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Franklin Furnace

“The primary concern of Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc. is to preserve the inexpensive, artist-produced book,” proclaimed a 1976 ad in Art-Rite announcing the establishment of Franklin Furnace at 112 Franklin Street in New York. “No other organization is methodically collecting, cataloging and preserving artist-produced books in a nonprescriptive manner. By the end of this decade, we hope Franklin Furnace will be generally known as a resource upon which scholars, artists, museums, galleries, educational institutions and the general public may draw on to gain an understanding of this artform.” Established in 1976, Franklin Furnace was “a hothouse for artists’ ideas, a place where ideas create light and heat,” artist Martha Wilson, who founded the organization, told Toni Sant in one of a series of long interviews originally conducted in 2005 and published in a 2011 book, Franklin Furnace and the Spirit of the Avant-Garde. Over the nearly five decades since its founding, Franklin Furnace has been known as a hub of the avant-garde, and one of the foremost organizations responsible for establishing the fields of both performance art, and artists’ books.

The story of Franklin Furnace has several main players, including Wilson herself, the “First Lady of Performance Art” (as she was referred to by the Brooklyn Rail in 2014) who has often been regarded (to her protest) synonymously with the organization. Others include artist Willoughby Sharp, who initiated the Franklin Street Arts Center where Franklin Furnace had its first home; Harley Spiller, who joined Franklin Furnace in 1986 and was named director four years ago; and Michael Katchen (who passed away earlier this year), the senior archivist who started as an intern in 1980 and led the efforts to build the artists’ book collection, bibliography, and later, digitalization. Institutions have also buoyed Franklin Furnace over the years, particularly the Museum of Modern Art, which purchased the archive of artists’ books in 1993 under the direction of librarian Clive Phillpot; and Pratt Institute, where it has been an “organization-in-residence” since late 2014. This is in addition to the hundreds of artists who have exhibited, performed at, and been archived by Franklin Furnace, including Jacki Apple, Ida Applebroog, Barbara Kruger, Sonia Balassanian, Terry Braunstein, John-Eric Broaddus, Mary Beth Edelson, Jenny Holzer, and Vito Acconci.

In April of 1976, Wilson took over the storefront and basement space available in Willoughby Sharp’s arts building on Franklin Street in Tribeca, a neighborhood that would soon become a hub of alternative arts spaces. The street-facing window became an exhibition space and bookstore for artists’ books and the basement became a performance space. The first board of Franklin Furnace included Acconci, Weston Naef, Fredriecke Taylor, and Henry Korn, and some of the earliest staff included Apple, who was the curator and programs manager from 1976–80, Howard Goldstein, and Katchen. The space began hosting readings, performances, and showing artists’ book exhibitions.

The era was one of idealism and penny-pinching. As Apple recalled in her 2005 remembrance for TDR/The Drama Review, sometimes the artists could barely afford heat in the space: “I would get into Martha’s bed and turn on the electric blanket and work on letters and press releases with our gloves and scarves on.” Apple pioneered an openness for art and performance that would come to shape Franklin Furnace. “Although the idea that an artist could curate and organize exhibitions, write about one’s colleagues and peers, and practice one’s own art on equal terms was a fundamental premise of the artists space movement,” Apple wrote, “the translation of this ideal from theory to practice presented certain challenges.” Though Franklin Furnace had an open-door policy, criteria were needed to run the space and programs, so a review and selection process was soon put into place. “For the exhibitions, my goal was to choose the most exciting work in each genre—sculptural books, conceptual books, handmade paper books, photo/text books, painters’ books, fiber and textile books, object books—stretching the definition of ‘book’ as far as possible.”

Some of the earliest shows included a 1979 exhibition of Applebroog’s artists’ books, which she distributed through the mail as a performance, setting a precedent early on for Franklin Furnace’s ongoing assertion of the connection between performance art and artists’ books. Other early shows were more historically focused, such as the four-part 1980 exhibition, The Page as Alternative Space, inspired in part by Howardena Pindell’s 1977 essay, “Alternative Space: Artists’ Periodicals,” about the history of artists’ magazines. The show was split into different decades and curated by four sets of curators: Phillpot (1909–29), Charles Henri Ford (1930–49), Barbara Moore and Jon Hendricks (1950–69), and Ingrid Sischy and Richard Flood (1970–80), each examining the experimental publishing ethos of the time period. Among the range of artists’ periodicals, the exhibition included examples of the Vorticist BLAST, the Constructivist Polish magazine BLOK, and Wallace Berman’s Semina.

This exhibition, and others, represented an attention to historicization, but also a flexibility of definitions and interpretations of both book and performance. Wilson’s stated criteria, which remains Franklin Furnace’s collecting policy today, is that if an artist says what they have created is a book, it’s a book. This philosophy has allowed for a wide spectrum of materials exhibited over the years at the Furnace, including a number of unique artists’ books and sculptural works. Apple, in particular, supported these efforts. As she explained at a 1979 conference on artists’ books:

These are all one-of-a-kind books … and the program [of Franklin Furnace] is really dedicated to showing work, which extends the definition of what a book is. And [the book is] also a work that is very often not shown in commercial galleries because the commercial gallery sometimes doesn’t understand it. They don’t know what to do with something that’s called ‘book.’”

During the mid-1970s, the genres of artists’ books and performance art were still largely undefined, allowing organizations like Franklin Furnace to determine their outer limits. “My view of Martha Wilson’s collection was that she had looser criteria for artist books than I did,” noted librarian and artists’ book critic Phillpot, in his recollections for TDR. “Her attitude appeared to be that if an artist called something a book it was a book, whereas I generally considered that an artist book had to actually be a book (or more likely a pamphlet) that utilized the familiar codex format in which pages are fixed in a sequence, as with any paperback.” Franklin Furnace artists, like Kay Hines, whose solo show, Circular Objects, opened in 1978, often pushed against these notions of book form. According to Apple, Hines’s artists’ books are “almost beyond the definition of what anybody might normally even think of as a book. Kay’s work is directly involved in uses of text and ideas about language and writing.” Taking forms such as notebook pages sealed in test tubes, a typewriter book that involves the imprinted text on the ribbon as well as newly generated text that develops in the opposite direction, and a life-sized book in the shape of a drum in which the reader (or viewer) sits surrounded by the text, Hines’s work physically demonstrated Wilson’s revolutionary conception.

As with many other artist-run art spaces, flexibility came from the artists themselves. “The artists did not make a big distinction among all the forms,” Wilson told Sant. “They were also doing installations, pretty soon audiotape, film, music … it was all one big blob.” It was also from this “blob” that performance art was shaped. The earliest performances were radical, considering that “Performance Art” as a genre was a completely new form. “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,” Spiller told online culture magazine in 2016. “And what the heck was that? It’s performance art or it’s art installations.” Aballea performed several times over the years, often alongside unique artists’ books, and in 1977 staged a collaborative reading with Apple in which Aballea read from a perch in the ceiling beams.

In 1985, in order to further support artists working in time-based media and the emerging field of performance art, Franklin Furnace launched a grant program for early career artists working in New York City. The grants range from 2,000 to 10,000 dollars and over the years have supported numerous artists including Karen Finley, Coco Fusco, Rashaad Newsome, Clifford Owens, Pope.L, Dread Scott, and Pamela Sneed, many of whom continue to perform and collaborate with the organization before and after their awards. The grant continues today with very liberal eligibility requirements: one must not be a student, must be currently generating new work, and be in an early stage of their career. (Funnily enough, performance artist Eileen Myles brought up her failure to receive this award in their Franklin Furnace performance in 1991, coming to the conclusion that perhaps they are no longer “emerging” and have, in fact, “merged.”)

In 1990, Franklin Furnace mounted Finley’s A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much, an installation of wall text with performances about the political conditions for women at the time. “Finley creates a straight-from-the-gut reaction to the current repressive political climate and the latest attempts to curtail women’s rights,” reads the press release. The installation received significant press coverage, with headlines like “New ‘Art’ Storm Brewing” (New York Post) and “It’s Obscene But Is It Art?” (Wall Street Journal). The New Yorker called Finley “the most recent victim of misinformed attempts to censor art” and the New York Times called her installation poems at Franklin Furnace “cries against opponents of legalized abortion.” Shortly after this exhibition opened, the FDNY shut down the basement performance space after it was reported as an illegal social club, and Franklin Furnace became a roving organization that staged performances in other art spaces by artists including Pope.L and Myles. Judson Memorial Church and PS1, among others, hosted these performances coordinated by Franklin Furnace during a period known as “Franklin Furnace in Exile.” In 1998, the organization began streaming performances online as part of a series with Pseudo Online Network, an early internet content streaming service, in a phase referred to as “going virtual.” Many of these virtual performances are now archived online in the Franklin Furnace Moving Image Archives.

In 1997, the 112 Franklin Street building was sold and Franklin Furnace used this money, along with a grant provided by the NEA in 1996, to establish a cash reserve and with an eye towards maintaining the organization into the future. By this time they had already sold their artists’ book collection and related archival materials to the Museum of Modern Art. As Wilson told Sant, “we also started to explore the idea of placing the collection in the hands of another institution that would value it, continue to enlarge it, and do the right thing for this field that we had established as a legitimate field of art.” Wilson understood that preservation was key to furthering these new fields Franklin Furnace had pioneered, whether by placing the materials in an institutional archive or via digital sharing and preservation, as all the streamed performances were recorded and remain available. “Archive” is in fact a part of the organization’s legal name and the founding purpose documented by the 1976 bylaws states that a primary mission is “to provide a public archive of books produced by artists as artworks, and maintain an exhibition space for sun works; to catalog and preserve examples of artists’ books for future public access.” The exhibitions and programs continue to demonstrate an attention to recording as an essential part of creating a legacy and art place in history for both artists, books, and performance art. “When I first got here,” Spiller told me, “Martha said to me, and said to other people, many times, if you don’t write your own art history, no one will.”

