Whitehot Magazine

The Process: Provocation Cards: Greg Stewart Interviews Barbara Rosenthal About Provocation Cards Project

Barbara Rosenthal, Provocation Cards.

Editor's Note:

On August 12, Barbara Rosenthal will perform "Provocation Cards" on the sidewalks in front of Barbara Kruger's show at David Zwirner Gallery, in Chelsea, NYC. 

This "free ideas" low-tech give-away of high concept philosophy is Rosenthal's tenth iteration of the piece, in multiple languages and locations around the world since 2005. When she performed the interaction in 2009 as the United States representative to Tina B: The Prague Contemporary Art Fair, the catalog noted her stand-out phrases in comparison to other text artists' "deep pockets, shallow thoughts." 

Whether or not the performance of this date and time is a direct challenge to Barbara Kruger's extravaganza inside Zwirner Gallery, distributing Rosenthal's insights and humor among anyone hoping to be enlightened in there will be in for an unexpectedly mind-expanding afternoon. This interview about Rosenthal's project was conducted in 2017, and published for the first time now.

Barbara Rosenthal, Provocation Cards.


One of the most fascinating projects of media and performance artist Barbara Rosenthal (b. 1948, Bronx, New York) is Provocation Cards, an ongoing series of her philosophical aphorisms. Many of her projects have been ongoing for decades, and take various forms. I paid her a visit recently to track the life of this one. In 1983, Barbara was composing her diaristic Typewritten Journals on a portable typewriter at The Dew Drop Inn on Greenwich Street in the Village, the only sidewalk café in those days within two miles of her Chelsea loft, well before the era of tables laden with laptops. Her Journals, kept since age 11 and now comprising eighty handwritten Black Volumes and six Typewritten Journals, have been partly published within her four major artist’s books, Clues to Myself, Sensations, Homo Futurus and Soul & Psyche (all Visual Studies Workshop Press). 

That first line, written in her Journals on Sept 26, 1983 leading to the project can be found in Homo Futurus, 1986: “There will not be a future. There will only be another present.” In 1988, it found itself reborn as Provocation Cards in the first iteration, a Mail Art piece of seven cards she sent one at a time anonymously to people in the art world. In the years since, as she developed other media and performance works, these seven grew to twenty-two in hardware-bound folios at Printed Matter and in the collections of the Tate, London, and MoMA and The Whitney in New York.  Two are also incorporated in other works of visual art and writing, including her new novel Wish for Amnesia (Deadly Chaps Press, 2018). Some found themselves in her video, Lying Diary / Provocation Cards, 1988. Others became parts of street performances, Provocation Cards Interact, in NYC, Brooklyn, Brussels, Rome, Paris, London, Stonehenge, Sydney and Prague (2008-2018), as wall art in an exhibition at the Lucas Carrieri Gallery in Berlin (2009), and as billboards in Padua, Italy (2009-10). 

Rosenthal fabricates her works to be cheap and easily accessible. A video of hers on YouTube, Mandates for Art, made as documentation of a panel she was on at the Plohn Gallery with critic Ellen Handy in 1991, outlines this and her other imperatives. In her own words, published in the 2009 catalog of TinaB: The Prague Contemporary Art Festival, where she represented the United States in both Performance Art and Text Art with Provocation Cards Interact and an image-text video Push Me, “the genre of text-art has seen too many shallow thoughts and deep pockets.” As the seven Provocation Cards grew to twenty-two over the years, among them came these profound ideas: “The flaw of the ideal is that it does not encounter Time or Touch,” “The Future is an illusion blindsided by Reality,” “Only that which exists is perfect enough to break into Reality. What is truly perfect, therefore, is what truly exists,” “All history — documentation, journalism, diplomacy, thought, art, culture, etc. — serves only to influence behavior of single individuals at single moments.”

