perverse participations

Julia Bryan-Wilson: I was drawn to your brief descriptions of participants who enjoy being on display, despite (or because of) being “used.” Can you say more about the “fetishized disavowal” (as you put it) of self-exploitation? It’s important to recognize, too, that many people who participate in what you call “delegated performance” get something out of their participation, something that is not necessarily financial or exceeds the dollar amounts that are transacted.

Claire Bishop: Yes, on the whole I would say that people enjoy their own self-exploitation in a work of art, and this is totally overlooked in discussions of this type of performance. It’s something I only worked out by interviewing participants and organizing these projects myself. I would be constantly checking with performers to make sure they were ok, comfortable, not too bored, etc. But people love being in a work of art, especially in a gallery. It fuels a certain narcissistic recognition.

Conversations: Intelligent Discomfort, Mousse 35 (October–November 2012)


When I first started practicing dance, the enjoyment I took in the challenges of technical execution made me fantasize about being the kind of dancer whom choreographers work with like a favored instrument. It was a reductive and objectifying understanding of dance of course, but that’s the nature of fantasy, and I still indulge it a bit when I work as a mover for other artists. The pleasure of being instrumentalized, of being given a set of tasks and movements to execute, is made complex by the fact of individual agency and physical idiom: the impossibility of not making a movement your own, once your body comes to know it.

Entering a performance work as an audience-volunteer or a member of the public invited to participate introduces the condition of the unknown, which is thrilling or terrifying (or both), depending on your level of comfort with social experiments, performance, improvisation, or public self-presentation. Without inside knowledge of the piece and a rehearsal period, impromptu participants for works in live performance proffer their vulnerability and trust in what will be asked of them and in the people witnessing and directing them. The implied or explicit social contract that’s established once someone agrees to participate is a collaborative work’s ethical center, and the starting point for the relational dynamics that emerge, whether or not by the artist’s design.

A couple years ago, the San Francisco International Film Festival, SFMoMA, and the Brava Theater Center hosted Miranda July’s New Society, a performance piece built on many levels of audience participation. Over the course of two hours, July engaged the audience in a sustained fiction that begins when she pretends to forget the show she meant to present. This derailment leads to July’s proposition that instead of ending the show, we stay in the theater with her, forever, to form a new society and forget the world and its people outside the theater doors. The theatrical experiment engaged audience participants, singly and in groups, invited onto stage or directed in their seats, prompted with notes or verbal instructions from July. With July narrating or participants reading anecdotes off of scripts, we time traveled together for over 20 years, through the establishment and decline of our society, and its eventual dissolution and our release from the theater at the show’s end.

Program for Miranda July’s New Society (April 28-29, 2015 at the Brava Theater Center, San Francisco), out of which audience members were instructed to tear units of a new currency to use in the improvised marketplace we created during intermission (I never spent mine). Photo: Sophia Wang.

I was seated in the front row, and early on, July began singling me out and flattering me, interrupting her storytelling to draw everyone’s attention to me, saying that my magnetism had distracted her. This, it later seemed to me, was a grooming tactic which ensured that by the time July was at the point in the show where she wanted to bring me on stage to take her place as the new leader of our collective society, I had been sufficiently seduced, flattered, and prepared for the invitation. It made it harder to say no. Some things I was asked to do: perform an improvised dance, doing my best to imitate the dance she had performed at the start of the show; tell my life’s story in a few minutes; rapidly age (as the years passed) by drawing lines on my face with an eyeliner pencil; and transition July back into her leadership role when she returned to stage.

Some instructions and stories were printed on sheets of paper left out for me, some actions I carried out by following July’s gestures from where she was seated in the audience, and some things I did because instructions to me were integrated into her continued narration of the show. I carried out my tasks in a trance of fear, excitement, pleasure, confusion, and shame. I was absolutely compelled by a sense of responsibility to July, who had entrusted me with the stage, the audience’s attention, and, I felt, an implicit request to not disrupt the suspension of disbelief she had invoked: to help her sustain the fiction and the script we were inhabiting.

