Art In Conversation
CATHERINE GUND with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve
“At the beginning, our goal was to unite artists and advocates, but Ive come to the clear conviction that artists and activists are the same.”
(Aubin Pictures, 2020)
At the time, I had no idea of Cat’s background and did not make the connection with her storied family history until years later. I had a dim memory of her mother picking us up at the airport one night in the late ’80s when we arrived from California around 10 p.m. As we walked off the elevator into an epic art filled space, we were greeted with portraits of Cat and her siblings as children photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. Even then (for I was really not “in” the art world at that point) I just took it in stride as I followed Cat through her time at the Whitney ISP, as an AIDS and ACT-UP activist, founder of Aubin Pictures, tireless anti-racist social justice filmmaker, and mother of four children. Her position as Agnes Gund’s daughter came late to me and I like this fact as it tells you everything you need to know. In other words, like her mother, what is important is not who she is as the child of Aggie, born into a Midwestern family of wealth, white privilege, and old money, but how both she and her mother use that wealth and privilege to make concrete inroads towards social justice. But even here, as you will see, the point is not them but their actions—whether for AIDS, LGBTQI rights, the legacy of white supremacy, violence against Black bodies, the current epidemic of mass incarceration, and systemic inequality in jobs, health care and COVID-19. Listen and watch and participate as Cat discusses how and why she became the person who made a film about a woman who sold a painting to set up a fund whose mission is to reform our criminal justice system.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (Rail): Let’s start with how and why you were in Santa Cruz in the mid to late ’80s—were you even 20?
Catherine Gund: Ha! I had just turned 20, which blows my mind. That was a long time ago. It was my junior year in college. You all seemed so much older—and of course wiser!—than me.
Rail: I don’t know if you are aware of this, but in the documentary about Donna Haraway,
Storytelling for Earthly Survival, (2016) you show up in a still from Donna Haraway Reads “the National Geographic” on Primates—the video you and Nathalie made for Paper Tiger Television in 1987. In the image Donna kneels in her pith helmet and you are behind her in leopard underwear holding a sign that reads “Human.”
Gund: There we were talking about the permeable line between nature and culture, and someone said something about needing someone to hold signs. I made a joke about having on underwear with a leopard pattern, so they told me to take off my pants and hold the sign. I aim to please. So that's why I’m in what’s become an everlasting tableau. Paper Tiger Television was my indoctrination into the world of film and video making. I never thought I'd make movies because I hated television. I was a painter and photographer. And I started working with Paper Tiger because of the politics and the activism behind it; not only was it a collective, but it was really about unschooling, and both learning and teaching about how the media constructs its audience. I probably worked on about 30 shows. DeeDee Halleck, who started it, had also been working with our beloved Nathalie Magnan and other people at the UC San Diego where DeeDee was teaching. The brilliant Donna Haraway was teaching at Santa Cruz, so we made a Paper Tiger video of her reading the National Geographic. It was all very DIY—we painted a fantastic backdrop, which I still have somewhere, with animals in dioramas, as if you were inside the Natural History Museum.
Rail: Such are the pleasures of youth when one has no idea one is making history. Speaking of which, this was the time of the AIDS crisis. Donna had just lost her lover/husband/companion/soulmate Jay and his lover to AIDS. It was such a dark and painful time. Talk about how you got involved in AIDS activism.
Gund: That’s a powerful connection to Donna, AIDS, art, theory. Everything comes together in our little lives. I came out as queer in the mid-’80s just as AIDS was appearing. Nobody knew anything about AIDS at the beginning, so we were just scared and, of course, angry. During the current pandemic, folks are turning to Todd Haynes’ film Safe (1995) as analog representation of current terrors, but it was made about AIDS. AIDS was originally called “Gay Cancer.” I’ve always been close with my mother who lived in New York City. She has always been friends with many artists, and she was suffering her own terrible losses. We lost a full generation of visionaries. I remember very clearly when Aggie called to tell me that her friend Robert Mapplethorpe had died. No one knew how to control this sickness and death, and there was stigma, hatred, negligence, and ignorance on top of it. No one’s medical school graduation was fast tracked so they could join the fight against the scourge. People didn’t lean out their windows at 7 p.m. to clap and cheer on the healthcare workers. Those who took care of my friends were shunned by their own colleagues and employers. Right before I graduated and moved to NYC, my mom said, “There's this group that I've been giving money to called ACT UP that I think you're going to want to get involved with.”
