For over 40 years, Martha Rosler has engaged the social imperatives of everyday life through photography, video, installation, and performance. Her work investigates the intersections of urbanization, public and private space, economic transaction, and gender construction. Revealing the ideological codes implicit in the networks and objects of visual representation, Rosler began to question art’s institutional frameworks early on. She is also an active writer and critic; her most recent book Culture Class (Sternberg Press, 2012) compiles essays written between 2010 and 2012, including an eponymous three-part series originally published in the online journal e-flux.
Culture Class reflects on the commodified status of creativity in the geopolitical power formations and bureaucratic management of cities. Writing in direct response to Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class, Rosler problematizes Florida’s definition of creative workers as driving urban economic success, exploring the notion that artistic labor “cannot be conflated with neoliberal urban political regimes,” as sociologist Ann Markusen has put it. Yet artists and urban cultural centers are irrevocably intertwined, and part of Rosler’s task in this series of essays is to tease out the complicity of artists in both the economic advancement and spatial reorganization of cities.
These questions have reverberated throughout Rosler’s practice, but particularly in the three-part exhibition project If You Lived Here… (1989) at the Dia Art Foundation, in which Rosler examined homelessness and housing conditions in New York City and well beyond. The project presented a wide range of art video, film, visual data, and poster graphics, and it engaged activist groups and organizers in the exhibitions as well as in meetings and public programs. If You Lived Here… and other of Rosler’s early works, such as The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974 – 75), take on urban environments and landscapes as indicators of the larger, increasingly corporatized forces that shape the lives of the people within them. Writer Abbe Schriber visited Martha Rosler in her Greenpoint studio and home to speak with her about Culture Class and its connections with her artistic practice more broadly.
Abbe Schriber (Rail): What are the links between your text Culture Class and your earlier project If You Lived Here…? Culture Class seems to deepen the interventions into homelessness and the politics of space you began in this earlier project.
Martha Rosler: When I first saw your question, I wondered if they are linked and then I realized that the whole subject came to my attention once questions of geography and urbanism floated into the view of intellectuals and artists. I became interested in questions of housing and architecture in the late ’70s even though those interests were less about structure and more about political process. But I did spend a lot of time thinking about food, and as a side question, the relationship between female identity and clothing—and I thought, oh that’s funny, food, clothing, and now shelter. And I did the project If You Lived Here… when I was invited by the Dia Art Foundation to have a solo show. I was so shocked by the appearance of homeless people living on the street, which is quite different from the urban fixture of panhandlers, that I felt I should center my project on work about this apparently new condition. If You Lived Here… then broke into three sections because I didn’t want to do a project that called upon people’s feelings of charity and distance, which are mirror images of one another. At the time, women had a tendency to think about social process and not structure, and to see the earth artists and the Gordon Matta-Clarks as boys doing what boys do: paying attention to huge geographies or dead structures, not the living processes of life. However, with the increasingly visible conceptualization of cities as either planned, benignly unplanned, or gradually developing, it became very clear that for women this matter of habitation had always been an issue—just differently.
Rail: It seems that the distinction between process and structure that you outline in feminist practice is really key. Can you trace that in projects like Monumental Garage Sale (1973) and Meta-Monumental Garage Sale (2012)? There is a way in which feminist thought and theory provided the entryway into a lot of how we see those works.
Rosler: It’s not as though women’s issues weren’t highly visible in the mid-’60s, when I started anti-war work—they were. Before I did “House Beautiful; Bringing The War Home” (1967 – 72), I did the “Body Beautiful” (1966 – 72) montages, which were about women’s bodies and their relationship to interiority and exteriority/externality. And although the anti-war work centered in many ways on women’s experience, as female Vietnamese political prisoners on one hand, but also as ordinary householders on the other, the anti-war works were better described as placing the images of war directly in conjunction with idealized images of first-world, middle-class dwellings. A great deal if not all of my work is tied together by questions of representation. I explore power and the way one inhabits a space that either is or is not a space of narrative or of physicality that you construct. It is also about the pre-written narratives we inhabit (the air-conditioned nightmare, to grab an apocalyptic title of Henry Miller’s). My approach was to focus on these broad questions from the point of view of women, how women see and respond to the mostly pre-existent systems of living.
The Garage Sales were initially conceived in reaction to the way communities respond to urgent material needs and issues of household economy, and the way that women, in recirculating commodities, step into a liminal space between private and public. In the soundtrack playing during Garage Sale, I did not evoke issues of gender. I wanted to address the subject of capitalist economy, the person who has to negotiate that liminal space, which for me implicitly would be the woman in question. I also wanted to stick with the more abstract flow of goods and money, commodity fetishism, identification with and negotiations within one’s local community—in other words, the relationship between affective relations and commodity relations. But I specifically didn’t want “feminist talk” because it was intended to reach across audiences and communities.
Rail: Did you see feminist rhetoric as potentially alienating your audiences?
Rosler: In 1973 there were a lot of shorthand buzzwords circulating in the media that foreclosed thought. But everyone understood that 99.9 percent of garage sales were run by women, and I felt that it would be more interesting to let that remain unspoken, while having the soundtrack playing throughout the show voiced by a woman, expressing women’s concerns: “Will you judge me by the things I sell? Why not give it all away?” Almost all the goods were women’s goods, there was lots of kids’ stuff, not much men’s stuff. And handwritten letters and notes. So the presence of the maternal and the feminine—women’s underwear, shoes, hats, kids’ toys—was the presiding phenomenological address. But then I wanted to talk about how you assign value to things. All the sales were at art spaces; if you notice where you are, it’s impossible not to see the crossover questions of what determines value in each system. Is it sentimental or is it in relation to a market that is far outside the bounds of the household?
