Performance artist Ann Liv Young emerged as one of the most provocative figures of the 2000s. She often uses fairytales to foreground interactions between audience and performer—producing highly publicized confrontations with everyone from Penny Arcade to Georgia Sagri. Her work evolves a complex mythology centered around a character named Sherry. After traveling extensively in Europe with her family of collaborators, chief among them her partner Michael A. Guerrero, Young is back in New York to perform all four parts of her Sleeping Beauty at MoMA PS1 (March 2014). She sat down with Jarrett Earnest to discuss the origins of Sherry, the ethics of performance art, and the recent controversy surrounding her actions during the 2014 American Realness festival at Abrons Art Center.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I always felt that growing up in the South—in a very Southern family—that you have a heightened sense of social performance. Do you think that is true and does it influence your work?
Ann Liv Young: I had a hardcore Southern mother who was really into pleasing everyone but her own family. She was definitely all about, “You do not talk about what happens in this house. You do not speak about these particular things.” She had some major issues that are the crux of the Sherry character—Sherry is loosely based on my mother.
Rail: When did you start making your own work? What were you making?
Young: I was making stuff when I was 8—I was pretty hardcore about it. Mostly videos with my friends that I would direct that were crazy, a lot of talk shows. I would do performances at my school—put people through watching us in unitards dancing to Enigma. Some of them are actually amazing: we did a cover of an En Vogue song “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” dressed as old women. We had canes, we rehearsed for months, and it won first place in the talent competition. I guess I started making work professionally before I graduated college—I made a show called American Crane Standards which was two women and two toilets, which was put in a show in New York. People loved it.
Rail: When you are reviewed in the New York Times it is as a dancer, but I think that even though you are coming from a dance context it is really hard to talk about what you are doing as dance—or even as theater—it’s really performance art.
Young: I think one of the problems is that the Times doesn’t have a performance art critic and theater people don’t consider my work as theater. In Europe it’s never reviewed as dance—it’s always either performance art or live performance.
Rail: One aspect of performance art is that it foregrounds the dynamic: “I’m a body and you are watching me. We’re both here together and this is a relationship,” which is something generally suppressed in most dance and theater. What I really like is how you are keying into the complex desires and expectations embedded in those interactions. How did that evolve for you?
Young: I think it comes from studying dance and being taught to ignore the audience. They tell you to pretend like you are in a forest, but you’re not in a forest, you are in a theater, and most of the time you don’t have very good lights, or very good sound, or very much money. Acknowledging what is really in the room was always a big part of what I was making when I was young. I was never making stuff where I was rolling on the floor frivolously. That thing “I’m here—you’re here” has just become a lot more assertive and blatant with Sherry.
When I was five or seven months pregnant with Lovey in Amsterdam, our set had been lost. I was exhausted from touring Snow White, which is a very physical show. They had given us this tiny little studio to rehearse in, which was hilarious because we couldn’t do anything in it. Suddenly I thought I wanted to make a new part to stick on the end of Snow White:a radio show and the star was Sherry. It was a 30-minute segment. I was really thinking, “I’m having a baby, this job is hard to do, and hard to sustain because we make our living touring.” There were so many problems at every venue that I wanted to make a character that was a superwoman who could bust through everything—who doesn’t need a set, doesn’t need good tech—so the show would be indestructible. I was thinking I could make it for Lovey, my child—that it would be a way to make the work more sustainable for her. It was the best idea I’ve ever had in my life.
Rail: When you first thought of her, what were the physical or psychological gestures that signified Sherry?
Young: For the original costume we were all naked, but wearing different blazers, which were all khaki and spray-painted pink. We all had badges that showed how important we were so I had the really big badge. There was an importance of hierarchy from the very beginning, an acknowledged hierarchy. I think it’s funny because that is how my mother is: she is smart and funny and charming which enables her to maintain a hierarchy even as she makes fun of it. Her jewelry store was her stage and I grew up watching her perform on it.
