Woman’s Building HistoryArt by Olga Muniz

by E.K. Waller
When I first arrived at the Woman’s Building, I didn’t understand the
difference between theater and performance art. Over time, I learned that
performance art sprang from an entirely different tradition-not from theater
at all but from the visual arts. In the early decades of the twentieth
century, artists began to question the notion of art as object, to become
more interested in conceptualization than in an end product. Futurists,
Dadaists, and Surrealists still made art objects, but appreciation of
these was enhanced by knowledge of the theories and processes that gave
rise to them. In the 1950’s, the “action painters” emerged; their focus
was on the process of applying paint to canvas-throwing or spilling paint,
or covering their bodies with pigment and rolling across the canvas. It
was in the gesture of painting, they believed, that art resided, more
than in the product that resulted. By the 1960s, the Fluxus artists had
coined the term “conceptual art,” declaring that art resides in its ideation.
Some artists simply typed up their ideas on 3×5 cards.
Yoko Ono published
a book, Grapefruit , containing page after page of ideas for possible performance
actions. It was enough for the audience to imagine the concept; actually
manifesting it was beside the point. Some posited that-just as a painter
or photographer might frame a landscape or a scene-an artist could put
a frame around some aspect of experience, whether an instant or a prolonged
span of time, and declare that the work of art.
While some artists framed
everyday experiences (in a performance created for Womanhouse, artist
Karen LeCoq sat before a mirror, repetitively applying and removing make-up),
others set about to concoct an experience that might not have otherwise
happened, and thus impact directly the lives of their audience. Artist
Joy Poe staged her own rape during an opening at Artemesia Gallery in
Chicago, creating a moral dilemma for her viewers: should they intervene
against this crime and risk disrupting “art,” or should they remain passive
spectators and in doing so, become complicit in Poe’s violation? Being
faced with this quandary angered many in the audience who felt entitled
to a clearer delineation between art and life. Performance actions might
be performed privately, as a kind of personal ritual, and later revealed
to an audience through documentation-as when Linda Montano committed herself
to listening, via headphones, to a single musical note, tuned to one of
the seven chakras or energy centers in the body, ceaselessly for one year.
Others might be witnessed only accidentally by passersby, as when Adrian
Piper dressed as a man to walk around the streets of New York. Such events
might take place before an invited audience which was frequently incorporated
into the piece, being asked to participate either through directed action
or randomly. Suzanne Lacy, for example, dressed as a vampire and spent
the night in a coffin while the audience was instructed to file past and
gaze, as mourners, into the open casket. Here the audience transcended
their role as spectators to become performers in the tableau. Feminist
artists gravitated to performance for several reasons. Both performance
and video were emerging art forms in the early seventies, without established
traditions or hierarchy. While it was hard for a woman painter to make
a name for herself in a centuries-old tradition where men predominated,
in performance a woman could get in on the ground floor. Feminists were
further drawn to performance’s focus on process over product, and to the
form’s utilization of the body as art medium. And one could use it as
a means to build community, whether through collaboration with other artists
or by involving the audience in direct dialogue about the issues contained
within the work, C-R style.
Feminist practitioners contributed four significant
elements to the medium of performance: First, an exploration of alternative
personae, which was in keeping with the feminist intention to redefine
roles for women. [SLIDES: SMITH – WB77.319; DARANSKY – WB74.129; YARFITZ
– WB79.462; GREEN WB79.463; MARGOLIES – WB79.465; NISHIO – 83.2281; PIETA
– WB78.2237; SHE WHO WOULD FLY – WB77.326; EVE ACTS – WB86.907; HEAVEN
OR HELL – WB81.2233] Second was the use of confessional text, which grew
out of both consciousness-raising sessions and then-pioneering practices
in feminist literature in which writers revealed intimate details of their
lives and allowed the reader to eavesdrop on their internal monologues
without the veil of fiction. Interestingly, those two directions both
tended to push performance art in a more theatrical direction, as did
number three: the incorporation of ritual and feminist spirituality, returning
to theater’s earliest roots as religious ceremony. [SLIDES: VALLEJO –
WB82.520; MALTA – 78.2298]
The final contribution made by feminists was
the promulgation of performance art as media event, the creation of spectacle
designed to attract the eye of the media, and thus gain a mass audience
for the feminist statement being made. In 1978, Leslie Labowitz and Suzanne
Lacy teamed up with Bia Lowe and other artists to create In Mourning and
In Rage, a large-scale public protest performance. [SLIDE: IN MOURNING
– WB77.2216] The purpose was to challenge the media’s sensationalizing
of a rash of murders of women perpetrated by the so-called Hillside Strangler;
the tone of the press coverage was heightening the climate of fear and
reinforcing the victimization of women. Exceptionally tall women, made
taller by towering headpieces, were transported by hearse to City Hall.
Dressed in black, they debarked and formed a circle in front of the steps
beneath a banner reading, “In memory of our sisters, women fight back.”
