Ann Hirsch has made an art practice of exploring what it is to be a woman in media today. Through an ongoing repertoire of performances (both actual and virtual), as well as her field studies as a reality television star, Hirsch’s work simultaneously unpacks and complicates perceptions of reality, both on- and off-screen, while engendering empathic insight into the complexity of today’s female protagonists in popular/reality culture. In this interview, Ann walks us through some of her art, and explains some of what she’s learned about herself and her peers in the course of her keen experimentation.
Hi Ann, how’s it going? Tell me about your day.
I had a performance this weekend and it was exhausting. It was my show Playground. It’s actors and we were rehearsing all week and then it was on the weekend, and I have a full time job, so it’s just a lot.
Ah yes. All too familiar with the post-occupational grind. When did you move to California?
I moved in August 2014. I’m originally from Baltimore. I moved to New York after grad school in 2010. Officially I moved because my fiancé got a job here, but we wanted to move to LA for various reasons. [Weather] was the main one.
Just give me a little run down about yourself. When you decided to get into performance art? Why it spoke to you etc?
I’ve been into art for a long time. I did my undergrad degree in sculpture but I always just did video. And then I decided I wanted to go right into grad school right after, and I went into a video program at Syracuse. And I just kind of realized that all the videos guys were making had performance in them. But it felt kind of old – just in video form. And at Syracuse was when I started my first real performance project. And from there my performance process just evolved really.
Tell me about Scandalishious. What initiated that project?
At the time, what I thought I was exploring was just the changing model of feminization/representation of women. Before, as a woman you’re relying on other people to disseminate female imagery – TV, magazines, film – but with YouTube all of a sudden there was the possibility that women could have the chance to represent themselves. What that meant for representation – that’s what the project kind of explores, both the good and bad sides of that. It’s not like “oh its so great we can represent ourselves!” – it’s no, it’s a really complicated mixed bag of what that means and what you open yourself up to and how people see you.
Did you find yourself strangely driven to get more viewers? Was that part of your goal? Did you mold under the pressure of your audience?
I didn’t at first think I would get a lot of viewers, and when I did, I was surprised by it. And I toyed a little bit with trying to build my audience but ultimately, you know, quickly realized that’s a losing game. Getting sucked in with stuff like that. It’s not a game I want to play, it’s not a rewarding game. There’s no meaningful end goal in that. So I didn’t really try much to get a big viewership, it just kind of happened, me just kind of doing whatever it is I was doing.
So what was the most rewarding thing you got from that experience?
I don’t even know where to begin really with that question. What I realized later about the project and myself is that I was really exploring my own sexuality and what it means to be a woman. I learned about myself, I learned a lot about internet audiences. If you’re a woman, your first audience will be men, and then children, and if you get popular with children, you might get popular in a mainstream way. That’s what I felt about the audience.
So how much later was it that you started doing the reality TV stuff? and the Frank the Entertainer?
That was about 2 years later.
Did you do anything to prepare or train to get up to that level? What was the thought process to go from that initial project and how it evolved?
I did the Scandalishious project pretty religiously for about a year, and then I got cold on it and sick of it. There was some drama with the project that became emotionally too intense for me to keep going. I was in grad school and I had just broken up with my long term boyfriend and I was at an art residency and there was an artist there that I really looked up to. We both watched really trashy reality TV and she was like, you should go on it, you should apply! And then I did and I got on the show. That was at the end of 2009 and the show aired in 2010.
I was watching the talk you did, The Basement Affair, where you broke down the whole thing. With that project, did you ever think they were on to you? Was there ever a mindfuck kind of moment?
They were a mindfuck. With that project, I went in with knowing that I wouldn’t have enough control. You have no control in that situation. It’s horrifying.
So it’s about submitting yourself and being vulnerable?
I mean for me, I really see that as a research project primarily that manifests as performances. So I had to know what this is like. So I just went in on the show with no expectations of what I was going to do or be like. I knew I would have no idea. I was just there seeing what it’s like. And then I started figuring it out – that’s when I had that moment of when I sang the dirty rap song and took back control for like the little 2 minutes I possibly could within the show.
So you didn’t have intentions of playing the role up until that point.
I was just being myself more or less.
You were working the camera a little bit, no?
Yeah, in the interviews it’s easier to because you’re just alone. But when I was in the house I wouldn’t act like that – I’d be totally normal. But in the interviews, they’re asking you stupid questions for five hours and don’t let you leave. Also when I’m on camera that’s just what happens.
To explore the exploits of these types of shows, this as the third reiteration – a spin off of a spin off. What did you get out of it? What surprised you?
When I went on the show I was prepared for the worst in terms of the other girls – I thought they’d be trashy and horrible and fucking idiots. They were just normal fucking girls. That was the weird thing. The way that I know them, and the way they are portrayed, is very, very different. When you watch the shows, you really do see those people as they are portrayed, it really couldn’t be farther than that in my situation. I think most people think Bachelor-type shows, they’re choosing who they want in real time, the bachelor is making those decisions. I didn’t realize how involved production was in determining who gets voted off when and for what reasons. They’re writing a show, there are story writers on these shows, they need to write the stories before it even happens. “This girl is going to be cast, what’s her story, this girl is going to be too slutty for Frank.” And then they have to make the story end up that way, the way they preconceive it to be.
Did you have any post traumatic effects?
Yeah, I didn’t get my period for a couple months. I would have reoccurring dreams that I was still in the house and I couldn’t get off the show. It was really intense. I’m over it now. I learned a lot but it was really hard. Since then and since I’ve become more savvy about reality TV, the stuff I’ve been on since then has totally reinforced – I’ve never lived in another reality house, that’s a whole different thing. I’ve done shows where you just go in for a couple hours, you tape and then you go home.
