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Identity and Institutionalization: Dorit Cypis on Minneapolis in the ’80s

By Dorit Cypis & Yesomi Umolu

Artist and mediator Dorit Cypis was born in Israel and currently lives in California, but in the 1980s and ’90s, she called the Twin Cities home. Politicized by the AIDS epidemic, the censorship of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, and issues surrounding identity, the body, and sexuality, she created multimedia works at the intersection of performance, photography, and social sculpture.

The founder of Kulture Klub, an arts program for teens experiencing homelessness, Cypis was part of the 1998 exhibition Sculpture on Site, and her work is represented in the Walker’s permanent collection. As part of our series, Then and Now: The Twin Cities in the 1980s, she recalls a decade when art became institutionalized, identity politics became entrenched, and her own work more deeply embraced both politics and performance.

Yesomi Umolu

I recently came across the transcript of the panel The Personal is Political, Revisited at Exquisite Acts & Everyday Rebellions. Alongside Andrea Bowers and Martha Rosler, you spoke at length about the impact of feminist thinking on your work. I was also struck by the fact that you mentioned the 1980s as a critical period in the development of your artistic practice. Can you speak about why this was the case and what you were doing artistically during those years?

Dorit Cypis

I was inspired to get out of Los Angeles in the early ’80s because I wasn’t interested in and disoriented by the hype-consumerism that I experienced there. After graduating from Cal Arts, I got involved as a director of FAR reforming Foundation for Art Resources, which was started in 1976 by three innovative LA gallerists as a forum for the production and presentation of experimental art. In 1979, I inherited producing projects by Jack Goldstein, Mat Mullican, David Askevold/Mike Kelly, Mike Smith … then got rid of the gallery space in 1980 and continued producing public events with partnerships all over LA through 1982.

At the time the LA art scene was somewhat provincial and tribalized by local art schools. The peer group I was involved with was politicized by theory—by discourses of deconstruction, semiotics, feminism, etc.—but not by action. I felt a gap between what people were talking about and who they were. Many of my peers were using appropriation. I was too, but I wanted to enter into the images, not only use them as pastiches commenting on each other and culture; I wanted to understand how they lived inside me, through my body and subjectivity.

Leaving LA to go to the Twin Cities in 1983 was entering a Pandora’s Box, like going to the hinterlands. There was not the external stimulation of ideas I knew in LA. The time I spent in Minneapolis was more about trying to understand subjectivity and the interpersonal, inter-subjective aspects of identity. I was also interested in collusion and patterned behavior in a psychophysical way. At that time, it didn’t feel safe or correct to be doing this among my peer group in Los Angeles. They were much more involved with external issues than in psychophysical exploration of gender, sexuality, empowerment, and identity politics, of multiculturalism and difference. I was trying to go not just from the outside in, but from the inside out back in and out, so in a more reflective interrelational manner.

During the 1980s I was quite informed by cinema, music, and dance, more so than by the visual arts, in Minneapolis. The first people that I met happened to be a group of dancers named Body Arts Network. Many of them were from the East Coast, having recently left fairly well-known dance companies to come to Minneapolis to “find themselves,” as it were. They formed this network to explore kinesthetics, somatic memory, interiority; they asked questions about how we hold history and memory within a cellular somatic level. There was much written on this, as well as networks such as Body Mind Centering, Kinetic Awareness, Feldenkrais, Authentic Movement, etc. These groups were well known in the dance and alternative-healing communities. I fell into this “dance” scene, and it informed my work.

Umolu

Can you tell me how your work took on the influence of these groups?

Cypis

Performativity became a central element in my work, whether photographic or live performance or immersive installation. I continued early works that I began in LA, looking at the social-physical world through my experience of personal life, through interior emotion, memory—subjective self. I played with slide projectors, projected imagery, and sound. I began to understand how we inhale images, how these come to life inside of us as memory and emotion, and how by extension we unconsciously reconstruct these through our actions. I started to understand and have a language for interstitial cellular memory, having cultural connection experienced personally. The performances I made between 1983 and 1989 integrated movement, sound, image projections, and often people. Out of these came photographic prints. A series from this work was purchased by First Bank, Minneapolis, a local cutting-edge institution strongly supporting the arts. They had a collection that was initiated by Lynn Sowder, who was keenly knowledgeable about contemporary aesthetic discourse, especially of photography.

