Men on the Line, a tender and complex performance in which Fraser embodies four different male voices and positions, came as a surprise to me because of its departure from the more strictly analytic essays she has written lately, which make serious and well-researched critiques of entrenched economic and social inequalities in the art field.2 The performance is based on an eponymous 1972 public radio broadcast on KPFK, during which four male supporters of the feminist movement shared their thoughts and emotions about the impact the women's movement had on them as individuals, as men, and as husbands. Watching Fraser embody these opinions on stage, I swayed between amusement, disbelief, anger and sympathy, as the men's confessions sprang forth from her mouth, in turn patronizing, vulnerable, naïve or confused.
I approached this interview as an artist might, with a marked curiosity in her process and biography, in large part because of her candid responses during the discussion that followed the ICA performance. Fraser generously discusses the genesis of this performance, her research and process as a performer, and her relationship to language. She shares thoughts on her own early and enduring relationship to feminism, on the tremendous impact the Feminist movement of the sixties and seventies had on art, on what defines performance for her, and on what it means to cry in public.
Stephanie Cardon I saw you perform Men on the Line at the ICA. It was a powerful, thought-provoking, and layered piece. I'd like start by talking about that performance, and then touch on some of your work as a whole. So, I admit I looked up your age, because I was curious to know how old you were in 1972, the year that radio broadcast took place. I was wondering what sense you might have had of the Feminist movement at that age. You were very young.
Andrea Fraser I was six or seven in 1972, and I’m absolutely certain was aware of the existence of feminism by then. My mother got involved in the Women's Movement in the late sixties. My family, including my parents and four other siblings, moved from Montana to Berkeley in 1967. Arriving in Berkeley in 1967 from Montana was certainly a culture shock—it was the peak of the "revolution" that was going on there at the time and Berkeley was a real hotbed—but my parents dove right in. My parents met in New York, then were in Montana for a while, where my father grew up and where I was born. My mother is from Puerto-Rico, and had been on the East Coast, and also travelled in Europe in the fifties, studying art. My father studied philosophy at Columbia and then decided to become a Unitarian minister, so we went to Berkeley because of Starr King, the Unitarian Seminary there. The Unitarian church was very engaged in a lot of the political, social, and cultural movements of the day. When I told my father about Men on the Line, he sent me an essay called "Men’s Liberation—the inside of the other side of Women’s Liberation," he published in a journal called Progressive World. I’m sure that when he wrote that essay he was responding to my mother’s involvement in the Women’s Movement, and not just the phenomenon at large. My mother was involved in consciousness-raising groups and in volunteer counseling for women who were dealing with domestic violence and rape. There were constant discussions at the dinner table that I was party to while all of that was going on. So, I'm quite sure I was aware of feminism in 1972. And then in 1973, my parents separated and my mother came out as lesbian. From the age of nine or ten, until I moved to New York at sixteen, I grew up in an all-female, lesbian-feminist household. Feminist, and then also gay politics, was my everyday family life. In those years I also became aware of the Feminist Art Movement. In 1979, when I was in the eighth grade, I cut school with one of my classmates and took the bus from Berkeley to San Francisco for the pre-opening of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. My classmate's mother had worked on it so she had an invitation. I remember sitting with my mother and her friends and looking through the book of The Dinner Party. So both the political and the artistic sides of the Women's Movement in California were part of my childhood.
When I moved to New York at sixteen and started art school, I encountered a very different kind of feminism and very different attitudes toward precisely the kind of feminism and feminist art I grew up with. In the early 1980s in New York—in the context of the kinds of developments that that Helen Molesworth retraces in her catalogue essay for This Will Have Been—feminism was continuing to have a powerful impact on the art world and on the rest society, but there was a decisive shift in attitudes about feminism. Aspects of seventies feminism, particularly the kind of feminism and the kind of feminist art that was associated with California, were labeled as essentialist and derided as politically regressive. I later came to believe that much of that turn was driven by shame. The activist aspects of the Women's Art Movement in California often were not recognized or addressed, or were even thrown out with so-called essentialist aspects. That's what I encountered when I moved to New York in the early eighties, and it took me time to reconnect with some of the aspects of feminism I'd grown up with and to move beyond the critiques of it I'd encountered as a young artist.
