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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What’s Cooking in the Furnace?

by William Lynch

Martha Wilson. Photo: Nina Mouritzen
From October 11—13, 2012, BAM will present Brooklyn Bred, a series of programs curated by Martha Wilson featuring Coco Fusco, Jennifer Miller, and Dread Scott. Wilson operates Franklin Furnace Archive, a short walk from the BAM Fisher Building, around the corner and down Hanson Place.

Franklin Furnace, the storied former art and performance space, was created in 1976 by Wilson as a repository for artists’ books and a presentation space for other time-based media such as installation and performance art. In 1993, its artist book collection—one of the largest in the world—was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. The loft space on Franklin Street in TriBeCa was sold in 1998 and Franklin Furnace moved to the Financial District where it remained until 2004, when it moved to Fort Greene, becoming neighbors with BAM, which is around the time I met Martha. We became instant friends.

Martha is an artist and a smartly-dressed and coiffed woman with an asymmetrical gray hairdo that usually sports a shock of bright red; she wears the most fascinating outfits and eyeglasses, making herself a style icon of the avant-garde. I caught up with Martha electronically recently and was able to ask her about her work in preparation for the programs at the BAM Fisher Building.

William Lynch: I must say I love your organization’s mission “to make the world safe for avant-garde art.” How’s it going, the mission that is?

Martha Wilson: Franklin Furnace is fulfilling its mission by mounting programs that face both forward and backward, creating the future and documenting its past. For example, the Franklin Furnace Fund creates the future by making annual awards to emerging performance artists whose work changes cultural discourse; this year’s peer review panel selected 16 artists to receive grants of $5,000 each. Since 1985 the Fund has helped launch the careers of Jo Andres, Tanya Barfield, Jibz Cameron aka Dynasty Handbag, Lenora Champagne, Patty Chang, Papo Colo, Brody Condon, Nicolas Dumit Estevez, Karen Finley, John Fleck, Coco Fusco, Kate Gilmore, Pablo Helguera, Donna Henes, Murray Hill, Holly Hughes, Liz Magic Laser, Taylor Mac, Robbie McCauley, Jennifer Miller, Naeem Mohaiemen, Rashaad Newsome, Clifford Owens, Pope. L, Dread Scott, Pamela Sneed, Fiona Templeton, and Diane Torr, among 258 other bewitching fund recipients.

The Unwritten History Project documents Franklin Furnace’s past. The goal of this program is to make all of our archival event records accessible online. We just published on our website 6,000 images documenting our second decade(1986 to 1995), as well as contributing them to ARTstor, an online database used by 1500 colleges and universities around the world. These images join 4,000 images from our first decade for a total of 10,000 images intended to embed the value of ephemeral art practice in art and cultural history. So that’s real progress in making the world safe for avant-garde art!

Tell us about what originally motivated you to create Franklin Furnace. Did you succeed in your mission? Have your thoughts evolved? How has being a “virtual institution” changed your work?

Franklin Furnace has transformed three times during its 36-year history to adapt to changing social, political, and economic shifts. For 20 years, from 1976 to 1996, Franklin Furnace was a presenting organization located on Franklin Street in Lower Manhattan. But during our second decade, the “culture wars” over artists’ right to freedom of expression were fought.

Franklin Furnace was right in the middle of that fight, so viewing the Internet as the next free zone for artistic expression, and as the value of our loft appreciated, we decided to sell it and “go virtual.” Then as the turn of the millennium approached, we realized that the record of what Franklin Furnace had presented could be a research resource of unparalleled value to art and cultural history, so we started preserving and digitizing the slides, photographs, video, press releases, announcement cards, posters, and other materials comprising our physical archives. Now we both give grants to emerging artists so they may create contemporary avant-garde artworks in other organizations’ venues, on the street or online; and document this work to make it accessible worldwide. If you had told me three decades ago that Franklin Furnace would become both a funder and a research resource I would not have believed you.

Franklin Furnace is one of those legendary institutions embedded in our memories as being on the front lines during the culture wars of the 80s and 90s. Tell us what it was like to be in the midst of such hostilities. Has the climate for the avant-garde arts changed significantly for better or worse?

The most difficult part of the culture wars was the economic drag it placed on the organization. For 10 years, from 1985 to 1995, we were on NEA grant reimbursement, which means Franklin Furnace raised the money to present its programs, then submitted a copy of each check stapled to the invoice and found out later what costs were allowable and which costs were not based on the application budget written usually two years before. It was a nightmare, but we never wavered from our belief that artists have been picturing sexuality for 30,000 years and whatever laws Senator Jesse Helms got passed, we were not going to tell artists that they could not take sexuality as a legitimate subject of art.

Nowadays, with the advent of the Internet, artists are concerned more about surveillance than sexuality. For example, a collaboration by Joshua Kinberg and Yuri Gitman selected for Franklin Furnace's 2004­—05 season marked the convergence of the body and technology. 

Their Magicbike is a mobile WiFi hotspot that provides free Internet access wherever it travels. A custom-designed printing device mounted on the bike prints spray-chalk text messages from web users to the surfaces of the street, overlapping public art with techno-activism by creating a montage of the community wireless movement, bicycle culture, street demonstrations, and contemporary art. Theory became practice on August 30, 2004, when the Magicbike being ridden by Kinberg in preparation for protest at the Republican National Convention in New York City was impounded by the police on the grounds that text messages being printed on the street would deface public property and were therefore subject to laws intended to prohibit graffiti. (Kinberg’s collaborator, Yuri Gitman, was on the scene with a camera as the arrest took place. The court case went forward, clearing Kinberg; however, the Magicbike was “lost” while in the possession of the NYPD.)

Were you surprised when Joe Melillo asked you to take part in curating the very first season of the BAM Fisher Building? How did you happen to decide upon Coco Fusco, Jennifer Miller, and Dread Scott and what draws you to their work?

I was thrilled when I got the call from Joe! We have been colleagues on the downtown scene for decades but had never worked together. Because Franklin Furnace had made a commitment to Brooklyn and BAM has been a cultural beacon for 150 years, right away I decided the artists I selected should be Brooklyn based. Also I decided the artists I selected should be Franklin Furnace Fund recipients, artists who are changing cultural discourse through their work. If you come to the Brooklyn Bred performances, you will see what I mean!

Tell us about other aspects of Franklin Furnace that our readers may be unaware of.  For example, you mentioned making annual grants to artists. How can each of us support the avant-garde in the broadest way?

BAM is a big organization, at the top of the artistic food chain; but there are loads of little organizations in Brooklyn and across the five boroughs that are doing the important work of giving artists their first opportunity to show in public so that one day they may show at BAM. On Saturday, October 6, I impersonated Barbara Bush to deliver the keynote speech for Art in Odd Places, a festival taking place across 14th Street in Manhattan, designed to put performance artists in direct contact with witting and unwitting audience members in an array of social settings from the Meat Packing District to Stuyvesant Town to Avenue D. We can support the avant-garde by pausing in our busy tracks to see events that are happening on the street or in public parks, and to engage with the ideas the artists are presenting. These ideas do indeed change the way we think! For example, the Italian Futurists’ concept that the future has value has become the mantra that progress is our most important product.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell in preparation for the performances?

No, Dread Scott, Jennifer Miller, and Coco Fusco would kill me if I divulged their plans!  But I can tell you that each performance will be unique and may change the way you see the world.

I look forward to seeing you at the performances. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

You can learn more about Franklin Furnace by going to  

William Lynch is director of leadership gifts at BAM. 

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