Interview with Irina Aristarkhova

March 7, 2011


Irina Aristarkhova's article "Hospitality and the maternal" published in the Hypatia journal has been an important resource for the Greeting Committee project. I have been very fortunate to be able to engage in a dialogue with her on the topic of hospitality and contemporary art. Irina Aristarkhova, PhD, writes and lectures on comparative feminist theory, new media aesthetics, and contemporary art. She is currently Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Visual Art at the Pennsylvania State University.

Here is the beginning of our discussion.

AP: In your text, Hospitality and the maternal, referencing Derrida and Levinas you write about the innate ability of the feminine to host and to welcome the other in the most radical of ways. How does this ability present itself in etiquette practices and in socialization?

IA: Thank you for your question. In the text, I challenge Levinas and Derrida that hospitality is an innately and essentially feminine quality. This ‘feminization’ of hospitality could be traced in Western aesthetics and ethics to Kant, and probably, even earlier. What is disturbing for me in their definition is that it assumes a certain tautology: hospitality is feminine because the feminine is hospitable. The tautology serves a purpose to de-materialize hospitality which, I argue, is not tied to the feminine anymore or less than it could be tied to the masculine. If it is de-materialized, then one does not need to consider hospitality as a ‘practice’ and can consider it, problematically, only as a function of femininity as such.

What is so fascinating about your project is that your art work that explores etiquette cannot happen without talking about such ‘practices’ of hospitality - there is no smile without a face, at least, initially; there is no etiquette without a gesture, a set of rules with regards to bodily practices and interpersonal communication. My colleague at Penn State, philosopher Shannon Sullivan, just gave a talk about the role of ‘etiquette’ in the class dimension of whiteness. Thus, middle class whites often position so- called ‘white trash’ as ‘improper whites,’ because they do not follow a ‘proper’ etiquette of their middle class white subjectivity. By doing this, middle class whites project racism and other ‘bad’ behaviors away from themselves. One of such ‘bad’ behaviors is being rude, being impolite, loud, and it raises a question of hospitality. Is hospitality just a ‘mask’ to wear, through a set of ‘rules’? This is a very important, I think, and interesting question, since it asks about ‘authenticity’ and how it is possible to ‘know’ for sure.

Your performance is very interesting, since art practice in itself is seen as both ’sincere’ and ‘authentic’ but it also openly questions ‘authenticity’ as a concept by bringing attention to this ‘etiquette’ as a set of prescribed ‘proper’ behavior in hospitality industry, or in a particular society. Yes, socialization plays a very important role since it is through socialization the maternal hospitality reveals itself: a failure in life is often attributed to be unwanted, to not be welcomed, and this ‘welcoming’ might be portrayed in various ways, including, but not limited to: voice, smile, giving time, teaching communication skills, teaching what is life, and what it is to be human for a specific cultural setting, etc. The work of this maternal hospitality starts before pregnancy and continues long after a child is born, and is not at all some kind of ‘innate’ quality. It is, I believe, constantly decided upon, negotiated with various other social actors and institutions, and never coincides with what is called ‘culture’ 100 percent. Culture is that sense is a result of these negotiations.


Einstein thought the most important question facing humanity should be, “Is the universe a friendly place?” and Kurt Vonnegut asked that we practice “A little less love, and a little more common decency.” Greeting Committee, by Ana Prvacki, considers these ideas by magnifying and zooming in on the protocols and customs of basic hospitality routines, such as greetings, salutations and welcoming. For her project at the Hammer, visitors are invited to observe or participate in interventions encouraging gestures of welcoming in the Wilshire lobby Thursday, April 7 through Sunday, April 10 from 12-4pm each day.