Forging Feminist Futures: An Interview with Alex Martinis Roe
At the center of Berlin, Australian artist and writer Alex Martinis Roe’s work is the concept of feminist genealogies. In her films and writing, and in the public conversations and encounters she organizes, Alex develops experimental and non-linear methods of forging relationships across generations. From 2012 to 2016, she engaged with feminist collectives in six cities across Europe and Australia in order to learn with and from their organizing practices, their ways of doing history, and their modes of theorizing. The result, To Become Two, was a series of films and a book, in which her goal was, as she writes, “to put forth a feminist political theory that outlines the importance of engaging with feminist collective histories.” This book, published by Archive Books, is divided in two parts. The first, “To Become Two,” consists of a series of essays on the collectives, which included the Milan Women’s Bookstore co-operative in Milan; Psychanalyse et Politique in Paris; Gender Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands; the Duoda – Women’s Research Centre and Ca la Dona in Barcelona; and, in Sydney, a network of people involved in the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative, Feminist Film Workers, Working Papers Collective, and the Department of General Philosophy at Sydney University. The second part, “Propositions for Feminist Collective Practice,” developed in conversation with a group of artists and academics, turns the experiences of these practitioners into a series of “propositions” for political organizing. The book, then, looks first to the past and then to the future by offering “a handbook of political tools.” Last winter, the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (GfZK) in Liepzig, Germany, honored Alex’s work with a 2018 Future of Europe Prize. In coordination with the prize, her exhibition Alliances opened at GfZK. This past spring and summer, Alex and I corresponded by email to discuss the book and films that comprise To Become Two.
—Kathryn Crim for EuropeNow
EuropeNow The first part of your book opens with a failed conversation—or rather, a conversation that failed to happen between Elizabeth Grosz and Luce Irigaray. You write that this moment set in motion your inquiry into the relationship between feminist theory and practice and to the rifts between different generations of feminists. Can you describe some of the particularities of the “failed conversations” you were hoping to address (or found yourself confronting) as part of this project? What do you see to be the importance of attending to such “failures,” as it were?
Alex Martinis Roe Elizabeth Grosz is a somewhat undutiful daughter of Luce Irigaray’s philosophy, and although she is one of the most internationally prominent readers of Irigaray, the reason Irigaray refused the conversation is because she sees Grosz’s simultaneous engagement with Deleuze as a betrayal of the ontology of two sexes her work is based on. Grosz does not agree, and I very much like her understanding of the ontology of sexual difference as beginning from “at least two,” emphasizing the process of becoming in sexual difference that is present in Irigaray’s philosophy. This inflexibility on Irigaray’s part is symptomatic of one of the issues in feminism that I feel is most important to address. There is no one right way of thinking the world and while I think it is important to be rigorous and to argue, I think that over the last decades there has been an erosion of solidarity amongst feminists and among those they should be in alliance with—like queer, anti-racist, environmental activists. I think it’s important to establish relationships and alliances where there are broadly compatible objectives, without requiring absolute agreement on philosophy and strategy. I’m promoting a kind of pluralism as the foundation of solidarity. This is so necessary in the face of the fascism, right-wing populism, and neoliberalism the world is facing at the moment.
So with the example of Irigaray’s refusal to have a conversation with Grosz: she refused to enact what I call “solidarity-in-difference” —standing together because of differences, rather than despite them. Ironically, this is what Irigaray’s own philosophy calls for: that we start from difference as the basis for relationships. In the case of women, the liberation project is to invent what it means to be a woman, each in her own way, starting from her difference. For Irigaray, to demand conformity from her own daughters – those who have chosen to inherit her ideas—is in direct conflict with her own philosophy and undermines her vision. I used this example to highlight the importance of practicing one’s ideas in the relationships that are ultimately the material of the work, even or especially in the case of philosophy.
From my own experience, another of the enduring issues behind many failed conversations, especially inter-generational ones is the old essentialism/anti-essentialism debate, which underpins the different strategies of continental “sexual difference” feminism and Anglo-American gender discourse. Although the debate was most visible and explicit some decades ago, it is still one of the main sources of inter-generational tension and is largely responsible for some of the more pervasive splits and fragmentations among feminists and those who they should be in alliance with. The debate curdles where it rests on outmoded ideas of biology and nature as fixed and separable from the dynamic forces of culture. We are in a time where we have to undo these established vocabularies and categories so as to find a new way of relating across different engagements and discourses.
