An interview with arts writer, Kathleen MacQueen, by guest writer and artist, William Chambers
Early in graduate school, I was researching Joseph Beuys and came across a reference to an article by Kathleen MacQueen published in Art Criticism. Unable to find this essay “Survival in a Post-Apocalyptic World: Joseph Beuy’s Performance and Pedagogy,” I emailed the author with fingers crossed. She kindly sent me a PDF. Later, when requested to do an interview with an art critic for my degree requirements, I considered a second request.
She said she would happily do a Skype interview, but was taking a break from writing art criticism. In our email exchange she wrote: “I will warn you, however, that I’ve pulled out of the game, so to speak, having experienced both a crisis of confidence and a degree of disillusionment in a field that has become highly professionalized and stratified.” Having always been a bit afraid of art critics, I found this statement to be fascinating and hoped it would presage a frank discussion. [This is an edited version of our conversation.]
William Chambers: To put my awareness of your writing in context: I have read your Beuys article, watched your talk at SVA, read some of your Shifting Connections blog posts, as well as your interviews in Bomb Magazine.
Kathleen MacQueen: You did your homework.
W: You were an artist first and are still one, I believe, but you also write. How do you see that combination?
K: That’s a difficult place to begin. I could take a simple approach and say it is all creative thinking and all cultural production; in other words, it’s all mining the world for meaning, then finding the discipline and inspiration for the form that best suits. My investigation may not be so much different than that of an artist or even an audience member. Both visual artists and art critics gauge the way they see the world against how someone else sees the world. My perspective against yours. Seeing where the intersections are. Seeing where the triggers are.
I think I have made use of art – both making visual art and writing about visual art – to formulate a certain philosophy of life. My thinking is most developed on the analytical side of things so maybe writing has ended up being the form best suited to me. Now I find myself going back to being creative but as a writer. The art criticism has been exceptionally important to me but it stopped working for a whole variety of reasons. What was I trying to accomplish with it? My motivations were multiple. I was trained in shaping perspective, a world view, and a way of expressing those experiences we have that aren’t easily distilled and that are therefore more challenging, more enigmatic, more demanding of us.
I was using art to help me find words. It wasn’t just about wanting to be part of a bigger world, part of a conversation, a network, but I also was trying to think “What is it that I want or need to say?” I am trying to learn about life. I am trying to find meaning in how I proceed through the world. I worked with visual art and now my writing is turning towards creative fiction. I recently finished a manuscript. And now I have to think how to put it out there in the world. Is the venue performance? Is the venue small press? How do I want to share it? It was important enough to write it but it is our job as cultural producers to share. This is the enormous challenge of both the art critic and the artist. As much as venues are proliferating, they also seem to be dammed up. How do we add our voice to the mix?
It would be interesting for you to reflect upon where you have been as an artist and where you might go as an artist with the MFA studies as the turning block, as the winch, so to speak. Will more venues actually open up to you? I am surprised by how limiting the opportunities are right now in arts writing. Perhaps as an artist it’s different.
W: When you talk about the multiplicity of venues is this the online world or other?
K: When I graduated from college there were no monographs for women artists and when I did my masters studio art degree 15 years later there were still no monographs. Now it seems that everybody has a monograph. Publishing and exhibition venues seem open to multiplicity whether it is gender, sex, race, cultural affinity, point of origin, or anything else. Yet, I hear again and again stories of sexism, outsiderism, marginalization…
Also, the MFA programs have proliferated. PHD programs have proliferated. When I began my doctoral degree fewer than a dozen students graduated with a dissertation on contemporary art. By the time I defended my dissertation, there were dozens and dozens. There are many talented individuals vying for very few rewards.
W: I have heard it argued that the reason why so many people are gravitating towards art is that they feel art is pure, or fulfilling something that humanity needs that isn’t fulfilled elsewhere in society. Do you think this is true?
K: Idealistically speaking perhaps, and yet, when you start to function you find that the system is as neocapitalist as any other system we have going. It is a celebrity-oriented system. The same 100 people get invited to do the lectures, panels, prizes, exhibitions, whatever. How many of these people are actually mentoring others? Are casting aside their opportunities to make space for someone else? This is an idea that has not caught on: to bring somebody along with you.
W: In your talk and in your writing you are trying to bring in artists from around the world with different perspectives in order to have a conversation; and it seems like this is coming from a deeper belief, which speaks to what you are saying. If you had cultural power what do you do with it?
K: Exactly. It is not just about motivation; you also have to take responsibility for the spaces you open or close. (Pause) I tried to do this with my blog. I kept it going for a long time. Unfortunately public relations have entered the art world. Galleries all have publicists and the press release plays a critical role. Art criticism is no longer respected as theory, or as analytical conversation. It counts instead as a sequential version of the press release.
W: Just a form of promotion?
K: Yes. After the review gets written then the quotable phrases get pulled out and highlighted by the galleries and on the artist’s websites, particularly coveted are those by the Times or Artforum. There are very few bonafide voices. The rest get lost. Sound-bites matter.
W: I am thinking of the American political conversation happening now and the neocapitalist press that is ignoring groups. Venues like Twitter are being used to distribute information, which in one sense works as resistance but it cannot have the depth of these conversations.
K: That’s my shortcoming. Those younger than I am exhibit stronger ingenuity. Part of my resistance to social media is a very personal story of trauma but I also stopped acquiring tools and being innovative. It takes a certain mindset. I’m focused towards the vitality of content but today one also needs to understand the vitality of distribution.
W: It is reasonable to recognize where your interests and skills lie. The SVA students at your talk seemed particularly fascinated by your “conversation fast” when you stepped back from speaking and using the Internet for six months. That idea of combining art, writing, and living and being as a person and having those things as a whole picture seems important.
K: I think so… [pause] The professionalization of the art world makes ambition a very important driving force. You have to be constantly visible. Let’s not think of ambition as wanting riches, money and prestige, but as participation. We can get caught up in drive and lose sight of motivation. We think about speaking and we forget about listening. The speech fast was a necessary moment of pulling back and taking account. But also regenerating forces and learning how to listen.
I thought it could be an amazing discipline to create an exercise where you eliminate one sense at a time in order to understand what it is like to operate in the world at a supposed deficit that in the end heightens the other senses. It would be incredible to go through that process. What I did was quite demanding and I was not ready to move onto the next stage.
W: It almost seems like blurring the lines between living and performance art like Marina Abramovic or someone who does this kind of endurance practice over time.
K: I thought of it more as how Tehching Hsieh lives. I did not achieve his level of poetry. What he has done is spectacular. The tasks he sets are pure and complete…at least from an outsider’s awareness. I do not know his actual experience; he may well feel inadequate. I felt really inadequate to the task. I am not one of those individuals who always keeps rising above incapacity, whether personal or social. I am very aware of my incapacities and I try to understand my relationship to them.
W: Which seems to be a sensitivity, which is often missing from art criticism. I have not gotten to read your book, Tactical Response; Art in the Age of Terror. I am very curious about what your thoughts are on this idea. People seem very concerned with artists bringing up trauma and making art that shows the horrors and whether that in fact perpetuates the horror. How do you have a conversation that is productive yet kind? What are your thoughts now after having some distance?
K: I was so immersed in that project as I was doing it and then so completely stepped away from it. I have experienced a certain degree of trauma myself and as a result I have a sort of Swiss-cheese memory but part of that question is quite interesting to me: how do you produce the work? It is exceptionally problematic because one can easily reproduce secondary trauma, either to the original subject or less frequently in the viewer, although it does happen. Thomas Hirschhorn, presents exceptionally gruesome imagery that can really trigger some difficult setbacks for some viewers, including me.
It’s not an easily argued position but, by not imagining that you have the answers or can present the story, you can open up passages for the telling of that story. Each artist or writer has to find his or her own solutions to that problem but it’s important to keep asking yourself: am I trying to be the mediator of the story, am I trying to tell it, or am I finding ways to open up the passage of the story so that there isn’t only one who speaks?
W: Which is a much more responsive way to interact in the world…
K: You have to take responsibility for your subject. That includes realizing that you only see a minute portion of what is going on, so that any gesture has to incorporate the potential for failure and buffer it. The surgeon does not invite the world into his surgery. He takes responsibility for his patient and the wound that is going to be created. He or she brings in the people who are focused and trained for the task.
We as artists are taking on a more complicated task because we do not know the training, the skill level and sensitivity of our audience and yet we have to respect it and give it a certain degree of trust. Those stories have to be told but not always directly. As for the fictional series I have just completed, I needed badly to tell a story and found I couldn’t tell it. When I finished writing, I knew I hadn’t accomplished my task, but I had managed something else. In reading, we often fill in between the lines of the writing and so I told the impact of the story rather than the story itself. We do not need to open the wound to tell people how serious it is. We just have to register the impact.
W: It is the difference between trying to muscle our way through versus something that is more like dance, something more subtle…
K: Dance and music are very good analogies; visual art too conveys information and experience without language. Even when using language, there are other ways of conveying experience without being denotational. You can be connotational. We don’t have to be didactic about life’s experiences, we just have to be vital.
W: It seems like words have their limits.
K: Everything has its limits. The speech fast told me this. There is a refrain in my manuscript about singing hallelujah when you are writing a requiem. For me, this is it: when you use trauma and catastrophe you have to work your way towards singing hallelujah even when writing a requiem.