Rail: It was through your mother that you learned about ACT UP?
Gund: Yes, surprisingly for most but not for me. She knows who I am. We share values but employ different strategies to defend them. But also after finishing Brown, I was in NYC’s Whitney Independent Study Program and on the first day there I met this beautiful man, Ray Navarro. It was a Monday, and I said, “I'm going over to an ACT UP meeting to check it out.” He was from Southern California and he said, “I wanna check that out too.” And we went religiously on Monday nights until he died two and a half years later. He was my mind-meld, soul-feeding, let's make shit happen, thought and dance partner. I miss him all the time. He had such a fierce, brilliant lover, artist, and hilarious inspiration. We used to sit right next to each other and word-smith articles, with our shared byline, for the sadly defunct Independent Film and Video Monthly. We made videos together and co-founded a collective called DIVA TV—Damned Interfering Video Activist Television. We made our own press passes. On the back of the tags, we printed out the instructions for how to make your own. We needed to get around during demonstrations in order to provide counter surveillance for activists who were risking arrest, doing civil disobedience. But we were also well aware that we were creating the newsreel we’d need down the line to help us understand what had happened. In fact, many films have used our footage, including United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012), Koch (2012), We Were Here (2011), and How to Survive a Plague (2012). I had two requests for archival footage just last week, both for projects about Anthony Fauci because, of course, he was the same scientific, grounded, brilliant contributor during that crisis that he is now. So, although these are two different crises, it's the very same government, same neglect and coincidentally the same scientists.
Rail: When did you found Aubin Pictures?
Gund: It was in 1996, which coincided with the birth of my first child. My then-partner didn't want to name the baby Aubin, so I thought, “Well, since I’m creating a nonprofit now, to create a way to continue this work—while I'm going to be taking care of kids for the next 25 years—I'll name the company Aubin Pictures.”
Rail: I watched Chavela (2017) recently—like Aggie (2020) it’s more than a portrait of an individual. She died in 2012; had you planned to make the film for a while?
Gund: No, actually, after Ray Navarro died, I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico. As I said, he was my closest friend and collaborator. The inimitable and clairvoyant Vito Russo who had the most radiant smile and a contagiously insistent mind, had died the week before. Then Ray’s partner Tony died soon after Ray, down the hall in the same hospital. It was just such a horrible time. And I went down to Mexico, carrying my video camera in my backpack as always. My friends in Cuernavaca saw my deep sadness and took me to hear this raspy voiced, persistent, feisty butch singer who knew a lot about love and loss named Chavela. I filmed the show in this tiny bar and they insisted that we should interview her. “Oh, we have to get her on film. She's an ancestor. She's a living memorial to the lesbians,” even though, I found out later, that was not a term she would use. So, we went to film with her.
Rail: Did you have a plan, not that you’d need one. I can imagine … well, I can’t talk about what it was like, what were you feeling when you met her?
Gund: Chavela was a totally badass diva ranchera singer from Mexico City. She was actually born in Costa Rica, but she was lovers with Frida Kahlo. When I say she was lovers with Frida Kahlo, everybody perks right up because who wouldn’t want to be lovers with Frida Kahlo.
Rail: Although you and your mother are associated with New York, the city that informs you and your family is Cleveland.
