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Amelia Jones is Professor and Pilkington Chair in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Manchester, UK. She has written numerous articles in anthologies and journals and has organized exhibitions with accompanying catalogues, including Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party in Feminist Art History (1996). Jones co-edited the anthology Performing the Body/Performing the Text with Andrew Stephenson (1999), edited the volume Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2003), and has published the books Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp (1993), Body Art/Performing the Subject (1998), and Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada (2004). Her edited anthology A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945 includes 25 original essays (2006). Jones has received ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies), NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities), and Guggenheim fellowships.
Question (1): It has been argued that activist art of the past decade has moved away from visually representing politics or public policy toward forms of tactical intervention in the public sphere. Has feminist activist art experienced the same shift?
Meskimmon: The question of representation and politics in art has a much longer history than the past decade; for example, quite a lot of the debate in the inter-war period in Europe centered on the question of "tendentious" art practices and whether it was possible to define or even discern political "content" in artwork at the level of visual representation. This longer frame (and, arguably, even earlier, in debates on political art at the time of the French Revolution) suggests to me a broader debate concerning both what we mean by the use of the term "representation" when it is engaged at the nexus of political activism and art-making and whether there are forms of aesthetics, visual, or material modes, which may defy conventional "representation" and yet have political impact.
I think both of these questions have become increasingly important to feminist activist art and theory and are key to thinking about contemporary work. On one hand, we have artist/theorists like Trinh T. Minh-ha exploring strategies for articulation of female subjectivity and political agency without deploying representational frameworks--neither in the sense of "representing" the women whose voices she wants us to hear nor in the narrative/visual sense of "representing" their bodies, their stories, as if granting us unmediated access to their histories and "selves." Hence, the struggle for political effect is intimately tied to the politics of affect in these works and both call into question the concept of representation.
subRosa: Feminist activist art has always involved tactical intervention. The current "tactical media/tactical intervention" art world trope has borrowed much from feminist, gay, and civil rights activists and artists, not the other way around. It has been appropriated to such an extent that the historical link is sometimes forgotten, and women and people of color are often invited to contribute to tactical media cultural gatherings as an afterthought, which is a kind of cultural imperialism.
If anything, there's a shift back to visual representation (of politics and policy), as museums, galleries, and conferences feature "tactical intervention." The great thing about these shows is that they have a lively, oppositional energy and can introduce a museum-visiting public to new perspectives and modes of communication.
The limitation is that it is very hard to actually intervene (in the activist sense of intervention) into the space and audience of a museum or conference, perhaps even harder than it is to intervene into an American shopping mall. So, invited artists often display documentation or ephemera from work they originally deployed elsewhere. in other words, they represent activism and interventions, rather than deploying them in the space of the museum or conference. This allows the audience to distance itself without being directly confronted with its own role in producing culture.
Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1965) at New York's Carnegie Hall is one example of work that incorporates both interventionist tactics and representation. Other examples would be Valie Export's Tap and Touch Cinema (1968); Tanja Ostojic's Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000) and Strategies for Success (2003); William Pope. L's The Black Factory (2002); and various works by Adrian Piper and Martha Rosler over the past 30 years.
Guerrilla Girls: We have always been interested in affecting change by transforming the opinions of viewers, and we are always trying to find more effective ways to break through people's preconceived notions and prejudices. We don't do posters and actions that simply point to something and say, "This is bad," as does a lot of political art. We present provocative images and statements, backed up by information, that give the audience a chance to think about an issue and come to a conclusion, hopefully on the side of feminism and social change. We believe that some discrimination is conscious and some is unconscious and that we can embarrass some of the perpetrators into changing their ways. This has proved true in the art world: things are better now than they ever have been for women and artists of color, and we have helped effect that change. (We are still condemning the art world for its lack of ethics, tokenism, and other bad behavior. it has become a place where billionaires play poker to see who can pick the art that will produce the best profit. We think that's a terrible way to validate art.)
Are we really intervening? Maybe that's not for us to judge ... it's hard enough just getting the work done. But consider just two of our hundreds of actions: first, our billboards in Hollywood, right down the street from the Oscar ceremony, telling the sordid truth about the low, low numbers of women and people of color behind the scenes in the film industry; and second, our large-scale installation at the Venice Biennale examining discrimination at the exhibition itself. Both those interventions engendered a public dialogue about issues that might have been absent otherwise.
Gonzalez: Activist art has always engaged in tactical interventions in the public sphere, whether in the form of performances and demonstrations in art venues, or as the visual component of social movements, labor movements, and peace movements. The impression that activist art has moved away from representing politics to a more active engagement with the public sphere may derive less from an actual shift in artistic practice than from the restrictive conditions of history, particularly the culture wars in the United States during the Reagan administration that had a chilling effect on forms of activist art that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Any art exhibition can constitute its own public sphere, as Rosalyn Deutsche has argued, and clear-cut distinctions between public and non-public forms of representation are difficult to maintain. Rather than a move away from representation, we might consider recent forms of activist art that take place in the street--or on the internet, or in the mass media--as a "return" to once-familiar strategies of address. For feminist artists this return now incorporates, rather than leaves behind, two decades of work on the politics of representation, the politics of corporeality, and the politics of the gaze. The most sophisticated and successful work being done by feminist activist artists can probably be found at the intersection of these modes of address, where the tactical intervention relies upon a savvy use of visual representation.
Flanagan: I would say that feminist art precipitated this shift. Feminist artists of the 1970s had a great impact on contemporary art practices, and especially relevant are those women artists who either used technology in their own projects or who critiqued technology amidst larger cultural analyses in their work. Feminist artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s faced a hostile and male-centered art world. These artists turned to nontraditional media (posters, video, performance) to work against art steeped in the traditions and themes of masculine-focused modernism.
A number of women artists were simultaneously involved in the political changes of the time as well as exploring their voices through various media. Artist Jenny Holzer, for example, with her pro-feminist, political poster brigades, stickers, and electronic LED messaging displays, is a noteworthy example of an early feminist artist using various forms of technology to confront the passers-by. The …