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This article was written on 22 Jan 2014, and is filed under Guest Writers.

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Acting

Rebecca Patek and Sam Roeck in "ineter(a)nal f/ear." Photo: Ian Douglas.

Rebecca Patek and Sam Roeck in “ineter(a)nal f/ear.” Photo: Ian Douglas.

By Siobhan Burke

If you’re reading this, you have probably read this, Andy Horwitz’s widely circulated, hotly debated critique of American Realness, the 10-day festival of contemporary performance at Abrons Arts Center. I was thinking of writing a comment over there at Culturebot, but the comments section became so unwieldy that Andy shut it down.

So far, to my knowledge, Andy is the only person to have written publicly (in a forum other than Twitter or Facebook) about the strange, charged, jarring, ambiguous moment that happened last Wednesday during Rebecca Patek’s ineter(a)nal fear, when Ann Liv Young, another artist in the festival, disrupted the show. Andy wasn’t actually there, limiting the degree to which he could credibly comment on it (as many have already noted). But he did open up a conversation.

I’ve been turning the Patek-Young encounter over in my mind. I kind of want to put it to rest. But I also think it deserves reflection apart from the onslaught of other, albeit important issues that Andy raised.

ineter(a)nal f/ear deals with some pretty sensitive subject matter, to put it lightly: rape, HIV, living through trauma, healing from trauma, and the way our culture treats all of these things. By “deals with,” I mean satirizes. Or was it satire? That’s the thing: you couldn’t really tell. I couldn’t, at least.

The performance begins with a noirish, awkwardly shot documentary (with French subtitles) about a young woman (Rebecca) being sexually assaulted while walking home late at night. The young woman, we learn, now lives in Brooklyn and uses her creative outlet, dance, to process what she’s been through. We see her ascending the escalator of a deserted subway station, a man’s dark figure trailing her; we see her abandoned on what looks like a bathroom floor. When she explains what happened, she sounds confused, her voice like a child’s.

Had this actually happened to Rebecca? It could have. Was it funny? Some people laughed. Did she want it to be? I think so, but “funny” is too simple a word. If she wanted to make us uncomfortable — to induce some queasy combination of offended, amused, and sad — she succeeded, at least with me. So did her partner, Sam Roeck, in his monologue about contracting HIV from a drunken, non-consensual hook-up with another man. Every so often, the lights would dim, and a song from RENT would play, the really saccharine one about “no day but today.”

It was shortly after that monologue, about 20 minutes into the show, when the infamous performance artist Ann Liv Young — or was it her confrontational alter ego, Sherry? — stood up and started yelling. She marched across the front of the stage and up the stairs toward the exit of the Underground Theater, barking insults from beneath her bleach-blonde wig. She told the performers that they were bad actors and that clearly they had never been raped, as they (or their characters) claimed to have been. Rebecca, on the verge of tears, said “that’s really fucked up.” She suggested that Sherry had “rape issues.” Maybe Rebecca needed “Sherapy,” Sherry said. Both of them said other things, too, which I don’t remember.

When Sherry had gone, Rebecca hugged Sam and sobbed into his chest. They ran out of the room, like angry teenagers after fighting with their parents. For a minute or two, everything was empty, silent. It was hard to know if this was staged or not; already, their characters, to the extent that they were in character, had been nervous, unstable, vulnerable. This seemed like a plausible extension of their world.

Rebecca and Sam returned, appearing to pick up where they left off. And it wasn’t long before Sherry returned, too, with her signature megaphone, reprimanding the audience and the festival for supporting Rebecca’s work. (Ben Pryor, the curator of American Realness, was standing nearby.)

Even then, it seemed perfectly possible to me that Rebecca had orchestrated, or at least agreed to, this intrusion. After all, another key dimension of her work is its critique of institutional conventions in the art and performance world. Take the lo-fi videos, featured elsewhere in ineter(a)nal f/ear, in which she gives and receives sexual favors while mumbling an artist’s statement full of empty words. It made you think of grant applications, sucking up to people, the creepy parallels between the economies of sex and performance. A rebellion against the very organization that was presenting her didn’t seem out of place. Actually, that would have been brilliant.