Gund: Yes, I am from Cleveland. I went to the public elementary school there. I've remained close to the city, not least because my grandfather was a banker and made a huge amount of money in Cleveland, which obviously led to my familial wealth, but also he created a foundation there called the George Gund Foundation, which is involved with organizers, nonprofit leadership, and policy change around the environment, education, the arts, democracy, and thriving neighborhoods and families. I recently became the first third-generation and first woman Chair of the Board. Which is all to say that I've spent a lot of time in Cleveland both around the foundation but also with friends and colleagues. And I love the place. For the future of our democracy—if there is one—we can’t abandon everyplace between LA and New York. The Midwest is a thriving, beautiful place with kind, well-meaning, hard working people. And that's not to romanticize, it's actually to say the truth: that it's very different. People who know the Midwest, see my mother and they're like, “She's so Midwest.” She smiles a lot; sometimes she still wears those big bows on her blouses.
Rail: I love that. Dispatches from Cleveland, which you made in 2017, follows the aftermath of the Tamir Rice murder in 2014. How did your family’s history there inform the making of the film?
Gund: I was interested in trying to figure out how to show organizing on film after the police murder of Tamir Rice. I was working with the Ohio Student Association, because there'd been a young man, John Crawford, murdered in a Target when he picked up a BB gun off their shelf. He was on the phone talking to his girlfriend, buying ingredients for s’mores. I was filming and organizing around this incident.
Rail: You were already there making a film about the police shooting of John Crawford when Tamir Rice was shot? That is so important to know.
Gund: Yes, and I was trying to figure out, how are we going to show people what organizing looks like in a way that will inspire them to participate, to become active members of their own communities? And at that moment, the police shot Tamir Rice—a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in the playground behind his home. They pulled up on this child, opened their car door, and shot him in less than one second.
Rail: In the film it says the police shot him in under one second—something like .795 seconds. If one Google’s “Tamir Rice shooting,” the answer is two seconds. The footage shows the police shot before the car even came to a stop.
Gund: It was a heinous crime. And the only reason they got caught was because there was a surveillance camera over the parking lot of the playground which showed what a lie it was when they said, “We asked him three times to raise his arms and he didn't.” You know, all the bullshit lies when they're not on film.
Rail: But the film is not just about violence and tragedy, it’s about organizing, as you say. Talk about how you worked with the community. How did you meet Samaria Rice? What was her involvement?
Gund: We made this movie to put this horror in context so that when people talk about systemic change, they can see what has led to a moment like that, where Cleveland was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis. There was a lot of trans and queer leadership in the movement. And there were formerly incarcerated leaders involved in the movement. And so, we talk about all of those things, while at the same time featuring Tamir's mother, Samaria, who shares her experience, what she'd just been through.
Rail: You are an activist filmmaker. All of your work is political. You use the medium as a producer and a director as a tool. Your work is about collaboration with communities and how people take action, either just by personal choices as in Chavela—her wearing pants!—to the organizing around voting the Cleveland Attorney General out of office after his treatment of the shooting, to even your film and book project we haven’t mentioned, What’s on Your Plate? made in 2009. All are strategic about action, choice, and making social change—my question is, what about Born to Fly (2014), your film about Elizabeth Streb?
Gund: When I started that project, I was also confused about how it would have any impact in the world. So, I had coffee with one of my longtime supporters from a small foundation that supports women filmmakers, and I said, “I’m am not sure how I'm going to fundraise for this film, what the place of this film will be among my other projects, because it's not as explicitly political as my other work.” And she said, “Women having power is not political!? I think this is your most political piece yet.” And they gave me the first grant to get it done. Streb’s physical artwork, embedding her dancers in the skyline, brings people to tears. It’s funny, because her work also makes other people question their place, their purpose, and it motivates them, just like it motivated me.
Rail: Before we move on to discuss Aggie, I want people to know that Aubin Pictures also produces a lot of films. The company is, after all, called Aubin Pictures, with the tagline “Illuminating Change.” For instance, while Laverne Cox was the executive producer of Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020) directed by Amy Scholder and Sam Feder, you were a co-producer.
Gund: Yes, and it’s now on Netflix and everyone should watch it. If anybody ever saw Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (1995), about the historical representation of gay and lesbian people in film, Disclosure is vital viewing about how trans and gender non-conforming people have been represented on film and in the media over the years.
