Lizzie Philps and Anna Haydock-Wilson in converstation
We have been researching at the Women’s Art Library. The Postal Art Event (1975-77) a project connecting women in different cities, towns and villages in England through exchange of artworks using the postal system. The “event” toured different UK cities and is documented by the slide files titled Feministo: Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife.
FENIX (1978) was a travelling installation made in situ at a number of hosting galleries by Monica Ross, Sue Richardson and Kate Walker, key artists from The Postal Art Event. They improvised exhibitions by engaging audiences, building on previous incarnations in each new gallery.
Both projects made visible the conditions and constraints of the working class female artist
We met to discuss the relevance of these projects in an age where ‘sharing’ and “posting” have been appropriated by digital technology.
A: Did you find any other examples of feminist collective projects?
L: The Hackney Flashers set up in 1971 and produced ‘Who’s Holding the Baby’ in 1978. My understanding is that they were photographers, who didn’t call themselves artists. They documented women in their domestic spaces and they used those photographs alongside text and collage to create posters. There was an exhibition and there was also a setting up of childcare.
The photographs show women who were totally isolated in their flats or in their nuclear families with no playgroups or such like to go to. The Hackney Flashers created an education pack, ‘Domestic Labour & Visual Representation’ that they took to schools and other institutions inviting people to dismantle the images of the woman in the photographs and to ask what was normalised about, for example, this picture of this woman standing in this kitchen. They thought that it was important to make feminism accessible, and part of doing that was to help people to understand how ideas were constructed in the first place.
In Feministo they emphasised that the women involved were of different ages, ideologies, classes, races and that not all them were feminists. They seem to need to make feminism palatable, which is the same problem that we have today.
A: The thing that struck me when I first started looking at these projects was the ways in which we communicate. Back then it was a postal art event in which they had to post a physical object. Now we have Instagram and we can create collaborative work remotely using internet sharing tools. I’m interested in what our limits are with the digital. It has the potential to stop us feeling so isolated. It’s quicker, it’s more immediate. We can show things with photography and video and audio. We can even ‘embroider’ onto the landscape as with your GPS Embroidery project.
L: One of the first projects I did in this ‘declaring my maternal identity in my practice’ approach I currently have was a project called ‘The Egg, the Womb, the Head and the Moon’ by Helen Sargeant. It was a project that was online that lasted nine months and it was about pregnancy and birth. A male friend had shared it on Facebook and I clicked on it while I was breastfeeding at home, feeling miserable, and I thought, “oh wow! I could send my Maternity Leaves and my Pilgrimage stuff” and from that point my knowledge of other people working in this way expanded.
A: So was that a sharing work? It was a ‘digital postal art event’?
L: I don’t know if she knew about the 1970s Postal Art Event, but it was, yes, and we had rules, like needing to respond to other people’s work within a time frame etc, which is similar. I think the ability, not only to realise that your practice is legitimate and valid, but also that the way you feel about your experience, whether you’re a mother or not, is legitimate or valid too is really important in these kinds of projects, isn’t it? I thought the way they responded to each other and how quickly they responded to each other through another object showed great support and solidarity when they would have had to wait days for any kind of response and been much more isolated. In some ways it’s completely different from sharing online because it’s a sharing of material things, almost like gifts, and of course it would have been much less public, even when they made the exhibition. But I think social media has allowed us to do the things they were trying to do.
A: I want to read something that was written here by Monica Ross ‘Fenix arises directly from our experience of working together during the Postal Art Event. We do not really have a word to describe this piece correctly; the Americanism, ‘installation’ which is now commonly used in the UK, could be applicable. It is totally an onsite piece; collage, performance, event, built progressively in the galleries used.’ (FENIX Slide File, WAL) They toured participatory art- “Joanna public coming and creating work with them. That was pretty pioneering. But they were using gallery spaces, so we still have a politics-of- art-spaces thing.
L: One of the things that I read said that often their work was reviewed in the women’s pages (not the arts pages) and heavily criticised. And even by women; in the Guardian for example, ‘There are several ways to look at this; with compassion or with anger or with the hope that these women find a way of getting out of their horrible situation.’ (June 1977). Nobody said “these women have articulated something that really needs saying”. It was more “they’re a bit bitter and twisted, those individuals.” They were asking for things we take for granted now, but they were labelled “radicals” at the time.
A: Here’s another piece; ‘Attitudes towards women generally and towards their art may be changing but isolation is still a problem. As is making sure that women’s art is given sufficient coverage in the media and that art history is properly documented. The gallery situation is barely changed. It is still easier for men to show work and more men than women still do in both state funded and private galleries.’ We could write that now- nothing has changed in 40 years!
