Jail Bait


Ann Liv Young, Ann Liv Young in Jail, 2014. Performance view, Jack, Brooklyn, NY. Ann Liv Young (right). Photo: Ed Forti.

ANN LIV YOUNG had been in jail for about two hours when I got to Jack. She didn’t seem especially unhappy about it. She seemed, in fact, and no surprise, like she had the upper hand—for example, she had a chair, more than was provided to anyone who had paid fifteen dollars to come look at the performance art incarceration spectacle that was set to unfold over the next few nights at the interdisciplinary Brooklyn space. I mean, her wig was slightly askew. But when isn’t it?

When I returned three nights later, the scene was much the same, with two key differences: The rickety cell constructed within Jack had been strengthened by means of a plywood roof, and the door had been chained and padlocked, so that Young couldn’t exit at will, as she had done during the opening evening of her term. Young’s escape was in violation of the conceptual rules laid out by Jack’s artistic director Alec Duffy, but Young, reasonably enough, pointed out that she didn’t see much point in staying inside an unlocked cell just because somebody said it was art.

“Thank you all for coming tonight,” she said cheerfully at the end of that first, four-hour night. “I’m sorry if I shattered your dreams when I left the jail.”

Ann Liv Young: Destroyer of Worlds & Unrepentant Shatterer of Dreams. For those of you who have been living under a rock/paying attention to less insular social dramas, Young was ostensibly being punished for, among other misbehaviors, a nearly year-old transgression at American Realness in which she interrupted the work of the artist Rebecca Patek; I wasn’t at the scene of that crime, and so won’t write about it here, beyond observing that it’s intriguing to think about the evening, and various responses to it, in light of the ways in which young female artists like Emma Sulkowicz are now using (repurposing?) sexual assault as a subject—the kid gloves, in other words, are coming off. (Patek wrote her own response here to Young’s interruption, and seems understandably disgusted by the show at Jack; the online and social media rabbit hole goes deep on this one, so have at.)

Young and I go way back as public figures. I’ve critiqued and interviewed her; she’s stuck foreign objects up her anus in performative responses to my written responses of her performances; we’ve had Twitter exchanges ranging from philosophical debates to insignificant falsification of the facts. At Jack, she started calling me “Claudina,” a nickname which has already since been repeated to me by another audience member, the artist Jim Findlay. The power of art to transform lives. Great, thanks.

Here it seems important to say that I don’t claim to know Young at all as a private figure, and have zero interest in contributing to the ongoing public deliberations around what sort of person she is, which ranges from her being “psychotic” to “an unfit mother” and is about many things, including ongoing and tedious societal ideas about how women should behave. Like her art, don’t like her art [I go back and forth], but give me a fucking break with the gendered moralizing.

But also, it’s hard to have too much (as in, any) meaningful sympathy for claims by Young’s team that she is being somehow persecuted for the sins of her unruly theatrical creation Sherry. (Though I was intrigued to learn that one of the major European backers of Elektra, a show created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, who was in attendance at Jack, pulled out following the Realness kerfuffle.)

Because, really, one of the things that’s most intriguing about Young these days is the extent to which her onstage persona is impossible to fully separate from Sherry, a fearless character maniacally parasitic in scope.

“Are you guys clear that Sherry and I are different people?” Young asked on the first night. What an uninteresting question.

Here’s an exchange I liked more. It was in full swing Saturday when I walked in, Young going at it with an audience member who had somehow gotten himself to this unwise level of individual attention from Young:

Young: “You can’t trust me. If you were in this cage I would rip you to shreds in a flat second.”

Guy: “Yeah.”

Young, accompanied by a devilish, condescending smile: “You really think I’d do that?”

And then later, while effortfully squeezing her head in and out of the thick rubber bars of the jail: “You understand that I’m a character, right? That I’m not real… I’m contradicting myself? Never. I am a contradiction. I am a made up character—for people like you.”

Young’s ability to work a room—and, maybe more to the point, people’s (not to mention one’s own) abilities to variously allow, deflect, resist, or succumb to her deeply charming, deeply unsettling machinations—is the ur-subject of every unscripted Young performance. It is the material with which she builds a fractious, truly public space, the sort that rarely exists within art that promises to create the very same thing.

On Saturday night, for example, Young took one look at Findlay, asked if he was a performance artist (he said yes) and quickly moved on after they shared a nod of mutual “you are not a soft target” recognition. She and I shared some banter that left me feeling both energized and destabilized, having revealed more than I intended, and less than I would have had she not moved on. And she spent a good amount of time alternately interrogating and befriending a young woman about her relationship with a transman, with what seemed to me a keen understanding of how much, and where, she could push. Young got the men to turn around so the woman would dance topless for a female audience. Why did that woman continue the exchange? What did it profit her? The fast-moving play of complex emotions across her face was riveting.

Such fascinating encounters are gussied up by things like raucous karaoke renditions of pop songs (Kanye West, fittingly, is a frequent choice), urination so matter of fact you might miss it, the handing out of clothing as gifts (Claudina got a beaded tunic for her troubles) and group movement exercises.

