Annie Rose, editor at Posture Media, interviews Signe Pierce in a conversation focusing on the artist’s aesthetic, influences and femininity.
Signe Pierce, The Only Girl in Times Square
By Annie Rose
Signe Pierce gained notoriety in 2015 within queer and feminist art circles for her incredibly shocking and poignant performance video, American Reflexxx. A collaborative effort with fellow artist Ali Coates, the video follows a masked, scantily clad Signe around Myrtle Beach in South Carolina as onlookers gather to harass and physically assault her. Currently, Signe is elaborating on the themes she began to explore in that video, such as cyber surveillance, constructs of femininity, and the male gaze. In this exclusive feature for Posture, Signe collaborated with Phil Gomez on the shoot that took place in Times Square in New York City.
You seem to have a fascination with ’80s style and neon. How does this aesthetic serve the overall message or theme of the work that you are creating?
I feel like the work that I’m making right now is definitely…a phase. In the way that Picasso had his blue period, I’m having my neon period. I don’t know what my work is going to look like in 10 years.
Have you had other periods?
Yeah, I guess five years ago I was making a lot more hyper-saturated, glitch art. Like when you pump the saturation up in Photoshop and it becomes kind of degraded…it was a little more lo-fi.
And now it’s very polished.
Yeah definitely slick and sleek and lush is what I’m feeling right now.
…so Miami Vice.
I definitely love all of those aesthetics. I’m definitely inspired by ’80s and retro glamour. I’ve always been attracted by those aesthetic styles. I went to elementary school in California and then I moved to Maryland when I was 12 and I think that Pacific design in general is so lush and light. Like palm trees… that entire vibe hit me from a young age. I think that maybe I’m a little nostalgic for that aspect of my life. I remember a couple of years ago feeling like I hadn’t quite found my vision yet, hadn’t quite found my voice…and I remember thinking ‘there is something missing from what I’m trying to convey in my work.’ Honestly, what I think it is…is seduction or something a little bit darker. For a while there my work was feeling a little campy and a little goofy. I was working with humor a lot. I was doing self-portraits that were kind of funny. I used to say that my work was if Tim & Eric and Cindy Sherman were candy flipping at a rave. I remember I was listening to some moody music and I was feeling very much in my subconscious dream world and I was like there is something missing that I am personally seeking to convey, which is something about desires and fantasies and sex and life in general. I think I started being more and more interested in infusing that into my work both visually and perfor-matively. Then I moved to LA two years ago specifically to make art, specifically to catch my muse. Once I got there it started pouring out of me and I was able to focus on it and refine it. Once I was inside of it, it started becoming natural and becoming the way that I see.
Your hyper-feminine, girly aesthetic is both a celebration of femme and a critique of the male gaze. The way that you capture mood reminds me of — and you probably get this a lot — of Harmony Korine’s film Spring Breakers.
Kind of, yeah. I get it a lot but I remember when that movie came out…Everyone was like ‘Signe you’ll love this!’ Yes and I did, I loved it. I remember the night I saw that movie leaving the theater like ‘now what do I do. He just did everything.’
I think his vision is a little bleaker. Though there is an undercurrent of darkness in your work. Do you feel there’s a sinister tone to the work you make? Is this a warning?
Definitely. I was thinking earlier this morning ‘I am a dark rainbow.’ Which is a strange thought. To the naked eye people could think, ‘Oh she just loves rainbows and prisms.’ A lot of artists and comedians on the surface appear light and sweet and funny. I have a definite inherent darkness inside of myself that is both my friend and foe. It’s important to me to maintain a little bit of pessimism or an edge of awareness because it’s just truth. You have to have light and dark in life. At the end of the day I want to radiate light. I want to be a beacon of light, to be prismatic in my work and in my presentation. But when it’s me, myself, and I, there is a definite darkness that informs a lot of my inspiration, motivation, and work. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, darkness isn’t a bad thing, and it’s just an element of perception that I work within. I can make a lot of beautiful things but I’m also very much interested in world politics and that isn’t always a rainbow.
Femininity is sort of this thing that a lot of women and femmes struggle with as a source of happiness and light, a way to make them feel good. It also has such a dark history and undercurrent. I always think when I’m putting on makeup or a dress ‘would I like this stuff if I never was socialized to like these things?’ I feel like your work is questioning that a little bit.
