Franklin Furnace Burns Strong: Publishing House Interview

beautifulbizarre_issue013_print & digital

Harley Spiller, Deputy Director at the famed Franklin Furnace, was kind enough to sit down and have a chat with me just a few days after the organization celebrated its 40th anniversary. We chatted about everything from Nom Wah’s amazing Dim Sum to North Korea prisons. He described the incredible experience and politics of showing his vast and glorious collection of vintage Chinese Menu’s at various art institutions across the East Coast. He also talked about working with artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, and living in New York during the experimental years of early Franklin Furnace.

As of now, Franklin Furnace continues to support conceptual artists through the wonderful Franklin Furnace Fund, and the organization is currently in the process of cataloging and digitally preserving the seminal stories of avant-garde art since the 1970’s. It’s a massive undertaking, and one that requires a lot of resourcing and organization. Although MoMA owns a great number of the original FF texts, there are around 13,500 publications and paper ephemera that still need to presented, as well as preserved.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre.001Karen Finley, A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much, May 18, 1990, installation image, photographic slide, 35 mm, photo by Marty Heitner.

Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc., on a mission to make the world safe for avant-garde art.

Franklin Furnace’s mission is to present, preserve, interpret, proselytize and advocate on behalf of avant-garde art, especially forms that may be vulnerable due to institutional neglect, their ephemeral nature, or politically unpopular content. Franklin Furnace is dedicated to serving artists by providing both physical and virtual venues for the presentation of time-based visual art, including but not limited to artists’ books and periodicals, installation art, performance art, and unforeseen contemporary avant-garde artforms; and to undertake other activities related to these purposes. Franklin Furnace is committed to serving emerging artists; to assuming an aggressive pedagogical stance with regard to the value of avant-garde art to life; and to fostering artists’ zeal to broadcast ideas.


Justine: Congrats on the 40th Anniversary!

Harley Spiller: Thank you. It was 5 days ago, our precise 40th anniversary, Martha and Jenny were at Smackmellon with the Franklin Furnace Fund winners showing their pieces and talking about gender and identity. I wasn’t there but Martha came in Monday morning and said it was a perfect way to celebrate.

I was actually going to ask how involved Martha Wilson still is with Franklin Furnace. She’s an incredibly busy person and 40 years is such a long time!

Martha Wilson is Franklin Furnace. That is actually the title of an exhibition that toured the nation by Independent Curators and its also the fact! And she is extremely involved. Even though she is performing in Zurich tomorrow, she flew there yesterday I believe, but I already got an email from her.

I’ve been Martha’s assistant since December 1987 and I went away for a few years but I realized that the real world wasn’t as much fun as Franklin Furnace. I’ve been back on my second stint longer than the first. I love it.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_002John Andrews, The Colonial Household (Part I), December 27, 1977, performance press release, mixed media on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches.

I don’t know how much our readers know about Franklin Furnace, do you want to give a introduction?

The introduction is that Martha Wilson is Franklin Furnace. What I say or do is subject to her. So, were you to ask her the same question you would get a very different answer. However, I will tell you the truth, and she will tell the truth, it just comes out differently from different perspectives. As I understand it, Martha came to New York City as a young person and got a job working at Harry Abrams Art Publisher. She went around to art events as people do, and gathered a stack, maybe an inch or two of pamphlets, posters, leaflets and various other things that artists gave out.

Claes Oldenburg, Red Grooms, Ray Gun comics, the playbill from Judson Church, things like that that were made by artists in this cheap printed format and distributed for free to a mass audience…and not intended to be a Gutenburg production. So, she had by her bed, in an illegal loft she was sharing with several other artists, a stack of stuff. And she called up MoMA and said “I’d like to donate this art”, and they said “That’s not art, that’s books.” So she said, oh, and called up the NY public library and they said, “That’s not books, that’s art.” So she said, oh…and she started the Franklin Furnace archive to work with the types of materials that artists were making, but that were being swept into the cracks. And not being cared for. Today the archive collection of artist books is at MoMA, and on their database online. When artists donated books, not one of a kind, we asked them for up to three copies, if they could spare that.  MoMA bought the entire collection, kept the first copies, sold the second, and kindly returned the third. So we still have a good chunk of our original collection and we’re adding to it. In those 40 years, the value has gone from just a flier, to big dollar signs, rare auction house kind of prices. And it’s become a thing! They weren’t called artist books back then, no one knew what to call them.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_004Ana Mendieta, Body Tracks, April 8, 1982, performance image, photographic slide, 35 mm.

