At work, I pretend to be a museum guard, posting myself behind a wall in the last gallery of a large group exhibition. Whenever a visitor turns the corner and starts to look at the surrounding artworks, my striptease begins. I wear heeled boots that make loud clacking sounds when I pace around the gallery; black slacks, weighty around the waist so that they slip right off once I unzip; a black button-down shirt; a windbreaker with the museum logo embroidered on the chest; and a lanyard with a nametag around my neck. The nametag is attached to a recoiling zip line, so I can slide it out and let it snap back when I am looking for punctuation. I wear a stretchy sports bra, as I like to be able to pull it off over my head without the awkward reach around to unclasp and reclasp. I wear underwear that fully covers my butt crack but doesn’t make my stomach or thighs bulge over the elastic.
My breasts and nipples are small. My skin is pale and a little sun damaged. My butt and thighs have cellulite, stretch marks, and varicose veins. One day I stripped for a woman and her preteen son. Afterward she approached to thank me for showing him “what a real woman looks like.” When everything has come off except for my underwear, I muss my hair and push it up from the back, thrust my other hand up the side seam of my underwear, look a visitor straight in the eyes and say, in the driest voice possible, “Tino Sehgal, selling out, 2002.” Then I unceremoniously put my clothes back on. When a new visitor enters the gallery, I begin the tease again, transforming from mundane attendant to poised coquette on a dime. If I am almost naked when they enter, I do the striptease backwards: an exercise in tantric dressing. I make $33.33 an hour, before taxes.
At the end of my first shift, my body feels like it has fallen down a rocky hill. My knees are swollen from crawling and sliding on the concrete gallery floor. My hips are sore from gyrating, my lower back aches from standing in heels. It is a Sunday, and I go straight from the museum to the supermarket for my weekly groceries. As I push my cart down the aisles I feel as though I recognize every man’s face I see. That man saw me naked, and that guy. That one, too. Each pair of eyes bears the reflection of my nipples at the museum. At home, when my partner tries to hug me from behind, I instinctively whip around and grab his arm. To my surprise, even within the safety of a white-walled simulation of sex work, behind the anonymous veil of independent contractor performance labor, the public exposure of my once private sexuality is very real.
I am one of seven performers who does this work. We each work alone. My shifts are three hours long, three to five days a week. While I am on the job, I do not wear a watch or carry my phone. There is no clock in the gallery, and so I have begun a practice of counting every dance, every shift, as a way to measure time. After twenty dances, I know I have about an hour to go. Some days my performance feels full of wonder and whimsy. The striptease is a magic show. With a flick of my eyes, a sleeve falls off my shoulder. A twirl and a wink, and there go my pants. I silently giggle after dropping to the ground like a baby deer and my visitors laugh along. Girls are so clumsy! Other days the minutes drag by, and I find myself wanting to just whip my nipples out so people will hurry up and leave me alone. I shuffle back to the blank wall and wait, eyes glazed, for the next unsuspecting person to enter the gallery.
As I put my clothes back on today, someone asks me if we strippers have all been cast to look alike. After talking more, it becomes clear that they have just seen me, multiple times. Even when one of us visibly drops the veneer of performance and engages in conversations with visitors, the mechanisms of gallery site and museum audience still bends us into the shape of an art object, depersonalized and reproduced with only slight variations. As time passes, I start to question my own uniqueness. Am I just the product of a design? Visitors carefully walk around me while I writhe on my back, and as I stare up at them, I find myself in a loop of doubt. I am not sure if I have been choreographed to want to rebel against the sterility of my environment, or if I am genuinely feeling defiant. What would my rebellion look like? Apathy? Anger? Am I angry that I am earnestly doing the work of inviting my own objectification, or was my doing it always intended to be an exotic tantrum inside gallery walls, crafted to titillate museum patrons? I could spend the next two hours of my shift internally pawing at this mental knot behind smoldering eyes while I swirl my shirt over my head and slide into a split. Sehgal designed the work to be repeatable, by other performers in other places, ad infinitum. Am I unconsciously picking up a sixteen-year-old thread of past performers’ thoughts, repeating it with only slight variations? Am I losing it?
A week later, two teenage women sing Shakira songs, dance, and shout affirmations like, “Your hair looks amazing!” while I strip for them. Sometimes I forget that I am dancing naked in public because it feels so good. One afternoon a group of elderly women excitedly speak to me about their relationships to sensuality and aging. Later, I have a long conversation with a stand-up comic about how to keep performing when you know that an audience hates you. Sometimes I actually feel altered by strangers’ willingness to be vulnerable with me in spite of, or maybe because, they nearly see my labia before they hear my voice.
