Interview with Dr August Jordan Davis
Director and Curator of The Winchester Gallery, Winchester School of Art
By Yonat Nitzan-Green
(This interview was conducted as part of Domesticating Conflicts, Laboratory of Dissent, 2015)
Yonat: Thank you very much for giving me this time
August: You are very welcome
Y. You told me that you did your PhD about Martha Rosler
A. That’s right
Y. and I jumped, because I wrote an essay about her and also she kind of attracted my attention. I have three questions.
Y. The first one is how did you come to research her?
A. Oh, that’s an easy one
A. I can tell you, I’ve got a good story for that one. When I was doing my Master’s degree it was around about 1996 and Martha Rosler’s work had had an interesting history in that she started life as an Abstract Expressionist painter in the early ‘60s and it was right kind of like the tail end of Abstract Expressionism as Pop Art was really starting to gather pace and she recognized that perhaps her work needed to move with the time so she had a stop-start relationship with painting and moved more towards photographic practice and tried to paint last time when she was relocated to California from New York but then abandoned that for installation, performance, video, photography and mixed media practice for a variety of reasons. She initially was working outside of traditional museums and gallery circuit and her work became relatively known by a certain set of in-the-know art writers, like Craig Owens and Benjamin Buchloh who got very interested in what she was doing in terms of writing about and making work that reflected on documentary photography practice, for instance, but also the relationship of the woman’s identity with the house-wife, the role of the woman within the domestic setting. For instance, her work about the Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems which is her photographic, photo-text essay, and she wrote an essay about that work as well called: ‘In around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ that encapsulates that work about photographic practice and artistic practice and also interrogating documentary photography practices of a wide range, but then Semiotics of the Kitchen, the video performance that she made in 1975, those pieces are actually made simultaneously, that becomes the emblematic work of her feminist …
Y. Ya, this is when she kind of picture the letters from A to Z?
Y. Ah I remember seeing this video work. Fantastic.
A. It’s such a fun piece. She started to gain recognition and she carries on doing a variety of things interrogating all sorts of questions around domination and the ‘everyday’ life. She gets very interested in the writings of Henri Lefebvre and his interrogations of the critique of everyday life. So what happens is that her work gets written about a bit and she ends up gaining a national reputation to a degree and shows in alternative art spaces and gets enough teaching to make a career but she was not career focused, she was very interested in the work and she is not seeking gallery representation at all at that time. All of this is important because it was in the very late 1980s and the start of the 1990s when a quite switched on progressive gallerist said to her “you run the risk of being written out of art history even though you’ve had some good champions writing about you in the art press, still there is a chance that you are going to lose this visibility and some of your work is very important politically and historically and you are just going to get overlooked if you keep steadfast with staying out of the mainstream system” and basically he was doing a sales pitch saying “I’ve got a ‘toe-hold’ in the mainstream but I am completely sympathetic with your project, If you’re going to go with anybody go with me” and so he persuaded her after much conversation that this was a good and wise move. And that’s critical because he was interested in showing the photomontages that she’d made agitating against the war in Vietnam in the ‘60s but he wanted to show them in a gallery setting which … they had not entered a gallery setting before, they were used as flyers and posters in the underground press and handed out at demonstrations. So they made a small show of these in about 1991 the whole idea was, he had said “we should use these now that they are doing ‘Desert Storm’ because there’s such a marvelous, they still have political currency these photomontages, these anti-war photomontages and perhaps now so more than ever and we should write them into the history of ‘radical art’.” And so they had a small show and a number of well positioned art historians and art critics wrote about that show and that impact meant that it started in the early to mid ‘90s to get a little circulation again so after having had about a decade where her work wasn’t perhaps as widely well known outside of New York, it started to have more international impact and that’s how I came across it. I was studying at Keele University with Jonathan Harris and Francis Frascina and they both had been working previously at the OU making art history television programmes, going and interviewing radical artists in America and it was kind of where their two research interests intersected and there was a module that Francis Frascina developed that led to a book he came out with, called Art, Politics and Dissent Since the 1960s and it was there that we read about Rosler and her photomontages. That was the first time I had encountered