SC Speak a little about how the project came about and what your interest was in exploring that particular conversation today in 2012.
AF Emi Fontana, the founder and director of an organization called West of Rome in Los Angeles, commissioned the performance for Pacific Standard Time, the huge series of events about art in Southern California from 1945 to 1980, developed under the auspices of the Getty Museum. She asked three artists to create works inspired by the Woman's Building, which was one of the central institutions of the feminist art movement in Los Angeles in the 1970s and '80s. She wanted to consider the history and legacy of the Woman’s Building from the standpoint not only of feminism but also queer politics and practice, and contemporary thinking about gender, so she invited a female artist, a male artist, and a trans artist: me, Mike Kelley, and Vaginal Davis. Mike Kelly did not end up doing a performance for the series. He committed suicide in February 2012, just a month after Vaginal and I did our performances. So that was the context.
Early on, I decided that I wanted to focus on group process rather than on individual performances or art works created at the Woman’s Building. One of the most radical aspects of the feminist art movement in Southern California, in my opinion, was the shift from individual practice to collective practice on the level of artworks as well as on the level of a movement and on the level of organizational structures. The Woman's Building was not just a place where a lot of amazing artists did amazing works as individuals: the core of it was the Feminist Studio Workshop, which developed the approaches of the feminist art programs created by Judy Chicago at Cal State Fresno in 1970 and, with Miriam Schapiro and Sheila de Bretteville and others, at Cal Arts in the early seventies. Women from all over the country, and all over the world, came to participate in workshops in painting and sculpture, performance, filmmaking, writing, printmaking, not only to explore art and develop art practices but to explore themselves and their experiences as women. The familiar process of group critiques, that are still so much a part of art education today, were transformed by feminist techniques of consciousness-raising groups, where art making was being very directly linked to social and psychological experience—to the personal and the political. This was not only about individual experience, or individual creation, or individual self-realization or development, but about the experience of women collectively and the collective creation of a new feminist culture, and it was being engaged collectively in group processes and practices as well as in the context of a large-scale social movement more broadly. That really transformed art, to an extent that I may not have realized until I started doing the research that I did for Men on the Line. You have to remember that Formalism still dominated the art world in the late sixties when these feminist practices began developing. Art, for the most part, was still very much only about art, and was really still rooted in very narrow artistic concerns. Even early Conceptual Art was very formalist. It was the feminist art movement above all that opened art to an engagement with the whole range of psychological, and social, and political structures, and experiences that defines art today.
So I watched all the videos I could find documenting what went on at the Woman’s Building, and many of them focused on group process. They were amazing, but they were all very edited, so I couldn’t use them for the kind of performance I had in mind.
SC Edited because they were serving a purpose as artworks as much as documents of artworks and processes?
AF Partly because they were serving the purpose of documenting artworks or lectures or readings, but also because they were serving the self-representation of the movement and of the Woman's Building. They documented women going around in a circle talking about where they were from and what their hopes were in being there, or what they experienced in the workshops. I couldn’t find anything that documented the kind of dynamic group process I was looking for, like a consciousness-raising group session. They were all incredibly interesting, but not things I would want to re-perform.
SC So you found this raw recording of a radio program, but I guess you must have had a video of it too?
AF No, I had no video of it. After meeting with Susanne Lacy and going through her archive, and after corresponding with Faith Wilding, I became aware that a lot of programs about the Women's Movement in Southern California were broadcast on public radio at the time. I looked through the archive listings of Pacifica radio, which are available on the Internet. It's amazing what they have on there. I ordered about half a dozen programs of various kinds from them and "Men on the Line" was one of them. It wasn’t what I thought I was looking for—I was looking for a discussion among women, not men—but in the context of Emi’s concept for the performance series it immediately jumped out at me as the perfect document to perform. This was also because of a number of details about the broadcast and the discussion: the broadcast itself begins with a pre-recorded clip of an interview with Judy Chicago, with which I also open the performance; one of the first comments by the men in the discussion is about the words "actor" and "actress"; reversing gender roles is an on-going theme, and so on.
It was originally an hour-long live broadcast. As far as I know, what I got from Pacifica was unedited. There were no images. I didn't know what the men looked like. I subsequently met one of the men, but of course he probably looks very different now than he did then.
