Angela Washko has been busy. Between working on ambitious new media projects, performances, residencies, curating exhibitions, and organizing events – all while forwarding a feminist agenda – she has an energy that seems hard to quell. And, good thing. Confronting oppressive cultural attitudes fuled by media representations of women in contexts outside of the art world bubble, Washko’s work incites an important dialog about the value in various forms of femininity. Here, in a “rebellion against concision,” she muses on World of Warcraft, Millionaire Matchmaker, the importance of community, and so much more.
You’ve been pursuing an overtly feminist line of inquiry in your work. What are your thoughts on the current feminist discourse in the art world? How is it still relevant?
I am less interested in a feminist discourse specifically in the art world than a feminist discourse in contemporary American culture. This is why I’ve shifted from making work exclusively for audiences that will view the work in galleries, and have additionally taken feminism to video game spaces (which, as most people are probably learning from increased media coverage of the issue, are generally incredibly misogynistic spaces) and am also working on projects in other public spaces. Ann Hirsch and I recently started a podcast called A Cups in which we discuss pop culture using a feminist lens with different guests (ranging from artists to reality TV stars to writers to comedians to scientists…). I’m excited to talk to people who work in different spheres, and hopefully access audiences that aren’t always exclusively a part of “the art world.” In terms of feminist discourse today – I still think it is a term that many consider antiquated, or as “a way to separate women from men to make women think they are better,” but fuck that. Feminism is as relevant today as ever, in any context. Many women I know (and myself included) can’t walk in the street alone without feeling unsafe because of men who think that it’s OK to grab a woman’s arm to tell her that she is beautiful, ask her if she is single, and then get angry and call her a cunt when they say that: 1. Grabbing me is inappropriate and 2. I’m not single and 3. Even if I was single this is no way to try and get my attention. I’ve been pinned against a wall in the subway for reading and not responding to sexual harassment. Yesterday I got a list-serv email from a college campus stating that women who run around the campus area should be on the lookout for a man who has been running up behind women and sexually assault them from behind. WTF. Ahem, anyway – that was ranty, sorry. Women are still judged upon for their beauty as their highest value and regularly treated as objects in all spheres + public spaces.
But in the art world (since this is what you really asked): I think there are still issues in the representation of work by and about women in gallery, museum, and art market contexts. Women’s experiences + perspectives + positions as sexualized objects, constantly under scrutiny, are still not generally considered. And, even though there are women in certain positions of power (largely gallerists, curators), it is still an uphill battle for women artists, and often those women in power have to sexualize themselves to get there. I also encounter a lot of (generally male) arts administrators and gallery owners who have this dated notion that all feminist performance work is supposed to mean hot women taking their clothes off and talking aggressive dirty talk. Some of those gallerists are attracted to it because they get off on that shit (not saying that the work itself is shit because it’s often incredible…historically two of my favorite artists present their bodies in confrontational ways – VALIE EXPORT and Carolee Schneeman). I am interested in a lot of feminist work that’s happening now because it is revealing in its sincerity, abject + frank depictions of sexuality, fragility, and is approached with a brave self-deprecating sense of humor – and also overlaps with sociology… Ann Hirsch, Nao Bustamante, Dynasty Handbag, Jennifer Chan to name a few artists I’ve been inspired by in the last couple of years. I really loved this recent essay by Rachel Rabbit White as well.
Chastity & The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012, Part 1 of 3
You have also been working quite a bit in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. This includes public performances of the game in which you abandon the conventional goals of gamers and instead expose a variety of sexist attitudes by posing questions to various players about the nature of feminism. And, to further this aim, you’ve created “The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in the World of Warcraft.” Your video work, Chastity – which recently won the Terminal Award from the Center of Excellence in the Creative Arts at Austin Peay State University – takes the viewer on one such meander through WoW. Focusing on your encounter with a player named Chastity, a 19 year-old married woman, pregnant with her first child, the video shows presents a frank and meaningful exchange about your divergent perceptions on the role of women. What did you find so compelling about WoW as a space for this conversation?
