Martha Wilson

Karen Finley and Martha Wilson at the installation of Finley's  exhibition “A Woman's Life Isn't Worth Much,” 1990.

Artist Martha Wilson and Franklin Furnace—a nonprofit she founded in 1976 dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of performance, artists’ books, and other ephemeral art forms—are being celebrated across New York this winter. Organized in collaboration with Independent Curators International, an exhibition at New York University’s Fales Library will focus on four decades of Wilson’s art, including performance, video, and photography, while the Pratt Manhattan Gallery will present thirty projects selected from Franklin Furnace’s archives. These shows, which run from February 19 to April 30, 2015, will also be complemented by a series of live performances and screenings, featuring works by Michael Smith, Coco Fusco, and Clifford Owens, at Participant Inc. from February 26 to March 1, 2015.

WHEN I GAVE MY PAPERS to the Fales, I expected the director, Marvin Taylor, to be wearing a three-piece suit, but instead he had a nose ring and tattoos! He’s completely my kind of guy. At the Fales, I’m showing my student work from Canada dating back to 1972, including a piece called Breast Forms Permutated, which is a spoof on Sol LeWitt and the Conceptual artists of the 1970s. They were permutating everything. After 1972, my beautiful artist boyfriend who looked like Marcel Duchamp dumped my ass and I moved to New York so I wouldn’t have to see his girlfriend driving the car around Halifax.

I realized that the major institutions then were not taking seriously the work that was being created downtown. We were doing street works, posters on the curb for the rat population of New York, and inflammatory essays about capitalist pigs who were running the economy. I went up to the Museum of Modern Art and showed them an artist book that I had created and said, “Well, you had the ‘Information’ show here in 1970, could you distribute this?” And they said, “No, lady. Your book costs five dollars; it would cost us five dollars to do the bookkeeping if we sold this, so we’re not going to do this.” Performance was way far away from the discussion and that was all we were doing. Everyone was in three bands or doing work with film, so I thought, “We are going to start collecting this material and preserving it and exhibiting it.” The artist’s voice is seldom valued and recognized to the degree that it should be.

With Franklin Furnace, we recently digitized our first and second decades of event records and published them on our website to make this stuff available. As the new millennium appeared along with digital art, preservation became more complex. It’s not as simple as scanning slides and scanning press releases anymore, but it also led to bigger ideas, like what if we went back to the artists who are still alive and asked someone like Karen Finley what her intentions were when she took a bath in a suitcase and made love to a chair using Wesson cooking oil in 1983? We could get her feedback now. It maybe is different than what she was thinking in 1983, but that’s still valuable, and what if we could find somebody who was in the audience then, who has impressions now also? We could add that to our records. The problem is that many artists have an ephemeral practice and we do not know what their intentions were. We didn’t even write press releases in the early days; we got hip to that later. With ephemeral practices such as performance, we need to chase down the stories and the political and economic conditions or social forces at work around that time. There was the Vietnam War and the feminist movement, there were civil rights, AIDS appeared—there was a lot going on that informed all of this work and an element of craziness that went into its creation.

Some of the works on view at Pratt Manhattan Gallery show an artist making music with her eye movements. There’s a radio station on a shopping cart, and a detention center for artists who wish to live and work in the U.S. My goal for the next ten years is to try to figure out how we can capture the stories that relate to these historically neglected practices of the 1970s through the 2000s. Franklin Furnace made the decision to reside at Pratt Institute in order to undertake initiatives that would be impossible for us as a small, not-for-profit organization to mount on our own. Both institutions are at a critical point in their respective histories, and Franklin Furnace’s “nesting” at Pratt may also serve as a nationally visible demonstration to other art spaces nationwide of how an organization-in-residence arrangement may serve larger goals.