Oraison H. Larmon conducts an interview with Franklin Furnace Founding Director Martha Wilson. Throughout, the co-curators discuss specific works and artists featured in the Franklin Furnace: Performance & Politics (2018) collection. The interview explores Franklin Furnace’s history as an archive, funder, and presenter of avant-garde art.
ORAISON H. LARMON: Prior to founding Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc., you were creating performances for the camera—Solo Performance Compilation (1972 & 1974), Posturing (1972–1973), and A Portfolio of Models (1974)—which are included in the Franklin Furnace: Performance & Politics (2018) collection. These early solo performances examine your subjectivity as a woman artist and confront the aesthetic practices of male conceptual artists working in the 1970s. Could you discuss how your early solo performances led to the founding of Franklin Furnace in 1976?
MARTHA WILSON: I want to begin by discussing the politics of the male conceptual art world in the early 1970s. When I informed my painting teacher, Jerry Ferguson, that I wanted to be an artist he told me that “Women do not make it in the art world, but if you are serious, you will make black and white art.” I was outraged because he was saying that women had no chance of making it as artists. So, I stomped over to the drugstore to buy a roll of color film to create these performances for the camera. When I was making such work, male conceptual artists—Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Jan Dibbets, Lawrence Weiner, and Ian Wilson—dominated the art world. These artists were creating works that examined the structure of art rather than its aesthetic value. I remember saying to myself “Who cares about this art? Why is this work important? This artwork is not important!”
However, I met with Vito Acconci when he was in residence at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. After reviewing my artwork, he suggested that I read The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956) by Erving Goffman. This book uses theatrical performance as a framework to discuss how we present ourselves in society. Acconci also made me realize that sex could be a legitimate subject to explore in contemporary art. From this point forward, my female subjectivity became the central focus of my performances for the camera.
There was not much of a connection between my early solo performances and the founding of Franklin Furnace. What happened was that my boyfriend broke up with me while we were living together in Canada. My options were to continue teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, or move to New York City to explore my potential as a woman artist. After shortly living in the city, I saw that there was a vacuum in the art world—the uptown art institutions were ignoring the invention of postmodernism that was occurring in the downtown art spaces. So, I founded Franklin Furnace in 1976 to champion ephemeral art that was rejected by mainstream institutions and politically opposed to mainstream cultural values.
OHL: Franklin Furnace was first located at 112 Franklin Street in the Tribeca neighborhood of lower Manhattan. Around the same time that you founded Franklin Furnace, there were many other alternative art spaces—The Alternative Museum, Art in General, Artists Space, Clocktower Gallery, Collective for Living Cinema, Dia Art Foundation, Just Above Midtown, The Kitchen, and Printed Matter—that were located in proximity to Franklin Furnace. Could you describe the art scene during the mid-1970s to the early 1980s in New York City? Why do you think that so many alternative art spaces, some of which still exist today, were founded during this time? What were the politics between the alternative art spaces and the mainstream art institutions in the city?
MW: The New York City art scene during the 1970s and 1980s was full of possibilities to experiment. When I first moved to the city, the artist Dan Graham told me to check out the Clocktower Gallery in Tribeca. Founded by Alanna Heiss, the Clocktower quickly became a legendary alternative art space known for their exhibitions, installations, and performances. Heiss also was the founder of The Institute for Art and Urban Resources and The Idea Warehouse. She later founded P.S.1. Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1), which she transformed into a renowned venue for international contemporary art. Heiss was a leader of the alternative art space movement in New York City. She radically changed how avant-garde art was presented at the time.
I remember attending a performance by Virginia Piersol at The Idea Warehouse in the mid-1970s. She was wearing a harness with two 8mm film projectors mounted onto her body. As Piersol roller skated around the loft, the projected images changed sizes as she traveled throughout the space. I thought that her performance at The Idea Warehouse was great! Piersol told me about the ground floor at 112 Franklin Street when I was looking for a loft in Tribeca. I was able to secure a space in the building and this is where Franklin Furnace was born. The downtown art scene during the 1970s and 1980s was full of people working together to create alternative spaces for avant-garde art.
I believe that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) played a significant role in developing the alternative art spaces in New York City. For example, Brian O’Doherty from the NEA’s Visual Arts Program invited me to have lunch with him and the artist Richard Kostelanetz. He told me that Franklin Furnace should apply to the endowment because they had money to fund art spaces. So, we applied to the NEA seeking funds for our performance art program, which later became problematic in the 1990s when the culture wars erupted in the United States.
