Vanessa Place, 2013. Photo: Patrick Greaney.

Vanessa Place is a writer, artist, and criminal defense attorney who currently lives and works in Los Angeles. Her 2010 book The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and Law critically examined the laws and punitive measures currently employed in the US regarding sex crimes, in addition to proposing that we expand our conception of “rape culture” into an understanding of culture broadly. She has for the past year been touring a recent work, a set of rape jokes, If I Wanted Your Opinion, I’d Remove the Duct Tape, 2016–, which she performed most recently in the Nu Performance Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, and at the Swiss Institute in New York.

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT INTERESTS ME A GREAT DEAL WHEN I WORK WITH SOUND, especially sound installations, is thinking about the bodies that are receiving it. A lot of sound art seems to envision an empty gallery and people standing there, ideally situated, as opposed to thinking of them as more liquid sculptures. The rape-jokes piece was initially supposed to be in a group show in LA—I was canceled after some of the other artists complained—but I was looking forward to how it would have played in a very long corridor, which, as you walked through it, would have triggered the jokes. The jokes would always be following you, starting a few seconds after you passed a motion sensor. And then the more people that would be there, the more the jokes would pile up on each other. But if you stood still and didn’t move, they would stop. You have to run away or freeze, which are the two favorite choices when confronted with a traumatic situation. When you introduce a figure, the body of the performer or the artist, what ends up happening is that everything is subject to interpellation through that body, and what that body signifies. And rightly so. If it’s a book, you can close it at any given moment. It’s hard to stop listening to something. We can’t close our eyes—so to speak—to sound. Sound behaves sculpturally.

The structure of a joke, according to Freud, is that it is a sudden discharge of repression, often sexual, often kind of obscene. And so, in that way, the joke itself ends up being structured, or ends up having the same structure, as a rape—a violent discharge of repressed sexuality. During an event once, I said something along the lines of, “We can assume that a certain percentage of people in the room have been the victims of sexual violence…” But then I added, “…and the perpetrators.” Statistically speaking, it’s true. And another bit of violence. The history of the joke and the tradition of jokes have always been wrapped up with questions of power. But at this moment when people—especially on the left, which includes many people in arts communities—are feeling embattled and less powerful, or with less hope, let’s say, which is another form of power in a sense, the idea of the joke becomes more useful. Something that occurred to me is that Conceptualism in writing has always come to the fore in times of apparent but degenerate totalitarianism. In Chile, it was during the 1970s under Pinochet, and Moscow during the same period—it’s usually right before things fall apart.

Our culture is rape culture. Our culture is racist culture. I don’t know if the United States, for example, could exist without racism. It certainly hasn’t been able to historically—sometimes the heat is turned up, sometimes turned down, but there’s always a certain simmering. We’ve created these internal divides and we seem to like our internal divides. When you see people saying, “We’re all immigrants,” you immediately know that we are not all immigrants—some of us were refugees, some of us were chattel. The thing with rape culture is that rape is like winning the bad-luck lottery. There are things you can do to improve your chances and there are things you can do to reduce your chances, but we’re all in the lottery. Rape is actually a judgment about something—it’s a verdict. You’re convicted of rape. Rape isn’t a thing, so to speak, but a frame. And an encounter, like a joke.

Vanessa Place performs If I Wanted Your Opinion, I’d Remove the Duct Tape, 2016–, for 500 Words.

One of the things that aesthetics can do is conjure that encounter, where in some ways, the stakes are very low. Nobody’s going to end up dead in a ditch; a rape joke isn’t a rape. But in another sense the stakes end up being very high, because it’s a confrontation with oneself all the time, and what I’ve found with my practice is people often react very angrily to being put in that position, no matter how much discourse there is around the audience’s or the viewer’s being responsible for the interpretation of a work. They—we—want frames. Instead, I make traps and stand in them and wave, and often get caught, but that’s part of standing in a trap. To me, that’s more illuminating than acting as if I could stand outside of the trap, or fashion the frame. We all have our own traps, which we bait with what we like and which are baited with things we like. If we could agree on our complicity, then there might be a possibility of having a different kind of conversation. There’s a fantasy of possible purity, or exculpation, which is even worse. Violence isn’t going anywhere, and it’s very useful in many respects, psychically as well as physically. And given that that’s part of our repertoire, how do we want to deploy it?

I don’t like work that really just confirms, generally speaking, what I thought before I saw it. To be affirmed that I’m right is the place that one occupies anyway, and then it’s just a question of where you’re going to have dinner after. But to be confronted by the possibility that I’m wrong, or the possibility that I need to rethink things—that’s very upsetting. It seems we’re living in a time when it’s simply a war of affect. People just bring their affect to the table—you bring yours and I bring mine, and we have an affect face-off. The difficulty becomes that, as I heard a woman say much to my horror, although I think she’s right, “All I have are my feelings.” Feelings don’t change—we just add more evidence to support them.

I once said my work is giving people what they didn’t know they didn’t want, but now they do. It’s the cruel gift of giving the thing they did not want to see or hear. Maybe, deep down, I just like people and want to make them happy.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley