Briefly describe the work you do.
My work combines performance, sited interventions, fiber, and protest tactics. I’m interested in labor struggles past & present, modes of collective organizing, politics, and identity. More recently, I’ve also begun to explore issues of artistic production and artistic labor. My work often explores the construction and performance of identity, and contemporary Jewish identity formations in particular. For the past five years or so, I’ve been working primarily in performance. I do a lot of site-specific walking performances that explore labor issues, and that seek to call attention to escalating attacks in the USA and elsewhere on workers’ rights, wages, and especially, organized labor and collective bargaining rights. Since 2011 I’ve been performing New Demands?, an ongoing series of performances using placards inscribed with slogans from past labor struggles to draw attention to the fact that so many of the rights that were fought for and won during the first part of the 20th century — for example, the right to the regulated work week, pension benefits, paid overtime, the right to join a union — are being eroded today, and so the slogans remain relevant. My performances seek to engage viewers in dialog and conversation on issues that can be contentious and contested — for example, what’s going on in Israel and Palestine.
I also have a critical writing practice. I write about fiber, textile histories, and collaboration, as well as globalization in the garment industry, and how artists are using textiles or fiber to protest abusive working conditions in the textile industry or to create alternatives to these systems of exploitation. I’m especially interested in histories of collaboration in textiles such as sewing and quilting bees, and their connections to today’s participatory and socially engaged art practices.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up in Montreal in a very traditional and insular Jewish community. That experience has really influenced my practice in large part because I’ve spent most of my adult life redefining my own version of what it means to be Jewish: I don’t practice any religion, and I’m not a Zionist, so I’ve had to find ways of being Jewish that don’t revolve around religious rituals or the state of Israel. I’m more interested in diasporic Jewish culture and in histories of Jewish activism and radical politics. Growing up, I wasn’t taught much about Jewish activism in the labor movement — they were central in fighting for workers’ rights, and winning many gains, especially in the garment industry. Almost everyone in my family has worked in the garment industry in one way or another: my grandparents, parents, cousins, great aunts and uncles… my great-grandfather was a serious Communist, yet my grandparents and parents were really anti-union. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother as a kid, she was a factory worker and later a seamstress and tailor — so maybe that’s where my interest in fiber and textiles and even labor comes from. I grew up in Montreal (Quebec), where there was and still is a huge amount of racism and antisemitism, so I’m also quite tuned in to issues of power/privilege/discrimination, and that carries over into my art and writing. I always did a lot of art as a kid, and I read a lot of history books (I was an odd kid), and I’m still doing much of the same today, reading and making art.
Before becoming an artist I did a lot of activist work, and that has definitely played a huge role in my work as an artist and scholar. I still explore some of the same themes as I did as an activist, especially the Israeli Occupation. ACT UP was a huge influence, bridging art and activism, and that model has inspired me as an artist, especially since so many of its members went on to successful careers as artists and academics who continue to take on political themes in their work.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I don’t have a traditional studio practice at all. I have a home office, and I have a home studio. I tend to work on writing projects or art projects, but I find it hard to do both at the same time because they each require very different kinds of attention. That said, there is a lot of overlap between the studio work that I create, and the writing I do — both draw on labor histories and histories of collaboration in politics and art. When I write, I do tend to work by myself in a room. When I research specific performances, I also tend to be alone, however the performances themselves are very public and I want them to involve as much dialog and interaction with viewers as possible. I’ve also started a series of more participatory sewing projects — here again, the research and conceptualization is a solo endeavor but the execution is public and participatory. I also work collaboratively on writing and editing projects.
