Below, you will find a post that I prepared weeks ago but didn’t get around to finalizing. It’s a revisit to Ann Liv Young‘s “The Bagwell in Me.” It’s a kind of mega-rant, full of twists and turns, perversities, theories, doubts, and, as always, criticisms. I know this makes me officially obsessed with her work, but whatevs.
Between writing this text and now, I have had a dream that Ann Liv was trying to be my friend, and I was nervous that she wouldn’t like me because of all the shit I wrote about her work. But, in the dream, she was actually totally cool with it. Alas, it was a dream.
After the following, I’m sure we’ll never be friends. But who knows. If I can call L. Ro. “a dirty old dried up lima bean” and then still wind up solid BFFs, maybe there’s hope for ALY and CC…
So, I’m following up on my review of Ann Liv Young’s “The Bagwell in Me”, for which I delivered a somewhat abrupt opinion, even for little old C.C. This is one of the benefits of blogging, in that I can revisit a review almost immediately after publishing it.
One thing readers of this site may have noticed over in the sidebar to the right, is that the top two posts almost every day for the past few weeks have been the awesomely bad Christian dance team from The Way, and my very first review of Ann Liv Young.
And before I posted the video from The Way, which now seems to be sending about a hundred people a day to this site, my review of Ann Liv at Rush Arts was always one of, if not the top read posts daily. I’d also like to note that this particular review has received over two thousand hits to date.
So can we learn anything from this statistical realities? I mean, what common interest could The Way and the work of Ann Liv Young possibly share?
Some initial observations…
First, and most obviously, spectacle. And this is spectacle in the first order, the kind that astonishes, but does not fundamentally impart any real knowledge. When people consume the kind of viral videos that The Way seems to have become, there is a shared sense of agog, or communal ridicule, or, for the more heart-warming viral videos (like the one with the lion hugging those two hippies), shared pathos. But my criticism of these YouTube hits is that they allow people to believe they know more about the world than they actually do.
Take the sensation, “Two Girls and a Cup” (That’s right! There’s a Wikipedia page. Definitely NSFW, and I honestly wouldn’t recommend anyone to watch it, unless you’re actually, genuinely interested in scatological fetish: aka, poop sex). This video blew through the internet and spawned a mini culture of response videos, generally of people filming their selves, friends, or puppets, reacting to watching the video. This precisely illustrates how people who viewed the “TG&aC” video did not view it to learn anything about fetish culture, but simply viewed it to reinforce their adolescent prejudices about unorthodox sexual practices. This really sums up YouTube culture: a massive reinforcement of long-held prejudices.
Take another case, the “Leave Britney Alone” video. Not only did this inspire a mini-culture of ridiculing imitation videos, but if you have a chance to look at the comments people posted on the video itself, you will see a distressing wealth of casual homophobic vitriol with a few sprinklings of people who love Britney Spears just as much as Chris Crocker. I don’t believe many people who watched this video allowed themselves to take Mr. Crocker or his subject–the carnivorous treatment of a pop singer by a predatory gossip magazine culture–much seriously, nor to process any serious thought about the fantastic (and occasionally…flamboyant) peculiarities of queer culture.
Similarly, I find that I don’t learn much when I see one of Ann Liv Young’s performances. In terms of the sexual content, it’s always aggressive and callous. And it’s meaning is always unclear. What is learned from watching Ms. Young shove her face into Isabel Lewis’ vagina while Isabel Lewis sings like a carefree jazz crooner? Most people probably question whether or not it’s pleasurable for Ms. Lewis. But that’s really where it ends. Each new sex feat in “Bagwell” caused yet another wave of the rubber necking to peal through the audience. Everyone wants to see! And with the site lines at The Kitchen making it difficult to see anything that happened downstage, where much of the sex happened. Much of the audience was desperate to witness these events. There were times I literally gave up and just sat there, staring at the set, or the wall, or the audience. And I really don’t feel like I came away with anything less than someone who may have witnessed every gory detail of Ms. Young’s debauchery. I mean, do these people not have sex? Have these people never used a dildo? Have the ladies in the audience never had their pussies eaten out? Or have we never seen tits and vaginas at all?!? Well, to these audience members, let me say that you will not learn anything about the pleasure or pitfalls of sex–physical, emotional, and spiritual–by going to one of Ann Liv Young’s performances. I say this because I hold serious doubts that the many people who flock to Ms. Young’s show are actually in it to learn anything. Mostly, I would bet that they’re simply in it to be agog: To be gawkers. To have their chins drop, to be in shock, to be appalled but somehow engaged at the same time. To be glad that it’s Ms. Young up there and not themselves. To reinforce the prejudice they hold that engaging in sex acts is transgressive if not both understood and done in private. Do people who leave Ann Liv’s shows come out wanting to see more artists engage in sex acts on stage? I doubt it. Mostly, they probably hope for, and dread, the next time Ann Liv Young comes around.
Furthermore, YouTube sensations tend mainly to facilitate a superficial, self-affirming point of agreement between people who shared in the experience of the video. “Did you see that video?” “Yeah, I did! It was totally gross.” “Yeah, it totally was! Those girls are fucked up, right?!” “Totally!”
Could you imagine anyone responding to the “Two Girls” video with, “You know, it actually made me wonder why I’ve never shat in my boyfriends mouth…”?
