I recently saw a rare screening in London of Chick Strands' 1979 film Soft Fictions, considered the seminal work of the experimental Californian filmaker. It's an incredible piece, prescient in its style and approach to female representation. It mixes documentary, poetry, truth, and reality, never presenting either victims or victors, but instead the stories told by these female subjects give the idea that "ecstasy is knowing exactly who you are and still not caring."
Though Ann Hirsch, who is also based in California, is still at the beginning of her career, she is part of a new legion of experimental female video makers, as concerned with eschewing the status quo as Strands was in the '70s. They might not have the finesse, yet, but they have the gall and the attitude.
Ann Hirsch is best known for her Scandalishious project, a series of videos the artist began creating in 2008, and uploading to YouTube. The project gained wide exposure and over one million views as Hirsch performed as Caroline, a sexy, fun alterego, that Hirsch said she invented as a way to get out of her own self-loathing.
Since the explosive popularity of Scandalishious, Hirsch continues to develop her idiosyncractic performances that present many different ideas about femininity and female sexuality, and often elicit confusing reactions in the viewer: laughter, repulsion, annoyance, guilt. She’s been defined as a 4th wave feminist, and in many ways her work is in dialogue with other young performance artists working in the US now, who use their bodies online to explore their own multitude of selves and identities, as much as to provoke audience reactions that question how we view, consume, and interact with these representations in both positive and negative ways.
This quality in Hirsch's work, as well as the way she handles sexuality, narcissism, and intimacy, avoiding any binaries (it's not an empowerment/victim struggle) makes it above all humanist in perspective. You might not like it, but if you live in the western world, you will recognize our current cultural condition in it.
Installation View, Dr Guttman's Office, Ann Hirsch, Courtesy Smart Objects
Charlotte Jansen: Let’s start with the current solo show at Smart Objects, Dr Guttman’s Office. It’s an autobiographical show, very personal, in perhaps the most direct way you’ve presented yourself in your work yet. Why did you decide to revisit those particular experiences as a child at this point?
Ann Hirsch: The show is very personal, very intimate, and my practice has continually been about revealing all the different layers of myself. It’s therapeutic for me but I also think it’s important as an artist to get as close to the “core” of yourself as you can, even if that means presenting yourself in a hypocritical manner or from multiple viewpoints that might appear at odds with one another. The more complicated we present ourselves, the more human we become.
I started looking at those childhood drawings because I recently realized how obsessive I was back then with female imagery and how a woman "should be" and that those are still precisely my concerns today as an adult artist. I think I’ve changed a lot as a person since I was a child (I used to be extremely shy and anxious—look at me now!) but in some ways the exact same things still fascinate me, I still obsess over the same things! It was a bit terrifying for me to figure that out but also illuminating.
Ann Hirsch, Pretty Little Truth Tellers, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 46 x 60 inches. Courtesy Smart Objects
CJ: There’s this nice juxtaposition in this show between your adult perspective and child self, two representations on what being a woman is. How do you join up these two views of womanhood?
AH: When I was a kid, I think I based what I thought a woman should be based on like Steve Madden ads or something. Those nineties ads were so canonical. Big eyes, small waist, large bell bottoms, bad ass attitude! It was a very idealized notion of womanhood/girlhood. I daydreamed a lot about princesses, “cool girls,” elegant fashion models. That is what I thought was the ideal and what I wished I could be so badly.
Now that I am a woman, I realize things are a lot more complicated, obviously. But at the core, that idea of being a “princess” never goes away. And by “princess” I mean a beautiful woman who has everything and always gets what she wants. I think women are still under pressure to be like this. We’re supposed to be able to do it all. Have great careers, be mothers, have lots of girlfriends, but above all, always always be beautiful. So I think my current work deals a lot with balancing the reality of who you are with who you strive to be based on others’ expectations of you.
CJ: Totally. Do you think that this is getting better, thanks to more diverse presentations of and by women, especially in the cultural sphere?
AH: Yes, in some ways, of course. But more accurately, the landscape just changes. It’s like we get rid of one stereotype and in its place another one appears that is more accurate for the time. For example, in addition to society expecting women to be beautiful, now women are increasingly expected to be smart, accomplished, etc. But maybe some women are just pretty and that’s it. Maybe they are just smart and not pretty. However, neither of those things should make them less human and that’s the battle we are always facing—being seen as less than human.