The alternative art spaces operated in very different economies from the art world. Uptown art institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum were selling artwork for profit. Whereas the alternative art spaces downtown were supporting artists who were creating ephemeral artwork under the banner of “postmodernism.” Although there was no such terminology during the 1970s, postmodernism evolved to describe time-based art such as artists’ books, temporary installation, and performance art. I believe that this style of art developed from the conceptual art movement, which was concerned with ideas rather than aesthetics. The uptown art institutions did not have much interest in time-based art until the gallery dealers began exhibiting and marketing it. Then the day came when the dealer Leo Castelli sold a Bruce Nauman video for $85,000. This transaction meant that the dealers had figured out how to sell time-based art to mainstream institutions for major profit. Those of us running alternative art spaces downtown knew that this purchase signaled the end of a golden era.
OHL: Franklin Furnace began as an archive of international contemporary artists’ books. The Franklin Furnace collection includes a few artists’ books exhibitions—Dialects: Diverse Bookworks by Black and Hispanic Artists (1980), Artists’ Books from Mexico (1982), and Concrete Poetry (1988). These exhibitions showcased contemporary artists’ books that included a range of aesthetic forms and political subjectivities. What was your interest in collecting, exhibiting, and preserving such materials? How did Franklin Furnace evolve from a collector of artists’ books in the mid-1970s to a presenter of performance art in the early 1980s? Could you discuss the relationship between these mediums in the context of art history?
MW: I was interested in collecting artists’ books because mainstream art institutions were disregarding them as serious works of art. So, I founded Franklin Furnace to collect, preserve, and exhibit contemporary artists’ books from around the world. We became the largest archive of such materials in the United States during the 1980s. Franklin Furnace’s collection policy was that we would accept anything that an artist called a “book.” We did not make judgments about whether the artists’ books were good or if they had any political viability. After years of housing the artists’ books collection, Franklin Furnace sold it to the Museum of Modern Art in 1993 to ensure that these materials would be historically preserved.
Franklin Furnace’s performance art program naturally evolved from the artists’ books collection. The artists who were creating such books wanted to read from them. In the fall of 1976, Franklin Furnace launched its first Artist Reading series, which included works that blurred the lines between the written word, visual poetry, and performance art. Martine Aballea’s Sleep Storm Crystals (1978) was one of the first performances that we presented at Franklin Furnace. She was encouraged by Franklin Furnace Curator Jacki Apple to read from her one-of-a-kind artists’ books. Aballea was joined on stage by Apple and the dancer/choreographer Erin Martin, who created a setting for Aballea to read aloud from her books. After that reading, Apple proposed that Franklin Furnace should have a performance art program and that is how we began to present performance art.
I trace the origins of artists’ books and performance art back to Futurism—an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy during the early twentieth century. In the summer of 1910, the Futurists staged an action at the Clock Tower in Piazza San Marco (Venice, Italy) where they threw 800,000 copies of their manifesto off the top of the tower as people were getting out of a church. The Venetian public was enraged because the Futurist Manifesto claimed that if you worship the past, you are of no value, but if you worship the future, you are of value. So, the townspeople rushed up the Clock Tower, and the Futurists rushed down the tower. They collided in a fistfight at the bottom of the tower over the political content written in the manifesto. The point that I am trying to draw here is the performative relationship between language and the body. Artists’ books and performance art converge through the use of words, images, and gestures to communicate ideas. These are confrontational art mediums that convey notions the general public does not want to hear.
OHL: C. Carr’s “The Fiery Furnace: Performance in the ’80s, War in the ’90s” (2005) examines Franklin Furnace as a presenter of avant-garde art and political art during the culture wars in the United States. In this article, you are quoted stating that by “[…] the mid-1980s the avant-garde was viewed as a virus eating away at the body politic—something that needed to be stamped out if possible. Artists should be—if not killed—at least silenced.” Could you discuss how Franklin Furnace confronted the body politic during the culture wars?
MW: Franklin Furnace confronted the body politic by presenting artists who examined sex as a legitimate subject of contemporary art. Prior to the culture wars, we were already in trouble with the NEA for mounting Carnival Knowledge’s The Second Coming (1984)—an exhibition that explored the politics surrounding feminist pornography. When Franklin Furnace was promoting this exhibition, we included the NEA on our promotional materials. Someone at the endowment said that “Unless the NEA awarded you a grant specifically for this show, you should not be crediting us for it. Do not put language on the front of your brochure to credit the endowment for everything that you do. Just credit the NEA for the shows that we specifically fund.” This response from the NEA was an early sign that the culture wars were going to affect the administration of art. The culture wars were primarily about whether artists were allowed to explore sex as a subject with public money. Representations of sex in performance art, especially queer sex, were very problematic for right-wing politicians.
