For Kasia Fudakowski, nothing is worth doing unless it’s funny. In this phone conversation, she reflects on the underlying role the mechanics of humor play in all her works, which range from sculptures to texts to performances and films.
Aside from discussing the global pandemic, we spoke about her current work on a post-apocalyptic film series that seems to be getting closer and closer to reality, her love-hate relationship with weaving and “woman work,” and her homemade MA in the philosophy of comedy.
Moira Barrett: I’m impressed with all the different materials you work with: steel, wood, wicker, wool, ceramics, the list goes on. You’ve talked about using different materials to tell stories in a more abstract language. Can you expand on this?
Kasia Fudakowski: I think it's always about following the idea to the right format. It depends how the idea comes: sometimes it's a material idea about a funny thing that wood can do, or steel. And sometimes the idea is very abstract and needs to find its form in a text or a performance, or a film. I sometimes feel like I'm a slave to the idea. I've been working on a film project called Wordcount since 2016, and I'm quite unschooled in filmmaking but the idea came to me as a proper post-apocalyptic fictional narrative, and I realized: “Oh my God, it's a movie!”. So I had to start the process of trying to learn how to do that. It's pretty surreal because when I started telling people about this, back in 2016, it was still funny and absurd. The concept is that in the near future, scientists discover a direct correlation between the rising sea levels and the amount of words we can speak. So it’s decided that every citizen of the world will be limited to 433 words per day, which comes to be known as “Cage Law” after John Cage's 4’33. It's a story of four characters trying to either adapt to or rebel against this new law. The idea of this absurd limitation feels very real now.
But I'm continually frustrated with my own inexperience [in film] because otherwise I mostly make stuff myself. It's a very private experience. But in film, you're working with so many different egos, characters, people, expectations, locations, money. It's taking me a really long time. Each episode is between three and nine minutes and I've just shot the eighth one. This last one is finally getting closer to how I want to tell the story. Words are less important to tell the story than as a material within it. There is one scene where the professor is giving a lecture on Don Quixote to very few students who sit apart from each other in a huge lecture theatre. It was shot just before we went into lockdown, but bizarrely I have these students sitting the requisite 1.5 meters apart. It's really strange how that's suddenly normal.
MB: I think your woven works like Stoikerinnen or Bad Basket also resonate with our current moment, where many people are staying at home and finding ways to make meaning by themselves in a time of great uncertainty because weaving and crafts are a way of keeping time through the body and can physically placate anxiety. How did you develop a relationship with weaving, and are you finding any solace in this type of work right now?
KF: I had a whole domino effect of stuff being canceled and suddenly being released from those deadlines and their stress. So I took this opportunity to make a kitchen cabinet, a bathroom cabinet, I'm in the process of making a clothes rack, and I've repaired my shower. I’m [experiencing] a return to the joy of making without an audience. It's just wonderful. In the beginning, I thought, “Oh, God, it's over.” I thought I would retrain and set up an all-female repair shop. Because I do just love making. I don't really see the difference between the artistic work and this repair work or carpentry, because it's all about the joy of figuring stuff out and improvising, whether something works as an idea or as a bathroom cabinet. Not having deadlines - or just much more distant ones - is liberating. It's terrifying and liberating at the same time.
And there’s a very banal answer to how I got into weaving, which is that it's cheap. The work Stoikerinnen, [a series of cyclone-shaped woven sculptures connected with the sexism of the naming of hurricanes], came as an opportunity where I had a huge space, a lot of time, and no budget. In weaving, the time you put in becomes visible in the resulting object, and that somehow compensates for the cheapness of the material. You've added value because you've spent time on it. There are very skilled weavers, but the kind of weaving that I'm doing is very basic. So it was a cheap way of creating big things.
Initially, when I looked at the work I'd made, I thought: “Ugh!! I've made woman work!” The way I experience the world is very direct; I'm the problem before I'm the solution. So I thought, “Oh, why have I done this? I hate it. Who am I? Why do I hate it?” I think my awakening to feminism came very much through realising that I was sexist. And that's because I grew up in an environment that was more or less sexist, I just didn't know it at the time. I still have a love-hate relationship with weaving and sewing. I love sewing, but it has that association you have to deal with, which is annoying. It's never just a neutral technical process of joining two materials together.
MB: You subvert that somewhat through this term “endurance weaving,” which makes it sound very strong.
KF: Yes, like a triathlon [laughs]. Well, I was horrified when I found out how women used to make lace. Have you seen those lace pillows covered in bobbins? I mean, [making those] is worse than torture, I think. The idea was to keep the woman's focus on her lap so she wouldn’t look up beyond it, and that to me is horrific. But at the same time, they were also making these incredible, mind bogglingly intricate and beautiful things.
MB: You talk about the differentiation between artist and artisan quite transparently in Bad Basket, where you wove in collaboration with Mexican weavers Martina García García, Marivel Hernández Marcelino and Agustín Mendoza. Could you talk about negotiating your status as an artist in the position of presenting these traditional crafts in a commercial contemporary art gallery, thereby submitting them to the circulation of the art market, especially when you're collaborating with people from different class backgrounds and parts of the world than yours?
KF: I was aware of the problematic nature of it, but of course you're also filled with wonder and appreciation [for the artisans], so how do you balance between the two? When I worked with these weavers they would weave one hour, I would watch, and then I would weave for an hour. And obviously I'm terrible and they're amazing. So there's this nice, open contrast between the two positions. There was a lot of consideration put on the price of their work and time spent with me so that it would be considerably better than what they were usually earning for similar work. And of course, the price tag on the work, once it's exhibited, is much higher; but then, the artisans were paid immediately, and as the work is yet to sell 3 years on, I have not been paid. Which doesn't mean it's fair, but it's very...
MB: Funny in a way.
KF: Yeah. It was important to include their names in the work title, but also to recognize the value of my initiative to make this work happen. In one way showing it on “my platform” highlights the privilege I have, but naming the weavers also acknowledges their intrinsic role in the work so that, wherever the work is shown, we share the platform. I think it's impossible to do it right.
MB: The idea of doing things wrong is also quite present in your work, like in the performance Did I ever have a chance?, about last minute decisions and unceremonious interruptions overwhelming artistic vision.
KF: Did I ever have a chance? is a very specific parody of an artist talk and the repetitive nature of events in the art world that are so obviously ripe for it. I’ve been to quite a few artist talks that were very uninteresting - but I enjoy them because they're so bad. It’s a fascinating format to play with because the artist has usually chosen to communicate in a different form than PowerPoint presentations in their work, and then they're suddenly forced into explaining themselves in a much more restrictive format. I actually teach a workshop called "The Artist Talk as a Performative Format." The idea is that as artists we have both the privilege and the responsibility to mess with the rules. So artist talks should be used as a creative opportunity.
MB: In performances like Pessimistinnen and Sexistinnen: Exercises in Self-Sabotage there are a lot of clumsy moments of discomfort that are less about language and more about the sense of unease we experience when struggling to articulate ourselves. How did you become interested in these discontinuities?
KF: It’s about failure and awkwardness. I initially got frustrated with how the art world is so elastic. It’s a very good thing that it's constantly expanding to encompass more and more ideas and positions but that makes it very hard to fight against anything because it's not solid. So I felt like I could sit in a gallery naked, take a shit and scream, and nobody would bat an eyelid. But there's still one emotion that I can really pull out of people, which is that “Fremdschämen” (second-hand embarrassment) - this bellyaching: “Why are they doing that?”. That started with the first performance I ever did, which was called Smile and was so painful. It was a very deliberate choice for my first performance because nobody knew, least of all myself, how I was going to be [as a performer]. The set-up came from my initial desire to do an MA in L.A., before going there and realising I was about 30 years too late. So I decided to do my own MA and set myself a course on the philosophy of comedy. And Smile was my sort of master’s thesis work on the subject. Because comedy is so performative, it was obvious I had to do a performance. And then I realized how much you can play with people if you set up an expectation and then flip it. It's really basic mechanics.
MB: It was great watching those archived performances these last few days because they’re so funny. How did you get interested in humor as an artistic medium?
KF: I grew up listening to a lot of audio comedy, and I pretty much think nothing is worth doing unless it's funny. It's a very good compass for me because in comedy you can't really lie; there has to be a truth to it for a joke to work. The economy in connecting to something that is already latently existent in someone else's head is just beautiful to me. I think that's all I ever want to do. There are identifiable mechanisms in how many jokes work, and there's usually a pulling back with a reveal. Most of my inspiration comes from comedians, there's a long list but it’s probably quite British-based, unfortunately, or fortunately. I grew up listening to "Beyond the Fringe" with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I was actually rewatching it because there's a sketch about the end of the world associated with nuclear fallout that’s so perfect. People were living with the existential fear of nuclear war all the time, which we just lost at some point, although the threat is still very much a reality. I'd love to become a joke archeologist, uncovering jokes from the past and taking great pains to try to understand exactly why people back then thought they were funny. Context is always so important to a joke, and the reason why it is or was considered funny can be funny itself, as well as pretty ugly.
MB: I’ve also heard you talk about the mechanics of gateways, like hinges, in the physical realm, and there are a lot of gates and fences in your work. What's the story behind their recurrence?
KF: I'm attracted to moments where you can control or change the way people enter or exit a space because it gives you the opportunity to establish a different context from the one they enter or leave with. I made - or rather I'm still making - a work called Continuouslessness that is less of a gate and more of a flexible fence or screen made up of an ever-growing amount of panels. It was a great discovery for me, a kind of formal format which I could be as flexible with as I liked, just as long as the hinging system (a basic hook and ring set up) remained constant for each panel. This modular nature means the piece can be shown in a huge variety of different setups and formations, acting as both a fence and a piece of architecture in its own right. It's kind of self-sufficient and can only be understood as 'an event' in the sense that it has the latent ability to change. I love hinges. Hinges are just the best mechanism. I could go on for a long time about them. They have beautiful names like the "Parliament,” "Butt," or "Barrel hinge." The idea that one point is fixed and the other gets to move, I mean, it's brilliant. You've got an inequality there, a freedom and a restriction of movement. It's a set-up!
MB: Ah, we're back to current events.
KF: Yes [laughs].