Ann Liv Young: performance artist for the Palin moment


Recently at Slate, it flashed on writer Meghan O’Rourke what “dark literary doppelganger” Sarah Palin–“with her bright
smile, her folksy-corporate style, and her Silly Puttied authenticity, which
mirrors back at the viewer whatever talking point she’s just absorbed”–reminded
her of

a character in a George
 story… trapped in the American DreamTM. [Saunders’]
workers at theme parks or Hooters-style restaurants, mummified in
corporate-sponsored “flair,” speak in her same style of substanceless
perk–the language of cute-can-do-ism that’s exploited by companies to lull
workers into taking pleasure in how much of their time is given over to the
business of being an employee.

Palin speak, like the
settings it’s lifted from, is pure loop-the-loop insularity, without origin or
aim. Which means, paradoxically, that it’s always throwing us into a state of
déjà vu, not quite bringing to mind where we’ve seen this proud hoosier
knownothingness before, or the backbiting bitchery (was it only “Melrose Place”?),
or the singsong cadences (“Romper Room”?). When commentators get bent out of
shape over the governor’s unreliable syntax, I think they’re also picking up on the general
drift of her–that she’s a senseless homogenization of a motley of attitudes that put a
premium on authenticity while being entirely manufactured (and for precise political purposes).


Palin’s aura of ersatz is part
of her sexiness–and if you don’t believe she’s got allure, you should have
seen the men’s dials at CNN during the V.P. debate every time the camera zoomed in on her. Her words are to her mind like big breasts are to a small body: they don’t seem to entirely belong to it.


That’s also the voodoo magic that Ann Liv Young channels in “The Bagwell in Me,” in which the love triangle usually associated with Thomas Jefferson is now superglued to our
first president, George Washington.

At The Kitchen last week, Young played George as well as his wife, Martha; Isabel
Lewis, in brownface, did honors as Oney, their slave; and Michael Guerrero, real-life fiancé
to Young, served as all-purpose handyman (shades of “The Blue Angel”).


The corporate spirit of
Palin’s winkiness doesn’t preside over “Bagwell”: the props and costumes are plasticky in a lumpen, not an institutional, way, and the patchwork of borrowings is aboveboard. The script, read
from papers sticky with fluids regularly spilled over the stage, is resolutely
amateurish, slip-slopping from one style to another. The set is grotty. Most
of the tunes to which Young and Lewis bump and grind are borrowed from top-ten radio (when there
was top-ten radio). The sex scenes involve common porno stunts.


Where Young’s Teflon
slipperiness arises from
is the story itself, which is also where the surprise
is: you realize you know this story–even in the ridiculous form she’s given it.
You can’t say how you know it, and she never tells you, probably because she doesn’t know, either. It’s just in the air, like the flu.

But then, improbably, she drives this heavy cloud of racist-sexist fantasies to an absurd and logical end. She leaves nothing to the
imagination. She obliterates the imagination–and sanctimony with it.


For example, the way Martha punishes
Oney for having an affair–and baby–with George is to suck her twat while Oney, in skimpy thong, stands and delivers a rap tune. Martha sings the chorus
between gulps.

In case we were wondering if Young really is working down
there, Guerrero trains a minuscule camera between Lewis’s legs, so the scene is
presented front as well as back and underneath–in the flesh as well as on live video. No more wondering.


Young never steps out of her
dumb, beautiful, bossy, and utterly unself-conscious stage persona, and I
think that’s part of why she infuriates as many people as she excites. People want
a sign that she knows how annoyingly amateurish she is, how much her tap
dancing sucks, how her singing is only accidentally good and if she didn’t look so innocently
pretty–which is an accident, too–none of this would work. Most of all, they
want to be reassured that she’s not stumbling through a minefield of history
without at least recognizing that it’s a minefield. She offers no such


She does the show as if a skinflint impresario had recruited her that afternoon and said, “Okay, babe, this is what you got to do: Go
out there and sing along to the song. Swing your tits around, and do the splits,
and wiggle your ass in a few middle-aged men’s faces. Then read this script.
When it says, MARTHA, put on the Marge Simpson wig. When you get to GEORGE, switch
to the Bozo the Clown wig.”

