WhatsApps with Women #2: Joanna Walsh Talks to Artist and Curator Tamsyn Challenger about Pussy Riot




This interview is one of a series of Whatsapp conversations between Joanna Walsh and women working in the arts and literature. The first installment can be read here.

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AS STATED IN the press release for the Free The Pussy! exhibition, held at Edinburgh’s Summerhall Gallery between August and October 2018:

In March 2012 three members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were arrested and convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.’ The ‘Punk Prayer’ performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that led to their incarceration lasted for 40 seconds. They were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. An appeal released Samutsevich on probation, but the sentences of the other two women were upheld. At trial, the judge stated that they had “crudely undermined the social order.

International censure of the trial and sentencing followed, and the women became global feminist icons. However, after their public unveiling, the women faced threats of rape and burning and were called “whores” and “sluts.” When Russian priests discussed them on TV talk shows, they silently mouthed the word “vagina” (there is no Russian language equivalent for “pussy”), and the women were subsequently labeled “mad vaginas.”

The Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” and the misogyny that followed was seen as a call to arms by artists and activists around the world. In 2012, Tamsyn Challenger, Judy Chicago, Billy Childish, Gaggle, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, and No Bra contributed to the book Let’s Start a Pussy Riot. Brought about by London feminist collectives Girls Get Busy, Not So Popular, Storm in a Teacup, and the performer Emely Neu, it was published by Rough Trade in 2013.

The Free The Pussy! exhibition aimed to be part archive of the global protest in support of the Pussy Riot’s call. The show included artist responses that can be seen in the book, alongside many others who have stood in condemnation. Also on exhibit was new commissioned work by Gaggle and curatorial interventions around the building. This was the first time many of the archival pieces made in protest had been brought together for display.

All of these works are as relevant now as ever and stand as a testimony to the power of a woman’s voice.

I met Tamsyn Challenger, a UK-based artist and the curator of Free The Pussy!, at a party at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017. We drank whiskey and danced to Blondie, and have been in touch ever since. After the close of Free The Pussy!, we WhatsApped about art, feminism, misogyny, and The Big Lebowski.

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[10/11/18, 15:00] Messages to this chat and calls are now secured with end-to-end encryption. Tap for more info.

[10/11/18, 15:01] Joanna Walsh: Ok, shall we do it? No hurry if you’re not “in place” 🙂

[10/11/18, 15:02] Tamsyn Challenger: Let’s. Although, I’m gonna confess now, I’m still getting to grips with the Drunken Boat piece you asked me to read.

[10/11/18, 15:02] Joanna Walsh: well I feel that about “art” — I feel totally comfortable with “Foulipo.”

[10/11/18, 15:02] Tamsyn Challenger: I don’t believe you.

[10/11/18, 15:03] Joanna Walsh: I was only going to ask you one question about the Drunken Boat piece anyway.

[10/11/18, 15:03] Tamsyn Challenger: You know, my evil ex and I had several codes for intimacies. One of which was a canoe.

[10/11/18, 15:03] Joanna Walsh: Ha rly?

[10/11/18, 15:05] Tamsyn Challenger: Yeah. Our relationship began, was almost founded on, a mutual admiration for cryptology. And secret society.

[10/11/18, 15:05] Joanna Walsh: Was it so you could mention things in public? (A canoe is pretty difficult to mention in public too.)

[10/11/18, 15:06] Tamsyn Challenger: I suppose, because the relationship was illicit, it was part of the romance. And constraint is fascinating in female desire.

[10/11/18, 15:07] Joanna Walsh: The Spahr/Young linguistic constraint is an absence of “r” (standing for “are,” I guess, highlighting their difficulty in asserting their presence). The thing about Drunken Boat I was going to talk about, was just the way Spahr and Young are critiquing male experimental art (in their case, writing) with its tendencies toward “slenderizing” (inventing creative strategies that involve removing certain letters or other linguistic elements), whereas they were thinking about 1970s “body” art, mostly by women, including Carolee Schneemann, whose work you showed in your Free The Pussy exhibition — and how women could benefit from a practice that privileges expansion rather than constraint. (The Young/Spahr piece was written in the mid-90s.) So I was wondering whether you agreed, and whether it’s difficult to introduce these “expansive” practices in an exhibition, or to have them accepted.

[10/11/18, 15:14] Tamsyn Challenger: Constraint within a consensual sexual relationship is one thing. Constraint in a working environment or public forum is another. The trouble is that the constraint of a woman in any context without her consent is still so common, and work that addresses that is welcome.

[10/11/18, 15:15] Tamsyn Challenger: I ARE.

[10/11/18, 15:16] Joanna Walsh: Vs “we is.” Could you tell me about some of the involuntary constraints you encountered putting on the show? I suppose I’m thinking about the “dick” vs “pussy” thing.

