Summer 2021 News

Dear Friends, Colleagues and Family,

I find writing a newsletter to be a strange exercise under normal circumstances, and it feels doubly bizarre these days. I worry that if I comment on recent events that it will seem as if I’m trying to be profound, and if I don’t that I am contributing to the cultural amnesia that is the US’s hallmark. The third option seems to be vague, anodyne-sounding hopes that people are “doing as well as possible during all this”, which feels like trivialization of ongoing crises.

I’ve been fortunate during the last 15 months. I’ve had personal and professional upheavals and anxiety, but my closest circle has been relatively lightly touched by tragedy from COVID-19. I don’t take this for granted, and I know this is not the case for many of you.

As a white person living in Minneapolis, it’s also difficult to find adequate words to address the epidemic of police violence here. In our metro area, there has been at least one extrajudicial killing of a Black man by law enforcement each year since I moved back here from Germany in 2014, each time triggering protests, community meetings and re-evaluations of police procedure. The brutality of George Floyd’s murder last year by Officer Derek Chauvin (warning: graphic imagery) has created a tipping point where the abolition of police—something that never would have seemed feasible in my youth, or even 5 years ago—is now part of mainstream discussion. I try to contribute to moving that discussion forward where and how I can, but perpetually come up short. Here’s one local organization that’s doing the hard work.

So I am left trying to engage with the world as best I can from my position, which is always changing in relationship to context. Often the best way still seems to be through art—to create room for the constant ambiguity and uncertainty that is, for me, endemic to being human. Part of my good luck has been to have the time during this last year to bring a few projects to completion, and I’m writing to share those with you.

a seafoam green background with a black ink drawing of the lower right corner of a mailbox with the words "three seasons" on itFirst is an illustrated essay in booklet form. Entitled “Three Seasons”, it is a subjective look at porches and how they might help or hinder neighborhood relations. This work has its origins in my return to Minneapolis, when the unfriendly façades of the enclosed porches of the vernacular architecture seemed to be reflecting the social challenges of reintegrating into a fairly closed culture. Many thanks to Andy Sturdevant of Birchwood Palace Industries for helping bring this little guy into physical form.

two magazines lie on a orange velvet background ,surrounded by a pair of black, strappy super high-heel platform shoesSecond is another print-based project, Issue 2 of The GRIND from The Feminist Strip Club. The FSC, a collaborative project begun during my residency in 2019 at the Weisman Art Museum, is a group of current and former erotic dancers who examine the present conditions of and utopian visions for stripping.

Like so many others, our activities and plans were turned upside down by the pandemic. Uncertain access to unemployment insurance, health concerns, job insecurity from strip clubs closing and re-opening and closing again were existential crises for members. But by the second half of 2020, members wanted to pick back up and share what they’d been through. Now, a year after it was originally planned, Issue 2 is available for purchase. Naturally the pandemic influenced the content of this issue, including expanding previously drafted articles about traveling for work and writing completely new ones about switching to online sources of income. But we also found some time and space for more visionary content like self-care tips for dancers and imagining future transfeminist technologies. And though we couldn’t have the big photoshoot we’d planned, we still found some ways to include dancer photos, art and images.

orange, pink, brown and off-white dots are arranged in a diamond pattern with curved, colored lines connecting them in various configurationsI’ve also been working on a series of drawings that diagram various relationships between artist, participant, artwork and audience as I experienced them in the project Das Fundbuero. I’m hoping to complete it as a printed multiple (apparently this is my new medium) by the end of 2021.

I do sincerely hope each of you are well, and I’d love to hear from you, too. I still hold out hope that we can learn new, better ways of being from our experiences in the pandemic, so if you’re looking for someone to share your resistance against “going back to normal”, I’m here for that.

Best Wishes,
Monica

Between Exit and Action

Just before leaving Germany in December, I visited the exhibition “Zwischen Aussteig und Aktion” (Between Exit and Action) in the Kunsthalle Erfurt, and I was struck again by this sense of familiarity that I often feel when it comes to the late GDR.

The show is an encyclopedic look at the underground art scene in Erfurt. There was work from the 60s and 70s, but much of it focused on the mid to late 1980s. I’ve seen some of this work before, but never so much in one place. The artworks were also accompanied by private photos and ephemera (posters, flyers, etc.), giving a fuller picture of activities at the time.