L: I know. They’re setting up the Mother House in East London now. It’s slightly different but not all that much, is it? It’s like ‘well no one else is going to take us seriously, so we’ll do it together and we will get some recognition and a voice more broadly, or at least amongst each other, for that.
A: How about our ability to now digitally share and make projects more remotely without physical objects and without physical presence. I want to dig down into where it’s adequate enough and when it stops working. At what point do we physically need to be in the same space, or have physical, tangible stuff happen?
I did some research during my masters about perceiving the digital moving image. It was 2000 and you couldn’t really share videos, this is all pre YouTube. I think there probably is something inherent in digital which alters our perception in the zeros and ones and the non-existence of it all, but I concluded at that time that it was much more about our viewing spaces. I was looking at collective spaces like festivals and open oir cinemas. We didn’t have mobiles you could view on and people didn’t really watch TV on their computers in those days; media consumption has changed so quickly.
L: It’s so solitary. Even within one household. Your social feed can make you feel as if everyone agrees with you cos you have a community online. And that’s true for everyone, of course, but perhaps more important for those of us who are socially isolated and need social media more.
A: There’s the side of it which says “Ah, so I don’t need to be isolated, I’ve got this digital community” but actually we can feel more isolated. Liz Hart portrays this really well in Mummy Monster where she puts a message out online and then is constantly checking to see if anyone’s responded but no one does, so she feels even worse. I do love that we can Instagram our pictures to each other but it’s not enough, is it?
L: No. And the Hackney Flashers thing really made me think a lot about this. Those women are literally in a small flat and there is nowhere to go. In comparison with them, we have all sorts of things to do as a mother; there are so many “cut your baby’s toenails” groups nowadays. I mean there’s a group for everything.
In another article of the time they describe The Postal Art Event as a ‘contemporary version of the 18th century friendship samplers that women used to send to each other’. So this is a 300 year old nuclear model where women have historically been isolated from their friends after marriage with less access to transport and are kept at home to service everybody else… and so they have to send things to each other. Then, in the 70’s they were probably saying, ‘god nothing’s changed since the eighteenth century, has it? How ridiculous!’ Just like we are.
A: We’re not stuck in the home anymore are we, but we haven’t got enough time and space in our lives. We “snatch” these bits of conversations.
L: No, that’s true. Though it depends on class etc. But even for professional women the admin of the home is still largely theirs.
A: For a lot of us we do paid work on top of all that domestic and emotional labour. In a way it was easier when we were stuck in the home because we were given the time and the space for domestic and parental tasks, now we’re just expected to do it all.
L: Yes. That’s been theorised quite a lot in academic ways and it’s true. You can resist it and let your house be a mess, but those choices come at a price within your personal relationships sometimes don’t they? And it’s still the woman that gets judged if a couple’s house is a tip.
A: The winners in this patriarchal society have still got us subdued and separated. So what can we do to change that? Do we insist that we must define our own interests and not be lured into to wasting time and money on the performativity and commodity of ‘being a woman’?
L: I’d like to see a performance of a shared ‘dirty house’ Instagram feed? The Un-mumsy Mum does some stuff on Facebook about “how shit our family photo that we tried to take earlier turned out”, which is pretty refreshing. I’ve seen lots of things on Facebook, like “this is my kid losing it about something ridiculous”. There’s a lot of camaraderie about “not being perfect” that happens on-line, and I think that has changed what it’s ok to say, even in the past 5 yrs or so. And not just in arts intellectual feminist things. I get a lot of that stuff- detector algorithms at Facebook have definitely worked out my attitudes!
A: Maybe we need to go off-line then? I loved the writing exercise you did with us asking us to identify not just what we would say, but where we would say things. We can show things to an art audience or we can encourage a non art audience into the galleries but using public spaces is another way of doing it like Jenny Holzer or Susan Hillier. We can work with techniques to say “this is my voice and I want it heard.”
L: Yes, even little gestures or stickerings or tee-shirts; textual things, interventions everywhere. They make people think about the ideas around those few words. Like the ‘Being A Woman Isn’t a Niche’ print. It allows the reader space to process it.
A: I’ve always liked art that invites participation, conversation and collaboration because you never know where it’s going next.
L: It’s not a finished journey – like feminism!
For more on information on these 1970s projects visit the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths University; slide boxes Feministo, FENIX, Hackney Flashers ‘Who’s Holding the Baby’, Personally & Politically: Feminist Art Practice by Tricia Davis & Phil Goodhall- 1979 Feminist Review, Flying in the Face of Male Artocracy
Caroline Tisdall, ‘Anonymous was a woman’ Guardian June 1977