Pacing Around My Desire: An Interview Of Carmen Winant

Honey Lee Cottrell Papers, #7822. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell Papers, #7822. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

interview by Abbey Meaker

In her new book titled Notes on Fundamental Joy; seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us, Carmen Winant offers a poignant question: Does hope have an aesthetic? If it does, you may find it within the pages of this provocative book.

Designed by Jena Myung and published by Printed Matter Inc., the book is both an artist’s project and an historic collection of found images, photographs whose function was not only to document women-only communities formed in the 1980s across the Pacific Northwest, but also to subvert the pervasive dynamic in photography of man as subject, woman as object. Through these photographs of an almost unfathomable utopia of feminist & lesbian separatists, we can contemplate a world that exists outside of patriarchy. A safe, inclusive, fantastical space in which art is central to community making, connection, experimentation, and purpose. 

Meaker: Can you talk a little bit about the title and how you feel like it was relevant at the time the photos were made and how it’s relevant now? 

Winant: Part of the reason that I gravitated towards this material in the first place is because it held such promise and joy. I’ve known photography to occupy a space that can be more severe or competitive. The women photographers I idolized as a student, people like Francesca Woodman and Diane Arbus, all killed themselves. It wasn’t just that I felt that it was difficult to be a woman in the world. I also understood photography as entangled with that problem, that it was violent and incurred violence onto bodies, and onto the photographers themselves. And when I encountered these images, I felt inside them a whole new kind of promise—something that was bound up in the word joy, as well as world-building in this case of stepping outside of patriarchy altogether, and using photography as a new way to see the world. That felt really powerful. I was starting to do this research during the presidential campaign. It’s not a far reach to understand why I felt I needed to move towards not subverting the patriarchy from the inside, but instead looking at people who had just left it all behind. I understand that now that that impulse came from being confronted with the ugliest parts of our patriarchy. For me, the project is tethered to that moment in historical time.

Meaker: Looking at these images and thinking about these communities in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is it discouraging to know where we are now, and see that it failed in a way? Or did it?

Winant: Yes and no. When I first encountered the images, I had the same binary logic around it. But the longer that I researched, I started to feel that there was more nuance in this question of what it means to succeed and fail. There were so many thousands of women that cycled through these women’s lands, and even if the community ended up dissolving, that consciousness still permeated into those bodies, and that sort of changed the way they lived their lives, how they moved through space, how they related to other people, how they engaged with politics, community, relationships, child rearing, and so forth. This is what coalition building is. It’s messy, it’s difficult, people get pissed off and leave, and it’s not built to last. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t succeeded.

Meaker: Totally. When looking through the book, I felt that it was a fiction. It’s so hard for me to imagine existing in such a utopic place, free of the critical eye of white cis men. Man-as-subject, woman-as-object is such a pervasive dynamic in photography. Why do you think that photographs were central to these communities, and do you think it served as a medium of documentation as well as a kind of rebuttal?  

Winant: Definitely. And let me address the first thing you said too, which is the fantasy element of it. So much of my own relationship to this material is really romantic, and I brush off the things that don’t feed my fantasy, like the conflicts that happened, and the wars they lost with the landowners, and the bank, and the disabled women who left because there wasn’t space for them to survive in the country. Not to mention how few non-white women there were, and non-middle class women. It took me some time to come to this, but I realized that this is a part of the project, to follow the discordances. The way I teach feminism is as the prospect of world-building, and the imperative of a feminist is to imagine that a different world is possible. Without that imagination, we have nothing. We have no values, we have no politics, and we have no essential selves if we can’t imagine something outside of the world that we’re living in, or living under. And so, I think it’s really important to think about my own feminist politics as kind of revolving around that promise.

A lot of the different women’s lands built wet darkrooms, although the book in fact revolves around the ovulars, which are these photographic workshops that were offered on one particular women’s land, which was called Rootworks, in Oregon. An ovular is a take-off on seminar, which means the spreading of semen, etymologically. So, they instead called them ovulars, and the women who took them were called the ovulators. It was a new way to see themselves, and each other; to reframe desire, and kinship, and affinity and self, and sight, and insight, but also to stand as evidence. When so many of these women came out as gay, they were kicked out or they were left with nothing. Some of them had their children taken away from them. They had no evidence of their lives, in some sense. So it existed beyond the metaphoric idea of needing to reframe the way we see, and into something quite tangible, about how to make new evidence of our lives in this state of being reborn.