In 1996, Franklin Furnace received a $100,000 advancement grant from the NEA. The religious right claimed that we spent all that money on Voyeur’s Delight (1996)—a multimedia exhibition that explored the power and pleasure of participating in voyeurism. However, Franklin Furnace did not receive any public or private funds whatsoever to mount this show. The Christian Action Network later staged a Funeral March on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Their performance spectacle featured a grim reaper with a funeral procession that called for the death of the NEA. The group carried two coffins that contained a death certificate for the NEA and sexually explicit images from Voyeur’s Delight. This march was one of many political attacks by the religious right that sought to abolish the NEA.
OHL: The political right attempted to silence Franklin Furnace funded artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Scarlet O, Annie Sprinkle, and Johanna Went. These female artists are included in the Franklin Furnace collection to counter such silence by historically preserving their political agency. What do you think prompted the radical shift that led right-wing politicians to silence artists during the 1980s and 1990s? What is the relationship between political censorship and archival silence in the construction of historical narratives? How did Franklin Furnace counter such silence as an independent archive?
MW: I do not think that the right-wing politicians were successful in silencing artists, especially Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and Annie Sprinkle. These artists kept creating performances that examined sex despite the political backlash they received from the right. The irony of the culture wars was that se had been a legitimate subject of analysis in art history for 50,000 years. However, the right-wing politicians did not want to fund art that depicted sex with public money. As time progressed, the focus of the culture wars shifted to other public sectors. The avant-garde art community was left behind in political trail of dust, and the artists continued making work that explored sex. While the focus of the culture wars never changed, the strategy of the movement shifted over time. The political right became more invested in targeting culture at schools, libraries, and television networks.
Political censorship and archival silence play similar roles in the construction of historical narratives. The group of artists known as the “NEA Four”—Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller— experienced political censorship when the NEA revoked their grants on the grounds of obscenity. This incident was a historic moment that impacted how artists were thinking about documenting their artwork. For example, I know that Karen Finley was selective about recording her performances because the press attacked her. Tim Miller was careful about who had access to video documentation of his shows because the footage was used against him by conservatives. Other artists chose not to document their performances during the culture wars for political, conceptual, and personal reasons.
As an independent archive, Franklin Furnace has countered archival silence by preserving avant-garde art. Being a Quaker pack rat, I save everything that Franklin Furnace does so that future generations can access our history. We never had an exclusive policy about what materials we should collect as part of our archives. Instead, Franklin Furnace’s highest priority has always been to provide access to our materials. We created an online database called the Event Archives so that people around the world can research our archives. These are a few ways that Franklin Furnace has confronted archival silence, especially considering that performance art is often not collected by mainstream archives.
OHL: During the culture wars, Franklin Furnace was defunded by corporate agencies, subjected to political attacks by right-wing politicians, and investigated by federal art organizations. These issues were publicly addressed in Franklin Furnace Fights for First Amendment Rights (1990) and Too Shocking To Show (1992). Could you further explain the different political attacks that the organization underwent during the culture wars? How was visual documentation from Franklin Furnace’s archives used by the political right to construct narratives against the organization?
MW: The political attacks on Franklin Furnace began with the religious right. They came to Franklin Furnace to pick up brochures for Carnival Knowledge’s The Second Coming (1984). The religious right wrote to our funders and local representatives claiming that we showed pornography to children. This incident created a media frenzy with reporters from various news outlets showing up on our doorstep. Subsequently, Franklin Furnace was dropped by funders because of this smear campaign staged by the religious right. I heaved a sigh of release when The Second Coming closed because I thought that this would be the end of the attacks. However, this was just the beginning of many politically motivated attacks against Franklin Furnace. As the culture wars erupted in the early 1990s, Franklin Furnace was audited by the Internal Revenue Service, dropped by several corporate funders, and investigated by various branches of the government.
Visual documentation from Franklin Furnace’s archives was used to construct false narratives about us. A reporter from The Washington Times came to view our archival materials for a newspaper article. As part of Franklin Furnace’s open collection policy, we allowed the reporter to search through our archives. Here, he found photographic slides of naked ladies and other materials that he thought were obscene. We did not know at the time that this reporter was writing for a socially conservative newspaper. When the reporter’s article appeared in The Washington Times, visual documentation from our archive was circulating in the news around the country. This article depicted Franklin Furnace as a prostitution ring by including photographic slides of live performances that examined sex as a legitimate subject. There was enough dirt in this newspaper article to smear Franklin Furnace’s reputation in the public eye.
