New York

“We’ll Think Of A Title After We Meet: L.A./London Lab”

Franklin Furnace

In the window of Franklin Furnace, Nina Sobel’s video installation catches and projects multiple views of New York City. Inside the gallery, London and Los Angeles women artists have covered the walls and floors with objects, statements and images: English and American potatoes bestrewn with small lights (Rose Finn-Kelcey), an offer of Art-Life Counseling (Linda Montano), messages written in invisible ink (Sonia Knox) and a wall of blooming sprouts (Leslie Labowitz). Performances, video and film showings are presented day after day to the public while in private we talk, argue and theorize about art, life, feminism and the future.

In what might have been subtitled “A Tale of Three Cities,” 16 London and Los Angeles women performance artists met in New York for three weeks in March 1981 publicly to present their work and privately to talk among themselves. The two curators—Susan Hiller from London and Suzanne Lacy from Los Angeles—chose the artists and invited two critics (Caryn Faure-Walker from London and myself from Southern California).

Jet lag. A foreign city for both groups. High expectations and high anxieties. Uncertainties. Disappointments. Housing? Equipment? Budget limitations. Tensions between people. Then the euphoria of the success of the first evening of performances: “Echoes From Ireland,” by Sonia Knox, and “The Nun’s Fairy Tale,” by Linda Montano. Bandaged barbed wire, audiotapes of the cries of seagulls, bells and the artist’s voice, and the slow, self-absorbed movements of Sonia Knox as she weaves her way through the barbed wire. From Protestant Ireland to a fairytale told by an American Italian ex-Catholic. A mustached priest (Montano) and other performers move in a circle, children distribute popcorn, the sound of church bells, a male nun reads the story of Cinderella and an extravagantly costumed woman (the Virgin Mary? a bride? Cinderella?) wails, laughs and mouths silently to herself.

For the most part, the pairing of English with California performances continued during the Furnace series. Usually the juxtapositions were oddly intriguing, the overall collective mood of an evening successful, and the transatlantic pairings illuminated graphically the differences and similarities between the work of the two cities and their respective countries.

Images that remain in my mind’s eye:

Hannah O’Shea, ceremoniously dressed in a long silver gown, standing at a music stand chanting name after name in “A Litany for Women Artists” (London).

Linda Nishio, wearing a large house-shaped headware, miming and commenting on the slides, stick figures and films of “A Good House Is Hard to Find” (Los Angeles).

The dumbbells balancing on blocks of ice, and Rose Finn-Kelcey running on a treadmill and finally waiting, crouched in a classic runner’s “start” position (London).

Martha Rosler’s son quietly reading at a desk while his mother talks to the audience of politics and of her personal life during the last decade, in “Spinning into the ’80s” (Los Angeles).

Carlyle Reedy drawing a string of raw fish from a laundry bag, quaffing whiskey and throwing grapes to the audience as she poetically conjures up her motley crew of women characters (London).

Cheri Gaulke, gaudily dressed in red silk, prancing up and down with a skeleton puppet and later crawling from the balcony on a ladder formed of crutches (Los Angeles).

Rose English in Elizabethan male attire, dancing to tango music, stabbing a beard to death, confiding in the audience tricks of the theater trade, and discoursing on sex, the art world and England (London).

The moving- and still-photographic images of Sally Potter’s film “Thriller” combining the 19th-century world of “La Bohème” with that of contemporary life (London).

Tina Keane moving silently and stealthily in her playpen and recording through its bars the audience on one monitor while the other monitor shows prerecorded images of earlier playpen inhabitants from infancy to old age (London).

The Feminist Art Workers (Nancy Angelo, Cheri Gaulke, Vanalyne Green, Laurel Klick) opening up surprise packages containing raw beef hearts, tossing the hearts in the air and catching them in sheets (Los Angeles).

Leslie Labowitz standing nude and softly lit in an Eden-like world of sprouts and earth, and later, clothed and in bright light, briskly auctioning off her sprout business (Los Angeles).

The Marx Brothers (Sally Potter, Lindsay Cooper and Georgia Born) in severe black outfits decorated with frilly organdy tutus singing “Pleasure Time Blues” (London).

The London/Los Angeles artists offered an unusual experience of performance art. There were, to be sure, the almost inevitable difficulties of such a festival—too much in too short a time, good and less good works piled on top of each other, the chanciness of which events were most attended and critically noticed—yet the performances were poetic, bizarre, funny, eccentric. Certainly I enjoyed the public aspects of the three weeks, but what was ultimately more significant and special were the private exchanges among the participants. There is an urgency about such meetings now: women artists—in fact all artists—from different countries need to actually meet, talk and see one another’s work firsthand before funding sources for such occasions disappear. Feminists—and by implication many artists—are beleaguered now. Meeting in such network situations as this L.A./ London exchange is important, but it is the maintenance of such connections that constitutes the essence of networking.

Moira Roth