The idea of “artist’s studio” for me is very broad: it incorporates traditional forms of making but also writing, research, and collaborations that are often long-distance and so cannot be bounded by traditional spaces — many take place over digital spaces. I like having the option of working at home so that I can work whenever I want. The studio can be the office, or the sofa, or the dining room table, or the actual studio… Perhaps that’s where my practice differs — I’m rarely “in the studio” in a more traditional sense. Of course if my work was much larger or messier I’d get a more traditional studio.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
Probably as an educator. And doing more public and participatory work, which is not something I conceived of when I first started making art.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I am not a morning person… aside from that I try to work whenever I can. I have a full time teaching job, so my own works takes place when I’m not at my day job. I often work to deadline — having a text due, or an upcoming performance, or a conference paper to write, or an exhibition project to complete. I can be a bit of a workaholic, but I also require time away from my work, time to think through ideas or just have some downtime, especially when I’m writing, because it can be so intense. I also do a lot of research all the time… I’m constantly downloading and collecting and reading articles and making lists of books to get a hold of for teaching or future projects — I guess it’s all connected.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
It’s changed in that I’ve started doing more public projects, and more participatory work… I’m just starting a series of sewn banners that will be used in future performances and that can also be exhibited. I am being asked to do more and more writing, editing, peer reviewing… and so I do much more of that now than five years ago. But my work is the same in that I’m still working on walking performances with placards, and I’m still exploring the same themes around labor, history, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Jewish identity, etc.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
My work has always been connected to history and politics, and so I draw inspiration from the labor movement and other activist and protest movements – ACT UP has had a substantial impact on my work. So has feminisms and gender politics, and having been an activist. I read a lot of Judith Butler’s writings on Jewish ethical philosophy and analyses of the conflict in Israel-Palestine, and the war on terror. The artist Sharon Hayes also influenced my work, and earlier on I looked to artists like Martha Rosler and Adrian Piper and Lorna Simpson. Janis Jefferies is an artist and theorist who provided a model for being both an artist and a scholar AND working with textile materials and discourses in conjunction with progressive politics and theory. Finally, my grandmother has had a huge impact on the work I do – she was a seamstress, factory worker, and fierce independent thinker. I learned a lot from her about speaking your mind and not being afraid to stand up for who you are.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I have no idea. Maybe a documentary film maker… I’d still be doing a lot of research into the issues that are interesting to me. And I love documentaries.
Lisa Vinebaum is an interdisciplinary artist, critical writer, and educator. Her art practice incorporates performance, public and site specific interventions, installation, textiles, video, photography and protest tactics to explore the construction and performance of identity and subjectivity — often enacted in response to attempts at erasure and elision — with a focus on contemporary Jewish identity formations. Current research and artistic investigations explore labor, performance and collectivity in the larger context of economic globalization and cutbacks to workers’ rights. She also writes about the social histories of textiles and their connections to contemporary fiber and socially engaged art.
Her creative work has been included in exhibitions and festivals internationally, including Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival, Brave New Art World, and 2nd Floor Rear Festival of Art in Itinerant Spaces (Chicago), Performance Studies International 19 (Stanford University, CA), Open Engagement: Art & Social Practice (Portland State University, Portland OR), Nuit Blanche and La Centrale (Montreal), the Centre Pompidou (Paris), the UCLA Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), Lincoln Center (New York NY), , and the European Media Art Festival (Osnabruck, Germany), and in conjunction with Grace Exhibition and Performance Space (Brooklyn), and Articule Gallery (Montreal).
Lisa Vinebaum’s scholarly work has been published in academic journals and edited anthologies, including the Journal of Modern Craft online, Art Textiles of the World: Canada (Telos Art Publishing, 2009), Emergency Index (Ugly Duckling Press, 2012), and Shifter. She is co-editor of “Crafting Community: Textiles, Public and Social Space”, a special issue of Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture (Bloomsbury, 2015) and the anthology Material Matters: The Politics of Making and Materials, in process. Forthcoming chapters in edited volumes include “Performing Globalization” in Textile: The Handbook of Cloth and Culture (Bloomsbury 2015), and “Victoria Stanton’s Transactional Performance” in Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance by Candadian Women, Volume II. She has lectured and presented papers at conferences internationally, most recently at the College Art Association Annual Conference (New York 2013), Performance Studies International 18 (University of Leeds UK 2012), Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium (Washington DC 2012), Dis/Locations: Being Out of Place (Concordia University, Montreal 2011), the Festival of Other Theatre (University of Toronto 2011), and Radical Intersections: Performance Across Disciplines (Northwestern University, Chicago 2009). She will co-chair a panel on the theme of textiles and collaboration at the upcoming College Art Association Annual Conference in Chicago in 2014.
Lisa Vinebaum holds a PhD in Art from Goldsmiths, University of London (UK); an MA in Textiles also from Goldsmiths, and a BFA from Concordia University in Montreal. She is an Assistant Professor in the department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.