Rail: What films are you producing at the moment?
Gund: Aubin Pictures is currently fiscally sponsoring Birthing of a Nation (2021), a feature documentary that follows the lives and work of today’s African American birth workers and activists as a reflection on the American maternal health care crisis. Also, we’re supporting a podcast by my friend, the award-winning journalist Farai Chideya called Our Body Politic. And we were the fiscal home for SURGE (2017–present), a feature documentary now on Showtime about the extraordinary moment when a record number of first-time female candidates ran for office in 2018.
Rail: So much great work. Aubin Pictures is such a force! Let’s turn to Aggie, the film that occasions our conversation. For time’s sake, I want to get to the core of why I wanted to do a feature conversation with you because Aggie is not just about you as the daughter of Agnes Gund. Nor is it a biopic about her.
Gund: Right. The film is not a chronology; it's a question for all of us, how did we become who we are, despite having siblings who are of the same race and were raised in the same household and had the same parents. There's a lot of people who might match given identity markers, but who act in very different ways. What made Aggie the person who thinks differently, who acts on her deep feelings of empathy and guilt, instead of wallowing or ignoring those feelings? Aggie doesn't look at art as transactional, she doesn’t see it as an investment—something to be monetized. She told me she collects contemporary art because then she can know the artists. “Why would I have a piece of art that was made by someone I can't know?” The most important thing to her is to have a relationship. She's given over 900 pieces of art to MoMA, and to other small museums, and she does this to make it more accessible, because it’s essential that people are able to interact with artwork.
Rail: At one point in the film, you show a vintage photo of your mother with the MoMA trustees and it's all white men. You point to it and say something to the effect of, “This was her world. So how did she become a person who would sell Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece (1962) for 165 million dollars and use the money to set up the Art for Justice Fund.”
Gund: That's totally true—I made the film to talk about what Art For Justice is and how she came to understand the need for such a thing, and where she got the audacity to see it through.
Rail: In case people are unfamiliar with Art for Justice, what is it?
Gund: The Art for Justice Fund works to end mass incarceration by funding artists and advocates working together to reimagine our criminal justice system. The Fund disrupts the very processes and policies that lead to criminalization in the first place.
The story behind the fund is that Aggie went to the opening night of the New York Film Festival, and saw Ava DuVernay's 13th (2016) and she couldn't sleep that night. 13th is about the legacy of slavery as it is manifested in mass incarceration. The next day she called her friend Darren Walker, Director of The Ford Foundation, and said, “I have to do something.” And she sold the painting and used the proceeds to create Art for Justice.
I think about the role of intention, and how she said, “I'm going to sell a painting so that I can invest in imagination to end mass incarceration.” And that's what she did. It's a five-year spend down which means that in five years—we’re entering year four—all the money will be in the field so that the movement’s artists and activist leaders can decide how to deploy the necessary resources.
At the beginning, our goal was to unite artists and advocates, but I’ve come to the clear conviction that artists and activists are the same.
Rail: Afterall you are both.
Gund: True, and it came together so clearly when I asked Ava DuVernay what the relationship is between art and justice and she answered, “They're the same thing. They're both about imagining something that's not there and believing it can be and then working to make it happen.” And that's what Aggie did when she sold Masterpiece and it’s what the grantee partners and fellows and aligned donors in the beloved community of Art for Justice are doing. Mahogany Brown, who's going to perform some of her poetry after our conversation, is an Art for Justice fellow and it's exactly her power that we're hoping to amplify around the country to change the narrative, to not just change one policy or two laws, but to change the whole story.
Rail: Would you clarify what you mean? Give some examples?
Gund: So, the uprising for freedom since the police murder of George Floyd has advanced a reckoning about race. That includes details like changing the names of sports teams, removing statues that honor Confederate soldiers, some of them KKK members. Black Lives Matter has changed the narrative, culturally, legally, in the corporate world and the government, in our communities and schools. We want the legacies of slavery that are manifested in anti-Black racism, violence, and mass incarceration to become unthinkable.