And now the NY Art book fair is an annual big deal.

Yeah, I was sitting at the Franklin Furnace table last year with Martha and Richard, an artist of Martha’s generation, came up and he said look what you started Martha! And she was very demure about it, but she did a lot to get that up and rolling. Printed Matter splintered off Franklin Furnace when Martha learned that collecting and exhibiting is a separate pursuit than selling. And Printed Matter started, and the FF archive remained. It’s not the only art form she has been on since before it had a name. Martine Aballea wanted to read her book at Franklin Furnace and she stood on the edge of her chair during her reading, and she did things that weren’t done at a Barnes and Noble reading. And what the heck was that? It’s performance art or it’s art installations. Today we sold the space on Franklin Street, sold the collection to MoMA and went virtual. So today, we’re in an office without a space for artists to present their work. And live art on the internet has taken off, and we were in that void in 1998 when streaming wasn’t even happening yet! We had Jason Bowman, a Scottish artist, who sanded a US baseball bat into a doorstop…and that’s the kind of forward thinking that has FF has been about, and supported.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_005Shirin Neshat, Unveiling, April 2, 1993, installation poster, offset lithography on newsprint, 32 x 23 inches.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_006Willie Cole, Ten Thousand Mandelas, May 27, 1988, installation image, photographic slide, 35 mm.

You kind hit of hit on this already, but Avant-garde art can be very much a reflection of visual taste and aesthetics, philosophies, and politics of the moment which makes it very ephemeral and, it seems, is part of why this organization exists. How does, if at all, 40 year old Franklin Furnace differ from the brand new baby Franklin Furnace of 1976, and are there any new goals for the organization?

That is a great question. I wasn’t there in 1976, I came on board in 1987, but the office in ’76 was in the same location that it was when I got there, and it was a lot scruffier. We are now on the campus of Pratt Institute so for the first time we are not paying rent! We are the organization in residence and that’s a very comfortable feeling, that our work has been valued by this 140 something year old institution. Martha’s grandfather went to Pratt and his degree is right on the wall behind you…so, in some ways it’s like a homecoming. The biggest difference is that we don’t have our own space anymore. My job is half time instead of full time. It’s not as much fun! When artists would come in dragging their stuff behind them some of them would set up camp for a week to get ready for their performance or installation and you’re pretty much living with them during the day. Sometimes they slept overnight. And we had the general public coming into see the shows and so it was a much busier and more exciting environment. But the institution still works, if not much more, crammed into my half time job.

One story is great, being a street level entity on the streets of New York you’re dealing with the general public and the real world intrudes. And we would have to worry about our neighbors…if we did a show on graffiti, we’d have to make sure our neighbors didn’t graffiti if we hung up wheat paste posters, people would call in and ask us not to. I remember we would try not to get tickets for garbage…and we had put out the garbage ten minutes too early one day, and the city garbage inspector came by and whipped out his ticket book, and I said, “That’s not garbage! Well, it is garbage but an artist is using it in her performance, and she’s loading it in right now!” So I had to carry all of it back in, but then we didn’t have to pay the ticket.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_007Artists’ Books from Mexico, May 26, 1982, Selected by Marta Hellion and Carla Stellweg, exhibition image, photographic slide, 35mm.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_008Rose English, LA London Lab, Adventure or Revenge, March 14, 1981, performance image, photographic slide, 35 mm.

Franklin Furnace has an awesome fund for emerging artists. Is this the main way that the team comes across artists that the organization supports and promotes?

