With art that hopes to go too far, who gets to ask for forgiveness instead of permission?
MOCA L.A. commissioned Marina Abramovi? in 2011 to direct the museum’s yearly gala benefit. Guests, including Hollywood A-listers, would not be merely entertained; they would be intimately, at times uncomfortably, involved in what Abramovi? called her living manifesto. The gala’s centerpiece featured professional performers acting as human tables. For this they were paid a pittance. After auditioning, performer Yvonne Rainer drafted a public letter denouncing Abramovi?’s economic and physical exploitation of cultural workers, writing, “both artist and institution have proven irresponsible in their unwillingness to recognize that art is not immune to ethical standards.” She continues:
Ms. Abramovi? is so wedded to her original vision that she—and by extension, the Museum director and curators—doesn’t see the egregious associations for the performers, who, though willing, will be exploited nonetheless. Their cheerful voluntarism says something about the pervasive desperation and cynicism of the art world such that young people must become abject table ornaments and clichéd living symbols of mortality in order to assume a novitiate role in the temple of art.
Abramovi?’s gala went forth as planned. Yet Rainer’s doubts about performance art’s moral responsibility persist. Performance, grounded in the conscious pretense that one acts in a space temporarily removed, is morally ambiguous by definition. But this state of exception does not make the ethics of performance unquestionable. Art is not performed in vacuum.
The question is not simply what ethical standards we should hold art to, but instead who sets those standards and who can ignore them. Who gets to ask for forgiveness instead of permission?
In 2013, I received an email with the subject line: “New Museum fake gala needs performers.” The gala was for Rhizome, a nonprofit organization promoting technology-based artistic practices. Rhizome had commissioned the young British artist Ed Fornieles to stage a “semifictional benefit,” and he needed volunteer performers. I was part of a performance-critique class organized by the arts collective Bruce High Quality Foundation when I received the open call. Without much hesitation, I contacted Ed and agreed to volunteer. I did it in part for Rhizome—Mark Tribe, Rhizome’s founder, was my former professor. Thanks to him, I had interned at Rhizome the summer before. But what truly hooked me was the participation the performance promised, an exclusive invitation to work with a fellow artist that, up until then, I had known only from a distance.
Fornieles was ripe for the role of Rhizome’s gala maestro. His past work investigates moments of self-aware presentation in social spaces, both physical and digital, through performance. He is not a digital artist and he is not a performer—per se. He is a social instigator, an art/event producer, and a manipulator of interactive technologies that generate personae. In one project, Dorm Daze he directed a performance within a closed network on Facebook, where participants engaged on “fake” profiles modeled after those of American college students. With Maybe New Friends, Fornieles programmed “seven character bots” to aggregate hundreds of social-media accounts in order to produce identifiable “voices” of “ambitious young men and women.” He labeled the totality of their social presence an “online sitcom.” His previous party-as-performance, Animal House, parodied American frat house culture for a group of prim English kids that had probably never heard of a keg stand.
Like Abramovi?, Fornieles proposed Rhizome’s faux benefit as a site of performance, asking attendees to “adopt a heightened persona and lose themselves in the glamorous world of a New York charity gala.” With each assigned role, Fornieles mapped characters common to the art-world social milieu: the party-girl socialite that confuses fashion for art, the alpha-male asshole who brings coke to the party, the social-climbing unpaid intern looking for free work and paid sex. Fornieles’s project would set these archetypes off in a space of fake privilege, drenching each with drugs and drink and letting the dots collide. He named the event New York New York Happy Happy.
Prior to the event, gala attendees were asked to pay ticket prices based on the level of participation they agreed to experience. A lower-priced ticket of $50 (a bargain as far as gala tickets go) would give attendees admission and “conversation with an artist.” For increasing increments of $50, attendees would gain access to a VIP area, public acknowledgment at the event, “dedicated arm candy” for the night, and the permission to play themselves. Fornieles also hired performers—MCs, dancers, musical guests. To round things out, he put out an open call for performance artists based in New York to volunteer.
