INTERVIEW WITH PERFORMANCE ARTIST: RACHEL MARTIN HINSHAW
by: Jane Cain
I have been thinking of how to describe Rachel Martin Hinshaw, for some time. A few words that come to mind: Presence, energy, love, laughter, honesty, strength.
Rachel is the "mother superior" of "Hard Women," a performance group comprised of her and Suze Kemper. The first time I saw her perform she was lying in a grave. Sort of. She was an angel with huge wings. It was the Easter performance of the "Minimum Wage Art Series," and people were encouraged to write on her body with markers. It was performance art with audience participation. The event started as soon as you entered the door, or as soon as you decided to go. Rachel recently performed in Annie Sprinkle's 'Post-Post Porn Modernist' show.
I think Rachel is a Goddess living among mortals, but she will tell you otherwise. A Goddess in training? The muses have told me that Goddesses are born, not trained.
JANE: Tell me what do you think about censorship?
RACHEL: It sucks!!! (laughs) I think lot of things about it. I think that, um...I don't know, I don't feel comfortable telling anybody what they can or can't do. And to me, it's like, really fascist that the government or anybody else thinks that they have the right to tell anybody what they put in their bodies anyway, in their ears...Their blood-stream and their genital areas. I just don't think that anybody has the right to tell anybody what they can or cannot do.
J: Being a parent, what do you think of these little Parental Guidance stickers?
R: I ignore them totally. I have a 14 year old son who basically just scopes out what he wants to buy, tells me, and I go in and buy the stuff for him. I think it's a really bad idea. And I don't know, just from having a teenage kid I think that some...He really loves Rap, that's his favorite musical form, almost everything he buys has got a sticker on it. So this isn't even an issue with him, but I think that some of his friends - they don't even care about the musical form itself, and that's a really bad state of affairs. (laughs) It's like an anti-merchandising ploy that works!
J: Do you think it's the parent's responsibility or the government's?
R: Obviously the parent's responsibility.
J: ...to raise their kids?
R: Yeah! I mean it's like you should always be taught, and it's not just, you know...
J: And it seems it's getting worse too, because they recently had the rap hearings in Congress. That's just ridiculous!
R: Yes, Yes, Yes! I think it is. Parents should be talking all the time to their kids about everything! Not just what they see in music or art or movies or Nintendo or whatever. It just seems natural to me that you would be talking all the time about everything.
J: That's how it was with my mother, but not my Dad so much. We would talk, if I had a question about anything she would answer.
R: Yeah, Yeah, I think you have to start really young, so there's never any sort of weirdness; you know, like my kids would ask me anything.
J: Well, they're your friend. That's the thing that I think about.
J: But there are so many people that don't think of their parents as their friends.
R: Yeah, I noticed just like from; there are some of my kid's friends' parents that won't let them stay over at our house and stuff. They just think that we're like too weird. To me it's like really comical. I think to me, it's like "The Addams Family" is kind of how I visualize it. But they're afraid we're going to corrupt their kids or something.
J: Of course "The Addams Family" were always cooler.
R: They were my favorite family when I was growing up. This is what somebody told Natasha at school, "Wow! Your parents are like the Addams Family." She's like "Oh thanks. Cool!" (laughs)
J: Tell me about your background and how you came to performance art?
R: Umm, whenever I was a little-bitty girl I used to watch alot of T.V. and watch Ed Sullivan show...We were, like, really poor and lived in a village, and I really wanted to take ballet and there was absolutely no way that that was going to happen. Number one because nobody taught ballet, right? And so I would dance the toes of my tennis shoes out and put on these shows for the neighborhood kids. It was kind of like "The Little Rascals"; I was like the Nazi director, hanging up shower curtains and putting on these big extravaganzas. That was the beginning of it, then we moved to a bigger city where I could actually take dance lessons. I really thought what I wanted to be was a dancer, but then the dogma...I studied ballet really, really seriously until I was a late teenager, but the dogma of it; like your rights can be completely wrong, and I had this really rigid Russian ballet master that would hit you with a stick if you were wrong. And that was good, but it sort of solidified my thoughts on being told what to do by anybody. Ballet was the ultimate test of that, because it's like so rigid. It just came crashing down on me one afternoon; my mother was working three jobs so I could go to ballet class everyday, and I really wanted to be a professional dancer, but it was like...I was moving my wrists a certain way and the teacher, she was yelling, "No, no, no! That's wrong! The second position has to be like this!" And I was like, "Fuck this then!! Fuck it all!! I've had it, I'm leaving!"
