Art is heart and soul of any society. Interview with Martha Rosler (part one)

[PL]
It is not your first visit in Poland?

Martha Rosler: This is the fourth time, all within the last two and a half years. First I went to Kraków but then I was invited to Warsaw, I exbited work last year in Gdansk in the show Alternativa, but I was not able to attend and a year ago I was invited to give a lecture at Zamek Ujazdowski. Then Adam Mazur and Kaja Pawełek started to talk with me about having a show. I thought I was going to do a project, so a show was a bit of surprise. The heart of the exhibition is still the project - a performative element.

Can I say that it is your first exhibition here?

Absolutely. My works have been in shows in Poland, but this exhibition is a solo show and also the first one for which I could be present.

I want to ask you about repetition in your work. "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home" (1967-1972) -a photo collage series, where in the domestic space you place news photos from the Vietnam war, is repeated in 2004-2008 in a "new series" about Iraq and Afghanistan. Also the video "Semiotics of the Kitchen", which was recorded in 1975, has a new version from 2011. To repeat the same gesture in a different context and in a different time changes the meaning, but also gives power to the message it carries. How do you look at it?

The repetition of "House Beautiful" project came about because I thought of returning to that project, as a way of calling attention to the fact that the US was still waging wars that made no sense, against countries that had done nothing to us. With "Semiotics of the Kitchen," I was invited to "re-perform" the work at London's Whitechapel Gallery in 2003, but I didn't want to do that, so I did something else: I converted this work to another form -a collective performance, with 26 women, rather than a single performance and as a live performance rather then a video work. It did, however, become a video work subsequently, in 2010, when I edited the footage we shot in 2003. I use repetition in my work, because - as you say - repetition leads to a kind of power. It sets up a rhythmic element in which you establish that something you have done is intended. I insert a lot of things in my work that look like mistakes, but I repeat them. To think of them as mistakes means to misunderstand how the work is constructed. I think repetition is a very basic way to insist on something - to make it a formal element of the work. There is repetition over a long span of time- I felt that repeating the same format of the original House Beautiful of decades earlier gave resonance both to the new work but also to the old- but also there is a repetition over seconds or minutes, within a work. When it comes to video work, I often think in musical terms and use repetition as rhythm.

“Photo Op” from “House Beautiful: Bringing War Home”, New Series (2004)
“Photo Op” from “House Beautiful: Bringing War Home”, New Series (2004)

In what sense?

For example, I call the video "Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained" (1977) "an opera in three acts." There is no singing in it, no dancing, but I saw it as having the dramatic structure of an opera. There are refrains that repeat and repeated methods of presenting the material as the work unfolds. It is not polemic, but it still has the semi-bombastic quality that operas have. And there is even a small burst of musical punctuation in that work. In general, I use either very little music or a lot of music, but I repeat text as almost a musical element. That doesn't mean that semantics, or meaning, is not important. Instead of saying "You must believe", by repeating something, I'm trying to say: "Listen and make up your mind". As a viewer, you've got a chance to hear it and listen to it again. I'm always purposely ‘misusing music', which I think I learned from Jean-Luc Godard. Music in moving things is often intended as glue, as a matrix. Godard taught me to violate the idea that it is a matrix, and rather to treat music as if it was an element like any other, and can be edited just like anything else. Or putting it in different words, he taught me to think about music as a part of the construction of the work. I sometimes even change the frequency of the music, or just tap the microphone, to make it sound like an error. The result is that are the elements of the production that are disclosed because they are taken as mistakes. (...)

“Amputee (Election II)” from “House Beautiful :Bringing War Home”, New Series (2004)
“Amputee (Election II)” from “House Beautiful :Bringing War Home”, New Series (2004)

We talked about repetition, but I think there is also some kind of continuation in your works. Projects like "Monumental Garage Sale" (1973-) or "Martha Rosler Library" (2005-) go on and on.