Barbara Rosenthal, has a BFA (Carnegie-Mellon University, 1970) and MFA (City University of NY / Queens College, 1974), both in Painting, but her career since 1976 has been in photography, video, creative writing, art criticism, journalism and philosophy, performance, and thirty-three continuous years as an adjunct college professor of twelve subjects in art, photography, video and writing at seven colleges. She’s often referred to as a “Media Poet” as much as “Media Artist.” Her life has led her onto the stage of the Metropole Café as a topless go-go dancer, into the offices of The Village Voice, East Village Eye and New York Post as a photojournalist and to faculty positions at Parsons School of Design and The School of Visual Arts. I met Barbara through Ragazine.cc an online publication we both write for. Her column is called A Crack in the Sidewalk. She lives with video and Super-8 film pioneer Bill Creston in a work-filled loft in the Far West Village overlooking the Hudson River, in the Westbeth Artist’s Complex near the Highline, where I visited on a beautiful spring afternoon to discuss Provocation Cards Project. Her personal and studio assistant Ripley Whiteside videotaped our talk. The walls are hung with her Surreal and Conceptual Photo projects and lined with 7,000 books. The light-filled loft has almost no real furniture. It is filled with work stations, materials, media equipment and projects-in-process. Her works in all media changes form over and over again, often combining with other pieces. She says she “lets its petticoats show,” as her professor Roger Anliker had suggested when she was his painting student at Tyler School of Art in Rome, 1976-77. This causes her artwork to show their “whips and scorns of time,” she says, quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Barbara Rosenthal and Ripley Whiteside, Posters.

GS: Let’s start with a quick telling of the story of the Provocation Cards. Question number one: How old is the project — where did it begin, and how has it manifested itself and taken its place in the world?

BR: The first ideas came in my 1983 Journal when I transcribed and edited some of the Journals into my book Homo Futurus, 1986. Then the next time they appeared was in 1989 as anonymous pieces of Mail Art which I sent to art dealers and other people in the game. Then I showed the angry sort of ones to the camera, like “Put It In Writing” in my 1988 video Lying Diary / Provocation Cards. My brother, Gil, had objected to my spending some money on household goods. You know, that’s just something I do — elements of my real life enter into things, and I also push parts of projects together. Then I started giving them out, I guess that was in the late 90s. And some were part of Art and Artist / Put it in Writing, the engineering print triptych I showed at the Dooley LeCappellaine Gallery on Crosby Street in SoHo (1997). Little by little I had more ideas for the cards and I began to use them in interactive performances, mostly in Europe from about 2006 on. They were shown as large prints at the Lucas Carrieri Gallery in Berlin (2009). Then they began to combine with live action projects that use my Identity Theft Masks, like in London at the Ten Gales Gallery (2010) or that use my Button Pins, like at SET Gallery in Brooklyn (2011), for example. About that time I made folios of them, that I added to my artists’ books editions lists, and are now in some libraries. And most recently I’ve quoted from them in my novel Wish for Amnesia, as if from one of the characters.

There is a knock at the door as wine is delivered. Fellow artist Bill Creston opens a Malbec and pours glasses all around. We return to the conversation about the Provocation Cards Project.

GS: So back to the cards, can you explain the video part of the project for me a little bit.

BR: I’ll show you the video. It’ll be perfect, we’ll drink some wine while we watch. It’s only a two-minute piece. I’ve made 130 videos and I’m starting to set up for a Seventieth Birthday International Video Retrospective. If I do nothing else, I do invent titles.

Barbara hops from her seat and climbs a ladder to start the projector near the big windows, then runs across the space to pull down a 90” screen. She notices a 2degree trapezoid of the projection rectangle. 

BR: I will say that the angle doesn’t bother me. What do you think?

GS: It’s totally fine by me!

BR: Well, I’d be the first one to have something like this bother me. I am a perfectionist. But here we go with my 98% rule. My 98% rule is that if you have everything up to 98% perfect, then you leave it alone if you’re in a hurry!

GS: That’s a good rule.

BR: Yes, I’ve broken it and regretted it many times. 

The film begins with a younger version of Barbara speaking directly to the camera. “You spend thousands of dollars on your house. I bought sheets for the first time in seventeen years and you thought it was an extravagance.” The screen then cuts to Barbara’s hands holding out the cards to the camera as she reads the aphorisms. “Do you get the picture?” “Put it in writing.” “Time plays tricks.” “This is controversial.” “This is a simple declaration.” “Don’t ask.” “Who says?” At the end of the film, it reads ORIGINAL VHS 1988 DIGITAL REMASTER 2007.