Umolu

What do you think the major questions or problems communities in Minneapolis were facing at the time? Was it equal rights issues, economics, or something else if it could be so easily summarized?

Cypis

The funding issue for artists was already standardized by key private foundations: Jerome, McKnight, Bush, and the Minnesota Art Council. This was amazing to me and helped me tremendously as a young emerging artist. However, this standardization also had the effect of flattening critique and discourse. There was not much challenge. By the mid to late 1980s, multiculturalism was beginning to surface. That’s when, for me, it started getting interesting.

Things seemed very safe and categorically separate: genre separate, philosophically separate, racially separate, ethnically separate—like it was everywhere across the country. Minneapolis had a very vocal multicultural scene because of liberal social politics at the time. Way before the current Right. There were often many forums for discussion. Intermedia Arts, and in its earlier incarnation, UC Video, was a place to engage in such exchanges. I do remember being in large public group conversations. It often became contentious because every ethnic and racial group was trying to find their voice and their own power with little knowledge of engagement, especially across difference. It was still categorical, little mixing. Aesthetic theory wasn’t enough.

Multiculturalism soon became another trope. I recall the term “multi-culti” used—everybody flying their own banner—again sequestered in a victim-oriented adversarial dialogue, an entrenchment of identity politics. I think this discourse was happening not so much among visual artists, but among performing artists. I remember the visual arts being more hermetic, generally.

Umolu

Were there any exhibitions you saw that were slightly different from what you believed were the dominant frames in the visual arts, and did you encounter anything at the time that was offering up different viewpoints?

Cypis

Yes, there were several things, but I’m afraid my perspective is that of someone coming from outside the region. I recall the MCAD show Media Source, curated by Diane Shamash and Ken Fiengold in 1984, which featured Dara Birnbaum, John Baldessari, some others, and myself. Around 1986, Artpaper, the local art journal, changed hands to Lane Relea, a writer/art historian from LA, and Vince Leo, a keen photographer and writer who had recently moved to Minneapolis from Ohio. I knew Lane as the editor of the LAICA Journal in LA. They created a strong discursive fabric that brought international ideas into Minneapolis, expanding out of the regional.

A theater company, Red Eye Collaboration, came to Minneapolis in 1983. Directed by Steve Busa and highly informed by Mabou Mines and the alternative theater scene in New York, they broke apart narrative just like the visual arts were doing through appropriation, but more interestingly, using media. I was invited to design an image projection sequence as part of their show entitled Geography. As a visual artist, I got to work with gifted writers, musicians, and actors. We participated together in a way I had not experienced working with visual artists. There was a cross-engagement I loved that expanded the discourse I was used to. In 1986, we developed another project, Everything in Sight, which was also performed in LA through MOCA. As in Geography, the themes were of restructuring cultural memory and history through image, word, and sound.

Of the regional scene, I more remember the music of Hüsker Dü than the visual art. I do recall Frank Gaard and the Artpolice, radical comics. Frank and I taught together at MCAD until he was fired in the mid-1980s. I was fired close after, in 1988. MCAD had the propensity to let go of anything different than what was standard, whatever that is.

Umolu

By the 1990s, you became very involved in social justice projects in the Twin Cities. Do you think your experiences in the 1980s seeded your interest in this type of work?

Cypis

Very much so. I became even more politicized, in an active way, after what happened with the Mapplethorpe issue in ’89. I was always politically minded, but not so much in action on the streets. Many of us were politicized by the AIDS crisis and movements such as ACT UP. I had friends that I lost at that time in Minneapolis. I was involved with social justice issues actively, not directly as an artist but as a human being. I guess I brought social issues more into my work as an artist through the ’80s, politicized through multiculturalism and AIDS. This was certainly evident in the work I was doing with the female body. I was involved in feminist issues, but became very tired of the dualism—essentialists of the ’70s versus the constructivists of the ’80s. I hated the binary posing within feminism. I tried to mess it up, in a sense, when I displayed my own body and talked about the experience. It would have seemed essentialized, but I framed it within a framing of the Renaissance, mythology, and pop culture.

