Anatomy of a Joke:
The Work of Sara Greenberger Rafferty

Sara Greenberger Rafferty dissects jokes, fashion, shopping websites. Her works paint an absurd picture of U.S. mass culture, behind which latent violence and manipulation lurk. Jessica Loudis on the New York artist, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection.
Comedy is actually Sara Greenberger’s cup of tea. But shortly after she moved to  Washington, D.C. an interest in spy craft began to creep into her work. Rafferty, who is normally based in New York, was in the nation’s capital as a research fellow at the Smithsonian — a recipient of the same fellowship Camille Henrot had been on when she made Grosse Fatigue, the video that won the Silver Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale and made her world famous — and every day, she kept regular office hours at the National Museum of American History, sifting through the comedy archives. The museum’s holdings include everything from the correspondence, notebooks, scripts, and sketches in Grouch Marx’ collection to Steve Martin’s trademark white suit, but Rafferty was there for the “gag file” of midcentury comic Phyllis Diller. In the 1950s, Diller was one of the few successful female comedians and paved the way for women in the U.S. entertainment industry, including Joan Rivers, talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell, and Roseanne Barr, who with John Goodman at her side showed the American working class in an unusually realistic way in the sitcom Roseanne. Phyllis Diller’s "gag file" consisted of 55,000 index cards of typewritten jokes stored in an imposing metal cabinet.

Sitting in the basement of “this weird government building” looking through Diller’s archive, Rafferty began reflecting on the problem of information. She started thinking about the enormous amounts of data we live with and are constantly generating, and the difficulties of processing and cataloguing it all. Rafferty also came across connections of another sort entirely – a network of cultural references, biographical memories, relationships, and political events. She thought about the meticulousness with which every detail, every word, and every gesture was archived, very different records that play a role in the political capital Washington: wiretap transcripts, minutes of government receptions and dinners, of conferences and secret meetings. Then she started thinking about this in relation to the history of comedy, and, inspired by D.C., the thin line between protocol and farce. At the Library of Congress, she looked up surveillance files on comedians and diplomatic cables containing references to jokes. She submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI files pertaining to comedy, and purchased a hidden camera from the nearby Spy Museum to mock-clandestinely film her own research. “That’s the way my brain is starting to work here,” she tells me over Skype from her sparsely furnished sublet.

This is a departure for Rafferty, though not a total break from her previous work.  For at least ten years, the artist (who was born in 1978) has been interested in the logic of comedy — not why a joke is funny, but what makes it possible, the formal structures and personal idiosyncrasies that underlie comic routines. Rafferty proceeds almost surgically: all that remains of the joke is the exposed skeleton.  In Mono, a video from 2014 that was screened as part of the Venice Biennale and later at the Whitney, Rafferty cast a professional actor to deliver what could be called a gestural monologue. She spliced together a three-minute script based on bits by Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers and David Letterman, took out most of the talking, and had actor Susie Sokol, dressed in a tailored black suit, mimic the mannerisms and tics of the entertainers before an empty venue. The result was right out of Bertolt Brecht, an artful and alienating distillation of familiar performances. There was only one joke, and as Rafferty notes, “it was terrible.”

Slapstick and the repertoire of iconic comedians were the raw materials of Rafferty’s work in the early years of her career. Her first solo shows — at New York’s PS 1 in 2006, and then at The Kitchen three years later — strip human presence down to the barest sculptural elements: there are pies in the face (without the faces); cartoon images of egg splatter on the wall; and unmanned microphones planted in the middle of the gallery, like palm trees in the desert. The work is wry and conceptual, dark and funny: evocative of Marcel Duchamp on one level, Andy Kaufman on another. The rare piece from this era that does feature a person — Rafferty herself — is De/Feat (2005), a video in which the artist, goofing on Houdini and mental institutions, attempts to put on a straitjacket without any assistance.
When she was starting out, Rafferty says she was interested in representing challenging material — social truths, identity issues, emotion — but didn’t want to completely alienate her audience. So she adopted comedy as an “artistic strategy,” a Trojan horse of sorts for pointed social and political critiques. For her show at The Kitchen, Rafferty used tropes from the entertainment industry to examine issues of class, gender, and domesticity, an approach that drew comparisons to Martha Rosler’s 1975 work Semiotics of the Kitchen. In Testing I-V (2009), for instance, five microphone stands were outfitted with kitchen utensils in lieu of microphones — whisks and wooden spoons, basters and ice cream scoops — in a sharp evocation of the sexist platitude that women belong in the kitchen. Rafferty’s somewhat acidic worldview might be hard to take if it weren’t for the humor.

When she talks about comedy at its best, she does so in physical terms, the way some people might talk about yoga: it’s a “coping and digestive method,” or, a “way of understanding something in your body.” Rafferty doesn’t describe herself as a “super comedy junkie,” but she is interested in the so-called American Golden Age of television, which spanned the late fifties to mid-eighties, when shows featuring comics like Bob Newhart and Robin Williams established the models for everyman sitcoms that are still in use today. She’s also interested in the formal composition of stand-up itself — the way that a comic, typically male, usually alone on stage, is tasked with the bizarre job of performing "himself" even as he’s expected to be a representative of consensus reality.