BR: That was the original set of seven. The ones that were sent out as Mail Art. Then over the years, the more philosophical time-space elements came into play, and there are now twenty-two. So what’s question number two?

GS: Provoking someone usually implies a sense of action, irritation, or anger. So, what is it about “provocation,” as a word, concept, and activity that drove you to use it as a central theme in these works?

BR: A fair, although surely a leading question. You know, I’ve thought about that too. Why I call them that. Well things call themselves these things. This is one project I gave a name to AFTER I had begun it. Often my works appear to me WHOLE, at least the beginnings of them – a title, images and/or texts, medium, method of display, etc. I don’t think about what my projects are leading to, or where they are intended to end up. I use the term “plurp.” Ideas “plurp” into my mind as titles, words, fragments, as I said, often whole, by which I mean the form and content together. Only afterward, or late in the “during” do I think about what they mean, sometimes with the help of people like you with your probing interviews. But also, to imagine who might be seeing the work and what they might be thinking. I still don’t do that until quite a ways after the project is well underway. I don’t have political or ideological positions that get illustrated. I don’t make art for specific purposes. If I have cerebral ideas, I will try to untangle them in a cogent essay. What was the question again?

GS: So, what exactly were you trying to provoke in people?

BR: Oh, why “provocation” cards!? Well, ideas. Ideas themselves are provocative. You know, plus also the early cards, like “Who says?” and “Time Plays Tricks.” Those are pretty challenging cards. My novel Wish for Amnesia deals with a character who hears voices that challenge his integrity.  In a way that was true of me too, but for me these would only just come as a journal entry. I was psychotic for at least fifteen heavily medicated years, 1990-2005, diagnosed as Schitzo-affective Disorder. So they are provocative and challenging for me as well as the viewer. They were all originally “voices” to myself. The Button Pins are aggressive voices in that way, too. The first Button Pin, “Don’t expect me to be nice to you.” That was just stated in the Journal as well. I realized it about myself at the time, also 1983. It was a pretty hard year. My youngest child was a toddler, my mother had just died at age 66, younger than I am now, and I was teaching at four colleges on two days a week, all long drives out of the city. A few weeks later I realized further and wrote in my Journal, “I don’t expect you to be nice to me.” I have a wry sense of humor, and thought I should wear it as a button pin. But then I got the idea that it really could be a set of button pins, so I bought a button pin machine. And, like Provocation Cards and other works over the years, I added to the project, created pages to attach the button pins to with their titles and other information and offered them for sale at Printed Matter, the artists bookstore in New York, and eventually issuing them in boxed sets.

GS: I want to focus in on the performative aspect of Provocation Cards, so how did you develop it from one form to another? What brought it from lines in a diary to Mail Art? Then what made you bring it to the streets? How did the Button Pins work with it? And how did you bring it to the streets in front of galleries specifically, or the most iconic plazas in cities like Paris and Rome? What were those experiences like? How did people respond differently between the different forms? Did your Mail Art recipients have responses?

BR: No. I sent those first pieces as anonymous Mail Art.

GS: So no one could respond to you about those. But then with people in the streets, you showed me the cards that were ripped up in your face. And the ones that were thrown into rain puddles. You keep all the particulants. You’ve also had people beside yourself wear them in performance. So what were some of the highlight responses from people? And do you think anyone was provoked towards any sort of action after receiving them?

BR: A lot of particulants are kept by me — a lot of my trivial papers are retained [I think of her studio sweepings piece Dirty Book] and as for media events, even this interview is being taped. [We nod to Ripley at the camera.] Good things did happened in many places. And I engaged with people differently and used their languages differently. The so-called performances were always conceived of it as media events, which meant that the documentation of them was going to be the actual product. I always called these street events “interactions,” not “performances” per se -- Provocation Cards Interaction. I just kind of strut around with sample cards pinned on my hat and yell “Free Ideas!” and in their languages, too, where “free” often translates to different things. For example, in French, “free” can be said as “gratuites,” which means “without cost,” or it can be said as “libérées,” like “liberated.” I shouted sometimes “Idée Gratuites!” and sometimes “Idées Libérées!” It can also in French be “exempt,” “hésitez pas,” and “sans,” but I wasn’t thinking in those ways then about the piece. But we could. There is always a tad of Dada in my work.

