In her lecture “Portraits and Repetition” Getrude Stein talks about the conundrum in portraiture of any kind of trying to represent something/body alive, without containing or limiting the vitality of this being, without restricting its endless potential of acting. Her fear that a portrait could become prescriptive in the face of the actual person, closing her/him off from the actuality of her living, was deeply embedded in her subtle but persistence feminist activism. She challenges with a simple question of how to make a portrait the reductive nature of history writing, its desire to categorize, name and therefore own the biographies of individuals (dead or alive) through a written text: I began to find out by listening that difference between repetition and insisting and it is a very important thing to know. You listen as you know…Nothing makes any difference as long as some one is listening while they are talking. If the same person does that talking and the listening, so much the better, there is just by so much the greater concentration. And it is necessary if you are to be really and truly alive, it is necessary to be at once talking and listening, doing both things , not as if there were one thing, not as if there were two things, but doing them, well if you like, like a motor going inside and the car moving, they are part of the same thing…Then we have insistence, insistence that in its emphasis can never be repeating, because insistence is always alive and if it is alive it is never saying anything in the same way because emphasis can never be the same, not even, when it is most the same, that is when it has been taught…Remembering is repetition, anybody can know that. … what one repeats is the scene in which one is acting, the days in which one is living, the coming and going which one is doing, anything, one is remembering is a repetition, but existing as a human being that is being listing and hearing is never repetition. It is not repetition if it is that which you are actually doing, because naturally each time the emphasis is different, just as the cinema has each time a slightly different thing to make it all be moving. And each one of us has to do that, otherwise there is no existing.
Working on a larger project reflecting on the three women who founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Q. Sullivan and Abby A. Rockefeller) Stein’s questions and consideration became very important to me. In the history I was researching, I was confronted with the contained presence and mostly absence of a recognition of women’s work and significant contribution in the development of the Modern Project in New York City and beyond during the 1920s and 1930s. Women were often named — for example most art museums in New York City are founded by women and this is openly stated — but their actions and work was in no way celebrated and activated as an important part of Modernism. Insistence came out of an attempt to grapple with this structure of historic representation, but keeping Stein’s warnings of the shortcoming of repetition as part of my working process. Weaving stories about women with reflections on the very nature of their existence, while stacking a seemingly endless pile of postcards made from portraits of these very women described in the stories, their collaborators, lover, business partners, comrades, allies, supporters tries to break open a structure of knowing to offer instead a process of continuous and constructive understanding of these histories and their impact on Modernism, its construction as a movement, its preservation and understanding to this day. Instead of offering a revisionist (women focused) history the video insists that the tireless work, spirit and convictions that drove these women to create a cross-pollinating and far reaching network across art, politics, education and social reform is not simply an event of the past but alive and remains present wherever we closely look today. So instead of trying to remember the women who were forgotten, instead of simply repeating and containing their lives in form of biographies, we need to recognize that so many things we consider the epicenter of Modernism are the concrete trace of women’s action and would not exist in this form or shape without them.