do that in the last installation of Utopia Station. In the Biennale I held a seminar with anyone who wanted to attend about the possibility of art in communities and outside of ordinary institutions--as we know, artists at least for the last 100 years have been looking for ways to do that. It's something that we're constantly renegotiating every time we meet with the public-- we are renegotiating that particular corner, if you will, of the 'art public sphere', the pubic sphere that includes people who have come into the space of discourse in relationship to an art object, an art idea, or something related. So it's specialized but also looks beyond itself.
Felicia Herrschaft: And in relation to your work or your way of becoming an artist?
Martha Rosler: I gave up painting because I wasn't interested in having things that hang on a wall where people would quietly come and look at them. I was looking for something much more active. And that's why I began to make photomontages, and postcard novels that were sent through the mail, and events that might take place in an art gallery but were concerned with everyday life like a garage sale, a transaction that people would ordinarily engage in, something they recognize. And the terms of the exchange are about something they also recognize. I have done a lot of work about food because it is something that we all understand and can appreciate even as an aesthetic object. I don't fetishize these things in the events or installations-- the food or the Garage Sale clothing -- but I do like people to take a step back every once in a while and think about how these items and practices function in our society. For me the concept of an exhibition is very fluid because it might consist merely of things that people take away.
Felicia Herrschaft: Does this have something to do with the fluidity in the live world? Because of communication we can talk about it as a new paradigm, which is more important than picking up pictures? Making collages as one step to the communication process?
Martha Rosler: That's correct. I think the importation of the communicative paradigm into art in the 1960's is really what made me finally give up painting. Paintings are mute in a way that other forms of art objects are not. The photograph is not mute, it speaks to people and people speak back to it, and all kinds of conversations can occur around it and the photomontage even more so because it speaks about a rupture or a displacement, and that is really interesting to me.
Felicia Herrschaft: If there is a rupture or displacement and you're here in NYC, are you really situated in New York as a New York artist? And you always have this kind of rupture and displacement in New York, or you have a new placement when New York immigrants become New Yorkers. Has this something to do with how you became someone who is looking at the issue of displacement?
Martha Rosler: Well, all New Yorkers are in some sense outsiders. So many of us trace our immediate heritage elsewhere, whether in the first generation or the second, and sometimes the third. We are also not quite of a piece of the rest of the United States-- we are very literally looking at the US from a distance. I mean, we are on the islands here! Like so many cosmopolitan cities, we don't fully engage in the national culture, nor do we fully approve of it--we are not fully of the country that we are part of. We have retained that quasi-outsider status, and with modern communication and transportation, so many New Yorkers retain close ties to their homeland--although this is not available to most Jews of European origin, of course, because of the Hitlerian genocide of World War II. But many Mexican and Latin American immigrants, for example, are people straddling two worlds. This provides sometimes an uncomfortable status, but it doesn't make them any the less New Yorkers. New York is highly diverse, and we like it that way.
Felicia Herrschaft: There is really the question that I asked in Houston: to find out, if artists have the same position as migrants in the world. But as an artist you are always part of a dominant culture and you are not really as devaluated as immigrants in a hegemonial culture.
Martha Rosler: Right. And we have to remember that economically we are in a much better position to negotiate the middle-class world of jobs--even if we don't get middle-class jobs, at least most artists are middle class in spirit, in the sense of knowing where to go to get what we need.--whether it is medical care or anything else. Most of us either are born here or are born into countries where we were middle class. Let's take, in contrast, rural immigrants, like people from Mexico who make up such a huge percentage of our labour force. They often come from places where there are no social services or where the social services are not available to them, and they are discouraged from seeking them here. So, artists are not like immigrants. Artists may call themselves nomads because we are itinerant, but we are not immigrant. We often have to travel for what we do, but that's a different status. We do have a home base.
Felicia Herrschaft: Robert E. Park wrote “The Marginal Man”, and Stonequist commented on this issue, that the marginal man always has this perspective of being in two cultures. Because of being in two cultures, you have an overview of both cultures, and I think this describes in a way the position of artists?
Martha Rosler: That's true, I suppose. But why isn't it true also of people who have other professions?
Felicia Herrschaft: Can you say something about on what you are working in Hannover? What process are you in?
Martha Rosler: I am working on the accompanying book, which is a fairly traditional photo book. The exhibition itself will have other elements--it is hard to talk about what it will be in advance. But it won't just be a photo exhibition. And there will be video as well as the photomontages I produced in response to the US invasion of Iraq.
Felicia Herrschaft: Yes, and the invasion in Iraq, which...it is really difficult, because there are some reasons for the invasion because it was a terror regime and the people suffered a lot of cruelties and were tortured every day. Aren't there two sides? What do you think?
Martha Rosler: There is torture and torture. People were tortured in Iraq under Saddam. I don't know what it means to say the whole population was. But they didn't send us a letter or a delegation saying please come overthrow our leader and wreck our country so that you can save us. We were not invited there. And we have, so far, killed a lot of people and caused a lot of people to suffer every day, and on false premises. We lied about why we were there, and we are still lying, and Americans are dying, too.
Felicia Herrschaft: and what is now the situation here in the United States? Are a lot of people scared because Bush was re-elected? What are your feelings in relation to that?
Martha Rosler: We are quite worried and trying to think what we can do next, because this is an extremely dangerous and radical regime that we have here. It is intent on a dangerous foreign policy and a dangerous domestic policy. These are unprincipled, unscrupulous, dangerous, dishonest people. Many people have remarked this is our Weimar Moment because there are so many authoritarian-populist elements of the Bush regime.
Felicia Herrschaft: Yes, I think it's a big menace.
Martha Rosler: We are very worried about the loss of our civil liberties and reproductive rights and the destruction of our economic future. The destruction of medical care--as it is, we have excellent capacity for medical care but very poor access for millions of people. And the destruction of our pensions, so there will be no security for us or our children.
Felicia Herrschaft: Yes, ok. So if you don't go to Porto Alegre what is then for you the next step for Utopia Station?
Martha Rosler: I am not sure. And Molly Nesbit seems to think we will go to Porto Alegre again next year, because the World Social Forum is held every year. ... I think it is very difficult to say what our utopian horizon is, which is what I think you are asking about-- what is the ideal that one would like to see? In the US the gap between rich and poor is greater than it has ever been in our history. We look more like Brazil every day, with poorer and poorer people at the bottom who have no access to social goods, and the oil men at the top.
Felicia Herrschaft: Thank you very much for the interview.
Martha Rosler was born in Brooklyn, New York. She took her B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1965 and her M.F.A. from the University of California, San Diego, in 1974. She has published several books of photographs, texts, and commentary on public space, ranging from airports and roads to housing and homelessness. Her most recent books are Decoys and Disruptions, an essay collection, and Passionate Signals, a book of photographs to accompany the Sprengel Museum exhibition.
Her work has been seen in the "Documenta" exhibition in Kassel, Germany; several Whitney biennials; the Dia Center, the Museum of Modern Art, The New Museum, and The Institute of Contemporary Photography, in New York;
MACBA, Barcelona; the Generali Foundation, Vienna; Nederlands Foto Instituut, Rotterdam;
Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Liverpool and Taipei biennials of 2004; and many other international venues. Her next solo exhibition is a Garage Sale at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.
Martha Rosler “If not now, when?”
The SPECTRUM International Prize for Photography from Stiftung Niedersachsen 2005 January 30 – May 16, 2005