Ann Hirsch

Ann Hirsch discusses her latest work about ’90s cybersex

Ann Hirsch, Photos for Jobe #2, 1998/2013, ink-jet print, dimensions variable.

Video and performance artist Ann Hirsch frequently explores issues of young women’s sexual self-expression in pop culture and online. In past works, she has reported on her social experiments—like her experience as a contestant on a reality television dating show, and her stint as a hipster “camwhore,” in which she played the attention-hungry college student Caroline, gaining a cult following on YouTube. For two new pieces—an e-book and a play—Hirsch mines her childhood memories of engaging with a pedophile online in the late ’90s. Twelve, published by Klaus_eBooks, will be available soon as an iPad app. Playground, a two-person play, will be performed at the New Museum at 7 PM on October 4, 2013, as part of the Rhizome Commissions program.

MY FAMILY GOT AOL when I was in seventh grade, and as soon as I found the chat rooms, I was obsessed. I was horny and curious, but very sheltered. I didn’t have access to sexual education, so AOL opened up a whole world for me. I was very ashamed of my secret life online, and I didn’t tell a soul about what I was doing, but years later, as I worked with my camwhore character Caroline, I began to think back to these early experiences I had with the Internet. My play and my e-book both deal with this time in my life, and focus on the same cybersex relationship.

The character Anni is based on me. She’s twelve when she finds a chat room called “Twelve,” which is a community mostly of kids around her own age. She’s an outsider at first but manages to become accepted by the group before beginning to chat privately with a twenty-seven-year-old who goes by the handle jobe when hanging out in Twelve. She’s not an idiot; she knows how old he is, and that he is a pedophile, yet she’s drawn in by the idea that a cool, older hacker guy likes her. It’s a thrilling relationship at first, but then he begins asking her to do things she’s uncomfortable with. When she tries to withdraw from him, drama ensues.

As I started delving into that time from my life, I remembered more and more. The way that this older guy interacted with me has always been very clear in my mind, but as I began writing about our relationship, all of these crazy elements of the middle school politics of the chat room community came back to me. So did the intricacies of its language and culture. What was the slang back then? What did it all look like? I needed to figure these things out to re-create the story. People didn’t take screenshots back then, but I found a video that captures someone loading up AOL 4.0. That helped me construct the chat room in Photoshop. The e-book Twelve—technically it’s an app—is really about this obsolete chat room environment. The reader “signs in” to AOL as Anni, enters the chat room, and meets all the characters. As the narrative unfolds, Anni starts to IM with various characters, including jobe.

In Playground, Anni is played by Annemarie Wolf and jobe by Gene Gallerano. It begins with the two of them at their computers typing, their conversation projected behind them. Eventually, the video projection stops and they start talking directly to one another, but their dialogue is written as a script of a chat, as though they were still typing. Then they start talking normally, and ultimately they interact directly, inhabiting the same physical space. So their cyber world is translated into another fantasy dimension. This process of translation was really interesting for me. There isn’t a simple one-to-one relationship between their online and in-person interactions. For example, I translated a cybersex session into a scene for the stage, but it doesn’t translate into actual or simulated sex. Anni would not have really had sex with jobe. And jobe—who knows?—perhaps he would not actually have had sex with a child. He never asks Anni where she lives; he never tries to persuade her to meet with him. So, in the play, the cybersex remains dialogue. It’s intense, though.

For this work, I’ve really had to face what a bizarre and formative experience this was for me. And as I started to talk openly about it over the past year, a lot of people, especially women my age, have said, “I did that too.” Many of us have had similar, crazy experiences that we’re just starting to deal with and understand. So, for me, re-creating the AOL environment that was the context for this relationship is not about romanticizing an aesthetic. It’s about showing how real this other world was to me. I want to portray what it was like to come of age, and to begin experimenting sexually, right as this Internet platform for anonymous interaction emerged.