Feminist Urgent RoundTable #2
Strike a THREAT: Women’s Voices in the Media: online, offline, talking, doing, breathing, living – abused, ignored, trolled, forgotten
B. H. Q. F. U.
34 Avenue A, New York City
November 21, 2014
The Bruce High Quality Foundation was the unlikely host to the second installment of Feminist Urgent’s RoundTable series. F.U. is “an in-flux open-forum, discussion, journal, social practice, curatorial, activist community” founded and (loosely) moderated by the artist Katya Grokhovsky. I was honored to be a part of this particular event, which focused on the “urgent issues of online and offline abuse of female public voices.”
At this curated RoundTable, the usual rules were not in play—there was little distinction between audience and panelist; the format was totally open (which distressed some students in the audience); and there was a raw energy, largely fueled by Penny Arcade, one of the evening’s speakers, that inspired blunt, evocative, even intensely personal sharing from many people present. The engagement with, and sometimes policing of, comments made by all-women panelists was particularly loaded because the very topic under consideration was the way that women’s voices are dealt with in our society.
Katya Grokhovsky intentionally stepped back as moderator, letting the conversation unfold as it would. Collectively, we spoke—audience and panelists—for almost three hours, moving from anticipation, through tension and even anger, past catharsis, into a blissfully connected state that was, for lack of better word, real. You can listen to the conversation here. But if you don’t have that kind of time, some highlights are below.
After Katya’s welcome, Penny Arcade, performance artist and experimental theater maker, set the tone with her statement that, “The minute a woman speaks, everyone hears their mother telling them what to do.” She told the audience that she will express her opinion but not because she expects anyone to agree, adding, “I have a lot of prejudices but I know I have them. A lot of people don’t know that they’re horrible.” She called for rigorous inquiry, adding, “When you’re old, synthesis becomes incredibly easy.” From this point, Penny Arcade synthesized the comments others made, adding her own opinions and anecdotes to most of them. It was quickly apparent that the flow would be: panelist shares her work / Penny Arcade responds, pissing some people off and inspiring others / repeat. And I accepted this as an interesting diversion from the polite and usual: panelists consecutively speak for 5 to 6 minutes / select audience members ask the usual questions. Not everyone else there was as quick to accept this diversion from the established norm.
After Penny Arcade’s opening remarks, performance artist Anya Liftig read the predictably appalling online comments in response to publicity and reviews of her works “Adoring Appetite” (a collaboration with Caitlin Berrigan) and “The Anxiety of Influence.” For “The Anxiety of Influence,” she costumed herself as Marina Abramovic and attended “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art, where the two “sat together, silently, motionless, staring at one another in the atrium for the entire day, approximately six hours and twenty-eight minutes.” One commenter referred to Anya and her work as “Satanic feminism.” Another mused that he prefers “performance art with naked chicks.” A panelist said that for some commenters, “The way they build community is by being awful.” Penny Arcade pointed out that, “The critic should tell the artist something the artist doesn’t know about the work.”
Next, I introduced myself and spoke briefly about moving in liminal spaces: poet as inside but outside of the Art World; teaching coach as ominous space between teachers and administrators; and white woman, who daily experiences both oppression and privilege. I brought up bell hooks’ quote, “Patriarchy does not have a gender,” and questioned whether, as a writer, I want to share in the power of patriarchy, exist in the margins, or attempt to deconstruct it. Then I read some poems from ManWorld, after which Penny Arcade reminded us all not to confuse “straight white man” with “patriarchy.” As she put it, “shit floats.” And shit surely knows no gender.
Visual artist Leah Schraeger then spoke about her Naked Therapy project, in which she and her male clients speak via webcam while both are naked. She explained that the men experienced powerful therapeutic benefits, but that she had experienced pushback to her work. Leah seemed miffed when Penny Arcade asked her, “Are you trained as a therapist?” Leah Schraeger is not a therapist, but an artist who knows something about the “challenges women face when using sexual images.” She said that the “young female” in our society is equated with being “commercial,” and that this has made for negative assumptions about her work and her intentions. She then discussed “girlfriend revenge”—men posting nude photos of ex-girlfriends online, sometimes with names and addresses attached. To fight this revenge when she experienced it, Leah created multi-ego onas (virtual online presences) to confuse any searches for her name. Penny is no stranger to pushback or to nude performance. She said, sarcastically, “You do a show where you’re nude and you become an expert on nudity.” Both women, like many others, have been accused of using nudity/sexuality for sensational purposes. While visionless nudity can be merely sensational, like Penny said, “As soon as there’s content, there’s no sensationalism.”
Katya moved the conversation over to Juliana Driever, a curator and writer, who spoke about her identity as a mother to a six-year-old boy. She’s found that in the art world, it’s best to hide her parental status because motherhood is “perceived as a liability,” and has hurt her professionally. Mothers are viewed as “vanilla, suburban, soft” and as artists, are associated with “Etsy-inspired Instagram shit,” whereas fathers are seen as “responsible, bearers of financial burdens, breadwinners.” Juliana said, “I wanna call bullshit on these biases. I’m sick of ‘mom’ as being a demeaning characterization.” She described an experience of being at a party where someone presumptuously asked her, “What did you used to do?” Juliana replied, “I’m still curating,” to which the acquaintance responded, “You’re curating your son’s cute little outfits.” This led to her naming the “empathy gap” between people with kids and people without kids. To illustrate her point, she referred to Ken Johnson’s review of Michelle Grabner’s work, in which he called her work “bland” and her a “soccer mom.”
Poet Hafizah Geter then spoke about the white space/male space that is the poetry world. She described how, as a woman of color, she is often treated as “magical,” a “curiosity,” or one to be “fearfully cautious of.” She then read from Matthew Zapruder’s torrent of comments (begun on November 20th) about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, in which he publicly embarrassed himself by declaring, “The (mostly white) clamor about the amazingness of Citizen is frankly suspicious to me, it feels like once again taking something away for other purposes, a kind of bragging about righteous reading.” The thread runs for miles, and in it Zapruder basically argues that white people only like Rankine’s book (which he admits to never having read) because it makes them feel less guilty, implying that the book does not stand on its own artistic merit. He also repeatedly excuses himself saying that he is exhausted because he has a newborn. As Hafizah pointed out, “Only a man could use that excuse: I had a baby, I don’t have to be informed anymore.” She noted that Zapruder runs a prominent poetry press that almost exclusively publishes white poets, stating that, “You can’t see anything other than whiteness in your aesthetic.” Then she read a brilliant poem.
The final panelist, Jacqueline Mabey, is an independent curator whose collaborative project Art+Feminism works to improve coverage of women in arts on Wikipedia. She, along with her collaborators, was listed as one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2014. As of this RoundTable, her feminist interventions have improved or created more than 200 Wikipedia articles. She shared that “less than 10% of contributors are female,” so “content is skewed by lack of female participation. Wikipedia is the content backbone of the internet, so absences there matter.”
The conversation then opened to the audience, who shared their own perspectives, personal stories, and occasional questions. One person responded to Juliana’s work, saying that we live in a country where we “value life but do nothing to look after it,” referring to the lack of childcare at art events, including the event we were presently engaged in. Next thing you know, folks were discussing World Star Hip Hop, illegal abortions, gender-based murders, the disappeared in Honduras, and police response to sexual assault. Penny Arcade said that “Gentrification happens to ideas,” and argued that “Activist has become an identity. It’s not about what you do anymore.” After discussing how we now live in “an era of entitlement,” she concluded, “Feminism is a necessity, not a concept.”
Photo credit: Peter Gynd