Frustrating Desires: Q+A with Martha Rosler


Conceptual artist, political activist and cultural theorist Martha Rosler held her first garage sale in 1973 in the art gallery of the University of California at San Diego, where she was then a graduate student. Publicizing the event in local media as both a sale and an installation, Rosler arranged personal items alongside donations from friends and colleagues, and projected slides procured from an estate sale of exemplary white, middle-class American families. Indebted to Bertolt Brecht’s learning plays, Jean-Luc Godard’s counter-cinema and Hans Haacke’s systems aesthetic, the work comes as part of Rosler’s broader strategy, now over four decades in the making, of repositioning quotidian objects to launch trenchant critiques of the ideologies that structure our day-to-day lives.

Rosler’s Garage Sale subsequently traveled to nearly a dozen nonprofit art spaces and museums in Vienna, Berlin, London, Stockholm and Dublin, among other cities. This November, for two weeks, Rosler’s performance-installation came to MoMA, an institution which she assailed in a 1979 essay as “the Kremlin of modernism,” at once hegemonic and conservative in its taste for object-bound, digestible art. Entering the museum’s cathedral-like atrium, visitors could haggle with Rosler and sanctioned interlocutors over an eclectic inventory culled from the community and preserved from past sales. Copies of the Garage Sale Standard, a newspaper published by Rosler and featuring articles by sociologists, excerpts from Edith Wharton and a handful of the artist’s writings were free for the taking. Thirty minutes spent in the space yielded an ersatz Jackson Pollock, a Buzz-and-Woody bicycle, and a beige, boxy Macintosh Classic.

Rosler spoke with A.i.A. at her home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, about the sale at MoMA, which she claims will be her last.

COURTNEY FISKE How did you arrive at the idea of holding a garage sale in an art gallery?

MARTHA ROSLER It stemmed from my shock that there was such a thing: that people would sell their stuff and that other people would buy it and not find the transaction strange. Garage sales didn’t exist where I grew up, in Brooklyn. It was only in the late 1960s, when I moved across the country for graduate school, that I came across this phenomenon. Once I understood the garage sale as a social ritual, run primarily by women, my initial horror changed to sympathy. I realized that I needed to take garage sales seriously. “Why do people, why do women, do this?” I asked myself. At the time, the country was in the middle of an oil crisis. When Sabine Breitwieser [chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA] asked me to hold a garage sale during yet another crash, it felt opportune. The work also sets in train the question of value systems, and since I am an artist, the system I was most interested in contrasting it with at that point was the art system, so it had to be held in or in conjunction with an art gallery, a noncommercial one.

FISKE You’ve held a lot of them now: by my count, this is the twelfth.

ROSLER Yes, I’m always surprised by how many I’ve been conned into running [laughs]. But some were more labor-intensive than others.

FISKE How was the installation at MoMA unique?

ROSLER Well, it was at MoMA—that’s the first thing—in the atrium, which is in some sense a void at the heart of the museum. It has a certain amorphous quality to it in terms of its dimensions and its atmosphere. I think that the architect considered it to be an almost sacred or magical space. And it goes without saying that if it’s held at MoMA, it has to be bigger and better orchestrated than at a smaller venue. So it differs by virtue of its location and scale, both of which were foremost in my thinking.

FISKE Were visitors’ reactions at MoMA different than in other iterations?

ROSLER The previous garage sale was sponsored by Art Basel and held at the Museum of Cultural History in Basel. There, everybody seemed to know how to look. But at MoMA, there were a surprising number of people who had no idea, even though it was at such a major museum. I think many of them were what one might call relatively naïve tourists. They assumed that it was a museum-run holiday sale, despite the garage sale newspapers, despite the signs, despite anything. Some people seemed pretty grouchy about what was going on. Some demanded: “You have to sell that to me!” A couple asked for my name so they could complain about me. That was my favorite line [laughs]. But, part of what the work was intended to do was to frustrate desires and encourage people to think about the sale on a meta-level. On the one hand, I was all too happy to satisfy people’s desires, and we sold so much stuff! But, on the other hand, there had to be a significant number of items that weren’t priced as you wanted, or where I wasn’t willing to negotiate very much, or which weren’t actually for sale. I was surprised that more people didn’t stop for a moment and laugh at themselves. In other versions of the sale, I advertised the show as a normal garage sale as well as an art event, so there would be a mixing of audiences. That was not possible at MoMA, and yet there were people who acted like ordinary shoppers.

FISKE Is there an importance to doing the Garage Sale in a series?

ROSLER No, I hate that idea. I hate repeating myself. I held garage sales in San Diego and San Francisco in the 1970s and then I thought that I was done, that I had exhausted the format. My interest at the time was in making new work for each new show. But when I had a retrospective [“Positions in the Life World”] in the late 1990s, I was quite surprised when a number of curators at the various venues wanted to hold a garage sale. It wasn’t a work that I’d expected institutions to like because it was, to use Allan Kaprow’s term, anti-art. Though perhaps it was more mischievously anti-art then actually anti-art because, as Kaprow explained, anti-art is art: it all winds up in the same temple.

After the retrospective, other curators asked me to hold garage sales in their institutions. At first, I was shocked. “I’m getting this request from you?” And then I realized that staging garage sales is a way for curators to address the question of value and its relationship to mass culture and the art world, through me. I have to admit, though, that each time I was disappointed that I’d have to think about this show again. It’s a form of self-immolation, if I may use a ridiculously overblown metaphor, because I hate selling things. I hate haggling. I hate being the clerk. And yet, the work depends on me assuming that persona.

FISKE I’m curious about your use of signs—most notably, “Maybe the Garage Sale is a metaphor for the mind?,”written in chalk across a blackboard—and the audiotape, where you muse on the nature of commodities and desire. In many artworks, the political message is oblique and remains unarticulated. The Garage Sale, however, prompts its viewer to make complex political and theoretical connections.

ROSLER I spent a lot of time thinking about art’s relationship to critique when I first started making work in the late 1960s, primarily because of Pop. The message of Pop was “there is no message,” and the critics were relentless in affirming this. Like the Minimalists who said, “what you see is what you see,” Pop insisted on a certain kind of conceptual flatness or vacuousness. Yet it seemed clear to me that Pop instantiated a powerful critique of consumer society that was possibly invisible even to its most avid collectors, who didn’t see the work as ironic. Certainly the general public saw it as a celebration of consumerism. So, what’s the point of making art whose relationship to critique is inaccessible?

FISKE Right, that line between celebration and critique is often thin. Along with your work in video and photography, the Garage Sale provides an interesting model for how to achieve political activism in and through art. On the one hand, its politics are embedded in its form-for example, its de-hierarchized display, or its figuring of the viewer as an active participant-and its site. At the same time, they are pronounced rather explicitly in its content, whether in the handwritten signs, the taped monologue or the objects themselves: for example, a 2009 issue of the New York Times with the headline “Iraq War Ends.” Where do you locate the politics of the piece? 

ROSLER There are several political threads running through the sale. There’s the clear-cut one that has to do with consumerism and commodity fetishism. There’s another that concerns the assignment of value to objects produced by people of different classes, groups and locations. And there’s an element of political activism as well: for example, in the two flags proclaiming “We the people SAY NO to The Bush Agenda.” At first, I wasn’t sure how explicit I wanted the show’s politics to be. I worried that MoMA would be offended, or that the curator would be annoyed. Then I thought, maybe I’ve stumbled into the opposite, which is the display of politics as trophy. And then I thought, hell, I can’t worry about this. It’s a garage sale. There’s all kinds of stuff on display.

FISKE In an earlier interview, you mentioned the sterility of art whose politics inhere solely in formal elements at the expense of an engagement with social imagery. The example that you gave was Robert Morris.

ROSLER He’s more political than some of the other Minimalists. But, it’s true. I remember the first time I saw one of Morris’s objects. I was still a student, so I guess it was around 1965. I thought, it’s a gesture of rejection, but it lands with a thud, and it doesn’t take you much beyond that gesture. Of course, I could be wrong about that. I’m still mulling over the lessons of Minimalism and other formalist efforts. But, in my own work, I do prefer that there be a multiplicity of cues so that ordinary people might understand where a work is going, even if they don’t grasp all of its references, vectors, dimensions, and so on. There should be an element that suggests that the work is a step away from the “what is,” that it operates on a meta or symbolic level.

FISKE What struck me about the items for sale was their worn, almost textural quality. Each encodes its own idiosyncratic history. This stands in contrast to an artist like Haim Steinbach, who displays shiny, unmodified objects on shelves.

ROSLER Well, I’m probably more Frankfurt School than Haim. I’ve been influenced, like so many others in my generation, by their way of talking about consumer society and culture. I read Walter Benjamin on the encoding of meaning in objects based on wear and use only after I held the first garage sale. His thinking resonated deeply with my own. It stems from Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, whereby the labor of production falls away and objects appear to gain autonomous lives. In the Garage Sale monologue, I quote the section in Capital on commodity fetishism to discuss how we give meaning to objects and what it means for me to sell personal effects, like my baby’s shoes: all questions that come to mind when you move beyond an abstract analysis of the life of objects and people’s relation to them.

FISKE You’ve included many items-film cassette ribbons, VHS tapes, outdated electric toothbrushes, a Macintosh from the 1980s-that are obsolete, broken or seemingly irrecuperable. The show’s centerpiece is a 1981 Mercedes without an engine. What do you feel is achieved through presenting these cast-off, vaguely ridiculous objects?