them. So it’s about four to five years after she entered the main stream quietly like dipping a little toe in the water. So when it came time to do a PhD I had been thinking I have been lecturing a little bit and been thinking what was it exactly I wanted to interrogate and I wanted to look at questions around the intersection between politics and aesthetics and the political and philosophical choices that artists make regarding the aesthetic considerations of their works when they’re interested in art activated by an activist position, when they’re wanting to make political work that has some sort of real world impact beyond just the gallery. I was looking at a number of different possible angles to pursue and case-studies and I remembered, by this point it was the early 2000s, it would have been about 2001, maybe like spring of 2001, and I remembered the Martha Rosler photomontages and actually she would be really intriguing because the images themselves are quite appealing, they are visually quite attractive and that the part of the ‘trick’ that they play as they are initially very seductive and then it’s only when you look more closely that you can see sometime there is something quite appalling secreted into these ideal American home images. I thought, I would like to unpack all of those … that are in these photomontages and then it just being unfortunately extraordinarily a timely decision because then we have September 11 and we have the immediate decision to invade and attack Afghanistan and then all of the build up to the war on Iraq so I thought well, if in 1991 these works from the ‘60s and ‘70s seemed to have renewed relevance, they have even more renewed relevance now and I slightly anticipated the notion that she might even revisit the project which is what she did do. So that’s what I interrogated, was the photomontages of the ‘60s, ‘70s as well as the renewed practice in the 2000s and analyzed them on their own terms as separate projects but also the overarching narrative that she was constructing and how they function. Really the revival pieces are effectively themselves this metacritique on the revivalism at play in the Bush administration and their foreign policy. I termed it a ‘reboot’ of the Vietnam narrative that tried to strip it of defeat and of the need for any lessons to be to learned and instead it’s all about somehow valorizing the notion of military imperialism and so there’s a lot to be interrogated and also to track down source images that she had appropriated from Life magazines and House Beautiful because a lot of those hadn’t been tracked down yet. That was the Martha story… and then also beyond the PhD as you are doing the research you just discover this woman ranges across so many topics, so many media that it was endlessly fascinating and pretty much any question I wanted to interrogate there was some element of her work I could use as a case-study. It was brilliant.
Y. A rich field
A. Completely. I’ve been mining that for the last decade very thoroughly.
Y. My second question… that was just general, I wanted to know how you got to this subject, but… I am very interested in the question what is it to be a ‘mother-artist’ (Maternal subjectivity in academic language), I am still interested, my PhD was about it. I still find that I’m coming back to it from different angles all the time. Did you have a personal motivation or … personal, something that ‘pushed’ you, that is un-clear in terms of your own experience in relation to the domestic or to motherhood?
A. Oh, that’s a good question. I think it’s one of these things that with hindsight you always can trace back that obviously you weren’t necessarily conscious of the prompt but there was obviously the spur to action there already under the surface that led you to pursue research on a particular topic. So it was one of these that I didn’t necessarily … and again, remember, I was fascinated by her work regarding war and politics even more than her work as a feminist and on questions of feminism. It was something that increasingly I came to the same kind of conclusion that she herself has written about which is that you can’t divorce the two, they are completely intermeshed, obviously, and then as you start probing deep into all these questions and their socio-political philosophical implications you recognize that yes obviously you have deeply personal reasons why you are fascinated as a woman, as an intellectual, by these identity formations, these restrictions, the politics of emancipation, how we remain constrained, the battles that we still have to fight, I have this quote that I put on the wall because I really like it, I found it in an interview with Martha Rosler. She says: “Feminism is a central angle in all my work. It does not replace or supplant other considerations. Feminism is a worldview, or a great factor in such a perspective. It is a view point that demands a rethinking of questions of power in society and thus has undeniable potency.” I think this is such a great interpretation of the fact… it isn’t just a theme or topic, it’s not some sort of area of research, it provides an entire outlook, it colors everything because it helps you not just … how to put it … it isn’t merely … a fad or a fashion, it is as important to your everyday situations as any other aspect of identity that gets demonized or made to be the facade that oppresses your potential. Simone de Beauvoir is a really interesting example. She is someone else whose work I am