OHL: Documentation strategies for performance art have varied in approach throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In a previous conversation, you mentioned to me that artists were experimenting with “performance for the camera” in the 1970s. Performing for the camera was a critical feminist method used by many female artists during this time. Artists included in the Franklin Furnace collection, such as Eleanor Antin, Ana Mendieta, and Martha Wilson, utilized the camera to decenter the male gaze by becoming the creators and subjects of their performance artworks. The relationship to the camera shifted in the late 1970s because artists believed that it changed their behavior while performing live. You explained that artists then began to solely perform for the audience without the presence of the camera in the performance space. This approach shifted in the 1980s and 1990s when artists returned to documenting their performances for grant application purposes.
The camera has played a crucial role in the construction of performance art history but has not captured many live performances for various reasons. Therefore, the act of witnessing becomes integral to performances that are undocumented, and the audience becomes an extended archive of such works. How do you think about archiving performances that are undocumented for conceptual reasons? What is the archive’s responsibility in addressing and witnessing these absences from live performances? How has Franklin Furnace approached the archiving of performance art given its ephemeral nature?
MW: We have to accept that ephemerality is a part of the performance art archive. Franklin Furnace presented the artist Ralston Farina who was apprehensive about documenting his live performances. We did not videotape Farina’s performance because that was part of his art practice. There is a catalog record of Farina’s 1976 performance in our database, but it contains minimal information about his piece. The act of witnessing becomes important when archiving such ephemeral works like Farina’s performance. Otherwise, there are no other traces of the live performance for us to archive.
Performance studies scholar Peggy Phelan argues that documentation is incomplete and invalid for describing the live performance. Other scholars of performance such as Philip Auslander, Amelia Jones, Rebecca Schneider, and Diana Taylor have expanded upon Phelan’s argument by proposing new ways to critically think about performance art’s relationship to the archive. Considering these viewpoints, we questioned if any form of documentation could be as valid as the live performance itself.
Franklin Furnace has approached the archiving of performance art by documenting it to the best of our abilities. We used whatever technologies were available to us at the time—35mm slides, photographs, and videotapes if we could afford it. However, in the 1990s we decided that performance art specifically needed to be documented by video. So, we hired R & B Video to make VHS tapes of all the performances that we presented at Franklin Furnace. We never decided what performances were going to be videotaped based on content because it was our policy to document everything.
OHL: Franklin Furnace was subjected to attacks by the political right and religious groups during the culture wars. Right-wing politicians targeted other art organizations such as The Kitchen and Walker Art Center for presenting artwork that was deemed “obscene.” Their main argument was that federal tax dollars were being used to fund pornography. This propaganda was used as a smear campaign against Franklin Furnace, The Kitchen, and Walker Art Center for presenting Ron Athey, Karen Finley, and Annie Sprinkle. These artists radically confronted sexism, misogyny, and homophobia in their performances despite the backlash of the culture wars. Looking back at this critical moment in Franklin Furnace’s history, what was the political legacy of the culture wars for the organization? How did the shift in federal arts funding during the early 1990s affect art organizations and performance artists? What impact did such political economies have on the art community post-culture wars?
MW: The political legacy was that Franklin Furnace continued to present art that confronted the body politic during the culture wars. We got into big trouble for showing artists who were examining sex as a legitimate subject in their artworks. As I mentioned earlier, Franklin Furnace was picketed by the Morality Action Committee for presenting Carnival Knowledge’s The Second Coming (1984). The religious group organized churches to send postcards to our funders and elected officials stating that we showed pornography to children. After the exhibition closed, we were audited by the New York State Comptroller, the Internal Revenue Service, and the NEA from 1985–1995.
After the opening of Karen Finley’s A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much (1990), the New York Fire Department closed our performance space for allegedly being an “illegal social club.” Subsequently, Franklin Furnace’s grant for the 1991 season was rescinded by the NEA. We presented Franklin Furnace Fights for First Amendment Rights (1990) as a form of protest against the NEA for censoring artists. The Peter Norton Family Foundation replaced our grant that was rescinded by the NEA. After Franklin Furnace exhibited Voyeur’s Delight (1996), the Christian Action Network staged a performance in Washington D.C. that called for the death of the NEA and Franklin Furnace.
