by Jamie Stevens
“What do I, as an artist, provide? What do I satisfy?”
(Official Welcome, 2001)

So asks Andrea Fraser, in character as Andrea Fraser (before speaking as various other artists, patrons, and administrators, and amalgamations of them), in her 2001 performance Official Welcome. Fraser’s 30-year body of work can, without exception, be located back into the reframing and close examination of these two questions. Fraser’s artistic practice has emerged in multiple formats – performances, videos, installations, workshops, texts, activism, teaching – but is consistently connected by her direct and trenchant address of the spaces and relations that constitute the field of art. It is within these relations that audiences and publics are designated, power dynamics between the art world's constituent groups (viewer, artist, critic, collector) are defined, and borders of artistic freedoms and philanthropic charity are, in unison, drawn.

Andrea Fraser,
Andrea Fraser, 'Soldadera (Scenes from Un banquete en Tetlapayac, a film by Olivier Debroise)', 1998/2001. Courtesy: Andrea Fraser and Galerie Nagel Draxler

In performing her “analytical interventions” (as described by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, himself a key influence upon Fraser), Fraser has repeatedly mobilized her own voice, her own body, and her own emotional range to articulate and situate her works. The space of critique that Fraser targets as an artist is only accessed through the direct implication of her private self, “making disclosures that she cannot possibly fully comprehend,” as described by Gregg Bordowitz.

It is this process of self-implication (a process familiar from feminist art practices of previous decades) that often lends Fraser's performances their overarching ambivalence, as works switch between registers of intricate parody, sincere personal account, and dispassionate analysis. This complex – and often extremely subtle – oscillation between performed ‘selves’ provides a counter-momentum that directs Fraser's work beyond the scope of her own statements and speech-acts, diverting works into the fundamental problems of artistic provision and imagined satisfaction that are posited in the questions from Official Welcome.

Andrea Fraser,
Andrea Fraser, 'Reporting from São Paulo, I'm from the United States', 1998. Courtesy: Andrea Fraser and Galerie Nagel Draxler

Fraser is a commanding performer, incredibly skilled at rotating through casts of composite characters (inevitably voiced from historical record), with slight changes of physical manner or tonal inflection. Single works contain multiple conflicting tenors, from intensely personal, almost traumatic material – say, Fraser's distressed description of the rejections experienced by her artist mother – to brazen appropriations of art-world speeches that raise a background of sustained collective laughter heard in nearly all recordings of her performances.

To extrapolate the motivation of the artist in Fraser’s work is a maddening task, and the onus is instead placed on the spectator to consider her own presence and role within the experience of Fraser’s work. Even in works that consider their object of analysis with unwavering seriousness of purpose, for instance in Services (co-organized with Helmut Draxler in 1994), the project is undertaken in a spirit of subversive provocation and communal enterprise toward uncertain conclusions. Fraser has, since her earliest artistic endeavors, worked against any claim of external diagnosis of the art world, instead placing critical importance upon the discursive, economic, and creative interactions that take place between people, the objects they see and own, and the institutions that they attend and patronize.

Working-group discussions prior to the opening of ‘Services: The Conditions and Relations of Service Provision in Contemporary Project Oriented Artistic Practice’, Kunstraum of Lüneburg University, 22—23 January 1994, video stills. Videographer: Olaf Krafft
Working-group discussions prior to the opening of ‘Services: The Conditions and Relations of Service Provision in Contemporary Project Oriented Artistic Practice’, Kunstraum of Lüneburg University, 22—23 January 1994, video stills. Videographer: Olaf Krafft

“With each attempt to evade the limits of institutional determination, to embrace an outside, to redefine art or reintegrate it into everyday life, to reach “everyday” people and work in the “real” world, we expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it.”
(“From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum, Sept. 2005)

Fraser’s work is distinguished by its vexed commitment to the critique and elucidation of the ideological consequences of art’s production, discourse, and display. That commitment is always accompanied by Fraser’s passionate engagement with the field of art. Fraser is an artist who places deep value on the work of other artists; collaborating in artworks, volunteering critical appraisal in texts and performances, contributing to artist-run institutions, and constantly linking her own authorship into close dialogue with the artists who have inspired and confounded her as a viewer.

Andrea Fraser,
Andrea Fraser, 'Projekt in zwei Phasen', 1995. Courtesy: Andrea Fraser and Generali Foundation

Fraser’s work often contains a montage of political and artistic positions, which are then concentrated into robust and unambiguous forms (a speech, a document, a text) that should be appraised with an understanding of Fraser’s proven interest in the profound effects of an artist’s formal choices.

In our program of activities about Fraser’s work, considering it at various distances from the source material, we hope to both revisit and expand upon the rigor and demanding example of an artist who animates the active and passive positions that presage the pleasures and agonies of cultural experience.