“These People Seem Like Republicans”: Rebecca Patek takes on shame, rapey logic and misogyny with CHASM
Rebecca Patek has midterms.
“You got a 96!”
Meghan Finn, the director of CHASM, Patek’s new piece that will premiere at The Tank on February 28th and run through March 4th, congratulates her on her score as Finn and I sit down in a rehearsal studio in midtown to speak. Patek’s calling in on FaceTime, as she is completing post-baccalaureate courses in preparation for medical school next year, and her midterm schedule was rearranged at the last minute.
When I saw a draft of CHASM at The Tank in August, Patek, a petite blonde dancer/choreographer/performance artist with vocal fry that verges on aggressive, told the audience that she was going to med school in the same breath as telling us about the disappointing time she got a “7” on her online sex-worker review. I laughed. Hard. At the time, I thought it was a more brutal, self-aware version of the classic, “I’m stripping to get through grad school” joke. I didn’t realize it was both a joke and true, and how the intersection of my preconceived notions meeting reality is at the heart of Patek’s subversive art.
When I ask Patek about using comedy in her work she says, “Dance meets comedy because there’s physicality to humor. Humor is timing and the way you hold your body and the way you’re in space. That’s related to choreography.” When I ask Finn about what it is that makes Patek so funny, she says, “Dancers are self-aware. Rebecca knows what you’re thinking about her.”
With CHASM, Patek examines the fallout from the time, four years ago, when she became an unwilling participant in a controversy surrounding her and her work.
At the American Realness Festival at Abrons Art Center, Rebecca Patek shows Ineter(a)nal F/ear: a piece reckoning with the rape she experienced three years prior. Using her carefully-cultivated faux-naif persona, clad in a too-short denim skirt and sheer lace top, she and partner Sam Roeck (portraying a man diagnosed with HIV following an assault), present a vicious indictment of the clichés of victimhood. The piece begins with a satirical presentation of a true-crime video of the night she was raped (including an excruciating reenactment), forcing the audience to both cringe and laugh in spite of themselves. It ends with a live physical reenactment onstage. The piece is a study in the limitations of narrative while dealing with assault and victimhood. It looks at the necessity of victims having to process sexual trauma, and how humiliating, boring, and hackneyed this processing can feel (on top of the humiliations of the original trauma). Her use of confusion and exquisitely timed humor forces the audience to implicate itself – right at the moment you rest into cozy pity for these poor victims they jolt you awake with a joke about who’s trauma trumps the other, or whether or not Patek’s rapist was grossed-out by her pee. Patek knows the comfortable places in which we file “rape victim” away in our mind, and in this piece, she refuses to let us rest there. It’s uncomfortable. Because it’s uncomfortable.
Further Context, 2009.
I sit behind Kanye West at PS122 for a special Catch! Series performance – an interpretation of West’s album 808 and Heartbreak. Someone has tipped him off to the event and he announced he would attend. Each song of the album is interpreted by a different dance or performance artist. The entire Catch! audience is out of its mind with the fact that West is present – we are jittery and even more crazily enthusiastic than usual.
Performance artist Ann Liv Young performs to song number 5, “Love Lockdown,” the biggest hit of the album. I’m not sure what she had planned for the evening had West not been in attendance. The details around what she did in the beginning of the song are fuzzy in my mind. But at a certain point she looks him right in the eye, holds up a piece of raw pork, says “This is you Kanye,” and then, maintaining eye contact, puts it in her vagina, masturbates a little, pulls it out and eats the pork that is, as she has deigned it, Kanye West.
Ann Liv Young attends Patek’s show at the American Realness and, as I imagine it, the unthinkable happens.
Rebecca Patek makes Ann Liv Young uncomfortable.
15 minutes into the show, Young, in her Sherry persona (the “therapist” character she’d been embodying during the American Realness festival) interrupts the performance, accusing Patek of making fun of rape victims. She takes over the show. She rants until eventually, she is escorted out. The event shakes the downtown dance/performance art world. Patek has initial defenders, most notably Andy Horwitz, founder of Culturebot. Patek publishes an insightful response.
But it is Young who capitalizes upon the event. She brings up her interruption with pride in a panel at PS122 the following night, speaking about risk-taking in art (encouraging the audience to laugh about Patek along with her.) She gets interviewed not once but twice about the outburst, in the Brooklyn Rail and by preeminent downtown dance critic Gia Kourlas in Time Out New York. One year later she gets a show at the Brooklyn performance space Jack, suggested to her by Alec Duffy, in which she is jokingly “jailed” for her transgression against Patek, (and thus given a platform to further defend herself, and more reviews, and opportunities to tell her side of the story.)
Meanwhile, Patek shrinks from sight, work, and the community as a whole.
Four years later, Patek has made a hilarious, discomfiting show about her shame (shame being the more lasting companion of humiliation) following Young’s interruption, and the misogyny of the dance/performance art community’s response.