Rail: There is a very clear way that Sherry is in control. How did that dynamic change when people began coming to Sherry’s shows expecting a confrontation?
Young: I do all different things. I am quite gifted at reading people—not even reading them but sensing them, which is very much from studying dance, from kinesthetics, body language. I have done so many “Sherry” shows, I don’t prejudge. I let the audience come in, sometimes I have a very tight structure and sometimes a loose structure, and I just go with what feels right. It is great that people are so scared, because then I can make them unafraid. And they start to think, “Oh, this is great, she’s amazing, she’s nice,” so then in the next show I can terrify them again. What really matters for Sherry is paying close attention to my audiences. I think that a performance is effective if it challenges people and keeps them on their toes.
Rail: Why are you against grants?
Young: I’m against the idea of a panel of people deciding among themselves what should be funded and what shouldn’t. A lot of the people sitting on panels think of themselves as failed artists—I don’t think about them that way, but that is how they think of themselves. I feel that they are looking for the thing most like what they would be making right now if they were still making and not teaching. I think it’s very dangerous to be sustained by grant funding; I don’t want to feel pressured to please people who are giving me money.
Rail: You believe grants make the work beholden to someone else’s expectation?
Young: Yes, and I know it does because that is how we are raised in a capitalist society. If that is your financial structure you are setting yourself up to fail—to fail yourself. Ultimately, I don’t feel a lot of people have the courage and strength to make what they want to make, clearly, because look at what is being made in this city. And a lot of these people are getting quite a lot of grant money.
Rail: You’ve talked about curators being shocked by your performances, even though they invited you. The PS1 controversy was the first time I became aware of your work because I was living on the West Coast, and I think for many others too it was the introduction to your work. That performance began with you confronting the performer who went on before you and ended with PS1 cutting the lights out. Now that you’ve had some distance from it, do you have any reflections on it?
Young: Basically, a woman named Sarvia [Jasso] and another guy [Andres Bedoya] invited me to do a session at PS1. Michael and I met with her and it’s funny because in the meeting I intuitively knew the breakdown of events. Sherry really studies people, so you can tell who has done their research and who hasn’t. I remember asking Sarvia if she had seen my work and she said, “Yes, I saw Snow White.” I asked what else she had seen and I could tell she hadn’t seen anything else, but she said, “some other things.” Then I knew it was going to be a great show.
For instance in Cinderella I do some pretty aggressive things: I poop on stage, I sell the poop, I get very close to people. It’s amazing to have a woman from the audience say, “I want to leave” and Sherry just says, “then leave,” but she doesn’t. Then she’ll sit there and say something like, “You must have paid them to let you perform here.” So Sherry talks about how much she got paid to do the show, and of course the woman doesn’t believe it. So then Sherry looks at the curator in the audience and asks, “Can you please tell this nice lady how much you paid to bring me here? Can you please tell this nice lady why you paid to bring me here, all the way from New York City.” To have that kind of situation—to be able to go straight to the source—is amazing. People don’t like to talk about money. Artists definitely don’t talk about money because they don’t have any, and curators are not often put on the spot to say why they booked something or how much they paid to book it. I was taught never to talk about money, and never to talk about domestic issues that happened in my house. I found a way to go beyond that and to force everyone to really discuss things that people feel are important, but have too much pride and ego to openly talk about.
So with the PS1 show we agreed to do it, and I knew the curator hadn’t done her research. I think I was very tired that night and I remember thinking, “I’ll go watch a little bit of the performance before mine to give myself a jumping-off point.” I knew I really wanted to work with the idea that we were at PS1. You could feel in the room that night that it was an “art crowd”—these “hip” people that wanted to see something very exciting happen and also wanted to protect their “art thing” and Sherry is very against protecting your thing. First of all, she says the thing is not worth protecting and second, she wants you to think about why you feel you need to protect it so much. That was really the initiation of me talking to Georgia Sagri who was the performer before me. Sherry looked into her eyes and said, “That was not good. You need to acknowledge that. What is this idea of ‘art’? What are you people even doing here?” For her performance Sagri just walked around in a circle saying, “Where is Jane?” and that is supposed to make her some amazing artist that can never be called out to answer the question, “Why are you making this?” That is totally crazy. She became a writhing monster. I really wish they would have let her attack me, but her friends were holding her back. Sherry took her clothes off and started masturbating to a Mariah Carey song just to say, “Come on, what are we doing here? This is ridiculous.” It was like 15 minutes, the whole thing. The curator just kept saying afterward “I didn’t expect it to be real.”