EuropeNow You’ve spoken elsewhere about your resistance to “progress narratives” and in particular to the idea of feminist “waves.” Can you elaborate on some of the problems you see with thinking of feminism as “progressive?” Why do you prefer to think of “feminist futures?”
Alex Martinis Roe I owe much of my thinking on this topic to the research Clare Hemmings did some years ago into the way that feminist academics use broad generalizations about prior feminist waves to establish their own position—an entrenched academic habit by no means exclusive to feminists. From my engagement with feminisms of earlier generations, I have found that many of these generalizations have missed the nuance in earlier literature: misreading, or not reading at all, and in many cases, not acknowledging how their own ideas have come from the possibilities opened by those they criticize, and missing the opportunity to create continuity and foster solidarity. In addition, societies that have somewhat accepted gender equality as a goal have not changed as fundamentally as some would like to think, and I have noticed that where I have brought older feminist ideas, especially those from minor traditions to public attention—so many of them have felt overwhelmingly relevant to current concerns.
In the case of current feminist new materialist / post-humanist philosophy, which is of particular interest to me, I would describe it as being an elaboration of the discourses that came before it, affirming those genealogies and creating new applications for existing ideas and examining the implications of these new contexts and considerations. This is a process of building a broader and deeper discourse, but I wouldn’t describe it as progressive. It isn’t moving beyond what has gone before in a linear fashion. Linear models of time belong to ways of understanding the world that don’t account for complex entanglements, and they ultimately serve to hide the agency of what has come before in shaping what is to come. I’m interested in feminist futures because they are what feminists have been creating for centuries. The here and now experience of feminist action is often electric because of the future it imagines from the work already done. Often, too, the futures imagined by earlier generations are actually brought about through the actions of later generations as they respond to what has come before them.
EuropeNow In the title To Become Two: Propositions for Feminist Collective Practice, both sides of the colon contain key terms for your project—the centrality of “solidarity-in-difference,” the idea of collectivity, and the relationship between theory and practice. At the same time the title emphasizes processes of “becoming.” It’s this sense of a political never-yet-completeness that struck me again and again as the project’s central ethos. Would you say a bit more about how you chose the title?
The title is a Groszian elaboration of Irigaray’s ontology of two sexes and the title of one of her works To Be Two (1994). Irigaray challenges the patriarchal understanding of the difference between the sexes as not a real difference, one which figures woman as a mirror image of man. She asserts that sexual difference needs to be created out of a culture that plays on that mirror image, generating a new language and subjectivity for the embodied difference of women. Grosz elaborates on this idea, emphasizing the process of this invention of sexual difference as one without end and without a pre-figured idea of what it may produce. Grosz’s articulation of Irigaray’s philosophy as an ontology of “at least two” sexes highlights the indeterminacy of its affirmation of sexual difference. In her later work, Irigaray explores how the Christian figuration of the relationship between husband and wife as when “two become one” is a dominant and destructive model of intimate relationships, where love must be based on a collapse of difference. She proposes that love needs to be rethought in a way that enables all parties to affirm their difference through relationships. Becoming two is a figure of relationality which sets the trajectory toward love that forms and forms through difference. The figure of becoming two acknowledges that this process begins by moving away from the current effacement of difference in the fused relationships we know so well. I set the aim of the project as To Become Two to propose a politics and ethics of difference as the basis for the relationships in feminist politics that were narrated and generated through it.