As it turned out, Rebecca hadn’t planned this. Sherry had unexpectedly acted out, objecting to something she didn’t like, in her corrosive way. This is the same person, or persona, who, if I recall correctly, once peed onstage and shoved a bottle of concealer up her vagina during Why Won’t You Let Me Be Great, the Kanye West tribute at P.S. 122. Then she masturbated with a toothbrush for the entirety of Love Lockdown. (On the night I was there, she dedicated the concealer act to Claudia La Rocco, who had given her a negative review.) Anyone who’s seen her Cinderella has also seen her feces.

Ann Liv Young's Sherry. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Ann Liv Young’s Sherry. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Yes, Sherry is aggressive. Sherry can make you cry and feel violated, invaded. Sherry made me clutch my notebook like a frightened schoolgirl during her 2012 Sherry Show at Danspace Project, having just swiped my colleague’s notes and read them out loud to the packed house.

In conversations about her most recent outburst, people have called her a bully; they’ve debated whether she was right or wrong, justified or not. What does it mean to meet a show about physical assault — and a show that arguably assaults the audience — with a verbal one? During the festival’s closing performance, a talk-show-inspired jaunt called Bauer Hour, Sherry walked out again (joined by her posse), but with less fanfare this time.

“That’s our resident terrorist,” said our host, Eleanor Bauer, to her guest, Shannon O’Neill, who was visiting from the world of stand-up comedy. Shannon seemed pleased.

On the question of Ann Liv Young’s rightness or wrongness, I’m still not sure what I think. What I do know is that, for better or worse, she and Rebecca, in that volatile exchange, created an unforgettable moment of theater. When Sherry erupted, she complicated the line between reality and fiction that Rebecca had already blurred. When Rebecca and Sam reacted like emotionally torn adolescents — and carried on with the show — they blurred it even further. What was already indecipherable became more so. I’ve rarely felt so disoriented in the context of a performance, so deeply unsure of what to think or feel. Isn’t that the best thing performance can do?

In his article, Andy criticizes Ben Pryor for not stepping in, for not barring Ann Liv from the festival after this episode. Others, I’ve gathered, feel the same. But if an altercation like this can’t happen at American Realness — an encounter that gets us really thinking about what is acceptable, what is authentic, about clashes of ego and values and opinion — where can it happen? What I’m saying is, I’m glad it did.

Siobhan Burke writes for The New York Times and Dance Magazine.

21 Comments

  1. [...] So, it is still January. And, while, Claudia LaRocco has provided her #apapsmear for ArtForum and Andy has taken on Realness (my shared concern being the overwhelming ‘whiteness’ of an “American” “realness” – though Michelle Boule’s fluffy prom dress could have been a reference to her Filipina heritage) and other respondents have taken on Andy, I’m just going to share brief thoughts on some of the works presented. I can’t pull it all together into an observant essay nor address the bigger questions that arose, because, honestly, real life stuff took priority and me away from the whole sh-bang right in the middle of things. If you want a blow by blow about the Sherry/Rebecca incident, read Siobhan Burke’s piece for Performance Club. [...]

  2. John Wyszniewski
    January 23, 2014

    Having not attended the event, I’m so grateful for this outstanding piece of reporting. Thank you for taking the time to step away, truly considering your experience, and for presenting a thoughtful reaction to what you witnessed. The deep question you raise at the end is realness.

