Martha Wilson‘s visit to UW-Madison was a wonderfully enriching and inspiring experience! On Wednesday, April 22, we screened Wilson’s early video performance work, as well as rare footage from her proto riot grrrl conceptual art band DISBAND. Following the screening, we discussed Wilson’s work in anticipation of her visit. On Thursday, April 23, Martha arrived in Madison and spent the afternoon visiting graduate and undergraduate students’ art studios and having lunch with students. Thursday evening, Wilson presented a lively and engaging public lecture, “Staging the Self: Transformations, Invasions, and Pushing Boundaries,” discussing her artwork as well as the history of contemporary performance art and artist’s books as archived by Franklin Furnace. During the lecture she also sang a DISBAND song, “The End”! Following the lecture, Martha had dinner with faculty from Art, Art History, English, Design Studies, and Theatre. Friday afternoon, after more studio visits, Martha presented a workshop in which 12 women wrote a song together! You can read the lyrics to the song, with the working title “Zombie Walker,” here. Martha said that DISBAND will perform the song at some point in the future, which is very exciting!
As a performance artist, conceptual artist, video/image/text artist, curator, theorist, archivist, feminist, and founder of Franklin Furnace, Martha Wilson’s significance for the fields of performance studies, visual culture, gender studies, cultural studies, the avant-garde, curatorial studies, and contemporary art cannot be overstated – Martha Wilson is an absolute force!
In the 1970s she emerged as a major video and performance artist, making innovative work that challenged social conventions and increased the visibility of women in the art world. Her video work interrogates the role of mediation in constructing embodied subjectivity, and her photography explores the performativity of gender and sexuality, playing with a spectrum of femininity and masculinity in a continuously multiplying portfolio of possible selves. Wilson’s playfully irreverent work with feminist, queer, and gender performance was pioneering and absolutely foundational to the history of performance art and conceptual art.
Wilson also co-founded DISBAND, a no-wave and proto-riot-grrrrrl conceptual art band. DISBAND’s performances seemed to carve out a temporary queer feminist utopia within the downtown New York art scene, a space were the rules could be thrown out the window and women could get together and make art on their own terms.
Wilson’s work is collected by MoMA (Museum of Modern Art in NYC) and elsewhere, and she has received many awards including the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship, Yoko Ono Courage Award for the Arts, a Bessie Award, and an Obie Award.
In addition to her art practice she is committed to documenting and historicizing contemporary art practices as a scholar, writer, curator, archivist, and gallery director. An important force for arts programming and social engagement, she founded the organization Franklin Furnace in 1976, which champions avant-garde and experimental art practices and remains an important locus of arts programming currently supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Wilson’s explorations of identity and embodiment in visual culture and mass media continue to inspire investigation of subjectivity, relationality, and performance in everyday life, calling attention to and disrupting social scripts of gender and sexuality.
The series of events surrounding Martha Wilson’s visit was presented by the Art + Scholarship A.W. Mellon Workshop with generous support from the Center for the Humanities, the Associated Students of Madison, and the Arts Institute, and co-sponsored by the Art Department, the Art History Department, the Communication Arts Department, the English Department, the Gender & Women’s Studies Department, and the Center for Visual Cultures.
View more photos here