In rehearsals before the exhibition, we were given a crash course in striptease: a glossary of “codes” from which we could develop our individual styles. Masculine stripping, we were told, involves very little movement but takes up a lot of space, whereas the feminine style involves a lot of moving and very little traveling. It was eye-widening to hear this familiar narrative proposed as a physical score. When we began to practice in costume, women were directed to leave their heels on, while men could kick their shoes across the room. Never before had the categories of male and female behavior felt so clearly defined and so strictly in opposition.
Now a month in, I begin to dance for a man who has his back to me, looking at the installations on the other side of the gallery. As I reach my arms overhead and arch my back he turns around, revealing a smirk that I recognize. I continue to dance while scanning through my memory of recent visitors. By the time I take my pants off, I know I danced for him last week. Acting on instinct, my movements become heavy and sharp and my eyes narrow, attempting to telegraph to him, “I know your face, motherfucker.” I keep my bra on and end the dance — Tinosehgalsellingout2002 — all in one breath. While it is common to visit an exhibit multiple times when you really like it, surely this is different. I imagine his face as the man in the shadows in the Degas painting L’Étoile, where a dancer is onstage, leaning into the foreground, and a partially obscured figure in a tuxedo, her “benefactor,” lurks in the wings. But this man is no benefactor. There are no perks to having a regular in a free museum. Later, when another man visits the exhibition several times, using the same tactic of keeping his back to me until I start dancing, I catch on and do nothing until he leaves. Quickly adapting to my refusal, in the following days he begins to wait in the adjacent gallery until I start dancing for another visitor, after which he casually appears. When I ask to have him removed by a museum guard, I learn that his manipulation of the situation is not a punishable act. Even though fellow performers report the same behavior by the very same man, he can’t be turned away by the museum staff. He hasn’t “done anything.”
One afternoon a woman stands alone in the gallery and smiles at me as I raise my arms and slip my foot out to the side, announcing the beginning of my show. I continue to look at her as I unzip my windbreaker and toss it into the air. She laughs. I shift my feet into a lunge, winding up, and then slide myself across the floor, arriving in a pose with my back arched, one leg bent and the other long. After a pause I lift my fingers to my collar and begin to unbutton, working my way down, looking at her all the while. The corners of her mouth drop as I press my hand into the ground and spin back onto my feet, my shirt slipping off my shoulders. I twist my hips, bending one knee and then the other, letting my bare stomach cinch from side to side. I see a dark cloud of concern drift across her brow. When I reach for the clasp of my pants I know I have lost her. She looks at me, disgusted, as I pirouette on my heel, spotting her face. Before walking out she huffs, “You should be dancing! You should be in a dance class right now instead!” Where does she think I learned to twirl like this?
Today a man watches the whole striptease with his wife by his side, each of them seemingly captivated. At the end of my dance, he wants to know what I mean by the closing line. “Selling out? Who is being exploited here?” While collecting my clothes, I say over my shoulder, “I think the idea is that I am exploiting myself.” Without pause, he fires back, “I think it’s the man.” I can’t help but respond to that. “Oh? What man?” He blinks with aggravation. “All men! You know, a lot of women use moves just like you did, very persuasively, to profit off of men.” “I am not sure how I am profiting off of you right now, sir.” At this point his wife steps in with a quick tone, eager to dismiss the mounting tension between us. “Two sides of the coin is all, you know!” She wraps her arm around her husband’s waist like a cane whisking a performer offstage. “Yeah, that’s right. There are two sides of it!” “Sure.” The dance is over.
I have now completed more than fifty hours of museum stripping. I am a pretend sex worker in a high-end simulation. I do not face anything like the social stigma, precarity, or abuse people in the actual sex work industry do. My performance does not reveal to its patrons pervasive and debilitating systemic inequality, the direct connection between the wage gap and the sex work industry, the statistics on violence suffered by sex workers, and the faulty public policy which holds sex workers accountable for their own safety. Who is being exploited here, sir?
When I first began doing this work, I believed that, in performing the striptease, I would be participating in an exchange: together we would make the dance, and if the visitor wasn’t pulling their energetic weight, I could just lie here like decorative lettuce too. The naive simplicity of this expectation is revealed to me when I dance for an older man alone in the gallery. Upon turning around, wiggling my bra back on, I see that his shorts are around his knees and his bare ass is looking back at me. He lingers that way for a full minute, wanting to sense my reaction. I can’t determine what he expects from me now: anger, fear, amusement, or arousal, but all I want to do is disappear. I refuse to give him a response. I am frozen, silent and expressionless. After he finally leaves, a guard advises me that I should be more selective about who I dance for if I am feeling threatened. Yet I feel an involuntary guilt creep in whenever I withhold a dance from a “suspicious” guest.
