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“To Imagine What is Possible”. Kate Cooper on Visualising Normative Femininity.

“To Imagine What is Possible”. Kate Cooper on Visualising Normative Femininity.

”The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what’s possible”. The famous bell hooks quote about intersectional and feminist art is thought provoking and could be interpreted in many ways. One aspect is the defining of art as displaying a purpose, or, at least artists being aware of their situated positions. A standpoint that’s becoming more and more common among contemporary artists. Kate Cooper is a feminist artist currently exhibiting at Bonniers konsthall where Katarina Rosengren Falk met her, for tea and a talk about her works in Rigged, feminism, what it means to be a woman today, the performative position of being an artist, and growing up in the suburbs of Liverpool.

The mini lemon meringue pie looks really good. How do you feel?

Yes, it’s delicious. And I’m good, it’s good. It’s been relaxed. With this work it’s lots of kind of industrial processes, so when the work arrives it’s not that difficult to put up since none of it is hand made.

Sara Arrhenius saw it in Berlin?

Exactly. It was two years ago, so for me it’s kind of an old piece. It was commissioned for a show at Kunst-Werke in 2014. It took up two floors of the main space there. The film in the back room here was below and upstairs were the light boxes. We also made this amazing carpet of one of the model’s ears that you could sit on and watch the film. So it was kind of a challenge to do the installation here because it’s a lot smaller. It’s tricky for me because I think of it as one piece but sometimes people show parts of it, so on this scale this is probably the best installation since it was commissioned. Every time I show it I try to respond to the space.

So you’ve been travelling with this woman for quite a while now?

Yeah. And I’m making other works and doing other projects as well. I’m also at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam at the moment, at the residency program.

Is it the same woman in all of the images?

I regard the body as an object in itself, so the images are a mixture between the mannequins that I’ve shot and computer generated images of models. The portrait is one model, the teeth are another model and the legs are actually a mannequin.  It’s a project that’s negotiating the space of what subjectivity is now as a woman.

Alexander Mahmoud

Kate Cooper. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud

An interesting topic in the light of the social media where we’re all trying to enhance the positive aspects of our lives and looks, each performing our own internet persona’s. The women in Rigged are white, young and wealthy enough to be able to afford bodily transformations. It’s really the feminine norm that you’ve visualised. Maybe a norm that we’re simultaneously constantly reproducing and trying to move away from? 

Yeah, I think it’s like, how could you resist? I’m interested in the complete fiction, but within that, there are problematics. For example that all the women are white. I’m interested in exploring these kind of positions. For me it’s really important that the work is inherently problematic in this way. The images are very desirable but at the same time there’s something really violent in them. This is really what this work is about for me: how images look and how they perform are very different things, they might do something that’s not physically in the image. How it performs and replicates, sits within a space, it does something else and that’s really what I’m striving for. We already know they’re fake so I’m investigating what happens when you pull those things out of their context. Could we go back and rethink what those things are and what they do? When it’s possible to manipulate how we perform being ourselves in som many ways. The amount of maintenance it takes to perform certain kinds of femininity, what does that mean now? Is it just a complete freedom? I kind of like the idea that you could just send these boobs off but at the same time I want the freedom to just work, be creative, to not care.


Alexander Mahmoud

Kate Cooper. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud.

Rigged displays this theoretical level which is quite complex. For decades, many women artists have been addressing perceptions of women’s bodies, self portraits dealing with femininity, works on girlhood, sexuality and so on. Sometimes women using these experiences and practices have been interpreted as feminist by the main stream artworld, based only on the themes and aesthetics. Feminist artists have gone on to use seemingly similar ideas and practices, for instance in performances using their own, often naked, bodies. During the last decades it has varied what has been interpreted as feminist, and not. Your, visibly minor, changes to those traditional women artist’s aesthetics and practices takes what you do to such a different level, where the theoretical awareness is apparent in the works. The result being that you manage to produce art possible to interpret as feminist, on a theoretical, as well as face on visual level. And at the same time you’re openly feminist. Traditionally that’s a standpoint that few women artists have been willing to take.

Oh, really? Maybe there’s been a change? Most female artists I know refer to themselves as feminists. During the past five years, there’s definately been a communication. Maybe it’s a generational thing? I’m in a very specific circle with other women and I think it’s just what those terms are and what they mean now. Maybe there was this moment where it meant something else? My experience and understanding of how feminism played out in the UK is that it became a class issue. For example I grew up in a very matriarchal family with lots of very strong women in my family. At the same time, they would never push any theoretical, feminist discourse on me. I’m interested in this, in how they perform femininity on a kind of sociological level. What they give value to and what they don’t? For example talking about labour or work, they would take the standpoint that women have to work, which is a feminist position, but at the same time they brought up us children and would never see that as work, that was something they would just do. My grandmother and her three sisters would go work in the factory and they would do shifts. They did these things very informally, but they would never recognise that as some kind of political position. But of course they were living and breathing that, you know. So there’s this class- and generational shift that I find really interesting. My friends who are artists always discuss alternative models and how artists care for each other and sometimes they explain these ways of living and I think that oh, that’s how I grew up in the English working class.

I just presume that everyone is a feminist. Feminism is the mainstream discourse now, and I would also take it for granted that any artist who are producing work is doing it from a critical position. Since my work is really slick and mimics the aesthetics of high advertising I sometimes get misread, interpreted as not being critical enough, especially from older, white men.