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Meaker: Knowing that it was probably finite.  

Winant: It depends. When you read their accounts, some women feel as though it will last forever. And others that are far more skeptical are dipping in and out. So, I think there’s quite a big range. 

Meaker: Did the women teaching the workshops come in as photographers, or did that come from being a part of the community?  

Winant: So far as I know, there were six different organizer midwives that cycled in and out. They all went on to become pretty serious, and I think they were pretty serious already. They still remained on the margin, but they were dedicated photographers. The ovulars ranged from technical workshops to making lesbian erotica, or how to make photographs about love and sex.

Meaker: I love that art making was such a central activity. 

Winant: It really is difficult to live in the country, particularly when you are arriving with no skill about how to irrigate, how to you know plant food in the ground, or how to build structures. The fact that they carved out the space for this kind of production feels really critical.

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Meaker: How did you happen upon this work, and when did you know you wanted to do something with it?  

Winant: Years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker by Ariel Levy, and it was about the Van Dykes, who were a separatist community. I just remember feeling so amazed by the prospect of this. My work has been about looking for another world, and trying to imagine a world outside of patriarchy, so to come across this felt revelatory. I started to get deeper into it and I discovered this vast photography archive, and I was amazed. They felt like such important historical documents, and were also incredibly striking photographs. The project is an homage to these communities, as well as a platform to make the photographs exist in a public space together.

Meaker: These women were unknown, and you were naming them and crediting them. So many women artists are subsumed by their male contemporaries, so this was exciting to me. In your last book, My Birth, many of the photos are anonymous.

Winant: Yeah, all of them, in fact. That was really different in this project. Normally, the way that I work is I gather the images that I want, I remove them from their sources, I re-contextualize them, and I call it fair use. That was never going to be an okay way to work here for a couple reasons. It wasn’t possible administratively, but it also wasn’t possible to do in good conscience. These are art objects. We got the copyright for every image, we paid the artist for the image if they were alive, and we got permission to reproduce. To be honest, I’ll probably never work this way again because it was so time-prohibitive. Sometimes I spent days just trying to get a single image.

Meaker: And did you always imagine it as a book?

Winant: No. At first I thought it could be an exhibition. But as I was thinking through possibilities, Printed Matter reached out to ask if I wanted to make a book. I thought that that could be an interesting way for those photographs to come together. I’m delighted it’s in the form that it’s in, in part because in the archive, many of the photographic objects exist in some sort of magazine or pamphlet. It doesn’t exist as a conventional photographic archive, and so a book really made sense.

Meaker: It feels so intimate too. It’s nice to hold it and touch as an object.

Winant: I’m so glad you say that. We spent a lot of time talking about that.

Meaker: What attracted you to such era-specific imagery from the ‘70s? 

Winant: I think there are a couple ways to answer the question, the first being that that era is where so much printed matter lives. There is an enormous glut of books that are published from the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s as a certain personal-is-political kind of feminism comes to bear. Those books are replete with photographs. That doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. But it’s more than that, of course. So much of my interest, conceptually and politically, as a person and an artist, is about working to understand the feminism that begot my feminism, the history that begot my history, and the space between us. I look at the feminism that belonged to my mother’s generation, and it feels, in some ways, so foreclosed. My work has always been about trying to reach backwards and understand what it means to inherit a memory, what it means to reckon with the idea of women’s liberation fifty years later.

Meaker: And how do you think it changed?

Winant: It changed in so many ways. Regarding the name “women’s liberation,” I don’t think that we, for the most part, believe in the idea of liberation anymore. We don’t belong to radical feminism anymore, and we can understand that by looking at these photographs and understanding that they look like a fantasy to us. There are so many different qualities that have shifted, that have made it more progressive, and more inclusive, and at the same time, I mourn the loss of those things that I mentioned.

Meaker: The photographs in the book are of naked women, and their bodies all look similar. The world that is depicted in the book feels inclusive and safe, but the images of the women aren’t. How did that sit with you when you were bringing together these photographs?

