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‘We didn’t set out to make a piece about dehumanization, mob mentality, or violence’: Alli Coates and Signe Pierce Talk ‘American Reflexxx’

Still from American Reflexxx

Still from American Reflexxx.

Although American Reflexxx—a short film by Alli Coates starring the performance artist Signe Pierce—premiered two years ago at Art Basel in Miami, only recently has the work surfaced online, on a newly created joint YouTube account belonging to the two artists.

Since going live in early April, the video has amassed over one million views and a great deal of attention from the media. The fully unscripted piece follows Pierce, wearing a blue mini-skirt and mirrored mask, through the crowded streets of Mrytle Beach, SC.

What follows is an onslaught of disturbing hostility from onlookers that snowballs into a mob, climaxing with a shocking act of violence. Compounded with disorienting time-based post-production effects, American Reflexxx touches on a laundry list of contemporary concerns, and has sparked a dialogue extending beyond the perimeters of the art world.

In the aftermath of this attention, ARTnews conducted an interview with Coates and Pierce via email.

What was the genesis behind the performance?

AC: At the time, in 2013, we were living in New York and we wanted to step out of the NY art bubble to make some work in the real world. Making art in NYC for NYC can sometimes feel like preaching to the choir, so we wanted to get out of the echo chamber. We had been making some video art pieces dealing with femininity and stereotypes, and wanted to take those themes into a real life situation.

SP: In regards to the character,  I’d been inspired by portraying the hyper-sexualized “ideal girls” you see on TV/online/in porn: blonde, sexy, and silent without any signified sense of purpose or identity, other than the inherent condition of being observed.  I’m interested in what happens when you take that girl out of the screen and drop her into reality.

Why Myrtle Beach? Do you two have history with the area?

AC: I have family that lives in South Carolina and I grew up spending summers there. SC is one of the most radically conservative states in the country, and Myrtle Beach in particular really interests me because there is a church on every corner and a strip club on every other corner. Since it’s a vacation town, it attracts all walks of life, but the traditional heteronormative patriarchy has a real stronghold on day-to-day life.  It seemed ripe for art making.

What, if any, expectations did you have coming into shooting?

AC: Our intention was to go to Ocean Boulevard, the main drag of Myrtle Beach tourism, and film something “pretty” with the cyborg. We expected to create a video portrait of this character walking about in this spectacle of lights, excess, and Americana vacation aesthetics. We had anticipated maybe a few catcalls, maybe some light crowd interaction, but never anticipated that an angry mob was going to leave her bleeding on the sidewalk.

SP: I had done a few “reality performances” before so I expected some gawking, but the violence was startling.

What function do the glitch/time distortion effects play in shaping the work?

AC/SP: The editing serves to further disorient the viewer amidst an already chaotic situation, as well as to represent the digital disconnect that can happen IRL. When real life is viewed through a simulated media filter (camera phones in front of your face, Instagram filters, Photoshop) there’s bound to be some disconnect as to what the actual “reality” of any given situation is. The entire hour of the experiment is visible in the 14 minute video, we just sped up and slowed down time to play with how we can bend reality.

Take us into your headspace when the tape was actually rolling.

AC: Right before we got out of our car in the parking lot we agreed that we weren’t going to talk to each other once we got out and started filming. In the beginning people were probably drawn to us because of the presence of the camera (and the outfit of course), but once the crowd got a little bigger, I was just another person in the mob.

SP: I hadn’t anticipated such hostility to transpire and thus didn’t really have a game plan once I was in the middle of it all, but I knew that there was no way that I was going to let them have the satisfaction of getting me to unmask. It didn’t matter if behind the mask I was a man/woman/trans/ugly/pretty, and I didn’t want them to feel like they were any less justified in hurting me if they realized I was a cis woman after hurling all these hateful slurs and transphobic remarks my way.

Do you think of the piece as activism? A social experiment? An invitation to discourse?

AC/SP: We didn’t set out to make a piece about dehumanization, mob mentality, or violence, but that’s inadvertently what it became.  The thing about making improvised work in reality is that it’s not really up to you what comes out of it.  We’re grateful for the discourse that it spawns, specifically surrounding tolerance and breaking free from the herd.  These themes are so important to us, as well as the idea of maintaining unflinching confidence in being who you inherently are despite what other people expect of you.

What is your current relationship with the project’s effect on culture in the aftermath of the piece being released on the internet and the subsequent attention it has received?

AC: The actual film is only part 1 of the project, it doesn’t end at the end of this video. The media and the reactions online are the second part of this project, the reflex to American Reflexxx. Probably the most disheartening reactions, which are sadly numerous, are that people wish violence upon Signe’s attackers, which isn’t the point.

SP: A lot of people leave the film feeling dejected and disgusted with humanity, and that’s not what I want them to take away.  We want people to leave this film feeling inspired by the opportunity to challenge adversity and to use their voices to stand up for what’s right. Being fearless in voicing your convictions against injustice is how change happens.

Are there any other works throughout the history of performance art that influenced you when conceptualizing/actualizing the piece?

SP:  The people that come to mind are Marina Abramovic, Laurel Nakadate, and The Real Housewives.  Add a little bit of Donna Haraway’s 1983 A Cyborg Manifesto and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and you’ve got this character.

Do you have any collaborative works scheduled in the future?

AC: I’m going to leave that one unanswered for now. I don’t want to spoil anything we may have planned for the future by talking too much about it beforehand.

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