Martha Rosler, Point n Shoot, 2016.
Digital Print. Courtesy of the artist and
Mitchell-Innes &; Nash, New York. Artwork © Martha Rosler

Martha Rosler Thinks the Best Way to Deal With Trump Is Laughter

The feminist artist, activist, writer, and thinker is sick of “performing authenticity” via email.

by Paige Katherine Bradley
Nov 16 2018, 8:05pm

Martha Rosler, Point n Shoot, 2016.
Digital Print. Courtesy of the artist and
Mitchell-Innes &; Nash, New York. Artwork © Martha Rosler

For over five decades, Martha Rosler has trained her critical eye on the stories America likes to tell about itself, coolly deconstructing fantasy—a national pastime—by collaging scenes of violence and degradation with those of beauty and aspiration. Her videos, sculptures, texts, and photography all speak to a political engagement not just with the present but with the historical structure that undergirds it. Here, she talks dealing with tyrants, the social epidemic of courtliness, and building community.

Martha Rosler, Carmine, Sujit, Teresa, from the series Greenpoint Project, 2011, color print. Artwork © Martha Rosler; image courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

GARAGE: This was the first show I’ve seen of yours that ranged from the well-known early works of the 1960s–’70s, including videos like Semiotics of the Kitchen and the House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home series of collages, to newer work as well. I wanted to ask you about the newest video in the exhibition, Pencicle of Praise

Martha Rosler: Which is actually unfinished. We uploaded the file the morning the show opened.

GARAGE: Well, that makes sense, given that it shows footage from recent White House press briefings and cabinet meetings. The work can always be added to, since the Trump administration is a fountain of content.

MR: Especially with the red Xs marked on people’s faces, of people who have been fired or resigned from the cabinet. We’ll have to add one onto Jeff Sessions’s face.

GARAGE: The video has these scenes of people lavishly praising Trump, paying their respects, saying “thank you, it’s such a privilege, it’s such an honor to be here,” and so on. Everyone is paying tribute as if they were visiting a king at court. And I thought that was really interesting because the tone of this political pageantry connects directly back to an essay you wrote about the art world’s social niceties that e-flux published in November 2016, when Trump was elected, titled “Why Are People Being So Nice?”

MR: It’s a job requirement. I began that essay in a fit of pique about all the emails I was getting that began, “I hope this message finds you well.” I thought, “Where the hell did this come from? Could we stick to ‘dear’?” If you want to be formal and insincere, use “dear.” Do not pretend to inquire after my health. In my book Culture Class, I wrote about the problems of sincerity and authenticity, which have been on the cards for a hundred years. How do you perform authenticity in a way that actually seems authentic? Well, what Trump has discovered is—and he’s not the only one—you perform authenticity as a male, and generally a white male, but not always, by being belligerent, angry, and uncivilized.

GARAGE: That plows through all graces, so a man like that gets his way because everyone else has been trained to have manners or put on a good face. One can’t counter brutality with manners.

MR: And they recognize their own manners as being inauthentic because they are also full of rage, and so he’s a hero.

Martha Rosler, still from Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, black-and-white video, 6 min., 30 sec. Artwork © Martha Rosler

GARAGE: In your essay, you diagnose a practiced habit of courtliness in the art world, specifically, which struck me as so on point but also strange—that no one had quite articulated this so directly before.

MR: It’s manipulative. And it’s manipulative in the way that everything is these days, like when robots pretend they’re people when you get a call sometimes. To which I always say, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to answer your question because you’re not actually a person.”

GARAGE: In the video, there is this rush of smile emojis and “like” buttons when a journalist in the White House press corps is humoring Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s request for them to tell her something they’re grateful for. It’s this odd display of faux solidarity, expressed via bringing the private and personal into a professional context.

MR: Did you ever watch Doctor Who? There was an episode a few years ago that took place on a planet where robots were trying to make everything okay for people. And they walk around with emojis that are smiling or frowning, and people get killed if they don’t deploy them properly. If the smile becomes a frown, the person is ground up and made into food. It’s actually a very nice episode, quite startling.

GARAGE: Cheerfulness has always been leveraged for marketing and promotional purposes, but authenticity also seems like a very important value to convey, or impression to give off, when pushing an idea or product now.

MR: President Eisenhower’s campaign in the 1950s used a technique of putting adulatory comments in the mouths of the ordinary guy, having him talk about why he liked Ike—this was Edward Bernays material.

GARAGE: The Adam Curtis film series The Century of the Self talks about him—

MR: I’m not a fan of Adam Curtis.

GARAGE: Neither am I! But I was curious of what you thought of that film in relation to this topic.

MR: I’d be willing to watch it, but I’m biased against him. He’s like this smiley-faced Alex Jones type—somebody who takes information and sort of twists it into a conspiratorial framework. And yet he’s working for the BBC and using their material. In HyperNormalization (2016), he held up Patti Smith and me as examples, blaming some female artists for destroying the will to struggle. Like, excuse me? Blame your bosses.

Martha Rosler, Red Stripe Kitchen, from
the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, c. 1967-72, photomontage, Artwork © Martha Rosler; image courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

GARAGE: I didn’t realize before how funny your work is! And even in the collages from the late ’60s and early ’70s that incorporate violent and troubling images of the Vietnam War, those have the structure and composition of jokes.

MR: The best way to deal with a tyrant is by laughter. And, of course, that absolutely applies to our tyrant, wannabe king. I read books on analyses of jokes in the early ’70s, just trying to figure out how do work with this kind of material. What I have to do now at screenings of my own videos is to sit in the audience and laugh, so that people know it’s okay to laugh.

GARAGE: You also have work in the show that speaks to the gentrification of Greenpoint. How do you think the creative class, as it’s always called, can avoid collusion with agendas like that of the real estate industry?

MR: Don’t you think we love having a villain? Artists of course had no intention of being the tip of the spear of gentrification. They were going to places that were cheap, and tended to feel more like the people who lived there than like the people who, little did they know, were going to be supplanting them—who were, back in the day, yuppies. You are a gentrifier whether you mean to be or not, but because artists are messianic, then want to be completely the ones who are to blame, and think, “Yes, this is us, we did this.” I’ve had to move from trying to explain to artists why they have a role in gentrification to trying to explain to them why they are not the root cause of gentrification, which is a little exhausting. But, the answer is become part of your community, if they’ll let you.

Martha Rosler: Irrespective runs through March 3, 2019 at the Jewish Museum .

Martha Rosler