GS: Were the first Provocation Card Interactions in New York?

BR: The first was in front of The White Box Gallery in 2005, supposedly with three other people from The Outrageous Consortium, a group I formed, but only one person showed up, Margot Neiderland, to wear the Button Pin Shirts and give out the cards. I did it because there was such a thing as Performa 05, the first of the Performas, no one knowing there would be more, and I just felt like being in it even though I wasn’t invited. I just did it anyway. Basically, I always do whatever I want. I never want to do anything I consider bad, so I know I can do anything. I don’t care what anyone else’s idea of correctness is. Yes, sure, it’s one of the things of all Performance Art — that the artist can just show up and do something anywhere anytime but I don’t know, I just did it. I did it also in front of the Guggenheim during the festival, too. Yes, as you said, in iconic spaces. And the thing about the Guggenheim is that at that particular moment, probably as a sanctioned part of Performa 05, Antonovich…Maria…What’s her name? Marianna Ambrovovitch [Marina Abramović] was there. She was under a stage inside the Guggenheim, supposedly masturbating. Which was a reprisal of Vito Acconci’s piece supposedly masturbating at some gallery. Basically, I think that people who create supposedly scandalous things in the name of art must be pretty repressed, and not have too-great sex lives [Bill Creston loudly laughs, pours her more wine and toasts us all]. But that’s horse of another off-color, I guess. [We laugh and toast again.]

Barbara Rosenthal, Provocation Cards.

GS: So what happened in front of the Guggenheim?

BR: Well, I was giving out free some really great ideas on 2” pieces of cardstock. But everyone was pushing me aside to get in to NOT SEE this other performance artist supposedly under the stage. I really loved that ridiculous confluence! No one at all showed up for me that day except Bill. Bill Creston here came and did the documentation video and photos. That was a pretty hard sell. In other places it was a little easier to get people to take the cards. I did write a letter to what’s her name, who runs Performa 05, I think she teaches at The New School or NYU, a well-known administrator of performance art things, What’s-her-name, Rosa Something [Roselee Goldberg]. And I wrote her very nicely that I did these interactions, peripherally to her festival. I even paid the $50 she asked for next year to be part of her organization. I didn’t mean to “crash,” exactly. But that did lead to a 1500-word review of my interaction in NYArts by Milton Fletcher, Taboo or Not Taboo: Barbara Rosenthal During Performa05. He came and recorded the event and wrote the article. 

GS: How did the billboards come to be?

BR: This was a total surprise for me! I didn’t even know about it until I received documentation photos. Apparently Padua is a sister city to Prague, and Monika Burian, the curator of TinaB: The Prague International Contemporary Arts Festival that I’d beem in just sent images of the cards to Padua and they made billboards from them. Pity I didn’t know, though — I would have gone for sure, and done an interaction in front of the cathedral!

GS: What about the other cities?

BR: If I want to travel to places, I want to show stuff. I want to have some gallery or something. Or just set up in the street. Also, it’s a tax deduction, so I don’t go many places that I don’t do an event or have a show. After my photo-art dealer, Monique Goldstrom, died I didn’t want to find another dealer yet. I wanted to travel more, and was able to have installations in Beijing and Moscow of my Conceptual Photos and Existential Cartoons. The next place I wanted to go was Berlin, and I was forming a project on my own, Existential Interact, to do in front of KW, Kunstwerke, a well-known PS 1-type venue. When I called the German consulate to find out if I needed a permit, my project became fortuitously included in the Wooloo Group’s performance festival (2008), and they even gave me an apartment, when then led to 15 more shows of various kinds in Berlin since then! The KW street work Existential Interact included the cards, but had my puppets, and videos on my battery-powered laptop, and other things, too.

GS: But you did some of the interactions just all on your own in Europe, too, in iconic spaces?

