artist, writer and educator LISA VINEBAUM uses the visual language of
protest placards to commemorate historical struggles for workers’
rights. In New Demands?, her ongoing series of walking
performances, she calls attention to the present-day erosion of these
rights by reinscribing slogans back into historically significant sites
of the labor movement. Lisa holds a PhD in Art and an MA in Textiles
from Goldsmiths, University of London and a BFA in Fibers from Concordia University in Montreal.
In her critical writings, she explores the social histories of textiles
and the performance of labor in the work of contemporary artists. She
will co-chair the panel "Crafting Community: Textiles, Collaboration,
and Social Space" at the annual College Art Association conference (February 2014) and co-edit a special issue of "Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture" with Dr. Kirsty Robertson. Lisa lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.
OtherPeoplesPixels: How are your placard performances like one-person protests? How are they not protests?
Lisa Vinebaum: The performances draw on the form, rhetorics and histories of protest, but they aren’t protests. Protest is fundamentally about social change, making demands and proposing concrete alternatives. I’m concerned with raising awareness about specific issues and with commemoration, history and memory. I'm interested in performance as a vehicle for social interaction. I do understand how the performances can be read as one-person protests, but they also draw on street performance, performance art, memory studies, social practice and dialogical art, as well as discourse in gender, feminist and postcolonial studies.
I alter slogans adopted from historical protests and strikes to make them more universal. The placards reference specific events from the history of labor activism, but the work is about inscribing these histories into urban sites today, drawing connections between past and present struggles. I rely on ambiguity to allow the work to transcend protest. The slogans “On Strike for Fair Wages” or “The Right To Collective Bargaining” are easily associated with protest but not necessarily any specific one. The slogans resonate across time and are still relevant today.
Do you initiate conversation with viewers while you are performing?
Which slogan elicited the most engagement and response from viewers?
LV: I wait for viewers to engage with me. I want to leave any interaction up to them. I get the most responses when I use a Yiddish language slogan. So many people stop me to ask what language it is and what the placard says. I also get a lot of Jewish viewers who want to talk to me. They all recognize the language even if they don't speak Yiddish. Many of them also had parents or grandparents who worked in the garment industry. These placards also attract interaction from Hasidic Jews, who tend to be more insular and not have a great deal of interaction outside of their own community. The Not a self-hating jew performance got a hugely positive response, which I wasn't expecting.
OPP: Your 2011 performance Radical Jewish Emplacement was censored by campus security despite being part of an official Concordia University conference event. I love the look on your face—both irritated and amused—in the image on your website that documents the moment of confrontation with the security guard. What were you feeling at that moment?
LV: My reaction was, “You have GOT to
be kidding me!” It was so ironic. I was having a heated discussion
about Israel and Palestine at the site of so much censorship on the
issue—this was the exact goal of the performance—and along came Mr.
Security Guard to censor it. I couldn’t believe it. The conference
organizers tried to intervene, but the security guard threatened my
job—I was part-time faculty at the time—if I didn’t stop the
performance. I later learned that the guard lied about why the
performance was stopped. The incident reinforced my views about the need
for more discussion and debate on what’s going on in Palestine. There
has been a lot of censorship regarding Israeli government policies and
the treatment of Palestinians, not only in Montreal but also Toronto and
New York and on many university campuses. It’s incredibly
OPP: Do you have a planned strategy for dealing with the shutdown of discourse?
LV: It’s up to me to decide when to walk away from viewers who want to talk to me. Fortunately, I haven’t had many hostile responses. Most people are very receptive and engaging. There was one instance in Montreal when a man, who clearly had some mental health issues, became enraged by a slogan on my placard and threw a garbage can. That was the only time I felt threatened and unsafe. Generally, I’m vigilant and always do a site visit or practice run in advance. Also I’m very aware that I might be stopped by the police or other authorities, in which case I’d be non-confrontational and stop the performance if needed.
LV: I mean a general assault on workers’ rights and the massive decline in pay and benefits for workers. Ever since Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers
in 1981, there has been a concerted attempt to curtail rights—the right
to unionize, to paid vacations, to health benefits, to earn
overtime—that workers won during the first half of the 20th century.