Her big, luscious, slovenly body sighs as she switches
from wig to wig, or changes costume, or tromps up the aisle to sink
sweatily toward some mortified man’s lap.


The empty authority of her
act distinguishes
her from an earlier generation of performance artists–specifically, Karen
Finley, whom critics have invoked to argue that Young is nothing new. (If you
want a comparison, I think the gross-out visual artist Paul McCarthy is more
apt. He also trains his eye on Americans’ peculiarly erotic response to the
ersatz and banal: how we make things fake and boring so we can feel safe getting
off on them.) As I understand it, and I haven’t seen a whole lot of her (no pun intended), Finley’s
claim to transgressive fame was for going where no one dared go before. (First woman
to stick a yam up her ass!) Young is transgressive for being relentlessly


And that’s where the
pathos creeps in. My metabolism slowed–my heart sunk–about 40 minutes into what
amounted to a nearly two hour show when Young put a sheet over Lewis’s head and
noosed it tight with a rope. I thought, Oh, god, are we really going to wade
through the whole preprogrammed charade of horrors?


Yes, we are. The
dark slave choked, the dark slave getting her revenge, the cunt-sucking,
the fucking via dildo–with breaks for slave and mistress to belt out karaoke
tunes (while tap-dancing and wielding rusty saws). 


“The Bagwell in Me” says,
“You know the drill”–then takes us through it, bit by bloody bit. At first, the show’s audacity makes it hard not to laugh. But after a while, the uncanny accuracy of its seemingly slipshod aim–its hallucinogenic reproduction of every shade of bumbling bigotry–begins to hurt.

“It made me really sad,”
my friend Clare said afterward, staring over my head at the wall.


Yeah, that the record has
been broken this long and we’re still playing it. We’d like to turn it off, but
we can’t remember how to get off the couch.

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  1. says

    I like that you compare Palin with Ann Liv. Very important. Also I like your last sentence.
    If you haven’t yet got the chain letter about the list of women for Obama, from PA, let me know and Ill send it to you.
    Oh, no, no chain letters! But of course women like Obama–as well they, and everyone else, should! ~Apollinaire

  2. elyse Goldberg says

    Ann Liv Young “Bagwell”
    Kurt Kren has noted, “No wound ever speaks for itself”
    We have Ann Liv Young to speak for the ‘wound”…
    When thinking about Ann Liv Young, one must remember the early actionists in the ’50s in Vienna, who moved beyond all social boundaries with their aggressive performance actions straight from the Id, shoved the world back at their viewers and defied all social expectations of decorum. Their torch is carried high by Ann Liv Young, a force to behold, whose “The Bagwell in Me” is a daring and stellar work. She performs a kind of exorcism in which she acts as our “primal scream.”
    The inception of this mindboggling narrative began when Young discovered her relatives, the Bagwells, owned slaves. To explore this shocking fact further, she created a play revolving around the ever moral and genteel George Washington, who could not tell a lie after he chopped down the cherry tree. History lies and conveniently leaves out the sordid tales of ownership of human beings, objectified
    as flesh, traded for money, used for sexual pleasure, and then tossed away. Willing to look the revulsion of owning people straight in the eye, Young forces the audience to strip down as well, to drop their guard, to blow open that pristine portrait of George Washington and all the George Washingtons of the world who speak and live as hypocritical racists.
    George Washington’s shiny face is as tarnished as every other slave owner and trader of flesh, a fact which still remains with us today. Not even a week ago we witnessed John McCain shooting his hand at Obama and saying, “That one over there.” He never would have uttered that if he were debating Kerry or any other white person. That is certain.
    The ferocious veracity of Young’s message lunges at the audience as she sharpens her sword on a litany of words and actions, destroying all dramaturgical decorum. In her startling visceral performance she does not let one complacently sit by–we are active participants in this harrowing tale of lust, betrayal, danger, domination, slave trade, and lineage which still resonates. One of her trademarks is to break the narrative movement of the story by interjecting a different story. Splitting time apart, she oscillates between the historical scenes with George Washington and those modeled on contemporary strip clubs. She unsettles the audience by blurring the boundaries between the real and the scripted, mingling impromptu commands into the performance. For instance, at one moment she demands her sound be fixed, or the music in her computer made louder.
    It is a hard act to pull off, but whereas others generally produce a contrived result, Young succeeds in creating a fusion of the real, the fictional, the imagined, the constructed, and the manipulated. By destroying the traditional play format, the audience is disoriented, our equilibrium overthrown, placing us in a vulnerable position. She interestingly aligned the stripper disco to slavery, raising issues of the ‘body’ with regard to who owns it. The girls in strip clubs are paid to become objectified. Yet they have a choice in most instances. The reference to another kind of flesh trade, for amusement and excitement, is an increasingly complex thread.
    Did she shock people? Yes. Did she titillate? Perhaps. Did she “gross out,” to
    borrow a phrase? Maybe…Did she scare the audience? Yes.
    In “Bagwell” Young destroys boundaries with the audience. I say “destroy” boundaries because “interacts” is too cold. Young moved from the stage into the audience with livid bold vehemence, fury and the look of a person possessed. Her entrance into the audience was not gratuitous. This play absolutely called for those Actions, with a capitol A. It was mentioned [in countercritic’s post] that she assaulted her audience members in Bagwell. She did not assault the audience in this piece. The aggression was completely called for. If one is dealing with slave owners who could at the drop of a pin rape and pillage their work force, kill them, unexpectedly, have them live on the edge of terror- then Ann succeeded in making us feel afraid- in the safety of our seats. I saw the play on Friday- and she barely touched the man who complained. I was sitting in his row and saw the entire “incident.” Her quick intelligence meant she was able to not only step into the real universe and give him hell for hassling her- she was also able to stay in character as an “owner of human beings.” As she stated to the complaining audience member “I own you. You are my property.”
    It was breathtaking watching her switch back and forth between being George Washington and Martha… Speaking in voices… Breaking out of storyline to dance strip disco thereby throwing expected body rhythms off in the viewers.
    In Young’s previous performance at the Kitchen, “Snow White,” her actions were kept within the confines of the stage. The story was a nonlinear tortured love rant based on the storybook character. Liv is no Snow White. Moving in and out of character she read love letters, sang songs of loss, lamented the broken heart, became a late night DJ drifting into psychologically complex and pained narration. Ms. Young tries to understand human connections in all her works. She is our connection to lost loves, passion, and confusion. I read a review that implies Bagwell is a superficial and simplistic play that adds nothing to our understanding of slavery. One would have to wonder what it would take to wake this unconscious person up, given what was put before him on stage.
    Young’s play is a powerful treatise on the horrors of slavery (of all kinds, if one wants to stretch beyond the obvious): All oppression is tyranny–and psychological and community oppression, while polite can also kill the soul. “Bagwell” exposes the troubles at the heart of global economies and politics as well as the minutiae of personal lives.
    I have also read that she re-uses her riffs. All artists have a signature style. If they are good, we come back for more. Sam Shepard does not write like Thomas Pynchon, Scorsese does not direct like Gus Van Zant, Pina Bausch does not dance like Ann Liv Young. Each of these aforementioned artists have identifiable, strong styles, which is part of why we like their work and their content is dependent on the delivery. Form does follow function.
    Young’s aggression was definitely needed to shake the audience and wake us up. A line in a song “Fake Empire” by the band The Nationals is “we’re half awake in a fake empire”. Well, we are half awake. Every now and then we need to get banged in the head to wake up in our fake empire. I am glad to have Young around for that. We are all so inured from genre films to blood and gore and sentimental documentaries of the horrors of slavery, which distance racism as if it has dissipated. We are lost in our computers. Young exposes the fear that one’s flesh, one’s very being, may be subjected to another’s whims. At any moment you may be murdered, raped, tortured. In fact, it also highlights the sad tale of torture the current administration continues to inflict on the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
    Young, it can be said, lives in the spirit of the great line of eye-opening humans who make wake up ‘art’ such as Paul McCarthy, Marina Abramovic, Dieter Roth, Karen Finley, Annie Sprinkle, Valie Export, Thomas Hirshhorn, or Kurt Kren, who collaborated with the performance artists Günter Brus and Otto Mühl on a series of films made between 1964 and 1967 in which they fornicated and shat. Yes, that is appalling yet these films were made to expose our shit. They were simple, powerful statements of the human condition. Pathos runs through “Bagwell.”
    Young, whose elastic face can within seconds go from rage to angelic (she is quite beatific when she smiles) exposes the dirty raw horror of these actions. As she defies good manners yet she embodies an enormous amount of vulnerability, which makes the rage so much more poignant and terrifying. In the last scene of the wild ride in “Bagwell” Oney sings a Sam Cooke song “Change is Gonna Come.” It was performed as a lament which brought some of us to tears after the relentless energy, disorientation and ‘fear’ that Ann so brilliantly put on stage.
    To be terrified and mesmerized, hypnotized and fulfilled, to be on the skin of your flesh and the edge of your senses- is something quite phenomenal- given how jaded and unperturbed the art world has become with regard to performance and living on the edge, along with the world at large that accepts the death filled days of children and innocent people and only worry that someone who knows how to read might find their way into their backyards. I am not only speaking of America here. Polite is everywhere- Ann is not polite. Polite is boring, Ann is anything but…
    And as I digress, I left out mentioning the other stars of the show, the audience and the tech people and of course The Kitchen without whom Young’s performance would not be able to be carried back out into the world.
    Apollinaire responds:
    Wow. what a rant. Thank you for the explosion of words and thoughts!

