Andrea Ray speaks to Matthew Buckingham about 19th century sexual freedom, the caring economy and her recent exhibition, Utopians Dance.
I met Andrea Ray in the autumn of 1996 when we were both students at the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program. Over the years we've remained close friends, sharing studios, reading groups, and teaching venues. I was always intrigued by how A.Ray invited viewers to investigate her installation works in ways a scientist or a doctor might. At the end of that year together at the ISP A.Ray showed her installation Architecture of Resistance in which visitors used stethoscopes to listen to murmuring and breathing translucent walls. This was the beginning of a series of projects in which A.Ray dealt with environmental illness, both metaphoric and literal. These works were structured so that the process of investigating them led viewers to discover and identify with human subjects who were unwilling or unable to assimilate to their environments. A.Ray used these characters, caught between their own psychology and physiology, to spin narratives that question our whole relation to the built environment and the economies that support them—monetary or otherwise. Subsequent works have continued to use sound as a hinge between narrative fiction and real bodies in real space while expanding into questions of social and political self-discovery. Her exhibition, Utopians Dance at Open Source in South Slope, Brooklyn, this past spring comprised an ensemble of works that employed light, video, sound, hand-bound books, photographs and other objects. We got together during the last week of the show to talk about the work.
Matthew Buckingham The thing that struck me, walking up to your show Utopians Dance, and seeing the quote-unquote “empty” space, a very brightly-lit room that opens directly out onto the street, was that I had to put back together, in my imagination, what it once was—a parking garage—and then seeing how you had transformed it, or what had happened, and what was part of the project versus the original space. The atmosphere of the opening and people socializing there, which was seamless with the work, told me something about how to look at the work. And I felt like that carried through everything, a kind of deliberate absent center, that wasn’t melancholic, but instead was a way of both putting the viewers onstage and making the viewers see themselves on that stage.
Andrea Ray Yes, I hoped the piece could be inviting but not demanding, not an obligation. To bring in that social engagement, at the opening in particular, to have a group of children dancing around to the music in that space and the older folks sort of mingling through and socializing under the strings of lights, was very pleasing. I mean, it’s one of the things with the work—you don’t know until you have the event, how it will truly be utilized.
MB Right. "Participatory" artworks are more interesting to me than "interactive" ones, but they're both oxymoronic to some degree, and for opposite reasons. Very few projects are truly interactive in the sense that the viewer has a real effect on the artwork; and, on the other hand, all art is participatory. By being present I’m already doing something, taking action, in relation to the idea of the work itself. And if the work has an effect on me I will continue to act in relation to it.
AR Recently, I heard Doug Ashford speaking about institutions, in this case museums, as they produce viewer-subjects before they even enter through the door. The viewer as participant is an example. This related to his work with Group Material and their attempt to reject that relationship. It made me think about relational aesthetics—on the one hand there’s the claim that viewers are free to have some participatory stake in the work, but on the other, the role of the viewer is pre-determined by the work.
MB I guess I end up thinking of participatory art as work that confronts me in a productive way with my own spectating—reminding me that I'm there, looking and listening. In your installation there are many curious aspects that one tries to fill in or ends up leaving empty. There's the space itself, and then there are a lot of objects. One is an empty record jacket, titled In My Utopia, that implies a whole listening experience I can't have—an invitation to imagine an album of songs. Then there is the small back room that I didn’t notice at first—a place to read your book, titled A Cure for the Marriage Spirit, which again felt like an invitation for the viewer to become the subject of the work. Parts of the exhibition suggest narratives as well as various narrative connections. I want to ask you about the story that’s in the book and its relation to the whole space, and the even more poetic narrative that's in the video playin back in the larger room. Because they’re spatially separated, I also separated the content of these two narratives. Should I have?
AR I do think of them as two separate narratives, but I like having them bleed into each other through sound or text repetition.
The way the book is written, it’s only a prologue so far. It’s an introduction to a character who is doing research and writing in her journal but in the third person. There’s this consistent removal of fixed identification that was important to me. Then we have the voice of the book’s narrator as well as a voice taken directly from a memoir written by a 19th-century woman who lived in a feminist utopian community. This may seem from left field, but there’s something about the nouveau roman, where there are close descriptions of objects and less of a linear character development or narrative that interests me. Things might jump out of place in a way that allows the reader to then enter into the structure of the story and make their own writing of it. I’m thinking of Marguerite Duras’ Destroy, She Said, specifically, where there are four characters, but one of the characters sometimes seems that he might represent the subconscious of the other three characters, and at other moments I believe he really exists. I’m interested in how this form can be reworked in an installation.
So after being in that space of the small, self-reflective reading room you step into a social space of dance. But the thread that connects the two is the search for freedom. In the story the character is trying to find freedom through research. Then as you come out into a garage, a former space of labor, that’s been transformed into a dancehall, the question of whether freedom might be found through dance is revealed.