W: Which is again the living and the doing. In the artists that you have chosen to write about there is a strong theme of social justice, participatory, and performative art. Why does that speak to you? What is it that those people are doing that is so important?
K: Society is so unfair right now. In any individual’s life span social change can feel exaggerated but the most fundamental social change I have witnessed during my life is the inequality and distribution of wealth. This was already apparent in the late 1980s. It can be even more impactful than terror and catastrophe because it is diffused throughout the entire planet. We seem fundamentally unwilling to be custodial guardians of the resources for this earth but to think of the earth as bearing resources to exploit is unconscionable and unsustainable.
Senior year I lived off campus with two amazing housemates. One was a photographer who was remarkably tuned in to the world around her in ways that I was not. The other was Pamela Yates who was already an activist. She became a remarkable filmmaker and continues to this day to be a social justice advocate. I wished to be that kind of individual but already sensed I was not. So I had to balance the ambition to make a difference in the world with the more contemplative sensitivity that is my strength. I am attracted to the kinds of artists who help me experience the world in ways I cannot.
W: In terms of cultural production, art criticism has a potential for being at a meta-level shaping the conversation above the artist drones.
K: It can be and has been. I think it is less so now. Artists are the ones that are more often listened to now. Alfredo Jaar, Hans Haacke, Krzysztof Wodiczko. People listen to them. They became public spokespersons. But there’s a younger generation: like Laura Poitras. She will speak and her words will be considered rather than those of the critics who speak about her work. Critics – at their best – keep ideas fluid and moving and perhaps complicate the conversation. Wayne Koestenbaum is exquisite at this kind of writing. There are the Judith Butlers of the world… Jacques Ranciere, Jean-Luc Nancy – theorists and philosophers who are tuning into art as they think through their questions. They mine the meaning of creation. Foucault was always there; he did this so beautifully that it meshed both visual and verbal languages. In my opinion, they are the ones creating a circulating meta-language that is to be respected.
W: Personally as an artist in the social practice end of things, reading the theorists has helped bolster my intuitive sense.
K: …a sense of belonging.
W: Yes, and it lends legitimacy to work I felt compelled to do anyway. I especially appreciate Grant Kester’s “Conversation Pieces.” But the conundrum is not to let theory drive the work.
K: I think of it as an exchange, and also a prompt, and also a dig. In writing, I want to put pressure on you to think more fully about how you engage both with art and also the world around you. Because you do not want your work to be just a “feel good” experience. To experience art that leaves us unsettled is to think, reflect and consider doing one or two things differently.
Artists sometimes have an enormous impact on individuals and sometimes very little. We need to value the “very little” as well as the “very big.” This is missing in the art world’s economy of prestige. If you are not in the top 100, you are no one. This undervalues the capability of the 99% of cultural producers who work for few rewards. I got involved in art, culture, and education because I wanted to be part of a fight against conventionality. Instead I ended up fighting the forces of elitism within a world I had previously admired.
W: Perhaps this current system negates the experience of art making in that personal way where it transforms lives. That is why many artists do what they do – to change our psyches. You can’t quantify that in the same way.
K: We do not operate well in fixed systems. We are stifled and suffocate. And yet what has happened? The single biggest challenge an artist faces now is to maintain one’s integrity within the hierarchical system that has enveloped the cultural field.
W: What I am most interested in is the intimate conversation that I have with strangers…not some grand scheme. For the “Service Station” I ask: “’What’s Missing’ in the world?” People tell me what they think, we are talking, and then we are embroidering together. That counters any of the attention-getting strategies I might have.
K: It also draws out the unexpected. But within the small town context where you work, how do you present your work and not just have it received as an oddity? There is a huge contrast between the appearance of your work and the exterior environment where it plays out. That works for and against it at the same time.
W: I am still struggling with that. I use “oddity” as a tool; it’s how I get people involved. “The Service Station” makes use of embroidery on an extended washroom towel, which is a subtle and ordinary gesture. But your question is good because in documenting the work, it is much easier to highlight the outlandish. But is the camera necessary? Do I need to recreate the work for the wall, for example?
K: That is something to keep thinking about. If I find myself in Lancaster before your move, I would love to say hello.
W: I would love that. This conversation has been very enjoyable.
K: I appreciate it: usually the tides are turned and I am asking the questions. Thank you for the opportunity to reflect in a different direction.
William Chambers is an interdisciplinary performance artist with an MFA from Mass College of Art. He teaches art and lives in central Massachusetts, making interactive installations in the service of engaged conversation. His first solo museum show will take place in June of 2017. View his projects at: william-chambers.com.