We don’t have a curator on staff, we’re unique in that way. We don’t pick, we never have. Yes, we put on special events, and we call our colleagues and friends and ask them to be involved. However, we raise money, and we have an annual open call…April 1st, no fooling…and artists from around the world send in their proposals. These days we tend to get about 500 applications online and then we pick an odd number of odd artists, usually people we have worked with in the past who have also gotten this grant, and that we admire, and think they’d make a good panelist. We let them do the dirty job of rejecting 488 people and given 12 people grants. They’re instructed on how much money there is, they’re allowed to pick who they want. They can divide the money any way they want. Lately it’s been kind of two batches: people who get a full chunk, and then maybe some who don’t need as much money will get a smaller chunk. But they could decide, it’s never happened, but they could give the money all to one cat. It’s three days of highly caffeinated debate. One of the cool features is the Passion Vote, each panelist gets one vote as well as a Passion Vote…so, you can vote twice for something you really love.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_009Stephanie Brody Lederman, [bookworks by Stephanie Brody Lederman], January 23, 1979, installation announcement mailer, offset lithography on cardstock, 4.5 x 6.5 inches.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_010Harold Olejarz, Men in Suits, December 6, 1990, performance image, photographic slide, 35 mm.

Among your many responsibilities, you also personally compile and send out the weekly Goings On e-newsletters. What artists, programs, and events is the Fund excited about and working with now and what can the public look forward to viewing or hearing about? 

We have 12,000 people in our database, and I’ve personally typed each of their names in there. The Goings On newsletters is a huge way to connect with the community. Each artist does their own events, since we don’t have a physical space for them, so an artist will do something at Smackmellon or Myles or the steps in front of the Bronx courthouse.  We’re strong in Europe, like I said Martha is in Zurich now spreading the word there. We’re also strong in Japan, in parts of China. So, we send out emails weekly to let people know what’s going on.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_011Diane Torr, Crossing the River Styx, May 11, 1990, performance announcement mailer, offset lithography on cardstock, 4 x 5.5 inches.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_012Rachel Frank, Sleep of Reason: A Sculptural Performance, February 18-19, 2011, announcement card, photo by Stefanie Pluta.

Within the realms of education and art creation/production censorship is, of course, still an issue. How does your organization balance promoting very radical topics such as feminist sexuality, gender fluidity, progressive politics, etc. while also providing programs such as Sequential Art for Kids education program? Is there still push back from certain conservative communities?

Franklin Furnace was in the maelstrom of the culture wars. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who stay far away from us. Giuliani was distinctly against us. You want to talk about modernity and progress…I haven’t heard any vicious complaints about Franklin Furnace or our events in a long time. It’s out there…RuPaul is regular! However, a lot of what we were doing that was rough is still a problem. Look at the campaigning going on for president! But Pratt Institute has us here…I mean it’s an art school, but it’s traditional. Maybe Martha or Jenny could tell you differently, but I haven’t heard anything. We used to get a lot of hate mail, and we file it away but we haven’t gotten any hate mail in a long time.

I feel like that would make a great book, ‘Franklin Furnace Hate Mail’.

It’s in storage…I thought it was in my desk but we definitely have to find that. There was some good stuff. Maybe we’re getting better, maybe the world is getting better, maybe we’re not pushing enough buttons but I don’t think that’s the case.


Johanna Went, Twin Travel Terror, October 10, 1987, performance hand-out, photocopy on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches.


Saya Woolfalk, No Place: A Ritual of the Empathics, November 14, 2009, performance image, digital image, photo by Ray Llanos.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_015Dolores Zorreguieta, Wounds, November 11, 1994, installation announcement mailer, offset lithography on cardstock, 7 x 4 ¾ inches, photo by Marty Heitner.

At times, avant-garde and just art in general has been accused of being pretentious, or inaccessible and difficult for many people to understand. Franklin Furnace seems to be working against this tide, not only by helping emerging artists but also by using books to share information. What is your stance on the accessibility of art, through either this organization or others?

Preaching to the converted is boring, and doesn’t take you any place because you’re already there. That said, willingly putting your neck on the chopping block is not a lot of fun. What I’ve come to learn in just the last year, to think about and process, is that the kind of art we’re working with, avant-garde, I know what that means, but the general public doesn’t and they cut off at the words ‘avant-garde’. Right now we’re talking about including the word ‘interdisciplinary’ in our mission statement or exchanging avant-garde for interdisciplinary so that would be a way to reach more people. Martha is spearheading this discussion, and if I can guess, she wants to be more accepted. However, avant-garde is weird on purpose, because no one knows what the hell is going on in life anyway. This stuff is weird because life is weird.

Franklin_Furnace_beautifulbizarre_003Martha and Harley



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