A superficial interpretation of your work. They’re not familiar with either your experiences or the theoretical and political aspects of what you do and therefore cannot grasp it?

Yeah, I think it has to do with that there’s no way in for them. I find that really interesting. I’m always very concerned with the infrastructure around art. Lots of my friends who are artists in London are white, rich, male. So you’ve got to think about that, and how to make those shifts. I’m very involved in a project with a group of artists where we’re addressing gender politics and also ideas around labour and self organising, how you might be able to collaborate and make work in alternative ways and work together as a group. I’m interested in women’s collectives where you’re supportive and encouraging and giving each other and yourself permission to try things out. Those discourses are really on my mind nowadays when I’m working more and more on solo projects, because I have a long history of working with different types of artists and having those intense discussions manifesting themselves in different projects. It’s been really informative to how I’ve been producing work over the last few years and how that results in images.

As an artist the interplay between politics and images have always been my focus. I’m constantly concerned with what it means to be a woman, what it means to present yourself, what it means to talk about your work, as a woman, what it means to make work even, as a position as well, what type of agency I have. And this work is really about what those images can do.

When we originally showed the work I really liked how the work was documented by people who came to the exhibition and that kind of lead to a distribution through social media, which in turn brought to light perspectives on what the exhibition space is now, how the exhibition works as an image of itself and how we document it. And also that you’re experience is immaterial, and emotional forms of labour.

Alexander Mahmoud

Kate Cooper. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud.

So what does feminism mean to you, as an artist, is it possible to say something about that?

That’s a huge question. I’m interested in class in terms of ideas around gendered aesthetics. I’m also interested in forms of labour that are perhaps not so recognised. Writers like Silvia Federici and Paul B. Preciado have been rethinking different forms of labour or what was lost, in terms of how it’s been transformed. Federici talks a lot about different forms of care work. In the UK they’re not so recognised by the state. Preciado discusses what gender means now, and how we might be able to move to a position where gender can be more flexible. As a transperson he addresses how the state regulates even your gender, how the state and the pharmaceutical companies police how you perform gender in a very biological way. How do I intervene in those images? I talk a lot about hack – how do I come in and use that stuff to make the work? Preciado, who is ftm, starts to administer himself testosterone, and his experience of becoming and performing being a man. I realised that I will never know what it’s like to be a man and I thought about the possibility of administer testosterone to myself, as I want. I consider how I can use these images, images that are supposed to seduce me, in to performing a certain subjectivity. And I don’t feel like that. I feel like, at the same time, it’s quite astute how these things function.

How do you use that to perform a different kind of position? I always wanted to move beyond this reflexive reaction. I think this is a common thing of how artists work, from a very kind of agile position, where you’re constantly renegotiating your position towards what might be a critical position of a subjective position. I was trying to think that through with this work, you know. I like that it’s seductive I like that it’s kind of violent as well.

In Liverpool the gender roles are heightened, very cliché. It’s total drag. Within working class communities there’s a real solidarity to getting your hair done, getting your nails done, and there’s a caring feature to that. It’s a complicated social dynamic. But the older I get the more I consider just being creative and making work is the best position as a woman. All these women in my family never ask me about what I’ve been reading or what I’m working on, they worry about “have you got enough money?”, “have you cut your hair?” and things like that And this is obviously a form of care and love which is really beautiful but at the same time you don’t wanna be restricted by that. I think it’s easy to be dismissive of that position even though there’s something in it that kind of works and also there’s this inherent politics to it that I’m exploring.

How did you become interested in art?

I’ve hade a funny way in to art in a way. My partner is from a family of artists but no-one in my family is interested in art, so it became my own thing. In school the most interesting girl was two years above me and she was going to Saint Martins (Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London) so I thought I should go there. No-one in my family had heard of it and my mother couldn’t understand why I made this choice, she was like “you’ve got good grades in school?”. She works in a shop and someone working there had a son that wanted to go there, but he applied and never got in. He hade become a graphic designer and lived in New York at the time so then my mum thought that this place must be really good since he had gotten this great job, so she was like “maybe it’s ok, then, maybe you’re not fucking your life up”. After Saint Martins I worked in film for a while, which was an amazing experience. But I got quite disillusioned with that. Everyone was always my granddads age, male and white, and I was 23.  Film is really problematic in that respect, very hierarchical. After a few years I got involved in this project space with my friends, working more collaboratively, and it became a self learning. I didn’t do a masters because the financial situation had changed, it had become very expensive, so that’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up at the Rijksakademie. The situation in the UK has changed quite a lot. Where I’m from, the suburbs of Liverpool, is maybe one of the worst places in the country to be a woman and be poor. I keep reading these articles and studies and realising that “the five worst places” – oh that’s my hometown. If I was ten years younger I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to study, to go to art school. The situation has changed really quickly.

Where I’m from you’re not supposed to do art because it won’t result in a job at the end of it. This becomes a kind of performative position, what it means to be from a place that doesn’t have access to that, and that informs my politics as well as my aesthetics. Being creative is in itself a political act.

What perfume are you wearing, it smells wonderful? 

I think it’s Chanel that my mum bought for me. It’s a travel thing. My mother would be like very serious about these things, it’s a total class thing.

Alexander Mahmoud

Kate Cooper. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud.