La Femme Savate: An Interview with Nicole Croiset

This month, art of Nicole Croiset and many of her peers is the subject of Art News as it looks forward to a large exhibition at LA's MoCA: Wack! And the Feminist Revolution (March 4-July 16.) This international retrospect will travel to Museum of Women in the Arts in DC (September) and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in NYC (February, '08.) Constance Pappalardo sat down, "virtually" and keyboard at hand, all last month with Ms. Croiset, discussing her art, process and history. This interview touches on many of our own travails.

 Nicole Croiset and her installation Les Femmes Savantes (Erudite Women,) currently exhibited in Sudbury's "La Galerie Du Nouvel Ontario" 
"Century after century, male thinkers kept claiming that women did not take part in the evolution of knowledge." Nicole Croiset Imagine you're a fly on the wall watching Kathe Kollwitz traverse her parallel universes. She walks back and forth from her middle class kitchen-life to a 1930's European man's world of chisels, grinding stones, multi-ton presses and sculpture. Experimental film in the United States during the 60's belonged to young men. Women of that era responded to the lip-service promise of equality only to find a deeply prohibitive milieu. For a woman, it was a world of patronizing and demeaning attitudes. The frustration took the edge off the pure joy of creation privileged by male colleagues. Nicole Croiset belongs to the present generation of women working in the art world and, sometimes, in unconventional media, such as video installation, computer graphic imagery. They compete for a very small number of willing exhibition spaces . If the playing field is a little more level than it was in the 60's and much leveler than it was in the 30's, it is in large part due to the willingness of artists, such as Croiset, to work within a vision which is characterized by their feminist vision. This month, art of Nicole Croiset and many of her peers is the subject of Art News as it looks forward to a large exhibition at LA's MoCA: Wack! And the Feminist Revolution (March 4-July 16.) This international retrospect will travel to Museum of Women in the Arts in DC (September) and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in NYC (February, '08.) We have a few of the images from Wack! at the end of this article. Constance Pappalardo sat down, "virtually" and keyboard at hand, all last month with Ms. Croiset, discussing her art, process and history. This interview touches on many of our own travails. artsramblerNicole Croiset is twice a pioneer in the media arts. First, in the 70's with video art and in the 80' s with 3D computer graphics. Her video art and installations have been exhibited throughout the world as here, in the U.S. In 1976, she worked in collaboration with two other women artists, Nil Yalter and Judy Blum to create an installation called "La Roquette, prison des Femmes". [La Roquette, Prison for Women] This work consisted of video, drawing and photography and was presented as a joint venture between New York's A.I.R. Gallery (a feminist art gallery) and The Kitchen Center (a video art gallery) under a group exhibition called "Combative Acts, profiles and voices" Thirty years later, this ground-breaking piece is now an important piece of art history as well as feminist art history and will be part of an exhibition at L.A's Museum of Contemporary Art, entitled "Wack! art and the feminist revolution". Constance Pappalardo

Con: What makes the piece we will see this Spring at MOCA, "La Roquette" so important? What impact did it have in 1976 and was it the subject matter or the use of such new media/technology that made it a ground-breaking piece?

Nicole Croiset: It's a video that is considered to be a historical milestone. First off for the subject and secondly because it was one of the first artist videos focused on a social subject rather than being an intimate piece.

Con: What was this piece about?

Nicole Croiset: It was very much criticized at the time because we used a medium that was considered to be a males' medium. It's a story taken from the diary of an ex detainee of the women's prison, La Roquette, in Paris. The ex detainee in question, Mimi, worked with us on this piece. It's her voice that you hear in the video. She had decided to publish her diary and when we met, she decided that the video medium was appropriate. Combative Arts was a collaborative exhibition by a group of French women. La Roquette was one of the pieces and it was shown in the Kitchen.

Con: How did you end up showing in NYC from France?

Nicole Croiset: A french art critic, Aline Dallier, was contacted by A.I.R. to organize an exhibit of french feminist art and she in turn contacted me

Con: Was this visit in 1976 your first visit to the U.S.? To New York?

Nicole Croiset: Yes, this was my first visit to the US and thus to NYC as well.

Con: What was your impression of what was happening in New York, art-wise?

Nicole Croiset:: At the time, SOHO was extremely dynamic in the arts scene. It was a great place for artistic experiments. Most particularly in the domain of the use of new media. Nam June Paik, for instance was there. It was a total fermentation of avant garde art and there were few official commercial galleries . It was all about alternative movements.

Con: How is media art different from conceptual art? And is the interactive nature of your work vital to your message? Has most of your work been interactive?

 Autoportrait, Nicole Croiset

Nicole Croiset: Most of my work is not interactive. That is a recent change when I started to use computers. Before that, most of my work was video installations. I did performances as well. Those could be qualified as interactive. In particular, Les Rituels, is a duplex performance where I interacted with another artist, Nil Yalter. It was a full duplex video set up. To return to the original question, media art can be considered to have conceptual art as it's base. Nil and I worked together on several projects and wanted to add a social dimension to our work.

Con: What did the video art look like back then, in the 70's? Was the video art more in the vein of performance art?

Nicole Croiset: For those of us in Europe, we only had access to 1/2" black and white rigs. La Roquette in particular was entirely shot in 1/2" reel to reel black and white then edited in 3/4" There was some performance art and many other types of videos. Some artists shot videos of performances, others created original pieces that were not based on performances.

Con: As a media artist... why do you do what you do? Do you feel that the more traditional art disciplines lack something, are unable to tell the story you want to tell? Is the medium, the technology part of the story?

Nicole Croiset: I was trained in film and video, not traditional media. I never took courses in visual art. I met Nil Yalter who is a painter who chose to work with new media. She inspired me to work in this direction. When I met Nil, I was working in the first instances of cable TV in France I was not interested in doing a mini broadcast TV style. I was looking to do some research on video as a medium, that's when I discovered video artists and realized that that was what I really wanted to do. Nil was one of those artists . I came with my professional video experience (I was a director) and Nil brought her experience as a conceptual artist. Nil was my artistic mentor and we decided to work together.

YalterA frame from La Femme sans tête ou la danse du ventre, Nil Yalter (France, 1974) 20 mn 

Con: I am inspired by your work because in it, I see a perfect marriage between Art and Science (as manifested in Technology). The two forces, Left brain and Right brain working together. Care to comment on this?

Nicole Croiset: I've always been fascinated by technology. When I discovered video, I felt that I was directly implicated in the medium, more so than in film or photography. There was the magic of the immediacy of video that spoke to me. The ability to act in real time was probably the most important for me. At the time, photo was still chemical and there was a total separation between the moment you chose to capture your subject and the moment you could see what you had captured. This was even worse in film. Video changed all that . At the time TV was relegated to official instances. Video (understand, outside of broadcast TV) was a revolution that opened up the medium to everybody. It was accessible to artists.

Con: The upcoming event, "Wack! art and the feminist revolution" is a retrospective , historical journal of feminist art. How important is feminism in your art?

Nicole Croiset: The feminist aspect is important to me, but is a part of a larger social context. We were interested in politics as a whole. At the time a woman who wanted to do film or video had a very hard time getting a job. When you wanted to get a technical job, men would always get the jobs. In part, my action was a reaction to this state of affairs. It was frustrating to see that at equivalent levels of competency, men would always get the jobs. we fought to have women recognized in the film and video industry in France. This is much less of a problem today.

Con: You told me before that in your work you use photography, lights, everything that you can combine, mainly time-based technologies.... What are "timed-based technologies"?

Nicole Croiset: Simply put; time based technologies are media that evolve over time. One more thing on the last question: Even in the artistic fields, a new media piece done by a man is still perceived to have more value than a piece done by a woman.

Con: Presently, at a gallery in Canada you have a new installation called "Les Femmes Savantes" . Can you tell me about it?

