Thirty Years After the End of Art and Articles: A Conversation with DISBAND

Photo by Sarah Jenkins

In the pantheon of New York artist collectives of the 1970s and 80s, the inimitable DISBAND represents the all-singing, all-dancing, all-girl contingent. The “conceptual art punk band of women artists who can’t play any instruments” joined the fray in 1978 with melodies proclaiming “the end of art, the end of my career and yours, the end of articles.” Its roster of seminal art and performance icons appeared at venues throughout New York from 1978 to 1982, going on to tour Italy with Laurie Anderson, Paul McCarthy, and Chris Burden. In 2008, the group reunited for MoMA PS1’s exhibition WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution. Their first audio CD was released in 2009 by Primary Information and features once long-lost early recordings. On March 14th, core members Ilona Granet, Donna Henes, and Martha Wilson rejoin forces for a not-to-be-missed evening at AUX Performance Space in Philadelphia’s Vox Populi gallery. Culturebot correspondent Mashinka Firunts speaks with them about their upcoming performance and why their project remains uncannily timely thirty years after its original inception.

For more information about their AUX performance, visit the Vox Populi event page, or to view footage of early performances, visit DISBAND is currently working on an official website set to feature photographic and video documentation of their early work.

Mashinka Firunts: The broad spectrum of issues addressed in DISBAND’s early work ranges from gender identity to the distribution of power in the art world. Needless to say, these concerns are no less pressing than they were three decades ago. I’m curious, what are the specific circumstances surrounding the decision to reunite in 2008 and continue performing in 2012?

Martha Wilson: We were invited.

Donna Henes: Well, it was thirty years later. Literally. Actually, this corresponded to a bad accident at the time [in 2008], so I was on the cane. But I figured why not, and I did it on my cane.

MW: And she brought the house down by doing the song that she used to do while jumping the jump rope until she missed called “I Want to Be Rich, I Want to Be Famous, I Want to Have Fun” in a disco silvery outfit.  So she did the same song thirty years later using a walker and it was hysterically funny to see a lady north of sixty banging around and shaking her walker.

MF: You were recently in residence at the MacDowell Colony. During your time there, what were some differences in your approach to strategizing your current performances as compared with those in the 70s and 80s — whether in response to shifts in your own personal/professional lives or the shifting cultural climate?

Ilona Granet: We’d written a grant for the MacDowell Colony and for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center Residency in Italy. So we’d already started thinking about how we as middle-aged women would approach and would take seriously what our experiences meant. If anything, the climate is more shrill and intense now, so we thought, ‘we’re just going to write new songs that respond to the reality of our current situation.’ For example, one of our new songs is about the religious right’s misinterpretation of the founding principles of the country. The song is called “The Age of Enlightenment.” We did the research on what the founding fathers believed and how those Enlightenment beliefs have been turned around to bring us back to the Middle Ages (making the earth flat.)

We did a lot of research and read a lot of philosophers. We made songs about that, Dr. Kevorkian, the rapture. They’re a little didactic, and also funny and beautiful, with melodies and costumes.

We did a song about menopause and masturbation, it’s a charming number. It becomes a rollicking free-for-all at the end that people start singing and dancing to…I hadn’t had a child, so I ended up making a song about abortion and my rights and my imaginary children, and it’s a sweet lullaby.

DH: I think that a lot of our older songs were based on a protesting against how women were seen and perceived and treated and used. And I think, and hope, that we’re in a stage now where we’re proposing new alternatives and positive possibilities. We’re all in that midlife period and we’re all living and acting and making art based from our own sense of power in the world, whereas thirty years ago I think we were struggling to find that power and to define that power, and struggling against what we perceived was holding us down. And now, speaking for myself, I feel that nobody can hold me down because I know what I know and I know who I am. And I think that’s what’s starting to happen in general, that women are starting to speak from a point of power and not from a point of victimization or struggling against who they think has power over them.

In the process of rehearsing for Philadelphia, it has become brutally clear how prescient our older songs were and are. Some of those that we’ll be repeating have a different tone to them; they’re in a way more exasperated. They’re still ironic, but they’re angrier in some way. One of our songs is called “Every Day Same Old Way” and I do a kind of chant through that saying “It’s the same old thing.” It was funny, but now when I think about doing it, it’s much more exasperated. You know, enough already.

MW: I think it’s actually terrifying because they’re now discussing whether Israel will blow up Iran, because they’re now trying to build missiles and their nuclear material is down underneath all these pools and houses and businesses. And during “Every Day Same Old Way” we’re wearing nuclear cooler hats and then banging them into the audience, so it becomes terrifying.

IG: There was a woman commentator on Fox News the other day speaking about women being raped in the military, saying that there was a greater chance of a woman being raped by a fellow soldier than for her to be injured in battle, and this woman commentator actually said, “Well, what do they expect?”

MF: There are so many contemporary feminist performance artists addressing these questions through somber, anti-spectacular strategies. One of the defining characteristics of DISBAND, in my view, is its cheeky, tongue-in-cheek approach to heavily politicized content. In that regard, DISBAND can’t be positioned within that reductive binary of spectacular performance versus ‘serious’ socially engaged practice. I wonder if you could speak to that?

MW: Humor is more effective at getting people to change their minds than anything else. At least, in getting them to look at the problem. Whether they change their minds is an open question. For example, the Guerilla Girls in 1985 figured out that the strategies of the 70s — earnest bra burning in front of the Whitney — did not work, so fine, they dressed in gorilla suits and started pointing the finger but doing it with a sense of absurdity. We’re trying to change the world knowing full well we can’t actually change the world, but we’re going to die trying anyway.

DH: Oh, no, I disagree! My entire life, and my entire work, is based on the concept of transformation, at least the possibility of transformation. So I never will say never. And I do believe that things can and will change. And you know, it’s a game. It’s a game to play.

MF: The old adage that entertainment is the most effective educational tool.

IG: That’s how you get students to stay in a class. You have to sneak in your information, and you’ve got to entertain them. Nobody wants to listen to somebody when they’re falling asleep.

MF: I doubt anyone could manage sleep during a DISBAND performance.

IG: Well we’ll bring blankets next time and do all of our lullabies, and maybe while they’re asleep we’ll be changing their minds!

DH: And we can all do little chants. You know, we’ll change them one way or the other.

DISBAND will be performing one night only, March 14th at 9PM at AUX Performance Space/Vox Populi Gallery. 319 N. 11th St, Philadelphia PA. Admission is free and no advance reservations are required.

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