I’m dwelling on the responsibility I felt to July and her implicit and explicit script because something else I witnessed that night raised a question for me about the limits of consent and agency available to participants under these conditions. One of the evening’s participants was tasked with reading an anecdote that described a long unresolved argument she has with her partner over the course of the society’s evolution, on whether or not a joke using the n-word was funny. Both times reading from her notes, she spoke the n-word itself, not the euphemism. I felt the heightened attention in the room. I recall feeling surprised at that choice: that she had said that word aloud (acknowledging that I can’t know how she identifies or experiences the world, she did not appear to be a person of color), and that July had written this story for a volunteer participant to voice: in that moment, serving as the mouthpiece for July’s text, shielding July from having to say (or not say) it herself. I wondered about July’s intentions, and if she had annotated the text for her reader to affirm their choice and agency. Knowing how much self-imposed pressure I’d felt to carry out the script during my sudden, surprise solo, how driven I felt to execute fully and well, I wondered what I would have done if I’d been handed that script.

I’ve been thinking about this moment in terms of the ethics and efficacy of participatory tactics I recently witnessed as an audience member to two Bay Area works explicitly engaged in racial, gender, and social justice discourses. Remembering the complex combination of pleasure, vulnerability, fear, and shame I had felt in suddenly finding myself on stage under July’s direction and the gaze of hundreds of audience members, I’ve been testing the proposal Claire Bishop offers that participatory works in which artists delegate others as performers might be productively understood as spaces “not unlike BDSM sex,” in which the “perverse pleasures underlying these artistic gestures offer an alternative form of knowledge about capitalism’s commodification of the individual, especially when both participants and viewers appear to enjoy the transgression of subordination to a work of art” (Bishop, Artificial Hells, p. 238). What emancipatory fantasies and political transgressions do we pursue when we submit our bodies as instruments for art and artists?

Brontez Purnell in the role of Rachel, an “intake nurse for conceptual whiteness,” in Annie Danger’s The White Stuff: Elite Social Justice Boot Camp (March 23-24, 2017 at CounterPulse, San Francisco). Photo: Keith Hennessy / Courtesy of Brontez Purnell.

Annie Danger’s The White Stuff: Elite Social Justice Boot Camp, developed in collaboration with Anna Martine Whitehead, Brontez Purnell, and Elena Rose, premiered at San Francisco’s CounterPulse this past March and advertised itself as a “full-immersion, hardcore, anti-racist boot camp” and “dis-course on white supremacy.” The performance project was divided into three racially-determined spaces: a “whites only” section on the theater’s stage where attendees participated in group games and activities foregrounding the privileges, pathologies, and history of white supremacy, a catered “VIBIPOC” private lounge for black, indigenous, and other people of color, and an observation deck where BIPOC as well as those who may identify outside of the given categories could watch the activities on stage. In a fourth space, the reception and intake area, attendees self-identified their racial status with an understanding of the spaces this would give them entry into or from which they’d be barred.

It’s an entirely different writing project to get into where an ethnically East Asian person locates her racial identity in a field where the terms are white, black, and indigenous. That evening I chose to participate as a non-white attendee, moving through the VIBIPOC and observation spaces, and eventually crossing the boundary between the deck and the stage to get a closer look at the activity stations that white-identified participants had been led through by organizers styled as drill sergeant, aerobic instructor, nurses, and bureaucrats. Holding Bishop’s hypothesis in mind that participatory works exploit the pleasures and tensions participants experience through submission to an artwork (or artist), I’ve been recalling the dynamics of White Stuff participants offering themselves up for public display and public shaming and the organizer’s stated goals, which seem both punitive and pedagogical:

We are going about this through a fake boot camp that has a series of activity stations designed to stir up serious white feelings by pushing people’s faces into the big and little horrors of white history, microaggressions, and white fragility. There is a “graduation” ceremony (spoiler alert: everyone fails, nobody passes) that consists of facilitated discussions on the themes and emotions of the show. The ultimate goal being to remind white attendees that understanding our context as white people in the US might be more than a paralyzing guilt fest and in fact become a motivating factor to move deeper into our own learning process as well as commit more firmly to working in earnest to dismantle white supremacy.