Rail: Like what did she expect, it to be fake?
Young: Well, fake like Georgia, like all the stuff she normally books—safe. I don’t think I make things to make anyone uncomfortable. I pose questions that I want answered. I’m really curious. I think it’s interesting to look at a couple in your audience and ask, “Why do you love this person?” Not because I want to make them feel bad, but I feel as a human being that that person should be able to answer that question, in front of a crowd of people—on a human level. So I try to get him to do that—it’s not about humiliating him. But if you ask a technician to turn more lights on, he looks at you like you just told him his penis is too short. Of course that becomes part of the work because Sherry is not going to pretend he isn’t taking a hit to his ego when she tells him to turn more lights on.
Rail: Have you ever had an experience as Sherry that you felt went too far?
Young: No. I never have. I think I am very sensitive to how my partner Michael reacts to what I do. I’ve had a few shows where Michael has been a little freaked out. I did a show at the Delancey Lounge and there were a lot of drag queens there and Sherry was saying that the way they were treating her is they way people have treated them in society, which is why they are there, in the Delancey Lounge, treating her badly, and what is wrong with that picture? Someone ripped my wig off and of course Sherry was like, “That only makes me stronger.” I took all my clothes off as I was leaving just to say, “I don’t need a costume. That is not what makes these things happen.” I took off this amazing necklace, it was my mother’s vintage ’70s huge porcelain shell and just threw it on stage when I was throwing my clothes. That photographer Gerry Visco stood up while my necklace was flying and it hit her in the head. She filed a police report about how I attacked her—which is amazing—but I was really sad because my necklace shattered. Michael was a little worried, but he knew I didn’t mean to hit her. He’s very anti-violence. I don’t feel I have ever done anything or had a show that I regretted. I feel very in control when I am performing, I actually have pretty high morals for myself.
Rail: What are the things that cross that line for you, that you won’t do?
Young: My only rule as Sherry is no physical violence. I threw my necklace and I didn’t mean for it to hit her. I’ve never physically hurt someone in a show. But I’ve experienced a fair amount of violence, in The Mermaid Show for instance.
Rail: Why is that?
Young: I think people don’t like a mermaid spitting fish onto them. It’s an amazing thing to be dressed as a mermaid and have the realization that someone is threatening me with a microphone stand. I had a guy kick me in my crotch when I was a pregnant dressed as a mermaid. You can have your picture taken with the mermaid and people will use that as a place to attack me, so if I get that feeling from someone during the show I give security the message that they can’t get their picture taken.
Rail: A lot of your work is structured by fairy tales. What is it that draws you to those archetypes?
Young: The reason I like fairy tales is probably because I didn’t have a carefree childhood—I had a difficult childhood. My parents didn’t have a healthy relationship. It was very stressful. I love the original Grimm’s fairy tales the most, and actually hadn’t seen a lot of the Disney versions until I had Lovey. She and I watched every version of Cinderella we could get our hands on because I thought she would enjoy the process. Lovey was 3 and at the end of the Disney Cinderella she said, “Mom, I don’t understand why in the movie she doesn’t eat any food.” She is always preparing food and you never see her eat. Also, Lovey pointed out that Cinderella never goes to the bathroom.
Rail: Is that why you pooped on stage in your version of Cinderella?
