Interview with Daria Dorosh: “What is our current definition of feminism? It needs to be opened up again”

Artist Daria Dorosh talks about her experience as one of the co-founders of women’s cooperative gallery A.I.R., in New York, as well as about the contemporary art scene, challenges for women in the art world, DIY culture, her artistic work and the 17th solo show she held in A.I.R. in 2015.

+ About Daria Dorosh: http://www.dariadorosh.com/

You are one of the co-founders of A.I.R.. What was the atmosphere back then?

There was a lot of political unrest in the 1960s, with all the self-examination that went on about the Vietnam war, equality for people of color, the condition of poor people. But it finally came down to gender. Because the women who fought for social justice found themselves working in groups with men who didn’t see them as equals. So they realized that they were not being taken seriously, which came out of a very long history between men and women. By the 1970s, women had experienced many kinds of groups. There were two women who founded the concept of A.I.R. Gallery – Barbara Zucker and Susan Williams. They got together and went through the data assembled in a slide registry of women artists and brought together 20 of us who wanted to start a gallery for art made by women artists. It was a little frightening to stand out so much, but it was exciting too. Most surprising for me was how capable the women artists assembled were. When the 20 women got together you could see that the skills in the group were pretty amazing. I still believe in that as a model for today. Any group can get together – just look at your collective skills and see where you can go from there. I used that as a model in my teaching, because I taught fashion design all my life and I also taught fine art for 10 years.

How did the cooperative structure work? Has it changed over the years?

The model is very simple. I think it’s hard to realize how important it is – the DIY idea of not waiting for someone else to take care of you, especially for women. Women are used to being taken care of in their historical bargain with men. And so, the simple cooperative model is: you look at your expenses, you look at your numbers, you do the math and figure out how much everybody needs to contribute to fund the project. In the beginning it was very little because no one made much money and the spaces were cheap. Lower Manhattan was empty, with lots of industrial spaces for rent.

I was reading in the Fales Library that A.I.R.’s rent in the 70s was 350 dollars. In SoHo!

Yes! The dues were something like 35 dollars a month. But with time, once artists reinvented those empty spaces in SoHo and the magazines saw how magnificent they could be – the lofts – artists have been chased by real estate ever since, from one neighborhood to another.

Do you think A.I.R.’s goals have changed through the years?

I think the main goal, which is to make a place where women’s art can be seen, has never changed. Another goal that has not changed is not to judge the feminist ideology or artistic style of women artists but to focus on good work, and to find artists who are committed to participating as equals in the gallery to keep the organization going. This hasn’t changed. What has changed is the world around us. But I think we could be open to some revisions and some re-thinking, because when I think about it, the gender issue was very clear in the past, but for young people today it is not so clear. There are movements for gender self determination, feminist who are not women, and many other ways of thinking. As feminist artists, I think we have to always review – what is our agenda, what is our mission. Because questions come up that are difficult, but very powerful. Like every few years someone asks us: do you think you still need a women’s gallery?

Why do you think that A.I.R. is still important?

Because there are still unresolved issues, like: there are too many good artists and too few institutions to take care of their work, and up to now the focus on helping artists has been mainly on their development in their younger years but not preserving their legacy when they get old. So, if we want to have a cultural legacy from the 1960s pre-digital generation that is leaving us – my generation – there are very few ideas of what to do with their work. Perhaps again, it is going to be left to the artists to figure this out.

Have you ever consider having men as members?

No. I think we don’t fully understand the cultural definition of gender yet, even though I do think we miss out on not having a fully integrated audience. But first, we would have to define our feminism differently. And I think the problem has been that just running the gallery is so much work, that we are still waiting to get to this conversation. Also, I don’t know who is ready for it. I don’t know what the artists think about it. Not the men so much, but what is our current definition of feminism? It needs to be opened up again.

It is common to hear the interpretation that these all-women artistic practices are also isolating, and ghetto-ize women. What do you think about these thoughts?

