Artist Signe Pierce on How to Take Up Space and Puncture People’s Realities
Images courtesy of Signe Pierce
Text by Marianne Abbott
Earlier this year, I took a train from Berlin to the opening of Virtual Normality: Women Net Artists 2.0 at the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig. The exhibit, curated by Anika Meier and Sabrina Steinek, provides the remarkable opportunity to see the work of women internet artists taking up space alongside more conventional art forms.
Walking into the gallery, past Molly Soda’s Youtube videos and next to Leah Shrager’s photographs, is American Reflexxx (2013), Signe Pierce’s soon to be iconic short film. In it Pierce embodies a faceless cyborg, wearing a reflective mask and a skintight blue dress as she wanders around the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The film captures the violence and dehumanization that ensues as the patrons of the boardwalk interact with Pierce’s cyborg. Throughout Virtual Normality’s opening night, attendees crowded around the social experiment being projected on the wall.
When reality artist Signe Pierce strutted out from the opposite side of the gallery, this time as Big Sister, a surveilling alpha female in a black leotard, the tables were turned. No longer mere observers of the violence being inflicted upon Pierce’s cyborg character in American Reflexxx, the museum goers became Big Sister’s victims, with her aggression directed towards them.
I caught up with Pierce after the opening to discuss her performance art, gender violence, and light’s healing power.
What was it like to stage a performance in a museum space?
This was my first real performance where the entire time I [was] inhabiting a museum space. I actually prefer to perform in totally non-conventional ways, like on the streets. A lot of the times the work that I do is more improvisational than a performance. Like in American Reflexxx, yes, there was a character and there was a performative quality to it, but it’s not like it was scripted. It was very fluid. I like capturing the realness and the rawness of being a human existing in reality.
How does your audience in a public space shape a performance?
One of my artistic mantras is the idea of not preaching to the choir constantly. If I’m going to stage a performance in a gallery or a museum about queer feminism, that’s great, and it’s an honor to perform there, but there’s a 99% chance that the room I’m speaking to already has an idea of what queer feminism is. As an artist who’s interested in instilling thought, and maybe even change, it’s important to take this performance art to places that would never encounter or experience that—places like Myrtle Beach, Trump Tower, or even just the middle of Times Square. You’re going to interact with so many people who would never step foot in a gallery. That’s something that I’m trying to do with my work, something that might puncture someone’s reality.
Watch American Reflexxx below
Is there something inherently violent or aggressive about your performances?
There is definitely an aggression in the work that I do. I refer to the hyper-feminine facade that I put on as a venus fly trap because I like that metaphor of shaping myself into something that can easily ensnare the gaze of somebody who might not look at art otherwise. Except often these hyper-feminine characters then devolve into the grotesque. I like to create these beautiful, monolithic characters and then tear them down, but a lot of times they get back up. I like watching the rise and fall and then the rise again.
Society often infantilizes or trivializes women’s voices. It seems to be a theme in your work where you re-appropriate elements that society has trivialized.
I like taking the roles women are cast in media to a way more dominant position. I think you see that in American Reflexxx with my body language. It’s about oscillating between dominating and submissive, masculine and feminine. You see it in American Reflexxx when I’m very femme and soft: that’s when they are throwing bottles at me and abusing me. Then the second I give them any sort of aggression or dominance in my body language is when they run from me and fear me. I think it really goes to show how we’re in charge of our own power, and if we harness and take up space in the same way men are allowed to, it could be a brave new world for us.
Let’s talk about your use of light and colored light in particular.
I’m really thankful that that aspect of my practice has come to fruition. In college, I studied photography, but for the first couple of years after, I was really uninspired by the idea of creating images. Then I bought a UV light in the summer of 2014, which gave off a really intense purple light. So I would sit in my room and play with it, and I would notice the way it would totally alter the space. That’s when I realized how much light factors into our perception of reality [and] how much of a positive impact color was having on my colorless life at the time.
Over the next couple of years, I had a series of epiphanies working with light as a medium and it truly has brightened up my world and my perspective. I’ve really come to love working with light, not just in photography, but in spaces and installations. Light is such an amazing medium because it lets you be a part of the art. When you’re in the presence of light as art, you can see yourself in the art.
It’s a goal of mine over the course of my career to continue working with light and explore how light can be a healing element and how we can heal with light. I want to go into spaces that are not artistic at all, that are healing environments, seeing what light can do for people who are either receiving treatment or seeking refuge.
In addition to the show in Leipzig, which will be on view until April 8th, Pierce is part of the group exhibition “One Year of Resistance” at The Untitled Space gallery, an exhibition featuring artists responding to the political climate in America since the election of President Donald Trump which is open until February 6th. American Reflexxx is also on view at New Release Gallery in Chinatown until February 11th, and Pierce has a solo show opening at Annka Kultys Gallery in London on March 28th.