March 2012

Andrea Fraser: exposing the art world from within

From mock guided tours to a sexual encounter with a collector, the US artist's work is a unique form of institutional critique

Andrea Fraser in still from from Projection (2008) Image courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Andrea Fraser in still from from Projection (2008) Image courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Journalism has its media watchdogs; it could be said that Andrea Fraser plays a similar role in the art world. A high school drop out from Montana, she attended the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study programme and in the 1980s began her practice of institutional critique, which often took the form of filmed performances, such as guided tours of museums. These had a biting sense of humour and delved into economic and social issues tied to the history of institutions. Throughout her career, she has consciously distanced herself from the commercial art world.

In 1991, she made the video May I Help You, hiring three people to pose as gallery staff for the duration of her show and to present a monologue she had written about taste. In 2001, she filmed herself in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, responding to the hyperbolic audioguide in an amusingly erotic way. Two years later, she made her best known work, Untitled, a video in which she has sex in a hotel room with a collector who paid to participate in the work. In Projection, a two-screen video installation from 2008, she exposes herself in a different way, performing monologues based on actual therapy sessions she had attended.

Fraser is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and more recently she has written articles and essays addressing economic issues and power structures in the art world, directly comparing income inequality with art market data. Her work has influenced younger artists and features in this year’s Whitney Biennial (1 March-27 May); her participation consists of a catalogue essay displayed on a lectern.

The Art Newspaper: Tell me about the Whitney essay.

Andrea Fraser: The art world is the site of tremendous wealth, and tremendous social and political power that goes with wealth. Museum boards are the wealthiest clubs in the world. And yet much of that very same art world imagines itself to be a site of contestation of exactly that power, whether we call that critique or subversion or transgression. The essay focuses on that contradiction, which has become increasingly acute in the art world in the past decade, as we’ve seen skyrocketing art prices, the emergence of art as an asset class, the expansion of the influence of hedge fund managers and private equity, and what we now recognise more widely as the tremendous upward transfer of wealth that has produced unprecedented inequality in the US and in parts of Europe.

"I’ve always felt it’s part of my job as an artist to play an active role in not only producing works but in producing a discourse, not only about my own work but about the art world"

This writing is part of your art?

I’ve always felt it’s part of my job as an artist to play an active role in not only producing works but in producing a discourse, not only about my own work but about the art world. I’m most often associated with institutional critique—I would rather open it up beyond that. I’ve seen my own activity as an artist as being very much defined by what I sometimes call “critical reflexivity”, a process of analysis that hopefully includes a kind of self-analysis. Text becomes an important way to engage in that.

You began making works on this subject in 2010.

In March 2010, I was invited to contribute to the summer issue of Artforum, an issue about museums and the public sphere. My approach to that was, we can’t talk about it without looking at how museums are embedded in the economic structures that are now leading to the bankrupting of the public sector and the privatisation of the public sphere. I sent in a draft that detailed the involvement of MoMA trustees in the subprime crisis and other ventures that resulted in enormous losses—tax losses and other losses—in the public sector. Artforum declined to publish the piece in that form. It was complicated—it wasn’t clear they wouldn’t publish it in another form at a later date. But it left me starting that research without an outlet for it. Some of it went into the Le 1% C’est Moi essay [for Texte zur Kunst magazine] a year later, but I shifted my focus from the trustees of a particular museum to the Artnews top 200 collectors list.

Can the art world serve as a proxy to talk about larger economic concerns?

It comes back to the question of what good can come out of this critique. There are artists who challenge the kind of practice I’ve been engaged in, or institutional critique as I see it, who say, “Why do you just critique from inside? Why don’t you do something to get out of it?” My response is that anywhere you go, you’re going to be encountering these structures. And one really great thing about the art world is it’s a context where you can engage those structures directly, and challenge them and reflect on them. So, I often define institutional critique these days not as an attack on the institution of art but as a defence of the institution of art as a site of critique and critical self-reflection as a culture and, more broadly, in society. I want it to play that role, even if it means suffering what are sometimes painful contradictions.

Fraser has exposed herself in different ways to lay bare the inequalities of the art world. Still from Untitled (2003) Image courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

You said that after Untitled you thought about retiring, but then you got a tenured teaching job.

It was partly a joke but also serious. I got to a point in 2006 where I was considering going to graduate school, I was so frustrated and conflicted with the art world. If I hadn’t got the job at UCLA, I think I would have. Probably in anthropology. I’d been working actively and exhibiting for 20 years, and I was in debt, which had something to do with my own ambivalence and reluctance to make things to sell. But there was also this sense that I didn’t want to keep fighting the battle with the art world. The job at UCLA changed my life. It gave me another way of engaging with the art world that didn’t have to be defined by the market or other institutions I’d worked with. It also gave me a regular income and it took me outside New York.

You have said that any shame in Untitled resulted not from the sex but from the commodification aspect—a reporter printed the price.

It was infuriating. I agreed to participate in an article by Guy Trebay for the New York Times magazine. I told him I wasn’t disclosing what the collector paid. He kept pressing me, then came up with this amount, $20,000, that I think had been printed elsewhere, and the fact checker called me and I said: “That’s not what the collector paid, and I’m not disclosing it.” It appeared in print anyway.

