Corrine Fitzpatrick

Putting the Invent in Inventory: Ulrike Müller speaks with Corrine Fitzpatrick

Art Journal, summer issue

Ulrike Müller in conversation with Corrine Fitzpatrick
Putting the Invent in Inventory

There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember. […] You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist, but remember, make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent. -- Monique Wittig

In 2007, while conducting research at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Ulrike Müller came across an inventory list describing a collection of feminist T-shirts from the 1970s. She distributed individual image descriptions from this list to 100 fellow artists, inviting them to translate the texts into drawings. The result, Herstory Inventory: 100 Feminist Drawings by 100 Artists, a collaborative reimagining of the queer-feminist archive, debuted at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria before traveling to the Brooklyn Museum in June 2012. For the latter installation, Müller exhibited the drawings in visual dialogue with twenty-odd objects from the permanent collection, having mined the museum’s database using terms from a lesbian, feminist, and queer lexicon as search criteria.
I sat down with Ulrike to reflect on the trajectory of Herstory Inventory. A few months prior, I was among the crowd of collaborators, friends, and strangers to tour the Brooklyn Museum installation before parading across Prospect Park to the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Ulrike and I are cohorts in a community of feminist artists and writers; I have interviewed her once before, about the Bregenz iteration of this project. As such, our recent conversation readily twined logistical details with banter and effusive critique. How to translate two-plus hours of chewy nuance and gregarious thought? The gist of our discussion concerns the conflation of individual and collective effort, so teased out by this work, and what that configuration does to critical standards. Were these exhibitions group shows or solo? Were they neither or both? Can the pushing of such conventions be read as a feminist act?
What follows is a distillation of our conversation, presented in Ulrike’s voice and organized around two central questions: What has she, the instigating artist, done in this process? Where do we, the larger network of queer and feminist practitioners, go from here?

“What have I done?”

This project depends on so many contributing minds and hands that it feels provocative for me to now ask, “What have I done?” Yet, it feels important to say “I” and to be able to think this “I” differently, in ways that reconfigure the distinction between self and other. What if collectivity led to an amplification of personality rather than its erasure? After all, one’s personality is always constituted by other voices, also.
Herstory Inventory takes root not in a way of working that I have developed but, rather, in the much larger communal ethics and spirit of collaboration that exists within our artistic scene. Our way of doing things reconfigures conventional ways of being in the world, which includes being an artist and putting together a museum show.
Thinking about the Brooklyn Museum installation, I was intrigued by its geographical proximity to the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the institutional constellation these two collecting bodies comprise. Situated within walking distance of one another, both originate in a communal effort yet relate to cultural power and political hegemony in fundamentally different ways. The Herstory Archives were founded out of a very immediate need for lesbian visibility and the documentation of lesbian culture in the early 70s. Importantly, it is a place where lesbian feminist history is palpable, material, lived.
When I go to an archive I am looking for something beyond information. Mine is a search for one’s body, one’s place in the world, and for one’s politics. This is not an easy process; it’s difficult to arrive at a formulation of self and then it’s painful to let go. Ginger Brooks Takahashi asked many years ago, “How does a culture that doesn’t reproduce, reproduce itself?” The intergenerational transmission of queer feminist knowledge is complex and emotional, personal and political. It triggers a wide range of feelings and responses. What is our relationship to the history of lesbian feminism? How can one both revere and criticize the archive, or, how can one be appreciative while simultaneously making room for ambivalence and the desire for change?

How far can we go?

People read Herstory Inventory as a queer intervention into the archive, but distance from the source material was actually crucial in that it created room for imagination. The T-shirt descriptions I found at the Herstory Archives were textual abstractions of existing images. When I gave individual descriptions to artists as assignments for new drawings, neither they nor I had seen the originals. This was a double movement, both away from and toward the archive in multiple steps of relating, imagining, translating, and re-inventing.

In culling the online searchable database of the Brooklyn Museum, I thought about how to deal with an encyclopedia that fails us. Typing in “lesbian”, “gay”, “homosexual”, and other obvious search terms, not a lot came up. I think “lesbian” results in three entries, which of course doesn’t seem plausible in a museum with tens of thousands of objects. My strategy turned into a speculative looking in between the terms of the encyclopedia, working on the assumption that much more is there than the inventory describes. I ended up grouping museum objects around five terms: triangles, hands, flowers, axes (labryses), and rainbows. This vocabulary, rife with connotation and innuendo, greatly expanded the resonance of my search.
Earlier this year I got myself in trouble at a feminist conference when I reacted to being called a woman artist. “I’m a feminist, but stop calling me a woman artist.” I want to talk not only about the deconstruction of what it means to be a woman, but also to question the term “lesbian”. Of course it is difficult and unsettling to re-negotiate the way one understands oneself to be in the world, the terms in which one operates. It is imperative, however, that language can be examined, taken apart, and put together differently. Tested for its usefulness, actually.
Even if it’s impossible in theoretical or political terms, the desire not to be marked is real. This can be experienced and realized to some degree in creative processes. A psychoanalytical theory of an aesthetic experience would claim that there is an experience of form before there is language; one might argue this through a movement of regression. Yet I think there are other ways to consider that desire, not outside of sexuality but before, or outside of, sexual difference. Where does this desire go and what do we do with it? Why would one be a feminist if not to make the relations and, generally the world one wants, in a real and applied way?