interview by kristen brooke schleifer
Julie Laffin with Dolores Wilber, The Red Gown Perpendicular, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, June 1996. Photo (c) Christine DiThomas. All rights reserved.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in central Wisconsin; it was a lower-middle-class place, and everyone in my family made things. No one thought about it as "creativity"; we just madestuff, you know? And I think that took the pressure off; the simple act of making things came very naturally to me, gratefully. But there was also this rebellion against it on my part. When I got to college at University of Illinois at Chicago in the early 1980s, a lot of my work was very installation-based and performative. At that point, I felt a strong affinity with the whole movement toward the de-materialization of the art object, and against the commodification of art. I was really the only undergrad I knew of at UIC who was doing performances. There was a theater department, but I felt disconnected from that; I took one class there and really didn't like it.
That's interesting, because I always thought it was the other way around: that the making of the dresses came first and the performances came later.
Well, there has always been this back-and-forth, because in high school, I took art classes and made paintings. I didn't think of myself as an artist--once again, it was just something I enjoyed. Then later on I started showing up in plays, and by the end of high school I was much more involved with theater than with visual art. So I decided I was going to come to Chicago and study theater, and I ended up at this place that's no longer in existence, called the St. Nicholas School of Theater Arts. I studied Sanford Meisner technique--which is like Method acting--there, with some disciples of Meisner who had studied with him in New York. And then soon after that, I was in the worst play that Steppenwolf Theatre ever produced.
Shall it remain nameless?
It was called Savages. And I was a naked Indian princess.
I was. It was directed by John Malkovich, and Glenne Headly, Laurie Metcalf, and Tom Irwin were in it. They were a very established cutting-edge theater company at that time, and they were looking for extras. Anyway, after that play, I realized I just didn't have what it took to be an actor. It was so clear to me. I didn't have the drive, I didn't have the ensemble mentality--it felt like such the wrong art form for me. So I went to college--first for art, and then communications--but I just kept taking film classes, and that became my first visual art practice beyond high school painting class. I made a lot of 16-mm films, but interestingly enough I ended up being in all my films! Then I segued over to the photography department, and guess what--I was in all my photos.
We're sensing a theme, here.
Yeah--and then in sculpture class, I was in all my installations. So there was always this performance thing happening. But I really have the soul of a painter, of a visual artist. The idea of going to an audition, a cattle call? I just can't imagine anything more heinous. And I was a solitude worker; I worked by myself. So I decided I had to perform, because performing was extremely important to me. But I wasn't a very literary person; my writing could never rise to the visuals I could make. So I ditched most of the text in my work, and if it text did appear, it was very simple: one word, or one repetitive phrase, or some text made visual. Meanwhile, most performance artists at that time were writers and storytellers--
Right. A lot of my friends do that kind of work, and I love them; I wish I could do that. But I can't even fool myself for 10 minutes thinking I could make that work. I can make images, though. So OK, now I've got this problem: I want to perform and I want to make images. But film is this whole photomechanical process I find really laborious. Photography seemed much more immediate, while video required all this editing I didn't want to engage in, although now I'm getting interested in that again. But there was something about making clothing that had always been there. It went away during college and graduate school, but it reappeared not long after that. I just started wanting to make clothes, and it turned into these excessive, clothing-object things.
Why did you choose to focus on the dress, specifically?
I think the dress has been so important, and so pivotal, to me because it's this image that most people would never mistake as a masculine image. To me, the dress always says "female," at least in our culture. So it was a way to get it straight right up front: we're going to talk about women now.
Do you wear dresses often in daily life?
Rarely! Almost never. In fact, if my performance persona has something to do with the over-construction of femininity, I'm at the other end of the spectrum in daily life.
Yes; it occurs to me I've never even seen you in a skirt when you're not performing. Not to psychoanalyze you in print, but I'm wondering if, growing up, the dress was something you found oppressive or weird or didn't suit you, and it somehow came back into your work as this thing you wrestle with--literally.
I do physically wrestle with the dresses; that's totally true. But I think on some level--and this is going to sound really strange--clothing is not that important to me. It's the focus of my entire life, but it's not important. It's hard to explain. Maybe, because there's such a specific intention behind the wearing of these dresses, I don't feel I have to reenact that persona in everyday life. But there's definitely an interest in the notion of glamour. Whatever the drive is that leads us to desire the glamorous is very interesting to me; it's this aspiration toward something that personally feels so unattainable.
That notion of glamour also relates to the excessive scale of your dresses, because there's just so much fabric; there's the physical richness of all that material.
It is really excessive.
Excessive and oppressive, in the way that you as the performer get tangled up in it, or try to get yourself in and out of it.
Definitely. But what is it about human beings that makes us lust after this thing that seems so ephemeral and unattainable? Advertising is also kind of interesting to me for that reason. How does that plug into our desires? And what are we willing to give up to have that glamour? That's really freaky to me.