What’s notable about Rafferty’s work prior to her 2009 solo show at Rachel Uffner is the lack of faces; one gets the feeling that the owners of the pies and microphones fled the gallery right before visitors arrived. There’s a reason for this: Rafferty had made a pact with herself never to create original work that represented a living person out of consideration of the fact that such depictions were often exploitative, particularly when it came to women. Appropriation of existing images, however, was a different story. With Tears, the 2009 show, Rafferty ransacked the digital vaults for seventies celebrity portraiture, transforming images of Bill Cosby, Katherine Helmond and Goldie Hawn into grotesque and slightly tragic ersatz watercolors by smearing the images with fluids of indeterminate origin (water, semen, saliva?), reprinting them, and hanging them next to similarly altered images of rubber chickens, whoopee cushions, and other comedy props. The effect is an unsettling take on the past, a distortion of the nostalgia that we associate with a certain vintage of image. The pictures appear distanced and damaged, as if registering the vulnerability of the bodies depicted—bodies that subjected themselves to the audience’s gaze and to ritual humiliation for the sake of entertainment. Yet there is resilience in the images, too. Many of the portraits are of women — like Lily Tomlin from the Deutsche Bank Collection; almost all are looking directly at the camera.

For her next show at Uffner in 2011, Rafferty once again made use of her "waterlogging" technique. She printed and altered images of entertainers, and after she had marked them with watery stains, Rafferty scanned the images and printed them again. The show was saturated with the specter of violence, both in subject material — a work hung in the gallery window featuring blurry kitchen knives playfully attacking a human figure — and in the mediation of the images, some of which were styled to evoke surveillance camera footage. In previous work, Rafferty had called attention to the violence of viewership for the sake of entertainment, but in Remote, the sense of disintegration is even more material. In several of the pieces, single representational elements stand out against backgrounds that hover, to quote the gallery, in a “hazy, deteriorated netherworld between realism and abstraction.” Rafferty also began experimenting with techniques she would develop in future work, mixing painting and photography on sheets of acetate and Plexiglas, sometimes distressing the materials to create the impression the pieces had been attacked.

Over the next four solo shows, Rafferty advanced her inquiry into viewership, privacy and performance. Exit signs and stage currents appeared again and again in her works, elements that symbolize inner and outer boundaries.  Her last show at Uffner, Dresses and Books, moved beyond more literal considerations of boundaries (towards something more idiosyncratic, modes of social armor that double as expressions of identity and vulnerability. Dress (2016) is a large-scale ink-jet printout showing a deconstructed dress whose bright bold colors recall a festive Rubik’s Cube or an exotic bird. It’s the sort of outfit one might wear when trying to make a statement of confidence, an assertion of sexiness. Again, however, the signal of the image is interrupted by the static of Rafferty's presentation. The dress wears various signs of its abuse — printer lines are clearly visible, a mysterious white fluid has been splashed all over it. The viewer is acutely aware of how they’re seeing the work, and the levels of distortion and mediation at play. On her website, Rafferty quotes the French author Hélène Cixous, who in 1984 said about her relationship to dresses: “Some garments are shields, some are mirrors, shimmery, dazzling, that attract and repel gazes, garments like armor, garments that square the body off, set it straight, garments that are ready for anything. I’ve had some. Not many. I’ve never been fond of them. I slipped them on to go to war.”
In our conversation, Rafferty remarked that she’s been especially interested lately in what she calls “the homogenization of the spaces of human interaction,” for instance, how computers have made the “place where we watch things and potentially do work also a shopping space.” She called my attention to one of her recent pieces, also part of the Deutsche Bank Collection — a screenshot of a pair of $245 "boyfriend" jeans taken from an online shopping site. Looking at the work, two things are instantly apparent: first, the fictions that went into marketing the pants — that a designer label might justify the price, that an imaginary boyfriend might justify the purchase; and second, the abuse the image has suffered. Before being sheathed in plastic and nailed to the wall, it looked as it if had been doused in water and rescued from a printer jam. Rafferty wrapped it in plastic and nailed it to the wall, as though a botanist wanted to preserve the leaf of a rare plant for eternity.

The work might be "funny ha-ha" right now, Rafferty remarked, but in twenty years, when we’ve all grown accustomed to buying our clothes and food and entertainment and office supplies online, it likely won’t elicit the same response. Perhaps as a counterpoint to this kind of flattening, which is happening on our computers and in our lives, she’s also been thinking about scale, and what she calls the "domestic grid" — how a tiled bathroom floor or an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper are approachable, and perhaps even comforting, in contrast to the proliferation of screens and digitally manipulated high-gloss images.

What connects things and phenomena in mass culture under their surface, whether it comes in the form of a comedian, espionage, or online fashion, is something she thinks about a lot. Rafferty’s not yet sure how all these ideas are going to come together, but she suspects her work at the Smithsonian will eventually culminate in a video project. But for now, that’s a ways off. She still has time to go to the museum basement, and thousands of jokes left in the archive.