[Laugh] Those two projects were not intended to go on. Anton Vidokle of e-flux and I thought up the Library project; 7,000 of my own books were supposed to go to e-flux gallery in New York, and that was supposed to be that. Then, Anton said: "Martha, people are requesting to show this work; do you want it to travel?". I wasn't sure, but I thought we might do it. The Library traveled to Frankfurt, but then more and more places wanted to show it. After it went to about 5 places, Anton and I felt it was too much work and too boring to keep packing it up and setting it up somewhere new, so finally we said: "no" and the work "retired" to my house. With the "Garage Sale," after 1973 I did another version in 1977, but I never considered doing it again. Later, when I had a retrospective show - it was in 1999-2000 - curators at the various institutions were requesting this work. It got bigger and bigger as it moved along from city to city where the retrospective was shown...

From “Body Beautiful” (1966-72)
From “Body Beautiful” (1966-72)

And it ended up in MOMA...

Eventually yes... Jens Hoffman had hosted the project in 2005 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London, when he was a director there, and he persuaded me to restage it as an external project at Art Basel in 2010. He saw it as a chance to insert the work into direct confrontation with high-art evaluation, at the world's premier art fair. The curator at MOMA, Sabine Breitwieser, had the same idea: a sale of ordinary objects staged where artworks of the highest value are housed. Although I really didn't want to do this work anymore, because it was so much work, In fact the logic of the situation in both those instances made me do it. [laugh].

I always had a kind of absurd idea that when someone invites you to have a show, you need to make new work. It is not like that anymore; now people mostly want to show already existing work. But my impulse here in Warsaw was not to show older works but to make something specific to here. I have done a lot of so-called site-specific works. But now even archives of past projects, such as If "You Lived Here..." which was staged at the Dia Art Foundation in 1989, are in demand for years afterward. These projects have a life that is somehow desired by the art community - by curators and art historians. All those aforementioned works are not ‘about' something; rather, they pose radical questions or - as in the case of library - are a resource for visitors.

"If You Lived Here" - a project on homelessness, is actually a good opening to ask you about the role of art. Usually you work with quite basic and radical questions. Then again art can be seen as a "left wing hobby", something in which few people are interested. How do you see this?

Anything whatever could be considered a hobby!

 “Red Stripe Kitchen” from “House Beautiful: Bringing War Home” (1967-1972)
“Red Stripe Kitchen” from “House Beautiful: Bringing War Home” (1967-1972)

Yes, but do you think there is any impact of art on society?

In my opinion, that is not a question you can ask about art. Or you can ask it, but it is a footnote. One obvious observation is that art, and music, and theater, are the heart and soul of any society. But that is not always obvious about contemporary art, which is often critical and not designed to uplift the spirit. So the real question is: "Does art advance the ongoing discussion?". Art alone does not create social change; art acts in conjunction with elements in contemporary discourse as a crystallizer and perhaps a catalyst. Very rarely a catalyst. Look at Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle's Tom Cabin and the movement for the abolition of slavery in the US in the middle of the 19th century. Beecher Stowe's novel had a huge impact because it appeared at a moment when people wanted to be persuaded that slavery is a moral evil. But that sort of impact is rare. Nevertheless, works are always part of the intellectual context. With "If You Lived Here" in 1989, people have often asked me if it had some effect on homelessness. I always said that this is not the right question. Now I also have a second answer, because of the book associated with the project. The book, also called If You Lived Here, was published in 1990 and has never been out of print since. About six months ago I was giving a paper in New York at a conference in honor of the geographer and theorist David Harvey. People I ‘d never met before came up to me, and one said: "Your book changed my life" and another said "I carried your book around for a year". A few years ago a young guy told me that he read the book in architecture school and "it changed everything." He went on to found a well-regarded group in New York that works with high school students, helping them to develop projects that picture their neighborhood and work as young urban activists. At the same time, the whole project of ‘If You Lived Here...' is considered to have pioneered a new method of putting together exhibitions, called "the new institutionalism." The impact that the project has had, then, is the one that I predicted: it's had a discursive effect. It is hard to trace a drop of water in a rushing stream, but if you add a little bit of color you can see it make its way down.

Martha Rosler, Guide for the Perplexed: How to Succeed in the New Poland, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, 14.02 - 18.05.2014.

Martha Rosler, Photo.: Bartosz Górka
Martha Rosler, Photo.: Bartosz Górka