Working conditions have been on the decline for the past 30 years, and
today companies tend to employ large numbers of part-time workers so as
not to pay health benefits or contribute to retirement savings. The
minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation—it should be almost
$30/hour. There have been a plethora of laws and corporate policies that
make it harder to join a union or maintain collective bargaining
rights. In 2012, unionization rates were at their lowest in 97 years in
the US. There’s also globalization, which has led to the loss of tens of
thousands of good American jobs and to the creation of dangerous, low
paid jobs across the developing world. Overall, there have been dramatic
losses for workers while there’s been an exponential rise in the
accumulation of wealth by executives.
OPP: You’ve performed New Demands? in the U.S. and in Canada. Is there a different history of protest in Canada than in the U.S. that affects the reception of the work?
LV: I’m not that well versed in the history of protest in Canada. In general, people in Canada are more passive than here in the U.S. There’s a certain “Canadian reserve” that probably comes from having been a British colony for so long. One exception is Québec (where I grew up), which was mainly colonized by France and is a predominantly French-speaking province. As in France, demonstrations and protests happen all the time. People are adamant about defending certain rights and taking to the streets to do so.
When I performed New Demands? in Montreal in 2012, there was a province-wide student strike against higher tuition fees. There were tens of thousands of people out in the streets for over two months, and it brought down the provincial government. You don’t see that happening in the rest of Canada. Also, unions are extremely powerful in Québec. McDonald’s and Walmart workers unionized there for the first time ever. Since you don’t see the same kinds of cutbacks to worker’s rights in Québec as here in the U.S., people generally take the right to unionize for granted. That difference was reflected in the responses to my 2012 performance in Montreal. Many viewers didn’t consider the slogans on my placards to be as relevant today.
I think the response has less to do with national borders and more to do with specific, local contexts. For example, there are differences in how viewers respond to the performances in various neighborhoods within Chicago. I recently performed in New York, and no one talked to me. That was a first. In Montreal and Chicago, lots of people talk to me when I perform. Chicago has a really rich history of labor struggles. There are many more artists who explore labor issues in Chicago than there were in Montreal. I don't think people there relate to the messages in my performances in the same way; they don't see that labor rights and working conditions are under attack. It's not that one city is necessarily better or worse than the other in terms of audience. Viewers in Montreal are still very interested in the histories and strikes that I seek to commemorate in the work.
OPP: Could you talk about your recent performances in Chicago that deal with artistic labor?
LV: For the last two iterations of New Demands?, I held a bright yellow placard that read, “Art work IS Work.” The point, which may seem obvious to those of us who are practicing artists, is to recognize art work as work. Statistically, very few practicing artists are actually paid for their labor—only the most commercially successful artists can live off making art. Most artists must work as educators, studio assistants, arts administrators, graphic designers, web designers. . . and many, many artists work in the service industry.
The terrible working conditions for part-time and adjunct faculty is an area that I’ve begun to explore in my performance work. There are large numbers of artists with MFAs and substantially fewer full-time positions. Part-time teachers aren’t paid very well and receive no health benefits, summer pay, or employer pension/retirement contributions. So working conditions for artists are incredibly precarious, especially so when you consider the general lack of respect for the arts in our society—the arts are seen as a luxury or as frivolous. So the issue of timed labor is very connected to issues of artistic labor. These performances pay tribute to the many attempts by artists to organize and unionize, including the Artist’s Union and the American Artists’ Congress of the New Deal era, the Art Workers’ Coalition of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) and Occupy Museums today.
OPP: What new performances are you planning now?
LV: As part of the Performance Studies International (PSi19) conference in June 2013, I’ll be doing two performances at Stanford University commemorating recent strikes on the campus and exploring working conditions for part-time faculty.
hoping to do a performance in London in the near future. It will explore
connections between the recent fires and building collapses in the
garment industry in Bangladesh and domestic sweatshop conditions for
Bangladeshi immigrants in East London. This neighborhood, where I lived
for five years, is a historical site of domestic textile labor by
French Huguenot weavers, Eastern European Jewish tailors and
seamstresses, Caribbean garment workers and now large numbers of
Bangladeshi women doing piecework in their homes. I’m in the initial
stages of research toward a series of public performances: I want to
stage larger processions using banners and possibly costumes to
commemorate the strikes and actions I’ve been referencing as a solo
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mass media culture in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago) and she will mount a solo show titled I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.