Gendered Interactions: some thoughts arising at ImPACT ’13 at PACT Zollverein Essen (blog post, 23.10.2013)

Two weeks ago, I made my first visit to PACT Zollverein to take part in their yearly interactive symposium, ImPACT. The 2013 edition of this symposium was entitled ‘Someone Missing’, and featured invited artists Walid Raad, Kris Verdonck, and Vlatka Horvat. Each day was devoted to the work of a different artist, and the evening programme also included examples of their performance work.

I enjoyed myself at ImPACT; it was refreshing to meet artists outside my immediate (dance) field. PACT Zollverein is amazing–the theater itself is an incredible building, and the organizers outdid themselves to make sure everything ran smoothly. I received a scholarship from Kunststiftung NRW, so I stayed in a guest residence of PACT and the symposium fee was waived. Even better! I highly recommend the symposium to anyone with an interest in interdisciplinary performance work.

BUT I am not going to write a review of the workshop here–although synthesizing three days and very different perspectives on art-making would be worth a post. What I would like to talk about is a small interaction between Vlatka Horvat and the symposium participants on the third day.

Vlatka Horvat works in a variety of different media, but I would say she is primarily a sculptor and performance artist. She tends to work with everyday and delicate objects: cardboard, chairs, insulation foam. She premiered a piece on the Saturday of the symposium, ‘In the Balance’. I think that many people did not enjoy this performance, although I did: perhaps that is what created a certain type of resistance among certain symposium members in taking her work and what she had to say seriously. This is just an assumption.

In any case, Vlatka introduced a series of photographs she had made, entitled ‘Packages’. Every photograph in ‘Packages’ depicts a large package containing, well, Vlatka. It is a very subtle work, as at first glance it is not immediately clear that these packages are in any way significant, i.e. hiding a human body. Vlatka’s interest in making this series lay in ‘staging the invisibility of the body’ and referring to the fact that ‘all packages are transitional’: one image allows you to infer about the presence of the body in the other images, but also allows one to ponder the past and future of this body-in-transition: where did the package come from? Where is it going?

I feel that these are legitimate aims for an artistic work–not the least because this staging-an-invisibility remains close to my own artistic endeavours–but two people in our group obviously didn’t. The first question asked about this work was: ‘Do you really think that this is the appropriate medium for what you want to say?’

Now, the guy who asked this was not a native speaker of English, so we will give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps in German this would have constituted a polite way of asking a question (It doesn’t. But I am not a native speaker of German!). In any case, I will enlighten the questioner post-facto: ANY question with ‘Do you REALLY think that this is the right way to do such-and-such?’ implies two things: 1) the speaker does NOT believe this is the right way to do things, and 2) the speaker believes that he/she knows the way to do things. It is a passive-aggressive question. Props to Vlatka for answering this question perfectly soberly.

Immediately following this interaction, however, another guy sitting next to speaker number one made a comment that went something like this (I am paraphrasing hard): “You know, I really have a problem with conceptual artists who claim their work is about ‘the body’ or ‘transitions’ or ‘time’. They are ignoring the fact that the artwork they make have political and social implications….mutter mutter gender theory, post-colonialism, blah blah….these photos are not just about a body in a generic package, you have to be aware that this is a female body in a bag.’

Vlatka answered this question again perfectly humbly, stating amongst other things the extremely reasonable counter-argument: ‘I’m not interested in works that clearly limit what I’ve been invited to think about.’

Hell yeah, Vlatka. But to the person who was trying to appear smart by making this comment, I will spell out what it is you actually did:

You, a man, accused a female artist who consistently and reflectedly uses her own body in her artworks, of not being aware of this body’s gendered implications. In other words, you pointed out to a woman that a) she is a woman and b) if she does NOT feel like explicitly focussing on this aspect of her personhood in her work, her art is irrelevant.

In other other words, you are a man trying to put a woman in her place–and using gender theory to do so. All the gender theory in the world cannot help you if you cannot look at the arrogance with which you made this comment. Do you not realize that doing gender happens in interactions like this, where men try and narrow the scope of a woman’s artwork down to her femininity, deny her attempts at universality, and in general behave with a weird kind of arrogance that was not present during the days of the symposium featuring a male artist? On the previous day, male artist Kris Verdonck verbally dismissed the ‘gender issue’ because he wasn’t ‘interested in it’ (no one decided to further discuss this, by the way). Besides being inane (yup, it does appear that Vlatka is a woman, how good you are at noticing these things), this subversion of what the gender turn could mean gives me CHILLS.

The next time this happens (and I am SURE it will happen with increasing frequency), I promise that I will say something.