Portraits of Artists 03

Conversation with Andrea Fraser

Andrea Fraser: How do I look?

Christian Phillipp Müller: It's ok?
Andrea, do you like it to be on TV?

AF: Well, sure, it's exciting, you know, not so many people get a chance to be on TV! Not so many artists, certainly. I don't know if it means I will be famous, exactly. Artists usually become famous through history, through institutions and not on TV. Artists usually address themselves to history rather than to a TV audience.

CPM: How important is it for you that the TV audience knows your work?

AF: We may have to start this all over again! Perhaps it would be helpful for me if you could ask me more specific questions, so that I can kind of orientate myself to speaking here? Because the more general questions, you know, I respond more abstractly and can really get into a . But anyway .

CPM: I mean, would it be specific if I asked you like in the beginning: What exactly is your profession?

AF: Well, I am an artist.

CPM: That is not exactly the answer I wanted to hear, you know.

AF: And what was the kind of answer you were thinking of, then? A more descriptive answer of what I do?

CPM: Yes, about your tours!

AF: Ok, well if you want to . So, the camera is running! I think we end up mad of having an interview about an interview, which would not be so bad perhaps! Well, I have conducted about four gallery talk performances; that is performances in form of gallery tours and at museums. The first two were in 1986 and they were for temporary exhibitions in New York, one in a museum and one in an artists run space. And then, a couple of years later I started working more specifically about the history of art museums in the US and did a video tape in the form of a conducted museum tour. Later on I did a tour at the Philadelphia Museum of Art which is a kind of encyclopedic museum in Philadelphia. It is very common in the US that most museums have a staff or a volunteer staff of usually women who are called "docents" who give tours in museums. They are usually trained by the education department.

CPM: And do you think that those people talk the language of their audience?

AF: Well, that is hard to know because any audience speaks a lot of many different languages. In the US, I guess that this can be said of most museums in any way that deal with modern and contemporary art, the primary operation of art museums is the transformation of, one could say "bourgeois domestic culture", into public culture. It was quite clear in the US where many of the museums were organized around "period rooms" or domestic representations which did not have a strictly historical reference but rather referred to the domestic environments of the collectors and patrons of the museums. There are so many "house museums" and things like that . This turning of a class-defining domestic culture into a public culture that museums affect is affected first by that displacement, moving from a home to a museum, but then with the introduction of systems of classification and criteria of value whereby particular objects of determined interests, art objects, are separated from the other objects that constitute their entire domestic environment and as such also make up their social location. The introduction of these systems of classification and criteria of value is something that's done in museums through forms and practices that I would call "educational". They might not be strictly educational in terms of the organization of the museum; they might not come out of the "education department", but they are introduced and expressed through a kind of supplementary material that museums produce and introduce around art objects: like museum tours, like wall labels and wall texts, explanatory texts, like posters. These are the forms I tend to work with and that I worked with in the past. It is also something that is done in the installation of objects and that is done in the selection of the objects. It's done in the establishment of a collection which always is done by excluding, by what is outside of that collection. Collections are established by excluding. How much further can I go with this?

CPM: I don't know!

AF: But this is probably too academic in the language!

CPM: No, it's ok!

AF: My general conception of what art making is or what I would like to think of as my artistic practice is an attempt at a functional or effective intervention in the context in which I function. But I think of that context as primarily being constituted as a relationship or a set of relationships. So, with museum tours these relationships are my relationship to the institution, the audience's relationship to the institution and the audience's relationship to me as an artist or as a docent, if I am presenting myself as a docent.
I like to think about art making as a kind of social practice, as a social activity as opposed to strictly a kind of specialized activity that is about producing a particular kind of object. As a social activity what I am involved in has primarily to do with a kind of education or is a relationship to education. When I work in museums it is specifically in relationship to how museums go about educating a public about art. And one can think about programs like this functioning in similar ways museums function, as doing the work of public education about a relatively autonomous and exclusively defined field that is then also very much abstracted or separated from the everyday experience of culture, of most people's lives. What I am interested in in working with museums is a kind of "counter education" to this. It is trying to create a situation where other understandings of culture and other understandings of art objects are possible. And not only from my position, but also from the position, from the location of people who go to museums who might be outside of the tradition in which I work. So, I think that people can understand art for example not only in terms of what artists intend, but also in terms of how they experience it socially.
For me what is at stake in one's relationship to cultural objects is one's relationship to one's history, say one's familiar history in terms of the culture that constituted once the domestic environment in which one grew up, or collective history to the extent that this history is represented in culture, one's relationship to one's contemporary environment, contemporary domestic environment or urban environment, one's relationship to one's body to the extent that fashion and norms of self-presentation, you know, are very much part of culture, and the taste that determines one's relationship to cultural objects or art objects is continuous with the taste with which one determines one's own self-presentation. So my working with museums very much has to do with what happens when a particular model of culture is legitimized in a public sphere, and what the experience of that public is of that legitimation.

CPM: I have no more questions.

AF: Is that enough? God, it is so dry!

CPM: What do you mean with "dry"?

AF: The way I have been talking!

CPM: Oh, no!

AF: It is very dry a way. The performances I do are actually very funny.

(Vienna, June 1992)