Note: Identifying details like names (etc.) have been changed.
In 2011, I started a performance series called “The Real Life of Johanna Reed,” that ended halfway through the second piece because I almost murdered a man. The epigraph for the series was from the Nabokov novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and the quote went like this: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we are both someone whom neither of us knows.” I thought of it as an exercise toward (not in) journalism and biography, immersive and in-the-field, but it was also about intimacy (of course blabla) and pushing my art into every day life, which was my jam then and still sort of is. The premise was that I would spend 24 continuous hours with someone I’d never met. I’d follow them around during one of their “regular” days, eat what they ate, do what they did, sleep with them in their bed. But I wouldn’t be a fly on the wall; I’d maintain as best I could my own subjectivity. That is, I’d still make my own decisions; if we got into discussions, I’d share my opinions; I could choose not to do something that they were doing. I wasn’t, in other words, going to be a passive observer. I termed my role as a “subjective participant in their life.”
I had no idea how to document this, but I was deep into the idea of relics left over from performances being the only documentation. I also liked poetry, so I made the descriptions of my own performances coy and veiled and obscure.
As for finding people willing to do this with me, my plan was to find them through friends, put the word out, ask around, so already the piece was embedded with a specific set of possibilities: I mean, it required a certain kind of person. They’d have to like art, specifically performance art, and they’d have to be self-selectively risky and into weird shit already; they’d likely have a 12th-house placement.
The first person in whose life I subjectively participated was a guinea pig: I knew him through a friend, and had met him casually several times, though we’d never spoken at any great length. It seemed good, as a trial run, to start with someone who could be vouched for and who knew me; funny, now, to think I was trying to be careful, or something.
It went swimmingly. His name was Abe. He was a musician who’d recently moved to Los Angeles, with just enough money from an inheritance so as not to have to work for about a year if he lived semi-frugally, which he did. He’d grown up in New York City to Jewish immigrant intellectual parents. His mother was a Lacanian analyst who taught at NYU and ran a prestigious academic press that published scholarship about “the body.” His father was much older than his mother—Abe called her by her first name, but he called his dad Dad—and I don’t remember what the father did or who he was, other than when I later met him he was wearing a suit to a casual dinner.
(Incidentally, I later also met the mother, when she came to L.A. for a book release; her name was Anat or Avital or something like that; she was a formidable, intimidating, slicing-eyed woman with a lot of cleavage tucked into a professorial blazer; she became drunk at the bar after the release party, spreading her arms out like damaged wings, the mottled skin of her chest gleaming with sweat. She gave me compliments that intimated she was jealous of me, of my youth and smarts and the fact that both her sons liked me, as though she were their ex-girlfriend, turned over for me. Her friend, also a professor, and of similar affect and stature but much shorter so less intimidating, took me outside to smoke and told me that I could “have” the other son, Ezra, if I wanted; she’d seen him looking at me, she leaned in and winked, then said something that Freud had said. These encounters were the first time I’d seen the desire and yearning of weathered older women up close; its desperate-ness felt familiar but illegible, like my own death; Ez and I had sex in the lobby bathroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel that night.)
The 24 hours with Abe included, among things like dancing at the gay bar in Silverlake, and talking about Foucault’s History of Sexuality over homemade spaghetti in his baldly furnished kitchen, going to a big, industrial building downtown, that was full of artist studios and is well-known but whose name I can’t remember now. Abe and his friends—his “band”—made noise—“rehearsed”—while drinking bright red liquid from plastic cups, in the studio of someone who had on his wall a giant drawing of a man eating out a woman while another man looks down on them, holding a syringe in one hand and a knife in the other, and a pair of doves are flying away.
Something Abe said during our time together I’ve never forgotten: he likes to eat foods that scare him, because revulsion is what ignites his desire. Particularly, he liked blood sausage.
At the end of the 24 hours, Abe dropped me off at my house, but as he pulled up to park, there was suddenly a police car behind us, a rough speaker voice telling us to get out of the car, a rush of panic, Abe was handcuffed, I was questioned, Abe had a warrant, he explained it was for a parking ticket, then just as fast as it’d started, we were free, standing limp on the sidewalk, and the cop drove off. Abe said, of his quick release, “it’s because I’m white.” I went inside my apartment and, alone for the first time in what felt like a decade, I cried for several hours, of exhaustion.
The next person I was to 24-hour I hadn’t ever met, though some of my friends knew him. His name was Andrés Iglesias, which translates as man church. His artist statement read: “Andrés Iglesias was smuggled into the States as a baby, so has and always will be illegal.” The theme of his art, he said in interviews, was “mischief.” One of his projects, for example, was a Twitter account he’d written anonymously that did nothing but shit on L.A. artists, galleries, and museums, many of whom knew it was him. It got attention; a sample sentence: “wud rather b in a bukake film then @HonorFraser 2night call me if same we make some $$.” At some point, he “retired” from art and made an album of synth pop, entitled Cat in the Trash, accompanied by music videos that interspersed close-ups on his shirtless torso and sweaty happy trail with flashes of female asses getting slapped.
I was mesmerized by a piece of his called “Untitled.” It’s a 74-minute monologue, captured on video, of Andrés standing on a bare stage, speaking quietly and articulately into a microphone, to no audience. The bare-ness permeates all membranes: his words, his affect, his subject-hood (who is this guy?), his unapologetic and oblivious sexism, it’s all flung out there, flat, dry, baking in the light. The first thing he says is, “I’m gonna tell you a love story,” and then he does, charmingly, for over an hour. He speaks about “the greatest woman in the world,” who loved him, and he loved her, and how “I threw this away?” He describes her body, “what class,” and how, as she became increasingly devoted to him, he felt trapped, needed his “freedom,” cheated, left. He looks like a dog—or, more specifically, a puppy.
I’d watched it four times, nearly had it memorized, by the time I showed up at his house for our 24 hours.
2011 was the year I had to reckon with the patriarchy in terms of blood and guts and vomit and shit and soul and tears: I got eviscerated by men, by my own patriarchal conditioning, saw how I’d been submitting all my life to the power of hetero-patriarchal men, their institutions and tyrannical needs and banal normative desire, their need for center stage and the backs of everyone else upon which to hoist up their self-esteem, all this and their goddamned repressed fear and fragility and violence, and then how I with eyes open continued to submit because I felt like I could somehow destroy it from within, could explode it by penetrating it, like Neo in The Matrix, when he dives into Agent Smith and bursts out, all light, because he sees the workings of the innards and knows their uselessness and therefore is free. But, of course, unlike Neo, I was still tapped into the system, the innards were mine too, so what also had to be exploded was myself.
If I’d owned a gun then, some of these men would be dead. I did own a sort-of gun, there was plenty of literal and metaphorical blood—in other words, I did my share of eviscerating, too, though evisceration by definition is a patriarchal action, so we were none of us free.
I only lasted 15 hours with Andrés before I tore from the house, into the night, and drove away with what felt like a skinned, feral cat breaching from my chest. I was on my period, bled everywhere, stains. It was the day before my birthday, May 4, 2011, and we wouldn’t speak again until deep into the next winter.
There are no photos of me in the haunted apartment where I stayed in October 2012, but there is video footage of my lover at the time, filming himself in his underwear in a corner of the living room, and later there would be video footage of me talking about how I’d put on a play in a minivan being driven around the L.A. freeways.
The apartment was on the second floor of a brick building, at the busiest intersection in Echo Park. Someone I knew once likened Alvarado Street to the Mississippi River, a huge glimmering thoroughfare, the cars like boats, chugging down- or upstream, rippling, and I like that. The living room and bedroom windows faced Alvarado so it was terribly, awfully loud as fuck. And dirty. The semi trucks headed to south Los Angeles from up the 2 freeway use Alvarado, have to wait at the long light there, black smoke growing like trees out of the pipes on top of their cabs. Every night I stayed in that place I got woken up by car horns or drunks, the sound of glass shattering.
On the second or third night, I realized it was haunted. I hadn’t seen any cloudy-white apparitions, and I don’t believe in ghosts that jangle keys and turn the air cold and creak around in the walls, but every morning I’d woken up with a head swampy, after long dreams of bloated naked strangers walking around in the hallway, staring deep and dead into my eyes to hex me. One afternoon, I took a nap on the couch in the living room, and dreamt that a bee flew into my ear and stung my brain over and over until it swelled through my skull and cracked it open. I woke up with ears ringing. I invited a friend over for dinner and the lighting was so wan and sad on top of us that I couldn’t bear to stay in there. I made us go to the store across the street, which stank of dead fish, and our shoes stuck to the floors because of a menacing black gunk, so we veered over to a taco truck, and the whole night felt like a terror of psychological malice oozing out of the walls of daily life. My lover and I would smoke on a small parapet overlooking the church at night, looking down into the shadows of its parking lot, cluttered with the sleeping bodies of homeless people under cardboard blankets.
