I had designed and hand-lettered a huge ten-by-twelve-foot sign for this giant real estate company, Helmsley Spear. They had just purchased this enormous factory complex along the BQE [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway]. As a child, my favorite sign was very near that same location: an enormous Nathan's hotdog. And now there was my sign! With a "little" hand-painted apple and heart on either side of the advertisement. I built it in my little storefront loft, and then they shipped it away. Sadly, I never saw it dangling high in the air as they secured the sign to the side of the building. I took photographs of the sign and installed them in the Real Estate Show. It was quietly subversive.
I was very interested in being a worker. I was very different than many people in Colab, because I came from a lower-middle class background and was very interested in making a living and being a sign painter. I traveled all around the city, to boat yards, the World Trade Center, big places, huge places, little nothing places. So to me, I felt that as a performance artist I would bring stories about the rich and the poor together, because they didn't know about each other. Sign painting is how you get into people's heads, because when you are painting a sign you are an outsider coming into someone's business—as a little woman and you are young—they can't shut up. And when you are painting you can't even talk, you can't even move…they talk, talk, talk. And I liked that. A lot. It was my post-graduate education in the world of business, a world that was not about art, a world of men. Men and money, their families, their worries, their plans; it had nothing to do with me as a sexual being, but me being a provider of a service that they were excited about and appreciated. It was a relief, a pleasure, and insanely hard work. They appreciated the skill and the hard work and that it always matched their business profile. It was a kind of collaboration, and to them it was a kind of art. To me it was a skill that later developed into a language I could broaden and use.
I started making my own signs, because I thought we were headed to a third war. And I thought it was the artist's job, my job, to open up my mouth and make pronouncements. I was one of few people who was mostly serious just about performance. I started making the signs as a transition. I made signs for many other artists, such as Tom Otterness and Jenny Holzer, and art galleries. I collaborated with Ingrid Sischy for two shows she curated, turning signs into art. A sign for Art on the Beach was stolen immediately. I made signs for Richard Flood's Beast Show at PS 1. Everyone wanted me to make signs for them. And that's when I said, "I'm making my own signs." Although it was interesting when I was making signs for anybody and anything. It was sort of my fantasy about being in the sign business: working for the super rich, working for artists, working for myself. Then I decided I would hire myself for free. I made signs about domestic violence, violence against children, and sexual harassment in the workplace. And I used some of the signs in the performances.
A lot of my friends were involved in the Times Square Show. Colab was more collaborative than I was willing to be and they were quieter than I was. I liked DISBAND. They were more active. I also thought that they (Colab) all wanted to have major galleries. I made a rock-and-roll band by accident, and I was always making up tunes. Colab asked me to perform in the TSS, it may have been Coleen [Fitzgibbon]. But of course it could have been Michael Smith, who I think performed there also, or Joseph Nechvatal, who first invited me to show my war signs with Colab. June was my busy season when I was painting signs, so I saw very little of it [TSS]. I was already working on the Fairy material and concepts of sex and violence when the TSS came around. And at that point, I wasn't that interested in showing my other work [beyond performance]. I was really interested in the signs being out in the world. The signs I made then I put outside in the train stations, in Grand Central Station, in a little Wall Street kiosk, in subways and buses.
I made a sign about women being harassed on the street. I don't know if it was just so nasty on the subways at that point or if it always is and I was just young. If you are a young woman, you see a lot of penises popping out. And that is a shocking thing to see, not on a daily basis, but I saw a whole lot of them. I don't know if it was very common then or if now all the insane men who liked to show their penises have moved to second-tier cities, or if Mayor Giuliani moved them elsewhere, but I never see men exposing themselves anymore. The last I saw was a teenaged boy, and I chased him from car to car through the subway train yelling that he was too young to be behaving like a crazy, dirty old man and we women and girls would not stand for it anymore!!
At the TSS, I performed once. I came in dragging that roof. On the top of the door there in my studio is a white-shingled roof that has a little gable with a window, it's white with a little red roof. It's totally charming, and it comes from an earlier time. I dragged it in as if I was Jesus carrying the cross, carrying it the same way Jesus carried it. As if I had lost my home and all I had was my roof. And I was taking it with me everywhere. So it was really a statement of being homeless and being extremely poor; the same way that Times Square was extremely rough, and there were people in big trouble there.
I think that for me the story was about money, and not having money, and living really on the edge and making comments about that. I had been raped a bunch of times. You know, by knifepoint and gunpoint. So it was like living in my own terror zone. Even though I wasn't homeless, we all talked as if we were terrified we were gonna become homeless. And we were surrounded by homeless people, because we were right around the corner from the Bowery. At that point, the street was littered with people that were basically in a state of decomposition as much as people could be and still be alive. They were in a compost pile. You could hardly see people. They were filthy, a level of dirt that was hard to imagine, with clothes that were so filthy there was no color to them. And they were lying around and stealing from each other and bleeding. You know they would get their checks at the end of the month, and there was a lot of severe alcoholism. It was a state of horror. I've now lived close to the Bowery most of my adult life. So to me it was so shocking that I had been plopped down, "This is the art world," and you knew where you were supposed to be living if you were an artist. If you wanted to be where the best information was you didn't want to be in Utah, although it's beautiful there. I just thought this was a little much. So it really colored my experience. Living amongst this financial tragedy of alcoholic disintegration was really heartbreaking.