  3. Meredith L Boggia
    January 23, 2014

    THANK YOU for writing this and for focusing on the success of this debate. I had all but given up on dance writing in the throws of this debate until I read this. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  4. Siobhan Burke
    January 24, 2014

    To steal a line from ineter(a)nal f/ear (another smart and complicated part of the show, which I didn’t get into here), ”Thank you for your feedback.” Really. Also just want to note that since I wrote this, the comments section has reopened on Andy’s post: http://www.culturebot.org/2014/01/20493/considering-alastair-questioning-realness/

  5. David Velasco
    January 24, 2014

    Siobhan,

    Thank you for laying this out in such a comprehensive, impartial matter. But I wonder if impartiality itself is a problem here, whether it simply feeds into Young’s strategies, making us doubly passive, victims of our own ambivalence and uncertainty.

    As someone who has championed Young’s work in the past, this latest incident seems to undercut the ethics that gave her prior actions such force. Young is most extraordinary when she uses her performances to put pressure on institutional protocols, to demonstrate (and prick) our passivity.

    But to my knowledge, that pressure has always been exerted within the bounds of her own performances, at the invitation of others. Even her contretemps with Georgia Sagri at MoMA PS1 in 2010 happened after Sagri’s performance, once Young was given the stage.

    At the invitation of others. Some seem to make the argument that Patek’s controversial material, or the way that Patek’s work blurs reality and fiction, functioned as an invitation for Young to “speak up,” the unfortunate implication being that Patek’s piece “deserved” what it got. Indeed, for those who have seen Ineter(a)nal f/ear, one of the palpable tensions animating the piece is: What is it like for someone who has been raped or who has HIV to watch this? What would happen if someone were moved to say something?

    But Young merely exploits this tension for her own self-aggrandizement. As Young has said, she wasn’t offended by the material itself but by its method of presentation, by what she calls the “bad acting.” And while I admire Young’s attention to traditional theatrical criteria, this seems insincere. It should be obvious to anyone who has watched Patek’s piece that it has a complicated relationship to both virtuosity and to “acting.” Or at least one would know that if one were given the time to encounter the work on its own terms.

    A person who is moved by a piece to speak out does not return later with a megaphone. Nor does she make a plug for “Sherapy.”

    Young chose to hijack another artist’s performance—one calibrated according to its own grammar and style, one that hyperbolizes the
    disingenuous dimensions of therapy culture—for her own gain. This is not “civil disobedience,” as I’ve also heard it called, and to suggest as much is to evacuate the principles that give that term significance. Young’s disruption was a disservice not just to the artist but to the audience, who had, after all, paid to see Patek’s piece, not Young’s. That this occurred during APAP, at Patek’s expense, when presenters were in town scouting talent, makes the whole thing especially contemptible.

    I admire transgression and provocation, but not for their own sakes. The incident with Patek was hollow transgression, a PR stunt sanctioned by Ben Pryor’s inaction, and I can’t help but wonder why we’re justifying it by calling it anything else. 

  6. Siobhan Burke
    January 24, 2014

    David,

    Thanks for this lucid response, which raises points I hadn’t considered before. Your comment reminds me of something that my friend Elena Hecht (a dancer and writer) posted on Facebook, in response to what I wrote:

    “If an artist has the stage then that is his or her forum, his or her moment to voice what he or she is trying to say. Disrupting a performance is like shutting down someone else’s opinion before they’ve had a chance to present a fully formed argument.”  

    At first I felt dismissive of Elena’s comment. Like, sure, it’s the artist’s forum, but we as audience members have the right to respond however we please, and we should exercise that right, especially in a community that values pushing boundaries and breaking rules.

    After reading your thoughts, though, I’m realizing that there’s a big difference between an audience member protesting (“civil disobedience,” as you say) and Ann Liv/Sherry’s actions. (That I felt the need to use a slash just then, between Ann Liv and Sherry, seems representative of the problem.) Responding in character — inserting a performance on the spot — turns the interruption into something else. Not a genuine protest so much as a cry for attention and, yes, an act of self-promotion.  It’s true that Ann Liv’s transgression usually takes place within the parameters of her own performances: when people have shown up to see her; when she has been asked to be there. At one point does a performer need to stop performing? I really wonder.

