on performing [ send and receive ]

I sat in a gallery, at a table, in a turret. This was semiprivate space. At Northern Illinois University, the gallery is in a building like a castle. The turret room has arrowslot windows. It felt well-defended. I had daisies, the signifier for the piece. I wore grey. I waited.

performance installation send and receive

send and receive installation

I had invited audience members to come to the gallery, to tell me a story about guns. My request inverted the art object’s signal flow. The audience usually comes to a museum to get something. Now they were asked to give something.

His father taught him how to shoot. What the gun actually does. How to respect it, what code of conduct was related to it.

I am no therapist. I listen when people tell me their experiences. I can be present for their narratives.

Beyond that personal skill, this work is the fruit of working directly with audience for years. I have hosted experimental art-video shows. I used to guard art in museum-spaces from drunk people. I guided museum tours.

This work is a long look at audience relationship with the mediated story [ the artwork itself / the stories in news and entertainment media ] and its authority.

My studio space [ a computer ] means I sometimes make art in public spaces, like coffeeshops. Making ungun I was working with decayed images of guns. The visible screen became an invitation to strangers to interrupt, to ask “Hey what are you doing? That looks cool.” To tell me about guns. About being American with guns.

It meant staying alive, to carry three guns through Bosnia-Herzegovina as a UN-authorized peacekeeper, discovering countless bodies in fields, barns, knee-deep in pits, bodies made by guns. 

Guns are surrounded by cocoon of silence spun, paradoxically, of fear and bombastic noise. They are intimately connected to issues of authority. Who has the right to tell a story about guns – a story that easily can, illusively, be corrupted, become, paranoidly, the story about –

How could she raise her sons and keep guns out of their hands?


send and receive performance installation at Northern Illinois University

send and receive [ turret space ]

I spent four hours in the gallery listening to the space, to the visitors. Very few people accepted my invitation.  That inversion of audience relation to public art space needs a different introduction, perhaps.

I listened to the gallery sounds, to the floor creaks, the oops its time for me to leave hustle footsteps, to the fear. Staff at NIU are most afraid of the young white men with baby faces. That’s what NIU’s mass shooter looked like.

She left the day he brought a gun home. Things were bad enough and she knew the statistics.

Good art encourages the audience to examine their own experience. Art about guns doubles the authority of the mediated story – doubles the illusion that truth is outside of onesself – for the audience.

This is tricksy, working with potentially painful or trauma-sourced content. What is only a signifier for the artist can evoke intense memory for audience members. Memory of lived experience powerful enough that it denies the artwork. It also can challenge the audience member’s ability to manage that memory.

The reality, for people who have survived gun violence personally, or whose daily lives are affected by navigating spaces shaped by that violence – the audience needs to retain that authority over their own difficulty. Ceding that authority to the art doesn’t work.

So – instead of censoring published media, give space for the audience’s voice. Give them a space other than they have to avoid the signal of information coming from the artwork in order to be OK.

I was thanked by members of the NIU community who could not look at UNLOADED.  It was the language of gesture, ameliorating the re-traumatization that can be provided by published media.


send and receive performance installation

send and receive [ daisies ]

run run run : rashid johnson’s fugitive body

Happenstance and a work meeting downtown got me near enough the Museum of Contemporary Art to stop in today. Glad I did, as Rashid Johnson’s show Message to our Folks gave me plenty to consider. Here’s one axis of thought about the work.

The installation-driven work gave me elements of a marred home interior. Flooring, a gallery of wall photos, “oriental” rugs, furniture installation. Fire-branded wood flooring; rugs and furniture defaced in clean, intent gestures. Spray paint has as much intentionality on one rug as the crosshairs machine sewn into a carpet in a separate room.

My personal sense of home is the residence I make in my own body. I find Johnson’s defaced house imagery incredibly compelling.The argument of any cultural hatred (misogyny, racism, homophobia, xenophobia) is, truly, the negative cultural projections written on the body of its targets.



rashid johnson : single work, installation view


Smashed mirrors provide a broken self-image. Who gets seven years bad luck for making this work? No, the bad luck is having poor mirrors, messages that do not reflect the truth of who you are or what your potential might be in this world.  Mirrors reflect the body, physicality, the [perceived] object in which a person lives. A culture providing a broken self-image – and then you live with that . . .



run run run

Run run run. Don’t let them catch you out late, don’t let them catch you walking by yourself, carry yourself shoulders back, wear jeans, the tighter the better, they can’t rip them off easy. Run run run. Rape culture trains women to live in fear of being caught by strangers. How do you carry your keys as you approach the locked door of your apartment? How do you vary your walk home, to not make yourself a target? How do you make sure you don’t make eye contact, but know who’s staring at you on the train?

