NW: As a participating artist, what does She Performs mean to you?
PB: When [curators] Holly and Lynn approached me about participating in She Performs, my first thought was, “Oh, this is very interesting”, because my work is not primarily female performative, but on another level it very much includes it. Holly and Lynn’s invitation allowed me to go back to the work and look at it in that way, which I hadn’t before – and it’s such a big part of it! My work deals with AI (artificial intelligence), and whether in reality or fiction most of the time it’s a female body performing the AI role and it’s usually seductive and very acquiescent: the woman as servant performed by a robot. Or think of Siri, or Alexa, even the first robot citizen – they’re all female!
When I first began the series The Algorithm Will See You Now, I only photographed women and I got questioned about this a lot: why not photograph men? My instinct was, “no, shooting men doesn’t make sense”, but I didn’t really know why until I started to think about the project more and then it emerged that it had to be women, because AI technology is very much about the woman’s body, which is interesting when we think about why we’re making AI robots – it’s always to serve us. I think that our wanting to make robots human is problematic in the first place, but to then gender them – which isn’t inherent to a robot or algorithm, but something we need to do in order to understand it, to interact with it – that’s quite disturbing. Why is it made in our image?
NW: As an artist, as a woman, how do you perform ‘yourself’?
PB: I think we do it in many ways. As an artist, I think we perform because we have to be more careful than other [male] artists in the way we carry ourselves, which is driven by our need to be aware, because somehow it’s on us [women] if we send the wrong message or find ourselves in certain situations. If you think about the art world in general, it’s so much about personal relationships and interacting with people and in that environment, as a woman, you are aware of not wanting certain lines to be crossed or even allow things to get to that point – you avoid ‘that point’ as much as possible – and in terms of performativity, it does effect it.
And then there’s the issue of being called a ‘woman artist’, when you just want to be viewed as an artist. It’s not because you want to reject your womanhood – not at all – it’s just that you want to be at that point in history where it doesn’t need to said or stressed. We’re not there yet – sometimes you feel that there is that distinction and you have to fight harder. There are so many women in art schools and yet when you look at galleries, that’s not really reflected there and that’s why I think that shows like She Performs are great, because they’re needed.
NW: How does ‘the body’ inform your work?
PB: I guess in my case it IS the work, right? Having been in a not great-functioning physical body for so long [Pauline has a condition that it took doctors many years to diagnose], I think it was inevitable that would inform my work, but I’m also thinking about what’s happening to the body in general and how technological developments – like AI – are affecting our perceptions of our bodies. We talk a lot about the mind – how the mind affects the body, and is this all-powerful thing – but I think that the physical body and the experiences and knowledge that you gain from it are very, very important, and I want to honour that, because you can’t separate the mind and the body – it’s not just a brain driving an empty marionette. There are so many elements to what we are and what affects us and those things to me are very pertinent. How are our collective lives and bodies changing? How do we feel about that? I think that as a society we have a lot to think about in terms of how we want things to develop in a way that we will be able to live with in the future. Technological developments can be great – in helping to eradicate diseases, for example – but then you really have to think about how else it’s used, and how we can safeguard our society from its potential misuse. There’s a lot to happen in terms of the female body – it’s a big bone of contention because the notions of it are being iterated into the future – “oh yeah, remember that devious machine [in the film Ex Machina]? Oh yes, now she can be your maid at home” – and that is quite odd.
She Performs Curator of Interpretation
The body acts as a mirror for reflection, or canvas for projection, and when the distance between artist and viewer is collapsed as it is in a performance, the spectator becomes active in their role, attaching their own connection and experiences to the work. So even when holding the most passive of roles, the audience interacts with the meaning through their own emotional response and societal connotations.
Marina Abramović’s work for her 2010 retrospective at MOMA, The Artist Is Present, saw her sit silently for a period of 3 months opposite members of the public inside a large square, lit up in all directions with stage lighting, surrounded by an audience, where she stipulated “open-ended commitment from the viewer” (Abramović and Biesenbach, 2010). The audience was vital to this work, some people cried, many smiled, and a few attempted to create their own performances out of it, showing just how powerful an encounter with the audience can be. This plethora of reactions shows that for each person this piece was different, it held an individual meaning. Abramović became a mirror of them, allowing them to project their own emotions and experiences onto her.
When an artist presents their own body, as Abramovic does, the audience is engulfed into the piece; Catherine Elwes speaks of the artist as “both signifier and that which is signified. Nothing stands between spectator and performer” (1985, quoted in Jones, 1998). The viewer sees both the conceptual and physical aspects amalgamated, seemingly dissolving any distance then between audience and artist. The mind of the performer and viewer is where it is possible for that complete unity.
However, the viewer interacts with the body of the artist even if not physically, the integration is interfered with by the individual, and so the work becomes separate and exclusive for each body, spectator or participant – the audience experiences their own art. This interference relies not only on the interpretation of the individual viewer, but also on that of the combined and general contextualisation of the work.
"when the distance between artist and viewer is collapsed... the spectator becomes active in their role"
“The viewer is the co-creator of every work of art” (Graham, 2002) and although many artists do not ask the audience to directly participate as Abramovic does, they ask them to gaze upon the work and share an experience. Although the actual emotions felt by the artist cannot be shared directly, it’s effects can be felt by others, there are mutual emotions and the work calls for empathy; to be able to understand and share the feelings with the artist, to feel a certain amount of what they felt.
That encounter is so important to the success of art.
