Lecture: Siona Wilson, Anarchy in the ICA: COUM Transmissions’ Queer Aesthetic

Tuesday, September 22, 2015
3:30 PM
Foster Auditorium, Paterno Library

On September 22, 2015, Siona Wilson (City University of New York) joined us to deliver a lecture titled “Anarchy in the ICA: COUM Transmissions’ Queer Aesthetic.”

Event flyer

Description of presentation

The performance art collective COUM Transmissions’ controversial 1976 retrospective installation, Prostitution, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London was the third in an escalating series of art scandals to hit the news that year. Immediately following Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document at the same venue, COUM’s work, like Kelly’s constellated a set of issues around feminist politics, sexuality, and gendered labor that reached the levels of moral panic in the tabloid press. This talk is drawn from the third chapter of Wilson’s book, Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in British Art and Performance (Minnesota, 2015) where she argues that COUM mobilize feminist codes in order to stage a queer aesthetic. This is realized through the performative way in which the media were staged by COUM as part of the installation. From the framed and signed pages from pornographic magazines featuring the nude modeling of COUM’s most prominent female participant, to the presentation of the group’s archive of press cuttings that continued to be added to during the course of the exhibition, the media were a central component of Prostitution. Moreover, only weeks before the infamous TV appearance of the Sex Pistols that led to their own media notoriety, COUM staged the emergent punk scene as part of the installation. All of this was then incorporated into the installation’s wall of press clippings generating an entropic feedback loop.

Speaker bio

Siona Wilson teaches art history at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. She is the author of Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (Minnesota, 2015). Her research interests are grounded in issues of sexual difference, sexuality and the intersection of art and politics in post-war and contemporary art in relation to experimental film, video, photography, performance and sound/music. She has published essays in journals such as Art History, October, Oxford Art Journal, Third Text, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her current research project, provisionally titled Photography Counter-Fact: Feminism, Archivality, and State Violence after the Critique of Social Concern, addresses experimental documentary practices in film and photography from the 1980s to the present (with theoretical roots in the 1930s). This project is engaged with the instrumentalization of women’s liberation in the context of war, state violence, and postcolonial geopolitics.

Description, from publisher’s Web site

Sex and labor politics in feminist-engaged, avant-garde artistic practices in 1970s London

In Art Labor, Sex Politics Siona Wilson investigates the charged relationship of sex and labor politics as it played out in the making of feminist art in 1970s Britain. Her sustained exploration of works of experimental film, installation, performance, and photography maps the intersection of feminist and leftist projects in the artistic practices of this heady period.

Other resources


Publisher’s Web site for Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in British Art and Performance

Review of The New Museum 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience, Art Review, May 2015

Troubled Sleep, Sugar High,” The Brooklyn Rail, December 18, 2014

Sexing Sound: Aural Archives and Feminist Scores, The James Gallery, The Graduate Center/CUNY February 6–March 8, 2014, co-curated by Katherine Carl, Valerie Tevere, and Siona Wilson