Federal arts funding for performance artists dramatically shifted during the culture wars. For example the NEA Four had their grants rescinded by the NEA on the grounds of obscenity. Three of the four NEA artists—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller—were affiliated with Franklin Furnace. Even though a peer review panel selected these artists to receive grants, the NEA thought that their proposed performances were obscene because of the sexual content. While the NEA Four sued to have their grants reinstated by the NEA, they failed to change the definition of “obscenity” in the general standards of decency that Congress enacted in 1990.
I think that the artists lost the culture wars and that the right-wing politicians won them. The political right was successful in selling the idea that no tax dollars should fund obscene art. In opposition, we argued that artists had the right to the freedom of speech under the First Amendment. However, the outcry for the freedom of speech did not have the same ring to it as no tax dollars for obscene art.
The political economies surrounding the funding of art shifted post-culture wars. After the NEA, terminated individual artist fellowships for all programs except jazz and literature, the legislators thought that they could silence the avant-garde art community. However, the effect of losing NEA individual artist fellowships was the opposite—artists started to practice in public spaces, performing for unwitting audiences, and taking their messages to non-art publics.
OHL: As the culture wars persisted in the United States, AIDS was killing many people due to the neglect of the government and the lack of accessible treatment for the disease. The Franklin Furnace collection includes many artists who address the politics of AIDS. One such artist, Essex Hemphill, died of complications from the disease in 1995. While his publications have been out of print for some time now, Hemphill’s poetic legacy is still present in contemporary art and literary circles. When researching at Franklin Furnace, I came across Hemphill’s Dear Muthafuckin Dreams (1988)—a literary performance that examines the American Dream from a gay black man’s point of view. Hemphill’s voice lingers in the archives and has become historically resuscitated here. Furthermore, the artists Ron Athey, Peter Cramer, Tim Miller, Julie Tolentino, and Jack Waters examine AIDS in their performance artworks. Not only did these artists perform highly charged political works on stage, but they also put their bodies on the front-lines as activists in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Could you discuss how Franklin Furnace responded to the AIDS crisis? What impact did AIDS have on the art scene in New York City? How was performance art used as a medium of protest for AIDS activism in the 1990s?
MW: Franklin Furnace responded to the crisis by presenting artists who examined AIDS. We showed the artist S.K. Duff who was concerned with the disease just as the crisis began. His piece Pink Triangle: Not Forgotten (1985) was a performance and installation about homosexual men who were persecuted during the Holocaust. Duff was outspoken about AIDS being an urgent issue affecting the gay community that needed to be addressed politically.
Artists with AIDS were not always out about their status due to the stigma that they may have faced. The artist David Wojnarowicz complained that he was known as an “AIDS artist” for publicly disclosing his status. He was angry about being confined to that label because his artwork dealt with other socia 122 INTERVIEW issues. Wojnarowicz was an artist who just happened to have AIDS. He fervently continued to make significant artwork until he died from the disease in 1992.
I remember that AIDS was called “gay cancer,” but the disease did not discriminate against nobody. While gay men, drug users, and sex workers were the most vulnerable populations, the disease killed many people worldwide. When the AIDS crisis hit New York City, it was like the Black Death had moved through the downtown art scene. There were funerals to attend every month as gay artists died in mass numbers from the disease.
The activist group ACT UP used performance art as a medium of protest for AIDS activism. Throughout the crisis, members of the group put their bodies on the front-lines targeting the Reagan and Bush administrations, who were not addressing the urgency of the disease as thousands of people were dying from it. ACT UP staged many direct actions against religious institutions, health organizations, and government offices, where performance art was central to their political interventions.
OHL: The Franklin Furnace collection includes poetic works by Tracie Morris, Sapphire, and Pamela Sneed, who were crucial voices during the culture wars. However, these poets are not often talked about in the broader historical context of this period despite their politically charged works that commented on race, gender, and sexuality. Could you discuss the importance of these black women’s poems during the culture wars? Also, what impact did the culture wars have on the literary community? Do you think that poetry was less threating to the body politic compared to performance art during the culture wars?
MW: Tracie Morris, Sapphire, and Pamela Sneed were critical voices during the culture wars. These women poets performed spoken word poetry in a literary scene that was dominated by white men. They lyrically explored the personal as political while also confronting social issues affecting their communities. These poets created powerful works when crack cocaine and AIDS were killing many Black Americans during the 1980s and 1990s. Their spoken word poetry confronted issues that left most people at a loss for words. This period of the culture wars was an elegiac time with so many unnecessary deaths.