One early evening, the sounds of fucking came through the wall next door, clear as a ringing bell. I could hear the man’s wet and warm breathing. The woman’s voice was high-pitched and pornographic, and I heard all the words they enunciated to each other, even hers despite the fist in her mouth. Their windows and mine were open and it was as though I was in the room with them.
A few days later, I was walking up the sidewalk to go into the apartment and saw Andrés and a waifish, tattooed white woman coming toward me. They were carrying bags of takeout. We spoke awkwardly in the street. “Where you headed?” he said, arm heavily draped on her shoulders. Her hair was frayed like pillow stuffing, its roots black, and her makeup was cracked. “I’m staying here for a little while,” I gestured toward the building. “No shit! I live right there,” he said, extending his arm to the window next to mine. “Right there.”
In the years that I was making performances like “The Real Life of Johanna Reed,” I kept saying that I wanted to “investigate intimacy.” The work followed a lineage of participatory and interactive performances where the audience is asked to meet the artist on seemingly equal ground, to perform some sort of action or behavior that appears to be agreed upon democratically. In other words, the premise was that both parties would construct an experience between the two of them, which will for a moment be free of the usual hierarchy between artist and audience. This is, of course, an illusion at best, and a dangerous case of denial at worst: the artist always maintains the power, even if she puts herself in the position of being stripped of it; even if she gives it all over to the audience, she still decides to give it; she names the stakes, she herself raises them. Before the audience is ever in the picture, the artist has choreographed the work to comport toward something of her choosing; she has set its starting point, pointed its direction, and the audience only ever and always follows this trajectory. And if they refuse to participate—perhaps, in fact, especially so—their refusal is in itself a re-instantiating of the artist’s widely cast net of possible outcomes.
The nominal relinquishing of power comes in the form of the invitation: the artist invites the audience in, the audience is told they can decide for themselves if they want to participate. The artist appears to supplicate to them, she is conceptually poised as prostrate, please?, but, and, only if you want to. Also, there is usually a sort of choosing that the audience is allowed to do for themselves in terms of how they participate. I’ve seen (and created) many works that give instructions along the lines of “do x however you want,” or “interact with x,” where the “how” of such interaction is not delineated, and left open to the whims of the audience. This “leaving open” stinks of all kinds of Freudian darkness, and the net metaphor is again apt: the artist casts her net wide, it touches someone not expecting to be touched, and the artist becomes both voyeur and analyst, top and power bottom, relishing what’s she dragged up, the shit she’s triggered.
All of this, despite proclaiming otherwise, is deeply formed by power and can never be free of it no matter what is done, or said, or rather—not done, or not said. To name a few reasons why: It relies on the social construct we are all bound to, in terms of etiquette, manners, and politeness toward a hostess; it takes for granted the conditioned compliance we have toward following instructions, and the fact that not to follow instructions is itself legible and well-known as a rebellion, and so such transgression already comes weighted with normative meaning; and then there are the cultural dynamics of the city the work is taking place in, the specific neighborhood, site, venue, and context, and how the culture distinctly functions in these places; and particularly who these places attract, who lives there, who hovers, who wouldn’t be caught dead in that part of town, who goes there to die; and who appears and haunts them, in all the ghostly connotations of those words; and then there is always the unspoken and affected cues being given by the artist herself during the piece. Is she present? Is she smiling at you? Is her voice authoritative, seductive? Is she your friend?
Imagine if the Milgram Experiment had taken place in a trashy house in a lower-class neighborhood, rather than in the institutional, funded-research rooms of Yale University. Or, imagine if Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 had taken place in the institutional, funded-research rooms of Yale, rather than in the white-walled scripted space of the art gallery Studio Morra, in Naples. Imagine if it had taken place in an art gallery not in Naples, Italy: a museum in Manhattan, an art gallery in Wisconsin, in Puerto Rico. I think that both of these things—the Milgram Experiment and Rhythm 0—take place every day in every bed of every heterosexual couple in the United States.
In making these participatory performances that hoped to create “moments of one-to-one intimacy, where the audience and artist could meet on an equal plane of experience” (I quote my past self), I had been naive in thinking that I could somehow free myself and my audience, through the sheer hubris of declaring it, of all conditions and contexts. I wholeheartedly believed that I could make a neutral, a-historical ground upon which the work could emerge, newborn, pure, limitless.