So anyway, that was how I began that performance [at TSS]…you can see me with the roof. I was going to build everything, like a man. I was asking: What is a man? What is a woman? What does a man get to do? What does a woman get to do? How can you be a girl if you have been abused and still be proud of being a woman? Do we have to be little men? I don't think so, but I was attempting to be a little man: "I can build everything, I can do everything." And I think I told some of the rape stories. I have some parts where I am singing and lifting weights with my little fairy outfit. I used to sit on a swing as the Fairy and talk about the future: ideas about the future that other artists had and things that I had read about that could be . . . not dystopia, but a utopia. I had grown up when the world was going to end either because of a nuclear war, or the ozone deteriorating, or the contamination of food and water, etc., etc., etc. I was fifteen, and they were already saying that we only had fifteen years for the scientists and the politicians and us to turn this around. So I thought we were in big trouble already, as did Peter Fend. And we had done some things together about climate change, global warming, or whatever they were calling it back then.
In the middle of the performance, I went upstairs and then I came down the stairs with all the stuff I dragged out of my house, because I was thrown out. A lot of artists were losing their homes then. All the artists' places were being bought up by real estate developers and turned into these fancy places. At that time, they were just these dumps. In the storefront where I lived I had installed the floor, ceiling, walls, front door, back door, glass bricks. I did everything. And then I lost it after five years. In moved the son of a diplomat, a lawyer. I dated him for a while, because I was so curious. I saw him coming out of a cab, this man with a top hat and this fabulous suit. He dated me for a little while, but I was too much for him. He called me his Lydia Lunch.
The Future Fairy is at the end [of the performance]. At the Performing Garage and at The Kitchen and maybe before, I built a little swing and I would get dressed up in little ballet outfits or a joke of that outfit. And I would have little notes from the future in my top, like a bathing suit top. Little bells would go on, and this little song track would go on, and I would start singing along. Like, "dah-dah, here comes the fairy." And then she pulls a note out and sees who it's from, that it is from this artist or this writer about what was going to happen in the future or what people wished would happen in the future. They were not just art related but much more world related. And one of them might have been from Donna Henes who thinks of herself as a city shaman. She was in DISBAND. Or Peter Fend, who speculated that the way the countries are divided is sort of antithetical to the wellbeing of the planet as a whole. He was thrilled to death, because he said that no artist really ever mentioned other artists in their work, they just steal it and call it their own. It seemed to me like a no brainer, I didn't need to claim his ideas, in fact I hardly understood what he was talking about, but I was happy to share it. The notes were mostly from acquaintances, friends. The material was mostly from people I bumped into, from the horse's mouth. I was interested in what ideas were coming though me. I loved being the town crier.
Instead of feeling insane that you are revealing all of this stuff to a bunch of strangers, it felt extremely safe. These were my friends, so I could be extremely honest. I would be playful. It was really graveyard humor. Some people were horrified, or thought it was too much; some thought I couldn't be serious. I watched one of the rape tapes later and I thought, "This is a tragedy." It was slightly funny, but only slightly. I thought I was completely controlling it in a way, but everyone has his or her own interpretation.
I thought, "Well, I don't have a lot of money. I don't have a lot of time. What I can do is just the essential. What I can do is the guts. What I can do is give them something almost raw." That's why I think Antonin Artaud was kind of fabulous. He was a kind of mentor, as was Vito Acconci and Wilhelm Reich, an early psychoanalyst and theorist. Artaud didn't bring polite society to the table. He brought reality. Which people may be uncomfortable doing because you have to be polite in society. Sometimes people thought I was out of my mind. I didn't think I was insane, but it really annoyed me, which is why I think I started making signs more. I think I was getting tired of being asked, "Well, you don't actually walk around like that." I performed for about ten years as a performance artist, then I morphed into sign painter/artist/activist. Some of it [the performance material] was more playful and some of it was serious but light. The world was a musical. You could sing and dance in the world, why not? The Fairy wanted to have an open space instead of the terror of a dangerous city.
As told to Shawna Cooper, September 1, 2011
Ilona Granet (b. 1948, Brooklyn, NY)
Ilona Granet holds a BFA from the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Beginning in 1971, her work centered on performance in conjunction with installations. From 1978 to 1982 she performed in DISBAND with fellow artists Donna Henes, Ingrid Sischy, Diane Torr, and Martha Wilson. Additional information is available at http://ilonagranet.blogspot.com/.