When did I acquire this compulsion towards obedience in the face of discomfort? If this job were framed as customer service rather than a dance performance, would I be as dedicated to doing it well? Throughout my many waitressing years, I was transactional. I would automate myself in the interest of efficiency, brusquely dismissing any unwanted attention. I could just walk away. As a performer, I am far more eager to please. My training has ingrained in me the belief that there is always more work to be done; I can always do it better. This is how I find myself slowly sinking into a full split even when no one is looking. I am constantly designing and redesigning the choreography, risking injury to enact new feats if an audience member has stayed through multiple iterations of the dance. I want my guests to see the movement as constantly unfolding and unknown. You don’t need to tip me; I want to be good.
I hate myself the day every visitor leaves me mid-dance, even seconds into my performance. It is a particular feeling to be walked out on while stripping, left alone in a museum with your pants around your ankles. Have I gained a few pounds? Is it because of this pimple on my chin? I’ve forgotten how to dance. I’m not as strong as I used to be. I should have smiled more. What is wrong with me that they left? What is wrong with me that I blame myself? Here I recognize the weighty intersection of being a woman in dance: the recipient of so many gifts of self-denigration. The inexhaustible pull of the never-enough shame spiral. On opening night I hear Sehgal encourage a fellow stripper to think of herself as a sculpture rather than feel ignored. People walk away from sculptures all the time, no big deal. It is freeing to be an art object; there is no shame, no desire. There are no moods, no pain, and no bad days. There are no expectations that a sculpture will respond to or take responsibility for the social conditions it may evoke or produce simply by being there.
Two months into the job, I am visited by a self-identified “Men’s Rights Activist.” As I lie on my stomach, propped up on my elbows, crossing and uncrossing my legs while languidly looking back at him, he spits, “People like you are the reason why men are losing their jobs! You are ruining men’s lives! I suppose if I touched you right now you’d sue me!” He insists that I have entrapped him. I am asking to be touched, dancing and removing my clothes like this. I don’t speak this time. Later he returns with a friend whom he tells a nearby guard is his legal advisor. I instinctively duck out of the gallery before he catches sight of me. From outside, I can hear him shouting that he isn’t going to leave until I come back. I have to hide in the break room until a supervisor lets me know that the angry man has finally exited the museum. A security guard who keeps me company while I wait him out jokes, “He’s like those people that goes back to see a movie they know they hate!” “Sure, except I’m person, not a movie.” It feels strange to hear myself asserting my own sentience. Despite efforts to keep it contained, my soft humanness spills out and wants to be acknowledged. I wonder if the guards see me as an allied coworker or just another temporary exhibition.
A friend who comes to see the show asks to hear my “crazy stories” of visitor interactions. He mentions the Marina Abramović piece where she stayed in a gallery for six hours and allowed people to do whatever they wanted to her. “She was almost raped. She was almost killed! You know, people are just animals.” I think a lot lately about the lineage of feminist performance artists who authorized their bodies in their artworks as I pace around the gallery, waiting for the next mystery guest to turn the corner. Back when they made those seminal works, is this what they had in mind for the future? A job market where artists could take their clothes off and get verbally abused in a museum for hours at a time and pay their taxes with the proceeds? I feel complicit in a dangerous fantasy. In the remaining weeks of the exhibit, I am no longer playing with the composition of the choreography, or my nuanced dynamic with visitors: I am assessing their threat level and hoping they don’t notice. This is where the effort of my performance labor lies now.
On my last day stripping in the museum I feel grateful: for the money, the power I sometimes felt, the opportunity to perform the same dance more than 936 times and keep learning from it; for the people who held my eye contact and the ones who raucously clapped their hands for me despite the surrounding silence; for the groups of teenage boys who looked down at their exhibition pamphlets whenever I turned to face them, the parents who calmly talked their wide-eyed children through the experience, the dogs on leashes who tried to dance with me, and the owners who held them back; for my healthy body, which never did sustain any lasting injury, and for the fact that today I am done. I take off my worn-out boots in the gallery for the first time, walk out the door and down the hall, and throw them in a trashcan.
Not a stripper, a museum guard, a sculpture, or a movie, I am walking to my car barefoot and I am going home.