I had gotten so used to being able to talk about feminism in contemporary art contexts because (largely) within the art/activism communities I generally work in I found that (for the most part) people in my community were in agreement that feminism is something that is important to talk about and the ways in which women are still today treated, evaluated, and commodified are indeed problematic. When I go back to my hometown (rural Reading, PA) I’m always shocked by the inexplicable outrage people have when the idea of feminism is mentioned. I mean, there’s a reason why there are 91 definitions of feminism in urban dictionary (see page 7 for a sampling). Anyway I became interested in the different ways the idea of feminism and the ideas of what women “should be/do” in general are interpreted when you change geographic, economic, political, and social spheres throughout the United States.
So I thought of a couple of reasons why WoW would be a great place to discuss feminism.
1. WoW is geographically, economically, politically, socially, and racially diverse. Discussing feminism in WoW is like going to a virtual (but still very physical) city and having access to people who are also inhabiting many, many disparate places but simultaneously inhabiting the same virtual space.
2. WoW is an environment in which people talk a lot in a variety of different channels. You can access thousands of people on a server at once. Granted, not all 1,000 will want to discuss feminism with me….but it’s still a better, bigger, and more diverse sampling than I can get on a city street corner. I want to hear from rural + urban attitudes, “conservative” + “liberal,” worldly + isolated, antisocial + popular, blue collar + white collar + the unemployed + freelancers + students, etc…WoW is great because the anonymity of the space allows for a frankness that is both frightening and also impressive, because no one is held accountable for what they say. This could mean that people can lie, but more often it means that they can be as extreme as they like in their beliefs and not be judged for it (and are actually generally rewarded for it socially).
Video still from Chastity, 2012
3. WoW is a community that I participate in and understand. I’ve been playing for a long time. I did take a hiatus for a while but returned without skipping a beat. I am comfortable there, I know the social cues, commands, communication channels. I am in guilds that I like. I used to raid a lot. This project relies heavily on my ability to play the game and my ability to create trust in the people who I talk to. Without my gaming skills, I would be a n00b and everyone would smell the exploitative aspect of the project right away (even though I do disclose that I am recording/performing/using the conversations for a research project – all true). I don’t know any artists who play WoW. I have access to this group of really diverse, interesting, unabashed people to discuss feminism with using the communication skills I’ve developed in my other lives as a facilitator/mediator/arts administrator/performance artist/actress/college athlete!
4. WoW is a notoriously misogynistic space (like most massively multiplayer online games). I originally thought of this project as activism – me going into the space asking lots of questions about feminism, revealing the obvious misogyny therein, uniting all the women in the game to revolt together to change it!!! This was an unrealistic goal. It shifted as the complexity of the responses I got made me question my own ideas about what being a woman means today and I started realizing that thoughts on the issues are so tied to our own perspectives – where we are, how we live, who we’re exposed to. And this space is a refuge for all kinds of ideologies that get less fashionable/acceptable in today’s increasing politically correct culture because it is harder to access, and thus not policed. But I am interested in these attitudes that still exist and are not often expressed in physical public space, but thrive and become the dominant language in internet spaces like WoW (and forums, other games, etc) and I’m glad that I now have the ability to get people to discuss them with me in a (seemingly) sincere way inside those spaces.
Do you see your work with WoW as a durational project? If so, what are some of your long-term goals?
Yes. I have been working inside WoW for a while now and I hope to continue. I am getting better as a facilitator each time I do it, so I think I am definitely getting somewhere – and it feels like I should keep doing it. I recently made a text transcript from some of the most interesting conversations I had with players…it includes the text from “Chastity” and is also 24 pages long…Ultimately I want to continue the conversations and make a book from the transcripts and screenshots. I also hope to start doing the live performance version in larger theater contexts with improved sounds, additional live-players on stage with me participating and a longer time frame (1.5 – 2 hours) to really get into more intense discussions. The live version of the performance suffers from a severely short time frame – which forces me to be in panic mode just hoping that SOMEONE will talk to me. More time = more casual and closer to how the conversations unfold when I’m conducting these conversations in my bedroom or studio.