really fascinated by. I haven’t read nearly as widely among her writing as I’d like to but the bits that I’ve sampled have been really intriguing and her biography is so interesting because she was actually when in France it was time to sit the agrégation examination to be formalized as an academic philosopher and complete your university education first of all, I think she was possibly the first ever female to be allowed to sit the exam and she was certainly the only female in that year’s exam group and I was reading a biographer who said that tracing the decision-making process of that year’s examiners through archival material that this researcher had access to, they discovered that in point of fact, she had scored slightly better than the next highest scoring student who was Jean Paul Sartre and they decided in the end that, “Oh My God, this is extraordinary, this woman has outstripped all the chaps taking this exam but we just couldn’t possibly let her win” so they awarded that year’s top mark to Jean Paul Sartre and gave her the second place and kind of try to pass it off as “oh, you were terribly close but he pipped you to the post”
A. Yeah, it’s extraordinary. And so she writes in a number of her things about the ways in which she remained in faith with Sartre’s proposition and his philosophical projects and she was very on board with most of his propositions about Existentialism, however, she kept trying to argue with him that he needed to adopted a more nuanced appreciation of the notion of ‘situation’ and that ‘situation’ was about the physical reality that someone was born into so that yes, absolutely you are this existential being that has all this freedom and limitless possibilities yet there are certain constraints and they’re to do with how able your body is; what color your skin is; what gender you have been born; what is the geographical location of the place of your birth; what class is important to you, and she was saying we are also materialists, we’re Marxists, we have to analyze the reality, if not, we’re not Idealist who’re talking in some kind of Platonic notion about the essential man or woman, we’re talking about existentialism and yes it engages with a whole set of metaphysical questions and ontological propositions but it isn’t just about ultimate freedom, there are these situations we each are born into that do constrain our options, and our freedom, and our choices, and our liberation, and how we enact that liberation. I think Fanon’s work was quite important for her as well. And he [Sartre] apparently, he just wouldn’t accept it. Like, “no, we have absolute freedom, it’s all about our choices, we are existentially free and the situation is na…” So, in The Second Sex she really explored the fact that, no-no-no, situation is vital as a consideration for how we are limited and how we do have to navigate the material reality that we have thrust upon us. I think it’s kind of interesting to think about her in relationship to Heidegger’s phenomenology and the notion of becoming and thrown into being that intersects with the idea of situation. So to me all these things are so fascinating and feminism is very much about acknowledging our situation and trying desperately to get (laughter) the idea of the Universal to be reconsidered and have it recognized that that notion of the universal being is very much a quite particular male of a very certain class, and geography, and time period, and color, and sexual orientation, and religious presumptions, all these situations have been elevated as if they are somehow indicative of human being (capital B Being) so I think that’s what’s been so exciting and enlivening throughout all the research is to recognize that something that often is written off as incredibly mundane, the domestic, is in point of fact this locus from which we can examine these hugely important philosophical, cultural, political matters that aren’t just talking points but are about people factors too, freedom, and movement, and liberty, and self-realization, and interaction, and solidarity, and where they are isolated or allowed to drive, or vote, or have any sense of our own agency, right to property, you know, everything. The more you look at history, the very recent history of absolute cutting off of women from subjecthood it is really frightening, and to hear women who say that they have no truck with feminism or they … (sounds of laughter mixed with despair) … I don’t think these people have been very well educated about the real history of their own country, their own people, their own very recent past and to think that had you just been born a few decades earlier you would have had very different life choices available to you and I think you have to make it personal for some people to grasp what you’re actually on about and it’s not an abstract historical academic talking point, this is about people’s actual lives how they can lead them and live them and the ways in which they can be … but then it’s also a continuing issue around the world, everywhere in various different ways and degrees.
Y. So, just a little question still belongs to question 2, is it following or during the research that you have realized more and more the personal dimension for you, like … I am not asking you to reveal any personal details, but… there’s something so important about us becoming knowledgeable about our own personal situation in order to take on board all these other ideas. Did it happen while you were researching?
