By MADELINE CASTEEL, August 2019
The gap between sensate, bodily experience and images is the place in which Carmen Winant’s work emerges. In an effort to “map the invisible geography of pain,” Winant has taped thousands of photographs of women giving birth to the walls of the Museum of Modern Art and culled through medical textbooks as source imagery for intervened collages. A recipient of the 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography, Winant has received international acclaim for her photographs, installations, collages and writing. Like photography, Carmen Winant’s commitment to feminism lies in the spaces of reaching, learning, and investigating its fraying edges. I sat down with Carmen to talk about her recent show at Signs and Symbols, her newly published book with Printed Matter, and her experience as an educator, artist and mother.
Madeline Casteel: I first learned of your work through your book, My Birth, which coincided with your installation at MoMA. Was there a moment that you decided that the experience of birth and your own birth in particular would become the subject of an artwork?
Carmen Winant: Yes and no. I have two sons that are born about 22 months apart who are now one and three years old. That project was made between their births. When I gave birth for the first time, I was thinking about what it means to occupy a female body in the world and what experiences are in some ways essential to that position, what kind of entropy occurs. Being a human in the world, but particularly being a woman, I feel so much of the experience is quite contradictory and that for me is the promise of the work. That it can contain the excruciating and the ecstatic all at once.
My first birth went about 36 hours and it was unlike any experience I've ever had before; it was unlike anything I thought it would be. Because we have no references in culture which feel adequate, it feels impossible to describe. It felt, and feels, as though language failed me. When I went through that experience, I did what I always do when I’m confused or disturbed or excited by something, which is to turn to the world of images and look through contemporary art and see if there were reference points that could in some way echo back my experience to me. Those do exist—but I was troubled by how few there are in existence. When I was in the very early stages of thinking about this work, I was thinking about the contradiction. In some sense, I made that work to fill a vacuum, to insist over and over and over again on this image that otherwise felt invisible. At the same time I must acknowledge that it is a fruitless effort; there's no way, no matter how many thousands of images one has, to account for this positively sensate experience through pictures.
MC: That reminds me of your recent show at Signs and Symbols with Rachel Libeskind and it also evokes the text you wrote, titled Mother, Mother (2016), in which you talk about language failing to hold trauma and entropy. The show at Signs and Symbols seems to build on that idea where, especially in the piece Hunger (2019), you're furthering the question by asking: can the act of making itself repair a body? I'm curious about what you learned in the process of working on that show and making those collages in particular that may have contributed to your thinking on this?
CW: Yes, I think you really have your finger on it. In that text that you're referring to, I quoted Elaine Scarry, a really pivotal influence on me and on many. She wrote a moving book called The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. What the book is actually about is torture, but the part that I've really carried with me is her overall thesis which is that language cannot transmute pain. She wrote: “To have pain is to have certainty,” Scarry writes. “To hear about pain is to have doubt.” This idea that the reason we have a scale of one to ten or these adjectives to describe the thing inside is because nothing will do. She calls it mapping the invisible geography of pain and I always found that to be profound — a guide for me as I've thought about how I want to make art. It describes something that I was already feeling but couldn’t articulate. Across my work, I'm interested in the way in which art, in my case photographs, actually fail to describe interior states. There is something quite tragic about that and also full of desire. It's a really thoughtful question because most often I'm asked about, “what is the patriarchy?” or something—which is meaningful in my work and in my life—but I think what you're asking is actually much more nuanced in terms of our emotional lives and stasis and aloneness.
MC: I also want to ask you about your most recent book that you published with Printed Matter; "Notes on fundamental joy; seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us." How do you begin to describe this book?
CW: I think the best way to describe that book is to say that it is a tribute more than it is my own dedicated art project of any kind. It is a series of photographs, all of which we collected copyrights and paid for permissions, of lesbian separatists who are living this radical feminist experiment in the mid-seventies and early eighties in Oregon and California. Womyn’s lands, as they were called, were distinguished from communes. They didn't refer to themselves as communes, although they have something in common with the Back to the Land movement that's happening at the same time. There was a central thrust towards photography and a lot of the different Womyn's Lands built darkrooms. In particular there was one Womyn's Land called Rootworks which held a series of photographic workshops called the Ovulars —a take on the word seminars, meaning “the spreading of seed” etymologically. They taught women how to photograph, which meant everything making a 4 x 5 picture to shooting sex and erotica. They camped and ran everything with a marine battery and bathed in the stream water. Many of the photographs which were produced now live in a series of institutional archives in particular at the University of Oregon at their archive Lesbian Lands but also at Smith College, Cornell, U.S.C. and also in a handful of private archives. There’s thousands of photographs. When I came into these images and learning about this history it was in some sense like a map to a world that I didn't know existed. I had been trying, in some inarticulated sense, to imagine a world outside of patriarchy for as long as I can remember and here, just a generation before, was that history already unspooled.
MC: What was it like to be going through those archives and and learning from the women who experienced this history first hand?
CW: I was in touch in particular with two women; JEB – Joan E. Biren —who is perhaps the most well-known photographer in the book, and whom I have admired for a long time, and Carol Newhouse, who actually was one of the founders, they call themselves organizer-midwives, of the Ovulars. There were correspondences and phone conversations with both of them and in particular with Carol. I think that, to be frank, they were a little bit skeptical of how I planned to use the images, which I understand. They were rightfully concerned about credit and permission and also—and I think that this is a little bit more nuanced—there is a question of identity and authority. I'm occupying a different subject position than they are. I identify as a cis-gendered, heterosexual women and I’m married to man, I have two sons and I think one has to be really sensitive to questions of permission and allowancey .
