Global Feminisms: Mary Coble

Video courtesy of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, published at Youtube in 2010.

Artist talk by queer performance artist Mary Coble (USA)
In conjunction with the exhibition Global Feminisms, feminist artists from more than fifty countries discussed or performed their works in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art Forum. These artist talks took place during the Center’s opening weekend March 23-25, 2007.

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Published by Feminine Moments: Mary Coble, Queer Artist and Teacher

Mary Coble, Queer Artist and Teacher

Text: Birthe Havmoeller, November 29, 2011

Mary Coble, photo by Birthe Havmoeller

Mary Coble, photo by Birthe Havmoeller

I met artist Mary Coble for coffee and a chat about her practice as a performance artist and a professor at the Funen Art Academy in Odense, Denmark. Mary Coble joined the Funen Art Academy last year.
Mary explains, “I enjoy teaching at the academy because I’m there to offer guidance and support though my own practice and experience as an artist.” The Funen Art Academy is situated in Odense, the birthplace of the author Hans Christian Andersen. It has appr. 60 students and is based in the town centre of Odense in the ‘Brandts Klædefabrik’ (Brandt’s Textile Mill), a former industrial building, which was turned into a centre for visual arts in the mid 1980s. Mary is teaching part time the academy, as are all of her colleagues too. She is living in Copenhagen. In this way she gets the better of two worlds – a job at a small but innovative art academy and the cultural life of Copenhagen.

We are sitting in Café Biografen, the cafe of the ground floor art cinema of the Brandts  Klædefabrik. Mary’s Academy is on the top floor the building, which also houses Kunsthallen Brandts (The Art Hall at Brandt’s) and Museet for Fotokunst (The Museum of Photo Art). All of which make it a unique and inspiring environment in which to teach art. Mary notes that the pace of life seems slower in Denmark than in the USA, which is something that she enjoys. Mary, who was teaching before she came to Denmark, tells me that her experience teaching in Denmark is very different to her experience at a university in USA. The Danish art students get to spend more time in their studios working on their own practice and via the students’ council of the academy they have more control of how the academy and their education is formulated. Last spring she gave a workshop on performance and this semester the students asked her to hold a photography-based workshop.

Originally Mary was trained as a photographer and she is happy to share her experiences with the students. As only a few of the students have analogue cameras, she decided that as part of the workshop they would experiment with pinhole photography. In her workshop the students were asked to design their own cameras and take photos which, in part, reflect the design of their camera. Raising her students’ awareness about working conceptually when making works of art is a must for Mary Coble. She wants to expand what photography can be and do.

Mary explains: “When I talk about working conceptually for me it means that I have an idea that is my starting point.  As I work I’m open to intuitive moments, discovery and re-formulation that helps shape the final piece. In the end it’s important to me that I have laid a foundation where my viewers can explore some of the ideas that I was initially interested in without the work being too didactic that it tells them what to think or how to read the piece. I’m more interested in posing layers of questions that people will react differently to. I do not expect my students to work as I do. I try to support their own ways of working while offering challenges to their practice as well.”

The academy doesn’t have photography facilities so she and her  students have set up their own darkroom. Alongside the hands-on visual experiments with pinhole photography she exposes her students to fine vintage prints by renowned photographers such as Diane Arbus at The Museum of Photo Art and takes them to see some of the finest quality hand printed Danish photogravures at FotoGrafiske Værksted , Aarhus, and guess what – They love it!

Mary Coble’s teaching is workshop based and she tells me that she loves to select texts, and introduce artist’s works and creative concepts, which she finds interesting and challenging to understand. She brings her selection of materials to the class for her students to discuss. During the course of this dialog about art they get to learn and inspire each other by sharing their different personal views. She sees herself as a facilitator, who brings interesting and challenging works to the workshop and when teaching she relies on her experience as an artist rather than as an academic. Teaching is a very rewarding experience for Mary Coble. She describes it as a learning process, which helps her as an artist as well.

Mary rarely uses photography in her own work currently. Mainly using live performance, installation, and video in her works she explores social issues such as gender, queerness, power, and the division of basic resources.

Mary explains, “Live art is very exciting to me right now. I enjoy the fact that one has to be present to truly experience the work.“

I have spotted that endurance is an essential part of her artistic practice and ask her why art has to be hard work? She doesn’t mind her live performances to be hard work, as she experiences something immensely rewarding during and after the process after. When working with her ideas and creative concepts it is important for her that she find the best possible way in which to manifest them and make her live performance as thought provoking as possible.

