The etylomology of OUTRAGE, a word that has been associated with the work of Ann Liv Young since her days at Hollins, stems from, in its oldest sense, ideas of excess and extravagance. However, when used today to describe something (as outrageous), it is more often used to mean beyond reasonable limits, which is, I believe, the more common sense applied to Young’s work, although I would argue that both are apt.
I have not seen any of Ann Liv Young’s previously “outrageous” work, but with The Radio Show, a performance extracted from Snow White (presented this March at The Kitchen) and developed at the Rush Arts Gallery and Resource Center in Chelsea, culminating in a final “broadcast” of the fictitious on-air program, Ms. Young enacted what should be considered no less than a scandal, and no more than an example of art that has stumbled across a very serious ethical line.
Those who know Ms. Young’s work probably assume I must be referring to some as-yet-unperformed (and perhaps, unimagined) sexual activity. Past performances have included vaginal penetration, penile ejaculation, and mammarian gesticulation. But no. Aside from some perfunctory nudity–Young and her cohorts (Isabel Lewis as “Gloria,” and Miguel Guerrero as “Thomas”) wore nothing but shirts and/or robes that splayed open revealing incidental glimpses of their breasts and genitals–there was no live sexual content to speak of. The scandal, for sure, was the inclusion in the performance of Ms. Young’s (and Mr. Guerrero’s) four day-old child.
Gia Kourlas of Time Out New York interviewed Ms. Young leading up to Saturday’s finale. The article indicated that Young’s due date was September 2, so with the date of the final performance of The Radio Show set for September 8, it would seem that the potential for a collision of the two arrivals was probable. Young would have had ample time to consider a course of action should the child be born before the run of the show had ended. It’s telling–and somewhat disquieting, that Kourlas writes, in a wink-wink comment, that “knowing the choreographer, it’s possible that the trio…could turn into a quartet.” Her comment implicitly accepts the assumption that the child will become part of the artwork.
Granted, much of Young’s conceit is that her life–its present and its history–are the building blocks of her work. Necessarily, this blurs some distinction between what is artful and what is real in her performances. The “Art is Life” conundrum swirls around discussion and critique of Young’s work. This kind of art/life game play is permissible, yet it leads to inevitable questions of how far will it go. It’s common to accept that Young, “will put anything onstage,” as Alexandra Beller put it in her review of 2005’s Michael, presented at Dance Theater Workshop, in which one male performer ejaculated (although by some accounts, not every night) onto a window. This kind of provocation is the perverse intrigue that attracts so much attention to Young, although it can be difficult to surmise her intentions. Claudia La Rocco, in a review of Snow White for The Times declared, “It’s hard to know what fires up Ms. Young, but it’s not outrage. And it’s not titillation…”
But Young has clearly worked hard and meticulously to fashion her shows, whose sexual explicitness and boundary crossing relationship with the audience have now created an expectation of outrageousness. No doubt, if Young had chosen to leave her child out of the performance, there would be those who would be disappointed by the prudence. Who is Ann Liv Young if she doesn’t put anything and everything on a stage? Here was an artist we could all rally behind to do the forbidden things, to test the limits; or rather, to regard no limits.
A similar aura has surrounded, for three decades, a pop-cultural figure both derided and praised for the expectation of shock that she cultivated: Madonna. Many will rail against shock as an aesthetic. The main concern is shock’s lack of substance. But Madonna, it can be argued, has used shock in her work to challenge political, religious and social expectations in popular culture. Something similar could be said of Ms. Young, that her work challenges notions of reality and art, sexual taboo and permissiveness in performance. Although where Madonna is earnest and indignant, Young is disaffected and belligerent.
But the two are most readily similar in the relationships they maintain with their colleagues. In a Time Out interview with Gia Kourlas preceding the Snow White performance, Young recalls a friend of hers correlating her dancers to children. This kind of comment is eerily reminiscent of that famous (and parodied) moment in Truth Or Dare when Madonna refers to herself as “Mummy” and suggest that her dancers are attracted to her for her maternal instincts. But when it comes to having a real child of her own, Madonna and Young could not be taking more opposite courses.
Judging from the media surrounding Madonna, she seems to do everything she can to keep her children out of the spotlight, and out of her work; aside from a song here or there she dedicates to them. And it isn’t altogether uncommon for stars–the great highly developed narcissists that they are–to exploit the fact of their new parenthood for attention. But Madonna would never–as yet–place her children in her work, either as performers, or as objects. So while we may be disgusted with the reality that Madonna’s children will grow up in a media circus their entire lives, we cannot fault her for any kind of child-abuse other than that a celebrity-fixated audience compels gossip journalists and paparazzi to enforce upon them.