Looking at all of these things, I was struck by a sense of identification – this is work that I could have been making, events that my friends could have been organizing, practically at the very same time. I am, though, probably about 5-10 years younger than most of the artists in the Erfurt exhibition, so it may be better to say that these were things that I knew were happening in Toledo, of which I was on the fringes.

From approximately 1987-1991, I was part of the punk scene, which overlapped with a scene associated with the Collingwood Arts Center, a low-cost work/live space for artists. When a writer from the GDR talks about how he and his friends wore Italian army uniforms as a provocation against the militarized society of the GDR, I think of my friends wearing West and East German army coats and combat boots as a provocation of their own. When I see a short, quasi mystical video of women on a rooftop in Erfurt, I think about dressing in a bird mask and running through the snow in Forest Cemetery for my friend Bev’s film. But it’s not only the style of the people or the style of the work that resonates with me, it is also this sense of isolation – only half knowing what is going on beyond your region (GDR artists were likely much better informed than we were) – and the sense of knowing you were, in a way, stuck there: you had to do something where you were because there was no getting out.

This sense of identification breaks down, though, when confronted with the third floor of the exhibition, where a large installation by Gabi Stötzer looks at the surveillance and documentation of the Erfurt scene by the internal security forces of the GDR. No one ever paid that much attention to the goings-on of the underground scene in Toledo. Sure, an all-ages show might be busted occasionally for violating a city code, and an individual might be arrested for underage drinking or drug possession, but the content of what we were doing was never scrutinized, never truly deemed threatening. When my best friend and I danced and pantomimed sex on top of a Betsy Ross American flag while our friends’ band played a song about war for oil, no one was taking photographs that would go into a file. In fact, as far as I know, there was no one taking photographs at all.

It’s hard not to romanticize the danger that artists in the GDR lived under. I want to think that art can be dangerous to the status quo, that it can change the world. But it’s also hard to imagine what form of artistic production couldn’t be quickly assimilated and neutralized by the society in which I live. And I think that even if we couldn’t articulate it at the time, my friends and I felt this already in the 80s in Toledo. It added to our nihilism; just one more thing we did that didn’t really matter.

I was discussing this exhibition and my thoughts about it with a friend, and he brought up the relationship between activism and repression. His example was that queer activists don’t march in Berlin anymore, they go to Budapest. And one can argue that they are more needed in Budapest, but are they not needed in Berlin as well? In places that view themselves as “open societies”, we claim to value and respect diversity and difference, but this often seems to be expressed more through the acknowledgement created by niche-marketing than real political agency.

In the US we don’t have the benefit of regime change to create “critical distance” for examining past governmental policies. If systematic sexual and physical abuse of kids in juvenile detention in the 70s and 80s is revealed, it is explained as isolated cases, or as not knowing better at the time, and not seen as an inevitable outcome of our justice system. If we believe that our system is just, then these kids were there for just reasons, and we somehow see them as less victimized than the teenagers in a GDR Jugendhof. To do otherwise would implicate ourselves, would ask for some sort of action on our part, and what we should or could do about it isn’t very clear.

So perhaps what drives the activists to Budapest and the romanticization of artists in repressive societies is related: what we perceive as the relative clarity of the situation. The “enemy” is clearly defined, and we can say definitively that it is not us. With this comes a clear audience to whom your actions can be addressed – you know who is watching in both the positive and negative sense.

But a closer look, as always, complicates the situation: members of the Erfurt art underground could be both artist and informant, part of the opposition and part of the collaboration. We tend to look at those who collaborated as craven individuals and those who refused to collaborate as heroic, but how can we really understand what forced that decision? It is, perhaps, a disservice to assume that the choice was so clear, a half nostalgic, half self-righteous form of patronization from our privileged perspective.

I try to turn that perspective on myself now, to bring some sort of clarity to a world that seems to swim with nuance. Is there a clear moral choice that I am failing to make? So far there has been nothing to force my decision, and this situation seems unlikely to change. Revelations of NSA spying notwithstanding, I still feel as if no one is watching. If I continue to live as I have, I must also live with the realization that there will likely be no decisive moment, and that I will never have to be either a hero or a villain. I will always be both collaborator and dissident.