At what point did you decide to mess around with the scale of the dresses?
Up through 1993, I was doing cabaret work, wearing simple little dresses made out of everyday, ordinary stuff like Hefty bags and masking tape. I would get up and do my 15 minutes; there was usually little or no text, but there was some event or task that happened and usually some sort of visual transformation. Then in 1994 I got an Illinois Arts Council grant, and suddenly I had a 60-foot dress that weighed 100 lbs., and traveled all over the country. It was like a whole new universe. For one thing, I left performing in a space and started performing outdoors. Actually, there was this period when I would start out in a space and then leave, and hope the audience would come with me. But the scale shift was really about economics.
What's the role of function versus non-function in the dresses?
Well, my dresses have a job to do. They can't just sit on a hanger and look pretty. A lot of my early gowns were polyester because they could be indestructible--they hung out of windows, and cars drove over them, and the elements worked on them. Those earlier panné velvet dresses would sit in water puddles overnight, and get really moldy and funky. I would wash them out and repair them, refangle them for some other piece, or recycle them into something else. However, I then had this disposal issue--I had all this polyester stuff that would never biodegrade. That became really problematic. So now I'm working mostly with silk, even though it can be fragile, because it can't take a lot of sunlight. The last dress I made is 55 feet tall; it's a couple hundred yards of silk, and it's the most amazing color. I shopped all over for that material, and ended up going to New York to get it, because I found this bloody red, red fabric that I had to have.
In the past, you've referred to the 60-foot black velvet dress you made for Various States of D(u)ress as a mourning dress. Thinking of other works like Long For, Over, and Kiss Piece, there are these notions of memory, desire, and loss that come up all the time. Is grief a conscious theme in your work?
Definitely. And that really came up in the pieces I did for the show at Evanston Art Center this past June. In fact, when the curator, John Brunetti, asked me to finalize my conceptual statement about the work, I realized both pieces, Yield and Snag, were so much about loss. It didn't even occur to me until then that they were connected. But I do think a lot of the work I've done is about the loss of self in a relationship.
So let's talk about Yield and Snag.
Yield came from this place of thinking about aging: my own aging, the transformation of my body, and the changes I'm going through in my life. For instance, the fact that my hair has changed so much now.
I was going to ask about that, because when I first saw you perform at Riverside Arts Center, in 1998, you had very, very short black hair.
Yeah. I don't have any dark hair left.
But it's so long and so white, it's really striking. And when I watch you perform now, I'm very mindful of the symbolic relationship of hair and memory.
Hair and memory really do go together. You know, I did a performance at Artemisia in which I cut off all my hair; I used these tiny cuticle scissors to take off one lock at a time. So over three hours, my hair went from long and black to this little nubby, spiky, white stuff. That piece came about because my friend had cancer. The black hair dye is really toxic, and I decided I was no longer going to jeopardize my health in the name of beauty. And when I did the piece, women understood it instantly. People were crying; I was crying. I don't think I've ever cried during a performance before, but I cried during this one, because I saw my entire youth flash before me. And I had this thought: "No one will ever love me now." Because I no longer had this hair, this thing that signified beauty for me, or a certain youthful persona. And while I was cutting off every lock of my hair, I saw the face of every man I had ever been involved with. It was a slow death of some kind, the death of my old self.
In front of all those people.
Yes. And when I was finished, it was so cathartic! As soon as my hair was gone, I looked up and started to laugh really hard. And these women just descended upon me; they were holding onto me, and we were laughing and crying, and I thought, "Omigod, what the hell happened here?" And now those people from Artemisia are all my friends. It was like this weird rite of passage. But Yield is dealing with loss of self, loss of love, loss of beauty, loss of youth, loss of femininity. Being a woman, we have to go through all this stuff. It's awful! And now I'm in my 40s--and I'm not that old, I guess--and I'm faced with loss of...sexual power. Which we take for granted, you know?
But you're peaking, sexually, in your 40s; that's the rumor.
Well, if you can attract a guy!
That's true! Although supposedly in your 40s, you can attract a 22-year-old guy. But I know what you mean--you sense you're becoming "disappeared."
Yeah. And I think the white hair is this absence of color, the absence of this personal signature of the dark, "femme fatale" woman.
But people were asking me what you look like, and I said, "She looks like a Celtic priestess." It gives you a very wise look. Are you cheered up now?
(laughs) OK, so now you're trying to sell me on this idea that we're going to trade sexual power for wisdom! And I'm asking myself, "Is this a fair trade?"
Well, I think the length of one's hair is a huge deal.
And because yours is so long, it reads as a total embrace of your hair color.
As a decision, and not an accident.
Right--it's a flaunt.
Maybe it is, now.
But getting back to Yield, what was that dress made of?
A silk-and-steel fabric. It has this iridescent quality, and it's kind of stiff, so it stands away from the body and creates these three-dimensional shapes. It's mostly used for formal evening-gowns and costumes. My original intention was to just leave the dress outside for a month during the show and let the elements act on it, but as I was working with the fabric samples, I realized it wouldn't have transformed enough that way; it would have taken much longer than the timeframe I had in mind. So I ended up affecting the dress, in the end, like a painting; I would intentionally start doing stuff to it. We exposed it to a lot of water; I was lying on the bank of the Des Plaines River in Riverside, where I live, and then we threw it in. It smelled really, really bad after that. Then we did these simple things with bowls of water and salt, these repetitive gestures of partial immersion, or sponging the dress. And it slowly started to decay, erode, and become transformed by these simple, elemental gestures. But it got to a point where I could no longer wear it, because as it was oxidizing it was oozing this horrible pigment-y stuff. It was so fine that breathing it in dry was creating this cough, plus it would ooze into my skin, and it was hard as hell to scrub off. Finally, I ended up doing all this stuff with the dress off, and then waited for it to dry, so I could get back into it and shoot photos. So the piece really changed from the way I had originally conceived it, and I think what it turned into was OK. It just surprised me, in some ways. I'd had this whole natural idea--"Oh, now the elements are going to do all this stuff"; it was kind of passive. And then I realized I just loved doing things to this dress. At first I thought I was cheating, and not doing what I'd proposed. But I realized along the way that it's kind of mirroring what we do; whatever this natural process is, we are trying to alter it. And the show was called Alterations. So human agency, at some point, became a legitimate way to alter this thing.
It's interesting, though, that those interventions were not attempts to reverse the process, but to help it along or direct it.
In his essay, John Brunetti wrote that it was about the preservation of beauty. Although, actually, I thought the dress became more beautiful. I did seal it, but I don't know how successful that will be. What will happen now, I think, is that parts of it will be static, and other parts will continue to degrade. You know, Yield was formed in a totally different way from any of my other work. Usually I make these huge pattern pieces--for the last dress I made, we printed them off an architectural plotter. The dresses are very engineered; it's really mathematical. But I had migraines during the period when I had to make Yield, and so I just walked up to the dress mannequin and intuitively started patching fabric together. That dress doesn't follow any of the rules of sewing; it's collaged. But talk about liberating! It was pure pleasure making this thing. I had no idea what it was going to look like, and there were days I hated it. And then, as long as I persisted, it would transform into something new, and I just loved that process.
Left: Julie Laffin, Yield, 2003. Right: You Are the Salt of My Earth, Contemporary Art Center, Peoria, Illinois, April 1999. Photos (c) Andrew E. Cook.
Left: Julie Laffin with Dolores Wilber, The Red Gown 2, N.A.M.E. Gallery, Chicago, 1996. Photo (c) Andrew E. Cook. Right: Julie Laffin, Over, The Cleveland Performance Art Festival, Cleveland, Ohio, 1996. Photo by Thaddeus Root (c) Mulready Enterprises/Cleveland PAF.
In your other piece, Snag, you wore a red knitted dress, and used the same yarn to demarcate a space on the front lawn of the Evanston Art Center. As you moved within that space, your trajectory constructed this sort of giant cat's-cradle out of both a ball of yarn you carried, and the simultaneous unraveling of your dress.
Well, Snag came out of my obsessive knitting habit! It's one of those things I did when I was 8 years old that I thought I was over. And then one day I was sick, again--I had a cold for, like, a year!--and I just started knitting neck gaiters, these circles that went around and around my neck. By the end of winter I had 12 of these things, and I thought, "Something about this is really interesting. What if I could extend this process into something larger--into a dress, and into my work?" I had been in a workshop at Links Hall called The Field, doing this piece about a relationship from 20-some years ago. I was thinking about this person, and how my relationship with them was somehow about self-revelation and the act of exposure, but also about the complete disappearance, or vanishing, of this outer layer of protection. I just started knitting--and unraveling--and it turned into this thing I thought was somehow about relationship history. It is a construction; we're building this thing, and suddenly it's coming undone or breaking down, and exposing this part of ourselves underneath it. So Snag evolved from there.
Although in your performance, the process of coming undone creates a new structure, which then becomes an obstacle course you have to negotiate. It's coming apart and creating another set of constraints.
I think that's correct. But initially, I was thinking more of creating evidence of some place I'd been. And I had text on my dress that said "mapped," because I was mapping the external landscape, while simultaneously mapping an internal space that is purely distinctive to me and my experience. Ultimately, I think people were confused by the text--but I don't know how important that is. That text was much less important to me than the act of coming undone.
You lived in Pilsen before you moved out to Riverside, which is a picturesque village in the western suburbs designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. And I've noticed, since that move, that many of your works now take place in green spaces, in nature, rather than on urban streets and sidewalks.
One of the good things about Riverside, and a problem with it as well, is that Olmsted's vision is there--which I find very seductive. He has designed twisty, winding residential streets, with strange-shaped yards and landscaping to hide the curbs, plus he's left open these public green spaces that are also sort of private. So in a certain way, it's really conducive to what I'm doing, and I think I needed to mess around with it for a while. But now I've got these opportunities to do pieces here at Links Hall, as well as in Seattle and New York, and I just did this show in Cleveland where I unraveled my dress around a building. I'm ready, now, to launch myself and my work back into the urban environment.
Not to fall back on the inevitable connection between woman and nature, but many of the issues in your recent work also seem more organic. In the earlier, urban-sited pieces you were acting out very personal losses--writing the names of your exes, for example. But the losses explored in the greenspace works, such as aging, reflect a more general part of the female experience. Plus--and I might be projecting, here--there's that process of leaving the city for the suburbs, "settling down" in the house with the yard, and potentially having kids, at which point the perimeter of your world suddenly no longer seems to extend beyond your property line. Your "landscape" really changes, at that point.
Totally, and for me it really, really has. And now I'm making a conscious decision to put my work back where it was before I moved there. I still have ideas about doing pieces in Riverside; I think some of the sites are really beautiful. But there was a period when I was much more invested in making these dresses than in advancing my performance career. Now, staying in the basement for two years and sewing one dress is great; I love that. But it's time for me to insert myself back into the performance community. And it feels so good to find people remember me and want me to perform again; it's a little bit like going home, to me. I need this community. When I first left it, I didn't realize how much I needed it, or how much momentum I'd had. But there was this part of me that really wanted to improve the level of craft in the things I made, because I stopped seeing them as vehicles to activate in a performance and started seeing them more as sculpture.
Yes, I've seen that transition; you're at this point, now, where you're regularly taking the work beyond the ephemerality of the performance, and extending its life into a gallery exhibition through photography, video, and installation. Why have the work do both those things--be transitory and static?
Well, I initially made the video of Snag for the Evanston Art Center, with the intent that if I couldn't do the performance due to inclement weather, I would at least have something in the show. And when I finished the video, it was really satisfying to see that the performance could live on beyond the timeframe it originally inhabited. It became really exciting to think of this live thing that disappears, but has this whole new life as visual art. The dress works that same way--it was this vehicle setting up this whole process, but now I've released it into this other time and space.
Is there a change in your relationship to the dress, once you're not wearing it anymore?
Hmm. Well, yes--because now I'm on this level as "audience." When I'm in my performance work, I feel like I'm lost at sea. It's definitely about being in an altered state. So I have this huge blind spot as a performer--I can't see what I'm doing, and I have no sense of the work as I'm in it. But once I'm outside the work and can view it, I feel like I have this access to it, and this new relationship with it, that's somehow enlightening. Another problem with performance--well maybe not a problem, but a fact--is that the distribution of it is incredibly limited.
It only goes where you go.
Right. And you know, as a mid-career artist, most of my work is gone; a lot of it doesn't exist anywhere, even on bad video. I have no body of work; it's so intangible to me. So these documentations, and installations, probably function as this weird security blanket I never seemed to need before. I'm finding it's really satisfying to have something as evidence that I actually existed!
I want to talk about your movement, and your choreography. In Snag, your pace changed--you started off very languid, but toward the end, you were whirling across the lawn. How much in advance do you plot that out, and what are some of the considerations that go into designing your movement? Did you study movement, first of all?
No, I never studied movement, and I really don't think about it too much. I didn't plan for the pace to change during Snag; it just felt like it needed to. It was very spontaneous. I suppose on some level I should be very self-conscious about the movement, because there isn't any text, and people are watching me. But it's not something I feel intimidated about. I think if I'm really investigating what's in the work, the movement will just follow.
Before embarking on that piece, you were talking about whether you should wear shoes or go barefoot, and you said you liked the shoes because they changed your gait, and made your walk kind of awkward. How important is the concept of physical grace in the work you make?
Well, I think I've accepted the fact that the movement's always going to be clunky!
But it's not--you do a lot of repetitive, slow-motion things, and they're definitely struggles, but the pace is very deliberate and almost meditative.
I think more about the thing that's happening in real time. It's important to me to be in the piece while I'm doing it, and be in the moment--even though it seems the moment shouldn't matter at all, because the thing is five hours long! Maybe the reason it's so slow is because I'm not a mover. I'm really having to think it through and find the movement as I go along.
You do get this look on your face when you perform, and it's fascinating--it is trancelike. So I have to ask you, what is going through your head?
Truthfully? I can't remember! It's the closest mental state to blackout I've ever experienced. It's weird.
Because I remember you said in the minutes leading up to Snag, "Well, I've got the video; I don't even want to do this performance anymore!" And I thought, "That's interesting; is that an aversion response?"
Yeah--performance anxiety abounds. It's god-awful. I get so anxious I can't eat. I've learned how to sleep before a performance, because I realize my pieces are so minimal that if I can't be present in the work, there's no point doing it. But I go through an incredibly anxiety-producing preparation period. And it's not because I think I'm going to do a bad performance--like, "they won't love me"--but because I'm always really fearful that, conceptually, the work will be weak. So sometimes I change the structure at the last minute, or even during the piece. But yeah, my greatest fear is that people will be walking away thinking, "That just didn't add up. That didn't give me anything. What thought went into that?!" A lot of visual artists probably have that fear about their work, as well--that conceptually, it won't carry or communicate.
Though I think one major difference between being a performer and, say, a painter, is that a painting can shield the artist from the audience--it's a constructed reality that operates at a certain comforting distance from one's personal reality. You may find yourself insulated from this to whatever degree you're immersed in the performance as you're doing it, but being the object of that spectatorship alters your risk considerably from someone who makes an object, which can then mediate between the artist and the viewer. Just the personal vulnerability of being looked at throws everything else into question: "Am I smart enough--is the work smart enough--to overcome what I'm losing by being looked at while I make it?"
Yeah. Performing does feel really risky to me. It's hard, and I'm a really reluctant performer. But it's also so enticing, because I feel that, out of everything I've done, this is the thing that requires everything from me. I can be in other people's work, and it's painless; it's so easy for me. But if I'm the author of the work, it's like, "Whoa!" That requirement, to me, is enormous.
Well, you said earlier it became evident to you that performing was important, that you had some imperative to be performing as part of your creative work. But I've often wondered if it's something you enjoy.
You know, if I couldn't perform my own work, I don't really think I would make work. For a brief period I might enjoy making some objects, but then it would all be over. I don't think that level of engagement could sustain me. For better or for worse--and it's this horrible love/hate thing--I think the intensity of performing is a really strong drive that I need to fulfill. In some ways I wish it wasn't true, that I could just hole up somewhere and make some stuff. It seems so soothing!
Julie Laffin, Various States of D(u)ress, The Cleveland Performance Art Festival, Cleveland, Ohio, March 1995. Photos (c) Christine DiThomas. All rights reserved.
The relationship of the audience to your work changes from piece to piece. Sometimes they're just spectators, sometimes they're participants, and sometimes they're both--you did a piece at N.A.M.E., for example, where the people encountering you on the street were also being looked at from above. How does that audience dynamic--the observer versus the participant versus the observed--operate conceptually in your work?
Well, if you see the documentation of my work, it's not immediately apparent. But because the work is very minimal, and often there's this kind of "enforced silence," as my friend Steve Bottoms likes to call it, the text is generated by the audience. What people are hearing, what they're experiencing, what other people are saying all somehow becomes part of the piece. That's really a strong element: as the audience, you think you're watching the piece, but you're actually performing it, because you're the people talking and creating the discussion about it. Also, a lot of people think my work is very passive, because I'm lying down a lot. But lemme tell ya: lying down is a position of strength! When I'm lying on a sidewalk, no one gets near me. I command that sidewalk. The act of interrupting someone's space by some passive gesture becomes incredibly confrontational in certain contexts. People don't know how to engage it, or if they want to. I think people see photographs of some of that work and think, "Oh, another woman on her back--do we really need any more of that?" But live, it's really different. I think a lot of my work is a joke about passivity.
You use the word "minimal" when you talk about your work, and I can see its affinities with Minimalist sculpture. Especially in its silence. It's just occurring to me now that you never speak.
There was a period during the 1990s when there was so much cabaret work here; everybody was getting up and talking to the audience. And there were times I did that. But there came a point when I really wanted to separate myself from that kind of work because, number one, I thought there were so many other people who could do it better than I could. And then there was something about the audience relationship that really bothered me--that people had to come sit in a chair and look at me. I didn't like that, so I started messing with that relationship, and doing little installations, interventions, or action-type things in traditional theater spaces while the audience was watching other things going on onstage.
Was that a reaction to the hierarchy of the audience versus the performer, or to the notion of the fourth wall?
I think what bothered me was that it was just so incredibly predictable. That contract between the audience and the performer was so staid and unchanging, and I just felt like I wanted to shake it up in whatever little ways I could. Probably, it's just this need to do something different, formally. The traditional notion of performance is: you're not going to talk because I'm going to talk. But I don't want to talk; I'd rather have you talk. So if I remove myself from that traditional dynamic, whatever emerges can be really interesting to me as a performer.
To what extent is that interactivity or response successful? Do you encounter difficulty getting people to participate, and does it vary culturally, depending on whether you are here, or elsewhere in the United States, or in Europe?
It's totally cultural. When I was in Europe doing Census Dress in 1999, we went through every different kind of neighborhood you can think of, asking people to write on my dress. And the way people interacted with me was completely different from the way they do here. I've done pieces in Minneapolis--and even Cedar Rapids, Iowa--where it seemed everyone wanted to stop me. They were all friendly, and they really wanted to find out what I was doing. Meanwhile, I did this piece in New York City where this guy in a cab just drove over my dress; it was like I didn't even exist. But you know, there are so many spectacles taking place in New York that I'm one of many. In a smaller community, where maybe they don't have an avant-garde art scene or even street theater, what I'm doing is so outside their experience. But they're open; they're not living in a dangerous neighborhood where they're afraid of other people, so there's much more willingness to engage me as a person. But that aspect of it is very interesting.
It must be difficult when the piece hinges on audience participation, though, in the way Census Dress did.
Right: when the interaction is an integral part of the piece.
Is that the most audience-dependent work you've done?
Yeah. And truthfully, I think it's one of the least successful pieces I've ever done. Somehow the premise of the piece wasn't strong enough. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it was so impersonal--this idea of approaching people and having them write on my dress. I did it in a town in the Black Country, in the Midlands in England--an economically depressed, working-class, blue-collar community. They had just been granted this money to build a large museum, and a lot of people were pissed off about it. They couldn't understand why they needed a huge, expensive art museum when they didn't have some basic social services they really needed. So the museum really wanted to do some grassroots art projects that would engage the general public--it was an outreach effort on their part. That really shaped the work--it was a requirement of the commission. And I don't think I'll ever do work like that again.
You've shown so much of your work here through places like N.A.M.E., Randolph Street Gallery, and Artemisia. Now that they're gone, how does that impact you personally, and how does that impact the health of the performance art community here?
It's really sad for all of us. There is still Links Hall, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, I believe. As long as there are galleries, and clubs, and alternative venues of any kind, I think performance will continue to have a life here. But there aren't very many legitimizing kinds of venues--like commercial galleries--that are really embracing performance in Chicago. And when they do mount performances, I think it's kind of tokenistic.
Well, performance is not commodifiable.
Right. And it's problematic, because it's really hard for me to charge admission to my shows. I don't want to. I think of myself more as visual art that you go to a gallery to see. And I don't want to get into things like tickets, because I think my work is most successful when people bumble onto it in the street, and have no clue about what they're seeing.
So how do you cope with the loss of those venues, in terms of getting your work seen here?
Well, for example, I did those pieces at Evanston Art Center, which mostly shows visual artists, but where I had this incredible site to work with. For my upcoming show at Links Hall, I'm on the program with, like, all dancers, and I'll be doing a durational installation in the hallway, or on the sidewalk. I'm just trying to not turn down any opportunities, to work with what I'm given, and hope the funders and presenters are open enough to go with what I'm proposing to them. And so far, they are. But you are at this point where you can be a mid-career artist, and there's nowhere to show your work anymore. It doesn't bother me, because ultimately I can walk outside my house and make it happen wherever the hell I want to. Let's face it: there's not much money in performance art, and there aren't many accolades, so I might as well just do it on my own terms. There's no one stopping me.
Julie Laffin, Census Dress, The New Art Gallery, Walsall, UK, October 1999. Photo (c) Andrew E. Cook.
Do you consider your work feminist art?
I do. I would define that differently now than I did 10, 15, or 20 years ago. But I still do, even though I might create some resistance from a particular group of people by saying that. I guess the reason I do is because the female body is always central to the work, and I think there's this intention to subvert the classic female iconography that exists in art, or in fashion.
There seems to be a question, now, about what feminism means, and whether "feminist work" is...well, not illegitimate exactly, but somewhat toothless--that such a separation is not something we should be engaging in anymore.
Well, I imagine that, right now, a lot of young women shun that as a description of their work, and they have a million reasons for doing that. Artemisia just died, and the question at my house a few days ago when I met with several of the former members was, "Is there a need for Artemisia? Why is it dead?" Some of the women said there's a need for Artemisia now more than ever. But there are so many "feminisms"; there's so much pluralism within feminism that I'm comfortable saying yes to it, because it's expansive enough that I can find my own place in it. It's not monolithic, and I feel really comforted by that, and good about being in that space. But I have noticed more and more of a resistance to that--and that's OK, too.
Is there still a sense here of solidarity among female artists, and is it important to you personally?
It's really important. Even though I was only a member of Artemisia for a brief time, I've forged these really amazing relationships with the former members. They're people I want to work with--some are a generation older than I am, some are a generation younger, and I love that. I really find a sense of community with those women, and it's vital to me.
ARC recently had this panel discussion about women's galleries past and present, and their relevancy at this stage. Do you think that's still a significant or necessary endeavor?
For me, it's simple: I really need a nurturing environment, and being part of a group of women feels that way to me. A lot of women saw Artemisia as their home base, and they were actively supporting other women in getting shows, and curating each other into shows. It's very sad to me that that gallery will no longer exist, and there will be a void there. But I think a lot of the impetus behind it was to create this affirming space where we could build our careers together. It was rough; it was a lot of volunteer work, and I didn't last very long there. But I'm still friends with all those people. And even though there was a special program set up for mentoring, I got mentored there just because--it was part of the fabric of Artemisia that we were all going to help each other.
I do find it interesting, though--and I see this especially among emerging artists--that there's so much pornographic imagery going on in art right now. A lot of it doesn't even seem ironic. I'm thinking also of established female artists--like Lisa Yuskavage, for example--who make these sort of softcore erotic representations. I want to know what they mean by that, by seeming to pander to the male gaze. Why, at this moment, are so many women playing out the stereotypes of the objectified female in their work?
So you don't think there's any level of subversion in the work?
Honestly, I'm not quite sure. You know how you say you're always worried your conceptual idea isn't strong enough? I think that's the problem. I don't necessarily see it as an empowering gesture. I'm especially intrigued when I see it happening in the guise of self-portraiture. Certainly there's this whole notion of stripping as empowerment--
Sure. There's this whole sex-worker movement within the performance community.
But I'm curious about what this work is now saying about how women relate to themselves and to their gender, about power relationships with men, and social mores. Because I cut my teeth on Barbara Kruger, and that's not pandering work! So it's really tough for me to come around to this now and consider it politically legitimate. You know, I didn't think of Karen Finley smearing stuff on her naked body as a sexual or seductive act. There's a different kind of vulnerability, and anger, in the way she forced people to confront her nakedness--which in itself has pretty much been stripped of whatever power it had.
I think there are a couple things that have always been going on. One, when women artists use our own bodies, there's always this danger of self-exploitation involved. Especially in live performance; it's always going to be there. When I was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute, there was this movement to remove women's bodies from artwork. People were doing abstract work, or grotesque women's bodies--there was this drive to get away from classic representations of the female form. But as a performance artist I'm using my own body--this is what I have to work with--and some people find that problematic immediately. How can you be a performance artist when you could fall prey to this classic gaze? And my answer to that is: I think it has a lot to do with intention. Sometimes it fails, and we do end up in a place where we never meant to go. In 1996, when Dolores Wilber and I were doing The Red Gown 2 at N.A.M.E., some guy came up and grabbed her. I've actually been pawed during a performance, too. I'm playing at being powerful--"I'm the art object, and you can't touch me"--but I'm also wearing this kind of sexy dress. And then this drunk guy puts his hand on me. Now the reason wasn't sexual on his part; he thought I was so convincing as an object that he wanted to see if I was alive. It was so bizarre, and twisted! But now I'm in this position I really don't want to be in: I'm on my back, in a public space, and some unsolicited guy is touching me. Where do I go with that? The whole thing is breaking down and backfiring. So I think, on some level, maybe we're failing, you know? We think we're talking about what our position is, and we think we have a sophisticated audience that's gonna get it, but maybe we're not accomplishing this objective. We think we're subverting these ideas, but sometimes we're falling on our faces just trying to talk about this stuff at all.
That's interesting; I didn't even think to ask about people messing with you physically during your performances.
It happens very rarely. Sometimes we take some verbal abuse, and very occasionally people do sort of transgress that setup. I find it really ironic, though, that right before I did that first gigantic dress, I was taking off my clothes. I'd gotten to this point where my work had become about revealing the body, and then somehow, suddenly, it was like: "No!" I woke up one day and realized nudity was the totally wrong expression for my work. So I went straight to the other end of the spectrum, where I'm surrounded by this fabric and covered up.
You make it sound like it was very intuitive, but in retrospect, why do you think that happened?
I think I had some awareness of this strange place I didn't want to go. It was a really conscious change of heart, because it was so clear that I wasn't accomplishing what I thought I might be. For one thing, I was a young woman, and in the end I think it became more about titillation--without much subversion of that. I could say it was subversive, but I don't think it was functioning that way; I'd be fooling myself. At first, I had really mixed feelings about Karen Finley's work. Intellectually, I understood it. There was something she did that was great for all of us--she was naked and talking. That was monumental. But using nudity in my work still worried me. At what point does it become self-destructive, or at least self-negating? And not only of me--there were performances when I thought, "That was so exploitative of the audience! I can't believe I just did that!" Ultimately, I couldn't resolve the use of explicit sexual expression as a strategy for my own work, even though other people were using it quite successfully. I had serious doubts about how it was serving my own intentions as an artist. So I decided to run the other way and see where that would go. And I think it's been more successful. You know, there's this stereotype of nudity and performance art; people expect it.
And I think it's exhausted; it has become a cliché.
So now it's subversive to get dressed up!
You know, there was one thing I wanted to mention when you brought up Barbara Kruger, relating to the nature element in my work. There was a period when I thought a lot about that piece of hers that says, "We won't play nature to your culture." I really love that piece, and I've been pondering it for a long, long time. I get what she's saying; that observation is so potent and awesome. Yet there is this kind of romantic element to my work, in some of the stuff I do outside, that I really, really like. There's this part of me that wants to make something really beautiful in this outdoor setting. At the same time, I feel no one could ever make art that could be as beautiful as nature. So I'm really conflicted about this nature thing. I'm not sure if it's coming out in the work that I do, but it is something I think about.
Julie Laffin, Kiss Piece, Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago, January 1996. Photo (c) Andrew E. Cook.
There's another bind I want to ask you about, because I sense it pertains more to women artists, and especially to those who make work about their personal experiences. It happens more to me as a writer, at this point, but I've found I'll get into these situations where I'm disappearing things from my work to protect my partner. Not only does your work deal with issues from your past and present, and concerns about the future, but it's also exploring the roles women play in their relationships as lovers, wives, and mothers. Now that you're married, I wonder if it's something that ever inhibits you in your work. Are you sensitive to how your husband, Andy, might respond?
Yeah, I am, though more so in the past. In 1996, I did Kiss Piece at Randolph Street Gallery, where I kissed the floor to spell out "There was a time when I worshipped the ground you walked on." That was a piece about another man, and there was this uncomfortableness about it. Andy and I were together, but we weren't married yet. It wasn't just about the fact that I was talking about another man I'd been with, but that I was also kind of degrading my body--I'm kissing this dirty floor, and now I'm going to kiss this man that I love? There was something really strange about that. And I wanted to protect him, both from knowing too much about this past relationship, and from having to kiss me once I had trench mouth! So yeah: because I am happily married, I would have to say there is a level of self-censorship, and a desire to protect my husband and my relationship. But also, the content of my work has changed, because I'm not getting screwed over anymore!
Well, I love your description of Various States of D(u)ress where it says, "Wearing a 60-foot-long dress, I traveled around the city writing all the names of my ex-loves (38) onto public property with my mouth and a bowl of fuchsia water-based paint." Thirty-eight exes adds up to kissing a lot of public property!
Definitely! But Snag was also based on a relationship with this guy I knew 20-some years ago, and on the idea that I'm still kind of caught in that space. All this time has passed, and I'm a happily married woman; how could I have this peculiar relationship to this person I knew when I was a teenager? Maybe because that dynamic between the two of us, as people, still mystifies me. I cannot for the life of me figure out how I came to give this man so much power over me. How did this guy hook me--for life? I can't get past it.
Do you have a favorite piece, or a favorite performance of a particular piece?
You know, it's kind of sad that so many of them don't matter anymore; I don't feel that strongly about them. There is one piece, Redress, that I started working on in 1987, and performed for the last time in 1993. During this monologue I made a dress out of masking tape and painted it red onstage. And I sang during this piece. I just saw it again in Cleveland when I was there two weeks ago; I was performing, and as a backdrop, they were playing this archival video from, like, a million years ago. Somehow, the piece still felt very important to me. I worked on it a long time; I struggled with it a lot. It's so much about the dressmaking and the body--it seems like the beginning of something with the dresses. And then I guess Various States of D(u)ress from 1995--with the big black mourning dress--still feels vital to me, too. It represents that leap in scale, and taking the work outside the performance space for the first time. It was a real thing I lived through that work; it was cathartic. And afterwards, I got engaged. I don't think it was a coincidence that once I'd done this piece chronicling my whole relationship history--what that was, and why it was so long and tedious and laborious and painful and heavy and hard and black--that somehow I was able to form a relationship that was permanent.
And Andy sort of collaborates with you now--he's shooting photography and video with you, which must be pretty nice.
It is; it's really, really nice. It's been great to be able to do this stuff with him. I was always really intimidated, if I was involved with someone, that they would come to see my performance, and god forbid they wouldn't like it, or wouldn't like me anymore. But I met Andy at one of my performances, and it really took that edge off. I don't need to manage his impressions of what I might be doing. Even if he's not documenting the work or talking to me about it, somehow he's there with it. And it's good.
Julie Laffin is an independent artist living in Riverside, Illinois. Her work was recently featured in Confessions of the Avant-Garde at Cleveland State University Art Gallery, Ohio, and Alterations: The Body/Identity Revealed at Evanston Art Center. In June 2003, she also appeared at Links Hall, Chicago, in the 3 City Exchange with the Chicago Field, which will travel to Seattle August 13-14, 2003, and to New York City in September 2003. She will be performing as part of the Rhinoceros Festival at the Chicago Cultural Center in October 2003.