Remembering the pain which Mary must have felt when she made her Blood Script performance (2008, USA), where she had 75 derogatory words, which she had collected from the public during a prior performance tattooed onto her skin, without ink, I asked, if she would re-perform one of her performances?  Mary’s answer was: “Only if it makes sense and there is something intriguing about it. Sometimes it’s more challenging and exciting for me to create a new piece.” 

This autumn she is be doing a new live performance titled Fighting Cocks in Toronto, Canada and she will be performing Source Dublin: Field of Water  in Dublin, Ireland on December 3, 2011.

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Toronto: Commitment Issues

Commitment Issues  – Curated by Jess Dobkin takes place November 16 + 17, 2011 in Toronto, Canada. The event presents an selection of works by international performance artists and in addition to the evening of performance art, the artists and curator speak about the work and the event in a panel discussion after the event.

Commitment Issues: An Evening of Performance Art
Wednesday November 16, 7-10 pm
Oasis Aqualounge
231 Mutual Street, Toronto, Canada
$15 admission – $12 students/seniors/underemployed

Processing: Artists’ Panel & Reception
Thursday November 17, 7:30-9:30 pm
Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, U of T
79A St. George Street, Toronto
FREE / open to all 

Jess Dobkin Invites You to Join Her:
“Welcome to Commitment Issues, an evening of performance art at Oasis Aqualounge, where site-specific performances take place in an outdoor heated swimming pool, steam room, hot tub and locker room. Come for the performances and then stay late to enjoy the Aqualounge’s amenities, which also include a sauna, two licensed bars, and multiple lounges. Secure lockers and towel service are provided.
Commitment Issues presents the work of five artists who use their bodies as the primary source material for investigating qualities and dimensions of commitment—to ideas, to performance, to audience, and to themselves. Through play, risk, ritual, and sexuality, these artists transcend fixed social, psychological, physical, and spiritual notions of commitment. Here, commitment is positioned as a subject and a substance that artists can stretch and subvert in the creation of their work, altering terminology, definition, and association. With this in mind, the artists have written their own personal definitions of “commitment,” indirectly offering a key to understanding their work (see reverse).
You are also invited to Processing, a panel discussion in which the artists and the audience gather to celebrate, pose questions, and share responses to the works presented in Commitment Issues. Commitment is an exceptional word, often used in varying and oppositional contexts, laden with social value and judgment. It can stand as an expression of agency and autonomy, as an exercise of one’s will, or else as a state of consignment or confinement wherein liberty is denied. We might commit to a relationship or to winning the big game, but we can also be committed to prison or a mental institution. In its active state, commitment is a learned practice, not an emotion or fixed state of
being. It is an engagement and a process; something that requires us to be both in the present moment and to think about the future. What does commitment mean to artists and how does it manifest in their work? For a performance artist, what is the connection between commitment and the physical/spiritual body?”

The Featured Artists:
Dana Michel, Alecia Grant, Dominic Johnson, the Pole Club and queer artists Mary Coble and Heather Cassils.

MARY COBLE is renown for using her performance, video, and installation to challenges herself and others to critically consider their reactions and interactions with social issues of injustice. Jess Dobkin writes about Mary Coble’s new performance for Commitment Issues that in this work Mary is “bound by a course of action, a commitment to see something through. Her work asks: How does one commit to something that is unknown, untested? Is commitment a guarantee or merely a promise? For Fighting Cocks, Mary has recruited a second performer, a near stranger, who partners and parallels her as they engage together and simultaneously reflect an internal dialogue.The power of commitment is the power to embrace the unknown”.

Mary Coble About FIGHTING COCKS:

1 full engagement mentally and physically in a praxis of investigation that is felt to be personally and socially urgent.
2 the introduction of the potential for a “sincere” experience for both the artist and viewer.
3 the insertion of queer questioning regarding power, privilege, categorization and normalization a example: <queer masculinity> No exact results found for “queer masculinity”. Did you mean: “questionable, tomboy, kinky, feminine, unsettled, sissy, emasculated, counterfeit, androgynous, weirdo, effeminate, aberrant, boyish, unmanly, abnormal, gay, weakened, trans, abnormal, butch, fabricated, freaky, womanly, fake, impotent, suspicious, irregular?”

FIGHTING COCKS by Mary Coble, performed with D. Eli Campanaro, takes place in a Locker Room on 2nd Floor at Oasis Aqualounge in Toronto, Canada.

