Last Wednesday, guests climbed down into Machine Projects’s basement Mystery Theater, an ornate pseudo-19th-century stage that was painstakingly built beneath the Los Angeles nonprofit for a performance three years ago and never disassembled. A figure crouched at center stage, wrapped in a white sheet and wearing a curly black wig on her head. Unflattering overhead lights filled the room. Sneakers, a carton of milk, and a laptop on a table sat off to stage right. The figure started wiggling even before everyone had settled into their padded, salvaged theater seats, and soon it was standing, writhing, and poking fingers through strategically placed holes in its costume. The lights never went down. We wouldn’t be afforded the comfortable distance that stage lighting provides.
Ann Hirsch, the artist beneath the sheet, titled this performance The Rest of My Life (my fantasies, my choice). The promotional image posted on Machine’s website and sent out via email was a doctored version of one of Hirsch’s own wedding pictures. Where a bouquet had been, her hand now held a slightly warped image of a vagina. An image of an asshole, with eyeholes cut into it, covered her new husband’s face. The photo still managed to look a bit sweet, her flowing pink dress and his gray suit conveying sincerity.
Hirsch first became known—both in and outside the art world—for two “immersive research” projects (her words). For one she began in 2008, Scandilishous, she became a witty and overtly sexual YouTube vlogger named Caroline, and amassed about two million views. Then, in 2010, she appeared for a short time on the VH1 reality show Frank the Entertainer in the Basement Affair. She went by “Annie” and, like all the contestants, lived with Frank in his parent’s house. Producers framed Annie as the sweet, chummy, non-sexualized girl, a characterization she imploded by serenading Frank with an explicit rap song and then getting sent home. Her work since, including the horny lil’ feminist videos she showed on the New Museum’s website in 2015, has probed cyber sexuality and the complications of sex-positive feminism. She makes her art by participating in the cultural phenomena she’s exploring (cam-whoring, fame-whoring), but her version of exhibitionism feels uncertain and self-scrutinizing, and its effect can be discomfiting. A year ago, at a small performance event, when she tried to orgasm as many times as possible in ten minutes by masturbating, the audience seemed unsure of how to behave.
In Machine Project’s basement, Hirsch’s sheet-draped figure had reached the standing position when she started spitting thick red liquid through a hole near her mouth. It dripped down, leaving a trail on the sheet and puddle on the floor. Hirsch pulled the wig and sheet off, and, dressed in jeans and plaid, walked up to a microphone at center stage. “Heeyyy, what’s up L.A.?” she said. “I have to admit, I’m actually a little bit nervous to be here, because this is the first that I have performed live in a really long time. So please handle me with your kid gloves, please.”
“I don’t know if you guys know this, but I got married last year,” she continued, baiting us to react in the way stand-up comics do. “When you first get married, it’s all lovey dovey, kissy and huggy and then one year in, one year in, man, that’s when everything changes.”
“Husbands are really good for material,” she said, before launching into a story about watching Amy Schumer on Comedy Central with him. “Babe, babe,” her husband had said, “look at her, she’s, like, moving all around, using her whole body and being so generous with her time.” Later that night, she told us, she put on a porno in the bedroom. “Hon,” she said to her husband, “look at him, he’s moving all around, using his whole body and being so generous with his time.”
“Love is crazy,” Hirsch added. The comedy routine transitioned into a slide show projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. A pre-recorded voice told us about a young girl in suburbia who loves Return of the Jedi and longs to be like Leia, but knows “that a young girl shouldn’t want to be a sexual plaything for a large slug.” The voice explained vaginismus and recited platitudes—“a husband is a dick you can trust”—as images of prison, bondage porn, and two girls hugging a stone penis sculpture installed on a lawn appeared on screen. Another concerned female voice discussed the anxieties of her performance artist friend: “And, anyway, what kind of artist would you be if you didn’t put yourself out on the line, make yourself vulnerable, not vulnerable in a way that would make people love you but vulnerable in a way that will make people hate you…” Then Hirsch was pulling off her jeans and plaid to reveal a black unitard and tank top underneath.
On the screen behind her, a feature from the self-explanatory porn site Everythingbutt.com started, and Hirsch began to sing along to music of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” in a high-pitched voice. This went on for over five minutes, a submissive, unfathomably attractive woman onscreen being led around by a leash and then thrown across a bed so that her captor/suitor could insert things into her rear while Hirsch sang, “Lord knows, I can’t change” and played air guitar.
The music switched to Marilyn Manson’s aggressive “Rock Is Dead,” and the screen went blank. Hirsch donned a ghoul mask and took off her tank top, performing a drawn-out strip tease, slowly pulling the unitard off. When she was nude, she went to the table at stage right, poured milk into a glass, took out a straw and, returning to center stage, blew bubbles into her milk as Pavarotti’s romantic “Nessun Dorma” played. This continued for some time, the milk bubbling in the glass, and eventually, as she blew harder, bubbling over and dripping down her stomach onto the floor as the tenor crescendoed. The transfixing milk scene ended abruptly. A high-pitched, pre-recorded computer voice called out “the little bitch that can’t change” and “the little perverted queen” then thanked us for coming, replacing poetics with over-sexed awkwardness.