SC So how did that process go then? You transcribed and edited the conversation and then you imagined what these men must have been like in order to embody them somehow?
Kunst muß hängen (Art Must Hang), 2001
30 minute, single channel video projection over a painting.
Courtesy of the Artist.
AF Absolutely. What I had to go on were the voices only, and the sense of what the exchanges were between the men—what was "going on in the room," as they say, the dynamics of the group.
After I found the recording I transcribed it. I did a lot of interview-based work in the nineties, so transcribing and dealing with audio has been a part of my process for some time. There is also one other performance that I did that is based on a recorded speech, although in that case I did work from a videotape recording. That was a performance I did in 2001 as Martin Kippenberger, a German painter, based on a drunken speech that he gave after a dinner honoring the exhibition of a friend of his. But since that was in German, I did not transcribe it myself. For me transcribing is an important part of the process. It is very different from just listening. Transcribing is taking audio material—spoken language—and putting it on a page, making it visible and visual and material. There's also a relationship that develops in the process: it’s very intimate, because those words are travelling through me from my ears to my fingertips. I’m very obsessive in the way I transcribe. I make sure to get all of the "uh-s" and the "you know-s" and where people misspeak. Usually there is also some editing that I do, which is part of a process of making interpretations. When one transcribes, particularly in the case of a conversation, one is interpreting what's meant in a particular moment in relationship to other people in the context of the discussion. Even just putting in punctuation is making an interpretation. With Men on the Line, I did cut some things out and also reorganized some parts of it, but I did not add any language or change any of the words used. The reorganization, and also some of the editing I did, was mostly oriented toward making the group process and the development that I saw in the discussion more prominent and a bit more linear, so as to be more evident to a potential audience. I also edited it as audio because I also wanted to have it as an audio track that I could then listen to and rehearse with. And then I started memorizing it. I had a very short schedule, so my quota was five hundred words a day. I had three weeks to memorize it and then another week to choreograph and rehearse the gestures. That was a very intensive process. I basically spent a month with these voices full time. For me it's an important part of the kind of performing I do.
Doing a monologue in front of an audience is a very traditional kind of performance; it's not really what we think of as being at the forefront of the field of performance art at the moment. It's the kind of performance, in fact, to go back to Helen's show, that one saw a lot of in the 1980s. Oddly enough, today the eighties aren't thought of as a big decade for performance, even through it was the decade of the NEA Four—of Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes—and also people like Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and Ann Magnuson. In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of seeing Wallace Shawn perform his monologue masterpiece The Fever in a few different living rooms in New York. Anna Deavere Smith also became more prominent in the nineties. There was a lot of one person, monologue-based performance, often involving different characters or voices, and that's part of what my performance work developed out of.
But what defines "performance" for me is not just the live aspect performed in front of an audience, but that whole process of researching, of transcribing, of editing, of memorizing, of internalizing and of embodying. It also includes all of the psychological and social relations that artists, and in fact everyone, "perform" in doing whatever it is that we do, including performing and preparing performances. Of course, Men on the Line is about gender, it's about feminism, but it's also very much about performing. For me, it's a way of exploring what it means to act. A lot of the conversation in Men on the Linerevolves around the men’s struggle to engage feminism and, fundamentally, to identify and empathize with women, with feminists, and with the women's movement. These are also the tools that performers use in "building a character" and "creating a role." That identification and empathy are thus framed not as part of an artistic process, but also as social and psychological processes that potentially have very direct political impacts on our capacity to relate to others across lines of gender and race. More broadly, my conception of performance is that I'm not ever really performing other people; rather, I'm performing relations to other people, relations that must exist inside of me already, in relationships that I have already internalized. The process of developing the performance is only a re-performance of that process of internalization, just as the process of identifying and empathizing with these men, so as to perform them, is a re-performance of their efforts to identify and empathize with women.
SC During the performance, your gestures were very contained. Being in the audience, it seemed to me almost as though you were channeling these four different people and yourself in one body. It seemed so intense. And after the performance finished it was hard to know if you had let go of it.
AF You mean in the discussion afterwards, when you saw me come out in different clothes? As "myself"?
SC You were in different clothes, and yet some of your reactions were so emotional, it felt as though you were still processing that experience, perhaps even still performing.