Run run run. Remembering walking through Bloomfield in Pittsburgh with a friend, stopping to dig in my purse for something and he said “Not here, you’re making yourself a target” and I hissed at him “I am not, I know where everyone is standing on this street”. The crosshairs machine-stitched into the carpeting – its written in the lining of the room, in the wallpaper of your mind, in the carpeting of the psyche. Of course I think of Trayvon Martin, but I also think of Johnny Gammage, who died “driving while black”. And I think of all the targets that hate culture puts on anyone’s back, for any visible, physical reason at all.

Run run run. Hm, frying pan or fire? What humans do not size up, categorize, sort, by appearance, by status, by the metadata attached to the person? Where is the predator who has created the broken mirrors upon which to cut one’s self image?

Run run run.  How has your house been defaced by cultural programming?

For a sense of the whole show, check out artnet’s full photo essay over here. (link takes you to another RUN piece inside the show). Rashid Johnson’s Message To Our Folks is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, through August 5 2012.

I feel like ‘little miss obvious’ writing about this, the work speaks so clearly to me. Would love thoughts from others about it.

womanhouse : forget remember forget remember …

Laura E Davis Really fascinating book review. This really worries me. I see that children are so encouraged to behave within set gender roles, it’s almost like feminism never happened.

Jessica Fenlon Every generation, it is forgotten. Have you ever had a look at Womanhouse?

Laura E Davis Do you mean this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Womanhouse

I had not heard of it, but what an incredible project.

linen closet

WOMANHOUSE : linen closet : 1972

Laura E Davis Oh man, there is a documentary about it. I can’t seem to find it anywhere though. boo.

Jessica Fenlon It is erased – like the work itself. The house used for the installation work was torn down in the end; it was slated for destruction, that’s how the artists got access to it to begin with. And there are no images on Wikipedia.

WOMANHOUSE : Lipstick installation in the bathroom : 1972

WOMANHOUSE : Lipstick installation in the bathroom : 1972

In art history, women’s work tends to be erased because it is left out.  The same seems to be true of some gains made by each generation of feminists. Simple human ignorance, each generation is born into it.

WOMANHOUSE : Bridal Staircase : 1972

WOMANHOUSE : Bridal Staircase : 1972

History makes the metaphor. This symbol-set presenting Female-Body-As-House-Inhabited-By-Her-Personhood was physically demolished.  In art historical memory, erased.

I went on an archeological dig through the Internet. I know this content well, having presented and re-presented it to art school peers and students over the years, a treasure of a work never taught to them by others.

WOMANHOUSE : nurturant kitchen : 1972

WOMANHOUSE : nurturant kitchen : 1972

This particular reconstruction is definitely incomplete. Some images I poached from a blog claiming ‘feminist art history perseverence forever!’. This blog ceased publication after four posts, three years ago.

Art is a language of gestures. How a culture tends to the object-relics related to those gestures tells us about the dominant cultural beliefs of that culture … or at least, what the curators of those cultural beliefs want us to think is permitted.

WOMANHOUSE : f.w. seated in her crocheted 'womb room' : 1972

WOMANHOUSE : f.w. seated in her crocheted 'womb room' : 1972

1972 : Womanhouse is the product of tremendous amount of consciousness-raising in a feminist art education setting. I dare you to discover more about this seminal work of art, work that created environmental installation art.

My assignment to you: find the answers to the following questions. No, you can’t use Wikipedia.

Who “taught” this group of young artists? What school housed the program? Where did you find the art historical documentation about it? Which artists created the specific works I’ve included in this post? What other titles were given to these smaller installations, and by whom? How many installations were in the house? How many performance pieces? What now-famous artists saw this work as audience members?

For extra credit : Why do you think a work of art that lays the foundation for an entire genre can be ignored, overlooked, forgotten?