You withdrew it from Tate Modern’s touring Pop Life exhibition, after its run in Hamburg.

I had never before lent Untitled for a group exhibition. It was produced in an edition of five. The collector who participated received the first. A subsequent one that was sold before I decided to suspend sales on that particular piece went to the Generali Foundation in Vienna, and they immediately wanted to put it in a group exhibition that was already on tour. One of the components of the purchase agreement is that it can’t be shown publicly without my consent. I told them I didn’t want it to go into a show that is already organised and in circulation. It just seemed too fast. I couldn’t imagine it would be well considered under those circumstances. I have an enormous amount of respect for Tate Modern so when they approached me to borrow Untitled I was reluctant but at that point the exhibition had a different title, Sold Out, and was presented to me as a critical examination of the relationship between artists and the market—it seemed there was a clear curatorial intention in that direction.

After the show opened, I discovered, at an unfortunately late date, that the title had changed and the concept had changed quite a bit. Also, the piece is supposed to be shown in its own room and, because of the decisions curators always have to make about great amounts of space, it ended up in a space that one couldn’t legitimately call a room and with a wall text that I should have been allowed to review as part of the loan agreement that was not provided for review and that contained errors. It’s the responsibility of artists to stay on top of these things and review them. The difficulty with Untitled is that I feel so conflicted about it. It’s partly my fault for not staying on top of it. And when I realised I wasn’t able to do that, I decided it would be better to withdraw it. I decided to let it go to Hamburg, because the piece had already been shown there.

What’s the difference between your guided tour pieces, for instance, and acting?

I did study acting in high school, which came back to me a little bit when I started performing. But I came to performance through appropriation of image and text, like everyone was doing in the 1980s, and the idea of appropriating these museum forms and formats, like wall labels and posters, museum tours, docent [guided] tours. That developed into taking up the role of a curator or consultant in other projects in the 1990s. One of the ways that I think about the difference between what I do as a performer and what an actress might aspire to is that it’s not really about the character or the other people that I perform. I’m always me and what I’m performing is a relationship to those people. Or a relationship to those positions I’m appropriating or taking up.

You did something in Los Angeles recently, Men on the Line, KPFK, 1972 (2012), that was closer to theatre.

In January, as part of “Pacific Standard Time”, Emi Fontana, who has an organisation called West of Rome, invited three artist/performers—me, Vaginal Davis and Mike Kelley—to create new works inspired by the Women’s Building. I ended up working with a radio broadcast from 1972 on KPFK public radio, called Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism. It’s four men discussing feminism. I performed all four men. I suppose it took quite a bit of acting—it’s a 6,000-word script that I memorised and performed. It’s fairly classic as a one-woman show. But it’s clear that I’m not these guys. My vision of it was more as channelling than as acting. A lot of the content had to do with gender roles and role reversal. There was a scenario where one of the men read about an inverted world where women had all the power and men stayed home. But there was also a lot of content that had to do with empathy, and how men understand women’s experience, and how men can relate their own experience of being victims or being dominated—say, in the corporate world—to the experience of women being victims and being dominated. For me, the performance had to do with taking up that empathy, that challenge of empathy across gender roles and hierarchies. I love the piece. I will probably perform it in New York in the fall.

What was the response?

My work, particularly my early work, gets associated with an ironic, funny, parodic sort of performance. I’ve been struggling against that for many years. I was really concerned that this performance in particular would be experienced as being at the expense of these men. I was very happy that the majority of men and women found it extremely moving. Some women expressed a combination of bitterness, sympathy and sadness: some of the sexism that comes through, despite the men’s best efforts, seems quaint, almost. But some of it is still with us. What came through more is the men’s own struggle not only to be good men and not sexist men, but their struggles with their own masculinity and a sense of isolation and loneliness that norms of masculinity created for them, particularly in relations with other men, because of anxiety about being feminised, and because of competitiveness. I felt a lot of respect for these men, for trying to engage in that struggle.

And what were the reactions to Untitled?

Some people looked at the video and thought, this looks like very alienated sex. Others said: “That’s a beautiful representation of intimacy.” The range of responses was extraordinary. In some sense, they are all true. From a certain perspective, doesn’t sex always involve a degree of performance? Isn’t it always somehow framed in fantasy? The artistic frame sets it off and gives it another kind of intentionality. That was my experience performing these four men [in Men on the Line, KPFK, 1972]. It wasn’t theatre. It wasn’t drama. But to re-perform it lends it a kind of intentionality that opens it up to a whole different range of weight, reflection and interpretation. That’s one of the things art does.


Background: Born in 1965, Billings, Montana; Educated at New York University, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program, New York; School of Visual Arts, New York

Selected solo shows: 2007: Franz Hals Museum, Haarlem The Netherlands; 2005: Official Welcome, Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, Dia:Chelsea, New York, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; 2003: Andrea Fraser, Works: 1984 to 2003, Kunstverein, Hamburg

Selected group shows: 2012: Spies in the House of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 2009: Pop Life, Tate Modern, London; 2008: Psycho Buildings, Hayward Gallery, London

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