Winant: There’s another scholar who’s done some research into the ovulars. His name is Andy Campbell, and he’s a professor at USC. He's said in a talk that I noted, “To leave everything behind can be a privilege.” I think, in some cases, he’s right. There’s one African-American woman who appears over and over in the ovulars. Her name is Lynne Reynolds, she lived in Brooklyn at the time. I’m always so struck by her presence in that place; she stands out as the only nonwhite participant, as far as I can see. It reminds an onlooker that there is an issue of who has the ability to participate in the first place. The ovulars were absolutely incredible for their radical inventiveness, for the creatively, for their dedicated feminism. I admire them from deep down. And they also make me wonder: who has the ability to leave it all behind?

Carol Newhouse, courtesy of the artist

Carol Newhouse, courtesy of the artist

Meaker: To me, your broad practice has recurring themes relating to origins, materiality, the fecund body, and also, a drive to subvert the notion that the pregnant body is the ultimate representation of abstraction. In your book My Birth, the photographs are really aggressive and they demand to be seen. At the same time there is desensitization in the repetition of the images. What are your thoughts on that?

Winant: After I gave birth the first time, I was amazed, horrified, delighted, and terrified at what that experience had been. So much of how I relate to my experience is to try to make it intelligible through photographs, and it became very clear to me very quickly after giving birth that I couldn’t do that. It’s not that there were no photographs of birth, but there were vacuums. I didn’t recognize it anywhere in contemporary art, for instance, with very limited pockets of examples. I think some of the work was intended to fill up that space. But in a larger way, I understood that there was not going to be any photograph that would be able to account for that experience as fully as I wanted it to, for all of its sensate abjection. Part of the repetition was about working to insist on that image over and over, so it could be seen and knowable, and at the same time, doing so with the distinct understanding that it was a failed premise.  

Meaker: And where do you think the new work fits in with that?

Winant: It was an incredibly agitating experience to look at bodies opening up and pouring out. I needed to look at something that felt unabashedly joyful. It was important for me to find images to live with that occupied a different experience, a parallel experience.

Meaker: You pose a question in the book, which is, is there an aesthetic to hope? And I wonder if this project has offered an answer to you.

Winant: At the beginning of this project, I wrote a single note that I put above my studio desk: what does a free body look like? And I think there are a lot of different questions in that question. Do pictures look different when women make them? In that sense, do women have a different photographic aesthetic? Do lesbians? Do feminists? What does joy look like? How do we see it? How do we frame it? I’m really interested in the relationship between politics and aesthetics. These photographs feel so distinct, yet they have such deep echoes of one another that I have to ask, how has this experience actually changed the way that they see?

Meaker: Maybe it’s more a feeling than an aesthetic.

Winant: Definitely. That can be a really difficult thing to account for. As an artist, how do you come to learn and occupy a photographic feeling? 

Meaker: I think maybe it is an innate ability, because not all photographs have that.

Winant: I agree. It is innate to a person, but also to a place and a moment in shared historical time.

Heaven On Earth: An Interview With Jack Pierson on Tomorrow’s Man

photograph by Aubrey Mayer 

Jack Pierson’s art is dangerous and seductive with the lure of a sordid kind of glamor. Close your eyes and imagine a motel with a blinking vacancy sign. You’re on the edge of the desert and it’s 110 degrees in the pitch-blackness. Indeed, he is an enigmatic artist with a sense of hopeless romanticism – his work screams this tortured longing. Over the last few decades, Pierson’s art seems to get cooler and cooler – there is a distinctly dreamy and quixotic quality to all of it: the photographs, the collages, the text based works that incorporate rusty and discarded signage and his beloved artist books. Officially launching today at the New York Art Book Fair MoMA PS1 is the third installment of Pierson’s highly acclaimed and groundbreaking publishing project Tomorrow’s Man. Borrowing from the title and aesthetic of a 1950s homoerotic chapbook disguised as a muscle building mag, Tomorrow’s Man is a pastiche of found imagery, collaborations with contemporary artists, text, and work by Pierson himself, which seems to send that beautiful lightning bolt that brings the publication to life in an electrifying way. Whereas the first and second installments were denser, the third issue is much lighter with contributions by only four artists. Geometric abstractions by Richard Tinkler, text works by Peter Fend, and a short story by Veralyn Behenna entitled ‘The Flavor of Your Wish.” There is also, of course, a series of beautiful previously unpublished photographs by Pierson – male nudes in natural form. In the following interview with Autre, Pierson talks about Tomorrow’s Man (where to hide it and what to listen to while you’re reading it) and contemporary gay life. 

