True partnerships can grow from the smallest of seeds. When artists Caitlin Reuter and Suzanne Stroebe joined forces for a class project at New York’s Winkleman Gallery last year, they had no idea that their work together would mature into a full scale creative collaboration.
Their project, A Feminist Tea Party, is a confluence of old and new ideas, bringing together concepts of performance and installation, the practices of 1970s consciousness raising groups, and contemporary relational aesthetic theory.
Through the use of a fictional 1950s era “tea party” installation set, the artists hope to create an inviting space wherein participants will feel comfortable engaging with discussions surrounding feminism today.
In this exclusive interview, we talk with Reuter and Stroebe about Tea Party politics, the role of feminism in art practice today, and the fine art of collaboration.
HCE: How did the project begin?
Caitlin Reuter: The project started when we both applied to the same residency program (that neither of us got), but we applied with two different projects that we actually put together. Suzanne was thinking about a consciousness raising group, and I was thinking about a tea party in response to the Tea Party protests.
Suzanne Stroebe: It was originally going to be for just that afternoon, but as we were unloading out of the gallery, we realized we hadn’t even started the project, and we knew we wanted to continue it. But we certainly didn’t believe we would be planning for so many events a year.
HCE: What has the response to your performances been like?
CR: [P]eople that are interested in the project want to participate in it not only as an art work, but also as an activist project, and as a way to engage in intellectual conversation; but a casual one, and a friendly one outside of the academy.
HCE: How did you come up with the title, A Feminist Tea Party?
SS: When we first came up with the title it was kind of like a joke. You’re not supposed to talk about being a feminist artist, because that will hurt your career. [I]t hasn’t been as scary to people as I thought it might be, as I was told by the art world that it would be.
Something that really interested in me in approaching this project as a contemporary consciousness raising group, was coming into New York from San Francisco from a different environment (that wasn’t the art world), and realizing that a lot of women we knew in graduate school at Parsons–which is a very progressive school–were working with the ideas of gender really explicitly and more directly than I was, but if you ask them if they are feminist they say “No.” Asking them that, they really felt backed into a corner, and women especially would tell me that attaching that title to your work will hurt your career. People will think your bitchy, or they’ll think you’re difficult, or you’ll be pegged into that hole, and then you won’t be included in shows that aren’t about that. You can’t be a feminist artist and just an artist.
CR: All of this is happening in the context of mentors who are not just important to Suzanne and I, but [to] many of our peers who have a huge impact on the art world.
HCE: Do you think that this perceived backlash has more to do with a stigma about feminism rather than the actual tenants of the work?
SS: Yeah, we learned that a lot. That is something that comes up really often when we are doing this project: People telling us what they think of feminism. Especially one event we had. People were like “bra burning, hate men, lesbian, angry, militaristic. All of these words still come up, and it’s shocking that that those stereotypes still persist today. It’s really interesting to talk about that in the context of our installation, which is so far the other way.
CR: While I don’t believe that any of those stereotypes were ever really true, I do think that… a primary part of our conversation is about the fluidity of feminism, and the idea that the second wavers surely didn’t want to associate with certain aspects of the suffrage movement: for example, eugenics policies and things like that. Similarly there are things about the exclusiveness of second wave feminism that doesn’t sit very well with our generation. But that doesn’t mean that we need to eschew that word.
SS: Originally when we came up on this project our mentors, who were a generation above us, were not happy that we include men, and that we want to include men in each event. We work really hard to make sure a man co-hosts, so leads a discussion. Very recently they (our mentors) have started to turn around and said “Oh wait, maybe that really is important. I can understand why that’s important.” Because if you cut anyone out–the generation before us, the men, the women that are younger than us–then we’re not really getting anywhere.
HCE: Where is this message coming from?
SS: It’s’ coming from our peers. From women.
CR: It also comes from the fact that women really are underrepresented in art galleries, and feminist art normally does not appear in galleries or museums. And when it does, it’s under it’s own umbrella. You’ve got things like Global Feminisms, or Whack!. You’ve got these big exhibitions that happen like every 20 years, and they’re all lumped together and that’s what you hear of those artists. Of course, lots of those artists show apart from that; but under the term feminism, you don’t see that happening that often.
HCE: How would you define a typical event? Is there a typical event, or are they all different?
CR: We do want them to be all different, and they do change from event to event. But we do have a general model. We dress in 1950s-1960s costume; we have tea, cups, and a tea service, linens. We also have sets, false walls that hopefully make a domestic space within a non-domestic space; but also refer back to the fact that this is a set–that while the conversations are genuine, and we’re not acting, this is also not a tea parlor.
SS: And it’s a recreation of something that never existed. That’s something that we really want to make clear. This 1950s tea parlor, where these women are dressed in heels and made tea and are so happy; that didn’t ever really happen.
CR: Right, the woman bringing the man his martini with a smile at the end of the day, or the woman vacuuming in high heels: this never happened in real life, just on television… For us, the idea of women’s representation in media is such an important part of the ongoing conversation around feminism, that this moment is an important one to address.
SS: Something else we have done since the first event, is that we invite co-hosts. We very quickly realized that we were coming from a very specific point of view: We’re both white, we both have Masters degrees, we’re both straight. Because of that, we invite co-hosts.
We usually sit in the space the entire hours that the gallery is open, and we’re just sort of there if you want to come in…for casual conversation. Usually around tea time. There is [also] a more directed conversation, and generally we have a co-host to lead that.
