In the main room of Peregrine Honig’s new space, Greenwood Social Hall, I sat around a table with Honig, All Is Fair’s Christian Mitchell and fellow Informality editor Melaney Mitchell, observing the conversation and occasionally directing questions. Our focus was in covering Honig’s historical impact on the Kansas City Artist-Run scene with her gallery Fahrenheit (open from 1997-2010) in the West Bottoms. While having this as our focus, we also addressed recent controversy regarding All Is Fair and how new management is making a change.
Blair Schulman: You’ve had a lot of experiences running spaces that are either in tandem with the arts community or directly relating to them. Let’s start off with Fahrenheit. How did that space come to be? Where was it located? How long were you there?
Peregrine Honig: The initial Fahrenheit space was at 1317 Union in the West Bottoms, I found out about the space from Eric Swangstu. The first piece of work I showed in KC was in the Dirt Gallery, run by Leo Esquivel, Max Key, and Neal Wilson and Davin Watne. Davin and Leo taught me the basics; standard heights, where to order your postcards, levels, prices, shapes, just the very basic. I think I was nineteen.
BS: What was the Bottoms like?
PH: It was raw space. I had moved from San Francisco and this space was 5000 sq feet and the rent was $500 a month in 1997. My first artist was Bill Moreland, a self-taught artist in his late 70s and Alice Thorson (art critic for the KC Star) was interested in Folk Americana at the time and she wrote about the show.
BS: Was there a particular mission or rationale you considered when curating?
PH: I wanted to be on both sides of the wall.
Melaney Mitchell: Were you taking things from your studio practice, in the work you were making, through your decision in space or just responding to local artists?
PH: Most of the artists I was showing weren’t local. Neither was the Dirt Gallery. We were stepping outside of showing local, even regional, artists. They were picking up Japanese artists and people like Shepard Fairey. We were working hard, in retrospect, to bring people in and take people out. Davin was taking work to NYC and I was taking work to Chicago.
We were curating shows and also traveling. Of course it behooved the commercial galleries of these emergent spaces to be tag teaming with them. There was an amazing amount of generosity (from the more established KC galleries), like Byron Cohen lending me (things I needed). There was more of a library of presentation and objects (to help set up shows). It was pretty inclusive.
The nice thing I would look back on, these curators would come to town and it looked like I had made it.
BS: What were some of the more memorable exhibitions?
PH: The Gun and Knife Show, which I curated with Marcus Cain. Which was a conversation about artists and their relationship with weaponry. It was 80 pieces. Traveled it to Chicago, and was enormously successful. A national exhibition with work from NY and LA but it wasn’t about the politics, it was just about the objects.
Also, Depth and Funnel was an amazing show. It was a collective, we turned the gallery from the center out. This was the second (iteration of Fahrenheit), 1717 West 9th and the center of the space was sectioned out from the middle of the wall to the ceiling and every artist had a section; photorealistic painters, graffiti, and installations. Then the annual Valentine Ball, I would say. Stuart Losee and Carolyn Hopkins set up a suburban living room landscape with all of these animals hopping out of the furniture…it was extremely beautiful and interesting.
MM: How was it getting work from NYC or Chicago. Those are the things that are really financially “strapping” with artist-run spaces. Were you getting grants or was it self-funded?
PH: I am grateful that I didn’t know then what I know now. Once, I think Marcus Cain and I bought one piece that (was damaged). And we just paid for it, we didn’t know what else to do…it was different, we were young and people would drive in from NY or LA. We all had so much to risk. It wasn’t about money.
MM: And people were willing to meet you on your terms.
PH: Yes. And the terms were…we were not…all of us were living in our spaces and that made a big difference. When I think back, many of our shows were group shows. And my February show (Valentine Ball) was my big show and continues to be an annual event.
MM: What do you mean by Valentine Ball?
PH: I would have a show that was affiliated with performance and it gave you something to look forward to when you were trying to make it through the winter. You also weren’t competing with the September openings. We sold a lot of work and it was often a 50/50 or 60/40 cut and the artists from out of town were also living with us. They would stay for a week and curate in tandem. Like the Dirt and Fahrenheit galleries would always curate at the same time.
The reason I got into the Whitney (Museum of American Art in NYC) was because Davin took a ‘zine that I did to an art fair. Melissa Rountree saw it — she was buying for Hallmark — and when I returned to KC we met, and then Jack Lemon (Director of Landfall Press) printed my work and I am still printing with Landfall. We had enough room between shows to (make work).
BS: You do put a lot of time and energy into your art as well as being an entrepreneur. How does Birdies get integrated into your practice?
PH: For a long time I thought they were separate things, but I was also teaching at KCAI and came to understand curating is just fancy retail.