    Ann Liv has claimed (on Twitter, at least) that she was responding as Sherry. If she really had a problem with Rebecca’s work, it would have been more courageous for her to take off her wig and her layers of character and just respond as herself. That would have been civil disobedience. (I have a hard time believing that Sherry doesn’t like “bad acting.”) Coming from someone who scolded the performers for their lack of “authenticity” (“Have some authenticity!” is what I think she said), it also would have been more authentic.

    Where we part ways is on the question of Ben Pryor’s “inaction,” that he “sanctioned” the incident by not intervening more forcefully (though he did, I’m pretty sure, curb Sherry’s second outburst, when she returned with the bullhorn). Even if he did sanction it, was that wrong? Given the risk-taking that AR tries to engender, I think it was important (even if unfortunate and unfair to both performers and audience) to let this episode play out, without holding anyone back. 

    Also, while I sympathize with Rebecca and Sam (and while I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to to see the show in full), I have to admit: it was still fascinating to see how they negotiated that unpredictable moment. It gave me even more respect for them as performers than I already had. And I do think there’s something, though I’m not entirely sure what, to be gained from a spontaneous clash between two artists who are constantly making us question what is real, what “real” even means.

  7. Siobhan Burke
    January 24, 2014

    (What I meant to ask was, “At what point does a performer need to stop performing?” But I’m sure you got that.)

  8. [...] critic at the Times, was there. She recounted her experience in a thoughtful reflection called “Acting,” which was posted on the website of The Performance Club, a collective of arts writers founded [...]

  9. David Velasco
    January 24, 2014

    Thanks Siobhan. I appreciate the thoughtful response.

    We have much to agree about, but quickly, regarding Ben: I’ve heard several arguments on Ben’s behalf and I can’t help but wonder: If I were a curator of a group show in a gallery, and one of the artists I invited took a hammer and nail and hung their painting on top of another artist’s painting,wouldn’t it be my job to intervene?

    “Risk-taking” doesn’t mean free-for-all. And even—especially, perhaps—in an environment that embraces “risk,” it’s important to have curators who are accountable and not afraid to make decisions. If I were an artist in that environment, I’d want to perform my risky work knowing that the institution had my back.

  10. Andrew
    January 25, 2014

    Are you saying that you are glad that Sherry traumatized Rebecca and Sam for your theatrical enjoyment?  

  11. Siobhan Burke
    January 25, 2014

    David, a couple of things… 

    1) Again, I think Ben did take steps to intervene, during Sherry’s second attempt to disrupt the show. He probably could have done more, sooner. But we should leave it to him to elaborate on what he did do, during and after the performance.

    2) I agree that risk-taking doesn’t mean free-for-all. And artists should feel supported in their risk-taking. And this kind of thing shouldn’t happen all the time. When it does, though, when someone really tests the limits of what is acceptable, ruptures this set of rules that we’ve all agreed to (and probably should keep agreeing to), it stirs up questions that might otherwise go unexamined and probably need to be asked. I think it’s ok, even necessary, for a curator to let those surface. 

    2a?) A lot of people talk about the over-stimulation of APAP. You’re seeing so much work. You’re gorging yourself on live performance. Maybe this is just me (I do very easily go to a place of “what does it all mean“?) but under those circumstances, I sometimes find myself losing sight of what we are all doing there. And I think occasionally things need to go too far, so that we can reel them back in and see them more clearly and really appreciate them. Like really appreciate what it means for an artist to “have the floor” for a certain amount of time. I know I appreciate that more now than I did 10 days ago. If a third artwork, a third set of questions and insights, comes from two bashing into each other, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.

  12. Siobhan Burke
    January 25, 2014

    p.s. Kind of surprising myself with my own optimism here.