To Become Two: Propositions for Feminist Collective Practice is a book for and about collective politics, and this figure of becoming two – a love relationship that begins from and invents difference – underpins the practices explored in it. The practices of the Milan Women’s Bookstore co-operative, which were developed in part from Irigaray’s ideas, are the source for this. Their collective is organized by a web of a particular kind of committed relationship between two women they call affidamento, translated by Teresa de Lauretis as “entrustment.” As I explain in the book, affidamento is a relationship that exceeds the kinds of relationships found in the existing institutions of family, friendship, and work, and involves a commitment to the other woman as a political partner. They refer to and support one another in their different spheres of political practice, giving each other authority in those different spaces, through full acknowledgement and support of the other’s competences, achievements, and desires. The practice of affidamento is very much about committing to other women, and not instrumentalizing relationships with them. It is an ethical practice of love, where both women open themselves to each other, and in that act of entrustment, they invent themselves through the relation.What is significant about these relationships, when taken as a political model, is that collaboration and political alliance are not dependent upon a shared identity. Relations of affidamento are always one-on-one, and yet they form the Milan Women’s Bookstore group as an interlinked web. I see affidamento as a key political practice for future feminisms and for politically engaged communities of all kinds, because it enables collective projects and relationships to come about through, not despite, difference, and in that way traversing the borders of identity politics.
EuropeNow I think that, to North American ears, affidamento might be one of the most striking ideas. Can you explain how it is importantly distinct from a term that might at first seem to be its synonym: “solidarity?”
Alex Martinis Roe I don’t think solidarity is at odds with the idea of affidamento, but affidamento is more specific. It describes a particular kind of relationship between two women, whereas solidarity is a broader concept of standing-with. There is emotion in solidarity, but affidamento goes further, where one’s whole self is involved in the commitment. The reason you generate female authority together and achieve great change is not because you have committed to a particular strategy or course of action, it’s because you have committed to another person to such an extent that your own sense of self is being produced through it in a remarkable way. I think solidarity sounds like more of a decision between separate parties, whereas affidamento is a way of life. Solidarity is often also synonymous with agreement and consensus. Affidamento starts from difference, and so there is sometimes conflict, but the commitment to each other isn’t necessarily in question in times of disagreement. The Milan Women’s Bookstore co-operative is often full of arguing voices!
EuropeNow Who do you imagine to be the book’s primary addressee(s)?
Alex Martinis Roe In terms of readership, the book was reprinted earlier in 2019, so we already have some idea of who is reading the first run. Quite a few people have written to me about how they are not only reading, but using the book in a few different contexts including workshops and symposia in art institutions; teaching and research contexts in universities; and in self-organized activist groups, usually with some connection to the artworld or academia. I think that this is largely a result of the location of my work and to the sector of the book’s publisher Archive Books (Berlin and Milan) and their various distributors. I personally had no limitations to the artworld or academia in mind. I felt that I addressed the book to anyone with a desire for collective feminist politics. I wrote it in a way that I think is accessible to many people and I don’t see its use as being discipline or industry specific. On the contrary, feminist politics should always exceed and traverse those existing formations.
EuropeNow The first half of the book is a series of histories—what you call genealogies. Here you present history as an open question—a question of how we practice it and what forms of media we use to document and transmit it. While prose narrative is your primary way of engaging history here, the book itself also functions as a kind of archive, collecting images and documents from your research of feminist collectives in Milan, Barcelona, Sydney, among others. And it includes drawings by Alicia Frankovich, which struck me as both documentary and propositional. The second half of the book makes a series of propositions for practicing feminist politics by calling on past practices developed by those in different lineages of feminist thought. These propositions are also, importantly, modes of engaging history (for example, as you write elsewhere theatrical performances can help to recover past “virtualities”). Can you say more about what it means to you to “practice” history? How do these different forms of engaging and “doing” history change what history has to offer to the present and the future?
Alex Martinis Roe Feminist analyses of history have done so much important work in highlighting how dominant historiography has established and maintained structural oppression. Developing alternative historiographies that challenge those structures and present new kinds of stories—“doing history” as the Milan Women’s Bookstore co-operative describe it—are an absolute necessity for liberation politics. Having a history is, I think, a precondition for being able to act and to have a public voice. It is one’s genealogies that establish selfhood. That isn’t at all limited to biological kinship, it is an understanding that our voices only ever emerge amidst and in dialogue with others, and that to participate in public life, we need a “scene of co-appearance,” to use the Arendtian term. This co-appearance is not necessarily simultaneous and can be established in a non-linear way through “doing history.” The project of finding and promoting feminist forebears, for example, is a way of establishing such a political space. If you can claim a lineage it legitimizes your own project as a continuation of a movement, a culture that goes beyond an individual or momentary concern. Collecting all those past actions and their effects gives present and future ones the weight they need to make change.