Favorite reality show right now?
I mean we’re really in the dark ages of reality television. I consider my show to be the last of the days of reality TV and after that show it died. And now we’re in the dark ages. But I’m a fan of the Real World Road Rules Challenge- I’ve watched every single episode of all 26 seasons. That’s a really old show, it’s been around forever.
Have you ever wanted to start your own, your own interpretation?
I’d love to. If I had money, I would. If I had a producer and money, I’d love to have my own show. My most recent idea is a show that would be called Feminist Finder and I would go to different cities and see if I could find feminists for my feminist army. I would go to like middle America and find the one girl with feminist inclinations and convince her to travel around the country with me.
So you wrote some stuff about shaming famewhores and overcoming hatred/your sympathy for the American teen. Who is this archetype exactly?
Any girl – any teenage, pre-teen girl. Just today she’s on social media.
Let’s talk about your show “Muffy” at American Medium – which was centered around adolescence, sexuality, the awkwardness around that. Seems like overall you do work in this – some iteration of coming to terms and understanding of sexuality. Is that more of a nostalgic topic or something that still intrigues you and evolves as you get older?
I think it definitely evolves as you get older – the way you feel about things change. I think I’ll always make work about gender and sexuality, and just my perspectives will change, my experience and will change as I get older. And my perspective on what I experienced when I was younger will also change. You can look back – when you look back closely on something you see it one way, and when you have some distance you see it another way.
I totally agree. I feel like every 5 years things shift with perspective and can be eye opening for sure. As far as the piece you performed for an all female audience – you said there wasn’t a sexual element to it but more so an exhibitionist aspect to that. Like you were accepting it and kind of admitting it in a way. Since then, what have you learned about your exhibitionist approach to making art?
My whole thing is about narcissism and about how that is portrayed, usually as a bad trait, especially for women who are narcissistic or vain or obsessed with themselves. The whole point of that performance for me at least is who the fuck cares if you’re narcissistic, who the fuck cares if you’re an exhibitionist, it is what it is and it’s not necessarily anything bad. Especially being an exhibitionist – it’s like who the fuck cares, if you want to show yourself and be crazy and do whatever you want. Who cares if you want attention? We all want attention, we’re just fucking kidding ourselves if we’re pretending that we don’t. Being like “oh that friend just wants attention” and yeah so do you. Anyone who’s an artist wants attention.
You did mention how there was no sexual intent behind it but part of the reason for having all women in there was to prove that.
A lot of people think a woman wants to show off her body because she wants male attention or she wants to be seen as a sex object. That’s not true.
You think just having only women takes out the sexual element?
Not necessarily, I mean from my end it does. I’m not really attracted to women and with women there’s this weird thing where there’s friendship and intimacy and romantic intimacy and things are different. I’m interested in that. But yeah, it’s this sisterhood thing more than anything else. In my mind it would be hard for someone else to see what I’m doing as sexy or sexual.
Tell me about what you’re working on now, what you have going on in the next year or so.
I’m working on my website called HornyLilFeminist.com. Some of my stuff is about exploring what it means to be a woman on the Internet, representing myself in a unique way on the Internet. It’s just a web project that’s compiled of a series of a bunch videos just kind of trying to be like a voice of what it means to be a woman today on the Internet, what that means.
Almost forgot I wanted to talk about “12” and your play “Playground”. Tell me about that. How much was inspired by a true story and how much was fictional?
It’s all completely true. It’s just I condensed something or combined something. I won’t say any of it is made up. It’s all based on real things. It was just a time in my life that was really formative and because it was so seemingly strange at the time to me, I just blocked it out of my mind and pretended it never had happened. I really hadn’t thought about it for years and years, and one day someone had asked me to do something about like sex and children, and I was just like “oh yeah when I was a kid I did that…oh my god that was fucked up.” And the more I thought about it, the more I remembered and just remembered how weird it was and into it I was. The language of it all, I just started to write. And then it turned into a play which I got the Rhizome commission for, and then someone asked me to turn it into an E-book. So it’s an E-book but in the form of an app.
I saw it got taken off iTunes.
Yeah so fucking stupid. Everything I do gets censored, it’s really infuriating.
How do you feel about censorship in general? With net neutrality it means there won’t be any veering of Internet use or things like that. How do you feel about things are going now with Internet rights?
I mean it’s just part of a larger endemic happening globally. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. I think net neutrality is just a small piece of that larger issue. It just sucks, but it’s just kind of the way the whole world is going where big corporations have all the power and the rights and the people have none.
Keeping with the topic explored for Issue 02:Civil Rites, do you have any rituals that you do day to day or morning or night?
I check the weather, a lot. I’m obsessed with the weather.
OK SHOTGUN ROUND….
Favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream?
Tom Selleck or Chuck Norris?
To watch or have sex with or what?
Just in general.
Beavis and Butthead or Ren and Stimpy?
I hate them both.
Do you like cartoons?
I like cartoons but like Marvel cartoons, action cartoons. Like Spider Man.
Did you ever watch Batman?
That would be my second favorite. Spider man was my first favorite.
Drake or J Cole?
I mean Drake, always Drake.
What are you listening to these days?
I listen to Pandora a lot. People make fun of me, like “what about Spotify.” I like to be surprised.
How about cedar or patchouli?
I don’t know what any of those things are. I hate incense.
M&Ms or Twix?
M&M’s, Twix are disgusting…. Ohhh I thought you meant Twizzler, Twix are the best.
Great! Thanks Ann.
View more of Ann’s video work at her vimeo page.