If you’re a feminist working in the art world, Evelin Stermitz will find you. I first made contact with Stermitz when she posted on the Facebook page of Fem Coven, a feminist collective I’m part of, and that she got wind of through no uncertain means—Fem Coven is, though international, based in Berlin and has no direct ties to Austria or to anyone living there. After a short exchange, she introduced me to ArtFem.TV, a resource I’ve been returning to from time to time, and that I worked through pretty extensively preparing for (binders full of) Women Artists, a Fem Coven event exploring the consistent underrepresentation of women in the art market.
It shouldn’t be but is nonetheless unusual to find women in net art that are working with themes of feminism so explicitly. When I asked Ivana Basic about it in a recent interview—a theme that has come up repeatedly in response to Basic’s work—she argued her work wasn’t really informed by feminism, and that it was actually “a very impotent way of going about it”, it being life, I think. Stermitz holds no such humanisms to heart; she is explicitly, almost radically feminist, and one can see the commitment in her work, which deals with issues of gender in almost every piece. She tackles our culture’s irrational obsession with looking young in her video performance ‘The Art of Aging’ (2011), and its conception of women in the video work ‘Women in War’ (2010), culled from the scrolls of stereotypical videos of ‘Most Beautiful Women’ and ‘Sexy Women’ that one gets when searching ‘women’ in YouTube.
In one particularly moving performance piece, ‘Rose is a Rose’ (2008), Stermitz covers her face with soft pink rose leaves until it is entirely obscured to the soundtrack of Gertrude Stein’s ‘Sacred Emily‘, a metaphor for absurdity of our beauty standards and the fragility of its canons. It is a move reminiscent of Francesca Woodman, who in a one of a handful of performance videos she made before she plummeted to her death at the age of 22, can be seen standing before a semi-translucent sheet, writing her name on it in shaky letters, and then ripping it slowly to reveal her naked body. A woman is strong as a woman is weak, and the fragility of the women in Stermitz’s works only underscores their strength. To survive a world in which you are an “Other” is the truly courageous act.
What’s your story, Evelin? Where are you from, where are you based now, and what got you into the art world?
Evelin Stermitz: My way into the arts began first with my interest in contemporary dance and visiting cultural institutions. I always found art so peaceful and got attracted to it through visiting exhibitions. I decided to study art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, Slovenia, because it is so close to Austria and still for many people so far and different, still now after years of establishment in the European Union. I wanted to experience something different across the border. Currently I am based in Vienna, and also live each year for some weeks in New York City where I do most of my video production. For me, it is interesting to cross borders to experience different cultures, social and political systems, to meet different friends and new people. Before entering the Art Academy, I was strongly interested in photography and film/video, so it was kind of ‘natural’ that I chose these genres to explore further in my studies and in my own artistic practice. I think, as an artist you have to make your own experiences, to emerge and build your own ideas.
You’re described alternately as a researcher and an artist — but do the two blend for you in inextricable ways? Is research integral to the works that you’ve created? Which ones required a great deal of research, and is there a different preparation or research process for different mediums?
ES: I understand art as a research field, indeed, but in my opinion, most artists do research work that link to many social, humanistic sciences, or to other fields like biopolitics, economics, information science, whatever. But I understand the accompanying research as such, that it provides a basis for an experimental transformation into the arts and that it is finally something arguable. For example, in some of my video pieces, I articulate the gender discourse and offer a critique on the binary social patriarchal oppressive culture. Mainly, I come up with an idea for a project and do the research through the working process, where feminist writings are influential before or after, or in general. I cannot really say in particular which work required the most research, but also recently I created some experimental works only, to lead away from the overly intellectual approach and to gain new freedom of expression that is mainly visually oriented. But I think, what is also meant as a researcher in my connection was the work on ArtFem.TV, where I researched women artists whose works are centered in the field of art and feminism based on video and film.
You work across a lot of different mediums — photography, video and net, installations, conceptual pieces. Which mediums have been working in the most of late?
ES: I must say, that in the exhibition area, I have most success with my video pieces but also with the net art pieces. The photography series are not so easy to distribute and the international handling of photography is still not really developed. I think the reason for this is also the overflow of images nowadays through the Internet and social media; whereby the market to collect photography has also not really been developed, except for some artists who focus mainly on photography and its exposure. But it is so easy nowadays, somehow “everyone” can take a good photograph with digital technology and must not have a lot of knowledge about or understanding of the history of photography as art. The video art scene itself is quite vivid and collaborative. For most exhibitions, curators are selecting my video pieces only. But since I am also teaching art, I do not depend on real art sales, which is a kind of freedom of orientation from the general art market to be independent and free in the production.
I know you have three video pieces, ‘Silence’, ‘Table Talk’ and ‘Water Portrait I-IV’ and the net art work ‘World of Female Avatars’ being exhibited in the upcoming show, Exquisite Corpse, at Fuse Art Space with Faith Holland and a handful of other artists. Can you tell me a bit about the pieces and about the World of Female Avatars?
