Martha Wilson Speaks on Free Zones

For the full post and images see

The condition that we live in is an absurd place and there is no way to resolve it so you do have to laugh otherwise you go nuts.

The inestimable Martha Wilson (artist and founder of Franklin Furnace Archive Inc. in New York) visited Montreal recently for two talks in conjunction with her retrospective at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Staging the Self chronicles Wilson’s career as a feminist performance artist – from early work before an audience of one (a Pentax camera) to later appearances satirizing first ladies such as Barbara Bush and Tipper Gore. These complex explorations of identity politics were displayed in the gallery in tandem with Wilson’s other accomplishments as the founder and driving administrative force behind the avant-garde activities of Franklin Furnace that opened in 1976. From its inception, this time-based performance space and artists’ book archive supported freedom of expression for artists who challenged mainstream cultural values. The desire for “Making the world safe for avant-garde art” took many forms over the years, and in 1997 migrated onto the web. The retrospective held much of interest in terms of shifts across media, from black and white film to magazine pages to video and webcasts. What I’ll address here is a narrative arc that formed during the talks, in conversation between the artist, the curator Peter Dykhuis and an audience of a younger generation for whom digital culture is coextensive and the mechanisms of exclusion are less forthright. Wilson’s candid reflections acted as cautionary tale: it is often the banality of administrative pressures that threaten spaces of free expression.

The story begins in 1971 during the zenith of Conceptual Art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The atmosphere at the time was in Wilson’s words: “women don’t make it in the art world, what are you making this stuff for? In other words, why are you doing this? This is worthless.” Wilson explored the limits of her expression in videos such as Cauterization in which she immolates an effigy of herself. Works like this found a limited audience at the time, with no critical response and then, as Wilson observed candidly, “sat under the bed.” In 1975, Lucy Lippard published Wilson’s work in Ms. Magazine, and this attention helped her to “understand that what I was doing was art and that there were other women around the world who were doing similar stuff.” Lippards’ later inclusion of Wilson in the Circa 7500 exhibition introduced her to artists such as Jacki Apple, Rita Myers and Jackie Winsor. She decided to move to New York to talk to them.

When Wilson experienced a familiar dismissive attitude in New York galleries, she took a job at the art book publishers, Harry N. Abrams Inc. where she honed her administrative skills and learned to run a business. The ensuing New York State unemployment funds (and the sweat-equity from half the house she left in Halifax) provided the first year operating budget for the nascent Franklin Furnace. If the mainstream attitude was exclusionary, Wilson wondered, “why not collaborate with your friends and have fun?” And they did, collecting works that combined text and image from the likes of Alison Knowels, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger and presenting performances or readings alongside – “In the 70s we were allowed to do whatever we damn well pleased and we were even given money from the NEA [National Endowment of the Arts] to do it.”

Living and working in the gallery space, Wilson considered her role as administrator as a creative practice, “since we have to use our wits and come up with new answers everyday and remain flexible and adaptable to the circumstances as they change us which is what you do as an artist.” But by 1981, Wilson “figured out I had to move out of Franklin Furnace or I was going to die.” When Ronald Regan was elected president in 1980, Wilson says, “we didn’t quite get it in the beginning, but he, through his henchman the chair of the NEA Frank Hodsoll was intent on dismantling support for the individual artist so that we the individual artist would shut up and not be a cultural influence. First to go was the critics’ fellowships right away, but we still didn’t know what was going on.” The Culture Wars were impending. Franklin Furnace experienced overt backlash from the Christian Right to programming such as Carnival Knowledge in 1984, featuring Annie Sprinkle, the event asked us to go beyond reactionary attitudes in order to see porn stars as wives, mothers and daughters. But it was in 1990 that dubious tactics, such as closure by the New York City Fire Department and an audit by the IRS following Karen Finlay’s 1990 show, A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much led to an impoverished “exile” and reinvention as an online presence as temporary autonomous zone.

While this move online may seem banal in the era of Web 2.0, Wilson made this choice before Google emerged as the global default search engine. The “dot com bubble” was at its peak, fueled by individual innovation more nimble than multinational business models. At the time, the Internet embodied Donna Haraway’s cyborg feminism – a space where the body and machine are hybrid, connecting to others through non-hierarchical distributed networks – as critique of capitalist power structures. In Wilson’s words the story continues: “Franklin Furnace went virtual on February 1st 1997 in the wake of the Culture Wars. We felt we wanted to give artists freedom of expression, the same freedom they had had in the loft in the 70s we wanted to give them now in the 1990s… the technology was chunky, not very good, BUT the audience interestingly was way bigger than the people sitting on hard folding chairs in the basement because there were 75 people on the hard folding chairs and there were 700 people on the internet. It’s such a ridiculously small number today, but for us at that time we were just thrilled, over the moon, plus you can tell who’s in the audience. You can do an analysis of who’s watching you and a lot of them were .govs. So the government was still looking. And a lot of them were from way far away – New Zealand and Vietnam and places where you know they could never get their asses into the Franklin Furnace anyway so for as much as we didn’t, I mean it is like performing to a black hole… you don’t know who’s out there but on the other hand of that we thought we’re developing a new audience, and we don’t have any idea of who they are – this is great we’re getting avant-garde art out to the planet. It was a pretty exciting revelation.”

Wilson’s journey seems exponential from performing solo for the eye of her Pentax, to gathering together a group of friends, to the black hole of a global audience of early adopters. But the first webcast company they partnered with went bankrupt and today she tempers this early enthusiasm with the caveat, “the internet was the free zone at the time…” At the time. The implication being that despite a continued discourse of freedom of expression and community on the web, Wilson believes something has changed. Perhaps we should question our assumptions of net neutrality as the Internet becomes a platform for mass-media convergence. Internet use is now ubiquitous and private interests, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google seek to monetize, what administrative pressures may loom on the horizon for non-profit, public organizations?

In Canada, the current CRTC hearings on wholesale Usage Based Billing (UBB) come to mind. This proposal ostensibly counteracts network congestion (peer-to-peer file sharing and video streaming are identified as culprits). Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, alongside other advocacy groups, has argued the UBB proposal benefits Bell Canada, the major telecom provider, at the expense of user access. Possibilities for abuse include overcharging for bandwidth or limiting network access. This means that the economic barriers to entry are higher both for individuals and the organizations whose services provide web-based content. These measures would have an impact upon the operating budgets of public organizations such as most Canadian libraries, museums and archives. Like their American counterpart Franklin Furnace, they shifted their content to the web over the last ten years, through large investments of public money.

I can’t help but think again of Wilson’s 1974 video, Cauterization. We created doubles of ourselves and for a moment entry points were left open. How insidious and dull that, at this time, the enemy of freedom of expression would be an increase to the monthly telecom bill.

For more information on the CRTC UBB hearings please see this post by Michael Geist and to learn more about the campaign against it you can visit

The author would like to thank Martha Wilson, David Tomas, Marina Polosa and Caroline Boileau, for their help with this post.

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