Young: Yes, but it’s also because my mother has Crohn’s disease so I grew up with my female role model being 100 percent affiliated with poop—she had a poop bag that she had to wear. She wasn’t a very good mother. In many ways I was her mother. That is the reason the poop was very important for me. It’s funny because Mark Russell did the Under the Radar festival and we approached him about doing a show at the Public Theater and he said, “Just as long as you don’t poop on stage.” I had this moment where I wasn’t sure if I should go there. I thought it would really put him in his place if he knew that at that moment my mom is in the hospital having a colonoscopy on her deathbed. This idea that a man can look at me and say, “Oh, by the way, don’t shit on stage,” like I’m just doing it for the fun of it. Guess what: it’s not fun to poop on stage in front of an audience. It’s not the easiest thing to do. People just assume that it’s for shock value.
Rail: That is how a lot of people talk about your work in general.
Young: Of course! Of course they do. But what is great is that my daughter knows why I poop on stage.
Rail: Sleeping Beauty is not a Sherry show. How do you approach those performances differently without the character?
Young: I didn’t really want to make Sleeping Beauty but Lovey suggested I do it, she wanted to play sleeping beauty, it was important to her. This project has been about her inclination to be in the work. She hasn’t seen Sherry in action. Some of the stuff would scare Lovey so much. Sherry can be so scary; I would never want Lovey to see that. She is not mature enough to understand. So this for me was great because it’s been a process to see how I work with my child. How do I let her know that her choices are valid while also letting her know that ultimately I am the director of this project? It’s been really fun and she’s loved it. I think the show is really about Lovey’s involvement in the work.
Rail: People just think that Sherry is you. How do you see the differences between Sherry as a character and you as a person?
Young: We are very different. I wish that I had some of Sherry’s qualities—that I could communicate in the ways she does. But like you I was brought up in a very Southern household, I was very polite, I am always trying to protect everyone else’s feelings all the time, making sure everyone is happy, and it’s really a curse because I can’t undo that. When I’m Sherry I can undo it, and that is the only way I can. I feel like I’m a good actress and part of that has to do with my upbringing—going through so many things, I learned to hide my emotions, to pretend that things are okay.
Rail: How much of the violence toward you do you think is rooted in misogyny?
Young: A lot of it, and I think women are the most sexist, the most uninformed, the most evil toward Sherry. Men can also be crazy, but I think that is more of a sexual power dynamic. I do see that a lot of women are very threatened by Sherry.
Rail: Why do you think that is?
Young: I think because she challenges the idea of what is attractive, what is not attractive. She is abrasive, she’s funny, she’s sexy, she’s disgusting: she’s these things that all women are but that they do not allow themselves to be. When they see that it takes a minute to adjust and figure out how to feel. And Sherry moves very fast and demands that the audience keep up, which can be difficult for people.
Rail: Can you explain to me the history of the “Sherry Truck”?
Young: When I first moved to the city and was not making a living making work I was making clothes and was selling them on the street in SoHo. Then I went to the Union Square area and it was very difficult because it was raining and snowing and freezing but I did it a lot. I took it very seriously. Then I was hired by these two women: one to make princess dresses for her daughter, the other to make her clothes. That is how I made a living for maybe four years. Then I thought it would be so great if I had a truck that I could just pull up. I wanted to have this mobile boutique. After coming up with Sherry I realized it would be perfect for her because it’s a truck, which is very North Carolina, and that it could be like mobile therapy. One of Sherry’s complaints is that we go to these privileged areas and everyone is white, middle-to-upper-class, educated—these people often don’t have huge problems. Not to diminish the size of people’s problems, but there is a real lack of awareness that some people can’t eat, or some children are being hit right now. I would like Sherry to have access to people who don’t have access to theater or art. Because, I feel like it’s just not fair that only a certain group of people have access, so with a truck we can drive to more remote areas. To be honest, it’s terrifying.
Rail: Are you actually going to drive into rural areas?
Young: We are. When it comes back from Europe. The idea is to do a North Carolina trailer park tour—we want to film it.