JONAS: Did you feel like you wanted to make a piece about all this while it was happening?
PATEK: No I definitely didn’t – I wanted it to go away or not be happening. It was a weird situation because I made art out of my life and then it became very circular where it started becoming my life, and then it got taken away from me – that ability to make art. So (with CHASM) I wanted a way to get that back because I feel like that’s not about a career, or being an artist, it’s mine, it’s what I do, it’s what I’ve always done. It feels necessary for survival. And it’s the right timing because enough time has gone by that I’m distant from it.
JONAS: Eventually you stopped making work after the event.
PATEK: The aftermath and the snowball effect, it changed things for me in that world, indirectly and over time. Of course I could have pushed through and kept going, but the ugliness made it impossible for me to feel safe. I guess that experience made me feel cut off from my own creativity because it was upsetting – there was a grieving period.
JONAS: It makes me think of this experience in high school – I was on an educational trip in Paris, and a friend’s mother was our chaperone, and I was out one night with a friend and we were aggressively groped. When we got back, I told my friend’s mother, and she said “What are you talking about, that didn’t happen to you, and get over it.” The groping was a pretty minor thing, but it’s her denial of the experience that has made it hard for me to deal with for a long time after.
PATEK: Because it’s like – someone denying your experience that’s in front of you makes you feel crazy. This thing with Ann Liv, I would have gotten over it, but it was the way that the community didn’t see anything wrong with producing a show and publishing these interviews as though it was normal. I was like, “How am I the only person that thinks this is wrong? And is willing to say so publicly?” And that felt either like I’m that hated – that other people do see that it’s wrong but they don’t give a shit because it’s me, or I’m crazy that I think this is deeply fucked up.
JONAS: It seems to me that you got used in order to have this other conversation – and seems denying of your personhood and humanity – and it’s so curious to think about that as an acceptable thing to do in the arts, which are, at the risk of being corny, about affirming humanity, in all its complexity.
PATEK: It became about this conversation, and the fact that I’m a human being wasn’t even considered. I felt like I kept saying that over and over, you know, “Hey, I’m a human, please don’t publish a conversation about whether or not I was raped, it’s upsetting to me.” The fact that I had to say that was incredibly shocking… These are people I know, that I’ve met, that I’ve worked for. These people seem like Republicans saying “I don’t know why you have a problem with this.”
I made myself incredibly vulnerable to that kind of attack because my work cast me in a certain light. I was using misogyny – I was making myself a hateful person and showing how easy it is to provoke people into losing any kind of compassion, because of who I am and who I represent in the world. How easy it is for people to fall into stereotype, and how all of a sudden you’re labeled and not human. And for a woman it’s just so fast for you to become dehumanized. And so I was playing with that in the work, and I think therefore it was so easy for it to happen in real life because I had already laid it out for people.
JONAS: It strikes me as interesting that you were trying to get at the truth of being a victim – and Ann Liv was using a persona (Sherry) to call you out and say that the thing you were expressing wasn’t true.
PATEK: Yeah but then she said that wasn’t really the issue anyway. First it was, “you’ve never been raped” and then it was, “even if you were, that wasn’t why I stood up, I stood up because the piece sucked.” And then you think, there’s lots of pieces that suck, why aren’t people allowed to watch it? and then it was, “oh it’s not allowed to suck and be about rape,” and then you think why is that the case, you can’t have a bad piece about rape? There was no logic – it was just that she wanted her own show and she wasn’t getting attention and she wanted it.
JONAS: Sometimes I think women feel like they own a kind of sexual boldness, and there’s a competition, there’s this sense of “I own all ability to speak about taboos about sexuality.”
PATEK: I was stepping on her turf in her mind and she wanted to stamp it out – I think that’s why her story kept changing. She said, “I knew she probably had been raped but that’s now how she should be dealing with it.” I mean how fucked up is it to say that’s not how someone should be dealing with something? I can’t think of anything more insanely misogynistic to say than “I need to tell you how to feel – you’re not allowed to have your own feelings or your own voice or your own experience.”
JONAS: Then she got so much mileage from it.
PATEK: It was like a nightmare to me that people would rally around that and give it a platform and give it a showcase. The mileage thing speaks a lot about hate and the mileage of hate. Look at Trump. Nobody stepped back and said, “Maybe we wouldn’t publish an article talking about her (Patek’s) life, maybe we could edit that part out.”
FINN: And also something that’s clear about the interviews in that it was even more righteous – she was was doing a service for Rebecca.
PATEK: It’s a very rapey logic – you should like it – you should take it.
FINN: I’m helping you.
PATEK: Look, I understand her acting that way. I’m not saying it’s right or that it didn’t upset me. But what I can’t understand is all the other people who thought about it and thought, yeah! let’s do a show! People who are more distant from it – that seems colder and worse in a way.
JONAS: Have you processed or thought through any reasons why?