MM: I am curious to know. Will you elaborate on that more? I feel that contemporary curation and retail are never thought of in the same space.
PH: You’re selling an idea (as an artist). It’s not different. Where it came from, what its made out of, how will it wear? This is all off the cuff, but what’s the difference in conversation? I like retail, I love the experience of selling and love the human interaction. I employ women (at Birdies) and learned in this setting, women like to interact with other women. I have ebbed and flowed out of the politics of feminine identity, sexuality and things which, of course, ties into my studio practice.
My dreams from working on a hot day are going to infiltrate my life and when I get to studio, I have a window to the world that no one else has.
At Birdies I have a rule; whoever starts a sale, ends a sale. And everybody curates differently too. Retail is performative.
BS: Your day at the store leads you to the studio. Because you’re surrounded by all this intimacy, made me think about your ‘Suites’ collaboration (at Belger Crane Yard Gallery, 2015), and those artists involved and how it dealt with sexuality. Now that you’re discussing Birdies and your studio practice; do you enlarge those ideas to these collaborations?
PH: There’s only an inflection between ‘exploit’ and ‘exploit.’ Something that I experience for the first time is going to effect whether I consciously or subconsciously navigate it, is going to effect my intention.
My experience with the store, my relationship with the women at the store; we share (intimacies) about boyfriends, etc. and one of them is a Dreamer (DACA baby) and all of this effects my experience. In getting to know other people, you get to know yourself. Like art, why do they buy art? To reward themselves, to feel good about themselves. Lingerie is not that different; it’s the story you’re telling with your body. Art is the story you’re telling.
BS: I wanted to go onto Haw (Contemporary, art gallery) and ‘Unicorn,’ those paintings and flags, while simultaneously fundraising for All Is Fair (AiF). Would you consider AiF as an artist-run space, a gallery for NCECA? Give us some background.
PH: Before I showed at Haw, I curated that show with Donna Huanca (MOUNT, 2013; included Terry Allen, Jack Davis, Adriane Herman). And that was Haw’s first opening and was written about in Art Papers. It was really important, before I showed at Haw, that I brought in a really successful, beautiful show.
My show (of work), Unicorn, the flags, the selfie paintings. Chadwick Brooks came to me with the name ‘unicorn’ meaning trans women kept by very wealthy, older men.
BS: Very Nabokov.
PH: Very. I was taken by that and I had been painting that young person for a long time and it came as an eroticism of the unknown. (Similar to Gauguin’s Tahitian women, and specifically, one particular painting of a very young girl) gave Bill Haw trouble; he didn’t want to show that piece (being the foundation of the show).
Then the flags came to me almost immediately after that. Then came the rainbow flag, this idea of surrendering. The American flag took a lot of people; Miranda Treas and the Ukrainian man next door to Birdies (All Nations Flag Company, since gone) was willing to sew the stars onto the pale material and Miranda was willing to sew everything together. But All Nations said they can’t touch this because, he said, a lot of their customers are veterans and if it’s taken the wrong way they can’t feed their kids.
For me, it seems very pure, faded and the flag on the moon that’s supposedly just bleached out from the sun – that Neil Armstrong left behind. Theaster Gates has such a great relationship with flags, too. What are we talking about? We’re talking about property lines – territory.
BS: How did you think people responded to this idea of territory? There were many reactions to the show. What were people responding to when they saw that?
PH: First of all, people are really uncomfortable when you include them – when it’s inclusive. People are used to artwork being exclusive. So, the fact these images generated were about self documentation and that was interesting to see people’s resistance or excitement about that behavior. Before that, I was at the Venice Biennale and people were taking pictures and including themselves in the artwork.
In retrospect, there were people who said I should’ve just shown the flags. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
BS: Everyone wants to comment on the inclusivity when it’s not them.
BS: Which brings me to your involvement with the trans community. I want you to address that. How have people in the trans community responded to you as an artist? People responded very strongly to ‘Unicorn’ and asking, who is this person who is not a trans person, suddenly creating these representations of us? People were strongly opinionated about it and continue to be so. Tell me your feeling about these criticisms and post-Unicorn.
PH: First, Christian Mitchell (CM) is here, because they are the artistic director of All Is Fair (and major shareholder, for the past ten months). The thing that I’ve always felt very strongly about is that people who advocate for other people that don’t look like or are like, is harder, difficult…there is a level of learning with inclusivity.
CM: I come from what the advocate community calls an intersection. I am a part of intersecting oppressed groups. I am a non-binary trans person and an African-American person…the Haw show was the first gallery show I had ever been to; the first time I had been exposed to Peregrine’s work. I do a lot of comparisons, reflecting myself, those two parts of my identity because they are extremely, culturally relevant right now. And there’s a lot of controversy concerning the misrepresentation and appropriations of misrepresentations as well.