The artists designed the performance action and imagery specifically to
captivate the interest of television news and, in successfully achieving
this network coverage, not only used the media to critique itself, but
extended the impact of the piece far beyond the usual feminist and/or
art audiences.
Even already established elements within the performance
medium were altered by feminist practice. Male artist Chris Burden, for
example, utilized the body as art medium by arranging to have himself
shot in the arm with a pistol, then documented the experience as a performance.
FSW participant Jerri Allyn, by contrast, placed a rented hospital bed
in her studio and spent a week there exorcising her fear of cancer, the
disease that had taken her mother’s life. Viewers could attend “visiting
hours” and hear Allyn read from her journals, or listen to a parade of
researchers and alternative healers discuss the latest approaches to cancer
Finally, numerous women challenged the notion of the individual
artist, the lone genuis, by working collaboratively. Collaborative performance
groups not only used a democratic process to create their work, but also
sought to address an audience outside of the traditional art institutions.
In “This Ain’t No Heavy Breathing,” the Feminist Art Workers [SLIDE: FAW
– WB78.2239] picked women’s names at random out of the phone book, and,
in direct contrast to the lewd or threatening phone call, would call to
tell them what strong and wonderful women they were, and wish them a good
day. The Waitresses [SLIDES: WAITRESSES – WB 77.202; WB77207] performed
in restaurants to raise consciousness about the issues of working women,
particularly those in service industries. Sisters of Survival [SLIDE:
CIVIL DEFENSE – WB82.2185] donned nuns habits the colors of the rainbow
to protest the spread of nuclear arms.
*** This concern with democratizing
audiences, and with the messages these audiences were receiving, also
guided the philosophy of the Women’s Graphic Center, another program at
the Woman’s Building. From the perspective of founder Sheila de Bretteville
graphic design was all about communication. But public communication-from
political speech to news reporting to advertising-seemed to be largely
the province of men, while women’s communication was relegated to the
private sphere. The Women’s Graphic Center sought to change this, both
by providing women access to printing equipment [SLIDES: LETTEPRESS –
WB73.5; WGC CLASS – WB81.488; WB81.495] (by which they could make their
communications public), and with a philosophy that sought to directly
undermine the schism between public and private communications. [SLIDE:
WGC POSTER-WB80.2065]. This project was frequently made explicit. Artists
were invited to make posters about a specific public site [SLIDES: PUBLIC
WB81.508; WB81.509], and then display their works in that site. If women
came to the Woman’s Building with a tendency to keep their work private,
within the Women’s Graphic Center they were encouraged to think about
public venues for their work, such as bus posters celebrating the lives
of women [SLIDES: BUS POSTERS – WB78.366; WB78.367; WB88.1002] or postcards
dedicated to female role models [SLIDES: POSTCARDS – WB85.2144; WB85.2148;
*** The Woman’s Building. What other city but Los Angeles
could have given birth to such an edifice? City of extremes, pressed against
the brink of the Pacific, the endpoint of our restless explorations. City
of dreams, where multitudes flock to reinvent themselves, to live out
their personal myth. City that has slipped from the yoke of tradition,
eluded the burden of history. City that levels and starts anew. The Woman’s
Building was a place. [SLIDE: SIGNAGE – WB76.161] An institution. A gathering
of women. It was an eighteen-year experiment. It was a collision of history
and politics and art. It was poetry, painting, performance. It was the
one night you went there for a dance and it was the thirteen years you
spent trying to keep it ablaze. It was the day you showed up with hennaed
hair only to find that five other women had hennaed their hair the night
before too. It was the rope straining in your hands as you hoisted the
ten-foot-tall sculpture of a naked female figure onto the roof of the
building, from which vantage point the entire city was her domain. [SLIDES:
NAKED LADY – WB78.346; WB78.352] It was a field of crosses planted on
the lawn of City Hall by women dressed in nuns’ habits the colors of the
rainbow, in protest of nuclear arms. It was a wall made of bottles, a
tree of dolls’ heads. A circle of women who stared unflinching into the
video lens and told the stories of their sexual abuse. It was the dope
you smoked on the fire escape, the Friday nights you stayed late trying
to figure out how to pay the bills. It was the first book you self-published
on the antique printing press; it was the consciousness-raising group
you hated. Language splinters under the complexity, the immensity, the
tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of women whose imaginations and emotions
and lives touched and were touched by the Woman’s Building. All their
stories, their dreams. And it was the art that was made within its walls,
yes, but also the art that was made by some woman in some little town,
work that came into being because she’d heard that the Woman’s Building
dared to exist.
The Woman’s Building offered up a spark, and this was
the message in its glow: that you, a woman, could be an artist too, and
that your woman’s life-whatever its particulars-could kindle your art,
and that in turn, the act of making art would ignite that life, and finally,
that a community of women, engaged in the twin acts of making art and
making a new life, would transform the mirrors of culture into windows
through which you all would fly, like sparks, into the night sky. MISSING
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Copyright. 1999-2015. This site was originally created by Ruth Ann Anderson, Elizabeth Canelake
and Sue Maberry. Additional contributions by Susan Silton and Terry Wolverton.