I think that literature was less of a target than visual art during the culture wars. Language operates under the radar compared to visual imagery. A photo of a naked performance artist was much easier for the right-wing politicians to take out of context than poetry for their political motivations. However, Sapphire’s poem “Wild Thing” (1992) became the center of controversy early in the culture wars. The poem was written through the voice of a teenage boy who was involved in the rape and beating of a Central Park jogger. “Wild Thing” was published in the NEA-funded literary magazine, Portable Lower East Side. The Reverend Donald Wildmon sent an excerpt of the poem about Jesus Christ and oral sex to Congress. This excerpt set off national debates about the NEA’s perceived endorsement of blasphemy. The NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer defended the artistic merit of “Wild Thing,” but was fired by President George Bush for endorsing the literary magazine that published the poem.
While the NEA still funds the fellowship in literature, it no longer offers the visual art fellowship. I believe that the visual art fellowship was terminated because performance artists were challenging definitions of sex in art. Performance artists such as Karen Finley, Cheri Gaulke, Tim Miller, Frank Moore, and Annie Sprinkle, were examining sex as a legitimate subject of contemporary art. The government did not want the general public to know about these artists fearing that their performances would corrupt American family values. So, the right-wing politicians eliminated the NEA fellowship in visual art to silence performance artists.
OHL: Shortly after Karen Finley’s A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much (1990) opened at Franklin Furnace, the New York Fire Department (NYFD) closed the organization’s performance space. A man attending Diane Torr’s Crossing the River Styx (1990) called the fire department because he could not find an exit out of the building. Subsequently, the NYFD shutdown Franklin Furnace’s performance space claiming that it was an “illegal social club.” Despite efforts to reopen the performance space and present work in exile at other alternative art spaces, you later decided to reinvent Franklin Furnace as a “virtual institution” in 1996. Could you explain how Franklin Furnace transitioned from presenting performance art in physical spaces to netcasting such work online at Pseudo Programs, Inc.? What response did Franklin Furnace receive from right-wing politicians and federal arts organizations when presenting political performances on the Internet? How did the artist community respond to Franklin Furnace netcasting performance art online via Pseudo?
MW: Following the closure of Franklin Furnace’s performance space in 1990, we presented performances in exile from 1990–1993 at the Cooper Union, Judson Memorial Church, and The New School. After presenting a couple of seasons in exile, I was seeking out people to find a suitable venue to present performance art. I met an artist named Robert Galinsky who was working as the head of Channel P at Pseudo Programs, Inc. The company was seeking out new shows to netcast as part of their online programming. Galinsky suggested that Franklin Furnace present a show on Channel P, which was the performance channel on Pseudo. We decided to go virtual in 1996 to provide artists the same freedom of expression that we had afforded them at our loft space during the 1970s and 1980s.
The other reason that Franklin Furnace went virtual was that we did not have a space to present live performances anymore. Collaborating with Pseudo provided us a new venue to showcase performance artists who wanted to explore the Internet as an art medium. The artists that Franklin Furnace presented online were not examining sex as the primary subject of their artwork. While sex was still an important topic, artists were becoming more interested in the politics of surveillance during the digital age. Artists were also using new technologies to address social issues relevant to the time. Over the course of three seasons, we presented Franklin Furnace at Pseudo Programs (1998), The Future of the Present (1998–1999), and The History of the Future (1999). Franklin Furnace’s collaboration with Pseudo ended mid-way through the 1999–2000 season when the company went bankrupt.
Franklin Furnace did not receive any threats from right-wing politicians for presenting political performance art online. By the end of the 1990s, the culture wars moved on to broader issues than sexually explicit art and disregarded the avant-garde art community. The political rhetoric that the right used against Franklin Furnace was tossed in the trash. We were no longer useful for their political agendas, which were targeting culture in larger public sectors. However, Franklin Furnace received complaints from the artist community about our decision to present performance art online. They claimed that the Internet was undermining the physical aspects of live performance that had existed up to that point. The artist community was concerned about what kind of effects performance art online would have on the contemporary avant-garde.
When I decided to go virtual, there was a strong backlash from the Franklin Furnace Board. Three board members did not want to go virtual for various reasons, and a geyser of opposition erupted across the board. There were a lot of internal fights because not everyone agreed that going virtual was the right direction for Franklin Furnace. After several confrontational meetings, I sought out advice on how to proceed from a New York State Assistant Attorney General. This attorney told me to invite artists who made art online to join the Franklin Furnace Board. These artists approved of my decision to go virtual because they valued the Internet as a legitimate art medium.
OHL: Presenting performance art online raises questions about what constitutes liveness and the body. In Franklin Furnace at Pseudo Programs (1998), performance artists presented experimental works that utilized the Internet as an extension of their bodies across time, space, and matter. Could you discuss liveness, presence, and the mediatization of performance art online? How does the body configure in online environments compared to physical venues? Does presenting performance art online change the relationship between the performer and the audience?