OLIVER KUPPER: Let’s talk about Tomorrow’s Man, where did the idea come from to start this publication?

JACK PIERSON: It began as a one-off arty little book. I've made them throughout my career. I was dragging my heels on this first one because I wanted to do something new that really engaged the viewer. Including work by other artists made the project exciting for me. Once we had done one I had so much fun I wanted to keep it going. So I set a goal for a dozen issues. This will be the third. 

OK: It’s interesting – the combination of appropriation and collaborations with artists and friends – what draws you to this format?

JP: I'm super into other artists and the work they make. I know a lot of great artists, young and older, who need venues where their work can begin to be discovered. A nice publication is one of the best ways I can think of. And the ephemera? I just find myself liking printed stuff and really believing in it as modern to present old stuff in a new way. 

OK: What is your idea of “Tomorrow’s Man” – what is your definition of ideal masculine beauty?

JP: I don't think there is any one ideal of masculine beauty. That's one of the great things about contemporary gay life - Every physical type has a fan base. 

OK: I love the visual assemblage involved in the series…turning the pages, it really feels like a scrapbook…do you collect a lot of these old magazines and what is the curation process like?

JP: Thank you! I have collected printed material, usually from an earlier period, since I was a teen. It started with 1920s sheet music I think. Lately, I have been collecting a lot of scrapbooks from the 20s to the 60s. I guess the format, now that you mention it, might come from that. 

OK: There is something palpably erotic about Tomorrow’s Man and there are a lot of homoerotic themes, is this a magazine anyone can put on their coffee table?

JP: I'd of course be happier if it wound up under the mattress than on the coffee table. Part of the format is a reaction against the idea of male nude coffee table books. I think soft cover and smaller is a sexier way to receive naked men. 


"I'd of course be happier if it wound up under the mattress than on the coffee table....I think soft cover and smaller is a sexier way to receive naked men."


OK: This new issue seems to be going in a different direction than other issues, can you talk a little bit about the themes in this issue?

JP: Well issue 1 was dense with imagery with over 18 artists, number 2 became even more so. Really a lot of information and artists. For number 3 we decided to change it up and allow more breathing room. It's just three artists; Richard Tinkler, Peter Fend, and myself, and of course a story written by Veralyn Behenna. 

The design has at once more breathing room and complexity in the layout. I saw some new text pieces by Peter Fend and knew immediately I wanted them for Tomorrow's Man 3. He deals mainly with environmental concerns, ways to steer the planet back to health. I thought those themes would be good both with Richard Tinkler's intense metaphysical mind maps as well as my essentially naturist photography. 

OK: You decided to include your own work in this issue…what brought you to the decision to include your own work and why haven’t you included your work in previous issues?

JP: My work has been in every issue so far. The first two I included only that which had been published already. Tear sheets etcetera, and in that way mine was already in the stream of ephemera from which I cull. Tomorrow's Man 3 is the first issue to include unpublished work by me, in this case naked pictures of handsome men. 

OK: Who are some artists working today that you think are truly breaking boundaries?

JP: I think all the artists in the first 3 issues of Tomorrow's Man are radical and ready to break through. 

OK: What’s a good song to listen to while you flip through the pages of Tomorrow’s Man?

JP: Not just one song. The Platter's Greatest Hits!

OK: What’s next for Tomorrow's Man…anything in mind or are you just going to let things flow? 

JP: Flowing is what's best to do to be creative. I'm already thinking back to extremely dense. Dense work on top of dense work. A lot of drawing based work and maybe more writing.


Jack Pierson's Tomorrow's Man will be available at the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 Friday through Sunday, 18 - 20 September 2015 at the Bywater Bros Editions Booth, G4, 22-25 Jackson Avenue on 46th Avenue Long Island City, NY. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper