Barbara T. Smith made her 1973 performance Feed Me in response to her experiences of being continually harassed by men in her public and personal life. During the performance, Smith sat nude inside a ladies’ room and accepted one person at a time into the private space. Smith wanted to claim control of her body and establish an exchange where the viewers (both men and women) had to ask permission for her attention. While Smith was seemingly vulnerable, she held the power to control the shape of the interactions with participants.
Feed MeBarbara T. Smith, 1973
Smith’s intentions for Feed Me were turned upside down when rumors spread that she was having sex with every visitor who entered the ladies’ room. Her power was stolen as Smith was transformed from artist to prostitute. Smith was criticized by many of her fellow feminists for her supposedly obscene actions. The rumors around the performance took hold and were perpetuated in countless texts about the work. The inaccuracies around the performance resurfaced recently when Feed Me was included in the Pacific Standard Time exhibit State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970.
On Friday May 9th, Smith presented What you Need to Know a performance and installation created in collaboration with Corazon del Sol, Kate Johnson, and Kate Crash as part of Highways 25th Silver Jubilee.
What I learned from Smith about her work Feed Me:
The work was Smith’s attempt to “put her body where the problem was” and reclaim power over her body and sexuality. She wanted to teach men how to have intimate consensual relationships with women.
Smith performed Feed Me at the age of 42. By this time, she had given birth to children, experienced divorce, and engaged in deep self-searching through therapy.
Feed Me was presented in the ladies’ room of a warehouse in San Francisco during a performance event organized by Tom Marioni. The event ran from sunset to sunrise.
The space contained an oriental rug-covered mattress, incense, body oils, wine, cheese, fruit, bread, coffee, tea, marijuana, and books. A tape played a continuous loop of Smith saying “Feed me."
Eighteen people participated in the work, three women and fifteen men including performance artist Paul Cotton.
Smith did make love with at least two of the participants. This was her personal choice after establishing a connection with the men through conversation and non-sexual intimate exchanges.
Smith was given a massage by one of the participants and she cites this as the most memorable experiences of the performance.
At some point Smith had contact with some of the people who participated in Feed Me. She has letters that recount their experience of interacting with her in the performance.
Smith was and is deeply invested in the power of intimacy and the spiritual resonance of private human contact.