From our brief phone interview before the performance, Fornieles could tell I was hungry for love. My assignment for the night, went as follows:
NAME: Ana Cecilia Alvarez
NOTES: beautiful mess, fashioniester bitch
Clothing: evening, white/black
YOUR KEYWORD: Hungry for love / restless
limo: yes VIP: no
With my role designated, Fornieles shared the rundown of the night’s planned stages with written instructions. During the first stage, the goal was to establish “a feel good vibe.” “This is when your actions should be all about making people feel comfortable and bringing them out of themselves.” In the second stage “some of the more physical elements to the performance” would unfold “At this point,” according to the instructions, “your actions should become extreme and disjointed from the normal way of inhabiting the party.” In the third stage “the most extreme actions and performances can be brought out,” including the “force undress element of the performance.” The final event simply read: ORGY.
With NY NY HP HP, Fornieles intended to release participants’ suppressed sociopathic tendencies in an institutionally sanctioned, fuck-all bacchanal. But this recklessness came padded for protection. During rehearsals and before the performance, Fornieles called for performers to care for each other’s safety. Performers were asked to read the instructions carefully, talk privately with Fornieles to unpack their assigned roles, and attend one of several rehearsals. With the performance’s bracketed permissiveness to entertain a darker self-incarnation, Fornieles hoped to bring forth a social moment nearing the hedonistic disavowal of an orgy—a simultaneous climax of communal relinquishment and selfish, self-seeking pleasure. He set up the domino pieces, and with one tap watched them all fall on top of him.
On November 7, 2013, when I arrived at the New Museum, I told the security guard I was here for the gala, for Rhizome, for Ed. At the top floor, the doors opened to reveal the stage of the art world’s fake mingling and moneymaking: The Sky Room; a glass-walled box offering stunning views of the Lower East Side. Inside, a set of furniture lined with white fur crowded the space. Stage lights marked the set for the “real” performances of the night. There, on a podium, Hari Nef, actress and delegated MC, checked mic levels while three burlesque dancers in pushup leotards and fishnets practiced their splits in front of a projection that read “Rhizome: THE FUTURE OF CHANGE.” Ed emerged from backstage to check on last-minute preparations. I was told to join the other performers in the balcony and help myself to some Prosecco before the guests arrived.
Outside I met my cohorts, many of whom I knew. With giggling winks we inhaled cigarettes to ease the tension while sizing each other up. Another performer looked me up and down with a questioning grimace—“And who are you supposed to be?” I responded with a knowing smile.
The Prosecco ran out an hour after the guests arrived. I winced a laugh when the bartender handed me a plastic, tinfoil covered “cup of red wine.” These were not typical gala amenities. The bartenders laughed too; they were in on it.
The initial hours of spilled drinks and blurry selfies allowed for enthused tactility between guests. It was unclear what percentage of the attendees were there in earnest. Each exchanged glance seemed to ask, “Are you in on it too?”
Since pretense was the name of the game, much of the tempered, measured bullshit served at most galas was lost. The throwaway small-talk art-world schmoozing became instead an opportunity to fuck and get fucked with. I was overtly sexual and bitchy. I drank too much. I saw people in pairs going to the bathroom. I followed.
The triggers and events unfolded with an unplanned carelessness. For all of its premeditated structure, the event picked up its own pace. Unnoticeable at first, the lights dimmed to deep purple. Hari lip-synced, the girls twirled and split, Rhizome’s director Heather Corcoran spoke, though her message fell on deaf ears, drowned out by the Chippendales dancers beckoning us to touch their chests.
I left momentarily to buy cigarettes at the bodega next door, for rest and a reality check. While I was out, the food arrived. Performers were carried out in tray tables, their bodies covered only by salty salami slices. The guests feasted on their cured meats while other performers—mostly women wearing skin-colored underwear—posed on podiums. One performer removed her undergarment in protest, testing the fuck-it attitude of the crowd. Chaos crept in.
I returned in time for the “forced undressing.” At Hari’s command, a crowd descended on two performers and began ripping off their clothes. The undressing felt falsely playful and potentially violent. The performers wrangled, the crowd egged on. Some attendees stood back in perplexed discomfort. Most were thoroughly amused. I caught Rhizome editor and curator Michael Connor standing near the elevator. He had been containing and policing for most of the night, at times ushering the chosen to ride the limo parked outside the museum. Now he stood back, palpably concerned.
