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