What practicing history means to me is creating my own relationship with what has come before. It is a performative relationship, where the futures imagined by the minor histories I claim as my heritage are activated through their retelling. The potential of such feminist actions of the past is dependent on how subsequent actions draw on them. I have used various strategies to do this, but perhaps the two most important are: direct engagement with those whose stories interest me, rather than relying solely on existing archives; and always concentrating on the relationships which made something happen, rather than generating, as history often does, heroic stories of the individual subject.
I learned about each of the collectives by becoming a part of their communities and conducting oral histories. I formed historical narratives with a direct, personal responsibility to those I was writing about. I found that the stories already in the archives were often shaped by standards of record-keeping and publishing, privileging established kinds of information. Writing from my own experience of interpersonal encounter with these histories meant that I was able to find and focus on different, uncategorized fragments, often emerging from the minutiae of relationships. And these relationships were my focus from the beginning. I wanted to create a social history of the migration and elaboration of certain concepts and practices, told from the intimate space of relationships between feminists, and the most appropriate method was to form this kind of political relationship with these knowledge-holders myself.
EuropeNow The propositions were developed with other feminist scholars and artists. What were your conversations around these ideas like? Were there any propositions that felt particularly difficult to conceive? How have these propositions been taken up by other networks and how do you imagine them being taken up in the future? What would you like to be the fate or legacy of the work in To Become Two?
Alex Martinis Roe The conversations that formed the propositions were very structured, but because they were so creative and speculative, they were very open at the same time. There were twenty-two contributors to the Our Future Network project. They came from different cities in Europe and were involved in earlier aspects of the To Become Two project in various ways. With one small group, we met regularly for a year, eventually developing Proposition #6 – The Practice of (Public) Speaking together out of a series of co-authored workshops, which followed a seventeen-week workshop I led where we experimented with the various practices in the To Become Two research practically. Other propositions were developed differently—some over Skype, for example. In those cases, I had an idea of which specific practices in the To Become Two research resonated most closely with the particular contributor’s own work. We would discuss them and also identify a few of the key ways she practices her feminist politics. A discussion of the two things together would then lead to a proposal of how one or more of these practices could be combined and adapted to create a collective practice, a way of doing feminist politics together. These propositions are very open and can be adapted to a range of contexts and different kinds of situations. We then thought about the planned Our Future Network meeting/film shoot and devised a way to test out the proposition for that situation.
EuropeNow I began to think of the films in the To Become Two project as a kind of address (in addition to being an archive of the documentary and experimental practices you were engaged in). Or, I should say that I felt addressed by them. How does film play a role in your thinking about shared networks? Why is film a particularly important medium for your practice?
Alex Martinis Roe The first film in the series is structured as a letter, and addressed to the one who engages with it as “my dear”—someone in particular to me. Like letters, I see all the films in the series as a kind of transferal from one time, place and situation to another, but with more ingredients, questions, affects and unexplained fragments than a written letter could contain. I never think of my audiences in a general way. It’s always someone, a pair or some group in particular who, even just by watching, become my interlocutors. Many of the people I go on to work with, I meet through exhibitions of my films. So in that way, I see them as a kind of correspondence—a way of starting a new conversation. Even when my works are shown in museums where there are lots of visitors, I am always interested in how the network that is my practice in a very material way will shift and change as a result. For example, I made Alliances (2018) in response to a conversation I had with a community of people who had seen the To Become Two films.
Alex Martinis Roe I found in the Our Future Network project that collective filmmaking is an extraordinarily effective way to engage a group in co-creation. It’s like writing together but with your bodies and voices involved in a myriad of ways. The time pressure of it too, such a strict schedule, generated a special kind of energy where conversations took on a new level of collective ambition. The intensity was at times overwhelming, but mostly it generated an extraordinary experience, an electric sense of relationality.
EuropeNow In one channel of the three-channel film It was about opening up the notion that there was a particular perspective you use a series of shots of residences as a way of organizing a presentation of the experience of feminist activists in 1970s and 80s Sydney. Can you talk about this approach to presenting the alliances between different kinds of groups—Indigenous rights activists, feminists, the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (a union of mostly men but with a significant female membership), and philosophers? What is the importance of architecture and the built environment more generally to the feminist practices you chronicle?