A. Oh, absolutely very much so in lots of different ways. There is an artwork that Martha Rosler made that I love very much because it actually performs the issue, it is called ‘Domination and the Everyday’. It’s a video that she made and it intersects the coup d’état in Chile in 1973 and interrogating the disappearances and the torture and the CIA sponsored and backed appalling right wing military dictatorship that comes in and how she is trying to have a relationship to that as a citizen but also as a mother and an artist and so there’s a sound track of her trying to feed her young son in the evening, trying to prepare a meal, trying to listen to him talk about his school day at nursery but also trying to listen to an arts debate on the radio about aesthetics and contemporary art, this is from about 1975, meanwhile she is showing us this slide show of everything to do with the changes in everyday life in Chile under Pinochet and there’s a scrolling text that is talking about Brecht and Benjamin and about authoritarian regimes and the aesthetisation of Fascism so you are just in the position that she is in, sensory overload, trying to pass all of these different streams of information, she throws you into the same role that we all have which is, you are not just the artist, you are not just the mother you are not just the migrant, you are not just the thinker, you are the care taker, you are the political citizen, you have all these extra layers, these extra roles that you are trying to perform, you want to perform, some of them are thrust upon you, some you embrace and how do you find the attention, the time, the patience (laughter) to swim through all of that
Y. So in a way it sounds like she is creating a new aesthetic, a kind of aesthetic that comes from her reflection and from her experience of the political
A. And that the political is personal but the personal is political, that it is not one or the other, it is both, and that they have this dialectical hold on us whether we want it to or not, and for me personally absolutely during this decade I was going through the same thing of having so many hats, so many different roles, some good relationships, some very bad situations, and trying to navigate all of that where you have to pay the bills, you also are trying to start you academic career, you are doing a PhD, you have relatives, you have all sorts of demands and the things you want to do, the things that are forced upon you, the good things, the bad things and how you try to navigate this both intellectually and emotionally
A. Very tricky
Y. Definitely … this aesthetic, this photomontage … I would love to ask lots of questions about it, but I’m holding myself back. I have one more question. I did promise three questions. So, coming back to Winchester School of Art, what is your vision for this gallery?
A. Oh, that’s a good one too. When I started working on the gallery, about four years ago, just a little less than that, my vision was that it would do two things. One, it would be a hub for our research interests across the school, and two, that it would showcase the wide array of talents we have here. Stuff, students, alumni, artists, designers, researchers we work with around the world, and across all the departments, and we had many new departments come on line, we have had a lot of new research areas pop up over the last four years, so it’s a big ambition because we are constantly trying to make sure we give more access to all the different areas, it’s very easy to just focus on Fine Art or Graphic Design because those are very obvious traditional good things for a gallery setting. Trying to constantly think about ways in which we can embrace the other less obvious colleagues into coming up with interesting shows, but also to move more towards performance art, new media arts, art that might not actually be located in the gallery, that the gallery might become a workshop space with the work being off sight or possibly even on-line, and that the gallery is merely a kind of hub but the real business is happening off-site, all these other scopes, so the plan is that the gallery will over time change… We’ve been practicing and piloting so many different things that over time hopefully we will have enough sense of what really works and what is achievable such that we can do that with enough forward planning so that we use our resources as best we can. At the moment it’s me with lots of different hats again and I have a small budget but that I can open to the public on a regular basis, have a book store, have a café, these are my plans and hopes for it, but it just takes a little bit of thinking out because there are so many kind of logistics to iron out with something like that because it is quite ambitious and that eventually the gallery will have a real public presence in Winchester and be a community center, people will say “let’s go and see what’s happening at the gallery this Saturday” and that it will be a place for them to meet where they could buy students’ work here, that they could buy art magazines, they could drop-in for coffee, that it would start to really be vibrant as a resource for Winchester and that also once we have our MA curation students that it will be a very vibrant happening place full of exhibitions and events and different kinds of outreach workshops and so forth so that it gives them something marvelous in a way of professional development, that they will be helping to run the space whilst they’re doing their Master’s so that when you graduate it’s with both a Master’s degree and professional experience already on your CV.
Y. Good luck.
A. Thank you.
Y. I have a mini question here.
Y. You are saying it’s only you, but is there a team or is it really only you?
A. It’s really only me running the gallery
Y. So who is backing you?
A. The director of research and the head of school support the project of how we’re reimagining the gallery and, like I said, it’s going to become … I think of it as a workshop space for the curation students but also as this kind of wonderfully flexible space for all of our other students and I’m always open for them to come in and pitch ideas about having a show for themselves or with their fellow students, or if they know of somebody who’s looking to tour a show and getting as many students involved as possible so that it’s something… a different string to their bow.
Y. Ok, good. And another mini-mini question. Do you feel that all this research that you did… does it feed into your vision?
A. It does, absolutely, it helps me think about different programmes that we can plan, different types of art to encourage, but also different kinds of events that we could do and this is part of why I am so interested in expanding new media and curatorial experiments, relationships between the artist and the curator and who wears the director’s hat in those relationships, especially like what we do with Chapel Arts, when you’re making a new commission and you want it to be very open ended because you don’t want to have a fixed outcome expected, you want to have the outcome be fresh and born through the process as opposed to designed.
Y. Thank you very much.