A trail of black boots along the sea’s edge. The Goddess, the Housewife, the Working Girl, the Professional, the Earth-Mother, the Lesbian. Bricks that represent a longer arc of the artist’s world making, built through fissures and gaps in the archive. The body that leaves traces as wall etchings. A dress that is gracefully carried, comprised of gloves to playfully invert standard beauty tropes. Immersed, a figure that swims in the Mississippi River to remind humanity of its toxic imprint.

At turn confrontational, playful, subtle, but always resonant, the images, videos, and materials represent an archive of social and political experience. They extend our sight beyond the page into touch and sound. They also show how embodiment and materiality are central in such a performative world. We might note that at the center are edges and at a time when these were sharp enough to cut through the forcefield of accepted norms.

From the vantage point of our capitalized present, it can be difficult to imagine alternatives. Yet through Franklin Furnace: Performance & Politics we observe an edge world archive of potentialities and of experimental living, a performance archive of the “what was” and “what could yet be.” Indeed, the New York City art scene during the 1970s and 1980s cross-pollinated between disciplines and social classes, bringing together multiracial communities and multiply identified genders in ways that continue to influence how we perceive ourselves and others. As the sensorium of experimentation expands, however, beware! In such spaces there is more to be suspicious of and even more creative enactments to police and criminalize.

In Oraison H. Larmon’s brilliant interview with Martha Wilson, we come to understand the meaning, context, and importance of artistic spaces, especially those not legitimated by the art establishment. As Wilson explains, Franklin Furnace became the scapegoat of the religious right who tried to censor and shut down political and social alternatives. Indeed, the U.S. culture wars of the 1990s targeted queer artists who performed imaginaries outside of hetero-norms; they also tried to dismantle state funding for heterogeneous social expressions as represented by the attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts.

Artistic undercurrents and thoughtful edge play have often been under attack by the monoculture of the political right. Indeed, in the dominance of this harrowing moment let’s not be confused. The collection that follows can guide us to seek bodily and representational language that reaches beyond a single node that is monoculture to an imaginative network of affiliations and investments. Such materials can also help us navigate beyond the moralizing and unidimensional thinking and undoing that is liberalism. We might ask this simple question: How can we look at this collection in historical context to decipher other kinds of being? These collected materials available to access online through the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library reveal a powerful stream, offering a memoryscape of where we have been and where we might want to go.

Macarena Gómez-Barris
Professor & Chairperson, Social Science & Cultural Studies
Director, Global South Center
Pratt Institute