Linda Mussmann Prefers the Hard Work to the Parade

This article is part of Hyperallergic’s 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

On a hot midnight in June more than 20 years ago, Linda Mussmann and Claudia Bruce tied the knot in a venue mobbed with guests — one of the first same-sex marriages in New York State. But Mussmann’s radical nature didn’t start, or end, there. In the 1970s, She staged performances in New York City attended by John Cage and Merce Cunningham. She founded the art, film, and performance space Time & Space Limited (TSL), which she brought to Hudson in Upstate New York in the 1990s. There, she ran for mayor, and currently sits on the Columbia County Board of Supervisors.

Mussman spoke to Hyperallergic over the phone about the art world’s reception to queer artists, her skeptical view of Pride Month’s celebratory nature, and the work and life she’s created in conjunction with Bruce, whom she calls her “life partner, muse, and center of all [her] work.” 

Hyperallergic: Has the art world felt open to you?

Linda Mussmann: No. As a working-class person in the art world who was raised on a farm in the Midwest, I’ve definitely always been an outsider.

As far as being queer, there was certainly a lot of coded information back then. It wasn’t an “out” time. There was not a lot of freedom in terms of speaking out or being who you really were, because there were certain things you had to keep to yourself and in the closet.

I worked in a non-narrative form that is not easy to explain. Feminists didn’t get it; straight people didn’t get it; queer people often didn’t get it. It was really my own statement about how I saw the world, so I luckily never got labeled. I think that was an advantage.

In 1990, the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) was involved in a censorship issue with Robert Mapplethorpe, and that became part of the history of our theater company. We decided not to sign on to receive any more NEA money. That put us in the position of, “I don’t trust what the state’s ever going to do for me.”

Then how could I keep on creating and being alive? That marked our radical departure from the art scene and the art world of New York City. We decided to go somewhere else and find a home — find a space so that we had some security. Then we could generate energy from a consistent base.

That was life-changing and world-changing. It certainly changed the trajectory of my career in New York City, but it also allowed us to launch TSL in Hudson.

H: Can you tell me more about your decision to leave the city and move upstate to Hudson? Were there other factors, and did you find what you were looking for there?

LM: When our generation arrived in New York City, it was much more about, “Hey, we have something to say.” We used whatever we could find: We’d scrape things together out of dumpsters and use them in all kinds of innovative ways to make our work.

When we left New York, however, there were a lot of trust fund babies coming into the city. There was much more energy devoted to people who had a lot more wealth than we could have ever imagined. It became a much different kind of scene. More “civilized.” The fun seemed over.

In the early ’90s, Hudson was an abandoned industrial town, and there wasn’t much organized arts and culture here. Claudia and I thought, “Let’s try to place ourselves in a community that would really be eager to have some cultural action.”

Frankly, I feel the same way about Hudson right now that I did about New York then. The fun’s kind of over. The Porsches have arrived. It’s cool. It’s expensive. A lot of people can’t be here who really want to be here.

And we’re part of the reason Hudson became what it is today. It’s the same story, over and over. We knew that story and we tried to avoid that story — arts used to create business. We were totally against being used to raise real estate prices or generate business for Main Street. As people who have some creative ability, our use is in saying something outside the box.

Linda framing Harbors wait
Linda Mussmann runs the Time & Space Limited Theater Company in Hudson, New York. (via Wikimedia Commons)

H: Even as the town has changed, how have you cultivated community?

LM: We came here in 1991. We were out, queer women, and when we bought a large building on Columbia Street, people said things like, “Those lesbians or those dykes from New York bought this.” We had a label, whether it was said to us directly or not.

We were labeled — and we wanted to be, we wanted to be out. That made a huge difference to people in this community who may not have been used to people who are out of the closet.

Claudia and I were married here when same-sex marriage was legalized. We were among the first in the state. We invited everybody. It was midnight of June 24, 2011. It was hot. It was packed, mobbed with people. Everybody was there — gay people, straight people, bisexual people, politicians, et cetera. They all came to celebrate our marriage.

I ran for mayor and got involved with politics as a lesbian and as an out person. I wasn’t running on a gay campaign. It was just Linda Mussmann running for mayor, but the conversation was certainly about who I was in my personal life.