ROSLER The Mercedes actually sold. It’s a candidatefor biodiesel, and we had several bids on it. And, hey, I sold a used car in the atrium of MoMA! But obsolescence… Well, the editor of the newspaper, Sarah Resnick, published my essay on obsolescence from October. I wrote it in 2002, in the aftermath of September 11th. More so than recuperation, obsolescence is central to the economy, and obsolete electronics really are the major waste of our time. That’s, in part, why there were so many old cameras, old computers, typewriters, turntables, records, and so forth. Their presence points to an important product of our society. We romanticize the just-past of commodity: it is haunted by the nostalgic memories of our childhoods, shorn of contradictions and conflict.

FISKE Much of your work, such as “Bringing the War Home” [1967-72], has been concerned with collapsing distinctions between the private and the public. You’ve spoken of the inherently personal nature of garage sales: the way in which the items for sale offer a portrait of the seller, a definition of self through commodities. Some of the objects in the atrium were intensely private, such as the musty photo albums of weddings and anniversaries. At the same time, garage sales are of necessity public events.

ROSLER They enter a liminal realm between the public and the private. That in-between position is especially interesting now that we have trouble knowing where the line between public and private really falls. For example, I’m sure you heard the fuss over Instagram saying that it can sell your photos or put them near ads and so on. When you agree to a website’s terms of service, you’re agreeing that your personal data will be mined—and even if you don’t agree, it will be. Facebook follows people even when they’re not signed into Facebook—and it’s not just social media that track you. On the one hand, people want to get on with it, but when confronted with the facts—”We can do this”—they’re shocked. As private information increasingly becomes public, people no longer seem to know where to locate the two.

FISKE In the far left corner of the atrium, almost hidden by the piles and racks of other wares, was a table labeled “Porn and Underwear,” where skin magazines from the 1990s were stacked near used lingerie. What was the importance of including racy, outré items?

ROSLER In the monologue, I ask: “Will you judge me by the things I sell?” Because, through my things, I am, in a sense, admitting to who I am. This “dirty” area offers another form of portraiture, another way of talking about what we may or may not wish to disclose. It’s my gesture to pornography and to shame. But also, of course, the representation of women is encapsulated in this section in a very different way than it is at the front of the sale-and I do conceive of the sale as having a front and a back. I wanted to create a theatrical setting, such as [sociologist] Erving Goffman discussed, with things that are “backstage” being hidden from public view, but rarely successfully. The show’s space is mapped like a stage set, with the most highly lit part at the front and the dimmer vistas toward the rear. But this is also where the map (“the Garage Sale as metaphor for the mind” idea) takes on the qualities of Freud’s division of the mind into conscious, subconscious and unconscious—though in that map the sections are more likely vertical than horizontal, as the Garage Sale must be.

FISKE Throughout your career, you’ve refused to ground your practice in a specific, studio-based medium. What appeals to you about engaging with such a diversity of media?

ROSLER It’s too limiting to stick with one medium! Different media demand different things from the viewer. One of the reasons that I’ve worked with some of the forms that I have is that they bypass the idea of an audience in favor of participants. Shades of Allan Kaprow! But, of course, it also comes out of Abstract Expressionism.

Photography has always fascinated me-on the one hand for its casualness and on the other for its ability to make infinite demands on form. Although it pretends to be a cut into life, a photograph is a boundedfield, like a canvas. At the same time as it purports to carry some intrinsic meaning about the world, photography has insisted, from its beginning, on revealing something beyond simply the optical “what is.” In the late 1960s, once I realized that Michael Fried was right in his description of presentness versus presence but wrong in his choice, and that theatricality was actually where art was, I began to work with installation, which was just being invented at the time. As for other media, they step away from confrontation with these questions and engage instead with things like possession and desire.

FISKE As you discuss in the Garage Sale Standard, the garage sale is an event with a history unique to postwar America. At the same time, it engages with the present, assuming new meanings each time that it’s staged. For example, in your published discussion with Sabine Breitwieser, you speak to the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the installation.

ROSLER Well, as I’ve said before, desire is always in the present. It has no future and no past. It always is now. And now is not just the now of wanting but also the now of being, of experience. The Garage Sale is built on desire, which is why I don’t discuss where the money goes, because it’s not a charity event, even though I don’t keep the money. It’s an event in which you want something, and I’m either the good person who lets you have it or the bad person who impedes your desire. Its transcendent dimension is present in the universe of discourse in which it resides, not in my selling you something or your wanting something. It goes back to what I said earlier about Pop. The garage sale admits to having another dimension, somewhere, whereas Pop could never admit it. “Who, us? We’re just having fun!”