Letter from Martha Wilson
Dear Franklin Furnace Aficionado,
Lordy, Lordy, the Furnace is FORTY! When I first opened our doors, at noon on April 3, 1976, we were a bookstore. Art aficionados came from near and far and joined passersby in perusing some 200 wildly disparate published artworks strewn on trestle tables, the idea being that—unlike most art—this kind could be picked up and handled.
Within that first year, Franklin Furnace turned the selling of books over to Printed Matter bookstore, and focused on collecting and providing space for artists to do their thing. On June 11, 1976 Martine Aballéa read her dream journal wearing a costume, and thus was born our performance art program. On January 24, 1978, Joan Jonas performed Juniper Tree, a retelling of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale exploring how women are represented and the roles they play. Jonas played the daughter, the good mother and the archetypal evil stepmother. Some parts were danced, some spoken, others drawn on silk—but the most memorable moment for me was when she crushed a pomegranate in her hands so that “blood” dripped out.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, avant-garde artists who’d been experimenting wildly and freely since the 1960s lost their place as the darlings of American culture. President Reagan and conservative religious groups promulgated the idea that artists were a virus eating away at the health of the body politic. In January, 1984, Franklin Furnace presented Carnival Knowledge, curated by nine women artists and activists who asked if there could be such a thing as “feminist pornography.” After the show, the Morality Action Committee wrote postcards to elected officials and Franklin Furnace’s corporate and foundation supporters, claiming we’d shown pornography to 500 children per day. As a result of the Culture Wars in which this was an early skirmish, the experimental work of artists—especially performance artists—became “politically impossible”; we were identified as an “obscene organization”; and the National Endowment for the Arts’ support for individual artists was killed off.
When Franklin Furnace went virtual in 1998, I thought the body of the artist would be left behind. Indeed, our first collaboration in 2000 was only available online. The artist Jack Waters’ Superschmoozio: The Game of the International Art Market replicated the backstabbing climb artists must make through the ranks of the art world in order to become “professional.” Franklin Furnace introduced Waters to artists Lisa Brenneis and Adriene Jenik, who’d developed “desktop theater” using avatars in place of the human body and virtual environments in place of real spaces; this Superschmoozio online game touches at the heart of liveness, presence, and the mediatization of performance.
On July 28th and 29th, 2012, against the backdrop of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, Chin Chih Yang was buried alive under 30,000 aluminum cans. This performance, Kill Me or Change, was a visceral demonstration of our culture of waste (on average, U.S. residents discard 30,000 metal cans in their lifetime). Yang’s work serves as a call to action and because he was willing to die for his work, we engaged the local ambulance corps—which was a good thing because Chin Chih cut his hand swimming out of the pile.
Franklin Furnace continually evolves in order to best present and preserve the ever-changing fabric of culture. On December 5, 2014 we moved onto the Brooklyn campus of Pratt Institute, where we now “nest” with the dual purposes of facilitating mutual academic access to our resources and developing ambitious collaborative projects. None of us will be here to see what the avant-garde is up to in 100 years’ time, but that won’t stop us from striving to preserve the artistic record of the past and future. Please join our mission to make the world safe for avant-garde art by contributing to the Lordy, Lordy, the Furnace is FORTY! membership campaign today!
Very truly yours,