FEMonumental Transformance in rural Public Space.
I use this theoretical reflection to describe the theoretical background of my concept of FEMonumental Transformance, which evolved through my artistic research, as an answer to my question on how to transform monuments of patriarchy through transmedia performance art methods. The theoretical conceptualisation highlights the social and political relevance of my developed artistic method of FEMonumental Transformance and contextualises the generated knowledge of my research.
FEMonumental Transformance is an artistic method to transform patriarchal monuments through transmedia performance art into FEMonumental (feminist monumental) practices. It is a confrontation of bodies: of the monument and the female* body in the here and now. It is embodied and visual and changes both bodies through a poetic gesture. The female* body becomes an expression of memory, a performed commemoration and worshipping of an imaginative feminist future. The monument loses its patriarchal predominance over the definition of what is to be commemorated of and worshipped. Through the feminist approach, FEMonumental practices are not just forms of public commemoration and worshipping, but at the same time imagine an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-capitalist feminist future. They detect, disrupt and transform the patriarchal structures, which are still present. As performative monuments, they seek to respond to the need of a materialised, sensible form of history (Widrich, 2023), but use materials that follow a performative, short-lasting, ephemeral approach to reflect the fluid, living and ever-changing characteristics of public space and of history, to prevent any form of domination or hierarchy that excludes people from the public spheres.
In the first part I elaborate on the term ‘FEMonumental’, merging feminist theory with theoretical approaches towards monuments and public space. In the second part, I explore the term ‘Transformance’ through the terms it is built of – transformation, transmedia and performance, elaborating on the artistic theory behind my concept.
With my artistic research project, I want to bring a feminist position to the contemporary discourse about monumental practices, that questions the patriarchal structures represented and reproduced by existing monuments and transforms them into feminist monumental = FEMonumental practices. I will first explain why I consider monuments as patriarchal and continue with a review of feminist approaches to public space. From there I illustrate my concept of FEMonumental practices, merging feminist approaches with performative monumental practices.
Monuments of Patriarchy
In this section, I explain the active role of monuments in recreating social order through their communicative function and the concept of patriarchy as a social order that they recreate.
I work with monuments because they ‘are not just admirable virtuous works of art and architecture, but they have an active social role in creating and communicating messages of public space and collective memory as well’ (Kulisic & Tudman 2009, p.130). Kulisic and Tudman state that the ‘collective memory in monuments is an integral part of social order’ (ibid. p.131), as they are created by the people in power, in favour of upholding that power. Through their materialised form of communication, monuments ‘reconstruct the past in such a way that they are taking part in the present and the future.’ (ibid. p. 132). This means that they embody, communicate and reproduce patriarchal conceptions within a patriarchal society:
Our conceptions of reality, knowledge, truth, politics, ethics, and aesthetics are all effects of sexually specific – and thus far in our history, usually male – bodies, and are all thus implicated in the power structures which feminists have described as patriarchal, the structures which govern relations between the sexes. (Grosz 1994, ix)
Thus, monuments influence and recreate public space through constantly communicating patriarchal power structures. They are a form of power set in public space, which communicates through gendered symbolism (Pejic, 2015). Pejic explains, how in Soviet countries the female* statues never depicted a real person, but only symbolised the ‘good woman’. In Europe, after the French revolution, a gender turn happened in public space when all allegories of the nation were symbolised through female* figures, the ‘mothers of nation’ like Pallas Athene, Justicia and the Statue of Liberty. Female* figures in public space are mainly symbols, while men and even horses are depicted as real personalities with names (Pejic, 2015). This is because, like Silke Wenk puts it: ‘only the images of women* – who remained outside (economic and state) competition – were appropriate to embody the imagined community’s interest.’ (Wenk cited in Pejic, 2015). In today’s democracies, women* are inside economic and state competition, but they are still not represented in public space as actors of the democracy. Monuments represent outdated power structures and need to be reconsidered to meet the needs of today’s democracies and societies, as Parkinson (2009) writes in his analysis of representations in public spaces of democracies. Presently there lies a paradox within democratic public spaces for women* and other marginalised groups, who are allowed to vote and to be elected for a political office, but who are also discouraged to do so through non-representation of ‘people like them’ in dignified representative public spaces (among other discouraging tactics) (Parkinson, 2009). This non-representation has its roots in the patriarchy.
