Hammer Projects: Andrea Fraser
Since the 1980s Andrea Fraser has achieved renown for performances that interrogate social structures with humor and pathos, aligning herself with feminism and institutional critique. While Fraser’s video and performance works are often associated with investigations of art institutions, her performances since the early 2000s evidence a turn toward analyzing the intersection between sociopolitical and psychological structures as they produce individual and group identity. Representative of this turn is Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK, 1972 (2012), a video installation that will be on view at the Hammer. For this work Fraser created a script from a little-known Pacifica Radio archival recording of four men articulating their affinities with and support for feminism and women’s rights. Fraser presents this group discussion in a solo performance, adopting mimetic gestures and "masculine" clothing that complicate the institution of gender. Owing to the subtlety of her performance, Fraser displays an affective investment in the anxious exchanges of these male feminists. By embodying the men's struggles with feminism and masculinity, Fraser's sobering reperformance serves as a model for how socially defined identities might forgo their gendered positions so as to enact a politics of care and empathy.
In conjunction with the video installation, the Hammer will premiere a new performance by Fraser in the museum's Billy Wilder Theater exploring the political and cultural polarization of American society.
The Hammer currently owns six of Fraser’s single-channel video works as part of the Hammer Contemporary Collection. Coinciding with the exhibition is the release of Andrea Fraser: Collected Interviews, 1990–2018, a publication coedited by the art historian Rhea Anastas and artists Alejandro Cesarco and Andrea Fraser, and published by A.R.T. Press and Koenig Books, London. The publication presents the artist’s voice in dialogue with interlocutors ranging from professional peers to journalists from the popular media and contextualizes Fraser’s practice in the artistic, institutional, and discursive fields in which she intervenes.
Hammer Projects: Andrea Fraser is organized by Connie Butler, chief curator, with Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, curatorial assistant.
We are in a moment—or perhaps an enduring forever—in which patriarchy feels as if it is teetering, suffocating, oddly enough, from its own boisterous tenor. This tone is often aligned with truth (with a capital T), with the masculine voice assumed to be the one brokering certainty, all the while instilling other opinions with self-doubt. The racking surround born of this chauvinism is an offensive that fuels the feminist front. Many in contemporary art circles would say that Andrea Fraser stands at the battlement of feminist and antiestablishment artistic practices. Fraser’s brand of “critique”—or what the artist now considers “institutional analysis”—finds her willingly venturing into the crossfire, fielding fusillades from all angles while tallying up her own accounting of matters pertaining to the art field as an institution riddled with exclusionary ideologies and politics (e.g., taste, class, patronage).1 Yet Fraser’s aim has not been to tear down this institution but to land her barbs softly, stinging just enough that participants in the art field might reflect critically on their own investments in the field and why we all keep coming back. It would be shortsighted, however, to rule the ideological fracas of the “art world” as separate from the “real world” vices endemic in patriarchy; both institutions or social fields possess a way of life—systems of value, perception, and classification—that gets inscribed and internalized by what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called habitus, or the social body that develops in response to the attributes required by structures and organizations.2 Examining this embodiment of cultural capital in people has been a mainstay of Fraser’s performance work over the years.
From the late 1980s to the early aughts Fraser’s signature work ambivalently admonished art institutions, returning their invitations with research-based projects and performance interventions. Take Little Frank and His Carp (2001): Fraser situated herself in the lobby of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, listening to the official audio guide. Adhering to the edicts of the guide, Fraser’s mimetic engagement spilled into parodic excess as she suggestively gyrated against a limestone pillar. In Kunst muß hängen (Art must hang, 2001), Fraser treated gallerygoers to a reenactment of a drunken speech (in German) that the late artist Martin Kippenberger delivered in 1995 at Club an der Grenze, Austria. While both works evidence comical takedowns of male personalities—the architect Frank Gehry in the former, the late Kippenberger in the latter—Kunst muß hängen represents the reflexive character of institutional critique for Fraser. That is, Kippenberger’s tipsy harangue documents an internal conflict against the social positions—from homophobia to misogyny—taken up by a homogeneous German art community. Through Fraser’s reenactment of Kippenberger, we witness an artist warring with the questionable institution within him, which speaks to how, according to Fraser, artists’ attempts to “escape the institution of art . . . [only] bring more of the world into it.”3 Seeing the artist as an embodiment of the institution makes visible the complicit ways artists uphold and benefit from abstract and invisible forces like patriarchy. While the callout campaign posters of the Guerrilla Girls from 1985 onward shed light, for instance, on gender discrimination within galleries and museums in New York City, the work of the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota (WARM) a decade earlier illustrated that from 1960 to 1969 the “one-man” exhibitions at the Walker Art Center showcased sixty-eight men and only four women.4 From 1970 to 1974 the data was no different: WARM discovered that eighteen men and two women were granted solo shows during this period. Both WARM and the Guerrilla Girls typify the long arc of feminist critique of institutions questioning the progressive cultural capital touted by the art world. What we glean from their data is that the everyday realities of patriarchy institutionalize the categorization of women as less valuable.
Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK, 1972 (2012/2014), the video performance on view at the Hammer Museum, marks Fraser’s turn toward engaging institutional structures as containers of interpersonal or intersubjective relations that extrapolate across other social fields. Regarding this shift, the performance theorist Shannon Jackson has observed with regard to Men on the Line, “If the performance of [Fraser’s] ambivalence toward the artworld has indeed rendered continued participation ‘unbearable,’ perhaps this turn to a new context outside of the art institution has given her a different way to continue.”5 Men on the Line finds Fraser doubling down on a social world—patriarchy in this case—that permeates the art institution but is still conceivably at a remove from it. In the performance she focuses her analysis on a live radio recording from 1972 for KPFK Pacifica featuring a group of four self-identified male feminists. The video installation is a vertical projection presenting a life-size Fraser seated in an unassuming gray office chair. Five similar chairs circle the projection screen, offering a place for viewers not only to watch Fraser embody the men’s varying relations to feminism but also to indirectly join the group discussion. Fraser modulates her speech and body language so that we begin to imagine the mannerisms distinguishing the four men. She also wears somewhat masculine or gender-neutral clothing, a kind of lite drag reminiscent of the 1970s. The gender and queer theorist Jack Halberstam has argued, however, that such “trouser role” costumes serve to emphasize “femininity rather than to mimic maleness.”6 Without visual documentation of the 1972 event, it’s safe to say that Fraser, as a woman indebted to methodologies of feminism, eschews a representational mimesis of masculinity in favor of a mode of mimicry that not only troubles the obstinate masculine logic peppered throughout the radio conversation but also foregrounds the political strivings of feminism.
Conversations of this variety were not uncommon in the 1970s, with men’s consciousness-raising groups an enactment of that epoch’s countercultural, antipower ethos. The participants in the discussion that Fraser reenacts were Lee Christie, Everett Frost (who served as moderator), Bob Krueger, and Jeremy Shapiro. We know from the recording that Christie was a psychologist and sat on the board of the National Organization for Women. Krueger lived in Englewood and was married to a woman committed to feminism; his profession is unknown. Frost, in contrast, was an academic, director of theater and literature programs at KPFK, and married, for some time, to Faith Wilding, a key figure in the Feminist Art Program at Fresno State University and California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Shapiro taught at CalArts and wrote on the topic of men’s liberation. Fraser came to know about KPFK and this particular recording after combing through several archives, including the archive of Suzanne Lacy (a friend of Wilding), who alerted the artist that feminist programs were frequently aired on the radio station.
In a roundabout way, the KFPK recording Fraser mined stands as a trace of autobiography—an unexpected appearance linking Fraser via her parents to the concurrent feminist and men’s liberation movements. The artist’s mother, a painter who later became a psychologist and writer, became active in the women’s movement after the family settled in Berkeley in 1967. After Fraser’s parents separated in 1973, her mother changed her name to Carmen de Monteflores and came out. She formed what Fraser has described as an all-female lesbian feminist household where she exposed her daughters to the work of feminist artists like Judy Chicago (who makes a cameo appearance in an interview clip in Men on the Line). Fraser’s father, a Unitarian minister and philosopher, had an affinity for the antipower orientation of men’s liberation groups. Robert B. Fraser penned an essay in the periodical Progressive World in May 1971 in which he argued that women’s liberation from oppressive gender roles would rescue men from their limited masculine identities. He also welcomed “ideas about what it means to be just a person,” writing, “We cannot get outside of ourselves! But we can touch others . . . inside. And they can touch us . . . inside!”7
The challenge of touching and being touched by others, across the boundaries of identity, are central to Men on the Line and the process through which it was produced. The act of transcribing spoken language into written words on a page became “very intimate” for Fraser, who explained, “those words are traveling through me from my ears to my fingertips . . . [as] I make sure to get all of the ‘uh-s’ and the ‘you know-s’ and where people misspeak.”8 Fraser’s process exudes a haptic relationship to time and space that invokes what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten identify as “the touch of the undercommons, the interiority of sentiment, the feel that what is to come is here.”9
Although Fraser figuratively touches the past by performing a broadcast from 1972, Men on the Line also demonstrates an embrace of the now or, more specifically, the here on the horizon. That is, her performance elicits a “the pull of past upon the present” that resonates with Elizabeth Freeman’s notion of “temporal drag,” described as a “stubborn identification” with social positions (e.g., gender) associated with particular prior histories.10 For instance, there’s a moment in the recording when Fraser as Jeremy Shapiro confesses that his “act of categorization . . . is particularly difficult, in relations with women, in that I find that it tends to narrow. . . my encounter with a woman.” While a circumscribed statement like this may run counter to Fraser’s feminist politics, she consummately performs the dynamics of patriarchy, focusing on the affective tendencies that men back then and, in many ways, now embody when engaging social and interpersonal relations. Alluding to the four men in the recording, Fraser notes, “I’m not ever really performing other people; rather, I’m performing relations to other people, relations that must exist inside of me already, in relationships that I have already internalized.”11 Herein lies the transference of empathy: the men struggling to commiserate with the women in their lives, Fraser attempting to convey this tug-of-war, and Fraser empathizing with the men so as to perform them. Moving with the chain of affect, she seeks to challenge viewers in their own acts of categorization of her as a female performer and the men she’s performing as men.
