ICA Executive Director Gregor Muir interviewed artist Marysia Lewandowska about Women's Audio Archive, an online collection of recordings documenting public events, seminars, talks, conferences, and private conversations.
Gregor Muir: How did the Women's Audio Archive start?
Marysia Lewandowska: Moving from Warsaw to London in 1983 meant re-thinking how finding myself in the 'free world' would effect my practice as an artist.
In order to better grasp the cultural environment around me I begun carrying a tape-recorder to all public events I was attending at the time. It was very much a personal project of getting to know the scene and the people, mostly women whose practice interested me. I needed to connect with alternative role models. The art world in London seemed quite anti-intellectual to me coming from a culture where conversation dominated exchanges between artists and others. I then decided to start recording conversations in particular with women artists and thinkers. These were private occasions and certainly did not resemble interviews. Often going on for hours, they provided those involved with a space for critical reflection and connection. It was more of an intuitive process of making something happen away from broadcasting or immediate opportunity of publishing of materials, something that is unthinkable now with the viral qualities of the internet. Only recently encouraged by curator Maria Lind and with support from Center of Curatorial Studies at Bard College, NY, Centro Cultural Montehermoso, Victoria, Spain and The Elephant Trust all of the original cassette tapes have been digitised and turned into a resource. This marks a shift from a private encounter to a public culture.
GM: What might we expect to find on the WAA website?
ML: There are two main categories of recordings, those made in private in a form of conversation and those made during conferences and public talks which I was attending regularly in London, many of them hosted by the ICA, as well as during trips I made to New York and Canada. They cover my interests in feminism, anthropology, philosophy, film, politics of representation, all the themes which we now recognise as seminal to the art and culture of the 1980s. Here are some titles which give the texture and scope of the debate: 'The Burden of History: A New Amnesia' a conference held at Ontario College of Art Toronto, 1986, 'Monuments for Rent' a conference at the ICA London 1986, 'The Visual Construction of Difference' a one day event organised by Yvonne Rainer for DIA in NY 1988. This is a historically specific collection framing a period between 1983 to 1990, with the inclusion of one or two earlier exceptions.
GM: What recordings have most inspired you?
ML: The most challenging were the private conversations. I often approached artists who I never met before and was introduced to them through a mutual acquaintance. Most memorable were my meetings with Susan Hiller, Maureen Paley when she just started her Gallery at Beck Rd, with Nancy Spero,and a very tough evening with Nan Goldin at her studio in Bowery.
GM: Were there any surprises?
ML: The most surprising was how willing everyone was to take part even though I never stated my intentions as being other than wanting to have a conversation. But right from the beginning by attaching the name of the Women's Audio Archive to the situation I created something that had legitimated my desire to keep a record of a moment without making any value judgments. I was driven by my experience of having been educated under communism where memory was often a site of contention and history was re-written by those who held power. A need for maintaining a record of one's own version of events was paramount to me and the project. Four years after I stopped recording, Jacques Derrida presented his Archive Fever paper at a colloquium organised by the Freud Museum in London. It was from that moment that the Archive has begun to occupy a central position for many practitioners, and by that time we all had internet which has confirmed our dependency on documenting and self-archiving. I had a verbal agreement to keep the recordings for private use and to contact all involved when planning any change to their status. In 2009, so 26 years later, I thought it was time to make the archive public domain.
GM: What are you working on right now?
ML: I'm working together with a NY based curator Laurel Ptak on a publication. Undoing Property looks at contested relationships between what is privately owned and publicly shared in contemporary art and life, asking explicitly, what is the fate of cultural expressions today? How are contemporary artists and thinkers articulating questions of production, property, ownership and exchange? The publication brings together artistic interventions and critical texts in order to explore the complicated space between artistic practice, intellectual property, immaterial production, political economy and the public realm. The publication emerged from a series of seminars, 'Publishing In Process: Ownership In Question' held at Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm earlier this year. It will be published by Sternberg Press in 2013.
GM: What next for the WAA?
ML: Through an ongoing Negotiations project I am committed to changing the archive's status from a private collection to a publicly available online resource. In the age of a depleted public domain and growing tensions around intellectual property rights, my ownership of historical traces and my responsibility towards enriching intellectual commons are brought to bear upon one another. Tracing everyone involved in the recordings is a lengthy and laborious process especially since many have since passed away. But I'm very encouraged by the generosity of most of those who have been approached to agree for the recordings to appear under CC-NC-SA license. Next year it will be 30 years since I have been living and working in London. The Women's Audio Archive was my first attempt at both contributing and exploring the mechanisms that give rise to an artistic practice of an individual inside a culturally significant network. It has been vital to me as an artist to stress the importance of radically transforming the culture of permission into a culture of acknowledgement.