As an entrance point to the patriarchal concept, I cite Virginia Woolf describing patriarchy through the source of power of a patriarch: ‘Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must indeed be one of the chief sources of his power’ (Woolf, 2021/1929, p. 30). In Patriarchy, domination and power are rooted in the subordination of everything female* under the male. It is a form of social control and hierarchy, in which we live in since about 4000 years (Lerner, 1986). As Lerner (ibid.) describes it, men AND women* co-created patriarchy in a 2500 year-long process. The creation process started with the division of tasks between the sexes, which continued to divide all aspects of life and thought into this binary. This division was more and more used for the domination of the male over the female*, mainly to control the reproductive abilities of women*. The male monopoly transformed all symbols of female* power to the advantage of men. The male was defined as the norm, as the whole, as the proactive and powerful. The female* was defined as dependent, deviant, unfinished, mutilated and lacking autonomy. This system was already established before the age of the Greek philosophers and the creation of the bible. Men explained everything with them in the centre, which means that all of our western thought is built on a huge error, which leaves out more than half of human experience. The female* experience is not homogeneous, it is characterised by oppression under the male, but additionally many women* experience several forms of oppression, due to their race, class or sexuality. For women* of a discriminated group, the subordination due to their gender adds on to that, letting them experience male oppression in various forms from males from different groups (ibid.). Our capitalist society was built up on patriarchal thought and symbol system and, as Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser (2019) point out, it hardened the female* subordination through separating reproductive work/human-making from production/profit-making, subordinating the first under the second and ascribing it to the female* realm. What we call ‘modernity’ made the situation for women* worse.
Lerner highlights that all this affects the psychology of women* and men. We lack the ability to imagine alternatives to our current situation, if we have no symbolic system for that and no role models. Even if we have today the historic conditions for the emancipation of women*, we miss a women* history, from which to define our potential. We need to create women* history and a new symbol and meaning system, with women* in the centre. This is necessary for women* to gain back the trust in their own experiences and knowledge (Lerner, 1986).
Lerner’s analysis of the creation of patriarchy means that monuments are by definition patriarchal, because they are result of patriarchal thought and symbolism. This implies further that the symbolism of monuments recreates and triggers the patriarchal structures of our psyche and thought. They are part of the patriarchal indoctrination. A monument is (in most cases) elevated, or has an elevating aspect (like the altar in a church), putting its symbolic and literal meaning above the ‘ordinary’ people. If the symbolisms, metaphors and thought used are patriarchal, the monument itself subordinates women* and other marginalised groups, whose subordination was defined following the differentiation of the two sexes. Marginalised groups are all those who do not fit into the patriarchal norm of the able-bodied white heterosexual man of the upper class. The goal of FEMonumental Transformance is to create feminist tools for the creation of representations of diverse female* experiences, to create FEMonuments of female* history with new symbols and ways of thinking.
Feminist Approach to Public Space
Women* experience public spaces often as ‘paradoxical spaces’, as Rose (1993) states. Rose (1993) argues that female* experiences of public space differ from male experiences, and are as diverse as women* are, with multiple forms of discrimination and marginalisation overlapping (racism, classism, ableism, sexism …). Rose’s theory of ‘paradoxical space’ deals with the contradictions in female* experiences, like being trapped and excluded at the same time from hegemonic masculinist spaces. ‘Paradoxical space’ helps to understand overlapping and contradictory identities, which collide in and with public space. Feminist approaches dealing with ‘Paradoxical Space’ can be seen in the works of feminist performance artists from the 70ies like VALIE EXPORT, Yoko Ono, Ana Mendieta and Marina Abramovic and in the writings of Audre Lorde. They use their bodies as tools to reveal the inscribed patriarchal rules within them since as ‘[h]uman subjects [they] never simply have a body; rather, the body is always necessarily the object and subject of attitudes and judgments. It is psychically invested, never a matter of indifference’ (Grosz 1994, p. 81). For me it is essential, to reflect on ‘the body’ that investigates in a FEMonumental Transformance, to access the paradoxes in its specific experience of public space. If I perform in FEMonumental Transformance with my white, European, female, heterosexual, abled body, this produces a specific experience, where oppressions and privileges overlap in the same space (Peake, 1993).