AF Well it's true. It's a very strange thing. And actually, channeling is one of the ways I've thought about it: "the channeling school of performance art." Then there's "the jackass school of performance art," "the candid camera school of performance art," and "the alien abduction school of performance art." These are some of my categories…
Preserving that very contained, "channeling" thing is also one of the reasons I haven't wanted to look at the videotapes of the two previous performances. It was very important to me to transcribe and also memorize all the "uh-s" and the "um-s" and the "you know-s" and where words are repeated, or sentences are unfinished and so on, even though this made the memorization much more difficult. The reasons I did that was to achieve a kind of extreme naturalism in the language. That naturalism is not about a depth model of acting exactly, because that's not been my model. I rehearse in a way that brands the language into my mind so that I don't even have to think about it. I want the language to exist inside me in a way that's already embodied. That is, I want to incorporate the language in way where it's already inseparable from a mode of delivery and affect. The formation of my mouth and my throat, which defines the timbre of it and so forth. But it’s also not a kind of outward acting: it's very self-contained. This conversation only existed for others as audio, not visually. The bodies were never seen. So the traditional theatrical "fourth wall" is also somewhat refigured, not as a fiction but as a fact of the material. One of the ways I hoped the performance would work is through the collision of that super-naturalistic kind of language, and hopefully also performance with what is clearly not naturalistic: I’m one person, not four people, and I'm female and not male or even trans, and not really trying to make anyone suspend their disbelief about any of that. Those extremes, I'm hoping, challenge the audience to perceive and think about gender differently, but also to perceive the boundaries between individual and group differently. It's always dicey to speculate on what the audience experiences. Artists do that all the time but hardly ever really know. But what you describe makes me imagine that some of that did happen.
SC I think it did. I'd like to talk about why words affect you so strongly, and why you pay attention to them so much, whether it's wall text, or an audio-guide, or in this case a radio broadcast. There is something admirable, to me at least, in the way you are unabashedly verbal in a field of primarily visual art. I'd also like to continue talking about these four voices, and how in a way it makes each of the positions they stand for more fluid. When an individual speaks, one usually takes a single position that can be hard to back out of; meaning is perhaps more fixed. When you contain four different positions in a single body, it seems to allow you to make language and meaning more flexible.
AF I've always liked to memorize things. I remember as a child realizing that I remembered the nursery rhyme in Spanish that my mother sang to me when I was much younger, and singing it to myself. That's probably the core of it: the way that through memorizing things I am able to contain something within myself—in that instance, a part of my mother, an experience with my mother, and am able to reproduce that experience by singing that song to myself. Then I started to memorize poetry. Among the first poems that I memorized were Adrienne Rich poems, when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. Adrienne Rich did a couple of poetry readings at the Woman's Building, and one of the things that I initially was thinking of doing for this performance was re-perform one of those readings, in part because I had a relationship already to many of those poems from memorizing them as a teenager, and I still remember parts of them. So that kind of relationship to language has been an aspect of my life since childhood. Beyond that, I’m not sure why text has been so central to my work. I do enjoy making objects but I don’t really do that as an artist anymore. Perhaps it’s because I get more satisfaction out of making meanings, developing ideas, and communicating them. Language is a more direct medium for doing those things.
With regard to the four voices, a lot of my work has involved many different voices. Official Welcome from 2001, is the most complicated with about eighteen different voices; Inaugural Speech, from 1997, and May I Help You?, from 1991, both have six or seven. These performances were conceived less around the idea of performing different characters than the idea of performing fields. The notion of fields, initially of social fields, was very important to me starting in the early nineties. My thinking about fields was influenced by the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who did a lot of research on culture and that was very important to me for a long time. According to Bourdieu’s theory, we all exist and function within various, and often multiple, social fields—which we also sometimes think of as 'institutions'—each with their particular discourses, practices, modes of perception and systems of value and classification. These discourses, practices, values, and so forth, which are specific to a given field, are also internalized and embodied as what Bourdieu called "habitus": "the social made flesh." Of course, I'm very associated with Institutional Critique [Ed. 3]. Thinking about fields was a way of moving beyond thinking about institutions narrowly, as museums and so forth, to thinking about institutions more broadly. Thinking in terms of "habitus" was a way of avoiding the fallacy of so much artistic anti-institutionalism, that we can somehow escape art institutions. In fact, these institutions exist inside of us, as "habitus," because we have internalized them: we embody and perform them. These concepts are also central to how I have understood performance, although now I also think of fields not only as social fields but as interpersonal or even inter-subjective fields, that is, in terms of psychological relations. So I was never only or even primarily interested in those different voices, and certainly not as "characters" or "personae." What I was really wanted to get at, to perform, was the relationships between them. In May I Help You? I conceptualized the field I was performing as a field of class relations, and I wanted to perform dynamics of negation and affirmation that played out as taste in cultural consumption. With Inaugural Speech, the field is an international exhibition, and I wanted to perform the relations of mutual recognition and legitimation that make their way up a pyramid of power from audiences to artists to curators to trustees to politicians and corporations.