[10/11/18, 15:24] Tamsyn Challenger: I have to say, I’m still flummoxed and sore from the obstruction I encountered creating/ curating Free The Pussy!. Many friends and colleagues suggested that I should have been better prepared. But, sadly, I think modern women (or it’s just my perpetual naivety/optimism for change), working in supposed enlightened environments, are never prepared for suppression of their work. Not really. “Why shouldn’t I be free and able to create the art I have been commissioned to make in an arts venue!” And then the dawning, “Oh right, I see, a man is objecting to the term ‘pussy’ and the right for a woman to own that term, her body.” When I start talking about it, I start to boil with fury all over again.

[10/11/18, 15:26] Joanna Walsh: It’s the power of words spoken out loud, like where you found it important to mention, in the publicity for the show, how “Russian priests, discussing them, mouthed the word ‘vagina’ in TV talk shows,” because they couldn’t say it. This makes me think of the “art monster” played by Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski who says “vagina” loudly and randomly to alarm men. There’s a ready association between women artists and bringing sex into the room: it’s such a stereotype it can be used comically in a movie.

[10/11/18, 15:31] Tamsyn Challenger: I’ve wondered if one of the issues has to do with the male version of woman as something to consume. There are so many food analogies when talking about women. A “buffet,” “candy,” “hey sugar,” etc. When a word pertaining to woman doesn’t fit into that category, it’s immediately vulgar or grotesque.

[10/11/18, 15:36] Joanna Walsh: Pussy’s quite a cute term tho — pussies are cute things (when they’re not categorised as obscene things) and the work you exhibited “Putin is a Dickhead” (Wendy Saunders) features a cute kitten like one off a greetings card. The American critic, Sianne Ngai, wrote about the “cuteness of the avant-garde” — the way contemporary poetry tends to focus on the small, the overlooked, to make “bigger” points. Is it something to do with twinning the cute with the obscene, the readily consumable and overacceptable with the unmentionable, without denying either element? Is that what some people (some structures?) found so unacceptable?

[10/11/18, 15:41] Tamsyn Challenger: I think so. But I don’t see the term “pussy” or “cunt” for that matter, as obscene (or “crass,” or I believe someone also accused me of “toilet humour” in the case of the PUSSY signage). It was suggested to me during the period of exhibition install that the term pussy was more offensive than the term dick which I believe should be considered misogynistic.

[10/11/18, 15:42] Joanna Walsh: It’s interesting that they were happy with the word so long as it was kept inside the (constrained) “art” space in the gallery. Or did you have problems using it for the exhibition title too?

[10/11/18, 15:48] Tamsyn Challenger: Yeah! Sooooo many problems. Disheartening and disappointing problems that I didn’t expect. After it had been installed “The Royal ‘Pussy’” art work was sabotaged. It was removed overnight without authorisation, without my consent or knowledge (from the facade of the Summerhall pub usually named “The Royal Dick”), and hidden from me for half a day, amidst a (middle mgmt) conspiracy of silence, until I informed the director of the venue, Robert McDowell, who intervened. Without his belief in me and the work, I suspect it would never have been restored.

[10/11/18, 15:49] Joanna Walsh: That’s outrageous.

[10/11/18, 15:49] Tamsyn Challenger: It was very depressing — I still can’t quite believe it happened. It was an unauthorised removal of a female artist’s work pertaining to women’s genitalia, taken down by the hands of men. And that removal instigated at the behest of a specific male individual who had objected to the work. I struggled thereafter to find the joy in the work I’d created and facilitated.

[10/11/18, 15:54] Joanna Walsh: I’m wondering whether it’s possible to see this battle over space as part of the art — like when Amalia Ulman created an Instagram it-girl persona that seemed designed to draw aggressive comments — but I guess that was part of her point.

Though in your case it was again an involuntary constraint on your space, not one you’d courted.

[10/11/18, 16:00] Tamsyn Challenger: Yes, I think that’s an important distinction. In “Monoculture” I played with online beauty/ selfie culture/ homogeneity but, it was designed.

I had been aware of obstruction and resentment from individuals in the building regarding the idea for the exhibition although, I honestly, never expected the animosity I encountered. I also think that when a woman is assertive and creates that space for herself, it is a harder position to maintain. I know that when Judy Chicago started the first feminist art education in America, one of her objectives was to enable women out of a “lack of assertiveness.” This is still so relevant nearly 50 years later.