I don’t know if it’s ghetto-izing women as much as it is setting women apart for the time being. But when gender rules finish their evolution – which is a process – I think, then we’ll have to re-define our position. Because now, networks run the digital age – small collaborative networks, like the proverbial four guys in a garage who changed the world with software and hardware. By now, women are comfortable working with women. Serious change may take a lot longer than we think, because the people at the top in the old system can’t imagine why they also need to change. And different cultures have their own complex male and female relationship issues. But I think we have to watch out for that past model. Because, you know, the way I see the problem is that it’s a binary model based on the belief in rich/poor, male/female, top/bottom, white/black. It’s an either/or choice. And this is an old model from the Industrial Revolution that does not fit the postmodern digital age.

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Daria Dorosh – Mercurial Guide. 2012, Portable textile sculpture, 3″ x 20″ x 7”. Source: A.I.R. Website

Meredith Brown wrote about A.I.R. and quotes a lot of other initiatives that were inspired by A.I.R. but a lot of them didn’t survive. Why do you think A.I.R. is such a successful case?

That’s a good question. I’m going to credit it to the simplicity of the model. Secondly, I’ve come to believe that New York is a world-class city that so far has maintained its special character. There are so many different nationalities living here that we respect our differences. You have to live with difference, to accept it. So, our feminism was never held together by an ideology that might have become outdated. New York still attracts young people from everywhere, which must be for a reason. Perhaps our feminism is more about freedom – the freedom to be true to yourself. Maybe there is another fact too: I was thinking that New York is a city that is never finished. It is always under construction. So it feels that you are never finished here. The story never ends.

Did A.I.R. have moments of crises?

Sure. Money has always been very hard to get around as an issue. When we moved from Wooster to Crosby Street it was because we couldn’t afford the rent and we were advised by a volunteer lawyer to form a partnership and get a lease on a space. But relationships around money suck up all the air in the room, as they say. The whole thing becomes about money. It’s unfortunate that it does cost so much money to do this in New York. But I think it can be done, I think you can do it with any budget. You don’t have to copy A.I.R., you take the core of the model, which is a network, a number of people, and see what you can afford with that, and what you can do with your skills sets. Then you also have to establish your mission and you do it. That’s what makes it work.

In this article author Meredith Brown says that these initiatives used to have two groups, the “revolutionaries” – transform contemporary society, and the “reformers”, – improvements within the existing social structure. Did you see this in A.I.R.?

I’m not sure. I haven’t read Meredith’s book so I don’t know how she put together what she found in her research. But that’s an interesting analysis. I would like to know how these two strategies have played out, to see if it brought them to a better place or if it hit a wall. For someone like myself … working on the edge is important. To always work in the margins of things and not in the center. Not to be distracted by the mainstream. Also to be more analytical about the past. Looking back from where I am now, I think equality for women was not possible because that system is based on “winners/losers”, “black/white”, etc.. It champions competition because it does not see an economic model for black/white/gray/pink/orange. If it feeds on winners and losers, women getting into the winning circle doesn’t change anything. You still have the same system. I think we do have to reinvent the whole system. We have to find a different narrative for art, and a different reason why people need to have it in their lives. Sometimes I wonder… even in selling work, which is great, you just pass the problem of cultural legacy on to another person, because you will die, they will die…and then what happens to a cultural legacy? That is something those who love art have to think about. Just selling work, making a few dollars, it’s not good enough, because it’s not enough money for most of people and it’s not guaranteed year to year. One year you can sell, next year nothing. That’s not a secure life. That’s unsustainable. We need to look at all of this and come up with new system that respects artists and preserves culture.

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Daria Dorosh – Owl Princess. 2012, Portable textile sculpture on custom shelf, 11″ x 11″ x 5.5”. Source: A.I.R. Website

Do you think today there is a sense of community for women, in general?