So (for example), there’s (Thomas Hart) Benton, and hundreds of white artists who have depicted identity and African-American culture. Congo Square in New Orleans is hailed as the birthplace of Jazz and sort of the resting place through African-American culture. Historic accounts of writers traveling to Congo Square to document. Frankly, it’s an exhibition of African culture and there’s importance in that. Maybe that’s on the opposite spectrum of respected depictions, but there’s a difference between that and minstrel cartoons. I think Peregrine’s work is in the Benton spectrum. It’s nowhere close to Congo Square and it’s even further away from minstrel paintings. So that’s how I frame representations, with their level of offensiveness as well as historic, artistic, and cultural importance. I find artistic value in the statue that was torn down.
BS: We keep talking around it and I want to ask you about the bathroom sign, ‘We Don’t Care.’ Why did you decide ‘We Don’t Care?’ How was it born?
PH: When I made that sign, I made one sign for Birdies and I thought of it as a covert protest, almost like a poster. How is it my business? Whose business is it of mine where you go to the bathroom? And Alice Gray Stites from 21C hotels in North Carolina contacted me (where the 2016 ‘Bathroom Bill’ was enacted and later repealed) to say the sign had already gone viral with just a quick photo of (someone) holding the sign. And I thought, I can’t believe this is even a discussion.
The hotel also owned Father Gander (a Honig print the hotel uses in their bridal suites) and Alice called me and said we need these signs expedited quickly so they can be hung and used as protest in this hotel. I contacted Midtown Signs (a longtime client) and…asked they be rushed…and they were…and the bathrooms were some kind of fancy glass that were clear, but when you shut the door the glass veiled. The signs were used on both sides of the glass.
I didn’t ask for credit in the image as an artist when this photograph was taken and it became this icon of the movement. And anybody who – I’m going to make the assumption – would write about that bill…could use it because it protested the bill. It is not a neutral image….it is against the bill.
For me, there are some things I do, even in the reality TV show (Bravo, Work of Art, 2010), the artwork was not the artwork that was in the show, it was documented and what occurred. There are so many layers to making…anything…art…so the bathroom sign was protest and it became the icon of anybody who was writing about the bill. I know that my name is included in a lot of those articles, but my name is not included in that Getty image.
BS: You’re not claiming ownership, but you’re not denying it either.
PH: Right. Also, Ashley Van Dyke actually trademarked just the image; he contacted me early on and said, ‘I am a trans man and I trademarked that.’ I said I trademarked the ‘We Don’t Care’ part, but if I am ever contacted directly about that icon, I will make sure you are given credit. So, Twitter contacted me and said, ‘we love this bathroom sign, but just want to use the image,’ asking whom to credit. So, there have been many articles crediting this trans man and he was very much on board and considers this a collaboration.
I like (the sign) as a performative object.
BS: Because of these projects, do you think the public views you as an activist? Do you consider yourself an activist?
PH: Can I be an accidental activist?
MM: It’s like the difference between activist and catalyst. You’re creating an exhibition and hype around something and allowing it to be a catalyst for others to continue that.
CM: That is so similar that (Italo) Calvino book (Six Memos for the New Millenium). Are you a flame or a crystal?
PH: I don’t feel like, how do we … answering your question with a question…are we obligated as artists to talk about social practice all the time? What about anti-social practice? I didn’t come at that Getty image through calling myself an advocate. I came at it as someone who makes things. If you come at something with the intention of being an activist and its unsuccessful, what’s better, coming at it as an activist and nobody’s hearing you or coming at it as the maker? Its non-quantifiable. I don’t necessarily think the Shepard Fairey Hope sign as an activist work. I think he came at it as an artist. I’m not comparing myself to him, and he comes as much an artist as an activist, but we should be required to come as activists. We are required to make our work and, like Calvino, make things more transparent, more aware of things, but I’ve always been frustrated when I’ve been called a feminist in the context of my work.
MM: Do you think the term “feminist” is sexist or your work being considered feminist art?
PH: I feel like when someone writes about my work and assumes that I am a feminist without talking to me…like if I am making figurative work, or transitional work in this case. Men don’t get called feminist in their reviews. And they can be making work about femininity, masculinity, transitioning, etc…and so…it can be a veil. A cop out from many sides. Assuming someone is an artist and an activist is problematic.
MM: Because then you’re viewed under a different lens?
BS: The idea, activist, non activist, sometimes its secondary. And for some artists activism is a primary. But many artists, for the most part, are simply in the vanguard. They’re thinkers, viewing the world differently and can capture it under another lens.