Another paradox arises for the female* body in public space through the patriarchal idea of its belonging to the ‘private sphere’. This makes it essential to address patriarchal structures in public space, because the division of ‘private’ and ‘public sphere’ (term coined by Habermas) is closely linked to the gender binaries. Women* AND their subordination are associated with the private sphere, which makes it an individual problem: ‘Women’s submission is complex: it happens on the individual level while being influenced by social structure. It is often a submission to a particular man, but it is primarily a submission to a set of social norms’ (Garcia, 2021, p. 204). To bring feminist topics to the public sphere, helps to shift the understanding of what is private and what is public in collective thought (Fraser, 1992), to make women* and their experiences part of collective memory and public space. Through this, women* become active participants in the public discourse and gain confidence to co-create a society beyond patriarchy. Sara Ahmed puts it like this:
To build feminist dwellings, we need to dismantle what has already been assembled; we need to ask what it is we are against, what it is we are for, knowing full well that this we is not a foundation but what we are working toward. By working out what we are for, we are working out that we, that hopeful signifier of a feminist collectivity. (Ahmed, 2017, 2)
For me the feminist collectivity needs to orient itself on a ‘feminism for the 99%’ (Arruzza et al, 2022) that is intersectional, anti-capitalist, queer and ecological. To overcome the various crises of our time, we need a completely new social order, beyond capitalism, patriarchy and borders (Arruzza et al, 2022). FEMonumental Transformance aims to bring this feminist approach into public space, to make paradoxical female* experiences visible and part of the public sphere.
Creating FEMonumenal Practices
The works in public space from the feminist performance artists from the 70ies can be seen as the beginning of feminist monumental practices. Mechtild Widrich (2014) calls them ‘performative monuments’. She states that monumental practices between the second world war and 1989 in central Europe became performative and participative, they were ‘counter monuments’ against the classical post-war monuments. Widrich writes that ‘Performance, the supposed antipode to the monument in its temporality and embodiment, in fact held the key to its revival as ‘democratic’ community-builder’ (Widrich, 2014, p.4). I see my FEMonumental practices in the tradition of performative monuments. FEMonumental Practices, as results of artistic transformation processes of existing patriarchal monuments, are concerned with finding feminist ways of commemoration and worshipping in public space, adequate to the feminist and democratic society that I wish for. I think it is essential, that WOMEN* are the ones who create FEMonumental Practices, because as Elizabeth Grosz puts it:
Women’s contributions have never been acknowledged or represented in the terms chosen by women themselves. In other words, there are other ways of undertaking cultural activity and intellectual endeavour than those developed thus far. A completely different set of perspectives – this time based on women’s specificities, experiences, positions, rather than on those of men, who hide themselves and their specificities under the banner of some universal humanity – is possible and needs to be explored. (Grosz 1994, xi)
To question male dominance and instead put women* to the centre of thought is the first layer. The next one is to make that feminist approach intersectional, queer, anti-capitalist and ecological. We need to acknowledge, include and celebrate the diverse female* experiences and overlapping forms of discrimination that they experience in our racist, sexist, heteronormative, ableistic and classist society. All forms of discrimination are rooted in the first translation of a division of characteristics into a form of domination, which was the division into two sexes (Lerner, 1986). We need these characteristics to detect and acknowledge the discrimination, but the goal is to break out of that thought- and symbol system.
Merging together feminist and performative monumental approaches, FEMonumental Transformance is a method that transforms existing monuments into a contemporary intersectional anti-capitalistic feminist practice of commemoration and representation in public space. FEMonumental practices question not only the monumental practice itself, but especially the underlying patriarchal structures within those practices, public space, society, collective memory and our individual minds. With a ‘feminism for the 99%’ (Arruzza et al, 2022) as their theoretical base, FEMonumental practices consider the overlapping crises of our time and aim to recreate a society beyond capitalism, ecological exploitation, all forms of subordination and human exploitation.
While ‘FEMonumental’ describes the theoretical field, context and approach of my project, ‘Transformance’ stands for its artistic approach. The term stands for transformative transmedia performance. In this section, I discuss the three merged terms and their relevance for my concept.
The aim of FEMonumental Transformance is to transform existing monuments and their patriarchal structures through transmedia performance art. The performative part of Transformance orients itself at a protocol, following the stages of entrance, deconstruction, liminal stage (transformation) and creation of the new FEMonumental practices. The Transformance is similar to a ‘ritual of passage’ (Van Gennep, Turner), especially to its liminal stage:
During the liminal phase, the work of rites of passage takes place. At this time, in specially marked spaces, transitions and transformations occur. The liminal phase fascinated Turner because he recognized in it a possibility for ritual to be creative, to make new situations, identities, and social realities. (Schechner, 2013/2002, p.66)
Transformance uses the marked space and other ritual aspects to create a framework for the transformation of social aspects (in this case the patriarchal structures of public monuments). The transformation process doesn’t end with the performance; through the transmediality further aspects and layers are transformed through the exploration of the documentation material of the performance (via video making, writing and overpainting of photographs).