[10/11/18, 16:05] Joanna Walsh: That makes me think of “Woman House” (1972) where women artists in California (including Chicago) who were refused space to show in mainstream galleries took over a derelict house and installed work in every room — the work usually “was” the room and referred specifically to women’s domestic activities. I recently visited the Paris exhibition “Women House” (2017) which contained some work from the original exhibition and more recent work by women that deals with occupying space. This exhibition was sponsored by Dior, and was installed in the swanky and very establishment state-run gallery, La Monnaie — so it felt like women’s art had become more accepted, but something also felt a less urgent than watching the video of the original exhibition — and I don’t think the need for that urgency has gone away.

[10/11/18, 16:09] Tamsyn Challenger: Neither do I. I’d say that many women artists and writers are still circling the same issues as those forebears in the 1970s. I feel as though the climate out there may even have intensified when it comes to backlash (ref. Susan Faludi). More crude in reception, more immediate to obstruction and more calculated in suppression. It’s a little bit like the HPV vaccine — don’t treat the source, treat the woman that might catch it!

I read that a male curator visited Womanhouse in the 70s and picked up a pillow made from women’s underwear and that when he realised, his reaction was one of aversion. I suppose that’s really a similar response to the “Pussy” sign. Less aggressive though.

[10/11/18, 16:12] Joanna Walsh: It feels important still to challenge the boundaries (literally) of what a gallery is — and that’s something you did with the signage.

I really think you created “art” by “transgressing” in that way, and though it felt depressing it was part of the challenge you set up by curating the show.

[10/11/18, 16:13] Tamsyn Challenger: I suppose it is. I was still surprised at the reaction.

[10/11/18, 16:14] Joanna Walsh: As a writer I’m often frustrated by the “acceptability” of writing — how you can write something challenging but, put it between the covers of a book, and the context can pull its teeth.

[10/11/18, 16:15] Tamsyn Challenger: And I felt unprotected and splayed open as an artist. I’d never experienced that before. Not with “400 Women.” I know what you mean. The Pussy Riot are an activist/feminist/art collective that push controversy to its limits for critical change. They were invited to the venue and somehow I found myself trying to justify a piece of interventionist art that I had described at the beginning of the commission process as a “sweet little idea.”

[10/11/18, 16:20] Joanna Walsh: Argh — which was that?

[10/11/18, 16:20] Tamsyn Challenger: The pussy signage.

[10/11/18, 16:22] Joanna Walsh: I was thinking it might have been piece in which an artist surprised police officers with a hug or a kiss in the Moscow metro — which was also “transgressive” but also a kind of “sweet” protest or, like the word “pussy,” hovering uneasily between the sweet and the unacceptable. I really think there’s potential for “cute protest.” 🙂

[10/11/18, 16:23] Joanna Walsh: I believe viewers responded strongly to that video.

[10/11/18, 16:26] Tamsyn Challenger: Yeah. The Voina piece — “Kissing a Policewoman.” Nadya Tolokonnikova suggested it to me. It was her choice. It was the only work I polled opinion on due to the slightly uncomfortable kissing pounces. Some I showed the work to were really interested by it others felt uncomfortable with the gender specificity. Someone even suggested it was an “anti-feminist” work.

[10/11/18, 16:26] Joanna Walsh: Because it was a woman kissing female police officers?

[10/11/18, 16:26] Tamsyn Challenger: Yeah. Or that they chose women state police specifically.

[10/11/18, 16:27] Joanna Walsh: I was going to ask you roughly how much of the opposition to your show came from men, and how much from women.

[10/11/18, 16:31] Tamsyn Challenger: It was predominantly men but, sadly, not entirely. It was a man who remedied the situation at the time. Which is important to add. I think with the Voina piece there was also a question raised over privilege and the autonomy or not of those women to choose their careers in Russia. I chose to put it into my curation because of all those questions and more. I quite enjoy pulling the disparate together in my work. I did this with “400 Women.” In “Free The Pussy!” I’ve tried to draw together all the different facets of feminism/feminist art/women’s work old and new.

[10/11/18, 16:38] Joanna Walsh: Also, internationally — I’m thinking (which seems apt, during a virtual conversation) about the importance of claiming space and place, and the fact that Free The Pussy! was an exhibition of international work staged in Edinburgh, prompted by a protest in Russia.

[10/11/18, 16:48] Tamsyn Challenger: It’s still so extraordinary to me that women are as brave as Nadya and Masha and all those members of the collective. I simply don’t feel that brave. I’m not sure I would have the enduring strength to continue fighting under the control they face. When we met again in Exeter at the end of their tour of “Riot Days” I asked the collective if they felt afraid returning to Russia. And they all sort of looked at me curiously. The director Yury Muravitsky said to me that there’s a Russian Proverb that loosely translates to “don’t worry about it before it’s happened.” I think that’s a very stoic way of tackling life’s challenges.

[10/11/18, 16:51] Joanna Walsh: You deleted this message.

[10/11/18, 16:51] Joanna Walsh: Oops sent that before I finished.