BR: Yes, the first of the plaza Provocation Cards Interacts was in Brussels, 2010. I was staying with my dear friend and best artist in the world, Alexandra Dimentieva. She has a studio and apartment in Brussels and I was stopping off on the way to some actual shows I had booked in Germany, so I did it in the Bruxelles Gran’ Place. There were three ways I did it there — one was in front of a stage that had been set up for a band concert the night before, which looked just perfect, like it was there for me. The second way was that there were young people, both tourists and others, sitting around on the ground, so I just sat down with them and said, “Hey, look what I’ve got.” Those people got very, very involved. The third way was that I held up various cards in front of my camera, with pairs of people in the background, so each photo looks like the saying on the card relates to their relationship. You can see all these images on my website Projects Page.

Barbara Rosenthal, Provocation Cards, billboard.

GS: Where else in Europe? What about the cards torn up and thrown into rain puddles in Paris?

BR: Well, that was great fun!! Especially because the photographer Joe Coole was staying with the same person I was, the Caribbean photographer Nico Derne, whom I’d met in NY the year before at his own show here. Nico’s uncle had an apartment in Paris and about five people from different parts of the world were staying there at the time. Joe Coole documented the whole thing in the rain. I did it in the Esplenade du Trocadéro, backdropped by the complete height of the Eiffel Tower. People frowned and frowned. It was the most hostile interaction of them all, but by being so was also one of the most fun and resulted in some of the best documentation, which, as I said, is the point of my Performative Media Art.

GS: Did other people respond more positively to the messages you gave them in other cities? Did they give you their opinions on what you were giving them?

BR: Those are very different questions: “how did people respond” and “did they give opinions, that is to say did they evaluate the work.” As for evaluation, Milton Fletcher, the NYArts critic who reviewed my White Box sidewalk interaction called his review Taboo or Not Taboo had fun writing mostly about the crash aspect of it, but thought highly of the piece itself. I myself have fun learning what people in the arts think of as out of bounds, and what’s not – the masturbation piece at the Guggenheim and all those pussy pictures being titillating exhibitions for example, but no artist dare ask about things like what an artist has in the bank, for example, or “crashing” a curatorial. That’s all another topic we can interview about another time. What the Art World taboos REALLY are! 

GS: And responses?

BR: As for response, any time anyone really pays any attention to my work at all, they tell me how it is exactly like their own life it is, or their own thoughts, or even actual experiences or dreams or hidden hopes or fearsViewers of my textworks or writings say I give words to their feelings. The artist Dan Devine, showing with me at Dooley LeCappellaine (1996) told me that ALL my work is interactive in that way. I am quite proud of this. I want my work to be universal. I think that is the hallmark of real art – real art from ANY time and ANY culture. So the stories I get back from the people who engage with Provocation Cards are incredible connections. In 2015, for the Piazza del Popolo Provocation Cards Interact in Rome, I’d had wonderful advance publicity by Claudio Scardino. He was a peach. He had friended me on Facebook and invited me to Italy. He set up a whole series of readings, screenings, talks and performances in Barletta, Florence and Rome. For the Piazza de Popolo Provocation Cards Interact and he created original music, and it garnered a lot of advance press, so we got big crowds. Art students and philosophy students showed up in Piazza de Popolo and sat down with notebooks to talk to me. I was wearing my printed t-shirts with logo images from a project I did at the Chelsea Hotel Pool Art Fair (2007), which had the Provocation Cards pinned onto it, too. 

Barbara Rosenthal, Provocation Cards.

GS: That sounds like a really great experience.

BR: Yes! Wonderful!! But in Sydney, I faked the whole thing. And at Stonehenge I’m still not sure what happened. And I lost the very most important thing from Italy!

GS: How so? What do you mean?

BR: I didn’t feel like doing it in Sydney. I was depressed. I had been invited to do a wonderful tour in Australia by another incredibly comprehensive and generous host, Rebecca Cunningham, including an entire evening in Brisbane just devoted to my Journals. I’d come to Sydney after doing a few events in Melbourne, but the Institute of Modern Art in Sydney cancelled my scheduled screening and talk at the last minute because the administrator who handled the funding was on vacation and didn’t make provision for my $200 fee. I said so what that’s ok it was already on their calendar, and I’d willingly do it for free, but they wouldn’t hear of it. So I would have rather been off in the outback with my cameras and Journal before going on the next city for the next event, and felt trapped in Sydney itself. 

