The legend of the American feminist movement, the artist, Martha Rosler answer the question “of political propaganda” about the political art, censorship and the new project of Russia.
Petr Pavlensky september / 2014
In an interview, you mentioned that you are preparing to enter a video project, which is tentatively called – «Poslezavtra», and that the work about Russia, and it moves into the future. To somehow affect the content of the work, the events in Russia over the last six months, to express themselves in the adoption of repressive laws discredit the judicial system, and the introduction of a unified state ideology, which is based on the principles of Orthodox fundamentalism?
The video I have been working on is based on a trip I took down the Volga in the summer of 1991, living on a small boat for a month starting out from Ufa—which was then a backwater, very 1940s-looking. I was on this trip with some colleagues from the states and with quite a number of Russian photographers and a handful of Europeans. I took a lot of pictures and video footage. I want to move from that moment of uncertainty in the post-collapse moment, when everything was “poslezavtra,’ deferred into an unknown future— and into a consideration of what the future looks like from a vantage point more than 20 years later. Twnety years on, we see the rise of a significant urban middle class, and a generation of educated young people who can look to the other industrial democracies for ideas and which is determined to create something like a civil society sector. It will be necessary to look at precisely the developments you mention— I do think that they could already be forecast back in 1991.
In connection with the show-trial Pussy Riot, in Russia for the first time began to talk openly about feminism. Do you think there is enough here in Russia, such a pulse, so that Russian women understand their real position in society?
In 1994 I took part in a conference in Moscow on feminism and photography, and inevitably the consensus of the Russian women who were attending was that the Russian soul was too strong for such Western imports as feminism — and anyway that feminists were just a bunch of discontented lesbians. Of course, there were already some feminist writers, that is, women writing about the situation of Russian women, and the conference was organized around questions of feminism and representations of women.
I thought to myself back then that, in general, ex-Soviet women were in a state of denial, hoping that they could bypass such “foolishness” —but that it would eventually dawn on them that they would have to have a feminist movement if they had any hope of fighting for their rights and achieving equality with men, and having a decent life for themselves and their families. At the time, it was perfectly acceptable, even considered necessary, for new businesses, always run by men, to advertise for secretaries on the basis of their youth and attractiveness, which has been unacceptable and often illegal in other countries for many years. I wonder if such blatant sexism and exploitation of young women, and exclusion of older or less attractive ones, is still so prominent and unashamed. But, of course, I think you are in a better position than I am to determine if Russian women have yet faced up the challenges of this struggle.
I worry, as ever, that the groups of people who lost out in the fall of the Soviet Union, namely, workers in most cities, especially in the provinces, and town and rural dwellers, still have many challenges to face, and the condition of women there is not, to my knowledge, the subject of a lot of public discussion. Is it the case that poor, undereducated or underemployed women have flocked to the Church for guidance? Even in 1994, the churches were thronged with middle-aged and old women, and again this year I saw the same thing. A member of Pussy Riot on trial felt compelled to apologize to churchgoers at Christ the Savior for disturbing them with their all-too-brief actions at the church of the redeemer.
Today I have read about the attacks in gay bars by people wearing masks much like Pussy Riot’s, and I recall that gay pride marches have recently been banned in Moscow for the next hundred years, in a farcical and arrogant piece of legislation, of course supported by the Orthodox Church. Much as it may stir controversy, the fate of GLBTQ people cannot be separate from the questions of feminism; gender relations in society have gone beyond the day when the mainstream feminist movement felt compelled to downplay or disavow lesbians and queers.
Do not you think that Russia is simply repeating the script has already passed the U.S. and Europe in the late 1960s – when the younger generation aware of its responsibility, to themselves and their future, and rebelled against the conservative ruling regime?
I am very interested to see that Pussy Riot’s brave actions and trial have brought attention not only to feminism but to questions of the authoritarianism and the patriarchalism of the Orthodox Church, as you mentioned in your first question —which is, as Pussy riot tells us constantly, very strongly supports the rise of Putin as a representative patriarchal and authoritarian figure and thus lend their support to state repression.