Alex Martinis Roe I wanted to situate the voices in the film and I felt that rather than the usual format of biography, I would not introduce any of them by name and instead I would get each of them to tell me about a house they lived in. These group houses became the protagonists of the film, because, from my research, I believe that the reason there were such successful alliances among different activist groups in Sydney in the ’70s and ’80s was because of the shared housing movement. Diverse people met and got involved in each other’s lives through these houses, and they became the organizing spaces for many activist projects that could not be located in existing institutions. I think it’s a really interesting demonstration of the feminist dictum, “the personal is political,” too. If you want to change society, you have to start at home with your intimate relationships and chosen kinships, and the way you organize domestic and care labor.
The role of architecture is something I meditate on in all of the film works. I was interested in the spaces that were used by different feminist groups and what the effect of them on the politics was. I showed the spaces as they are today in combination with archival material, so that the often-corporate uses of these spaces now can be seen as historically recent. For example, one of the locations of feminist action in Milan is now offices of the fashion house Dolce e Gabbana. I wanted to point out that the building had had other uses in the past, hopefully encouraging my viewers to seek out opportunities for using spaces differently in their own cities.
Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga—who designs, facilitates and researches intersections between social and physical spaces—and I went on to develop Proposition #3 – Architectures for Encounter, which articulates our thinking around the importance of creating spaces for new kinds of sociality and new cultures in the city. The Milan Women’s Bookstore co-operative noticed that the care they had for their own homes did not translate to the provisional spaces they used for their initial group meetings, which severely affected the kind of interactions they had there. The modes of the dominant public culture pervaded their relating and speaking, undermining the relational work they had been doing in each other’s apartments. It was the project of the bookstore, of creating a loved and cared-for space that enabled them to translate the nuance of the one-on-one relationship of affidamento into their group’s dynamics—a model for a collective politics of difference.
EuropeNow Living collectively can sometimes appear to be a near-impossibility, both because precarious employment conditions often force folks into greater isolation from their communities and because the opportunity to pursue and maintain experimental living arrangements are precluded by high rent, corporately governed housing, and rapid gentrification, in cities all over the United States. What strategies do you think are available to people to best work with and change the environments in which they find themselves? How do they find and make new spaces for collective practice?
Alex Martinis Roe Proposition #19 – Living Apart Together, developed with artist Julia Gorostidi and curators Helena Pérez and Veronica Valentini as part of the Our Future Network project, is concerned with this question of forming communities. It takes its inspiration from the building in Barcelona where they live together with four other women. Each woman has her own apartment, but regardless of who they might share their apartments with in intimate or romantic relation, they are committed to supporting each other and their little community. Veronica was the first one to live in the building and whenever an apartment came up for rent in the building, she did everything she could to help a woman she knew who was interested in forming such a community to take the apartment. I think that’s definitely one strategy that could work to form new communities in the financially and spatially pressured cities you mention. I am also interested in how practicing a commitment to neighbors—undertaking relational work towards building collectives with those we find ourselves in proximity to—is potentially a very effective response to counter the alienating effects of rising rents.
Although it was working on a permanent collective space which enabled the Milan Women’s Bookstore co-operative to practice their relational politics as a group, I think that this same atmosphere of care and commitment can be generated through focusing on other kinds of group projects. What was important for the rigor of this politics of difference was having a shared project, rather than trying to maintain their reason for being together through ideological agreement. I think all the strategies for collective practice developed in the Our Future Network project are doable regardless of access to a reliable space, because they are focused on how you conduct relationships and the energy you put into them. Time and energy rather than space is more important for this kind of political practice. It doesn’t have to be “free time” either. I have learned to practice a politics of relations in many of the contexts I find myself in regularly, attempting to gather the energy of those around me toward forming ways of being together and collaborating, ways that aren’t dictated by the broader surrounding frame of, for example, the workplace.
So, however effective and desirable it might be, I don’t think having constant access to a space is a pre-condition for the kind of collective practice I have been researching. For example, although the situation is nowhere near as difficult as in the Bay Area, in Berlin, and the other European cities where I did my research, collective groups and projects often find existing organizations who are happy to host their activities, usually because someone who works in that organization is interested in taking part. I came across many art spaces and bookshops that allow collectives and projects to use their spaces while they are closed, or incorporate their activities into their programs.
