John Martin Tilley has interviewed Signe Pierce for Office Magazine about her presentation of American Reflexxx at New Release Gallery in New York City.
The Knee-Jerk Mirror
By John Martin Tilley
An androgyne in a skin-tight blue dress, long bleach-blonde hair and a mirrored mask completely hiding any facial features wanders a bustling city street, inciting heckling that quickly escalates from harmless hijinks to bizarre violence, all the while the figure remaining entirely silent, even after being screamed at and eventually attacked.
This mirrored-mask figure has become an icon of performance art cross-pollenated with reality tv. The mask rendered the human beneath into a kind of silent cyborg, the mirrored surface simply reflecting the viewers’ own faces and fears, the lack of any language exchanged and facial expression read making the masked figure a representative of the Unknown — the ultimate human fear. The show is on view until February 11th.
The artist behind the mask is Signe Pierce, a colorful multimedia artist who has installed a light show and the video on loop at New Release Gallery, paying homage to the gallery’s location’s former incarnation as a video store in Chinatown.
What was the inception of the idea for this video?
American Reflexxx was filmed in the summer of 2013. Prior to filming it I had been spending a lot of time writing and thinking about femininity, objectivity, reality, and using my body as a medium. I was interested in the unfettered truth that occurs “in reality,” aka when you’re walking down the street. I wanted to experiment with fusing performance art with this truth in reality.
Alli Coates and I had been dating for about a year, and we were interested in filming something down in Myrtle Beach where her family had a summer home. Being two femme women in love was an interesting experience for both of us, because we were constantly being objectified in public by men as though our relationship was some pornographic fantasy come alive for them to ogle and muse. We wanted to take this “spectacle of femininity” and flip the gaze somehow, and the mirror mask was a perfect metaphor to help create that framework. Our initial objective was to film something beautiful in reality with this mirrored, cyborgian creature, but we had no idea what kind of violence was going to ensue once we hit the streets of Myrtle Beach.
Why do you think people reacted the way they did?
I think there is a general fear of “the unknown” for a lot of people. If someone sees something that they don’t understand, the reflexive inclination seems to be to fear it or hate it. We never set out to troll the people of Myrtle Beach or make an example out of them, but I feel like they revealed their own insecurities and fears by having such an obnoxious reaction to something they didn’t understand.
People are also often suspicious of anyone who chooses to conceal their eyes. I think the fact that I was hiding my identity created a sense of unease, especially when paired with the stripper heels that made me 6’4 and taller than everyone on the strip. There’s something eery about seeing this provocative figure that you’re used to seeing on a screen. Instead of her existing as some fantastical object to be consumed, she’s in front of you, standing tall whilst hiding her identity and mirroring the gaze back unto the observer. There was something intrinsically sinister about that.
I think it’s interesting to note that only one person throughout the entire film dares to name it “pretentious high art.” Aka, only one person thought “Maybe this is an art piece.” To me, it just goes to show how much art needs to exist in places outside of cities and metropolitan areas. Art is a helpful way of educating and enlightening people, which was part of why we wanted to do that performance in the heart of America as opposed to in NYC or LA.
It reminds me of the Marina Abramovic piece in the 70s where she laid out tools on a table, including knives and a loaded gun, and allowed gallery goers to do anything to her body. Do you connect with this idea? Were you, as Abramovic later claimed she was, prepared to die?
Yes, Rhythm 0. A lot of people have compared this performance to that piece, which makes a lot of sense, because they both confront mob mentality and submitting to the free will of the audience. I deeply connect and relate with this piece and with Marina’s work. I saw The Artist Is Present retrospective at MoMA when I was in art school and it had a profound impact on me. It was the show that got me thinking about using my body as a medium, and how much power it can convey. She really cracked open my perception of what art can be, and how we can express ourselves by using ourselves.
I’ve considered the idea of dying for art many times. Part of what makes reality so consuming to behold is that, when the subject and the events are transpiring in front of you are real, there’s always the lingering possibility that death can/may occur. It’s why watching a reality show is intriguing, even if it’s banal. You’re not watching fictional characters, you’re watching real humans, who could die at any moment. I was writing about this idea recently and summed it up with the phrase: The totality of actual reality is contained in our mortality: death. If I were to have died that night, that would’ve been my fate— the totality of my mortality.