  13. Name *
    January 25, 2014

    I appreciate this thoughtful analysis of the incident, but I have to agree that impartiality is part of the problem. As artists, we are extremely vulnerable when we put our work on stage. At the same time, a theater should act as a safe space, at least safe from outside disruption. When we take performance outside, we expect disruption, maybe even being completely shut down my the authorities or harassed by passers-by. Then, it is part of the experience. But in a theater, there is a social contract between the artist and the audience. Audience members certainly have a right to their own reactions, but not to move into disrespect. Leaving a performance that you don’t enjoy is perfectly acceptable. Screaming “This is bullshit!” on your way out just isn’t. If we want to experiment with breaking that social contract, we should, but it should come from the lead of the performers. 

    You write “I’ve rarely felt so disoriented in the context of a performance, so deeply unsure of what to think or feel. Isn’t that the best thing performance can do?” I agree with you, but I think it should be the vision and skill of the artist that makes us feel this way, rather than an unplanned “intervention.”

  14. Siobhan Burke
    January 25, 2014

    Hey Andrew, just seeing your comment now. No, that’s not what I’m saying. Perhaps my second reply to David above (along with the question I pose at the end of my piece) helps to explain what I was getting at. To clarify one thing, I did not enjoy Sherry’s attack. It was upsetting, even at points when I thought it might be “part of the show.” As I wrote, I felt incredibly disoriented and destabilized. This was not pleasant, and I felt shaken after the show. I can only imagine how the performers must have felt. Still, I’m interested in what we can glean, as a community of performance makers/doers/watchers, when such upsetting moments do occur. It’s not terribly productive to end at “that was wrong” or “that shouldn’t have happened” or “how could she???” I think these moments challenge us to reflect on ourselves, our values, the structures we’ve put in place, in ways that everything-proceeding-as-normal does not. The conversations that have sprung up in the past 10 days (like this one right here) are evidence of that.

  15. Andrew
    January 25, 2014

    “But if an altercation like this can’t happen at American Realness — an encounter that gets us really thinking about what is acceptable, what is authentic, about clashes of ego and values and opinion — where can it happen? What I’m saying is, I’m glad it did.”

    Does the “it” in the last sentence in the above quote refer to the thinking about “what is acceptable…and opinion” or to the “altercation”?

    It is quite simple to have a discussion of what is acceptable in the theater without having to interrupt a performance and reduce the performers to tears.

  16. Siobhan Burke
    January 25, 2014

    Andrew, “it” refers to the altercation. Yes, true that there are other, less vindictive ways of starting a discussion about what’s acceptable in the theater.

    *, thanks for weighing in so articulately. The distinctions between theater space and public space, between interruption “at the lead of the performers” and at the lead of the audience, are important ones. And yes, impartiality might be part of the problem, but I think it’s also a decent place from which to begin a conversation.

  17. Elena Hecht
    January 25, 2014

    Siobhan,

    Thanks for briefly inputing part of my point made via Facebook in your comment above. I will state again that I did not see this performance and therefore can only comment on the implications of your argument – that Ann Liv Young’s choice has started an interesting conversation because disruption can be interesting, and that the fact that Rebecca Patek had no choice is not relevant to our conversation.

    What I feel is fundamentally missing in the argument you make is the fact that our current conversation is so highly valued, yet it has arisen thanks to a conversation that was not allowed to take place – a conversation that Patek tried to start and that was cut short by Young’s decision to silence Patek’s voice. Our conversation is a secondary conversation. It is a conversation started at the expense of another artist, and I frankly have a very difficult time understanding why it matters what conversation was started as a result. The fact remains that the original conversation was not allowed to unfold. 

    One of your responses on Facebook was the following:

    “At the same time, I’m not sure if I always equate disrespectful with wrong, or bad. I’m sort of interested in the freedom and power we have as audience members to do whatever we want, within certain bounds of course.”

