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Getting the Band Back Together: Martha Wilson’s Punk Group Is Still Gigging After All These Years

Martha Wilson and Ilona Granet, performing as Disband at the ICI benefit.PHOTO BY YUKO TORIHARA

Martha Wilson and Ilona Granet, performing as Disband at the ICI benefit, November 18, 2015.

YUKO TORIHARA

The artist Martha Wilson answered the door to her apartment wearing a gray suit and tie, with a matching fedora that covered her curious hair, half of which is dyed a reddish orange. Ilona Granet, one of Wilson’s collaborators, stood behind her, wearing blue dress slacks and a shirt with a knitted tie. She had on a sailor’s cap. Wilson’s tie belonged to Granet’s father. Running in circles around both of them was Granet’s excitable dog, wearing a green sweater.

Wilson is a collector of all sorts of ephemera. She founded Franklin Furnace in 1976 as a kind of living archive of the avant-garde. (The Museum of Modern Art eventually acquired the organization’s collection of some 13,500 artists books.) There was an unsurprising and welcoming clutter in the apartment that reminded me of my uncle’s house on Thanksgiving. There were art and trinkets everywhere, all of which seemed to project a sentimental feeling, including some work by Granet—a poster that said “No Catcalls,” hung in the bathroom.

I was meeting with them to discuss Disband, a group Wilson put together in 1978 with several artists and writers, which broke up in 1982 and reunited 30 or so years later. They play occasional shows, mostly at art venues. Their first reunion show, minus a few members—the writer and editor Ingrid Sischy had said, “No, I will never get my fat ass up in front of an audience again,” Wilson recalled—was at MoMA PS1 in 2008 for the opening of the exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution.” The day after I met with Granet and Wilson, they were going to perform at the benefit gala for the organization Independent Curators International. We were talking about downtown Manhattan in the late ‘70s.

“Everybody was in three bands, right?” Wilson said.

“This was my third band,” said Granet.

“Everyone was in bands. But they all knew how to play instruments, and I didn’t. So I called up my girlfriends who didn’t know how to play instruments either. And we started an all-girl conceptual art punk band.”

The main members in Disband’s rotating line-up, beyond Granet and Wilson, were Sischy and artists Donna Henes and Diane Torr. Barbara Kruger was a member during the first year, and wrote some of the group’s best material, but, as Wilson put it, “She left and Donna came in.”

“Barbara expressly hated Donna, and that’s why she left,” Granet said, somewhat less politically. “Barbara was an intellectual, and Donna was a shaman, who was making up chants. It was kind of a clash of cultures.”

Wilson had originally wanted to start a band called The Administrators consisting of herself, Alanna Heiss, who founded PS1 in 1971 as the Institute for Art and Urban Resources Inc., and Mary MacArthur, the director of the performance art venue the Kitchen. “All the spaces were being run by women in Lower Manhattan,” Wilson said, “And we were all administrators.” This never panned out, and Wilson put together Disband instead, informally at first. The group spent “a year of practicing and thinking about what we were doing,” Wilson said. (Granet: “I think they were doing a lot of drinking.”) Sischy, who passed away earlier this year, worked at Printed Matter and the next year would become the 27-year-old editor of Artforum. She attended Disband’s rehearsals, sitting on the floor and watching. Wilson said Sischy spent about a year trying to decide whether or not to join. By the time she did, Heiss had asked the group to play at PS1’s “Sound Show,” which was the group’s first high-profile gig.

It more or less goes without saying that their songs did not follow any of the guidelines of pop music, or even the aggressive noise of No Wave, the musical genre that had taken over Lower Manhattan’s galleries and performance spaces during Disband’s short existence. One example is “Sad,” which features all the members acting out that emotion in their own way, without any regard for what anyone else is doing. (Wilson half-sings the word “sad” over and over again in a forlorn voice; Granet goes on a rant about drowning “them”—it’s not totally clear who they are—“like rats.”) Another example is, “Look at My Dick,” which Wilson described as “our hit song that got us kicked out of Italy.”