Jess Dobkin’s description of Heather Cassils’ performance reads “In Teresias, HEATHER CASSILS consciously pushes the limits of her body with the knowledge that her boundaries are fixed so that she can explore their furthest edges. We see the performance as extreme, but like an athlete, she is regimented and precise. It is an exploration of the artist’s mental and physical parameters with a politic in mind. Through a tough dare, she speaks to issues of social power and control, but also to the artist’s own power and control of her physical body, her physique and transgender expression. There is an element of queerness in (her) performances, not in regards to sexual identity, but in their unconventional and politicized notions of commitment; to social engagement, to collaboration, and to expression. It recalls a legacy of queer culture based not in heteronormative values, but rather in community; imagined, sought, and nurtured.”

Heather Cassils’ Teresias takes place in the steam room at Oasis Aqualounge. Further details about the programme and the other artists are available at the Fado Performance Art Centre’s website.

About Curator and Performance Artist Jess Dobkin
Jess Dobkin is an out and proud queer artist based in Toronto, Canada. Her performances, artist’s talks and workshops are presented internationally at museums, galleries, theatres and in public spaces. She lectures and perform art workshops in Canada, USA and Europe.

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Jess Dobkin’s website
Jess Dobkin’s Artist Statement at Feminine Moment: Jess Dobkin – A Loud & Proud Performance Artist

Sweden: Queer Art Show And Queer Art Seminars In Umeå

Lost and Found – Queerrying the Archive

January 31 – April 25, 2010
at Bildmuseet, Umeå university, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden
Opening reception: January 31, 2010 at 14:00
This international group exhibition was first presented by Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, 2009.

Film still from Cecilia Barriga's 'Meeting of Two Queens'

Installation view of ‘Meeting of Two Queens’ by Cecilia Barriga, Nikolaj, Copenhagen 2009. Photo by Feminine Moments

The Lost and Found – Queerying Archive show, which is curated by Jane Rowley and Louise Wolthers, raises questions about how we can create an archive of the private memories of gender, love and sexuality that have been erased by official archives and excluded from the writing of history? How do we record and store feelings and intimacy? Lost and Found presented a series of spectacular, thought-provoking works addressing these issues through artistic visions of histories compiled and performed from a queer perspective.

The show features works of art by queer female artists Kimberly Austin, Cecilia Barriga, Mary Coble, Aleesa Cohene, Tejal Shah, Heidi Lunabba, and queer male artists Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Conny Karlsson, Al Masson, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, Flemming Rolighed, Ingo Taubhorn. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with perspectives on queer art, the archive and activism by Jane Rowley & Louise Wolthers, Mathias Danbolt, Ann Cvetkovich, Joe Brainard and Heather Love.

Queer Art Seminars

Along side the Lost and Found Queerying Archive show the Bildmuseet and Umeå centrum för genusstudier (centre of gender studies) organize a couple of queer seminars, where you can meet some of the artist.

Seminar: Queer In Theory And Practice

Bildmuseet, Umeå Saturday January 30, 2010, 13:00 – 17:00
Lesbian artists Mary Coble, USA, Tejal Shah, India and trans artist Conny Karlsson, Sweeden will present their art works.
Mallin Rönnblom from Umeå University will give an introduction to the queer theory and curators Jane Rowley and Louise Wolthers will talk about the exhibition.

Seminar: Queerying The Archive
Bildmuseet, Umeå Saturday April 24, 2010, 13:00 – 17:00
Queer artists Cecilia Barriga, Aleesa Cohene and queer male artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsey will present their works of art.
And there will be talks by Dr Gavin Butt, University of London and Ulrika Dahl, Sweden,  co-author of the book ‘Femmes of power – exploding queer femininities’.

Film still from Cecilia Barriga's Meeting of Two Queens   Film still from Cecilia Barriga's Meeting of Two Queens, 1991

Installation view of ‘Meeting of Two Queens’ by Cecilia Barriga. Photo by Feminine Moments

Lesbian Art – a Creative Media and a Political Tool

Text: Birthe Havmoeller, June 30, 2009

In the 1960’ies more or less all lesbian artists were in the closet. There were no lesbian artists – neither in USA nor in Europe – who got the same attention by the medias as American gay artist Andy Warhol or the british artist couple Gilbert & George. The lesbian artists were invisible and there was no visible representation of a lesbian lifestyle either. There existed almost no lesbian erotica made by lesbians before the beginning of 1970’ies, when the first progressive lesbian activists started publishing their own porn mags. The visual representation of lesbian sex was a taboo until the gay and lesbian movement started a general debate about homosexuality.

With start the women’s liberation movement a new source of motivation/ inspiration was born and there was a big creative boom among the female artists/activists: Now it was OK for women to make the images that the society (and their parents) didn’t like…! Women started exploring the creative potential of their body and sexuality and visual art became a media of self-empowerment. At the end of the 1970’ies the first lesbian art shows opened.

