This past Sunday, at MoMA PS1 in Queens, Hannah Black became a superhero. You wouldn’t have known it just by looking at her, though. When she walked into the museum’s dark VW Dome, she was dressed like any of the museum’s hipster denizens, wearing high-waisted jeans and off-white sneakers. As she walked around the dome, she gradually revealed herself as Anxietina, a depressed defender with a penchant for theory. (Black has performed as Anxietina before, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London last year.) Black had to deal with impending doom and failed relationships, and yet, she said, “I have to run, because I’m late to save the world.” But she stuck around.
Black’s performance, called OR LIFE OR, was her first public event after writing a provocative open letter last month to the curators of the Whitney Biennial, urging them to remove and destroy a painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz. Perhaps because of it, a long line snaked through PS1’s courtyard in the hour leading up to work’s premiere. Once guests were let in, the chairs filled up quickly and most people had to sit on the floor. In the moments leading up to the work’s start, the crowd tittered with impatience. How would Black follow up on that letter? Well, she wouldn’t.
For about 45 minutes Black meandered around the dome, stepping over—and sometimes into—water puddles that had been cut into the stage floor by the artist Ebba Fransén Waldhör. She sped up and slowed down her speech to the rhythm of live electronic music, courtesy of Bonaventure. It became clear in the first few minutes that OR LIFE OR was about something else entirely than the Schutz controversy—perhaps the feeling that someone has when she realizes that she is part of many, many systems, and that, in order to maintain her own sanity, she must be confident. Audience members may have been expecting a dramatic performance, but OR LIFE OR was not that. It was a typical work by Black: dense and theoretical, but also funny and engaging.
“You are at the start of the film or the dream,” Black said, reading from her iPhone toward the beginning. She continued on, sounding increasingly more paranoid. There was something about a character “played by Charlize Theron, don’t worry, don’t worry”; something about a government operative, something about a third party. Anxietina seemed constantly to be on the run—but from what? Viewers never found out.
Although an artist statement said that the performance referred to the Wikipedia entry for “life” and political theory, OR LIFE OR felt more like a stream-of-consciousness outpouring. At certain points, it became obvious that it was carefully choreographed. As the music grew louder, its thrumming bass shaking a row of folding chairs that lined the dome, Black’s lilting speech got faster. At other times, she stopped speaking, allowing Bonaventure’s music—which included samples from Beyoncé and Ginuwine’s “Pony”—to take over. When that happened, lasers projected scrolling text into the shallow puddles around the stage. Black sometimes stepped into the puddles, causing the reflections of those projections, which appeared on the ceiling, to ripple for a few seconds.
None of what the text said was particularly to easy to understand—“Fuck the weaponization of solitude,” read a segment of one projection—but Black was such a dynamic presence, it barely mattered. “Fuck the knowledge that’s inside me, and gets used against me,” Black told the audience toward the end. It felt like a retort to Black’s critics, of which there is no shortage these days.