ES: Quoting the exhibition website, “Exquisite Corpse explores female form, self-image, and stereotypes from the perspective of eleven female artists…[and] considers the potential of contemporary technology as a tool to examine female self identity and evaluates the impact that it has upon constructs of ‘femininity’.” Curator Sarah Faraday selected some of my pieces that articulate female struggle, such as violence against women and male oppression, but also the net art piece that circulates around the female body discourse in times of virtual reality.
The single channel video ‘Silence’, has been created for the international video collage hosted by FemLink, where a selection of women artists got invited to work on a video to a specific topic and then all videos have been arranged as a series. My video piece ‘Silence’ has been created on the topic of aggression and articulates the issue of rape in a performative experimental video. The title of ‘Silence’ should describe the aspect of the victims, who describe a silenced thread, because the afflicted women are broken and the public is hardly supporting this thread.
The other video ‘Table Talk’ is a performative video that describes the binary communication habit between men and women, where a woman is constantly flattering and supporting the male opponent in an exaggerated gender specific communication role. The four channel video series ‘Water Portrait I-IV’ describes stories of violence against women dedicated to the water, while mirroring the portrait of the woman from the water surface. Finally the net art piece ‘World of Female Avatars’ is an online collection of women body statements and body picture collages which describe the avatars that live virtually in cyber space.
Most of your pieces are in some way playing with gender and its socio-culture implications, the Living Doll and Women/Body/Stories series, ‘Ales Z.’, ‘Siegrid Dancing’, and ‘Votes for Women’. Tell me a bit about your perpetual return to these themes.
ES: Yes, these are my recurrent topics somehow! The photo series ‘Living Doll’ is a critique on fashion photography and its industry that is mainly shaped by male visions of women, where the woman is strongly exchangeable but also creates a strong role model in the socialization process of many (young) women. The series ‘Women/Body/Stories’ was a photographic investigation of women and their relation to their bodies, but shows a strong disconnection of this relation that should be somehow familiar. The result of this series shows almost an alienation from the own body experience and it was hard to find women to talk about it.
The series ‘Ales Z.’ was just a friend’s series, where I put make up on a male person and tried to alienate the person through further photo manipulation. The masquerade that is applied by women every day modifies also the male and shows actually its gender absurdity within its own beauty. The series ‘Siegrid Dancing’ was an experimentation with photographic time and movement and goes strongly into abstraction. But it should describe a liberatory effect and stands for liberation of women, struggle, fight and freedom. And the video piece ‘Votes for Women’ describes the beginning of a century within the women’s suffrage movement of the first feminist wave. While the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901 to men who achieved greatest benefit on mankind, women were neglected and their position has been far from being equal.
You’re the sole mastermind behind ArtFem.TV — the founder, editor and curator of the online television program. What is the story behind it, and what is its aim?
ES: I founded ArtFem.TV in 2008 to make visible women’s works and their voices in a feminist context. It was interesting to see that so many women artists are creating works in this field of art and feminism. I worked intensely on this project for about three to four years. Finally the site comprises about 500 video pieces by about 100 international women artists and got so comprehensive that I cannot add new works anymore, which is a pity and I would like to expand the project in the future. Besides the virtual presence, ArtFem.TV also has been exhibited as an online installation to be interactive for the visitors, and I have presented the project in various public talks. The aim of the project is to provide a space for women’s images and voices in a democratic global way, and to break with the male dominated Internet surface.
Can you tell me a bit about some of the theory you’re inspired by? There’s been oblique references to Lacan’s notion of ‘the Other’, Butler’s performativity of the body, and Barbara Kruger’s work ‘Your body is a battleground’ — anyone else?
ES: Lacan’s psychological theory and ‘the Other’ is still important to differentiate between the self and what is opposed to us; in particular for me, it is interesting to see what is unfamiliar, what is strange, and in a larger circle what is outside of society, marginalized, not spoken. In a feminist context, it is interesting to see what constitutes the ‘Symbolic Order’ and its power relations. Language and law can be a form to determine power over one’s subject. Through this differentiation processes, it is possible to develop an artistic aesthetics of the sublime, a notion of the nonvisible realm of our society that the artist renders visible.
Since my works have a performative emphasis, I agree with the theory of Judith Butler, who sees the performativity of the body as gendered through repetition and socialization processes of learned identity politics that create a social subject through its agitation. To explain the statement of Barbara Kruger’s work as still accurate: ‘Your body is a battleground’ means that a female body is exploited in our society through commodification in media, pharmaceutical industry, male medicine and biopolitics, porn industry and sex trafficking, workplace and unequal wage, family politics, voluntary work for the state’s sake and stabilization of society, and maybe you can find something more?
Is there anyone whose work you’re following and loving these days, in terms of video and visual art?
There are many women artists that I admire for their works and ideas, their achievements and their artistic life merits. Recently, I followed most of the contemporary artists that are presented on ArtFem.TV, because I also curated video screenings and exhibitions out of this online video art source. To mention other artists, for example VALIE EXPORT or Maria Lassnig, two Austrian artists that received late recognition in the art world, or other international women artists who deal with gender aspects and their society are interesting to me. It is hard to mention each artist equally, there are so many great women artists who emerged from the feminist struggles in the 1970s but also from the younger art generation nowadays. Mainly, I am interested in the works by women artists in this still biased male art world. The domination of male aesthetics and male understanding of what is defined as greatness in art is still tremendous. **