Biographically, I’m sure a lot of this has to do having to do with growing up in a large family and being subject to many different voices, opinions, judgments, values, and so on, and taking them into myself as a way of negotiating them and sorting them out. That experience may have been transferred to my sense of the art world as a place where you have all these competing positions, which are manifested in discourse primarily. The experience of going to a museum is supposed to be about the art on the walls, but then there are all these wall labels that are that are talking at you all the time, and docents, and audio tours. Language is a very, very central part of what happens in the art field.
I realized recently that most of my work about the art field has really been about art discourse—which is not just art criticism or art historical writing but everything that participants in the art field say about art and about what they do in the art field. It includes artist statements and interviews, lectures, panel discussions, wall labels, audio tours, curatorial statements and so on. And it starts in art and art history programs with seminars and group critiques. We're constantly producing this discourse about what we do, and what became very important to me in the last couple of years, and very problematic, is the huge gap that often seems to exist between what art is—or some of the things that are increasingly central to what art is, for example financial instruments and luxury goods—and what art historians and critics and other participants in the field say art is and does. Some of the work I've been doing in the last couple of years focuses on that gap. Of course, Men on the Line brings that engagement with language and discourse into a very different arena that has almost nothing to do with the art field!
SC Quite different, because the last piece I'd seen of yours was the essay in the Whitney Biennial catalogue, "There's No Place Like Home," your contribution to that exhibition, which centered entirely on luxury, on commodity, on the relationship between economic and social inequalities and the value of art.
AF Well, the main thrust of that essay is that the growth of the art market, and the artworld generally, in the past decades is directly linked to increases in inequality, and that everyone in the art world is living those growing inequalities in a very intimate and material way. We live it in our encounters with patrons, we live it in the inequalities that exist in levels of compensation—whether we're at the low end or at the high end of that, we're still living them. Maybe it's changed a little in the last year, but when I was writing the essay a lot of art discourse seemed to be more about denying or distancing the conflicts that are attendant to living those inequalities than addressing them and our own involvement in them. The essay considers this function of art discourse in terms of negation in a Freudian sense, that is, as a kind of defense mechanism that speaks so as to deny—for example, acknowledging or describing something intellectually, only to deny that it has anything to do with me, and perhaps specifically to claim or imply that acknowledging it proves that I’m above or beyond it.
I think that function of art discourse is really about managing and containing the guilt, resentment, envy, shame, and other often painful aspects of our experience of inequality today, which may be particularly intense in the art field, given the enormous wealth and extremes of rewards within it.
This doesn't really have any relationship to Men on the Line except in terms of a psychological turn in my work in the last decade or so. In the nineties, I was very associated with an economic and social critique of the art field. In the last decade I began to shift back to a more psychological framework for understanding some aspects of the art field, as well as of, well, life more broadly. I think I’ve always hoped to bring together the social and economic and the psychological, sexual, and emotional: fundamentally, the personal and the political—that’s our feminist heritage. Group process was central to that feminist project, not only in terms of building a collective movement but also in terms of uncovering the constant back and forth between the individual and the social. My engagement with that back-and-forth has also been influenced by Bourdieu’s theories—he called it the "dialectic of objectification and embodiment." And it has also been influenced by psychoanalytic approaches to thinking about interpersonal and intersubjective relations, which also exist intra-subjectively, through processes of internalization and externalization, introjection and projection, and so on. Of course, social structures exist inside of us, while psychological structures exist also socially between people. That's been central to how I'm trying to engage the art world in the context of my institutional critique work. It's also very much what Men on the Line is about. Embodying the group relationships of four men as a single person is a very literal way of performing that, but the content and the history of the discussion also opens it up to a much larger field of experience.
