PRINT November 2013


Andrea Fraser

Andrea Fraser, Untitled, 2003, video, color, silent, 60 minutes. Installation view, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2013.

WITH HER 2003 PROJECT UNTITLED, Andrea Fraser throws us an archetype of sexual and cultural identity. More than in her other performances, Fraser here works without the protection of a research-based script, a surrogate actor, or the remove that often characterizes analytical thinking. The central action in Untitled has Fraser and a male client of her US gallery meet for a session of sex and video recording in a New York hotel room. This is the part of the work that suggests an archetypal narrative. And yet despite all that has been said about this project as sexual fantasy, feminist act, or aggressively personified critique of the market, Untitled is the stuff of break, transformation, and crisis in self- and public orientation. Fraser does not give us an artwork that is comfortable to experience or reason through, let alone write about with any certainty or authority. For her part, Fraser doesn’t simply represent the ideas of the project—to have consensual sex with an art collector who joins her in producing this new site-specific work, including a performance and video document—she acts out this scenario. Within the structure of the work, Fraser lives out a set of physically and psychologically demanding concepts, exchanges, and performance directions. She is always acting, but in her immersion within the piece, Fraser the performer is caught up as a subject and person, though of course we will never know the limit of either.

The complete piece is not accessible to the viewer of the work. The performance and video parts of Untitled, in actuality two overlapping but not parallel events, are difficult to separate. This complexity of experience for those who encounter the work was on evidence in the video’s most recent screening at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne this summer.

Fraser and a male collector meet in a room at the Royalton on a day in January 2003 for a performance (without an audience) that is recorded. His identity is undisclosed and his features are hard to make out in the video; Fraser’s are not. The sex took place before a stationary camera; an hour-long videotape was produced and shortly thereafter completed for exhibition.1 The collector covered the production expenses and paid the agreed-upon selling price for the artwork prior to the encounter.2 The performance document runs for sixty minutes without sound and without changes to the camera’s position; the footage is unedited, save the selection of frames with which to begin and end. In this filmic view, artist and collector have sex, converse, and rest in one long, real-time take. This is not a loop, though when on public view the video plays continuously on a small monitor in a room with bright lighting. The camera setup, elevated from the actors as much as the height of the room would allow, loosely suggests surveillance and other ocular regimes.

Smashing together a social analysis of production with sexuality, the idea for the performance suggests violence or trauma, as in the linguistic metaphors of Sylvia Plath (the smash is hers), and a capacity for critical imagination in performing social and sexual availability (Plath again), as in feminist and performance art. Barbara T. Smith’s ephemeral piece Feed Me, 1973, exemplifies this capacity. Smith’s was an all-night live work. Visitors to an artist-organized group exhibition had the chance to relate with a naked Smith surrounded by massage oils, marijuana, books, beads, coffee, tea, food, and other “items of sensual connection” in a series of private one-on-one interactions behind a closed door (in the women’s restroom).3 Untitled points to these archetypes both as critical models and as narrative content, but the project also takes on analytical functions and specific institutional and discursive conditions because we have come to expect this from twenty-five years of Fraser’s practice.

Untitled was realized ten years ago; the work is hardly new. And yet its meanings are sketchy and uncertain to us, as if comprehension and more forceful language for us to use for handling it have yet to come. Untitled collects and lays bare sites of power and problems, only to complicate any stable ground and known hierarchy of order or value: self and other, artist and collector; regimes of gender, identity, and class; commodity and the appropriation of profit from artists to agents.4 What is palpable is a quality of discontinuity between Untitled and Fraser’s other performances and projects, and between the work and historical models of critical practice. To study Untitled—researching, writing, teaching, and lecturing about it as I have been doing for ten years—is to engage a more fundamental problem, privately held and publically theoretical, than the so-called analytical treatment of the artwork, and one that directly concerns its meanings: How am I to be a viewer of Untitled?

I ask this in a specific and singular sense. Before the question of writing about Untitled comes the problem of identifying with Untitled, of being put in its extreme space of self and other relations. The viewer has to find a way of getting through, managing, or adapting to the intensity of what Fraser has staged, of reasoning and feeling what has happened by way of empathy, imagination, or projection, but always inevitably from the outside. What coordinates can an assessment of the project use to find a critical language?

The viewer has a job to do, as artist Michael Asher was known to say. This model of viewership aligns Fraser’s activity with the kinds of Conceptualism and performance art of the late 1960s and ’70s that negated objecthood. For Asher, producing and viewing involved following through on an artwork past the limits of production and into the uncertain zone of public reception. Asher’s version of this responsibility of the viewer was enacted when the artist repeated, in 2005, the structure of a well-known project from 1979 for the Art Institute of Chicago. He revisited his movement of an early-twentieth-century bronze copy of an eighteenth-century marble statue of George Washington from the front steps of the museum to an appropriate period gallery within the permanent collection, and augmented the new installation with an archival display. Due to many changes in the condition of the bronze and of the permanent collection exhibitions in the intervening period, the two movements were different. In his thinking about both versions of the work, Asher believed that comparing the two increased the burden on the viewer to perform critical judgment and discernment. It was almost as if he needed the viewer, by sheer reasoning alone, to reconstruct the acts and decisions of the artist’s production of the work so that the differences between the viewpoints and authorities of each could fall away.5

“Beholding is always the entrance into a scene, into the context of the other, of the object,” scholar Fred Moten writes of Adrian Piper’s theory of catalysis; for Moten, Piper’s negating intent is “to mess up or mess with the beholder.”6 The actualities that Untitled puts into relation can trigger inhibitions or defenses and may ask for more than the viewer can bear. How much will Fraser and the collector show, and how much will I see? The work wants to trade in sex and sexual display: Its focus is on the act in the context of the norms of professional roles prohibiting it, and on seeing/being seen. But the sex on view in the video does not appear cold or calculated. Intellect and feelings and responsibility get in the way of analytical machinations and critical distance. In the work, Fraser and her collaborator conduct a type of social performance that is intensely exposing. There is no cover from the camera; there were no tricks or effects.

Between the position of the camera and the modestly sized monitor on which the video is screened, the scale of the figures within the performance document is greatly reduced. The questions I have written down while viewing the work reflect the qualities of attention that staying with the piece for sixty minutes demands. In one instance, I realized I was seeing more of Fraser’s and the collector’s facial expressions than I remembered from a previous viewing. In another note, I attempted descriptions of each of their performances. Is the collector more self-conscious than Fraser? Are we able to discern the extent to which Fraser is multitasking: directing, acting with, responding to, her collaborator?

The showing at the Museum Ludwig this year interrupts a hiatus in the exhibition of Untitled since 2010, when the video was included in the exhibition “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” at Tate Modern, London. Untitled had been exhibited before within presentations of Fraser’s earlier work, but it stands somewhat apart from Fraser’s practice, circulating by reputation and discursive description, and via secondhand accounts disseminated through print and online media. The presentation at the Ludwig embedded the project within a comprehensive monographic display curated by Barbara Engelbach and was organized in conjunction with Fraser’s receipt of the 2013 Wolfgang Hahn Prize. Untitled was shown together with the sound piece Untitled (Audio), 2003/2004, presented in public only once before and here included for the first time with the video in a nearby room. For this work, Fraser drew from the audio track captured with the video footage during the performance and taping session, editing together all of her own sounds—linguistic and other—and editing out the sounds made by the collector. The outcome is an audio work in which we hear Fraser’s sounds surfacing from and receding into the emptiness of the room tone. The fragments the listener is able to make out are suggestive of the personas Fraser and her collaborator were adopting and provoke a desire for access to a nonexistent real.

More than once in my viewing notes, I observed that, as a representation, the video is structured by the abstract, oblique form of the room’s centrally located bed. This framing device of the bed contributes to the feeling I have of being distanced from the action. I asked in my notes: Is there any evidence of persistence on their part, of an effort to fill the hour? The sex is unremarkable in some ways, but of course it is entirely remarkable in the context of the performance, and the conditions of having to act under the force of the work’s proposition, with the presence of the camera and the viewer’s gaze. Maybe their achievement as actors is to have made the sex look believable. Still, the tape has many inchoate segments. In the final minutes, the two appear to separate from one another, as if returning to their public or individual selves rather than remaining a relational pair. I felt that I could see the facial expressions and gestures that suggest Fraser’s and the collector’s personalities, and which cast them as a man and a woman relating. In the latter, an image of cultural prescription flashes. I noted: Is this the most conventional part of the tape?

Untitled may be Fraser’s longest endurance performance. In it, her staging of being an artist is distinct from previous works in the specific ways we see Fraser manage inner and outer realms of self, everyday experience, career, and world, and the shifts within their orientations and ordering. And still, the project focuses contextual conditions within its structure and holds these within a delimited space for expression that can’t last for very long.

Where the viewer is located in all of this is complicated. Untitled has the quality of a research project, though one that is largely carried out as a practice of embodiment and enactment (and so it exceeds conventional models of linguistic, institutional, and analytical practice). In thinking about Untitled, I have wanted most to avoid the binary of moral judgment (that Fraser is “selling out,” being careless or self-destructive, that the work is objectifying or essentializing or complicit). On the other hand, I have wanted to refute any easy advocacy for the performance based on its empowered sexuality, provocation, and transgression alone. Neither position attests to the undefined sense of distance between artist and viewer or the aggressively raw power of the performance and resulting feelings of reaction that well up. This distance seems important for the identification that may or may not take place, and in order for a viewer (or writer) to take hold of the psychological blocks, projections, and deflections that structure the process of responding. As a performance Untitled opens a subjective question but then shifts its sense to become a feminist question: Is the sexuality within subjectivity a precondition of artistic work, of writing? And yet, before the writing of criticism, is there not also a technique and ethics of producing, of interacting within the structure of the object, from which to model a language of response?

Rhea Anastas is Director of the art and curatorial practices in the public sphere masters program at the Roski School of Fine Arts, University of Southern California.


I would like to acknowledge Leigh Ledare for conversations and commentary that influenced this essay.

1. The first public exhibition of Untitled took place in September 2003 with the work’s inclusion in a large, survey-type presentation of seventeen years of Fraser’s practice at the Hamburger Kunstverein, curated by Yilmaz Dziewior. Untitled was first exhibited in the US in June 2014 at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York—the gallery that had played a crucial role in Fraser’s execution of the piece.

2. The work is a limited edition of five with two artist’s proofs. The collector who acts in the video is therefore not the exclusive owner of the work.

3. Barbara T. Smith: Old Shoes: Performance Relics 1968–1975 (Los Angeles: The Box, 2009). Published as a brochure in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name. Feed Me was originally a part of the exhibition “All Night Sculptures” at the Museum of Conceptual Art, San Francisco, 1973. The show included a recording of Smith’s voice repeating, “Feed me, feed me.”

4. Untitled does not obscure the conditions of monetary exchange as it makes cultural meaning. The piece’s all-important economic transaction for the most part followed the structure of contemporary art sales. Friedrich Petzel Gallery brought the client at Fraser’s request as someone the gallery considered well matched to the conditions of this particular project and purchase. The collector had acquired video work by Fraser from the gallery before. The income from the sale was divided between the gallery and the artist with the usual commission of 50 percent.

5. Conversation with the artist, October 2007. Asher and I talked about the project, and about the conversation between him and Christopher Williams that took place within the project’s opening events in September 2005 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

6. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 235.