Ms. Young, in gross contrast, has blatantly–and to much distress–crossed a line in art-making, throwing into question the welfare of her child. To be fair–and clear–no harm came to the baby (whose name we do not know, since Young wouldn’t give it a name other than “Little Tiny”; only a hand-made poster on the back wall of the set indicated “It’s A Girl”). And the “characters” in the performance incorporated its presence into the show. Much comment was made by “Sherry” that the show is usually on the outrageous side, but “tonight is different.” We can thank Young–I suppose–for toning down her performance (including adjusting volume levels, removing the baby for certain “segments,” asking one or another person to cover the baby’s ears). And I can already hear people’s pro-Young exclamations that I might be overreacting. The situation itself was not dangerous; true. Other than the occasional microphone cord that fell across its face (and was dully removed by Guerrero or Ms. Young), the child was not in much danger. But as this is still art–if only for its location in a gallery*–we must understand the action in terms of its meaning in Young’s work.
(*It’s interesting that Gurur Ertem commented on Young’s live performance that “the shock value of the work would be lost if it were presented in a gallery.”)
In more than one source, an element of “disaffection” is cited as part of Young’s aesthetic. Right off the bat, I cannot think of anything more antithetical to common notions of child-rearing: dis-affection. Accounts of her performance, and somewhat evident in The Radio Show, continually charge Young with “not caring” about the elements around her; if the sets are grungy, the costumes unattractive, the music grating and “low-fi,” if mistakes are made. It could be argued that this is an aesthetic way to appreciate these things–the banal, the unsophisticated, the common aesthetic. But appreciating them as such, means regarding them as such. Even still, everything in her work, from her co-workers, to the window that gets ejaculated on, to the audience itself–is at the service of her art. And this is where she has committed a most egregious error:
To regard the child as an object for art making, like everything Young believes to be part of her history, is to disregard the child altogether. It is a denial of the child’s autonomy and a reduction of her humanity to the banal, objectified non-value of every other artifact Young surrounds herself with in her performances. It is one thing to objectify (and mistreat) performers who are willfully co-conspirators in the play, as well as to objectify (and antagonize) an audience that is culpable for the role it voluntarily plays in the game of art, but applying the same treatment to a real being that has neither the capacity to comprehend art, nor the physical ability to remove itself from the situation, is without a doubt a violation of the reality of that human’s right to choice.
I want people to be aware that I’m not here tsking away, waving a finger and sneering out of one eye. When I saw the child in Ms. Young’s arms, something struck me as terribly wrong. Knowing that Ms. Young is an artist of noted skill–although she gets most praise for her formal conceits and meticulous sets–I took up my responsibility as an observer to understand my reaction, which, giving Ms. Young the benefit of the doubt, is the only thing she really asks of her audiences. But when you’re bent, as an artist, is to test limits, you will eventually run into one. And when that happens, it becomes our responsibility, as audience, as critics, as members of society, to articulate why. No one surrounding Ms. Young, not even Guerrero (who has as much at stake in the welfare of the child and is equally responsible for this erroneous behavior) seems willing to do that.
To give perspective, there are merits to her work. Her incorporation of reality aesthetics [folks, you heard it here first] does challenge assumptions of the distinction between art and life–often to good affects. Her incorporation of nudity and sexual activity is profound if only for its sense of daring. Her refusal to enforce classical models of form onto her performance is timely in its anti-consumerist shapelessness–although The Radio Show, with its Saturday Night Live premise and toned-down content, could be evidence that Ms. Young is angling for a slot on Showtime; her character, Sherry, is meticulously fashioned and consistent in performance, if a bit wearing by the end of the two hour show: but what wasn’t?
There is an extravagance–in the sense of decadence–about the low-fi, karaoke elements of her show. In our age of unlimited wealth, art that subverts the notion that high-tech art is the best art is worthwhile. If we can do away with technical savvy–although Young ran the show from two open Macbooks–and still call it art, then we’ve achieved something.
And there is a charm about Young–often described, even by herself, as a charisma–that is attractive to watch; it’s even affable. This must fuel much of her audience base, whose faithful laughing during The Radio Show echoed Claudia La Rocco’s note of “knowing laughs from the audience” during Snow White (she went on to suggest that some of the audience walk-outs might have been plants). She’s a shining example of Gen-Y “me” culture in both its narcissistic aggression and casual innocence.
There were other flaws in the show, however. Isabel Lewis was not the least bit interesting and had a hard time keeping up with Young’s snappy, quick-witted Sherry. Much of the improvised joking delved into rather shallow, cheap territory: a reference to a church group called “Dancin’ for Jesus.” And there were a few breaks of character, mostly occurring when the performers thought something they did was very funny (a la SNL), which, for a piece that is oddly–for Ms. Young–constructed on the very idea of character, was lame.
But what is most fascinating, and invigorating about Ann Liv Young, is her push to personal authenticity in performance. Many artists would dream of forging this kind of freedom (individually) and this kind of control (over everyone) in performance. But how much more authentic, really, can a narcissist get than to disregard every being around her, including her very own child?
Is it outrageous? It certainly is beyond reasonable limits. It certainly is beyond art’s limits. We cannot do this kind of thing. Or, fine, go ahead and do it, but you can’t ethically or even by-definition call it art. Nor can we balk at the opportunity to call this kind of shit out.