Yes. I think women are not raised the same way anymore. When I was young, the message was that women were supposed to compete with each other. If you see old movies, from the 1950s, women had nothing to do except find a marriage partner. They were not encouraged to work together. Men always worked in teams. They excel in team work in business, military, sports. That’s their whole thing. Perhaps they are not as good in one-to-one relationships as they are in teams. Women now have seen that “hey, it’s pretty good to be in a team”, where everybody is equal and it’s based on what each one can bring to the table. There is no reason to impress anybody in a women’s group. I think women have learned a lot and they have come a long way since the 1950s.

Do you think the art world is still as sexist as before?

I think the art world doesn’t know what it is today because it doesn’t have a story with which to sell work. Before you could say: “This (male) artist is a genius!”. “This man is 1 out of 300 that is the best!”. What’s the story in a postmodern digital culture of cell phones and selfies? Too much stuff. What’s the new narrative? Everything has been turned over a hundred times in the age of information. I guess competition is a very male kind of thing that is being challenged by collaboration.

You had solo shows at A.I.R. since 1976 – 17 solo shows. What’s the role of A.I.R. in your career?

Yes, I did 17 solo shows, and 21 all together. The 17 shows were important. I think I have finally come to see that A.I.R. is my research space. My shows are research for me, with one thought leading to the next body of work. The digital age came into my life in the early 90s with the Mac desktop. When I first saw what Photoshop was I couldn’t paint anymore. I stopped painting. I still have my paints, I love my old paintings, but I’m not able to go back and paint again. And I don’t know why exactly. I’m still waiting for the answer. I was able to support myself through teaching, and I was happy with that because it was a good living and a very interesting job. But at the same time that I was teaching, the experience of being in a space with other women artists all those years gave me the courage and confidence to go after more things in my life, one of which was to undertake a PhD at the close of my teaching career. I wanted to analyze the parallel patterns I saw in fashion design and fine art.

What is it like to be one of the co-founders of the gallery and now doing the opening show in its new location?

It was a little hard because we didn’t know if we would open on time. And I’ve picked a difficult show for myself to do this time, so that’s what I’m up to.

Why is it difficult?

The show has so many small works because they center on the body. I’ve been working on finishing it full time since January. I have been working with textile as a medium for about 10 years – can’t seem to get out of textile for now. I hope I get through it soon. I am putting my art and fashion theory together. I think that a critique about fashion can be really interesting. So I thought the body was a very interesting space to work with, not only because it’s a woman’s traditional space – it’s the only space given to women, historically. But the cell phone has redefined the body now for both women and men. That’s a very important trend – that all conversation now takes place on our body, globally. So I started to think, what if art takes a little space on the body, somewhere between fashion and technology? What would you have? So throwing these ideas around with myself, with my friends, my show is called The Art Of Sleep. It’s about the last place of privacy that we have. When we sleep we are on our own inner journey where no one is surveilling us. And we don’t know where we go exactly. We know something happens, because when we get up we are different. So the show is about what would happen if we would take ourselves more seriously before we go to sleep. So, when women get married, traditionally they dress up to celebrate this big occasion. What if every night is a big occasion that we are all missing? I started to imagine that idea and I started to make night jewelry out of textiles and gemstones. Jewelry to put on before you go to sleep to enhance your self-image. You can kind of look at yourself and acknowledge how amazing you are, because it celebrates your body and your being. In the installation, The night jewelry pieces are perched on top of a photograph that shows a journey. So the jewelry is contextualize by a photograph when it is not being worn. I also started thinking about the sleep ritual, and I made floating plant islands in textiles for the bed cover, so it makes the bed look like a pond. You see the bed during the day and you just imagine the journey you are going to take that the night. I’ve also made large digital prints that I call fashion monsters, so these combinations of beauty and grotesqueness become figures that are hidden in the corners of the room, like fragments of dreams that you don’t quite know what they mean. They are beautiful and a little disturbing too.

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Daria Dorosh ‘The Art of Sleep’, 2015 – Source: A.I.R. Facebook

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