GS: So how did you fake Provocation Cards Interact Sydney? And what happened at Stonehenge?

BR: In Sydney, I just took cover shots around the Opera House, and photoshopped my image onto them from other interactions. I am a Media Artist, after all! [Bill Creston and I laugh, and pours more wine.] And in Stonehenge, somehow I was able to retain some still photos of the place itself that were on my iPod, but my whole external hard drive crashed and I lost all the actual video interactions – and it was the June (2010) solstice, so the place was filled with people, and very much interaction took place. The data couldn’t be recovered. 

GS: I’m glad that doesn’t happen too often.

BR: Important data from Italy was lost, too — on that same irretrievable hard drive was a talk by a philosopher who came to the Barletta library in southern Italy for the first international book launch of Wish for Amnesia. In Italian, he goes on and on and on and on enthusiastically talking to the audience about all my work as a whole — not simultaneously translated, you know, even though my reading was. The video from that has totally disappeared! Probably the most insightful thing anyone has ever said about my work, but in a language I didn’t understand, and in a media-form that became irretrievable.

GS: Yeah, that’s tough. It’s the sad nature of fleeting media.

BR: Exactly.  I do appreciate the irony of it, though! The Dada aspect – the most important analysis of my work in a language I don’t understand, and then that disappears altogether.

GS:  What do you think is about these works that makes them fit together cohesively? Obviously the text is the same throughout much of it, or it develops, but it maintains a kernel in the middle that makes it a provocative statement. What do you think, other than the text, makes cohesion between the different forms of it? Do you think that the Padua billboards fit cohesively with you physically standing outside the Guggenheim? How do you put those two together to call it the same piece of art? Or do you call it different pieces of art?

BR: These are the same thoughts. Only their vehicle of communication changes slightly. It’s all pretty much free to viewers, and low-tech. If it’s piecemeale it’s a peaceful meal, and pieces of a meal, which has some protein, some vegetable and some starch.

Barbara Rosenthal, Provocation Cards.

GS: I see. And what about your Surreal Photos and the Conceptual Photos that you derive from the Surreals?

BR: Well, photography, that is to say, work that begins in a camera, is one of the media I include when I say “Media Art.” I’ve been trying very hard to “package,” and what’s that new word…”brand” my output. On one hand, I am thinking about how can I present work to allow thoughtful people or other artists or scholars or historians or psychiatrists to figure these things out on their own, without any backstory, analysis, or dodo artist’s statement. 

GS: How to you go about relating it all? What are the relationships between your artworks and your life-involved projects?

BR: I have a workbook here that I call Iconography. The whole point of it is that I’m trying to deliberately figure out these relationships myself. One thing I can tell you is that I consider my photo-based imagery the “real” art of my art, what I call the “sacred objects” of art, and all the text-based work and video is a by-product of creating “sacred objects.” By “by-product” I mean the ideas that come about DURING the processes, particularly regarding the intersection of art and life, that lead to “real art.” I do, as you can see, have the need to produce actual editions of these by-products, the 130 video shorts and several dozen artist’s books, artist’s objects, performances and text-works, but even so, I think they are my lesser works. I am NOT a “life=art” nor a “process=product” nor a “politicalpropaganda=art” type of thinker. I think the real vocation of a real artist is to produce real artworks. And, frankly, as intriguing as the Provocation Cards Project is to you and many others, it is only a by-product of producing the beautiful and intriguing-to-look-at photo-based works.

GS: One of the “real art” pieces in which you use Provocation Cards texts is Art and Artist / Put It In Writing (c.1994). You use photographic imagery of your children’s hand-me-down shoes, pages from Roget’s Thesaurus and pages from Dr. Otto Rank’s Art and Artist. This “art and artist, life and art” concept relates directly to what you just said. Tell me more. 