The mask is an integral part of the piece — why does it have such power, do you think?
The built-in metaphor of the mask being a mirror was super essential to the success of the piece. It was able to say so much, without having to actually say anything at all. I think there was a serious power in watching these people have to look at themselves while they were committing abusive and angry acts.
In the months leading up to the performance, I had been thinking a lot about the inherent objectification of women and how we’re consistently dehumanized as being consumable objects of desire, and nothing more. I was so fed up with feeling like I couldn’t walk down the street without being harassed, simply for being a femme, and kept thinking about how much I wanted to flip the gaze on those who dared to objectify us. The mirror mask really helped to unlock this concept. It became a mantra/mission statement of mine around this time: “Objectifying you objectifying me.” Aka, I’m going to flip this derogatory gaze back unto you. I will turn you, the objectifier, into the object. I’ll use my hyper-feminized body as a Venus Fly Trap to ensnare your objectified gaze. I’ll use this mirror on my face to reflect that violating gaze back unto you. I’ll use cameras to capture you as you wish to capture me.
Signe: “There was a brief moment after the performance ended where I took of the mask and stared at the crowd who had just dehumanized and assaulted me. Alli and I agreed that we didn’t want to include this part of the footage in the film, because we wanted the identity of the cyborg to remain masked. But I think it’s uncanny to see how similar my expression is to Marina’s at the end of her performance.”
Your work on instagram is so playful and colorful, how does that connect to your ideas of performance?
I think my Instagram can kind of go along with the aforementioned Venus Fly Trap metaphor. I like using beauty, color and aesthetics to get my work onto people’s radar. Maybe someone who isn’t privy to looking at queer intersectional feminist performance art will fall into the “trap” of my alluring Instagram imagery, and suddenly they’ll have some political ideology thrust onto their periphery. It’s sort of about the art of seduction, in an abstract way, which is what a lot of my performance work employs.
I also just genuinely love light and color and creating lush scapes and dream worlds. It’s a coping mechanism to help deal with the brutality of reality. I think people like looking at my photo and light work as a form of escapism. People have told me that they find my work to be therapeutic, which is beautiful.
You’re known for using “reality as an artistic medium” — I’m fascinated by this, tell me more.
The idea of Reality as a Medium is about not being limited to ideas of what can and cannot be art, and about allowing life itself to be art. It definitely borrows from Duchamp’s idea of the Readymade. In this case, our lives are Readymades. The things we do day in and day out have the possibility of being contextualized in an artistic manner, if the artist so chooses.
I keep using this analogy to describe Reality Art: Reality (or, “unscripted life”) is the Canvas. The artist’s life is the paint, their body is the paintbrush; moving through time and space to create the painting. When we capture our realities in media (aka video, photo, or any kind of communication data), that creates a framework (a “frame”) for it to exist as art. So, Reality is the Canvas, The Artist is the Paint. When fused together, that creates a “painting.” When captured in media, that puts the painting in a frame. And thus you’re using reality as a medium. Reality as Art.
Favorite reality tv show?
I don’t watch as much Reality TV as I used to cuz it feels like it’s all the same, but Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Season 1 will forever be remembered as the program that inspired all of these ideas of using one’s own reality as a medium. I’ll never forget the breakthrough moment I had during my senior year of art school when I was stoned watching RHOBH and the idea hit me that “these women are the stars of their own reality… they’re more than actresses, because they star in the role that is their life.” It prompted me to Google the term, “Hyperreality,” which I had never heard of before, and that led me to all the studies of Jean Baudrillard, which deeply informed my work going forward.
I also think that the Paris episode in Season 13 of Keeping Up With the Kardashians is legendary. It confronts that idea of “the totality of mortality is death.” Kim’s reliving her experience of being held hostage and how she thought she was going to die during the Paris Robbery. It illustrates that tension of what it means to be using your real life as your medium and subject, as opposed to playing a fictional role or character. I love that shit.