J: So you didn't think of going to a different teacher!?
R: (adamantly) No! I just threw the whole thing over. But it was like a really good discipline and training. So then...and also, I never liked to go see anything--well, no--I loved to go see like theatre, plays, dance, music, anything; but then I would always think that I wanted to be performing, too. It always really bothered me that there was such a rigid distinction between, like, the Gods on stage and the audience. And so, like all of these thoughts are, like, festering, festering, festering in my mind, so I started doing community theatre. I always liked to do theatre-in-the-round and things where you entered right through the audience, and harass them in some way. So it was all like a natural ball of wax, like not being like told what to do, not liking the Gods to be on the stage. And basically...Okay, so I was doing ballet and theatre from the late 60's into the middle 70's and I never did direct or anything like that; I was just a performer. And I would have these ideas about how to break it all down, and that was always met with great disdainment! (laughs) So I kind of just let that go, I just decided that I didn't really need to perform, and I just turned to doing my own art work and writing. Then I did alot of costume and set and lighting design for other people's productions, because again it was just the ego driven thing of performing, like, really bothered me. I wanted to be involved, but not be a big Prima Donna about it.
So, I basically just did things by myself until I went back to art school. And performance art is a form, like, nobody had identified it, codified it, nobody knew what it was. Whenever I went back to art school in 1986, it was like the first time people were banding the words performance art around. It was, like, "WOW!" Like living in Austin, Texas nobody was doing performance art. It was like, "this is so perfect." This is like all my goals of not having the performers up on stage as Gods, breaking down barriers of the audience, not having anybody tell me what to do, having it really live, improvisational; and being able to play with any issue that you wanted to talk about with your audience. And also it being a highly visual form.
J: I didn't know much about it for a while there.
R: Alot of people don't.
J: Most people associate, if they associate anything with it, they think of Laurie Anderson. To me that's not exactly what I would think about it now.
R: No. She was actually the first performance artist I ever saw live. I think of her primarily as a musician and I really like what she does. Yeah, but I it's like one person's performance art may be radically different from another's, but it all basically is the same. It has certain things in common, but...I don't know-it was like it was a revelation. It was like "wow!" This is like, "God why didn't I think about this!?!" But then I could look back and see that I'd been staging happenings and stuff basically all my life, so it was just like "wow!" Whenever I was going to art school, I was one of the few people who was doing performance art and--but I didn't feel inexperienced. I kind of felt like I'd been basically doing it all my life without having a name for it.
J: I used to get people together, and we'd be in the street doing stuff.
R: Exactly! Yeah, I mean it's like when I first started to build my first professional resumes in performance art, it was like, "God! I think this starts way back when I was a child doing these things." My mother was like really happy that I found a thing to call it and get funded. (laughs) You know, Matt Groenig, the guy who does 'The Simpsons,' calls performance art "mental illness on ice." It's my favorite quote. I think my mother was so relieved, 'cause I think she basically had to know it was "mental illness on ice." She was, like, so happy that I could even get a college degree in it.
J: So now you're not weird anymore --
R: Oh, no! Now she's really proud of me, and she'll tell people what I do, before she was like... And she also, she said that everybody -- if she tells people that I'm a performance artist, they think it's a euphemism for being a stripper, basically.
R: That's another interesting edge, I like to perform that way too. It's like, where is the edge between performance art and um...being an exotic dancer or stripper?! (Due to the tape recorder recording the wind there's a skip in thoughts, so...)
J: Guess it's different from theatre as long as you're not talking.
R: Yeah, I don't like to talk too much. I have a neighbor who was...This woman who lives down the street from me, she's probably in her early sixties. She's really interesting. She's a junkie and prostitute and a stripper, and one time-it was like all, we were doing "Jumpstarter" or something, and I had like my car lighted and we were fixin' to go to San Antonio. And she's like, "where are you going?" I was like, "we're going to go do performance art in San Antonio." She's like, "performance art?!" So I had to give her the thirty second version really quick. And she's like, 'wow!" And I was going, "you know, in a way you're really a performance artist, too." Then she's like, "wow!" So I had to get in the car, but then when I saw her like a week later at the convenience store, she was like, "I've been thinking about what you said and I want to talk about this more." So, she's, like, retired now, but we talked and I told her "Definitely! you're a performance artist!" But I think it gave her an ego boost. She's like, "wow!"; because she was saying, "When I was doing titty dancing I was doing it for myself, because I would get--" Because being a junkie she'd...She said, "I'd start feeling this weird thing in my head and be like trancing out." And I was like, "That's it! It's art! If you had that feeling." It's like you have to be pretty good to get your brain into that enlightened state, but in your case definitely performance art as opposed to just plain old titty dancing.
J: You mentioned the separation between the audience and performers, but I've been to some of your performances and you come right out through the audience.
R: Yeah, it's like, throw yourself on stage or we'll throw ourselves right on top of you. But I think that's part of it, just the really early punk stuff. It was just like a universe opening for me as a performance experience, like seeing performers throw themselves into the audience. It was like, "Yes! Yes! Yes! I've been waiting for this!" They went around drinking the audience's beer. I think that's really great! "Can I have a swig!?" It was a good performance when the band was like drinking the audience's beer.
J: They don't like that much anymore.
R: I always liked that pit, people were down there churning around and banging into each other. That's the place to be!
J: I read something about Courtney Love, the singer for Hole; she said she jumped into the audience--
R: They didn't catch her. (laughs) That's my nightmare.
J: No, they caught her, but they ripped her clothes off and were sticking their fingers..., and she said, "I felt like I was raped by the audience."
R: Wow. Yeah. That could happen. I've always thought that would be the funniest thing, because you--to perform this way, you have to absolutely trust your audience; and what if they were not there for you. It'd be like "fuck!"
J: I saw somebody and that happened to them. They got like--"Bam!", but they got up.
R: Oh, man, that's gotta be the worst performing nightmare.
J: So when and why did you start "Hard Women"?
R: I started "Hard Women, in January after I got out of art school in May. Umm, I'd been part of a big national project in September right after I got out of art school in May. Basically I got performers, --because it was a large scale performance, just through open auditions and I felt like it took a good--we had six weeks to rehearse the piece before it was performed. I felt that it took 3-1/2 to 4 weeks to educate the people so they could perform with me about what we were doing and not doing, just because unfortunately alot of them were dancers, because it had this huge scaffolding that was forty feet up. Then it had dancers like a wedding cake, like on three different layers and all this stuff. It's like dancers--they really weren't doing choreography or anything. But whenever I was doing auditions the best people to cast were dancers, 'cause they weren't afraid of heights and could move and stuff. But then they were, like, wanting to do choreography, which was--we had to keep unlearning them all the time. The piece turned out beautifully. It was really gorgeous and I was happy with it, but then I was thinking--"man, I don't wanna ever have to work with people I have to educate...again." So...well, I'll tell you also how "Hard Women" got named.
J: Yeah, I was gonna ask that.
R: I had a lot of print making in art school. Lithography was what I really loved best. And because you've got these huge limestones that you have to move with a forklift--it's like building a house. It's like construction work, you like sweat, you have to crank the press yourself. It's, like, physically, really exhausting. So you get tremendous upper-body strength and muscles from doing it. And whenever I was in litho at U.T. (University of Texas), umm...there were only two guys who did litho. And the teachers were male everybody else that was really good were women. And there was a visiting artist in printmaking, so, Bob Anderson stuck his head in the door and saw that we were working in there, so he said to the visiting artist, "Don't go in there now. They're all Hard Women."
J: Bob said that!?! (laughs)
R: Yes! So, Bob Anderson actually named us. But it's sort of like calling somebody a whore, and they're, like, "I'm a whore!?!" You know, so many times he would say, "Rachel, you're a hard woman." Because I would never back down on things.
J: (still laughing)
R: So, he inadvertently named us. But it was kind of like, you know, people call you something and you're, like, "Well., ok! I'll just see how hard I can be..." So basically, in looking for a group of performers I was thinking, "Well, these are the women I spend alot of time--
J: Smoking with! (laughs)
R: Smoking on a couch with and cranking presses with.
J: (still laughing)
R: So I know they're not wimpy women. They're all visual artist, and um...none of them were into performance art at all.
(NOTE TO READERS: The 2nd part of the interview will be in the #18 issue (Oct./Nov.). Rachel talks about: The abortion issue, Annie Sprinkle and her 'Post-Post Porn Modernist' show, and much, much more.)