BR: One of the really important mandates for me, from very early on, comes from my Contemporary Art History professor from graduate school who I had become very close to intellectually, Robert Pincus-Witten. We used to travel home from class together, from Queens to Manhattan in my VW Bus. He lived at UN Plaza, I lived at 95 Avenue B and I gave him a lift home. I was 24, and I’d already had ten years of art studies, having begun at the Brooklyn Museum Art School at the age of 14. I asked him directly, “What is art?” He said, “art is what an artist makes.” That was the moment I knew I would be able to trust what I made to be “real art,” not just some fancy pictures or decorations or polemics, IF I could be an absolutely pure maker, and like every cliché in the book kind of way to turn my entire being into what the ideal artist actually is. And no faking it! So, little by little, I totally understood what “corruption” is in this paradigm. 

GS: What is it? How do you avoid art corruption? Or artist corruption?

BR: Here are some rules. No making things to just sell. No making art to satisfy others’ needs, or demands, UNLESS you clearly state the work is “commissioned.” No succumbing to curators’ themes (and curators ought to be SHOT for asking this of artists!), or following trends, or even knowing too much about who is doing what or even who anyone else is. There is more -- you know, I know it when I see it. I don’t want to make art about other art, or be too much on the scene. I want ALL the factors of my life and times to stress my creative unconscious. 

GS: Do you relate your work at all to art history?

BR: Oh yes! I always imagine a pretend-gallery group show, one in which my works hang among the greatest, even different examples from different periods, like Rembrandt, Picasso, Mirandi, and see if mine looks dumb or holds its integrity among them. After all, why should I ask viewers to come see my work if they could spend better time at the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art]. I’m trying to clarify Art Philosophy ideas in clear essay form in my Ragazine column, A Crack in the Sidewalk. And to a degree also in the larger philosophical points about reality and perfection that you are interested in these Provocation Cards.

Barbara Rosenthal, Provocation Cards.

GS: Has this impacted your career? 

BR: I must always be vigilant about this. I must keep myself “real,” that is “not corrupt” by not thinking about career too much. Robert C. Morgan gave an interview about me — it’s on YouTube now — in which he says I’m a “truly underground” artist, and Richard Kostelanetz, in his reference book Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes  calls me a “truly original” artist. Both of those statements whammed me in the head because I really didn’t know anyone was appreciating my work at all, let alone the methods and values I’ve maintained about it. I only very rarely apply for grants and opportunities, for example, and turn down many I’ve been offered because they’d pull me in a direction tangent to the one the art itself pulls me in. The art itself makes me make it. I’ve been cautioned by several art dealers who love my Surreal Photos and Conceptual Photos telling me that they are totally unsaleable, that what collectors of photographic art want isn’t photographic art but what Duane Michals calls “pictures of other people’s lives.” It may take long beyond my lifetime for this to come together. I don’t really care. I care that what I do be “real” art, and is, if I keep my own self a “real artist” in the way that Robert Pincus-Witten meant. That’s all he said, “art is what an artist makes,” but to me it meant to focus on only the artmaking led by my creative unconscious.

GS: Right, things start to seize up in the process. What do friends say?

BR: Yeah, well, I’m used to being friendless. I’m not used to having friends, this is like the weirdest thing. I’m beginning to have some friends now, lately, though. Although mostly on the poetry scene. Although, oddly, they aren’t so much interested in actually READING as they are in DOING READINGS. But ok, whatever. Basically, I’ve stopped the wearying thing about pointing out other peoples’ flaws and corruptions out loud to them, especially now that I can do it in my column, in a more general way, and work hard to untangle ideas that apply to visual and literary art across time and space.

GS: Well, I’m happy to be your friend!

BR: Until some time when we end up in a disagreement.

GS: Well, until that day, we’ll call ourselves friends. [Barbara blows me a kiss.]

BR: So I am trying to put all my work together, yes. I think it actually IS all coming together on its own, and there are bodies of my work that are in neat, new bought-and-paid-for portfolios, not just old, tattered, reused things from my late father’s architecture office. But mostly I mean that a “real” artist produces “sacred objects.” It’s not enough to just call yourself an artist — though it’s not a licensed profession, so, what the hell, but very few people out there really are. Those who are producing “sacred objects” are too often reducing what they learned in art school to some B- pieces of crap. Not worth going to see if one could go to the Met. And as for “identity,” which is a theme of my own work, I mean identity of self by an artist is an example of the whole of humanity. It’s not enough to stand in front of the mirror at 2’o clock every day and say “This is my identity piece!” For God’s sake, if that’s all one is, get away from me. 