[10/11/18, 16:52] Tamsyn Challenger: Shall I put up an intermission curtain?!

[10/11/18, 16:53] Tamsyn Challenger:

[10/11/18, 16:56] Tamsyn Challenger: I was just thinking about space and place claiming. You tackle this a lot in your work. Time too. I worry that equality is liminal. My fear is that we never drift over the threshold.

[10/11/18, 16:58] Tamsyn Challenger: “Hotel” seems to me to be centred around escapology. Physical space clearing from domesticity and gender tropes.

[10/11/18, 17:00] Joanna Walsh: Will answer about Hotel in a min — but I was suddenly fascinated (and horrified) at what you just said about Pussy Riot’s ways of thinking of what might happen to them as a very specific construction of existence in space and time. The idea of a not-too-distant threat to the body (its movements, its integrity — I mean being physically limited, physically hurt at the behest of the state) is terrifying. We’ve been used to being able to feel we can count on some kind of continuity of our bodies across a predictable amount of time, the opposite being some kind of bodily precarity that we’re not used to dwelling in. We live in a country in which we are told we have certain rights to the body — and to its treatment — in theory at least, despite all the violent attacks and increasing erosions we see and experience in practice.

A lot of the space I want to claim in my work is worked out through mentioning things, or though mentioning that something can’t be mentioned, which clears some kind of space around it — of an imperfect sort. The thing I sent too early without finishing it a minute ago was this Judith Butler quote I’d been saving up: “Only through an insistent form of appearing precisely when and where we are effaced does the sphere of appearance break and open in new ways.” It’s from “Notes Toward a Theory of Performative Assembly” — which is about making protest, rather than “art” — and it applies to things we’re both trying to do, I think.

[10/11/18, 17:05] Tamsyn Challenger: I think this is why it’s very important to glean perspective from outside your own immediate circumstance as an artist. Actually, strike that, as a human! Those people are people I know and respect and I appreciate their defence of humanity in spite of threat.

They are working in critical truth as well. I love that Judith Butler quote!

I have a strong held belief that all art/ writing must wrestle with something true, activism, philosophy etc.

[10/11/18, 17:12] Joanna Walsh: We were talking about that in Glasgow. I find it difficult to use the word “true” because it’s been claimed by some ways of looking at things that I find difficult. Also it sounds like a static noun. I do like to think about “urgent.” And for me the urgent object seems to shift during the process of its pursuit, which doesn’t make it less true — hopefully more so.

I’m always impressed by how generous your practice is — it always brings other people in as an essential part of it. I like doing this too but I think there’s a private core of self-study. That’s so much in opposition to my opposition to the more traditional novel’s focus on private subjectivity.

[10/11/18, 17:19] Tamsyn Challenger: Yes, I know it’s uncomfortable. Actually, I began the public lecture I gave at Royal Holloway last year by trying to untangle the contemporary preoccupation with making the term post-modern. I titled the lecture “On Truth” and very early on I used a quote by the ethics philosopher Sissela Bok which, helped me to clear the mud around the subject/ idea.

[10/11/18, 17:19] Tamsyn Challenger:

[10/11/18, 17:20] Joanna Walsh: Yes — honesty as a practice! I think that’s what I’m after. 🙂

There’s a great essay from Adrienne Rich about women and the necessity of being particularly honest as they have so often been in circumstances where they are both suspected of lying, and rewarded socially for deception.

[10/11/18, 17:21] Tamsyn Challenger: All my work comes from an essential truth. Often a simple one about myself. I know it.

[10/11/18, 17:21] Joanna Walsh: You deleted this message.

[10/11/18, 17:23] Joanna Walsh: Oops I kind of phrased that wrong. I like to think about using my writing to describe what’s actually happening in a situation (as it appears to me) using quite plain words usually, because what I’ve been told is happening often doesn’t seem to be what’s happening at all. I guess that’s some kind of working toward “truth.”

[10/11/18, 17:24] Tamsyn Challenger: I saw this terrific cartoon the other day. It pictured a scale and on that scale on the high side were 5 “she saids,” and on the weighty side 1 “he said.”

[10/11/18, 17:25] Joanna Walsh: Yup.

[10/11/18, 17:25] Tamsyn Challenger: Listen to women.

[10/11/18, 17:25] Tamsyn Challenger: Listen to women.

[10/11/18, 17:25] Tamsyn Challenger: Listen to women.

[10/11/18, 17:25] Tamsyn Challenger: Listen to women.

[10/11/18, 17:25] Tamsyn Challenger: Listen to women.

[10/11/18, 17:27] Joanna Walsh: Seems a good place to finish. Thank you!

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Joanna Walsh is the author of seven books. The latest, Break.up, was published by Semiotext(e) in 2018.


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