In ’89, when the Mapplethorpe issue blew up, it came down on me as well because I was doing work with my naked body. The word “prurient” became a household word. I, too, lost funding as a consequence. I had received a number of NEA grants through the ’80s, and that disappeared. This politicized me greatly as I felt abandoned and betrayed by the culture. I began asking the question, “So, who is an artist? What is an artist? If I had a social consciousness, who am I? What do I do? Who am I in relation to? What is my art for?” In the ’70s, I questioned the institutionalization of art. In the 1980s, I asked these questioned of myself. If my art didn’t belong in a gallery for collectors and now was being rejected by the public, what was I doing? That was very ’80s.

Umolu

Who were you paying attention to—in the arts or politics—at the time?

Cypis

Cindy Sherman, Dara Birnbaum, Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, David Askevold, ABC NO Rio. I was less compelled by artists spinning irony (Richard Prince) and more so in those who were willing to take on issues.

At a convocation at MCAD, Leon Golub said something amazing to the students, who were very wide-eyed and innocent: “Congratulations, you’ve just all graduated to becoming cockroaches.” The parents freaked out. “Yes, cockroaches. Artists are cockroaches. We’re all over the place, you can’t stamp us out, and we love to grow in shit.” I’ll never forget that.

French feminism was important: Marguerite Duras, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous; Foucault and Barthes, who found ways to deconstruct things while looking for new paradigms. They weren’t just practicing deconstruction for the sake of it.

I was interested in growing things, taking them apart, but growing as well. In LA an artist friend of mine, Mitchel Syrop, and I were thinking of writing a weekly column called “Flourishing Reductivism,” as a way to counter pure deconstruction. There’s no end because something will always flourish again, rise up into something else. We wanted to look up into the blossoming as well as into the deconstruction.

I was reading Jane Gallop’s The Daughter’s Seduction and Alice Jardine’s Gynesis. I was looking at power and the body, Desire in Language by Kristeva, The Tremulous Body by Francis Barker. I dabbled in Lacan, but couldn’t get involved in the wordiness. Nan Goldin was a good friend. I was in her 1989 show on sexuality, gender difference, and AIDS that got dumped by the NEA at Artists Space in New York. Her work was inspiring to me.

Umolu

What do you think is the legacy of the 1980s? What questions of the 1980s are we still grappling with today?

Cypis

It’s all unresolved. I mean, we’re just leaving taking stock of the ’70s, which I think we are done with now. I grew up in the ’70s; they were very formative years for me. The ’70s was a time of pre-institutionalization of so much of the art world.

The ’80s was an institutionalization process, which we’re reeling from now. We’ve crashed, are still crashing. I became more and more disappointed by the arts system, consumerism, and the collector world. The MFA program became commodified, more standardized, factory-like, and a key for galleries finding fresh young artists. I know there are many that are still doing well, but a lot of us have fallen. It didn’t start in the ’80s, but it was institutionalized then.

The questions we began to ask about difference were essential, but we haven’t resolved any of them because we’re terrified of intimacy. You can’t know the other unless you become intimate with the other, and even then, you can’t know the other. The other is inside you. Get to know your otherness is where we need to be at now. I would have to say that I was struggling with that in the ’80s and felt very isolated because it was politically incorrect to ask those questions then. I think we’re coming to question what does difference mean on a level of equity, reciprocity, empathy, generosity, on the level of more humanistic relationships. How do we survive together?

In conjunction with the exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, Twin Cities–based artists and writers share their reflections on the decade. Weekly contributors include:

Dorit Cypis, Yield (The Body), 1989

Dorit Cypis, Phantasmagoria, 1987

Photo courtesy the artist

Dorit Cypis, Unveiling-Shadow to frame, 1985

Photo courtesy the artist

Dorit Cypis, Psyche and Eros, 1983

Photo courtesy the artist

Dorit Cypis, X-Rayed, 1988

Photo courtesy the artist

Diagram for Dorit Cypis’ 1988 installation, X-Rayed

Photo courtesy the artist

Dorit Cypis, Life After Death, 1986

Photo courtesy the artist

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, 1983

Detail from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; 1979-1996; nine-carousel projection with approximately 700 slides, soundtrack, and titles; dimensions variable; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; © Nan Goldin; image courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Dorit Cypis installing her work in the 1998 Walker exhibition Sculpture on Site