Artist Naomi Fisher and A.L. Steiner talk about their respective commitments in favor of better laboral justice for art workers in relation to the influence of feminism and activism on their own practices.
Naomi Fisher: While I was preparing for this interview, I was thinking about our similar trajectories and the ways in which one is looked at as a “woman” artist. We are both female-identified artists, we both grew up in Miami, and a lot of our early work dealt with women’s bodies. I first became aware of your work in a show you did in Miami in the early 2000s in which you presented intimate portraits of your partner at the time, Layla [Childs]. Declaring “This is my real life, we are lesbians” was radical; things then weren’t as openly queer as they appear today, but the radicality of the work was obscured by the focus on the body.
I’ve always thought of my work as activist-oriented and I know your work has become explicitly activist over the course of your career. It made me think of a story you told at the recent Culture Declares Emergency meeting about an exhibition you participated in: the curators and director who invited you were looking for “naked lesbian utopia” and weren’t so happy when you gave them “fuck the oil industry,” an expectation that highlights the dichotomy in which it is acceptable to fight for liberation if it’s sexy, but not otherwise.
A.L. Steiner: Thanks for starting at the beginning of the genesis of who we are, who we were: artists identified as female bodies, identifying queerness within the environments surrounding us. Twenty years later, I’m still facing the problem of “this part is ok, but that part isn’t” a central question concerning what capitalocentrism is willing to allow and place value on in art.
Being an activist, being outspoken on behalf of women, especially in representation, is often called being “aggressive,” or being too something. I’ve been called “too feminist.”
NF: Spanning the time I’ve known you, another marker is when I invited you to speak at the Bas Fisher Invitational (BFI), and you brought K8 Hardy as a surprise guest. This was before W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) existed and I was exhilarated to hear that you and K8 were drawing attention to how many artists were not actually getting paid for their work with institutions and that you were arguing for the normalization of an artist fee. Positing how to create awareness about the discrepancy between art that circulates within the art market and art which doesn’t. It took years for W.A.G.E. to be created and then to invent a structure for certifying institutions. I want to hear more about how this nascent idea became truly pioneering and game-changing. We’re now at a moment in time when it’s no longer rare for someone to ask if there is an artist fee. You’re no longer viewed as someone asking for charity, but rather, viewed as an art worker.
ALS: The conversations that led to the formation of W.A.G.E. circa 2008 created something concrete: questions about and engagement with labor, the arts economy, and the environment created within the cultural sector. How much of this environment is about care, and how much is it about competition, inequity, exploitation, and destruction? Those questions are part and parcel of all sectors of production. We know that the system is set up to financialize and capitalize in totality, relegating care to an invisible and non-existent place at the bottom of the pyramid scheme: the unpaid, unmonetized part of the cake. I worked in the nonprofit world, then in the publishing world, and then making artwork for exhibitions and teaching art. I was participating and looking at those systems of participation in a detailed way—there’s nothing more to it than that.
I want to hear your thoughts about growing up and living in Miami and how it intersects with what we’re doing in our lives and work now, things to me that aren’t separate. You weren’t only excited about W.A.G.E. because it was new. Obviously, you’d been thinking about these systems too.
NF: I think we’re all aware there are discrepancies, but we feel paralyzed in how we can act. The incredible legacy of W.A.G.E. is that it has given people a way to act, and new innovations like WAGENCY have expanded it further. One of my biggest accomplishments as an artist who runs an artist-run space that is a two-person organization with a budget under $100,000 a year is that we still got W.A.G.E.-certified. The amounts required to pay as artist-fees to maintain certification when you’re that small of an organization are not that big, which is sad, but so many organizations still don’t even pay the minimum. Getting a tiny organization certified by W.A.G.E. showed other organizations it was possible. We were the first organization in Florida to do this, and we effectively shamed larger organizations because if they had bigger budgets and still weren’t paying artist fees, that was a big problem. BFI has so little money, and we’re still prioritizing artist fees. Creating a structure to act—to become certified by being audited—worked.
ALS: The key in that analysis is the word “act.” The idea of being active versus being passive is really difficult because it creates a false dichotomy—that a person is either a professionalized activist or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, inactive. I think what you’re describing is a way not only to certify BFI for instance but to have conversations. Giving language and an ability to have a conversation in your life with someone who’s in the same sector, the same field of labor. Being an activist, being outspoken on behalf of women, especially in representation, is often called being “aggressive,” or being too something. I’ve been called “too feminist.” There’s certain places and times when it’s ok, like when you’re part of a panel discussion, for instance. But it’s not ok in everyday life, except in virtual spaces where people are constantly “speaking their minds” into commodified cyberspace. Activism for me will always be IRL [in real life]. I’ve removed myself from social media because I depend on other types of interactions at this juncture. Which is why I’m not sure that exhibitions are my priority anymore. It’s more, for me, about what’s happening in spaces. Most of the time, it’s the everyday. I’m not that different of a person when I’m interacting with someone I know or someone I just met. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
NF: I think it is…
ALS: But it’s being assertive. Sure, there’s definitely a downside to that because there’s extremely effective right-wing activism, for instance. We have to understand the destructive and oppressive intentions of humans as activists, too. So, for me, activism in itself isn’t an inherently good thing. I guess it’s just a mode of being.
NF: The time from hearing W.A.G.E. being discussed in its nascent form to its becoming an actual, actionable, able-to-certify organization took years, right?
ALS: It was about five or six years of work that nobody was really interested in doing—tedious and seemingly boring work to most artists.
NF: Did you read that headline that the Marciano Foundation Completely shut down after their staff tried to unionize? Labor organizing isn’t always effective in a way that explicitly benefits the people trying to make change. In this case, the entire staff lost their jobs.
ALS: Forms of solidarity and equity are the complete antithesis of the late-capitalist agenda; they are unacceptable in a system that aims to eliminate all planetary life. It’s beyond monstrous.
We know that movements of solidarity are severely punished, erased, stopped. There’s an empathic disconnect in the human-versus-nature paradigm. When we talk about climate and environment in terms of corporate destruction, my questions are focused on what tools we can develop that aren’t rhetorical. I think that’s what your questions about W.A.G.E. are about: how to develop rhetoric, then a platform, then pathways for interaction and mechanisms that provide resistance and change.
NF: W.A.G.E. is an endeavor you knew would take time, and it was ok that it took time. Now we’re in this crisis mode with the environment and it doesn’t feel like we have time. I feel impotent when I try to act and when I see a lifetime of work and activism that has resulted in the status quo politics. I’m questioning what is and isn’t effective at this point. Perhaps we don’t have answers, but we keep trying to find them by opening new questions. At BFI, we’re working on projects that we think can get outside the art world, get people to fall in love with nature in a time right before another major election in which Florida is considered a ‘swing’ voting state. We are joining forces with others, like Bridge Initiative and the Everglades Foundation. This is how I’m focusing my activism. It’s subtle. I want to be more radical, but I’m trying to think “what is actually going to make a change?” Am I right, am I wrong? I don’t know.
ALS: This is the question around individual action versus group action, too. How much can we rely on individual action and thought? How much can we do in solidarity with one another? And how will destructive multinationals be forced to radically transition or be eliminated? How, when, and where do we use our energy? As Audre Lorde said—and I’m paraphrasing—the current system makes you work to earn bread money, but doesn’t allow much else beyond survival, for most. All-out global human survival is part of some kind of everyday questioning—it’s a very violent, strange, and confusing time. It’s a time of great loss, of course.
NF: It’s interesting that this conversation is for Terremoto, in the context of Mexico and Latin America, which have been in a greater state of emergency for much longer. I think people look at the United States like: “Really, it took Trump to make you realize that America was a problem?”
ALS: I’d surmise that most people who identify as U.S. American don’t think the USA is a problem.
A close look at compulsory systems is absolutely necessary, but we’re not afforded that opportunity because patriarchal systems demand that we did not look closely and that we obey and detach. Understanding occurs within the bodily, which goes back to your original question: using the body to understand that which lies outside of itself. “Oh, these women show bodies”, but actually no, it’s a much larger discussion that we’re still trying to have.
NF: When I was a kid, my dad was a botanist and we lived in Singapore for a year. I went with him on expeditions, so I had a firsthand experience of what rainforest destruction actually was and what it means for plants to go extinct. Certain botanical gardens go about collecting prior to deforestation with great urgency, which in itself is a colonial act—the preservation of land that’s also being destroyed by the same people. I was the weirdo 13-year-old whose every research report was about rainforest destruction. That is the core of where my artwork came from, but I stopped screaming about it. I find it interesting that my work has not been included in topics of nature and science, often just seen as female body. As a woman, it’s assumed that I don’t have any scientific knowledge. In my work, a plant is seen as pretty and not part of this larger discussion about what nature is or isn’t.
And here we are. Proselytizing globally through our megaphones.
ALS: That’s part of the story I told you about when the museum was ok with the body stuff, but not the oil extraction stuff. I spent part of two hours talking about why the oil company was in the piece. That felt important to me to assert, but it was a tiny part of the discussion. I said, “You’re worried about the company not liking this, but do you know what they’re doing in Los Angeles?” The answer was “Oh yeah, we have panels about fracking all the time.” I was like, “No, the specifics of this one project that’s about to happen, that’s about to affect the land in a more dire way…”—and this was before the wildfires were as severe as they are now, this was in 2014—“...these 200 new wells that the company wants to drill in La Habra are an ecological disaster that’s going to happen very close to us, not to mention what happened in Baldwin Hills...” And they responded, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, ok, ok, ok, yes, these issues are important, but we don’t want to upset them, and really, do you think your one piece of video art can actually make anything change?”. Meanwhile, the drilling of the 200 new wells was later cancelled due to activism plus a lack of financial incentive at the time. Most people in LA know little-to-nothing about it all, except for those who are, or were, going to be affected.
I don’t have a lot of hope or reverence for humans, nor for our self-referential claim to intelligence and consciousness. Like you said, we’re trying desperately to save the forests while we’re chopping down trees. If we keep the conversations going, does that keep us basically alive? You can’t live in a dream world where this isn’t happening. We all live in the settler-colonialist death spiral together—whether we like it, or know it, or not.
NF: One of the things I despise in Christianity is the idea that God will judge me and forgive me. It takes accountability away from the individual or groups that commit acts that have negative effects.
ALS: Being absolved of your sins…atonement…
NF: I wonder if shaming is a good or bad thing, or if it matters if it’s effective?
ALS: Right now we’re witnessing grotesque versions of patriarchal caricatures. Like you said, people were shocked at this US president shit clown…but we’re just seeing a cartoon version of the thing that’s always been there.
Is shame a thing that helps people atone or become responsible? I think wanting accountability or transparency can be helpful but isn’t necessarily always so. In the U.S., we live in a culture that has used culpability and shame to create the largest carceral nation that the planet has ever seen. Ultimately, shame is reliant on those who wield the power of punishment.
I’m thinking about the stupidity of living in a country that was founded on a revolution adverse to monarchy, where the solution was to colonize, commit genocide, and partake in human trafficking, slavery, and ecocide. This is all couched as an experiment of human enlightenment, freedom, egalitarianism, and agency. We’re told we are “exceptional.”
NF: It wasn’t “I’m leaving to create a better system,” it was more like “I’m leaving because I’m not the King, and I want to be the King,” “I want to be the exploiter.” Not, “No one should be exploited.”
ALS: We’re living in a non-liberatory state, and we want to find liberation inside of this model. These are the big questions: shame and transparency, accountability and care? They all revolve around the impulses that created this thing that we proselytize globally. And here we are. Proselytizing globally through our megaphones.
November 10, 2019