It became very important to this community to have Claudia and Linda stand up as gay women, fearlessly declaring that they had the same rights as everybody else. I’m still in a political position: I am an elected supervisor of the County of Columbia. Of 23 supervisors, I’m the only queer one.

When you’re standing there as an exception to what some feel about queer people, it becomes a little easier for others. Then you find out that one of the sheriff’s children wants to go through a gender transition, and all of a sudden LGBTQ+ people are all around you. It’s been a political, personal, and artistic journey.

H: How, if at all, does your gender identity factor into your art, writing, and other work?

LM: By the very nature of who I am, Claudia is my central figure. She and I met in 1976. We’ve been together every day since, working together around the clock on our performances, theater work, and constructing TSL. My role is director and writer and hers is performer and singer.

She is always what I’m personally thinking about. And Claudia is the person translating what I’m thinking through her voice, movement, and interpretation. It’s a marriage of two people who are deeply committed to one another and in love, performing in a theatrical way.

Her ability to translate the work over this long period of time is almost totally intuitional: I don’t have to explain anything. It’s almost like the roles change and she takes over and becomes the grand interpreter of the material.

H: Who were your mentors, and are there any queer artists that are important to you?

LM: Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt, William Gass, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Virginia Woolf, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Harold Pinter, Arnold Schoenberg, Timothy Snyder, Agnes Martin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Georg Buchner, the list goes on….

John Cage and Merce Cunningham — they were life-changing. They came to see our work. And they encouraged us to not worry about who was coming: Just focus on the work. The dance was one thing, the visual was one thing, and the sound was one thing. That worked for me. It was a relief.

Earlier, my thinking was influenced by Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust. As a young theater director, I was looking for plays, and there weren’t any that fit, so I started to look to the novel, and I started to use their work in the theater. They lived a long time ago, but I look to the past to be informed about the time I’m living in.

I do really look to Gertrude Stein. People might find Stein too radical or not understand her, but nobody dismisses her as a serious artist.

On the other hand, I’ve written tons of things that haven’t been published because people thought I wasn’t gay enough, wasn’t radical enough, wasn’t feminist enough, wasn’t ever enough enough. So, what does that say?

H: Are there any projects you’ve worked on that are front of mind these days?

LM: The TSL archive project is heavy on my mind. I’m trying to organize some of the past work and introduce it to an audience that missed it and figure out a way to share it.

A lot of this work is from ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s New York that was shown for a limited timeframe. I’m trying to focus on preserving some of those things. I would like to have more opportunities to share some of the ideas I’ve created for the theater, and I’m trying to figure out how to do that. It’s complicated. It’s all one big wall ball of wax.

H: What are you excited to work on next?

LM: I’m working on some new projects for my own theater, and I’m engaging a lot more young people in the work and trying to share more of the theater. It’s an ongoing process of thinking and working and trying to figure out how you can carve enough time and space. It’s always about time, space, and a little bit of money to figure it all out.

If I could have X amount of time and hours, the next project would simply be to do another piece with Claudia: a dual performance that includes movies and music and sound and movement.

That’s what I don’t really have a lot of time to do anymore. It takes time. I do a lot of writing. I do a lot of erasing and throwing things away. I bring things to the table. I would like to have the opportunity to design and create some of these pieces with a little more freedom.

I think in this time, this economy, in this world we live in, we’re so short on time and attention spans that we’re losing the opportunity and ability to be creative.

H: What does Pride Month mean to you?

LM: Hudson never used to celebrate Pride Month — I got people interested in doing that. I thought the town had neglected the gay people in this community, so I brought it up to the County Board of Supervisors, and now they do a pride parade annually.

But for me, it’s not political enough. Women are losing the right to abortion in certain states. It’s a key time to be reminding people of the fact that queers may lose many of the freedoms we gained, and that we have a lot of work to do to hold the line on our accomplishments so far. It’s a really difficult time to be too joyful.

We need to get back to the grassroots; we cannot become complacent and raise our families and forget about the world of politics. I don’t think it’s time for the party — the parade is over.

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