Martha Rosler and others on women, household labor, and their giant MoMA garage sale

Martha Rosler and visitors at Meta-Monumental Garage Sale. (Scott Rudd)
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If Women’s Lib made a defining change to housecleaning, it may be the garage sale.

“Garage sales themselves started getting popular at the end of the '60s, with the liberalization of values,” anthropologist and women’s studies professor Gretchen Herrmann said last night at the Museum of Modern Art, where another sort of garage sale has been going for a couple of weeks. Martha Rosler’s Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, where the artist has been personally overseeing a huge garage sale in the museum's grand atrium, was entering its final stretch (it ends today) as Herrmann and others gathered to discuss women, labor, and the domestic sphere.

“There used to be a stigma attached to selling property directly; flea markets and rubbish sales were fine, but from the home was another story," Herrmann continued. After individuals started holding sales in the late '60s, she noted, magazine articles on sales legitimized the format for suburban housewives. By the '80s, they’d become standard housekeeping.

Herrmann, who wrote her dissertation on the subject, also noted that two thirds of buyers and shoppers in garage sales are women, so it seemed fitting that the audience, who’d pitched folding chairs inside the atrium, was at least 80 percent female. Beyond browned mini Christmas trees and knickknack tables, Herrmann sat on the atrium landing alongside artist and writer Coco Fusco, artist and e-flux editor Anton Vidokle, the Garage Sale's co-curator Ana Janevski, and Rosler herself.

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Like Rosler, Herrmann is interested in private sales that come out of the home, rather than Craigslist.

“You have public commerce coming on this private arena, and there can be tension. With bartering, for example, you have to be respectful of the person holding the sale.” It recalled a moment I witnessed at the exhibition opening, on Nov. 17, when a woman half-jokingly tried to haggle over the price of a wire sculpture with Rosler (who really has been making bargains and selling goods for the past two weeks) “That’s somebody’s artwork,” Rosler had snapped. “Just walk away.”

 Janevski asked Coco Fusco why feminism doesn’t address labor as much as other women’s issues. While Fusco pointed to a few feminists who’ve started the conversation (namely, Ann Crittenden in her book The Price of Motherhood) she said that her own experience as a working mother had suggested some reasons why women’s labor isn't discussed more in the art world.

“It touches on insecurities that middle-class professional women have about how they like [to think of] themselves as not being enslaved by people’s opinions,” she said. “If you want this job or not, you’d better have a nanny, because you have to work long hours.... So these [issues] are, to a certain degree, taboo ... because they bring up the degree to which educated or affluent women are participating in the exploitation of women. But also if we talk about it too much in the milieu in which we live, we can’t work, because we don’t have an employee.”

Similarly, she said, women are expected to volunteer hours of time to the state and public schools—the parent-teacher association, for example—to make up for things that “should be free to you.”

On that note, Anton Vidokle talked about a project of his called Time/Bank, an attempt to form small alternative economies wherein people exchange currency for labor and skills rather than goods and services. Speaking of the trust required for his project, and the personal nature of the exchanges, it seemed a compelling analogue to Rosler's garage sale.

“Over the last 10 years,” Vidokle said, “I’ve travelled extensively, and one thing that always surprises me is the element of trust. There is still a very strange element of trust in art and cultural spaces, which sometimes enables me to get very close to communities which sometimes, frankly, are very damaged, that have experienced a lot of violence and oppression.”

Rosler was generally reluctant to participate in the conversation—likely since she's done quite a number of interviews and delivered talks already on the garage sale, in addition to working it every day it's been open. But Janevski pleaded with her to share something on the final day of the sale. Had Rosler, she asked, drawn any new conclusions on her idea of the garage sale as a self-image?

“Well, the artist is always the last to know!” Rosler joked. “But I have to say, it’s remarkable—I’m not that surprised—but it’s remarkable to me to see an active resistance of people to thinking of this as anything other than a space in which they get to buy something they want, and in which we are here to serve them. And who are quite grumpy about the possibility that something else might be infusing it with what it is.”

“Would you comment on the performative nature of the people setting up the displays?” asked one audience member.

Rosler insisted that they were just working. But, she added, “It’s like labor made invisible. We see the store being restocked in the evening. We pass by, and there’s this kind of voyeuristic glimpse behind-the-scenes of people, who are often there to greet you, actually just relating to the merchandise.”

As to what all of this has to do with women, labor, and the real world? “Do women get oppressed in Garage Sales?” a young man asked.

“I don’t think the issue is if women are oppressed by it,” said Coco Fusco, “but whether unremunerated labor is exploitation, or whether it is a form of enrichment.”

Others can exploit independent means of making a profit, she said, “but that’s something that’s different from oppression. People can engage in all this activity and be oppressed and not feel oppressed; you have to understand the power relationships in which you’re engaging in order to feel oppressed.”

Martha Rosler's 'Meta-Monumental Garage Sale' at the Museum of Modern Art closes Nov. 30.

Installation photo by Scott Rudd.