How we understand this grammar of touch and affect is inflected by the movement of Men on the Line from a live performance to one now mediated via video. For Fraser, performance is not just “about the live event. It’s the entire process of creating a work.”12 With Men on the Line, Fraser began researching the history and legacy of the Woman’s Building, the hub of the feminist art movement in Los Angeles in the 1970s and the framework through which the curator Emi Fontana approached the artist about participating in the performance and public art festival that was part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative in 2011–12. While feminism was top of mind for Fontana, she charged Fraser, as well as Vaginal Davis and the late Mike Kelley, to consider contemporary perspectives on gender and queer politics and practice. Poring over videos of the Woman’s Building, Fraser latched onto what many at that time might have considered a “queer” pedagogy of collective artistic practice and consciousness-raising group critiques. If we understand the word queer as referring simply to something unexpected, then it is revelatory, if not radical, to visualize women discussing artistic production in groups and relating it to their social and psychological experiences.
If we take the Woman’s Building as a backdrop to Men on the Line, Fraser’s bodily grammar can be likened to one of mimesis-mimicry, a feminist strategy invested in upending the masculine rhetoric that defines femininity. Her presence as a woman reenacting this gathering of men destabilizes mimesis as truth copied from the dominant male culture. Moreover, since time has not “cured . . . sexism,” as one of the men put it, Fraser’s trouser role performance introduces analogues of womanhood that suggest a mimetic relation to the masculine subject that is infused with parody. But she threads a line of empathy that doesn’t fully give in to the viewer’s desire for parodic relief. Instead she hangs on the men’s words and cadences, reperforming their every breath and affect, from “the terror” voiced by Frost of being seen as “probably queer” to his “anger expressed against . . . women.” Mirroring this emotional contagion finds Fraser engaging in a type of painful empathy, the type, from a mimetic standpoint, that, in Luce Irigaray’s words, “make[s] visible . . . what was supposed to remain invisible.”13 This invisibility just so happens to be the fragile posturing of men. Rather than construct a masculine self that relies on the woman’s subordination, Fraser presents a destabilized, vulnerable version of masculinity, one we rarely see today. Her move to embody this vulnerability as a woman troubles the original recording, all the while underscoring Michael Taussig’s point in Mimesis and Alterity (1993) that “the wonder of mimesis lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power.”14 To be fair, though, assuming this power shift requires a suspension of disbelief, which is something Fraser cautions against: “I’m one person, not four people, and I’m female and not male or even trans, and not really trying to make anyone suspend their disbelief about any of that.” Ultimately Fraser wants audiences to regard the “fact of the material,” which is to say always question the ease through which one can assume identity and its power.15
The deftness of Men on the Line is how Fraser wields this power. From transcription to performance, she revisits, time and again, what is on the line without ever coming down hard on it. Take her live performance of Men on the Line in 2014 at De Balie, Amsterdam: she opened the floor to questions afterward only to evade all queries directed at her qua Andrea Fraser or Everett Frost. Fraser doesn’t direct her audiences to any specific judgments or conclusions, leaving them on their lonesome to wrestle with the politics of it all. Even after the men lay bare their allegiances to and anxieties about feminism, their intellectual positions also remain an open question. That said, the denouement to Men on the Line isn’t an impasse per se, but we are left with the melancholy strumming of John Lennon on “Working Class Hero” (1970), a coda of sorts in the original recording that conveys this amorphous questioning of power and the hierarchy of value.
In The History of Sexuality, Michael Foucault asks what power resides in listening and saying nothing, in questioning and appearing as though not knowing.16 Fraser rides this ambiguity with a “know-it-all persona” typical of some men, opting to navigate Men on the Line in a way that is almost the same, but not quite.17 Is she a silent listener? In a way, yes, since she commits to memory their prose with an extreme diligence. As such, Fraser’s voice is technically absent from the performance. But it’s a queer absence in that she welcomes an infinite array of meaning as well as a productive degree of movement or play. In its playfulness, Men on the Line joins with the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s idea that “play is the disruption of presence,” which is to say a deferral of meaning.18 By some accounts, Fraser defers what meaning we take away from Men on the Line, with several critics leaving the performance without “any specific conclusions” or “simple answers” but still moved enough to cringe, gasp, and think through the dialectic she and her cast of relations play out.
Perhaps this is where Fraser wants us to remain—in an indeterminate space reflecting on the lost history of the men’s liberation movement. Beyond men, though, it seems that Fraser enacts Men on the Line as an appeal to question our own acts of gender categorization: how might we adopt queer critiques of gender, even within and despite the shades of essentialized thinking that fan ideas that all masculinity is toxic and patriarchal? Wherever we land on this, there will be added questions, no doubt, about what might have been, today, had this display of vulnerability caught hold among men. But it’s hard to say, other than that the baton clearly wasn’t relayed. Strangely enough, men’s liberation gave way to the modern men’s rights movement, with the likes of “incels” and “red pillers” all drawing impetus from the very male feminists (e.g., Warren Farrell) who advocated for women in the 1970s.19 Maybe this oppressive patriarchal sentiment was always there in 1970s “men’s libbers.” If not, then the abusive sexism revealed by the Me Too movement spotlights what was not achieved during the 1970s and 1980s. And even with the feminist armature of mimicry, Men on the Line still raises a supposition as to how, as a woman, one might inhabit patriarchy and misogyny in order best to critique it. Fraser is not here to completely resolve this, and neither are the bygone men wading through the challenges of second-wave feminism. But as a woman and feminist, Fraser does regard totalizing attacks on patriarchy as a surefire way to ossify its power and disown the degree to which all gender identity is produced through “stubborn identification” and mimicry. Following this thought, there are new conversations we can touch, nonessentialist ones that delve further into the queer fashioning of gender identifications. Through these discussions we might “get outside of ourselves,” as Fraser’s father intuits. The question is whether we are willing to go there.
1. Fraser, in Anne Doran, “‘It’s Important to Be Specific about What We Mean by Change’: A Talk with Andrea Fraser,” ARTNews, December 13, 2016, http://www.artnews.com/2016/12/13/its-important-to-be-specific-about-what-we-mean-by-change-a-talk-with-andrea-fraser.
2. Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum 44, no. 1 (September 2005): 105.
3. Ibid., 104.
4. Patricia Olson, “Statistical Salvos: Feminism, WARM, and the Guerrilla Girls,” Walker Reader, February 29, 2016, https://walkerart.org/magazine/feminism-statistics-guerrilla-girls.
5. Shannon Jackson, “Staging Institutions: Andrea Fraser and the ‘Experiential’ Museum,” in Andrea Fraser, ed. Sabine Breitwieser (Salzburg: Museum der Moderne; Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2015), 29.
6. Jack Halberstam, “Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance,” in Female Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 233. The clothes Fraser first wore for the Pacific Standard Time premiere of Men on the Line were pulled from her wardrobe. Fraser noted that she didn’t explicitly purchase masculine clothes to produce her “drag lite” appearance. This outfit ultimately became a uniform.
7. Robert B. Fraser, “Men’s Liberation: The Inside of the Other Side of Women’s Liberation,” Progressive World 25, no. 3 (May 1971): 23.
8. Fraser, in Stephanie Cardon, “On the Line: Andrea Fraser Discusses the Personal and the Political,” Big Red & Shiny, February 18, 2013, http://bigredandshiny.org/1599/on-the-line-andrea-fraser-discusses-the-personal-and-the-political.
9. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2013), 98.
10. Elizabeth Freeman, “Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations,” New Literary History 31, no. 4 (Autumn 2000): 728.
11. Fraser, in Cardon, “On the Line.”
12. Fraser, in “Interview with Andrea Fraser,” George Washington University, https://corcoran.gwu.edu/interview-andrea-fraser.
13. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 76.
14. Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity (New York: Routledge, 1993), xiii.
15. Fraser, in Cardon, “On the Line.”
16. Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), 62.
17. Jacqueline Francis, “Funny Lady,” CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, https://wattis.org/view?id=6,240,474. See also Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October, no. 28 (Spring 1984): 127.
18. Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966), in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 292.
19. Nona Willis Aronowitz, “The ‘Men’s Liberation’ Movement Time Forgot,” Vice, March 18, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/eve7zk/the-mens-liberation-movement-time-forgot.
Hammer Projects is presented in memory of Tom Slaughter and with support from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.
Lead funding is provided by Hope Warschaw and John Law and by the Hammer Collective. Generous support is also provided by Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy, with additional support from Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley, and the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
Hammer Projects: Andrea Fraser is supported by The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation and Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.