PH: Coming from a really simple place. A friend called me and said his binders were awful, and I own a lingerie store, so I went online hoping to find someone with a better product and it didn’t exist. Its taken two years, but its a real new thing. Brand spanking new.
BS: So how do you respond to this brand new thing, where there are strong opinions and your response to the criticism?
MM: And everyone’s opinion is assuming and expecting that you’re a leader – you’re leading a movement.
PH: It’s interesting when people are criminals under the umbrella of advocacy and I’m willing to stand tall because I know that my intentions and my perspective and where we are now is pretty amazing. I look up and knew that I had a responsibility, whether or not it was my place to have that responsibility, and… for a few months we had a space where trans and non binary people were trying on products and we had testers and conversations. It was a learning curve.
MM: Are you not using that space anymore? (All Is Fair storefront)
PH: No. We don’t need it. We have the product and it’s locally produced. Christian travels to the seamstresses, testing the product for eighteen months on trans boys.
BS: Is it online?
PH: We have people buying product out of Birdies.
CM: We do sell product there and that’s the primary means. As someone with gender dysmorphia, it took me months to feel comfortable in Birdie’s, a very feminine space, and it’s still a challenge. But if someone would like to meet with me or doesn’t have time, I’ll set aside time to meet with them there or in my studio. Or I’ll go to them and have a binder fitting session.
MM: Are you doing made-to-measure?
CM: Not made-to-measure, but I guess it’s the opposite. It’s measured to be made. On the website I have the ‘Every Size Initiative.’ If you don’t’ feel our sizing guide is right, you can submit your measurements and see where you fall in a size that better compliments you. It’s all relating back to the original iteration of our binders because I just finished a new one that just finished prototype testing. And we probably won’t have the same sizing. I’m hoping to get rid of the ‘Every Size Initiative’ and that won’t be an issue.
BS: Who are your demographics?
CM: We’re definitely focusing on 12-16 age group. And talking with someone about this, I said Peregrine has a feminine hand and that has an influence. She was able to able to reach the mothers of trans kids. They were attracted to what All Is Fair was and that’s who she dealt with. And I’m trying to go directly to the source. There are many trans kids who don’t have that support and it’s important to capture that support.
PH: Our main buyers are mothers, aunts and grandmothers and there’s just no way I could have figured that out without my background with Birdies.
I didn’t feel like I was surrendering something when I (got together) with Christian, that this would be fantastic because I think they are more tuned in and has the language. I trust them. It was the best decision I ever made.
MM: And Christian, you’re coming from an activist community. You can be a leader.
CM: It’s strange hearing you say this. It’s hard to see myself as an activist because it’s difficult for me to get in a crowd with a sign and be that sort of an activist. But this is probably more effective.
PH: In terms of activism, I felt like there was a need for this to exist. It just seemed like a garment that needed to exist in the real world. It wasn’t a creative or fiscal perspective, just something that was missing.
CM: Back to your question, Blair, of demographics, when I say 12-16, The fact that we have larger sizes than a small, not only do we get different body types, we also get different age ranges. And older than that age range.
PH: Just getting the conversation going that you don’t bind constantly…
CM: I want to focus on 12-16 because that was the time I discovered that I had gender dysphoria. I was listening to NPR and during this interview it all sort of clicked. And when I accepted undertaking All Is Fair I wanted it to be what I needed at that age and included binder safety and how to go about being conscious of your health instead of getting so wrapped up in your dysphoria you forget to take care of yourself.
BS: You know binding is historical, right?
CM: Yes and I am hoping I can reference that more on the website. Joan of Arc is my favorite woman in history. Woman who snuck into the military. How do you think they were able to do that?
Artist Run KC is a print publication from Informality that encapsulates a partial history of artist-run spaces in Kansas City.
Artist-Run KC features interviews with former Charlotte Street Foundation Artist Award Fellows who have managed spaces or contributed in a meaningful way to Kansas City’s artist-run scene. This zine was produced by Informality in collaboration with PLUG Projects and commissioned by the Charlotte Street Foundation for their 20th anniversary celebration, Every Street is Charlotte Street. Artist Run KC features interviews with David Ford, Tom Gregg, Peregrine Honig, Mike Erikson, Madeline Gallucci, Erica Lynne Hanson, Garry Noland, Glenn North, Dylan Mortimer, Sean Starowitz, Caleb Taylor, Heidi Van, Jaimie Warren, and Davin Watne.
Artist Run KC launched at PLUG Projects on NOVEMBER 12th 2017 alongside their revised PLUG book! If you are interested in a copy email firstname.lastname@example.org