MW: Franklin Furnace presented artists who used the Internet as a medium to challenge our understanding of liveness, presence, and the mediatization of performance art. The first performance that Franklin Furnace presented online was Halona Hilbertz’s Pseudo Studio Walk (1998)—a performance where the artist walked toward and away from the video camera for fifty minutes. Her piece was netcasted in real-time, but viewers could also watch it live on-demand in other time zones. Hilbertz’s performance destabilized our understanding of time and space by manipulating these elements online. Furthermore, the artist Nora York used animation technology to create the piece Fire Fox (1998). York asked the Pseudo technicians to place a camera down her throat to record the movements of her larynx while she sang a song. She overlaid this video footage with figure drawings by Nancy Spero to create a montage. Another artist Kathy Westwater used randomizing software in The Fortune Cookie Dance (1998), which generated a different sequence of the dance for each online viewer who watched the netcast.
The body has evolved into different configurations in online environments. I thought that the body would disappear when Franklin Furnace went virtual, but artists were exploring the digital body across time, space, and matter. Artists began to experiment with the avatar as a stand-in for the physical body online. For example, Adriene Jenik and Lisa Brenneis created the online networked performance Desktop Theater (1997), which took place in a 2-D avatar-based chat room called The Palace. Their avatars recited text from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952), and other avatars in the chat room interacted with them as they performed live. Jenik and Brenneis were creating born-digital performance art that complicated our understanding of what constitutes a body. They were also performing for an entirely new audience—people from across the world who were connected by the Internet. This performance blurred the lines between physical and digital presentations of live performance art.
The relationship between the performer and the audience shifted when we presented performance art on the Internet. Pseudo was doing their best to get the online audience to interact with the performer through live “chat jockeys.” The chat jockeys would instantly respond to messages from viewers around the world watching the performance netcast. This type of interactivity is now a common feature of the Internet, however, in the mid-1990s it was a futuristic way of communicating with each other.
OHL: After Pseudo Programs, Inc. closed due to bankruptcy in the late 1990s, Franklin Furnace no longer had a digital platform to netcast performance art online. However, the organization continued to present avant-garde art in exile at alternative art spaces across New York City. Franklin Furnace wa still operating as a virtual institution in the early 2000s, but always maintained a physical office space where you conducted business and housed the organization’s archives. With the advancements in new technologies, more opportunities to digitally preserve archives and showcase such materials online were presenting themselves. At what point did you think that it was important to make Franklin Furnace’s archives accessible online? When did you decide to create the Franklin Furnace Event Archives—an online database featuring documentation of poetry readings, art installations, live performances, new media art, and benefit events at Franklin Furnace?
MW: We began thinking about how to publish the Franklin Furnace Event Archives online in 1996. Franklin Furnace Senior Archivist Michael Katchen and I attended the conference Museums and the Web, where we met Steve Deitz and Richard Rinehart. Together with Estera Milman and other advisers, they founded Conceptual and Intermedia Arts Online (CIAO)—a collaborative project designed to create networked access to conceptual art, intermedia art, performance art, digital art, and installation art. CIAO invited us to develop vocabularies for cataloging ephemeral works of art. Best practices for digitally preserving archival materials were still evolving in the mid-1990s. So, we worked with CIAO to create standards for digitizing photos, slides, texts, fliers, and other materials. Franklin Furnace and CIAO strategized on how to develop a database that linked such materials to each other. Together, we conceptualized a relational database that documented our event archives.
Later in 2006, Franklin Furnace received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Booth Ferris Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts to digitize the first decade of our event archives. We created documentation strategies and developed standards for digitization with ARTstor—a nonprofit organization committed to digital collection solutions for universities, museums, schools, and libraries worldwide. The organization published Franklin Furnace’s archival materials on their website and contributed $20,000 for us to continue digitizing the first decade of our archives. With the support of ARTstor and other funders, we launched the Event Archives online in the summer of 2009. This database contains fundamental information about every live performance, temporary installation, and art exhibition presented by Franklin Furnace. The Event Archives provides electronic access to what are now rare artifacts of political, social, and cultural expression.
Currently, Franklin Furnace is in the process of preserving our video collection, which includes format such as open reel, U-matic, and VHS tape. We can only preserve small batches of such materials at a time because funding to digitize video is limited. However, this collaboration with the Hemispheric Institute has provided us the opportunity to have more of our videos historically preserved. The video in the Franklin Furnace collection will be maintained for 300 years, and the digital preservation files will be migrated to future video formats. I believe that the moving image record is essential to preserve because it is pedagogically imperative for performance art history.
OHL: Performance art often presents challenges for archives given its ephemeral nature. Many contemporary performance artists are using “re-performance” as a method to preserve performance artworks from the past. While re-performance is also subject to ephemerality, this approach seeks to circulate the archive of performance art through live acts rather than archival documentation. In Toni Sant’s Franklin Furnace and the Spirit of the Avant-garde: A History of the Future (2011), he writes that “Martha Wilson does not see reinterpretation as a viable preservation method; she believes that ephemerality is an essential element of live art.” Could you discuss what you think is a viable preservation method for performance art? How has Franklin Furnace archived live performance given its temporal, visceral, and ephemeral dimensions? What best practices has Franklin Furnace established for physically and digitally archiving time-based art included in the Event Archives?
MW: I think that video documentation is a viable preservation method for performance art. The moving image record provides viewers a real-time experience of the live performance. Performance art becomes enhanced by video because the footage can be viewed multiple times. Whereas if you attend a live performance, you only get to see what happens on stage one time. I know that video is not perfect because there can be technical issues. However, when the video documentation is good quality viewers can understand most of what happened during the staged performance.
Franklin Furnace created specific vocabularies for time-based art forms such as performance art, temporary installation, and new media art. For example, we noted that the term “Fluxus” meant something different when capitalized versus the term “fluxus” when uncapitalized. If these two terms are confused with each other, then problems can arise later on when materials are cataloged. We often draw from our personal experiences with the materials in our archive. Someone at Franklin Furnace such as Michael Katchen or myself would remember something about a performance. Other times, we rely on our backgrounds as artists to think about the best ways to catalog ephemeral artworks.
Michael established the best practices for the Event Archives, which included creating a selection policy for digitizing physical materials from our archives. Michael prepares such materials for digitization by processing them according to the event and then placing them into five acid-free folders: “Event Documentation,” “Correspondence,” “Support Material,” “Duplicates,” and “Updates.” After processing the materials, Michael inspects each folder to ensure that they are not misfiled. Only the materials in the “Event Documentation” folder are the items that he considers for digitization. Michael suggests that materials in the “Duplicates” folder be compared to those in the “Event Documentation” folder to assure that the same materials are not digitized twice. Furthermore, Michael co-authored with Mary Haberle and Jenny Korns “Best Practices and Guidelines: Digitization at Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc.” (2012), which details the digitization practices that we use to produce quality archival scans of our materials. These guidelines ensure that the digital assets we create meet current archival standards for preservation and access. This document is free to access on Franklin Furnace’s website for anyone interested in learning more about our digitization practices.
OHL: Finally, the Franklin Furnace collection includes performances by contemporary artists who are creating works in the tradition of the avant-garde. Artists such as Heather Cassils, Zackary Drucker, Lawrence Graham-Brown, Dynasty Handbag, M. Lamar, Rashaad Newsome, and Amber Hawk Swanson, experiment with different media to examine sociopolitical issues. These artists employ critical lenses to explore race, gender, and sexuality while proposing new political imaginaries for the future. Where is the avant-garde right now in terms of practices, aesthetics, and politics? What do you think will be the focus of the future avant-garde? How will Franklin Furnace continue its mission of “Making the world safe for avant-garde art” in the next generation?
MW: Right now, I would say that the avant-garde is exploring social practice as a viable art form. Artists are focused on interacting with people, communities, and sectors of the world. They are utilizing social discourse in their artworks to comment on political issues that are affecting specific groups o people. I think that the current avant-garde’s aesthetic is interactivity—artists are using the world around them as the social fabric for their artworks.
While any topic is up for examination, the artists of this generation’s avant-garde are addressing the performance and politics of gender. The performance of gender, performance being the operative word, is at the forefront of discussions in the art world. Along with gender, artists are also critically addressing the politics of race and sexuality.
I believe that the future avant-garde will focus on artists of color. While racial discrimination is still a pertinent issue in the art world, being an artist of color is not a barrier like it was in the 1970s. I hope that white supremacy fades away so that artists of color become the forefront of the next avant-garde.
Franklin Furnace will continue to make the world safe for avant-garde art by collaborating with the artists who serve on our board, selection panels, and staff. Our highest priorities are to fund artists and to preserve their invaluable artworks in the Event Archives. As long as Franklin Furnace exists, we will continue to embed the social, cultural, and political value of avant-garde art into history.