Totally. It is a love/hate relationship with these patriarchal structures. I am so very femme presenting. Hyper-femme almost. I play up my femininity as a way of commenting or subverting elements of the male gaze. You play it up and create a beautiful presentation, but then you twist it…my darker, my informed side wants to fuck with it, wants to fuck with ideas and what you think I should be and what you think I have to look like. I think it’s powerful. Something that is really important to me is not preaching to the choir. I love anybody who loves and respects my work, giving their opinion from an informed, queer mentality, but a goal of mine as an artist is to get some of these ideas into the minds of people who would never ever think about queer politics. I use this example every day pretty much. People in New York City or in queer circles…I totally understand why they gravitate to-wards my work and I’m really happy they do. Part of why I’m interested in glossy, poppy, lurid aesthetics is because I think they’re more likely to attract people who don’t look at art. If you want to teach a Trump supporter a lesson about feminism I think the best thing you could do is never say the word ‘feminist.’ That is something I think that’s really important and interesting…well it’s important to me in my art and presentation…essentially trolling you into looking at this, then once I’ve got your attention I subvert or pervert the gaze. One of my theories is the Venus flytrap. I’ll create this beautiful enticing thing for you to look at, but once I’ve got you I’m going to do something that jolts your perception a bit. In my photography, there is this inherent darkness that people have told me, it’s beautiful but you can sense there is something not right. Like in American Reflexxx where there is this creature and she is beautiful-ish. But we don’t know what’s wrong with her and we suspect she’s dangerous be-cause we can’t see her face and we don’t understand her motivations. There is a lurid femininity that is within my work. I love some of the things that could be considered ‘the trappings of patriarchy.’ Like high heels or the cult of perfection. Those are things that I’ve reckoned with as weapons rather than viewing them as oppressors. I would like to reclaim some of these things as weapons for our cause.
You recently appeared in the exhibition Lifeforce in NYC, which reimagined a cyberfeminist future. A lot has been written about the relationship between women and AI technology. I’m particularly reminded of Donna Haraway’s essay Cyborg Manifesto, which either you’ve referenced or has been discussed in conjunction with your work. It seems like it’s a trope that was invented by men, starting with Metropolis, and has been reclaimed by women, queer people, and people of color. Why do you think marginalized groups are so drawn to cyborg futuristic representation and how do you utilize that in your work?
I think it’s about transcending the body, transcending biology, transcending what we were born into, and embracing the limitless possibilities that technology could potentially afford us. Think of people who were born into a body and raised with a gender that they don’t identify or associate with…the deeper we go into transhumanism and into fusing man and machine, the biological aspects become less relevant. I think that for women and trans people and queer people especially, there is an interest in an evolution. I’ll get into conversations with men who are like, ‘oh women are inherently the nurturers…your bodies give life! You’re such majestic creatures that your bodies give us life!’ You guys should go chill, and we’ll go out and do the labor.
It’s like faux veneration.
That’s a good way of putting it.
I’ve gathered that when your work contains images of people, they are usually self-portraits. Self-portraiture has long been a tool used by women artists to examine issues of identity, objectification, and sexuality. Why are you drawn to self-portraiture and how does it inform your practice and work at large? I’m also thinking of a photograph I saw of yours recently where you’re leaning over a balcony in a fishnet dress…
Oh, with the ass. On Tumblr?
Yeah that one.
Yeah…it’s all a hyper-real self. When I started the [portraits] in college I was trying to figure out aspects of my identity. It’s just about exploring the limitlessness of myself and letting some of those strange sides of myself come out. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve thought about it a bit more, I call myself a reality artist because I’m really interested in capturing the things that are around me and then putting them into media, including myself. Me in a neon stripper dress — that’s my hyper-real self. This is me in the flesh, in reality right now, but when I curate and when I want to perform for you…I don’t even like the word perform. It’s just me being, essentially. It’s a heightened version of my identity, heightened versions of my personality. And that is what comes out for all of us on the Internet, as our avatars, our profile pictures. Any picture that you post of yourself on the Internet, especially if it has a little element of curating your end, not just a picture of you at the Barbecue…they’re hyperextensions of yourself. That’s something I think is really cool about right now is that we can take our reality, we can take who we are and we can accentuate different aspects of our personas.
The nature of your self-portrait work is such that the subject is a palatable, white, thin, cisgender, blonde body, because that’s who you are. Do you feel more heard because of the body you represent, or is this just another form of objectification because your particular body is very desirable?