EuropeNow Would you say a bit about your recent project, Alliances? In a film you made as part of that project, you brought together a group of feminists in Paris to talk about the legacy of May 1968 and its official commemoration. This film offers a few “minor” genealogies of that history in order to inflect the official history with other stories—of racism, migration, queer and trans experiences, etc. Can you talk a bit about the structure of this project? How does it extend the concerns of To Become Two—and how is it different? Does it respond to some of the things you learned over the last few years? [Do you think of your work as iconoclastic, insofar as you are trying to work against “official” memory practices? Why is it important to hold such a conversation in public? What is the role of the museum in your work?]
Alex Martinis Roe To Become Two was concerned with tracing a number of specific and interconnected genealogies that were part of my own feminist formation, investigating the transgenerational links among networks and groupings in Australia and Europe that had shaped my political engagement and feminist practice. With Alliances, I am attempting to broaden my knowledge of genealogies of feminist and related practices that I have no prior connection to and to facilitate greater pluralist solidarity among different activist groupings that have some compatible objectives. This is motivated by the observation that while there was significant diversity among those who took part in the To Become Two research, because of the nature of the project and its inquiry, I was engaging with people who were already interested and committed to these histories, and thus who had come from somewhat similar contexts to myself. I think that in this world-wide political moment, solidarity among non-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist and environmental groupings is absolutely urgent. Towards that, and to expand from a certain strand of the post-1968 French Women’s Liberation Movement, which was central to the To Become Two project, the film I made last year in Paris was concerned with race-relations in feminism. It asked how the 50th anniversary of May 1968 would be an important moment to make visible the historical points of entanglement between the decolonial and feminist movements in Paris. I brought ten committed feminists active in different sectors in Paris and from different backgrounds together and explored the legacy of race politics in the women’s movement from 1968 to today. The project focused on “double biographies” – entangled biographies exploring the relationship between contributors to the project and her nominated “feminist forebear”, who is her connection to the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film focuses on, for example, the relationship between contributor to the project Karima El Kharraze and her feminist forebear, Gerty Dambury, also a playwright and stage director like Karima, who was part of the Co-ordination des femmes noir [the co-ordination of black women], a little-known sub-group within the French Women’s Liberation Movement. Although the relationship between the decolonial and women’s movements needs to be strengthened, and the historical and continued structural exclusion of many women from various socio-economic and ethic groupings has to be acknowledged, there are also inspirational stories that shouldn’t be forgotten. As I said earlier, liberation movements really need their histories, and these stories are particularly important for forming a foundation for further alliances now. New generations do not have to invent this project of forming alliances; they already have their place in it and need to take up the challenge from a starting point fueled by the affirmation of a common story.
I am committed to using the visibility afforded to me as an artist to undertaking this kind of work. Museums continue to establish our cultural values and presenting projects of this kind in these spaces is an attempt to offer alternatives to the dominant national narratives embedded in them. Although museums, established as part of the humanist project are complexly entangled with so much of modernity’s violence, there are limits to how far this can be redressed through negative critique. The fact that visitors to museums enter these spaces with the intention of encountering something new and with, perhaps, a more open mind than they do in many other public contexts is an atmosphere to harness. I see my work as participating in a broader reimagining of the role of museums in our society towards greater and more diverse participation in telling our collective stories and, through this process, co-authoring the future of our social formations.
Alex Martinis Roe is an artist and researcher based in Berlin and Canberra, where she is Senior Lecturer and Head of Sculpture and Spatial Practice at the Australian National University. She holds a PhD from Monash University, Melbourne, and is a former fellow of the Graduate School, University of the Arts Berlin. Solo exhibitions of her project To Become Two in 2017 include: Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe; The Showroom, London; ar/ge kunst Bolzano, 2017; Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht; and in 2018 the project was presented at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, as part of Mai 68 – Assemblée Générale.
Kathryn Crim was a 2018-2019 CES Mellon Dissertation Fellow and is a member of the Editorial Research Committee at Europe Now.
Published on January 16, 2020.