So the remarkable similarity here is how people are relating to the work. They gape. They gawk. But they make little effort to go past that. In this way, Ann Liv’s work utterly fails. Even more so now that we know she believes the audience to be part and parcel of the work she is creating, thus, she doesn’t teach anything, the audience doesn’t learn anything, and it’s all part of some closed-circuit masturbatory ritual where Ms. Young reigns supreme, and everything else is object. That is almost precisely what video clips are: closed-off pieces of information that get viewed and viewed, commented on, and never reach beyond the flatness of the screen: They do not transform, and nothing transforms from experiencing them.
When Claudia “The Rock” La Rocco described “Bagwell” as “dull”, I think this might be what she was getting at. The work is blunt. It doesn’t–ironically–penetrate. It just barrels against you.
This is tied not only to the sexual content in Ms. Young’s work, but also every other element of performance she uses, or, rather, doesn’t use.
Ann Liv Young engages in what I call a practice of “Why try if there are no consequences?”
Why try to sing well, when my audience won’t boo me for it? Hell, why even bother paying for a karaoke track when I can just sing over the record?
Why try to act well or memorize lines, when my audience doesn’t care if I do? I can just read off cue cards.
Why try to choreograph or dance well, when my audience will just laugh knowingly when I flail through a combination step?
Why bother training at all, when I will still get paid, and people will still come to my performances, even if I can’t do any of the things that they’re supposedly paying to come see me do?
In fact, why bother to attempt to achieve anything, when it absolutely doesn’t matter whether anything is achieved?!
In this way, Ms. Young embodies what was and still is one of the chief doubts about Modernity: That the art is a ruse, and that underneath the unrecognizable and offensive chaos, there is, in fact, no benevolent hand of skill.
Hey, I guess you can call that an achievement, if only a personal one. Also, there can really only be one of this type of artists. She got to it first, or, maybe the more appropriate phrase is, “I guess if she wants to cross that line, it’s her choice.”
But this is where I would argue this: With Ann Liv Young, we actually may have encountered a person that literally does not know how to create art.
This is a pipe
I used to think Ms. Young merely flirted with what I called “reality aesthetics.” That the tantrums and the insults and the “live editing” that occurs in her performances were aesthetic devices meant to divert the audience from the comfort of their expectation so as to allow them to view the work through a crack in the semiotic prism.
But after seeing “Bagwell,” I’m not sure if these are aesthetic choices as much as they are the result of an inability of Ms. Young to point to anything other than herself. L. Ro. begs, “…show us more of the world.” Art, as a play of aesthetics and reference, necessarily points to other things; objects, themes, ideas, realities, experiences, imaginings.
Ms. Young’s work seems not to point to anything, but merely to be the thing. A real thing that’s happening with no pretense of any kind of “other” or “signified”. If you wanna shoot the moon here, you could tie this into Fluxus theories, and also even a kind of “against interpretation” interpretation. But I’m loathe to grant Ms. Young the benefit of the doubt. Even in her interview with Gia Kourlas–perhaps Ms. Young’s numero uno enabler–she claims the work is “about” things. But I just don’t see it. I don’t see what any of the things that happened in “Bagwell” have to do with any of the things they would appear to represent. What does Bagwell point to about slavery, race relations, sexual power play, politics, love, desire? Nothing. It says nothing. It only, harshly, is the thing.
This supreme objectification of performance could, if you want to give Ms. Young some credit, be seen as some kind of bold artistic statement. It’s possible, I’m not totally denying it. But, I rather think that it’s more a result of absolute selfishness, and a total reluctance to give one iota of deference to anyone but herself. Everyone in the theater belongs to her, she says. We are her “property,” she says. We are props. Everything serves her. It sounds like, rather than making a comment on slavery, she’s accidentally making a case for it. Which could support Young Jean Lee’s accusation on Culturebot that “Bagwell” is a racist work.
I don’t know that I would go that far. As critical as I am about Ms. Young’s work, I think it would be a stretch to read it as actively promoting stereotypes and prejudicial notions of race, but I can see how, given that the work does not transcend any of the themes it embodies, one could argue that the work only reinforces (like the YouTube video) previously held prejudices and does not desire or care to upend them.
There’s no text like context
It’s a failure of Ms. Young’s work not to be able to communicate context (again, like the YouTube video). To deliver satire or parody or irony, the audience needs some kind of reassurance (some kind of “wink,” whether literal or implied) to allow them to enter and experience the pleasure of the paradox. Again, it’s this kind of safety net that Ms. Young does not provide, much like her unwillingness to satisfy the audience’s need to feel physically safe. So, she could actually be racist, and we could actually get hurt, because we have no way of reading what Ms. Young’s intentions are.
Apollinaire Scherr may mount a defense of Ms. Young. I really anticipate what she plans to write. It will be nice to have some alternative perspective. Already, Apollinaire takes the position that Ms. Young is “of our time.” Maybe a sign of the times says it better.
Some have already called Ms. Young out on not knowing her history, or rather, her context in the history of performance; particularly in her use of sex in performance. I don’t know that I’m as concerned with that as I am her inability to provide any other context but the fact of her own presence.
Edward Albee has long argued in art’s (or at least theater’s) necessity to function as a mirror up to humanity. But ALY seems rather to be performing in a room surrounded by one-way mirrors, with the mirror side facing her (as Leigh Bowery was actually brave enough–and vulnerable enough–to do). The difference is that Ms. Young seems to believe the audience is sitting inside the room with her, immersed in her own reflection.
But we’re not. We’re sitting on the outside, looking in, and hopelessly wondering why the naked chick keeps acting like she can see the audience.