At the end of 2014, Franklin Furnace became an “organization-in-residence” in the ISC Building on the Brooklyn campus of Pratt Institute. “Another thing we’re doing is digitizing Franklin Furnace’s archives—all the slides, press releases, announcement cards, posters, video and ‘born digital’ documentation of ephemeral practice,” Wilson explained to Jarrett Earnest in a 2014 interview for the Brooklyn Rail. “Through collaboration with Pratt’s School of Library and Information Science we will be able to cook up ambitious projects to document and preserve ephemeral art practice for the long term.” The project, long in the making, is finally nearing completion. “When I became director Michael [Katchen] was still here,” Spiller explained to me. “And both Michael and Martha impressed upon me with no uncertainty that this is the number one project, and this is what I focused on. My main focus was to get this project started and done.” Through generous funding from the Pine Tree Foundation of New York and the Furnace’s own board, digitizing all the artist, exhibition, and event files—including files now in the collection of MoMA, which have been borrowed back to digitize—is nearly finished. “The intent is to launch this for free on the internet for public use forever,” Spiller said. Once launched, this database will be an invaluable tool for researchers interested in artists’ books, performance art, and the downtown New York arts scene of the seventies and eighties. “You can trace William Pope.L to our history with him from when he was William Pope, to just Pope.L,” Spiller added excitedly, as just one example of the database’s research potential.

Pratt graduate students, who work as interns at the Furnace, are helping to accomplish this massive project. “It’s hard to meet someone who wasn’t an intern at Franklin Furnace,” said archives assistant Nicole Rosengurt. “I go to a book fair and say I intern at Franklin Furnace and people tell me, I interned there in the nineties!” In addition to their dedication to digitization, the interns have continued the legacy of historical exhibitions, including a recent exhibition celebrating Franklin Furnace’s forty-sixth anniversary, curated by Rosengurt and Fang-Yu Liu, Assistant Archivist. “We decided to choose one book from each year,” Liu explained, “kind of like a snapshot of the collection.” The exhibition was physically installed but also included documentation of all the works online as part of the LOFT, a digital exhibition and virtual events space started in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The show included work by established book artists, like Apple, Agnes Denes, Stephanie Brody Lederman, Erica Van Horn, and Lawrence Weiner, in addition to more recent works by emerging book artists such as Madeleine Aguilar. “We just had an artist/publisher visit us from Sweden, Sandra Praun of Praun & Guermouche, whose book we featured in the show, and she was thrilled,” Rosengurt noted. “She said, I can’t believe my work was in the same exhibition as Lawrence Weiner. It’s so fantastic to have these connections.” These moments of connection, across the years and disciplines, are partly due to Franklin Furnace’s commitment to legacy building, to the archive, and to the avant-garde spirit of its birth.

“Part scholar, part Quaker, part radical, her idiosyncratic vision produced a paradox: a cross between the museum archive, the avantgarde kunsthalle, and the cabaret—all housed in a storefront and a basement,” Apple once wrote of Wilson in TDR. “It is this paradoxical combination that defines the uniqueness of the Furnace.” The sentiment remains today. Liu joined Franklin Furnace after hearing Wilson give a lecture and remembers thinking, “Oh, wow, they are doing performance art and artists’ book collecting—I am interested in both of the topics. I spoke to Martha after the lecture and asked if they had an intern opening.”

Today, Franklin Furnace continues to support art that pushes boundaries in both books and performance. In 2023, it initiated the XENO Prize, celebrating “xenophiles,” people who love and appreciate different cultures and people. The prize specifically addresses censorship by supporting projects that might otherwise be banned or underfunded—events that have impacted Franklin Furnace’s own program over the years. In the performance category, the first recipient, Atlanta-based Alex Mari, proposed a “social endurance performance within installation that examines the intergenerational resilience of womxn of color” titled Rapture-trap, scheduled to take place in New York in 2024. It will examine resilience and endurance as means for “breaking epigenetic generational curses” and exploring larger issues around health. Nick Thornburg was awarded the artists’ books prize for his book proposal Forbidden Resonance, which will look at the experience of learning, knowledge production, and myth-building for people who are autistic, like himself. Living and working in Wyoming, Thornburg’s work considers the isolation felt by many people with autism. The award promises to publish his book in an edition of at least 120, continuing a commitment to provide resources for democratic publishing.

“The reason I was so happy when I jumped to Franklin Furnace,” Spiller added, “is because it retains the same zeitgeist that was there in 1976 when Martha started it. Art is not supposed to be institutional and stiff; it’s supposed to be enjoyable.” Both Rosengurt and Liu echo a sentiment of fun, experimentation, and surprise in their roles digitizing the records and exploring the collection. “I’m having fun because I get to touch it and look at it,” Rosengurt chimed in. As it has done for nearly half a century now, Franklin Furnace continues to make the archive enjoyable, with the same commitment to legacy and access.