SC One final question. Why is it you cry so easily?
AF I don't know. I've been trying to sort that out for years. I guess my feeling is that most people would if they let themselves. Affect and emotion has been part of my work since the eighties even: there's a moment in Museum Highlights, which is a piece that I did in 1989 that isn't usually associated with the affective turn in art, where I choke up as part of the performance. In some ways, I think the brief training in acting that I had in high school always informed my sense of the importance of affect in art. But I also had a long history of bursting into tears when I didn’t want to, sometimes in public lectures, and feeling totally mortified. Then, in Official Welcome,I scripted something for myself to say as myself that would make me weep, and made weeping part of the piece. That was an important moment for me because I gave myself permission to weep in public. Since then I’ve probably choked up, if not outright wept, at almost every public lecture I’ve given. People sometimes want to call it "performance," but I think that’s a defensive need to see it as intentional, probably because of the shame associated with weeping as losing control. I think that consciously or not, the fear of weeping very often prevents people from talking about what they really care about, particularly in public. What a waste! Especially for artists, who have this extraordinary privilege of making public lives out of what’s important to us. So that’s something I think is very productive to communicate, especially in lectures at art schools.
SC Yes, that's a good sentiment to impart to students, as much as to artists generally.
AF In 2004, I wrote an essay called Why Does Fred Sandback's Work Make Me Cry? 4 , which is partly about weeping in museums. I read all the literature on weeping that I could find and I still couldn't get to the bottom of it. One of the psychological theories of weeping is that it’s about warding off aggression. That made a lot of sense to me because I think some of my weeping has to do with guilt and probably also with pre-empting a feared attack.
Video documentation of performance at the Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany, September 2003.
Commissioned by and first performed at The MICA Foundation, New York, November 2001.
Courtesy of the Artist.
In the context of the discussion at the ICA after Men on the Line, I was asked what's at stake for me in doing the performance [Ed. 5]. How am I going to answer that? I can talk about... well, I'm interested in affect, I'm interested in gender, and that's the kind of language we tend to use in the art world. I kind of forbid my students from using the word interested. "You're not interested. You're spending an enormous amount of time, effort, energy in something, you're more than interested in it. There's something at stake for you, that matters to you. Let's try to get beyond this polite, well-contained, intellectual language and talk about what's at stake." There's a decision that I made at a certain point to go ahead and do that, even if sometimes it's resulted in personal disclosure that I may feel embarrassed by afterward. The challenge becomes how to prevent that from being reduced to the biographical and uniquely individual—how to keep that "personal" connected to the social and political. Of course, I have a particular story: I had early contact with the feminist movement as a child and it had a tremendous impact on my family that I obviously have strong feelings about. But I'm just a particular "instance of the possible," as Bourdieu liked to say. We all are individuals, of course, and we have our own particular biographies, but those exist within larger historical, social, and psychological structures that are shared; those individual experiences are always over-determined and they are always continuous with larger structures. The personal is important to me because it's where one finds and feels that level of what's at stake. The challenge is to expand that beyond the personal and beyond the individual so that one can engage those stakes in terms of larger, shared structures. That's one of the challenges that we learned and acquired tools to engage from feminism, to take our conversation back around to the beginning.
 Jerry Saltz, "Critiqueus Interruptus," Village Voice, February 13, 2007, http://www.villagevoice.com/2007-02-13/art/critiqueus-interruptus/
 Andrea Fraser, "There's No Place Like Home," in Whitney Biennial 2012, ed. Elizabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders (New Haven: Yale University Press), 28-35.
Andrea Fraser, "L'1% C'est Moi," Texte zur Kunst, 83 (September 2011): 114-127.
 Andrea Fraser, "From a Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique," Artforum Vol. 44 (September 2005): 278-286
 Andrea Fraser, "Why Does Fred Sandback's Work Make Me Cry?," Grey Room 22, (Winter 2005): 30-47.
This interview was conducted by telephone on Saturday 26 January, 2013.