For me, performance has always been about troubling the subject-object relationship, explicitly and directly. When done well, it explodes the relationships so that these positional categories are shattered, fragmented, and turned shrapnel. A good performance locates and dislocates the ‘you-ness’ and ‘I-ness’ from a centered and well-balanced place. and self/itness, whatever that might be for each of those positions, is momentarily dissolved. Yes—the performer acts, acts out or doesn’t act at all—observes—but the audience does too act—the audience responds, reacts, rewards. Sometimes the audience leaves—this is acting too. The performer instigates the you into a position of action. In my projects—see some here—the linchpin of each performance relies on my ability to submit to a fully selfish and selfless trance where the you/audience is doing the most acting, the most “work.”
“LOOK AT ALL THESE FEMALES IN THEIR PANTIES TAKING SELFIES”
On the weekend of October 10th, I performed as part of writer and performance artist Kate Durbin‘s Hello Selfie project. Performance instructions outlined cryptic guidelines like “You are a cat but you are also a girl” and “You have no mouth so you do not speak.” Our rehearsals included trying on the bob-style platinum blonde wigs, looking sad, acting like cats and—despite not really needing it—practicing taking selfies in various poses that read teen girl. This we did easily. We talked briefly of what to do in case of harassment and what to do if a police officer approached. We also talked about what to do in case of rain.
“WHY YOU ALL DRESSING LIKE THAT”
I spent the month leading up to Hello Selfie having bad-feminist thoughts. I made plans for rigorous workouts and dieting that never took place. Half of the time I spent considering my body’s flaws and the other half I spent hating myself for having these thoughts. I managed to negotiate my thoughts down to their scariest, barest bone: the possibility of NOT being considered a fuck-object, in the way many of us women are conditioned to understand our own value, feels like a kind of death via exclusion. The loneliest part: the acknowledgement that my fellow kitties in this performance were probably having these same concerns and the realization that solidarity in these thoughts didn’t make a difference to me. At all. We want to be revolutionaries, but desirable, pretty revolutionaries. So, I had my thoughts, the bad ones, and the good ones too, like, if you want to be a feminist, not obsessing over your appearance is how you enact feminism for yourself. The work of my feminism, at least some of it, starts with me and my thoughts.
“OH! I NEED ONE! I NEED ONE LITTLE KITTY.”
“In the past few years, poetics and selfies alike have been formally and thematically integrated into various exhibitions and contemporary art practices, from net art to alt lit. Selfies suggest—as a practice—formal strategies that speak to the essential struggle to self-image on the web, an inherently weak structure for the formulation (and actualization) of a supposedly coherent self. Do these images temporarily stabilize you?” (1)
This question of the “coherent self,” specifically as it is (re)imagined vis-á-vis the messy constructs of new media platforms and communication technologies (as Andrew Durbin notes above in his essay “Selfie Poetics”), is important to my work—and to that of many of my contemporaries, both poets and artists alike—and also, for me, at one of the shifty centers of Hello Selfie. With its efforts towards redundancy, multiplicity, competition and superfluousness—Hello Selfie is about a gendered excess that gives way to both dream and nightmare. It positions the self-determinist feminist strategies the selfie alluringly provides in competition with the realities of the bodied, female-identifying SOBJECT. The excessiveness is both virtual and material: a (seemingly endless) parade of (selfies) women clad in gimmicky teen-girl uniforms, gothy make-ups, sticker armors-cum-kitty-tats. Yes, we were different colors and sizes, but ultimately reduced to the same, flickery, warped-image of each other. At one point during dress-up, after all of us had donned our wigs and face paint, we had to start identifying ourselves to ourselves. In fact, we were most identifiable via selfies—our unique features and idiosyncrasies only visible in the details of our photos or tags.
“LOOK AT ALL THESE GIRLS THEY ARE NAKED.”
The morning of the performance: fuck feminism; I did 40 inane sit-ups. I made a double egg and cheese sandwich. I blogged. I smoked three cigarettes. I momentarily considered backing out. I listened to Little Plastic Castles on repeat.
The Hello Selfie of my dreams took place during dress-up at Transfer Gallery. We giggled and ate carrots with hummus. We did our make-up and listened to Lana. Some of us cried cuz we were going through hard times. Some of us pretended to do squats cuz we read somewhere that even last-minute efforts go a long way for toning—but fuck it, who cares. Certainly, there was shyness. I remember meeting Andrea Crespo’s eyes a few times and wanting to introduce myself and offer to lend my eyeliner; I’m a fan of Andrea’s work. We also discussed the complications of the piece—how we anticipated others would react. But mostly, we took selfies of bodies kitty-armored, told each other we looked heavenly and ate Hello Kitty-shaped cake with our paws. I typed the following in my iPhone: don’t forget the safe feeling you are feeling now. Together you are safe.
This feeling of safety did not last. It fully ruptured, for me, the moment I stepped out of the Transfer Gallery space and met two men who gawked and laughed and cooed at the line of women getting into a van together. And, in a flash, I had the worst, most embarrassing thought: well, I am sort of asking for it. There IT was, my nightmare, inside of me and outside of me like awful, twin snakes. I don’t think I fully believed it but in a sudden moment of vulnerability in which I felt the most out of control I defaulted to my most deeply entrenched and highly invisible form of misogyny. It was real and it was painful. Hello self.
“OOOOoooo. QUELLE EST JOLIE!”
The first thing I heard when I exited the van was from a man waiting for the cross light: “Can I get a hug?” he asked. And the last thing I heard getting into the van, after the performance, was a group of men saying to each other, “Oooh, we should get in the van with them.” “Mira esta pendejas con sus pendejadas.” “I thought this performance was going to be better. Like, more interesting,” a woman stated. In the van, women dissed the creeps that were taking close-ups of our behinds and crotches. One performer, the most visibly brown body in our group, was licked by a stranger from behind; she caught it on her iPhone. It’s disgusting. Another performer was verbally harassed—repeatedly asked, “are you a tranny?”– all of this reminding me that there are certain bodies in my community that disproportionately bear the burden of harassment, abuse, and violence.
In many ways, I had wanted to submit to the performance. Be a girl. Be a cat. Be “present” Marina A. style. I wanted to “feel free to cry” as the guidelines instructed, but I felt fundamentally, even existentially, unsafe. I felt unsafe from myself and others.
The intensity of the experience was obliterating. I did feel like a sad girl—but mostly because I felt lonely and outside of the performance, even antagonistic toward the other performers. I know this is oppression’s finest, most manipulative work—the work that isolates us from each other. I had been instructed to submit to the lure of my own gaze—something I have no problem regularly and proudly doing—but instead I felt at my most invisible. I was vanished, vanquished by the audience’s apocalyptic gaze capable of overwriting and reducing. & by my own apocalyptic gaze—similar to that which Danielle Pafunda notes in reference to making art as a “real girl”: “I began writing and the voice that came out was a hideous man’s.” (2) I began selfie-ing and what came out was the gaze of a hideous man. Hello self.
The kindest moment I experienced during the performance was perhaps when in an instance of bored/tired I leaned up against a rail and looked up to see how it was all unfolding beyond the screen of my iPhone—and I met the gaze of a young woman who for a moment looked back at me and then, to give me respite, looked away. Shades shame, shades love, shades trance. The most important work we could do for each other was not be there—to render ourselves invisible. Free from the realities of gazes that are never, or fundamentally, our own. Goodbye self.