Video still from An Irregularly Shaped Pearl, 2011
OK, we have to talk about boobs. Big, pink, balloon boobs. They crop up quite a bit in your projects. In fact, so do other exaggerated and artificial notions of stereotypical femininity, which you reappropriate and perform.
So, yeah. I’m interested in advocating for a more diverse idea of what kind of woman is acceptable, beautiful, and valued. In a lot of my performance and video work I try to step into the norms of what is popularly considered desirable (long hair, big tits, big ass, revealing clothes, feminine, fake eyelashes etc), norms that don’t apply to me – and end up failing. I’m not saying women who fit that description aren’t beautiful…I think they totally are, I just find that there are a lot of women who are incredible that don’t. I try to exaggerate the ridiculous idea that one must subscribe to these culturally imposed ideals in order to attain the person they want to be with. It’s bullshit. And if ultimately those things are exclusively what one feels bonded to…seems like a pretty weak connection, no? I agree that sexual attraction is in some way important to finding a partner, but in an age when anyone who can afford it can manipulate just about anything about themselves physically – perhaps we could also expand our culturally enforced ideas of what is desirable to be a bit more creative, too. I love Adam Zaretsky’s research on art and gene expression. Taken from a talk of his I listened to recently, he advocates for aiming (in genetics) for “the widest range of aesthetic bodies possible and this doesn’t just mean the widest range of beauty but the widest range of feelings a body can have…aesthetics doesn’t just mean good and there’s a lot of that going on here in this sort of ‘we need to go toward the pleasant, better feeling, longer living, more beautiful, more stable emotionally…’” I like this video of him talking about it.
I just watched 5 1/2 seasons so far of Millionaire Matchmaker (it’s “for a project” lol). I’ve been archiving the descriptions of what every male millionaire specifically asks Patti Stanger to find for them in a woman. Almost all of the men lead with physical attributes (though of course this could be a result of the show’s editing – which then I find also the show at fault for reinforcing this issue). I’ve been making spreadsheets of different data from the show, and the most popular responses to what male millionaires report to be looking for: #1 brunette, #2 beautiful, #3 petite, #4 able and willing to have children, #5 short, #6 hot, and finally coming in at a whopping #7: intelligent (big boobs and nice ass follow). In my work, I’m advocating for a massive mainstream beauty value re-assessment in whatever media and sphere that I’m working in. In an era in which you can pay to play in the “beauty standard department” (boob jobs, boob reductions, lipo, botox, incredible makeup, personal trainers, special diets, hair dyes, $1000 hair extension jobs), I hope that the projects I’m working on now promote a reconsideration of genetic otherness as being more valuable and beautiful than ever? eee?
Tits on Tits on Ikea, 2013
You also have the distinction of being the first artist to sell a video work formatted Vine, which was in The Shortest Video Art Ever Sold (#SVAES), a project of the Moving Image fair, and a development that received wide press attention, including coverage on Bad at Sports. I think one of the best points made in that piece was that much of the coverage emphasized the project’s commentary on patronage and the economic structures of the art world, and that the work itself was eclipsed by this focus. The piece that sold, Tits on Tits on Ikea, like many of your other works, offers a critical look at the mediated images of women. What was your specific focus with this work?
Oh gosh, I could go on and on about the weird economically-focused reactions to the sale of the video I made using Vine, but I won’t. I made the piece in Helsinki, Finland while I was at the HIAP artist residency program. The work is a video, made using the Vine app (which at the time was only supported by iPhones, so I didn’t even have it myself), which I had to borrow from Eleni Tsitsirikou (HIAP employee and performer in the video!). Vine was the curators’ specification for format. So because I found the format so odd, I wanted to respond to the medium’s restrictions – 6 seconds and square and looping. I read a lot about the early impulses of Vine users to use the medium immediately to create homemade porn or dick pics – an impulse popular in a lot of social video formats – Chatroulette being a famous one. So my piece is a performer showing her tits, which are my tits from a longer form video of mine, which are big pink balloons being massaged – producing a very irritating, high-pitched, plastic, rubbing sound. I wanted to sneak a longer video into an incredibly short format and have essentially two videos in one. I wanted to create a very disappointing version/reenactment of what would otherwise be a sexual act. I was also commenting on the lack of consideration that people often have regarding their “set design” in these chatroulette masturbation videos and homemade porn..,and thus you have “Tits on Tits on Ikea.”
