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
March 25, 2013 · Print This Article
In the past couple weeks a myriad of media outlets have been chomping at the bit to comment on the first sale of a piece of art made on the rapidly rising social media platform Vine. The work in question was made by Angela Washko and presented at the Moving Image Fair by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina in their Shortest Video Art Ever Sold (SVAES for short) booth produced in collaboration with Postmasters Gallery. The sale of the work has been quickly marked as an easy target for many critical articles for a variety of reasons, however I feel that most takes have missed some of the more salient issues that surround this sale. I sought out Chayka, Galperina, and Washko to discuss not only their intentions with the project but also to examine what exactly this sale might signal in terms of a potential future for new media art production and saleability.
Before continuing, I feel it’s important for me to say that I have serious misgivings about what the gesture of this sale means for contemporary digital art. That being said, I feel like the media coverage of this event hasn’t given the participants a proper due, or has often been delivered from a somewhat askew and reactionary perspective (which I also might be guilty of). Although what follows is not an attempt to “get the story straight,” I’ll try to curb my personal trepidations in favor of unpacking the intentions of this project. Discussing the implications of this sale – albeit from my hesitant vantage point – come from an underlying respect for the curators to find ways of challenging media art and it’s location within a contemporary market.
On first glance, SVAES presents itself as a very self-assured project in that it immediately places these works in the context of purchasing and ownership. As a markedly youthful project, SVAES revolves around showing Vine as a kind of media art shopping-network/sketchpad. The rapid adoption of this product by artists working online (from Ryder Ripps to Rollin Leonard) seemed of particular interest and importance for the curators. In our conversation over email, Chayka maintains that his and Galperina’s intention was always aimed at being tongue-in-cheek. Through employing this trending technology, Chayka articulates how initially the idea of asking artists to use Vine was a way of creating a semi-satirical entry point for this type of work within a larger art market:
I don’t think SVAES was trying to present any particular kind of aesthetic or enforce a style; it was just about giving artists an opportunity to try something different, more improvisatory. For many of the artists, video isn’t even their primary medium. This is more like a quick, expressive sketch, a video doodle, which seems like what Vine is made for.
Much of the press around SVAES positions the booth not only as a – in my mind seemingly unnecessary – bridge between video art and netart (as Chayka articulates) but also as a way for fairs to start to include artists primarily working through the web. This kind of representation of a netart community points to the abnormality of netart to be shown within the art fair circuit (artists participating either lack typical gallery representation or have decided to work outside of/parallel to traditional art markets). A result of this representation – combined with the curatorial decisions of Chayka and Galperina – is that the booth acted not only as a segue for netartist to be considered within a video art context, but also served as one of the first representational outposts of this generation of artists within a bigger art market. There have been other efforts and offshoots, including LikeArtBasel, but the specific intentions combined with internal support from the Moving Image fair mark it in specifically unique ways. As a result, the SVAES project coyly suggests to the traditional art world a need for opening up traditional methods of distribution for the sake of staving off cultural obsolescence.
This attempt at expanding horizons was a particularly important gesture for Chayka, especially when considering how digital art inherently disrupts the standard channels of art collection and distribution. An important aspect of this disruption comes from the way that the curators dealt with asking artists to use this social media platform. Artists participating in SVAES withheld their videos from public consumption, only to be viewable at the Moving Image booth. If a work was purchased, however, the responsibility of distribution and hosting was put to the collector.:
The social media tie meant that until the piece was bought, you couldn’t see it online — the artist couldn’t publish it, no one could share it, it functionally only existed in the gallery space, it had scarcity. But then when it was bought it was put online instead of taken off, with the imprimatur of the collector. Collecting is at times a very public act, and people should be proud of the art they buy and the artists they support. Through the Vine format and the SVAES project, we mad a meaningful way for them to do that.
The proposed, and eventual, collector had the choice of reposting the video back to Vine or to keep the work within private circulation. The sale of a work implicates the collector in deciding whether or not to allow the work to return to its native networked environment. This curatorial decision is where – in my opinion – the art in SVAES lives.