The prefix ‘trans-‘ means across, beyond or changing in form or position (The Britannica Dictionary, 2023), which means that ‘transmedia’ stands for across, through and/or beyond various media. In my artistic context, these media are painting, drawing, performance, video making, sound making, installations and writing. In the transmedia art process, I move through these artistic media to explore the topic from different perspectives, with different senses, different materiality and embodied ways of thinking.The processual is central, as Marzliak puts it:
Transmedia artwork breaks with the standard languages of art circuits and is thrown out of a territorialization that wants to centralize, name, categorize: there is in these devices, always in process, the construction of thought and the transformation of existence into corporeality within the collective. (Marzliak, 2019, p.69)
This means that transmedia art as art that is not restricted by a single art discipline, when used as a research method, creates knowledge through moving and changing across and beyond media. It is closely connected to the concept of transdisciplinarity (Gibbs & Beavies, 2020), which transcends the separated disciplines to create knowledge beyond the sum of disciplinary knowledge (which would be multi-disciplinary) and beyond the connection and combination of disciplines (inter-disciplinary). As Kate Maguire puts it in an interview:
Transdisciplinary knowledge is in flux which fits so well into complexity, in notions of complexity and interconnectedness not being about pinning things down, it is about constant movement, and that constant movement is in itself a knowledge, it’s a constant emergent knowledge […]. (Maguire cited in Gibbs & Beavies, 2020: 39)
The constant movement of transdisciplinarity, and as I argue also in transmediality, is very useful for artistic research that deals with complex matters such as patriarchal structures and public space. For my research, this means that I use various media to reveal layer by layer the complex interconnections of public patriarchal structures (material, symbolical and social) and individual mental structures. Additionally, different audiences are created through the different temporalities of live performance and visual explorations of the material. This is similar to performance art, where the documentation of the performance becomes an artwork itself creating a temporally extended audience of the performance (Widrich, 2014).
If transmedia art entails performance, then why highlighting it as a term? Performance as part of Transformance highlights the performativity of it, because it ‘takes place as action, interaction, and relation’ (Schechner, 2013/2002, p.30). Performance refers to the ritual-like transformative action in the here and now, following the mothers of feminist performance art. VALIE EXPORT, Marian Abramovic and Yoko Ono made performance pieces that questioned the patriarchal power structures within public space, like EXPORT’s ‘touch cinema’ and Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’ (Herzog, 2015). Performance highlights this crucial part of the Transformance within the transmedia art process where the two bodies, the one of the performer and the monumental body relate and communicate. To use performance art to enquire monuments and create feminist practices makes sense, because, as Widrich puts it: ‘What these works [monuments and performance art] have in common that is of interest to me is their performative force, the fact that through conventional gestures they effect changes in social reality’ (Widrich, 2014, p.9). Monuments and performance art in public space share a lot. Widrich (2014) highlights that they both build upon the principle that symbolic acts have social consequences. Both work through bodily/material presence in public space, documentation and historical discourse (ibid.).
Transformance combines the transformative force of ritual-like structure, bodily presence of performance and the constant movement of transmediality to detect and transform complex structures (of patriarchy) and practices (of commemoration in public space).
FEMonumental Transformance merges contemporary monumental concerns with feminism to transform patriarchal monuments with transmedia performance art into FEMonumental practices. The goal are feminist practices that question sexist, racist, classist, ableistic, homophobic and capitalist thought and symbolism and propose alternatives that serve a ‘feminism for the 99%’ (Arruzza et al, 2022/2019). To get there, we need to deconstruct the patriarchal binaries, thought and symbol systems. The aim is to create feminist ways of thinking, feminist tools for commemoration and representation in public space, like Sara Ahmed calls them: ‘We might need feminist tools to make feminist tools. We can become tools; we can become bricks, feminist bricks’ (Ahmed, 2017 p. 242). Through learning about FEMonumental Transformance, the seed to become a feminist tool to create feminist tools has been planted in your brain, dear reader.
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 I use the * after the terms female*, woman* and women* to refer to all people with another gender than male or female, like transsexual, non-binary and intersexual people, whose identities and characteristics are also subordinated under the masculinist hegemony.