Washko (center) performing with collaborators at Flux Factory, NYC
You’ve talked a lot about your work in connection to your community. It’s funny that this should be striking, but less and less it feels like artists are running in definable packs. How has your socialization within your community influenced your work?
My community has been incredibly important to my work. I’ve moved around a lot and have really been scraping to get by since 2009 – living on couches, relying on artist residency programs to provide temporary refuge from living on couches, getting travel grants which again provide temporary refuge from living on couches. But during this time I’ve always been compelled to organize events surrounding the works of people who I’ve met along the way that really speak to me. These artists create works critiquing cultural ideals and providing alternatives that have really impacted the way I think about my own work. My earliest socially engaged projects weren’t my own art projects, they were shows (exhibitions/experimental lecture events/performance events) that I organized including artists who were doing the kinds of work that resonated with me. The work of The Yes Men, Adam Zaretsky, Boryana Rossa + Oleg Mavromatti, Nao Bustamante, Chris Skinner, Jeff Stark, and The Center for Land Use Interpretation were all introduced to me when I did my first residency at CAC Woodside in Troy, NY. If it weren’t for the experience of meeting and learning from these artists that make challenging, multi-disciplinary, activism-oriented work, I might still be sitting in a studio trying to make + sell paintings – hoping that someone might knock on my door and say I make prettier paintings than every other painter and give me a gallery deal. My time in Troy was extremely formative. In Troy, there isn’t a lot going on, so it’s up to everyone there at any given time to create culture. NYC will always have enough venues and enough artists (“there’s something for everyone!”). But in Troy, like many artists there, I was moved to organize and participate to ensure that the community thrived. In that small town the community and the pool of artists is tiny, but the people participating are incredibly tight-knit and innovative. When I moved to Flux Factory in Queens (I was an artist-in-residence there for 2 years and the Residency Coordinator for 1 year), I found a similar vibe there. I also immediately got to make work collaboratively with a lot of very different artists and cultural producers, and was able to meet an incredibly massive network of people upon arrival in NYC, which is a pretty amazing opportunity. Flux also provided a platform for a lot of my community organizing. I produced a lot of events there and included a lot of the people I’d met in Troy and other residencies with the community I had found in Flux. As I’ve been able to gain some attention for my projects, I always try to bring people I believe in who aren’t getting the spotlight they deserve with me, as a lot of more-established people I care about have done the same for me. I’ve slowed down on the frantic curating/organizing (the demand of curating the Conflux Festival in the fall and a permanent collection exhibition at Southern Queens Parks Association that directly followed took its toll on me) but still maintain a critique group I started that meets monthly to discuss work (which has been really helpful for the development of my work – thanks Ann, Nathaniel, Jason, Alex, Man, Nate, Michelle and Sunita). I’m also organizing a performance event in late July. Lately, I find that a lot of my community is also online and equally as meaningful. My work has shifted a lot because of my community. I prefer to work from ideas and then choose what media is appropriate instead of defaulting to painting like I would have a few years ago, and I am much more interested in working my somewhat academic criticality into my practice, and creating new ways to display research-oriented projects. Despite being geographically separated, with the seemingly increasing importance of social media as a way to communicate what you do, it’s easier to find like-minded artists and activists in these formats as well, and I learn a lot from what other people are doing globally. I’d say that the days of the “artist hiding in a studio making magic” are limited and that “participating” should not be limited to going to openings. My advice for people moving to new cities or students graduating from art schools is always to find a community that interests you, attend what they do and get actively involved somehow. Keep making your own work, but don’t forget to take things in. The advice I was given when I graduated was “go get a studio and just make a lot.” In retrospect that advice might work for some, but that formula always left me feeling like I needed to be engaged with something more – I’m glad I figured out what makes sense for me. But I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice anyway. <3