Rail: When you do something at PS1, for example, I don’t think you or the audience are scared that something really bad will happen.
Young: Yeah, because everyone is privileged and you are in a protected institution. I was very afraid of public art for a very long time. It did not feel right to me. I think I’ve done enough stuff, that I have hand-tailored the work so much for audiences, that I am confident I can get my message across and access these people: that I could give them something and not get killed.
Rail: I want to know more about your ideas on therapy—self-help rhetoric is a huge part of Sherry. What interests you about it?
Young: My mom did a lot of therapy when I was little and I used to wait in the lobby. That is something that stuck with me. My dad had severe substance abuse issues so I was in Al-Anon as a child; I was 5 years old going into a group and talking about how I felt that day. I had an amazing mentor who would drive me to those meetings two hours away. I had so much support as a child from people who were not my parents. I feel like it was a very meaningful part of my childhood and it gave me the tools to not end up like my parents. It’s important to know that sharing your feelings doesn’t make you a lesser person, but it makes you stronger and it makes you vulnerable and that is beautiful.
Rail: Tell me about the Sherry Art Fair and what happened during the recent American Realness Festival.
Young: At Abrons we set up a Sherry show with Christmas trees and balloons and sculptures—it was very pretty. I had three long tables that were covered with jewelry and I was there as Sherry selling jewelry to people and Lovey had a make-up stand and she would give make-overs. It’s a different side of Sherry because people are so afraid of her it’s important to (I’m not going to say the word “trick”) but it’s important that the character is dynamic because most people are complicated. It was really interesting to see people going into and leaving shows day after day after day so complacent, apathetic, on their cell phones, not engaging with themselves in the space.
I didn’t see much of the festival but I did see Dana Michel’s show, which I thought was wonderful. People kept asking me if I had seen Rebecca Patek’s show because they wanted to see what I thought. I was in the Sherry shop and I got a ticket to go see it and I was dressed as Sherry so went in character, and was planning to go back to the Sherry store afterward. I sat down and near the front. I had never heard of her and I had no idea what to expect—I thought, “This is great, I’m getting to see a show, someone is manning the table and my kids are at home—I feel very lucky.” This guy in tight cut-off shorts, a plaid collared shirt, and no shoes was walking around the audience handing out a piece of paper that said: “We would appreciate your feedback.” Of course I knew immediately they wouldn’t really appreciate my feedback, that it was supposed to be ironic and funny and meaningless, but I was like, “Come on Ann Liv, just give it a chance.” So a video started that said: “It isn’t a rapist’s fault; he had a hard life; he’s suffering,” etc. But, she was kidding—it was a joke. I was still trying to go with it, but then she started coming down the stairs to the stage and I knew we were in trouble because of her performance: the way she spoke, the way she moved—it was really bad “modern” dance trying to deal with “controversial” material. There was a narrator and the two of them dancing kind of in sequence but kind of not, like they need more rehearsal, and she is making these facial expressions so that you aren’t sure if she’s in character or not. It was all very confusing. The narrator said: “I went to the doctor the next day and I realized I have H.I.V.,” and they spelled out H-I-V with their arms like it’s the YMCA. And then the guy did the same thing—he got H.I.V. from being raped too. I was just like, “is this the point where I leave?” There was a moment where she sits in the audience, pretends to be an audience member and it’s supposed to be an AIDS panel and she’s an audience person who asks, “What was it like when you were raped? Did you fight him?” But her acting was so bad you couldn’t tell if she was just a horrible performer or if it was a joke. I eventually stood up, walked across the stage to the doors where you would exit and said, “This is crazy. This show sucks. I have a question for you: Have you actually been raped?” She just looked at me and clearly didn’t know what to say, and finally said, “You clearly have rape issues.” I just said, “Yes I do. I hope everyone here has rape issues.” And then I said, “I just want to tell you,” and held up that piece of paper, “you don’t seem like you’ve been raped. I’m just giving you feedback. You seem like you are making fun of it and of getting H.I.V. so you might want to go take some acting classes.” Everyone was just silent. Then Sherry looked at the audience and said, “Look at you guys, you’re white, you’re young, you’re Williamsburg hipsters, you’re probably all her friends and you are perpetuating