FINN: I think that the work was so provocative and also that a person like Rebecca – who speaks to the experiences that she’s had in life without fear – although maybe it is fear – maybe that’s why it’s done through confusion and humor – right? But that all that’s very threatening to the patriarchal order. So essentially when she (Young) said this is a bad artist it’s just easier to say “this is a bad artist, and so I don’t have to really deal with what I just saw and how intense that was” and so it’s easier to write her off as a mess.
JONAS: Sometimes I think it has to do with women using language. Like we can see Marina Abramovic be naked and inviting people to come up and hurt her in various ways (which they did) and somehow we “get it.” The Woman As Victim. But it feels like the minute a woman starts to actually use language all of a sudden people feel unequipped to deal with it – like we’re only allowed to experience it in silence and abstractions.
PATEK: I think that when you reveal insight into your own experience that is intelligent it’s very threatening. People can accept the victim thing – you can feel compassion for someone when you feel like you’re in a position of power. But it’s more difficult to do that when you feel like the victim is powerful because then all of a sudden they’re beneath you. So you want to say “they’re not a victim because they have power.” It confuses people and it makes them unable to totally feel compassion for the victim. Like it’s okay when you’re weak – but using words and being articulate about your experience is strong.
FINN: Part of the thing may be – inside the piece you’re playing a character — you’ve cultivated this character over years – playing on what people think your intellect is, and people making the assumption that you’re not smart. And you use that to create humor. When you made that piece, people didn’t want to think of you as Author of that piece – they wanted to limit you to what you were casting yourself as.
PATEK: That’s a huge issue for women in general – audiences can’t accept that it’s a character that you’ve created that’s intentional and separate, and that playing someone less aware is a choice. People just thought, “oh that’s her, she’s not really acting at all.”
JONAS: Yeah there’s this thing that happens in fiction, where if women write in the first person it seems autobiographical, and if men write in the first person then it’s seen as plumbing the depths of an interior landscape. So there’s this sense of building a character and an interpretation of an event that people, because they don’t have the ability to interpret it, believe you’re doing a one-to-one ratio – without any kind of conceptual overlay. People assume you’re not making choices.
PATEK: That leads them to also not consider that there might be reasons for the choices you’ve made – they don’t have to think about it, they can just dismiss it as “she wasn’t making choices and therefore I don’t have to consider the conceptual WHY these choices were made.”
JONAS: Including the reasons for using your body – I sometimes find the dance world to be in denial of what’s happening when bodies are presented.
PATEK: Well it’s very fraught because we don’t live in a dance culture, so when you’re a female body the main way that you’re seen is sexually.
PATEK: In dance, it’s okay to be sensual but you’re not supposed to be sexual or like, it has to be sexual in a safe way that’s not actually sexual. And that was something I wanted to push because that’s not the world I live in – the world I live in is sexual in an overt, direct and not-safe way all the time – that’s how our bodies are seen – like if you’re putting your body out there in space, as a female, in front of people, then that’s how it’s going to be looked at.
JONAS: That’s what I think is so controversial – I think some people like to think that they’re watching dance from a John Cage-ian kind of aesthetic but the truth is, when they’re confronted with a sexualized woman’s body – they’re having a sexual experience – or an erotic experience – and even erotic feels like too neutral of a word to use.
PATEK: In a John Cagey way it’s more sophisticated.
JONAS: Yeah that seems to me maybe something that was triggering – that you were pushing this idea that a dancer’s body is about sex.
PATEK: It’s dangerous territory especially if you make it a really gray zone – you know it’s okay to be like that if you make it distinctly performance art, but if you’re a trained dancer and you know how to actually move in a John Cage-y way, to really go from that to actual, just, sex or eroticism is very weird territory for people – it’s very uncomfortable. I find that very interesting because it also connects to so many other areas we don’t want to talk about, like class, and education, and hierarchy, and social hierarchy in art – it’s all in there. And the idea of taste – I guess I find taste and the connection with power structures reflected in that – what you consider sexual or not – what you consider beautiful or not.
FINN: Rebecca, I was curious how studying now has changed your perspective on the world? And – even some of the issues that your work has tackled in the past?
PATEK: I think it’s changed me a lot. Before I felt like I had some potential to do something but I had never studied. So now I’m actually learning and that’s exciting – it feels empowering. I’m actually going to be able to make change in a real way, maybe – that’s exciting to think about the possibility of helping someone in a real way someday.
JONAS: After CHASM, do you feel like you’ll want to continue making work?
PATEK: I don’t know. I think all this stuff happened, and it sent me in a new direction, and that’s just where I’m going now – for better or for worse that’s what happened. Things happen in your life and it sends you somewhere else and you say, “Oh. Well, I’m here now.” I guess I’ll see as time goes by if I feel like being creative again. I think I hope that I can still be creative because balance is good in life, right? But I don’t know what’s gonna happen, even in a year.