We put a lot of work in before each event finding co-hosts, and almost always we find a man to lead one. We find someone who is not straight, who is not white, or people who maybe don’t agree with us, who are different ages than us, and who are coming from a different point of view. Something we really want to encourage is for people who don’t agree with us to not only come and participate, but to lead a discussion.
HCE: What do you think specifically defines your project as a work of art, and how does it differ from a strictly activist event?
CR: That’s a really good question. Even though we consider this to be an activist project, we also always consider it to be an art work. So in spite of the fact that we do want to take it to the general public, we don’t want it to just turn into tea parties that are consciousness raising groups. It is always an installation, it is always a participatory event, and it’s always an art work.
I think that the sets and the costumes, the critical nature and the fact that we don’t explain it overtly, that people actually need to take some time to think about it and puzzle through it is important. I don’t have an agenda with the project, as I would if I were just taking my personal politics to the table. I think if it were just my politics, I would be more strident in my definitions of what feminism is and what I want to see with it. And while of course I voice my opinion, I think that as an art work I want the viewer to be able to make their own choices a little bit more than I might otherwise.
SS: We talk a lot about how, when we’re doing this, when we’re in these costumes and we’re hosting these tea parties, we really do hold back our own opinions. Because we do each have really strong opinions, and we don’t even always agree with each other… It’s very different the way we talk with each other in our street clothes than when we are in the installation. Because we really are playing the part of hosts, keeping the conversation going for the participants, observing what’s going on, offering people tea…I really do bite my tongue sometimes when people say something that I don’t agree with, because that’s not my place as a performer in that moment, and I don’t think that would help the conversation or the project. It’s not really about that. It’s about creating a space and seeing what happens in that space. And that interaction and everything that happens in there is the [work of] art, or finishes the art.
HCE: How do you come up with your topics: Do you have topics in mind, or is it more organic than that?
CR: We let the co-hosts suggest topics entirely, but we do choose co-hosts when we feel like a topic is missing from the dialogue; or when we want someone specific, we will ask a co-host to come with the hope that they will lead on a topic that we know is close to their interests. I guess there are things that we feel are important to discuss, especially when it comes to current events.
SS: A lot of times people will call it a panel, which I sort of like grit my teeth when people do that. It’s not a panel at all. We’re not moderating. We just fill in the gaps by bringing in our own points of view, mildly; but the topic of the day is really just to get things going, and then to just see where it goes.
HCE: Why Tea Party Feminism?
CR: This is a tricky subject. We talk about this all of the time, because our project, at least in its very initial response (and this is not what the whole project is about), but it did jump off from a tongue in cheek response to the Tea Party protest movement.
After we did our first event at Winkleman, Sarah Palin came out and there was this conversation about “grizzly feminism,” and Palin called herself a feminist. For me, in my role as Tea Party host, I want to say that I accept that people can have a fluid definition of feminism, and I want people to be able to identify and use words however they choose; however, I also have a great problem, in my non-Tea Party host role, with the idea of someone who has anti-feminist, and sometimes downright misogynistic policies and viewpoints calling themselves a feminist, and I wonder what that will do…to the word “feminism.”
SS: Speaking as myself and not as Tea Party host, I think it is really disingenuous that they are co-opting something that they see as sort of becoming trendy in a a way. And there are lots of different ways that this is happening: there’s Britney Spears feminism, Tea Party feminism, this kind of hyper-sexualized feminism, and then this super conservative feminism. And I, especially with the Tea Party feminists in particular,…would say that it’s really damaging, because when it comes down to it a huge point of feminism is to create equality, and equality can’t happen if abortion is illegal; equality can’t happen if women can’t get healthcare, and children can’t get healthcare; equality can’t happen if politicians are calling on feminists saying, “you need to be submissive to your husbands and you need to have a bunch of kids, and you shouldn’t have sex before marriage, and all of these things that I think are keeping women in this secondary role. So, it’s very disturbing for me.
CR: You have to remember that equality is a much more complex conversation than the way that Tea Party identifies it. I think that especially in the media right now, I don’t know whether it’s specifically the Tea Party movement, or whether it’s the way the media is interpreting the Tea Party movement, but this idea of empowerment and “in-powerment” suggests that women that are empowered or in power are feminists… Gendered roles aren’t what identifies a feminist. [J]ust because you are a women in politics and playing a role that was historically masculine–although, I hope we no longer view politics as masculine–just seems so absurd to me.
HCE: How critical is the collaborative element to the success of the project?
CR: Well, it starts off as a collaboration between Suzanne and myself, which I just have to say is the best experience I’ve ever had. It’s taught me so much. We work amazingly well together. But then there’s the collaboration with the co-hosts, where we relinquish the control of the conversation to them in a way, and then an even further step of course is everyone else who comes to the table. They are all equally in collaboration at any given moment. Collaboration is really the most essential part of the project.
SS: Collaboration is something that I’m interested in my practice in general. I’ve done several collaborations, but not really more than one with anyone else. We happen to work together really well. But also, the fact that it’s not one person’s project really helps, because it keeps it from becoming stale, and it also helps keep people from feeling like they’re entering someone’s artwork. It really doesn’t feel like there’s ownership… Everything that we do is to make people comfortable, so that the project can be at its best.
A Feminist Tea Party will host various events in California this week. Performances are open to the public.
Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz
Friday November 5th, 11am-9pm
California State University, Northridge
Installation on view November 7th-9th
Lecture November 7th
Events November 8th and 9th
For a complete list of schedules and events, visit A Feminist Tea Party blog.