bad art—this is a waste of time. You don’t need to make this: you need Sherapy and I’ll be at my table all night,” and I left. Then I got my megaphone and they wouldn’t let me back in so I shoved the megaphone in the door and said: “Free Sherapy for you Rebecca, all night!” They couldn’t see me but they could hear my voice. Finally Ben Pryor, the curator of the festival, stood up and said, “Ann Liv what are you doing!?” Sherry just said, “What are you doing?” and we had this whole public dialogue—the audience heard the whole thing. He didn’t say anything, he was just white as a ghost—he was terrified. He had been sleeping because he was exhausted and had seen the show before. He was mortified and I could tell he was thinking, “I’ve supported Sherry and now she’s turning on me—this is not happening!” I was saying that I was ashamed to be in a festival that was booking things like this. He just said, “She’s young,” which I said was even more reason for me to stand up and say “What are you doing?” Finally he came out to the lobby and the show inside continued while we talked outside, but he was still really silent. When people were leaving I kept selling my stuff and this woman came up out of the show crying and said, “Thank you so much. I’m a rape victim and that was a horrible show for me.”
I believe in audiences reacting—it is a privilege and a responsibility to be an audience member and I will not be a complacent audience member. Many other people came up to me to say what I did was amazing and that the show sucked. Then Ben came up later and said, “I think it’s fine for you to stand up and leave but don’t come back!”
Deep in my heart I felt what she was doing was wrong, and when you feel that you have to speak up. I remember when I was in the fourth grade we had a very mean English teacher and one of my friends had trouble reading. The teacher humiliated my friend in front of the class, saying, “You can’t read,” making her feel terrible. I remember sitting there and thinking: “I’m so afraid of this teacher but what she is doing is wrong,” and I remember standing up and saying “You can’t treat someone like that. We’re in the fourth grade!” I got in so much trouble.
Rail: And when you went back you directed the attention toward the curator and institution.
Young: Exactly. That was the best part. So basically he said there was no money, but that doesn’t matter. If you need to make something you make it, and there needs to be a voice and vision, and that nonsense had neither and it is my responsibility as an artist and as a human being to say something. And do not tell me that I broke the rules because they aren’t my rules. I asked him again why he booked it and he said “economic reasons.” “Can you be more specific?” “I don’t want to have an empty theater for three days. And the work excites me.” Rebecca told the curator that if I was in the building she was going to cancel her last performance and I said, “Good. She should cancel it because it’s horrible.” Michael wanted me to go home and rest, and reluctantly I did. I found out later she wanted me “expelled.”
Rail: One thing that struck me is that the narrative that echoed across the Internet was that you assaulted this artist and that it is “wrong” that you were allowed to interrupt someone else’s performance. One commentator published an essay saying that everyone who aligns themselves with you or supports your work is “so deeply subsumed in hypocrisy and doublespeak so as to no longer recognize reality.” I think the shocking part is how no one defended her, or said, “shut the fuck up Ann Liv”—not even the curator who booked her; everyone just sat there. How do you see the difference between targeting the artist and the curator?
Young: Well I targeted both the artist and the curator as well as the audience, and it is important to me to address all three. People want others to feel that I have physically attacked people because they need a reason to exile me.
Rail: Considering this sounds exactly like what Sherry always does, why do you think people keep inviting you around to keep doing things?
Young: I think Ben genuinely believes in the work. This is also very much the contemporary dance scene that I don’t really feel I’m a part of. American Realness is a contemporary dance festival, and contemporary dance is a dead art form. These people want to put a fence around their little festival and their little shows and say, “You can’t touch this.” And the reason they want to do that is because they know it’s dying. Maybe they don’t even know it consciously. How else can you take Rebecca Patek saying: “Bolt the doors!”? If you are making live performance it will be live. If you don’t want people to respond, make a movie. What about the people who used to throw tomatoes? Patek needs to be stronger. If she is going to make a show about rape then let’s talk about rape, but she wasn’t interested in that. She certainly wasn’t interested in feedback, which I knew from the moment I was handed that paper. Why do I keep being asked back? Because my work is challenging and you can’t deny that.
