A: And good evening to you.
M: I feel like a total fraud because I just arrived to this place for a residency - this is not what my usual life looks like. It’s a lot fancier than my actual life.
A: I just assumed that’s how everyone in Ireland lives. In these cute little rooms with all these cute little things.
M: In our manor houses with our wolfhounds. (pause) So, do you know much about DRAFF?
A: Not a lot.
M: It’s a contemporary performance magazine and their MO is that all the reviews and interviews are done by artists. And they encourage you to think of an artistic approach which I embrace. So I’m a theatre director in the real world but the idea I’ve come up with for this interview is to pull questions from the comments sections under your YouTube videos and translate them into interview questions. How does that sound?
A: Yeah sure, do you have ones already picked out?
M: I have a few yeah. But if you have any favourite comments or questions…
A: Favourites… no. I definitely have ones I like the least. No favourites. The one I like least is probably - this one comes up a lot - is “Die in a gas chamber, Anne Frank”. That’s probably my least favourite.
M: Wow. Holy shit. God it gets dark in there. I have a few selected that aren’t going to be as edgy. But some do benefit from a constructive reinterpretation. For example this one: “WTF is this?” Which I think is really searching for more detail about your practice so can you tell me what your work is about?
A: I guess I’m just interested in the ways women appear in popular culture and more specifically in newer modes of popular culture. The internet, for example, is this whole new place of popular culture that we haven’t had for very long. And I think the way that women appear on the internet is very different to how women appeared before the internet, you know, reality TV, pornography, the newer places that women are able to put themselves within media. That’s what I like to explore.
M: It’s interesting thinking about the spaces that open up for new bodies and new voices as technology expands our capacity to communicate. It feels like the older voices are receding a bit. That’s not a question…(pause).
A: No, I know, I think when I first started making work and being on the internet I had these very utopian ideals about what could happen, and what it could be. I was like “Oh, these are going to be new spaces of representation and we can represent ourselves!”. To an extent I think that’s true and to a larger extent I think that’s not what’s actually ended up happening. You have all these open channels for people to disseminate themselves but you also have ‘like culture’ which came up in the past four years. What 'like culture' does is to set up algorithms to make sure that whatever is the most popular ends up getting seen the most. So the same things that would have been popular before the internet end up being the things that are predominantly seen on the internet.
M: I dunno if you had this experience, but when I was a teenager online I definitely found confidence in the anonymity of the forums for expressing opinions. You could test out ideas without them following you. Which made me stronger in holding those ideas in real life. It sounds a bit like you’ve found that in your lived experience of reality TV? Does it feed your confidence in knowing who you are and what you want to say?
A: Yeah, for sure. I think the reason I’ve done all these performances is to kind of deal with all the things I’m ashamed of. In that way, exactly what you’re saying, they’ve helped me a lot to just be more of myself and accept more of myself. I think of my practice a lot as therapy for myself.
M: It’s really interesting to see the dissonant moments where you introduce an idea of female sexuality into a context that deals only with those big stereotypes of gender. Like reality TV. There’s something fascinating in it. Have there been any moments within the VH1 show or your other work where you’ve been surprised by people’s responses to those moments of dissonance?
A: With the YouTube project I was surprised that it ended up getting a large audience, at the time I didn’t think that would happen. The page became viral and I was just like “These videos are boring. Why do people care? Why are people watching? They’re really dumb”. So that was surprising. And when I was on the reality show at this challenge I sang this very dirty song and kind of breaking the character of the nice girl. Most of the time I was real, I was nice. And then I sang this really dirty song and... I didn’t know what was going to happen when I did that. It was so interesting to see all of production go completely quiet and be totally dumbfounded and not know what to do. And after that they were in freak out mode. This one story producer was yelling and trying to control me and going crazy. All the girls on the show were like “Who is this person? We thought we knew this girl, who is she?”. They felt very betrayed and wouldn’t talk to me. So that was a very interesting thing to see. And then when I did Playground the play for the first time in America half the audience would laugh at certain parts, and the other half of the audience was mad that that half of the audience was laughing. And I thought that was very interesting because I wrote the play to have funny moments. It’s a serious subject matter but I think humour is in every part of life. There’s often humour in trauma. It can make trauma feel less traumatic. But a lot of people were upset that people were laughing.
M: Yeah, I get that. I feel like trauma fractures you or something. Or it creates a refraction of the world so everything feels weird. And everything gets weirded. So everything can be hilarious and terrible at the same time. I think it’s a really interesting way of accessing the hardest things we experience as humans. Which leads me onto another YouTube question: “This is a joke, right?”. I think this relates to the idea of satire in your work. Do you enjoy satire when you make art?
A: I think a lot of people want to use the words satire or parody to describe what I do but I never think of it in those ways because that would imply that I’m making fun of the other people who do this. I don’t feel that way at all. The point of the projects is to be them, to become them and empathise with them and understand what it is to live that life of someone who is exposing themselves and showing themselves and becoming vulnerable.
M: More of an homage then?
A: It’s more imitation. I’m imitating them. That project I think of as first person research. Understanding what it’s like to be in that world by actually being in it. Not just observing it from afar, not making fun of it or paying tribute to it, but being in it. And it’s the same with the other projects as well.
M: This is an assumption but it feels like there’s an awareness of where your performance sits within the feminist dialogue, which may not always be true of other people participating in YouTube videos or reality TV? Can you still be in it? It maybe pulls you out a little?
A: Yeah, there’s a lot of self-reflection because it is research. I’m constantly assessing my feelings. But they’re real. It’s all real. I have to ask what I’m feeling and why. There’s been really intense moments in the project where instead of moving forward with it I have to move back because I say, okay, this is getting out of control and I’m not able to handle it any more. So I have to step back.
M: What are your mechanisms for coping when that happens? When it becomes a bit overwhelming?
A: In the Scandalishious Project I ended up being blackmailed by a random person, a guy - I don’t know who he was - and he was blackmailing me and threatening me and it got really, really scary. I was freaking out so I stopped doing the project. Until I made the end video. At the time I was in grad school and I relied on my peers, my friends. I had one friend who was more versed in internet culture and he was like “This guy is just fucking with you, just ignore him and he’ll go away”. But I wasn’t in the right headspace to see that I was like “This guy is going to hack into my computer and expose me and steal all my stuff and come after me and kill me”. When you get trolled online a lot it can make you feel really, really crazy. And on the reality show in the beginning it was really hard to be there; I was so nervous, it was so intense. And I had a boyfriend at the time but I couldn’t call him because that would obviously expose me so I called my dad and my dad helped me through that time. It’s different with each project. With Playground that experience happened to me when I was younger so I was kind of beyond it, but what you end up seeing in the play is that the Job character kind of pushes me past a point that I feel uncomfortable with and you see me step back from that. So, even at 12 or 13 years old I was living in a fantasy but when the fantasy gets pushed too far I was like “Okay, no! I don’t want to be part of this fantasy anymore”.
Ann Hirsch performs The Rest of My Life (my fantasies, my choice) as part of the Plastik Festival at the Temple Bar Gallery and Studios on the 25th March 2017. Images: Ann Hirsch