  3. says

    “She leaves nothing to the imagination. She obliterates the imagination–and sanctimony with it.”
    I think this is one of the most important things I’ve heard said (or read) about ALY’s work.
    I don’t know that the results are always in Ms. Young’s best interest. If an audience cannot engage their imagination in what’s going on before them, there isn’t much for them to do except just be there. Repressing the audience seems to be in line with what I’ve seen of her work. It’s an interesting tactic, and one that, in the end, seems erotic. ALY deprives the audience of a necessary (or expected) communion with the work.
    But does she know she’s doing this? Or does she simply not care, and it’s just a notable side effect? And does it matter either way?
    I love intention. I think intention is necessary to call something art; as in, If an object or action is made by someone with the intention that it is art, then it IS art. Intention doesn’t de facto make it good art, but it does make it art.
    And I don’t know that ALY even intends to make art. She may intend to “dissolve expectations,” but that’s an effect of the work, not necessarily the work itself.
    Are we just watching her be herself, or are we watching something truly artful? It’s an important question for me, and one I’m glad that ALY’s work has inspired me to wrestle.
    Great conversation!
    [Apollinaire responds]
    Hi, countercritic (who has this fascinating post on “The Bagwell in Me”:
    This is really interesting: “Repressing the audience… is an interesting tactic, and one that, in the end, seems erotic. ALY deprives the audience of a necessary (or expected) communion with the work.” I mean, all the connections here: the erotic with a repression of response, and communion as, then, not erotic? I think I’m with you.
    I also think your teasing out of what intention has to do with art–and how complicated and delicate that connection is–is very thought-provoking. Normally people talk about intention as if they can read the mind of the artist (or non-artist, as the case may be) in the work itself. But you’re saying something more subtle: I want to *feel* the intention, I want to feel that there is an intention–that I’m in intelligent hands. A better distinction.
    I’m on the fence about whether it’s sufficient for the artist to frame something as art–you know, Duchamp’s urinal, Andy Warhol’s hand-reproduced Brillo Pads (which show a draftsman’s hand, to begin with)–for it to be art. I think the artiness of something, particularly a performing art, isn’t just in the hands of the artist, it’s in our hands, too.
    Which is why it’s worth arguing about!
    Thanks so much for writing,

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