Maybe conforming to the new stereotype is “better” than dealing with the old one, or maybe it just presents a whole new host of problems which we then have to fight against. This is not to say we shouldn’t combat stereotypes, but only that the fight is never ending. But it is still worth it!
Ann Hirsch, Karaoke Time, 2015, Digital video, 1'01, 1 of 1. Courtesy Smart Objects
CJ: How have you worked through your shame of your private sexual existence online? Do you think privacy and shame are closely connected? It seems in many of your works that there’s this process of slowly revealing the private life.
AH: All my work deals with my internal shame. My shame of being sexual and being seen as sexual is probably the thread that weaves through all my work. I think this is what I’m most ashamed about in my life because societally we are taught that if a woman is sexual, she can’t be smart, she can’t be in control, and I’m a natural control freak whose identity growing up was wrapped up in being the “good smart girl.” And maybe not so ironically, I do deal constantly with people writing my work off, people thinking it’s vapid and stupid. But I always aim to combat that, to show that being a sexual woman does not make her stupid. I think only once we can allow women to be both sexual and human will our oppression end.
CJ: You explore and address multiple characters in the video piece The Real Ann Hirsch, through them addressing a lot of criticisms perhaps about feminism and feminists and feminist art and representation online. It doesn’t feel that these characters are meant to be sympathetic?
AH: I don’t think generating “sympathy” is ever my goal as an artist. I really prefer empathy. It’s easier to empathize with someone who isn’t a great person because that’s how people are. I also don’t see myself in it as a “character.” They’re all me, showing different sides of myself. I hate when people say about feminist art, “This is about subverting the male gaze!” or “This is about body empowerment!” It’s overly simplistic and I don’t even think those two things are possible. If I show myself, if I make myself vulnerable to an audience, there’s a lot more going on there that I want to address. Like my own narcissism, my insecurities, my hopes and dreams! It’s pretty taboo in the art world (and obviously, society at large) to be seen as a “narcissist” and I never understood that. I love watching other people and learning about other people, which I think is why I expose myself, in hopes other people will do it back.
Ann Hirsch, Installation view of Dr. Guttman's Office, 2015. Courtesy Smart Objects
CJ: I definitely feel that, and watching your work throws up those instinctive reactions, like “eeek that’s so awkward!” You feel that kind of instinctive repulsion, and then again this guilt at having that reaction.
On the subject of how feminist art is captured by the press, do you feel that the media treatment of it is still quite shallow and reductive?
AH: Well—at least they’re trying! When I was first making art, there was really very little coverage so at least we are moving in the right direction…
In terms of quality, it really depends on the writer and the piece. I’ve seen great, in-depth things written about myself and others but I think what tends to get our attention the most is all the “clickbait” type articles about “young feminist art” that generally focus on young women (myself often included) showing their bodies in ways that supposedly “destroy the patriarchy.” As I mentioned earlier, that overly simplistic way of framing these issues does a disservice to the art, the artists, and the issues themselves. I’m not sure what this kind of clickbait coverage is doing to the landscape, whether it is overall positive or negative—it is too soon to really understand it—but it is at the very least irritating, and in my gut feels exploitative. But who knows, maybe it is encouraging and will allow an even younger generation to not allow themselves to be categorized by the labels that have plagued my generation. We’ll see.
Ann Hirsch, Semiotics of the Camwhore, 2015, Digital video, 6'43, 1 of 1. Courtesy Smart Objects
CJ: Semiotics of the Camwhore also uses this character to explore the kind of “stab stab stab” violence of constructs that designate identity, specifically female identity, nowadays. But again I felt myself feeling that the character was this weird robot! Not a victim or empowered.
AH: This video is a remake of a famous Martha Rosler video, Semiotics of the Kitchen. Have you seen it?
In the original, Rosler uses violent gestures to say something larger about the violence of domesticity. So my remake is about the inherent violence of being a woman online.
CJ: I didn’t know that! Thanks for sharing.
Ann Hirsch’s current solo exhibition at Smart Objects, Los Angeles, closes on 27 November.
ArtSlant would like to thank Ann Hirsch and Chadwick Gibson for their assistance in making this interview possible.