Rail: Can you elaborate on your claim in Culture Class that multiculturalism is a “bureaucratic tool for social control” that “attempt[s] to render difference cosmetic?” How can we reconcile this knowing that many of the communities that are most affected, and often most alienated, by the “creative class” are predominantly black and working-class?
Rosler: Multiculturalism is not a fact of life, it’s a term applied to a narrative that societies use to capture and shape difference, often without allowing it to actually effect social change. It’s more like “multiculturalism” in quotes: a doctrine. We might claim that multiculturalism describes a society with many cultures, but its deployment by municipal and state bureaucrats is a way of suggesting a melting pot without the melting. People objected to the idea of being “deracinated” in order to be assimilated, so multiculturalism has provided a route to the management of the appearance of difference. I wanted to problematize the term, to remind people that when it finally reaches the broader public’s attention, it’s generally in the mouth of someone who is trying to control its effects.
Rail: Getting back to Culture Class, you described cinema as “architecture’s spectral double,” which alludes to questions of discipline and control in bodily and behavioral regulation. Can you elaborate on that and what role you think media plays in this idea of urban bodily management?
Rosler: In population control—I don’t mean here the regulation of the number of people in a population but the ability to control people’s behavior in urban and suburban environments—you want to be able to control the formulation and flow of bodies. In the ’80s I was interested in attempts to dematerialize space, seeing it more as a theatrical setting for movement. At the same time you see the development in movies of efforts to create environments that are simulated, where the model of spectacle that also applies to the rest of social relations is actually instantiated in a room where you’re sitting. Going back to Debord, the society of the spectacle is not about images but all social relations and relations of production. It’s inevitable that it manifests in many different forms, and its models are constantly being adapted, sold, and used to pattern museums, buildings, traffic flows, bike lanes, or media.
Rail: I was really struck by the section in Part III of Culture Class where you discuss the institutionalization of politically engaged art. If one is an artist who really cares about investigating social issues, what do we make of formalized, institutional arenas for these types of concerns? As a working artist, is it possible anymore to stay outside of them?
Rosler: I stayed outside of the whole commercial system for a long time, but then the art world and Reaganism and neoliberalism made a few moves that were intended to destroy alternative art spaces. Living in New York, I became invisible. Writers would never write about things not presented to them in commercial galleries, and museums were not interested either. Artists still gained exposure in art history classrooms, but once it came time to pay attention to them publicly, any recognition had to be strained through institutions. I had always been in favor of showing in museums. The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974 – 75)—which on the one hand is a work about the geopolitics of urban possession, but on the other constitutes a theoretical statement in visual form—was made for museums. I’m just tracing this back to say I’ve always been in favor of trying to be in places where art is and where art is seen, and also in places where art is not expected. I think artists are constantly inventing new ways to draw or construct publics outside the system, and these are often successful—mostly when they’re group endeavors—thanks to the much more expansive place of cultural goods and spaces in our contemporary highly “culturalized” world, the multiple systems of direct communication, and the necessary willingness on the part of contemporary institutions to draw in the marginal, now even when some of those practices suggest themselves as resting on politico-social turf.
Rail: How do we negotiate institutions that purport to be newly committed to “political art”? For instance, masters’ programs in social practice.
Rosler: Yeah, I have a problem with this—the fact that “social works” have been de-problematized. But it allows people who are interested in even addressing public issues to get together and spend some time working on it. But when you are a duly certified master of public practice, then what?
Rail: How do you think about the archive in terms of your art-making?
Rosler: In If You Lived Here Still… the archive for the Dia shows we discussed earlier was put on view. Having the archive of letters and such ephemera on view as a “show” in an art space occurred under the pressure of both Anton Vidokle and Maria Lind, who felt that If You Lived Here… was of continuing importance to curators and the history of exhibition planning. People, especially feminists, have been doing shows of archives for a long time, creating a certain thickness of history and presence based on documents. Rather than publishing a book, the gallery context gave archives a certain insurgent quality. I had previously done a project called Martha Rosler Library, also with e-flux, which put my books out into a more public space; that was in the mid–2000s, when we could definitively claim that books were on the way to becoming cultural objects of a different nature from what they had been.
Rail: That’s an interesting point about visualizing archival material. Like you say, that’s not necessarily a new idea, but as a feminist strategy or even as a conceptual strategy or institutional critique strategy it has been vital.
Rosler: You said the magic word that no one ever mentions anymore! Institutional critique, what’s that?
Rail: It’s a term that feels outdated or ended, but that is troubling in a way.
Rosler: Let me suggest that there is an institutional effort to envision social practice as ameliorative rather than critical. This fits into our discussion about multiculturalism, in which something that was the banner of difference became the banner of management. A similar thing may occur when you institutionalize these things into masters programs and hyper-professionalize them. You wind up with things being normalized in a way that creates heterotopias of the imagination. That, in effect, is the critique of abstract painting under Abstract Expressionism in the ’50s: that it became confined to the realm of the aesthetic space and the imagination; that, rather than liberating the imagination, it contained and confined it. Or let’s say, as Rockefeller supposedly suggested about Rothko’s paintings, they provide refreshment for tired businessmen.