MC: I appreciate your transparency. One through line that I do see in between the subjects of the book, the women in the Ovulars, and your role as an artist, specifically in making this book, is that in the photography workshops they were seeking to pull back the curtain on the way in which the photographer acts an invisible voyeur. The women teaching these workshops tried to unveil that process by implicating themselves in the work. They did this by also being nude and also being in the frame with their cameras. In a similar vein, the archivist has historically been an invisible figure that holds a tremendous amount of power in selecting which images or materials enter the public domain. I feel that you're sort of implicating yourself in that process by making your subject position known as you go through these archives and work through your relationship to the images in the making of this book.
CW: That’s such a nuanced approach, I really appreciate that. Yes, that was definitely something I was thinking about. There are lots of different kinds of images in these archives so I was very selective and intentional. What does it mean to put yourself in the picture? What does it mean to photograph back, to photograph other women photographing? To photograph the process of learning? What does it mean to be every bit as nude as your subject? The pictures are funny and tender for all that they undo about art history. There's something that really touches me. I was thinking quite a lot about my role inside of all of it -- in part because of the reasons that I was talking about in the last answer concerning my position in relationship to these women geographically, politically and especially in terms of sexual orientation. But also in terms of what it means to picture picturing. There's an echo across these images; here is the process of not just making but of learning. There's something really elemental about that in the book. It has something to do with a willingness to demonstrate that you're a perpetual student, rather than a seasoned expert.
MC: Ariel Goldberg's essay in the book feels really important to the project and does create a kind of tension in that the essay is calling into question your relationship to the images and the efficacy of separatist movements in general. Could you talk a little bit about why it was necessary to have the book wage a critique against itself?
CW: That's interesting that you phrase it that way. I'm really interested in thinking about the terms of women's liberation, as it was formally called, and the ways in which it has become, in some ways, sanitized. For me, it's really easy to look back with such a loving glance toward these women who did this positively radical thing that has such deep stakes for them, such risks. They lost so much, they left so much behind to live in pretty uncomfortable ways. Which is to say, without microwave ovens and dentists and the luxuries of (often) contemporary middle class life. I think that it's really easy to get stuck in that place and at the same time I really had to wrestle with what was a much more complex reality. There were certainly ideological and political complications within these womyn's lands that I glaze over.
The thing that comes up most often, now, when I talk about this work is the question of what we would now call essentialism. I do ask myself and other people to work to understand what we would now call a safe space as an essentializing space, but also how essentialism can in fact behave as a mode of survival. To really think about what it means to live under the profoundly paternalistic world of the mid 70s in which you couldn't get birth control and you couldn't prosecute your husband for rape, you couldn't open a credit card and just the immense and unending oppression of that. I think it's difficult for many and certainly difficult for me to imagine. I'm not arguing for essentialism as the only strategy but I do think that it's important that we value its nuance and its historical specificity.
I really wanted to bring Ariel in because, first of all Ariel has been doing work on the Ovulars for some time and is working on a book about that experience so they were someone that has a lot of authority over the material and has done a lot of research but also as someone who identifies as trans, I felt that theirs was a necessary voice inside of this. They know many people in this community, including JEB, and are close to them and are writing on their work and care about it really deeply. Ariel is really invested in this question and the notion of joy itself but at the same time has to contend, I don’t want to speak for them, but has to contend with the realities that surround that want.
MC: Another invoice that you bring into the book are your students. You are the Chair of Visual Art and a professor at Ohio State University. You mention that you ask the question to your students: can feminism actually exists within capitalism? Can you imagine occupying a non-patriarchal world? And that often, your students don't recognize the premise of these questions.
I think you are insinuating here that feminism, and even just an awareness of the interlocking systems of power and oppression in the United States, are still invisible to many people. I wonder about how teaching has impacted your work and your relationship to feminism?
CW: I once saw some years ago the feminist marxist scholar Nancy Frasier speak in New York. She said something along the lines of: the feminist imperative is to imagine that another world is possible. That always stayed with me and it's something I think about in the building out of my work but also of my life. The task of imagining is profoundly enmeshed in what we do as artists, not just what we do as political agents. So it feels as though those tasks are inexorably related. To be a decent artist is to be able to imagine and to be a feminist is, in some sense, to occupy the same task. That means not just conjuring up some magical thing that isn't there but in fact being able to take stock of your situation, being sensitive to the world in which you live, and in some really literal sense, building a way out – an alternative structure -- with the tools at hand. The task of imagination is in that sense every bit as political as it is aesthetic.
That's the reason I start often times with those questions. I start from what is the most elemental, you know, let's not just name what it feels like to encounter sexism, but let's actually talk about, as you say, interlocking structures that are invisible and pervasive and build out from there. To be honest, it's an easier task in the classroom to talk about where we see the patriarchy unfurling but it's actually a much harder question to talk about imagining a world outside of capitalism. I think what's critical here is not that I'm looking for them to solve it but rather I'm looking for them to be able to first identify the system that they're subject to and then to be able to work on their creative, political, social, aesthetic engagement with it so that they can start to think about the power of imagination as an act in itself. WM
Madeline Casteel is an artist and writer from California who lives and works in New York City.view all articles from this author