Today, when Yekaterina Samutsevich, one of the three Pussy Riot members convicted of blasphemy and religious hatred was free from jail, she was quoted as saying “We achieved more than our goal. People who even never thought about [the intertwining of church and state and the courts corrupted by political ties] started to talk about them, to read and to listen to other people’s opinions. A discussion has begun in society, and that is very important for us.”
I found Occupy Moscow this past May to be an interesting and puzzling phenomenon: all kinds of people, drawn from all classes and sectors, were there. Mostly there were young and from non-normative groups, and this group was anarchist in general orientation, in seemed, while the white-ribbon group were neoliberals. To an American, this was beyond bizarre, at first seeming entirely self-contradictory, until one realized that this group of middle-class intellectuals of course wants to have the freedom to jettison the fortunes of poor, rural, and working class people and just be free to make choices for things like private health care, which it feels it can afford; but of course they cannot accept an authoritarian state, repressive toward themselves, in a pseudo-democracy not so different with respect to false electoral choices from the former Soviet Union.
The other strange thing was the divorce between the Moscow General assembly and the Occupy Moscow camps. This makes no sense, nor did the misappropriation of some of the operative methods of building consensus, or as it is known, horizontal or leaderless decision making, But on the whole I was impressed by the understanding, the will, and the spirit of the young people involved in these energetic meetings and protests, always under surveillance, harassment, and repression by the police.
When you implemented your projects in America, have you experienced the pressure of censorship? Did you have to hide or keep back any details of the project from the organizers to bring the project to completion?
I never would have tried to work with any institution that wanted to suppress or censor my work. There is no point in trying to hide what you plan to do, partly because you will get the people who invited you into trouble with their own institution and maybe lose their jobs. I always tried to work in contexts where I could set the terms of what I would be doing. Still, my work has been censored: but never feminist work, which has been fairly well accepted in the US for quite a few years now, by art institutions and sponsors. Of course, many critics and institutions have refrained from writing about or showing my work, or museums and galleries put it in collections of work on specific themes, and rarely is it work that is up to the minute; they prefer to wait some years to accept my work. Only the art and oddly the academic community has kept me in their sights all along. It’s because of my politics that this exclusion or blindness has occurred: it frightens museum people! But the politics of ideas that have widespread acceptance, such ash the equality of women, do not scare museum audiences or trustees, many of whom are women. It’s the other stuff, the stuff that addresses other forms of inequality, based on color or class or national origin, that is at issue.
In view of the recent trial of Pussy Riot, and the subsequent comments by the authorities regarding feminism —it is clear that these issues are fully in the political arena. Is it possible, in your opinion, in light of this to put an equal sign between the feminist and political art? Or is it necessary to keep a certain line?
Feminism is a political movement, in which women assert the rights and express the viewpoint of their own subject position and, moreover, seek to change all of society so that life will be improved for everyone. It’s pretty straightforward, but there are lots of differences among feminists over how one could or should interpret these ideas. In addition, as we saw during the recent Occupy events last year in the US, even among the political left, it is easy for men to repress women and people of color, who have to demand that they be in a position to participate equally. This is a lesson that has to be not only asserted but also always enacted and enunciated so that no one forgets about it. …. As to political art, of course not just so-called “identity politics,” or the politics of gender is at stake. It is very important for gender issues to be raised forcefully, and to make a connection to the kind of authoritarianism to which Russia is returning, but there are also deep divides as a result of income inequality and unequal access to social and cultural goods and education. These too are subjects of political art, and sometimes they appear in conjunction with gender issues, and sometimes without, and vice versa.
And the last question is more general, but, nevertheless, very important – What for you is the criterion for good political art?
This is a difficult question, because I can’t imagine hard-and-fast rules of judgment. Good political art has the capacity to make its viewers take a deeper look at something they thought they already knew everything about, and then to rethink it completely. To me that kind of work does not make a person feel bad, or powerless, or accused of something but rather draws them in to thinking about how to accomplish change. Politics is an adversarial relation, one of power, and feminism is likewise a contestation of differential power. Good political art is art that can mobilize people but not only through agitprop, but also through presenting the issues. Political art should mobilize symbols and actions in such a way that people can see for themselves what their choices are, and can decide whether they wish to pursue a particular path toward change. Good political art can make a difference— never on its own, however, but always in conjunction with social movements, movements in the street.