Rail: It seems like your work incorporates the rumor mill aspects—where suddenly you have someone at N.Y.U. who has never seen your work talking about “that time you threw a brick at someone’s head.” Your reputation precedes you and that is part of your performances. However, there is the criticism that you could have responded at the end of the show.
Young: I could have. But to me if you see a dog being beaten on the street, you don’t wait until the beating is over to do something about it—and I could not sit there any longer. Also I went as Sherry, we were in a theater, it’s not like we were in a bank. If anything she should have had a sense of humor about it and used it to make her performance stronger, because it had nowhere to go but up.
Be my guest: come into my show and challenge me. In every single show I’ve done people have stood up, screamed at me, kicked me, attacked me with a fish, told me I should die. I understand that when you are working with difficult topics this is going to happen.
“I just didn’t expect it to be real.”
A throw-away line in David Velasco’s comments on Ann Liv Young’s recent actions struck me: “I admire transgression and provocation, but not for their own sakes.” Somehow this cuts to the heart of the matter: we “admire” transgression that suits us without wanting to accept the full scope of its consequences. His condemnation “for their own sakes” is precisely a rejection of the inherent unruliness of performance art that is being systematically removed by its canonization and museumification. (What argument can be made for the now iconic attacks of Vito Acconci, or the Catalysis of Adrian Piper, if not as transgressions and provocations for their own sakes, i.e. as art?)
The debate has largely become about whether or not Rebecca Patek was victimized by Ann Liv Young, but that question is misguided. From my understanding, Patek’s performance was supposed to provoke, and because her aesthetic choices confuse irony and authenticity, and blur the boundary between audience and performer (for instance, distributing a flyer soliciting feedback) she opened the door for Ann Liv Young, or anyone, to engage. The problem is that engagement didn’t come in the ways she or the institution would have liked, which signifies a failure on the part of Patek, and the festival, in framing the piece. This is not about the disruption being nice or mean, right or wrong, but is actually a question of form and intention at the foundation of performance art. By doing a live performance as such Patek implicitly extended an invitation, which is not the same as a gallery goer defacing a painting, as some have falsely equated. It seems to me that performance art—as distinct from dance or theater—is about engaging the dynamic between a group of bodies watching another, and that is always about power: if you are not navigating it, and assuming the potential reality of it, then it is best to not position your work in a performance art context. Arguing that this incident significantly differs from Ann Liv Young’s other interventions is disingenuous—Young’s power comes from the fact that her terror always arrives in response to an invitation.
I don’t want to live in a toxic environment where no one is given space free of violent confrontation. I also don’t want to live in a world where no one is held accountable for their own actions, ideas, or aesthetics. When critic Andy Horwitz says that “Every curator, institution and artist who aligns themselves with Ms. Young is complicit in her violence,” he isn’t wrong, but he misses the point. Young shows us exactly how we are all already complicit in a system of exploitation which is not easy to disentangle, where moralistic finger pointing becomes literally pointless. She is forcing a certain type of accountability, which I believe in, even though it is done through tactics I abhor. Let’s examine the desire many have expressed for her to be “punished” for what she did at American Realness, and their rage that Ben Pryor did not assume his position of institutional power as “curator,” bending her over his knee for a public spanking, or “expelling” her from the festival. What is shocking is that no one stood up to defend Patek; blaming Pryor is an empty accusation that only aims to dismiss the audience members’ individual obligations as human beings. It reveals a deeply internalized desire for the ultimate safety of an institution while purporting to “admire” transgression, or, rather, transgression at the proper remove, in photographs decades after the fact.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.