Out of nowhere, Britney Spears blasted and feathers exploded into the air. The mood lifted to a tween slumber party on coke. The last I remember before dropping to the ground in joyful communion with my fellow performers, I was sitting at the VIP section finishing a line off of someone’s iPhone, a camera recording us and Mark Tribe standing silently feet away. Just as Ed stepped in to call the set destruction off, someone began to rip apart a wall of the VIP section. The wreckage could not be stopped. As the set began to fall, so did the crowd. Almost instantaneously, bodies dropped to the ground, writhing, as a circle of cameras and confused spectators attempted not to trip over the joyfully leering pile of limbs. I gleefully descended into the pit, or was pulled. At that moment, it didn’t matter how I sank or whom I kissed.
Yet instead of reaching a climactic release, the fevered chaos of NY NY HP HP was always circumscribed by the boundaries set by each performer. Even as a performance, NY NY HP HP still operated as a party. And parties are not wild pits of abandon. Nowhere else do we dissect and rehearse our interactions more than in a weekend’s social charade. Our hypermediated self-presentations, rehearsed daily in digital social milieus, go out on a Friday night to be tested and curbed.
As a performer, intentionally playing “the sociopath within me” made me hypervigilant of my affect, not genuinely indifferent and sociopathic. The overwhelming presence of press and cameras throughout the Sky Room only underlined this self-surveillance. Instead of freeing myself, I acted out in order to be watched. I played along, but I hardly lost myself.
In the mornings following the gala, performers reeled from the night’s hangover. Though most performers I talked to reveled in the night’s debauchery the morning after, a definite uneasiness colored the aftermath of the performance. In my performance-critique class, NY NY HP HP participants debated the effects and ethics of Fornieles’s work. MFA-vetted, Bushwick-bred 20-somethings questioned whether exchanging their young sex for the hazy cultural capital of performing at the New Museum was exploitive.
Online, conversations flared over the sexually violent undertones of NY NY HP HP. In a closed Facebook conversation, female digital and performance artists debated to what extent sexual exploitation or molestation was permissible within performance. Some argued for a social practice that encourages critical reflexivity without compromising participants, while others defended the position that artistic intent transcended ethics. Most comments in the hundred-plus-long thread, including mine, were loath to condemn Fornieles’s practice outright. And these ambivalent conversations were at odds with the positive press the piece received, in which the performance was blanched of criticality and represented as an exotic curio: daring New York Artists dancing with Chippendales and eating salami slices off of each other’s nipples.
In this context, Rainer’s letter damning Abramovi?’s performance began to haunt me. Art can provoke critical reflexivity but this reflexivity isn’t necessarily transgressive, any more than NY NY HP HP’s reveling in sexual violence or exploitative power dynamics is inherently liberating. We could debate Fornieles’s intent in planning the performance, but what was my own in participating? How did my consent implicitly perpetrate the piece’s exploitation?
Rainer argues that consent given in a context of a drastically asymmetrical power dynamics is essentially meaningless. But NY NY HP HP’s appeal was less to have performers subdue themselves to an authority than to defuse authority to a communal impulse, to harvest a group mentality. “I suppose what this performance ends up being is about,” Fornieles told me, “is this tension between the idea of yourself as a free-thinking individual and just a part of a network or a hive mind or a mob.” This tension recalls the infamous work of 1950s, psychologist Stanley Milgram, who got subjects to willfully harm one another in the name of a scientific research. In Milgram’s experiments, the comfort of obedience seduced people into believing themselves morally inculpable for any harm they inflicted in the name of “scientific advancement.” Similarly, Forinieles’s play with devaluing individual accountability to the collective whims of a hive mind is really a question of conformity. Consent assumes accountability; conformity merely pardons it.
Consenting to exploitation to gain access to a network is just another form of conforming to authority, like accepting the terms and conditions of Facebook. In NY NY HP HP the network was the “glamorous New York art world”—an already nebulous milieu of muddied aesthetic and economic aspiration, guarded within museum walls, funded by gratuitous galas. As Rainer contends, it demands ethical compromise for participation.
I interned without pay for Rhizome. I volunteered for Fornieles’s performance. If NY NY HP HP was meant to provoke a self-reflexive critique of my “willing” exploitation for the sake of art-world advantage, it’s worth noting that the critical conversation about the performance began in an already existing, private, all-female space online. NY NY HP HP’s critical potential stayed well within the very marginalized groups who already discuss such inequities ad nausuem. If the end result of inciting exploitative scenarios merely reflects the self-evident, the performance is just a rehearsal.