Annie Danger, in an online discussion about the event

While I was thinking about all this, I remembered a children’s book called The Whipping Boy, about a boy enlisted to receive the beatings that a prince has been assigned but is too privileged to receive. So the prince’s punishment ultimately finds its subject through producing, in the prince, feelings of guilt at allowing another person to suffer in his rightful place. The perversity of this arrangement, and the truth that this is one of the most powerful social relationships that humans ever invented, are both evident. I understand the pleasures of being punished and of punishing: of “pushing people’s faces into the big and little horrors” and creating an exquisite experience of guilt. But I’d like to see more evidence that the pleasures of public shaming and placing white guilt on display as performance in a theater are effective, motivating experiences, if only because the project claims its ultimate goal is to create experiences to rally greater commitments to dismantling white supremacy and deeper learning on the part of its white attendees. If we remove efficacy from evaluation of this work, and if the work relieved itself of the need to be understood fundamentally as public and political activism, I wonder what other forms and pleasures could emerge; I wonder what pleasures we might perversely and productively withhold?

The Night Room installation at Chapter 510 (Oakland), part of “Black Women Dreaming – A Ritual Rest” (March 26 – April 7, 2017, multiple sites). Photo: Sophia Wang.

There’s an effective withholding at the center of “Black Women Dreaming—A Ritual Rest,” the current episode of Amara Tabor-Smith and Ellen Sebastian Chang’s two year, episodic and site-specific performance project, House/Full of Black Women. “Black Women Dreaming,” developed in collaboration with Dana Kawano, Shelley Davis Roberts, Alexa Burrell, and Yoshi Asai, is a two week period of events that includes public talks and gatherings, ongoing writing workshops for black teen girls, readings and performances of live music, and a gallery installation that serves as a visual link to the “Black Women Dreaming” ritual focus of this project: a week-long “durational performance ritual for black women to sleep, rest, and dream intentionally” in a dedicated, undisclosed boarding house in West Oakland. Black women from the organizers’ extended community were invited to sign up to sleep for periods of between two to ten hours, and to bring their recorded dreams from this period into a public performance ritual to conclude the episode. House/Full of Black Women was conceived of by Tabor-Smith and Chang as a long term engagement with the displacement, well-being, and trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland. One of the project’s downtown Oakland locations, Regina’s Door, is a sanctuary for survivors of sex trafficking, and Harriet Tubman is an inspiration for the project’s current focus on sleep and dreaming. Tubman experienced narcolepsy as the result of a head injury inflicted by a slave owner, and the project’s artists attribute Tubman’s anti-slavery activism to the visionary dreaming and resourcing she was able to access through episodic bouts of sleep.

The project’s multiple episodes, community-engaged education, and visual and ritual performance-based events produce multiple entry points for participation in the work, and also demarcate space and function across public vs. closed gatherings. The withheld location of “Black Women Dreaming”’s participatory performance of rest, sleep, and dreaming — and the more than 50 women participating in this ritual rest — constitute an autonomous space that is inaccessible to me, but absolutely active in the work as a mediating imaginary. This imagined space activates me as a witness and stands in ritual and material relation to other sites and facets of the work: the sculptural installations and transformed spaces for rest and napping at downtown Oakland’s Chapter 510, the dedicated site for conversation, singing, and storytelling at Regina’s Door, the public gatherings for talks, music, and readings based on the dreams collected by these rested women. Because “Black Women Dreaming”’s ritual performance is protected from the conditions of public display, if I were to look for the tension of a participating pleasure, I can only locate mine: my imaginings of the space these women are occupying, the comforts that have been created for them, the luxury of rest they’re receiving, the alliances and affinities being built, the dreams this week has inspired. I’m a voyeur without a view, and the space that withholding produces feels like something beautifully new.

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