MB It’s not something I’ve thought of before—the connection between the countryside and a barn dance, and compact urban space and a two-car garage dance. (_laughter_) Most people hanging out outside at your show on a very nice evening exploited the nature of that space, being both inside and outside at the same time. Maybe it’s a question of protagonists, and the viewer using your work to try out the roles of the protagonists in the work. How many elements in the show have a voice, and how many discreet works are in the show? Or is it all one work?
AR I consider them to be two pieces presented as one exhibition. I haven’t counted the number of voices in the work, but it’d be interesting to look at it that way. There are several distinct voices, for sure. The front dancehall room is entitled Utopians Dance, which is also the title of the show. The smaller reading room installation is called A Reeducation and the individual pieces within that room do have titles.
There’s my book, A Cure for the Marriage Spirit, which sits on a table set up with a chair and lamp; a landscape painting Past Present, The Oneida Community Lawn, a bookshelf holding various books on utopia, feminism and economics where the viewer is perhaps furthering the research that the character in the book is doing or just picking up on threads of things; there’s a series of natural objects such as a stick with a label of Poetic Hunter attached; there is a photograph of a book opened to a poem that Henry David Thoreau wrote called Free Love; there are two photographs of dresses in the woods titled Herland after Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel; and the room is completed with oriental rugs covering the floor. Most of the titles can be found again as song titles on the album jacket In My Utopia found leaning against the floor in Utopians Dance, or in the section headings within the book. For me, this collection of song titles and objects adds up to a site or a situation and by proximity they speak to each other.
MB It’s not biography and it’s not autobiography, but we’re given specific and deep pockets of information that are not necessarily connected, except when you show these works together. The album feels the most fictional because it’s not there and yet it’s authored by you. It’s an album of your music that could exist but doesn’t yet.
AR That’s right. I think it is a hopeful projection of “make it and it will come,” meaning I haven’t gotten down to the songwriting yet.
MB Tell me something about the liner notes, because there’s a hinge there with some of the material found in the book.
AR Thinking about the form of an album cover and the information you would find on it, I wanted to create a discrete piece where images, titles, and blocks of texts could work next to each other to express the concepts of utopia and feminism that I’m engaged with. It also allowed me to present small parts of my book together on the album cover, I think the passages communicate differently—it’s certainly less linear than the experience of reading the book.
And I have a real interest in bluegrass and folk music now, so for me it’s about exploring how the visual work can incorporate the sonic and textual.
There’s a section in the book with bits of a memoir written by a woman from the Oneida Community named Tirzah. She speaks about when she left music for writing and how it was like the death of a cherished friend. This switch from music to writing, to leave something, is interesting to me. As a visual artist, I’ve been writing more and more in my work and incorporating her passage is an acknowledgement of that shift.
MB What about the song title “Human”?
AR Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a lot about how we are only living through one sex, the male sex—this is around 1915—and that we each (male and female) had the possibility to live through our femaleness but we weren’t allowing ourselves to do that since the given relation was male or not-male, and we were therefore, only half-human. She often referred to the “human” as opposed to the male or female.
MB I guess there's an interface between this investigating subject, who could be the artist, and the viewer, who's vicariously experiencing that new level of self-discovery.
AR Yes. I’m interested to look at history in terms of sexual politics, to see how conditions that fostered radical utopian thoughts and activities, like that of the former free lovers, for example, might converse with the present moment to illuminate a freer future-identity. This is why my book mixes time periods—the main character, through her research into 19th-century feminists, resists a linear idea of historical time, she imagines she’s communing with the dead, she imagines she’s found comrades who enable her to dream up alternative social conditions in the present moment.
MB As a historical project, it's interesting to me that you've set things up so that words and ideas that have, over time, become over-determined, can be seen in a fresh way through the eyes of the fictional characters in the work. We are forced to reconsider a range of 18th and 19th-century progressive social and political movements from our current perspective.
AR In the 19th century, you have something like the Oneida Community, an intentional free-love community, but then you have someone like Victoria Woodhull, who’s also a free lover, the first woman to run for president in the US, she’s a stockbroker and she’s a spiritualist. Amazing! But the Oneida Community women were not fond of Victoria Woodhull. There were all kinds of breaks in that feminist movement. Unfortunately in the case of the Oneida Community women, I think they believed that the male was inherently strongest.
So, as I’m reading about them, I’m reconsidering the present moment and I’m wondering how I might use these histories and about the way in which history is displayed or identified within the work of this project that makes it contemporary. In a deliberate way, within my book, you have this woman doing research into the past, while she’s having her own self-discovery today.
And in the video the ideas about economics are contemporary. That “caring economy” term, for instance, is from an interesting woman who’s writing today, Riane Eisler.
MB This notion of "caring economy" takes us back to what we think of as “utopian.”
AR When we talk about our economic health, when we determine the GNP, it’s based on capital. It’s the money that’s made. Things like prisons, wars and environmental disaster cleanups make a lot of money, and therefore contribute greatly to our economic health, and that’s so ridiculous when you think about it. So Riane Eisler’s proposal is that domestic labor, volunteer labor, and environmental work should get added in, in some measure. I find it very interesting to think about how those additions might recalibrate our values.