The unfortunate result of this artistic gesture is that it inadvertently undermines the work of the individual artist. In other words, Washko’s work – and other SVAES pieces – becomes a foil for a curatorial critique of the art market. Washko’s Vine is rendered somewhat irrelevant as soon as it is sold since the work no longer becomes about the artists and their piece, but more about the curators and the collector; at least this shift is where we find ourselves after the purchase has been complete. This process is not exclusive to SVAES as a model/format, but I wonder if the execution of this project is just highlighting an already standardized procedure within contemporary art sales in the form of an intentional gesture. If this is the case, maybe I’m not giving enough credit to SVAES. Even if this were so, the agendas involved in SVAES speak more directly to collection, distribution, or the way the net is expanding these horizons, and not to the content of each piece.
This is particularly worth noting given the content of Washko’s piece, entitled Tits on Tits on Ikea. The work, a shortened alternative of a longer video, was in part made “as a reaction to all of the [already existing] homemade porn vines,” while also following in a line of feminist investigation/criticism that informs Washko’s practice. To undercut this content seems to work against the artist’s intentions of reflecting on this platform and the performative possibilities of short-form networked-video. When asked about the altered status of the work, Washko shared her ambivalent feelings about the overall process:
The thing that is important to [the Moving Image Fair] is that this so-called groundbreaking “Vine-art sale” happened within a framework they own. So it feels especially shitty when I’m not getting any love from them and also taking all of the heat for this project in several extremely spiteful articles, which I must admit are fun to deconstruct and respond directly to. I am thankful for having a very supportive community who are talking to me a lot about this experience as I try to process it, because it’s been really weird… this unexpected media response to this piece was really hard for me in a way, because this was a work I wasn’t ready to talk about yet.
Washko continued to explain how the sale of her vine went to a collector who has previously supported her work (Myriam Vanneschi), and that the $200 sale was a particularly personal gesture of a sustained artist-collector relationship. More importantly, the pointed backlash against Washko as an artists (as opposed to Vine as a product, or the Moving Image Fair as a cultural institution), strikes a disturbing chord since SVAES as a projects wants to critique institutions and not makers. Perhaps the vehement misrepresentation of the work and of SVAES speaks to the problems of presenting and selling work that embraces the sketching quality of Vine that Chayka discusses above. In my mind, relying on social networking as the primary platform of creative production is in itself a pressing problem within online art communities, and should be viewed as one of the primary sources of skepticism put toward this medium. Washko, however, discusses how this reliance is now part and parcel for how artwork is being made online:
We are already reliant on facebook/twitter/whatever to distribute work because the gallery system doesn’t support this kind of work and we realize that we have access to like-minded artists across the globe, and we can support each other by helping to find contexts where this work will be supported for each other. I think it is surely problematic to reinforce the value of these branded, evil(!) channels, however it is hard to deny the benefits they have to broadening audiences and finding better contexts for work.
Perhaps the underlying problem here is that artists working online (at least in America) have decided to choose either gallery representation or social media; both formats necessitating a sidelining of personal politics in favor of reaching a larger and more lucrative audience. For those that choose social media in favor of traditional gallery representation, the artist is left in a particularly vulnerable position since their personal web presences acts as a stand-in for institutional safeguarding (i.e., a museum or curator can take the brunt of criticism and not the individual artist). The sacrifice is becoming more and more daunting as issues of digital ownership and intellectual property online are quickly mounting an End User License Agreement event horizon. The problematic that Washnko describes is perhaps the central location of where my reservation against SVAES lies. When an artist makes work specifically for the context of any given social platform – whether by choice or by invitation – the work unintentionally becomes a supporter of that brand. Perhaps the most troubling thing is the willingness on the part of the artist or curator to submit themselves to the whim of a more dominant cultural identity like Facebook.
This is particularly the case when a work made with social media does not address the material specifics of that platform. At the opening comments at the Tumblr Art Symposium held at 319 Scholes, Christiane Paul addressed how few artists working in social media actually use the infrastructure or material of that media as a resource of creativity (a telling differentiation between the current generation of netartists and their predecessors). Paul quipped (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Are we really talking about Tumblr Art, or merely talking about art on Tumblr?” To that end, if artists online are willing to be making work using social media platforms, then how is that work reflecting on the platform on which they are distributing? More importantly are we even at the point now where questions like this are still relevant? Although SVAES is moving toward this critical position by questioning distribution, access, and ownership, in doing so it renders the content of each individual work as negligible and ultimately subservient to being just another vine in a digital bramble.