Thomas, her partner in crime, afterward Tweeted that “‪@ClaudiaLaRocco‬‬‬‬‪ loves the @annlivyoung #jail show @jackartsny so much she has been here every night!!”‬‬‬‬

Not quite—but I stayed longer than I can remember staying for any recent durational work. And while I was sometimes bored and sometimes totally turned off, I was held by a question I couldn’t answer, then or now: Is there any other contemporary performance artist this adept at manipulating a crowd, physical and virtual? Young, like Kanye, is a celebrity monster—one whose power is drawn directly from her creators. Us.

Claudia La Rocco

Ann Liv Young in Jail” ran December 3–6, 2014 at Jack in Brooklyn, New York.

Tere O’Connor, BLEED, 2013. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, December 10, 2013. Photo: Paula Court.

I’M ON A PLANE from Seattle to San Francisco. A little plane, tilting fiercely the way little planes do high up here in the dark clouds. It’s Monday night, 6:29 to be precise. I have just spent the weekend watching four dances by Tere O’Connor: The large ensemble work BLEED, which enfolds and explodes elements from the three smaller dances Secret Mary, Poem, and Sister.

So many bodies cast into and about space. Pleasures of full movement, both simple and ornate. Collisions of virtuosity, formalism, technique, rigmarole, the pedestrian, the absurd. All the little cruelties we casually gift to others, to ourselves. The events that don’t quite come into being, and in fact are gone before we have ever fully registered them. Torsos folding, manic arms, sensuous and sensual grasping. Bodies curled in and curving. Breathing room. Gender performed and performing. Moments in time as characters.

This mini-survey came courtesy of On the Boards theater and Velocity Dance Center, making Seattle the only place other than the American Dance Festival to showcase this particular moment in O’Connor’s extensive body of work; lucky them, and unlucky the rest of the country. I had seen all of these dances before, other than Sister, and I have seen just about everything O’Connor has made in the past decade. But the cumulative weight of experiencing them all together like this—I wasn’t expecting it to feel so important.

The mind watching others. The mind watching itself. That’s something I thought a lot while taking in these restless, exactingly built dances. They are the sentences I would choose if I had to say what these interconnected pieces are about—but the less reductive answer is that this question of “aboutness” is the wrong one entirely to ask, or answer.

Why bring it up at all, then? Yes, that’s a better question—but people seem to want to ask it all the time of O’Connor, shaping the wording this way and that but essentially wanting to know, what’s this about? His resistance to this sort of narrative, and his insistence on dance being ill equipped to deal with singularities, is part of what makes sliding into his choreographic world such a relief.

And, of course, O’Connor is entirely in control of his narrative as a public figure—he talks easily and elegantly about the politics and poetics of his work, both of which come from strong traditions of opposition to neatly understood meanings in dance. (Along with a deep affinity to film, O’Connor cites Merce Cunningham as a strong early influence on him, not stylistically but philosophically.) So this becomes another way to consider aboutness: dance as defiance, as movement away from message-making. Think of a wilderness surrounded by a glittering city.

“I’m not looking to square up,” he said in a post-show discussion with the audience at Velocity following Sister. And earlier: “Language as a stitchery on the outside of consciousness, not its trumpet.”

I love that phrase. It connects in my mind (among many other things) to the impossibility of writing about dance, what a fraught translation it is, and how necessary that failure feels. Again, I’m thinking of wilderness. It’s somehow like being an explorer, thinking maybe this time you’ll find a river that gets you from one ocean to the other, while knowing that possibility only exists if you never find it. Ambiguity as salve for the oppressiveness of our shrinking, beset upon globe.

But still (words accrue)—may I tell you that Sister is pure deliciousness, a battle and commiserating of wills, if wills could be understood as rhythms? And maybe I can say that Poem is sublime, oblique formalism, or that Secret Mary is at once arch and abject: here I am! here I am! (wink wink)?

Or perhaps the better information to give you is that the performers in BLEED, who are also the performers in various groupings in those other dances, are the following people: Tess Dworman, devynn emory, Natalie Green, Michael Ingle, Ryan Kelly, Oisín Monaghan, Cynthia Oliver, Heather Olson, Mary Read, Silas Riener, and David Thomson. And that these people are such good and smart company—you hardly know where to look when they’re all onstage. Luckily (or, I guess, unluckily, depending on your disposition), there’s no one to tell you how to direct your gaze.

And yes, I know, I am gushing. And, yes, of course, there are things that I’m not sure about in the work—sometimes it can feel a bit too the same in its unceasing change, or sometimes I wonder if O’Connor isn’t cheating just a little bit by using James Baker’s scores to guide his audiences (emotionally, if not narratively), and whether he might make sartorial decisions that give the dancers somewhat more neutral breathing room than Walter Dundervill’s brilliant object (even objectifying) costumes.

But that isn’t so much what I want to say here on this little plane, which is not so much tilting this moment as lurching. I want instead to say that I am grateful that these dances, and the man who made them, and the dancers who fulfill them, exist. I want to say: thank you.

Claudia La Rocco

BLEED, poem, and Secret Mary were performed November 20–22 at On the Boards in Seattle.