MB Is it connected with the concept of social wealth? Is that the right term?
AR Yes, caring economy and social wealth are related. The concepts are found in the subtitles of the video, one reads “dance for social wealth,” and there are also lines about a "caring economy" in how it relates to the way ants and bees live communally. They cooperate. They don’t compete. That’s the foundation of these terms.
MB That points to the main question surrounding the use of the term "utopia." Is the "perfect place that is nowhere" meant to be a real objective? Does it represent the desire to create the perfect social, political, economic system? Or is it meant as a critique of present circumstances, describing the perfect society in order to point out our shortcomings? The most urgent question, either way, is always for whom would utopia be utopic?
AR Right. The intentional communities themselves always have that problem of attempting to create “one good for all,” which of course falls apart. I don’t look at former utopian communities as experiments that failed, but I look at utopia as a process or a drive. Utopia can operate in this presence and absence way that you’re describing. It can operate as a template from which to critique the present.
So when I take from previous historical moments, I can rethink what’s happening today. I mean, it’s kind of astounding what’s happening in the Supreme Court. I’m referring to the discussions they’ve been having this spring about DOMA and proposition 8—two landmark gay rights cases. Too many federal laws depend on legal marital status. The centrality of marriage is so present.
MB And personal. The term polyamory, on the other hand, stands out in your project for being a very recent term, if not concept. It does not come into use until 1990 and after.
AR You are referring to the sexual freedom topic that’s found in my book A Cure for the Marriage Spirit. During the 19th century there were many communities that practiced free love—meaning to have many sexual partners without feeling guilt or being considered a sinner. At the time there was a new separation between sex for procreation within the institution of marriage and sex for pleasure. The Oneida Community adopted it, in part, as a resistance to marriage. They believed that marriage was slavery to women and their version of free love discouraged the pairing of couples in favor of being married to the group. Polyamory is a newer term for another non-monogamous form of open relationships where one has many special partners. The main character of my book is engaged in a search for freedom through sexuality. The foundation for this project is a related question: if as Foucault would say, an individual’s subjectivity is constructed by institutions, then how can the feminist project be realized if the marriage institution is still at the core of our value system? The ghosts of what the institution was will necessarily be present. So this is where the title A Reeducation comes from. For instance, taking Sweden as an example, their Social Democratic system cares for each individual without the same privileging of the married unit found in this country. I’m so interested in Sweden, and not to characterize the country as a utopia, but recently Sweden adopted a third pronoun, a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s very exciting. This project is not a rejection of gender, and it’s not a rejection of marriage either, but it is about the desire for our value system to root somewhere else.
MB Which is interesting now, at a point where the marriage rate has never been lower in the States. Are those values migrating somewhere else? Are they transforming as well? I have no idea how to answer that.
AR I’m surprised to hear that it’s at an all time low. I had a different impression. I support anyone who wants to get married, but at the same time, I question why we want to keep replicating that form. In Mexico a couple of years ago, a legislator proposed there to be a two-year marriage dissolution option—after two years, you wouldn’t be married anymore. You’d have to go get remarried.
MB I want to ask you more about the video in the open room and the music that these feet we see on screen are dancing to. For me this setup, once again, makes me the protagonist of the project. The room is ready for a dance and I see someone "practicing," as it were, in the video. The video has superimposed text that reads like subtitling, but there is no dialogue or voiceover, so the only meaning to be translated is the music and/or the sock-footed dance-steps. What does that particular music and type of dancing suggest for you?
AR It’s in relationship to summer outdoor folk festivals. It’s utopian, you know, these temporary communities that pop up. To twirl under the stars or twirl under the lights of a dance tent are special things that I live for. The festivals create a communal euphoria that you feel through your whole body—if you are into such things. The space of dance in Utopians Dance, is inspired by my love of dancing under the stars. And my book opens with a woman’s experience dancing, too.
I began to see a relationship between dance and a form of cooperative economics. In contra dances the steps are planned and everyone is cooperating. It’s the ants, it’s the bees, it’s the contra dancing. The subtitles in the video combine contra-dancing calls with my writing.
MB You also mentioned that the book is a prologue. So, even though we don’t know, and it’s maybe not fair to ask "prologue to what?" I’m going to ask anyway: What’s going to happen to your protagonist on her quest for self-discovery?
AR I’d like to use the protagonist further as a vehicle to present my research. Right now I’m reading more about feminist utopias and experimental forms of economics. In the prologue, there’s an interaction with one particular character, called The Artist, who represents the window to her awakening. She now needs to live out these ideas of freedom she’s researching. I hope chapter one picks up with her engaging in living–outside of the pages of the books. If my utopia existed, and she’s in it, what will it look like and what will happen to her? That journey should begin with chapter one. Of course, chapter one may take the form of the vinyl for my album cover—who knows.
For more on Andrea Ray, visit her website.
Matthew Buckingham is an artist based in New York. He is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at Columbia University School of the Arts.