    If that is the case, then I encourage you to make a piece in which you challenge the audience to use their freedom and power to do whatever they want. But again, just because you (or Young) find that interesting does not mean that Patek’s performance (or any other artist’s performance) was the venue in which to investigate this interest. It seems that you align with Young’s interests in disruption, rather than taking into account what the artist you were in the audience to see was hoping to convey. This seems unfair to Patek, and dangerous for the sanctity of live performance. 

    If I were a visual artist, and I had a strong response to a Jackson Pollock painting, I could defile a Pollock painting to make my point, or I could find a way to respond to the Pollock painting. The first choice would make my point, but it would leave nothing of the point I was responding to. The first choice would rob Pollock of his artistic statement. The second choice would start a conversation that I was interested in starting, but which had its beginnings in Pollock’s work, and would respect the fact that art deserves the chance to exist in its own right, not just relative to the responses it evokes.

    As artists we share our art in ways which allow us the security to have opinions or views that might be different, difficult, or outright unpopular. This takes for granted an element of professionalism and respect that permeates the venues within which we choose to share our work (as noted above, site-specific pieces have different fundamental elements, but those elements are accounted for when an artist chooses to perform in such a venue). Without this respect artists’ abilities to push boundaries and share divisive opinions could easily be usurped by those who disagree. If the freedom and power is given to those experiencing the art rather than those creating it, then the art itself loses its freedom and power – unless, again, the artist has chosen to hand this freedom and power over to the audience. Ultimately I stand by the fact that the artist has the floor and therefore those engaging with the art are in a position to engage respectfully. Once the performance is over, the floor is handed to those who witnessed it. But until that moment has come, it is imperative that the power remains with the artist.

    As writers we are given the chance to share our thoughts and to then read the responses. This seems fair and valuable; this has, in fact, created the conversation we are currently a part of, a conversation which is valid and useful and interesting. But if you were never allowed the chance to start this conversation because someone interrupted you in the moment of writing your opinion in the first place…well, then this conversation wouldn’t be happening at all. To me this is in essence what has happened to Patek, and it is why, as much as I have enjoyed the respectful conversation you have furthered, I have very little sympathy for the reasons why this conversation began in the first place.

  18. Amy Jacobus
    January 26, 2014

    I’ve been following all the writing/threads on this without chiming in, since I’ve never attended an American Realness festival and I feel I don’t have enough of a foundation to stand on to participate fairly. 

    I did, however, want to congratulate you on a super articulate response that describes in detail the events everyone’s talking about but not everyone has witnessed, and takes personal ownership of any critique or opinion you have of that event. This is the most eye-opening piece I’ve read on the matter – and whether I agree with your sentiments or not – I’m thankful we have you in our dance critic world, Siobhan. Write on.

  19. Siobhan Burke
    January 27, 2014

    Thank you, Amy. And Elena, I hear you on all fronts (though I still think I’m not quite as protective of “the sanctity of live performance.” Some of us need to be, though.) I don’t have much sympathy, either, for the reasons why this conversation began. I’ve become even less sympathetic over the course of this conversation. But I am curious about them. And I think those are two different things.

    Your point about the Pollock reminded me of this. 

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/01/arts/design/art-under-attack-at-tate-britain-explores-motives.html?pagewanted=1

    Not totally analogous to what happened here (Ann Liv’s outburst might fall into the “unthinking attacks” category). But relevant? Especially the final quote (from David Freedberg):

    “How is it that art matters so much that people should bother to destroy it? . . . What is it about a work of art that arouses such passions? As I’ve always said, love of art and hate of art are two sides of the same medal.”

  20. [...] Acting. Rebecca Patek and Sam Roeck in "ineter(a)nal f/ear. Rebecca Patek and Sam Roeck in “ineter(a)nal f/ear.” Photo: Ian Douglas. By Siobhan Burke. If you're reading this, you have probably read this, Andy Horwitz's …  [...]

  21. [...] people who attended my performance of ineter(a)nal f/ear on Wednesday night, January 15th at American Realness should know that what they saw was not my art work or anything that I and my fellow performer, Sam [...]

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