Holly Daizy Broughton
She Performs Curator
Artist Jocelyn McGregor (Jennifer) spoke to our Curator of Interpretation, Nicola Waterman via email.
title, is so obviously completely new to me but makes a lot of sense too... because the more personal, intimate reason behind making Jennifer (the sculpture in the show) is that fear or critique of being put on display, meanwhile I've quite literally done it to myself – as in I've cast my body, my knees – they even look like they're doing some sort of morbid can-can – I’ve used pigment from the area I come from imbuing it with a personal narrative, and I've laid them all out on the rack as it were – the wooden plinth – for everyone to look at.
Sometimes I feel like being a woman does that kind of thing to you too, as in I think most women and non-binary people will be familiar with the situation where you're just doing something mundane, just trying to get by, get your shopping in, walk down the street, have a drink – and yet you feel like you're on display, your body, your outfit, your age, whatever is being scrutinised. And you end up feeling more embarrassed than the people gawping at you!
That’s a long answer…sorry. Perhaps in short I mean [that] I, like a lot of people – like a lot of women – am or started out as a reluctant performer, and perhaps moulding my own body like I do is a way of taking back ownership of my parts, taking back control.
NW: As an artist, as a woman, how do you perform ‘yourself’?
JM: I think I tend to bring humour in, whether that is when I 'perform' in person - e.g. giving an artist talk, speaking in a crit, teaching – or in the artwork itself. Quite a few of the artists I feel a particular affinity with do that too I think in one way or another, like Robert Gober or Alina Szapocnikow; and I'm a big horror movie fan, where humour often plays a large part – Hammer being a prime example. I get more expressive too, again both in person and in my work. Bizarrely, together those reactions can sometimes make it worse, because when you suddenly shift the tone to serious or personal I think it probably makes people feel uneasy, and [makes] me come across as a bit of wild card... the scary thing is I'm not sure if I wouldn't act like that alone ha, ha.
NW: I’ve noticed that horror movie directors often ‘fragment’ the body and I wonder if that’s a way of creating enough distance for us to feel safe.
JM: Yes, that's really interesting! Yes, that fragmenting of the body makes it less human, it resembles the 'consumer'/audience less, and gives a scary insight in to the fragmentation of the female body in terms of the male gaze - “are you a leg or a breast man?” - it becomes meat. And in surrealism too, that fragmenting of the female form as seen in Hans Bellmer's dolls. But I think what really interests is when women do it to themselves - in terms of horror movies there is a particularly good example in In My Skin (or Dans Ma Peau) directed by and starring Marina de Van, in short she starts to self-cannibalise, but in the run up there's a wonderful sequence in Chinese restaurant! Gotta watch it. In terms of dream theory, losing one's limbs is usually symbolic of undergoing some sort of change, like shedding a skin; and legs symbolise something holding you back.
NW: Your work is strongly informed by ‘the body’ and, specifically, your body. When you cast yourself, does it come from a place of love (for your body)?
JM: Oh, I'm not sure. Yes, maybe there's a bit of my body is a temple going on... I certainly don't hate it. I think rather than love it's more familiarity, and comfort. The fact that it's constantly changing and growing, and stuff has happened to it but it hasn't failed me. It’s my vessel, and a strong one.
NW: That’s a really empowering note to end on! Thank you Jocelyn.
“It’s my vessel, and a strong one.”
She Performs Curator of Interpretation
While I was writing our artists’ biographies for the exhibition catalogue, I got to thinking about the convention of referring to artists by their surname. As a woman writing about women for a largely female audience (and certainly feminist, whatever their gender), referring to the She Performs artists by their surname felt somewhat inauthentic – not something a woman would instinctively do. This train of thought took me to the Internet – hardly a reliable barometer of societal norms, but the only one immediately available, it being the middle of the night – and I came across a post on the blog, Girling, in which blogger Ashley Gerling called herself out on her own ‘accidental sexism’ when she found herself referring to a female artist by her forename while working on a social media campaign on women in art during Women’s History Month in 2016, concluding that:
"If we want female artists to be acknowledged as Artists, we need to redefine the way we speak about artists in general or at least start referring to women in the same way we refer to male artists."
As Gerling suggests latterly, perhaps it is easiest to simply refer to all artists by their surname, whatever their gender, but I found myself wondering if we are serving equality well by unilaterally observing a convention that in all likelihood – and I confess to not having empirical evidence of this fact – came about in the first place because the traditional canon of Western history of art was largely written BY men (public school educated men who grew up being called almost exclusively by their surname), ABOUT men (because surely only men have ever achieved anything worthy of inclusion in a history), FOR men (because reading isn’t women’s business – husbands to catch, households to run, children to rear). As Mary Beard wrote in her manifesto, Women & Power, referring in this instance to female politicians lowering the pitch of their voice (Margaret Thatcher) and donning trouser suits (Hillary Rodham Clinton and Angele Merkel, to name but two):
"Putting it bluntly, having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem."
So, what’s to be done? Well, the suggestion Gerling led with won’t happen overnight, but as there is much to be said for being the change you want to see, we contacted our artists and asked them: use your surnames, or in the spirit of changing ‘the art world itself to best accommodate its artists’ (as one of them so eloquently put it), exercise our absolute right to use our forenames, very deliberately, with intent and without diminishing the seriousness of our purpose?
As you will see, the answer was emphatically the latter, and so it only remains for us to introduce you to Pauline, Henna, Holly Daizy, Emily, Yvonne, Madelynn Mae, Minjoo, Jocelyn, Clare, Susanne, Flavia, and Rosamund – the artists of this inaugural She Performs.
She Performs Curator of Interpretation