These are all things I think about and have thought about. This is definitely something I was wrapping my head around before we filmed American Reflexxx. I will be 100% blunt and say that I didn’t always look like this. I was kind of chubby growing up and I’ve always struggled with body identity. Every woman, because of the way we’re taught, deals with insecurity and the beauty industrial complex be-ing force-fed to us. When I started going on my queer plunge after college, I was thinking about, ‘ok, how am I going to subvert this. I got to get over some of these insecurities of mine and I want to teach people a lesson about it.’ I just found myself being increasingly inspired by reality stars. I think it’s really interesting how they take their lives and turn it into a show for other people to consume and feed off of. I was like, ‘I want to give up my reality in a way for people to consume and watch and maybe find a way to subvert the gaze.’ Every woman, we feel that gaze. Being tall and leggy, I can’t walk down the street without get-ting catcalled…and I realized I want to play a role. I want to play a character. I was reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan and media theory about clichés and archetypes. And I wanted to play that blonde bombshell chick. My objective within playing that is objectifying you objectifying me. I want to hold a mirror up to you and the way you’re going to perceive me, let’s flip the gaze. That was a big part of the inspiration behind American Reflexxx.
I mentioned the ‘high desirability of a white cisgender body.’ When you were playing that role, a lot of the violence that was directed at you was because you were being perceived as trans.
It was shocking to me, because right away they start yelling, ‘that’s a man!’ I felt a tiny stab, but then I thought I don’t care if you think I’m one thing or another. We’ve been socialized to not want to be called another gender, especially straight men. You call a man ‘girly’ and it’s the worst thing he could ever be called, which I absolutely hate. In the performance it became increasingly obvious that they wanted to take off the mask to gender me, to figure out what my gender was. Once I started realizing that was the main motivation behind getting the mask off of me, I thought, ‘There is no way in hell I’m taking this mask off for you people.’ I didn’t want anyone to feel like his or her hatred was NOT validated by the fact that I am a [cisgender] woman. I didn’t want anyone to take off the mask, see that I’m a cisgender female, and feel bad for hurting me. I think they wanted justification of me being ‘an other.’
It’s like with American Reflexxx…you were perceived as trans but you’re not, so it made you a bit safer in making that work, because if they had unmasked you and read you as cisgender…It’s a very fine line…you want to be able to expose things but you also don’t want to profit off of other people’s oppression or experiences.
I always felt a little strange talking about that. I am really glad that the piece ended up exposing so many conversations and elements surrounding the horrors of transphobia that seems to live within our culture and society. I was grateful to have made a piece that could provide a vessel for conversations around that. But I am also quick to acknowledge that I can’t speak to a trans person’s experiences whatsoever. It was kind of a ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’…I got to feel SOME of what it is…but I can never speak to the actual experience of a trans person because it was just one mile and I was wearing a mask. At the end of the day when I take off the mask, I am back in my cis body. The perception surrounding me, the perceptions of the mob surrounding me, were that I was trans, but the reality of the entire situation is that when I go home I’m going to resume my life as a cis, white woman. Had I not been a cis white woman…had I been a trans white woman, had I been a trans black woman, that night could have ended much differently. There was an element of farce in the fact that it is a performance…
…and you had no idea that’s how people were going to perceive you.
Oh, no. It was shocking to me. In my art and in my performance, I want it to be as real as possible. To me it’s not really real unless someone is cumming, crying, bleeding, or sweating. I believe the heart of provocation comes from truth and exposing truths. Those people pushing me and making bleed and making me cry…those were real truths.
Something I’ve noticed while looking at your current body of work is the use of items or poses typically associated with sex work. There’s a photograph of a stripper heel covered in pink goo, for example, and in American Reflexxx, you’ve described your costume as ‘stripper garb.’ Is the sex industry something you intentionally reference? If so, why? If not, do you feel the comparison is fair or relevant?
I’ve always been so inspired by a woman’s power to seduce. I think that it is one of our most powerful abilities. It brings me back to the metaphor of the Venus flytrap. I like to use this imagery or present myself in ways that are seductive in order to try and get some people who wouldn’t typically look at this time of world, this type of feminist art. I want to lure you in through the art of seduction. I will watch strippers, or just beautiful women, or anybody in general…like porn. I don’t watch a lot of porn, but I am inspired by it. The way that it’s this carnal desire in people that makes them moths to the flame. I play with that imagery, I play with it with my body, and I play with it within my performances. And myself…I’m just genuinely kind of turned on by these things as well. I love immersing myself in my world and my aesthetic within these dark fantasies. So when it comes to the sex industry and how that plays into it…I use imagery to subvert expectations of female sexuality. But for me it’s more about raw seduction and the art of seduction. I have so much adoration for sex workers. It’s such an unsung labor, such an unsung important job. Especially in a society that wants us to pretend that we’re not sexual deviants, or that we’re not very motivated by sex in liter-ally everything we do. I want to talk about some of the political aspects of this, but I also just want to make sexy stuff. I think the world would be cooler if we could be more open about sex and embracing sexuality.