The Lesbian Body as a Sexual Object
In the 1970-80’ies the porn industry flowered. The primary target group of the porn industry was hetero sexual males. The erotic depictions of lesbians were not made by women. The “lesbian” images were designed by men for a male audience. I assume that the authors of these images had the idea that when a man turns hot on a photo of one nude woman he will turn twice as hot on an image with two nude women(!)

The lesbian feminists soon pointed to the fact that the commercial “lesbian” porn images were staged. The models were not lesbian as they neither looked nor acted like lesbians. The visual lie, that the models on those photos were “lesbians” sent must have made lots of lesbians feel a big emotional vacuum. They had accepted their own homosexuality, but lived in a world where they were invisible as sexual beings. Lesbian artists soon began to make their own images. They made nudes of “live sex” with real lesbian couples and distributed them to a lesbian audience. The late photographer and activist Tee. A. Corinne (USA) was one of the famous pioneers of lesbian nude photography.

The representation and visibility of the lesbian body as a sexual object for women were the major themes among lesbian artists in the 1970-80’ies. The 1970’ies was also a period, where women artist experimented a lot with their own body and started making performances.

Academics from the women’s studies and a new generation of curators started to focus on women as role models, and it resulted in a number of art exhibitions in the 1980’ies and 1990’ies with vintage prints by lesbian and bisexual photographers among these photographers are Alice Austen (USA, 1866-1952), Mary Willumsen (DK, 1884-1961), Berenice Abbott (USA, 1889-1991),  Claude Cahun (FR, 1894-1954) and Germaine Krull (DE, 1897-1985).

The Arts Turned Queer

In the 1990’ies queer art became mainstream. The queer theory discusses gender, body and identity. It disassociates it self from the heterosexual society’s norms and definitions of gender and the gender roles. Inspired by Judith Butler’s Queer theory artists started making ‘queer art’. GLBT photographers Del La Grace Volcano (UK) and Catherine Opie (USA) became known for their queer images of drag kings. The androgyne and ambiguous body was explored by Rebecca Swan (New Zealand) and Linn Underhill (USA) made the photo series “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”, a parody of the porn pin-up and dykes on bikes, to name but a few examples.

The New Trends of Out And Proud Lesbian Art in the 21st Century

The new gay rights (i.e. partnership, the right having a child by insemination, etc.) has made lesbian artist look at the female body and the daily life of lesbian couples in a new way – focussing on the private lives of lesbians. Kelli Connell (USA) makes staged images of a virtual lesbian couple. Artist Christa Holka (GB) snaps photos of her friends and acquaintances at parties and pride events and uploads the images to Tammy Rae Carland (USA) makes still lives of lesbian double beds. Photographer Verena Jaekel (DE) exhibition “Neue Familienportraits” shows portraits of gay families and photographer Annie Leibovitz (USA) has started exhibiting her private photos from her long relationship with late American academic Susan Sontag.

Visual Art as a Means of Gay Empowerment

In Sweden a survey from 1999 shows that 24% of all lesbians and as many as 36% of all gay men have experienced hate crimes. In Finland 60% of all homosexuals have experienced hate crimes. It the same in Great Britain. Life has improved a lot for gay people over the last 30 years, but the political struggle is not over yet. The fact that there still exist a serious intollerance has made lesbian activist, photographer and TV host Elisabeth Ohlson-Wallin (SE) start a debate about these crimes alongside her exhibition “In hate we trust” (2007). ‘In Hate we trust’ is a show, which consisted of big colour photos with tableaux, by which she illustrates a number the stories of hate crimes, which were almost invisible in mainstream medias. American queer performance artist Mary Coble has also done a number of performances, in which she has questioned hate crimes and other social issues injustices.

In order to explore uncovered ground the lesbian artists often find themselves as visual spokespersons of points of views, which are in opposition to mainstream. They question the complacency, phobias, prejudices and taboos of the mainstream culture. Visual art is a media, which touches our emotions and it is a very efficient tool to make people realize what their point of view is in a social debate and thus it is a powerful tool in the hands of artist/ social provocateurs. Political art still plays a major role in relation to opening our eyes for new thoughts, visions and alternative livestyles. Many lesbian artists work to increase awareness about the core values of the gay communities and thus raise the awareness of the society in general. Their struggle to visualize our lives, emotions, sexuality and visions are yet to be fully appreciated by the gay communities, but I am happy that more and more queer art shows are organized alongside other gay events, so it is easier to get a first hand experience of their works of art.