GS: Right, that’s not pure art.

BR: Well, I’m having trouble with the categories. Identity Art, I mean, there are a ton of artists, women in particular, who stand in front of the mirror at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Or “my ancestors were slaves” or “ were immigrants” or this or that, or “I’m a woman, so here’s a pussy picture.” Even as a Jewish artist, I do address the crisis that I feel Jews are in now, but in direct, clear, essay form. Personally, I’m in crisis for many reasons, so this is just one small part of it — I don’t make ART out of any one single thing, but of ALL the stresses and pleasures and confusions on this artist’s life and times. Everything together, in a “real” artist, is distilled and compressed to form the diamonds that are real art. This used to be called High Art. We are over-democratized now.

Barbara Rosenthal, Provocation Cards.

GS: What was the latest iteration of Provocation Cards Project? And how do you feel about this project as a whole today? And are there future developments in mind for this project?

BR: There’s never anything in mind because with a project like this, or any of my work. It just gets made. And it can be re-made. The art itself directs me. Right now, one of the things I’m trying to do this Seventieth Birthday International Video extravaganza all over the world, and Iceland is somewhere I have never been so I may try to find a little dramatic setting there to do Provocation Cards Interact Iceland. Which is part of the answer to why the Eiffel Tower. I’m looking for the iconic, and kinda silly, but dramatic image that denotes the disparities — the difference between big, grand, public, architectural, spacious vs little, cheap, paper, throwaway, cerebral, private BUT UNIVERSAL AND ETERNAL NONETHELESS.

GS:  Yeah Provocation Cards Project totally fits those bills. So where was the latest place that you either did it in any form in a gallery or as performance, or —?

BR:  The most current use of the Provocation Cards texts is that I wrote myself into this last iteration of my novel, Wish for Amnesia. You know, by the way, that that’s another project I’ve been reworking and reissuing for forty years, too? My life and work is all a singularity. Things are as easily “this morning” as they are “twenty years ago.” My publisher, Joseph Quintella, says I have only two time zones, Now and Not Now. Anyway, to answer your question – I wrote myself in as a guest at the party, the “Media Poet,” the best friend of the host, and she’s quoted there. The latest iteration of the Provocation Cards is in Chapter 21: Jewel Enters Beatrice’s Party Alone is that another guest attributes two of the texts from the Provocation Cards Billboards to her.

GS: That’s really cool. So that’s the last iteration of it right now?

BR: Actually yeah, that is definitely the latest iteration. The books are actually arriving from the printer today. Whether it’s the “last,” as in “the final,” who’s to know yet until I’m dead.

GS: So I guess your biggest reflection would be that it kind of never ends and that the works themselves are always needy and you’ll continue working on them forever?

BR: Who knows?!? They have their own lives. All my works have their own lives. They stay in my mind all the time. Including the millions of photographic images I’ve produced. And they come back in text situations, in video things, as prisms of themselves. They just do. I have put in some effort, which may be corrupt, into assimilating my work a bit more, and showing them around more. Whether that’s for a market or not, is a legitimate question about corruption. My daughter Sena Clara Creston is approaching her career in art differently. Without giving up any ideas about her projects, she’s actually advocating that her students take business classes.

GS: Maybe that’s because she doesn’t want her own children to grow up in hand-me-down shoes.

Everyone laughs. “You’re such a card!” Bill Creston says, uncorking another bottle of wine. Everyone laughs at his wit. Ripley shuts down the camera and joins us at the windows on the river. WM 


Barbara Rosenthal

Barbara Rosenthal is an idiosyncratic New York artist/writer/performer/philosopher whose latest book, the novel,  Wish for Amnesia (Deadly Chaps Press, 2017) explores themes of idealism, innocence, esthetics, dimensionality, thought and corruption. She is particularly interested in the intersection of art and life.

WIKIPEDIA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Rosenthal

WEBSITE: http://www.barbararosenthal.org

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