In 1980, Disband went to Italy as part of a performance art festival (called Per/for/mance) that traveled across the country from Florence to Rome. (One of Disband’s songs is a short opera, the complete lyrics to which are: “If we had our druthers, we’d know how to speak Italian. And we’d live there, too.”) The festival included artists like Chris Burden, Laurie Anderson, and Julia Heyward. There was also a “guy who did the penis dance,” though Wilson and Granet couldn’t remember his name and didn’t elaborate any further. “Look at My Dick” involves Wilson and Granet, wearing business attire, sharing a garden hose run up their respective pant legs, one end of it jutting out of each of their flies, phallus-like, while the two women discuss the size and nature of this appendage.

“What we didn’t understand is that every single town in Italy has a different word for dick,” Wilson said. “So this town uses the word Rafaelo. And this town uses the word Giovanni. They’re very serious about this, their male prowess.”

By the time they got to Rome, the festival organizers effectively fired the band, telling them that they didn’t have to perform. But then the organizers realized that they had paid the group in advance, and backtracked. And so Granet made signs for everyone that said “sciopero”—“strike” in Italian. They marched around the festival with the signs.

“The Italians are practiced at striking,” Wilson said. “They do this all the time. And they all stood up and started arguing with each other, in Italian, about whether we had the right to strike, whether anybody has the right to strike, what we should do if we go on strike, or you go on strike, or we all go on strike.”

“And they set up microphones!” Granet cut in. “And they’re all waiting in line to speak and ask questions. None of us really speak Italian. We had no idea what they were saying but they seemed extremely serious about this. They were very upset about the penis.”

“We didn’t stay for the end,” Wilson said.

“No we just left.”

“We thought it wasn’t necessary for us to be there anymore. They were having a wonderful time talking to each other about the strike. So we left and went shopping.” Wilson bought shoes with six-inch heels. Later that same day, they performed at a lesbian bar, to much praise among the bar’s patrons.

Not too long after this, the group made its first and only studio recording and then “disbanded,” as Wilson put it. This was 1982. That year, they had booked a show at an art festival in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx called Art Across the Park.

“And when we got there, there were more people in the band than there were in the audience,” Wilson said. “So it was Donna’s idea—she said, ‘Well, let’s disband.’ So we had a picnic in the park and we disbanded.”

At this point, I excused myself to use the bathroom, and when I returned, Granet and Wilson had hooked themselves up with a faux-penis—it was a long plastic tube instead of a garden hose—to rehearse “Look at My Dick.” They grabbed the tubing and pointed it at each other and twirled it around over their heads. Their conversation went like this: “How you doin’, dick?” “I got a dick!” “I got a bigger dick!” “It’s a very nice dick!” “I love my dick.” “It’s a lively dick!” “Does this gentleman have a dick?” (The latter was directed at me, their audience.)

“It sorta goes on like that,” Granet said. Turning to Wilson, she stressed the importance of paying attention to each other and responding to one another’s comments in the routine: “This is like an acting class, where you try to pay attention to what the other person is saying.”

“Do I emulate it?” Wilson asked.

“Yeah, you can. You can emulate it, but you have to have some kind of response to me.”

“Would you be kind enough to time us while we take our clothes off?” Wilson asked me. It was a costume change, and it took one minute and 15 seconds, for the record. They launched into “Sad,” with Wilson stretched out on the floor, announcing the word softly to herself and Granet walking in a circle and stammering, “I just drown them, like rats—how could I drown them? I could never drown them like rats! I could never do that!” The number was cut short by Granet’s dog, clearly concerned about her owner.

“Poor thing! You look so distressed,” Wilson said. Granet explained that the work was influenced by witnessing, many years ago, a woman walking down the street, muttering to herself about wanting to drown her children like rats.

After they’d finished rehearsing, Granet started talking about some of Disband’s contemporaneous reviews. “Someone wrote about us once,” she said, “saying we were like girls playing in the backyard, but we just stayed there. Another review said we were like girls around the campfire, and perhaps we should have stayed around the campfire.”

“What?” Wilson shouted. “We should have stayed in the woods!”

“Another one said we were humanitarians.” Granet pronounced that last word like it was the name of some hated enemy, and then added, “And wasn’t that just boring?”

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