Rail: What was the greatest challenge making the film? Wasn’t it Aggie herself?
Gund: Totally, because she’s notoriously camera shy and doesn't like to be the center of attention or to talk about herself. I started recording interviews with her because there is so little archival footage of her and I am obsessed with archives. So I began by filming a conversation between the two of us but it didn’t work—we were both awkward and bored—so that’s when I decided to film her in conversation with my children, and that led to more. And it was then I decided to make a movie, and we ultimately filmed conversations with over 30 people—although only about half of them appear in the movie—among them Julie Mehretu, John Waters, Glenn Ligon, Teresita Fernández, Abby Disney, Thelma Golden, and Darren Walker. And they each came up with their own questions.
Rail: What were your children, her grandchildren’s questions?
Gund: Tenzin, who also sings the theme song, asks her if she believes in angels and she answers, “I believe in putti.” Rio asks what influenced her to start collecting art and what influenced her to start Art for Justice. And how her family influenced her and how her children and grandchildren influence her. But the truth is, a lot of people try to get her to say—you had this queer radical daughter, and you have African American grandchildren and la la la, you know, how did that influence you? And there was one day when Rio turned to me and he said, “Don't people understand that she made us?”
Rail: And you learned about ACT UP from her!
Gund: Yeah, of course she's growing and changing, but we are who we are because of her.
Rail: Afterall, she set up Studio in a School in 1977!
Gund: Rio's twin brother Kofi said a beautiful thing about Studio in a School once because that program is so much more than just some distraction or crafts once a week. It's really about teaching the kids critical thinking and giving them space to realize that their voices matter, that they have agency to understand their situations and that they can solve problems.
Rail: That amazing moment in the film when the alumni—what’s his name?—talks about what he got from Studio in A School?
Gund: Giancarlo—he had been a student in Studio, and he said, you know, art class was the only place in school anyone ever asked me what I thought? Because otherwise you're just being asked for the answer. Studio in a School is not flimsy, it's got a structure, they have a whole pattern of how the children are presented with information and images and language. And they work with the materials. And then they hold their work up. And everyone talks more about it using a common language they've developed. And they’re asked what they think about these things, why they made these things this way. Why their pieces look the way they do, it's really magical. To me, it's a straight line from Studio in a School to Art for Justice. It's about treating people with dignity, but letting them speak and letting their voices be heard.
So, after Kofi saw the movie for the first time, he said, “You know, if we had had Studio in a School in every school in this country, starting in 1977, we wouldn't have needed Art for Justice.” And I think that's really true.
Rail: One of the best New Social Environments I’ve attended was with Nicole Fleetwood, the curator for Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, currently up at MoMA PS1. Art for Justice was a major supporter of the exhibition.
Gund: It’s an incredible show, all the more powerful for the intimacy of seeing it during quarantine. Several of the included artists are also Art for Justice fellows. The work is transformative, healing, game-changing. To date, the Art for Justice Fund has awarded 141 grants across 120 grantees totaling more than $73 million. You can learn more about the artists and activists community by visiting the Art for Justice site.
Rail: We have to end, but we have to mention your project—the game—
Gund: It's called Words of Art and it's an extension of Aggie. It's a card game that my kids and I made for her about a decade ago. It uses 150 images from her collection. It's designed by Pentagram and was bought by Penguin Random House. It's available now for pre-order—coming out in April 2021. You don't have to know anything about our titles or genres, or medium or years or anything. It's about looking, and it's about saying what you see and feel instead of what you're supposed to know. So, it’s fairly consistent with everything else I've ever made.
Rail: This conversation and Aggie’s and your life work certainly are testaments to what Aggie says in the film, “Art moves us to act.” 1
- We ended the discussion with a short video Cat made featuring the Aggie theme song, written and performed by Samora Pinderhughes and sung by Cat’s youngest son Tenzin. You can access it here: https://aggiefilm.com/extras/