Nicole Croiset: Sure. Women throughout the centuries have always tried to acquire knowledge in scientific and technical matter. Since the dawn of time , women have always contributed to the development of scientific knowledge but were never recognized for their contribution. Century after century, male thinkers kept claiming that women did not take part in the evolution of knowledge. In fact, we believe today that women probably invented agriculture and weaving in China. They also contributed to the establishment of modern chemical experimental methodologies specifically when it comes to the movement from alchemy to a scientific approach to modern chemistry. In most European countries, aside notably from Italy, women were banned from Universities.

Intimate Culture Culture Intime (Intimate Culture) Nicole Croiset, large format backlit digital photography + array of animated lights, 24" x 93"@poster

Con: How do you express this in the installation ?

Nicole Croiset: In Les Femmes Savantes, I present a video projection with images taken from a 14th century Italian manuscript of a woman doing a cesarean section. I also present a manuscript of a woman cultivating fields to illustrate the development of agriculture. Les Femmes Savantes is a piece by Moliere and I chose the secondary characters in the play (Armande, in particular) who proclaims their belief in their right to an education. The intellectual women in the play stake their claims to education while the main character only wants to get married. That is the impact of the play. Moliere was not in favor of intellectual women But, he was an honest person and clearly represents their claims . That's why I chose this play, because of the dual aspects. Moliere presents it as a way to make the heroine state his beliefs (that marriage was the ultimate goal of a woman) yet today the very play comes across totally differently.

savantesThree From Croiset's Les Femmes Savantes

Con: This piece, Les Femmes Savantes is in the Toronto area?

Nicole Croiset: It's actually in the north of Ontario, 370 km to the north of Toronto. That's a good 4+ hour drive when I go to the gallery. The exhibit is in a city called Sudbury which is the nickel capital of North America and the second largest nickel region in the world. There are a lot of french speaking people who emigrated to Ontario there from Quebec. Roughly 30% of the population is french speaking, compared to between 5 and 10 % in Toronto. La Galerie du Nouvel Ontario is a bilingual gallery specializing in avant guard and contemporary art.

Con: I understand that you emigrated to Canada from France and are living in Toronto now?

Nicole Croiset: Yes, my husband worked for the french branch of a canadian company, when in 1998 he was offered a promotion that required him to move to Toronto. The whole family (we have two boys) has been here in Toronto ever since.

Con: What is the art scene like in Toronto? Was it hard for you to make the transition from Paris to Toronto, to find funding and sponsorship for your projects?

Nicole Croiset: When I first came to Toronto, it was very difficult. In Paris I had decades of experience behind me and was well introduced in the art society there. When I arrived in Toronto, it was almost as if I was starting my artistic career all over again. I had exhibited in Montreal twice before, but Montreal and Toronto are like two different worlds. It took me several years to establish a reputation as a serious artist here. The Toronto art scene is very vibrant, but like most other places it has it's own rules and circles that you need to get introduced into. Not being a Canadian citizen also limits the availability of government funding.

Con: I understand that Toronto is a mecca for new technology and given the nature of your art, that must be a prime place for you to live. Is this area more dynamic for you as an artist than your native Paris?

Nicole Croiset: The two cities have their own styles. They are very different. Paris has what I would qualify as a more distinctive european feel for it than Toronto does. You spend a lot of time in cafes in Paris.

Con: Well, Ms Croiset, it has been an enlightening hour chatting with you and I wish you much success in your work.

Nicole Croiset: Thank You


Four From Wack! (clockwise starting top left) Magdalena Abakanowicz Abakan Red 1969 Sisal and mixed media Each: 157 ½ x 157 ½ x 137 13/16 in. Courtesy of the National Museum in Wroclaw Photo courtesy of Magdalena Abakanowicz Maria Lassnig Self-Portrait with Pickle Jar 1971 Oil on canvas 182 x 200 cm Courtesy of the artist and Frierich Petzel Gallery, NY Faith Wilding Crocheted Environment (Womb Room) 1972 (recreated 1995) Mixed media/Fibers 9 x 9 x 9 ft. Courtesy of the artist Installation at Womanhouse, Los Angeles Judy Chicago Through the Flower 1973 Sprayed acrylic on canvas 60 x 60 inches Courtesy of Elizabeth A. Sackler, New York © Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Donald Woodman

e-mail:: homepage::

add a comment on this article