How beautiful and stupid youth is.
My father, from whom I am estranged, used to say, “If you’re young and not a liberal, you don’t have a heart, but if you’re old and not a conservative, you don’t have a brain.”
When I tore out of Andrés’s house in the middle of the night, abandoning the “piece” before it was finished, nine hours short of its intended length, something a real performance artist would never do, it was because I’d felt wildly and dangerously overcome by something I’d never in my life felt before. It scared the living shit out of me, and I felt, as I ran to my car, that I was running for my life.
It took me a year to realize that the feeling had been one of murderous rage. I had wanted to kill Andrés. Not symbolically or metaphorically. Literally. Kill murder die. He needed to die. And I needed to be the one to do it. I needed to take his life out of this world. The space he took up, and how he filled it, needed to get cleared out. Make room, you fucking dick. Your time is done.
The rage I’d felt was so total, so simple.
It cauterized a belief I’d had up till then that flowed as freely as a sliced artery that I’d do anything for my art. I was face-to-face with the fact that nothing in my art, in my “rules” or “instructions” said that I shouldn’t kill him—except my own weak and unused sense of morals.
The one specific thing before the murderous plunge that I remember of our 15 hours together is that we saw the movie Hanna at the Arclight Hollywood. It’s about a father who raises his daughter in the remote Arctic wilderness of Finland, training her to be an assassin. The movie opens with her stalking and killing a deer by shooting it through the heart with a bow and arrow, and then again, up close with a handgun. The blood blazes against the white snow. Later, she meets a bohemian mother who tells her that men like when women wear red lipstick because it subconsciously reminds them of an aroused vulva. The girl spends the movie being protected by avuncular and eccentric older men, and killing marmoreal and ferocious women, who may or may not be her mother. Hanna shoots all these potential mothers in the heart. It’s nice when art symbolizes life so well.
We were in his bed, late, when the Kill Bill sirens started blaring and the vision of me bathed in his spurting blood got painted across my eyes. We had tried to have sex but my blood got in his way, and he didn’t like it. I’ve never hated anything more in my life than I did then: myself foremost, him a close second.
I said nothing as I frantically gathered my things and fled. I think he tried to get in touch in the days after; I only vomited and didn’t reply. When we next spoke (I finally reached out, saying I’d like to clear the air), I told him the truth: that I’d left because I’d felt an overwhelming urge to murder him. He laughed. We were having a glass of wine at a bar. My seriousness got punctured, rendered harmless, even cute, by the social contract between us. What we upheld despite ourselves, or because we needed to, for our own protection. He told me, “When you left that night, I just thought you were psychotic.” At the time, I thought he was misusing that word.
In 2013, a year after I’d stayed in the haunted Iglesias apartment, I spent another afternoon there: I was to be interviewed on video about a piece of mine, and we were going to film in that apartment. I made a big deal of telling the entire crew that it was haunted, that I’d need to perform an exorcism ritual before we could film. I brought sage and burned the entire bundle, chanting and praying to no one, but believing in it, in a way that extended very far down into something.
It was September, the hottest month in Los Angeles. No air conditioning, just the loud roar of the trucks going downriver on Alvarado.
I make no sense in the interview, my head felt thick and hot. While I was speaking, I remembered a video interview I’d done at age 16, where I’d worn a woolen hat with spears like a rooster’s comb, and a shiny pink star sticker on my left cheek. I was being interviewed by a man in his 40s who had a show on a local TV station. I was in a band at the time, he was a fan. I went to his garage at night for the shoot and I remember staring down the long dark driveway as I approached the little structure, its soft lights glowing from within—it looked like a chapel. We were alone in there. He fixed the camera very close up on my face, and sat with his knees apart, his hands folded as if in prayer. He asked me a lot of questions about how I felt about being a “young lady” in a punk band and writing “such personal” lyrics. He wanted to know how I’d become so brilliant at such a young age. He marveled at how mature and independent I was. He told me he was jealous of the boyfriend I sang about in my songs. He told me I was a genius.
At the time, and for many years after, nothing about this mild worship seemed wrong, only, instead, rather, right. The natural order of things.
Johanna Hedva lives in Los Angeles, where she’s from, and is the author of a novel, The Crow and the Queen (2013), and Incunabula (2012), a series of 103 fables, with each fable published in its own handwritten book. The Greek Cycle, her four plays that try to queer some Ancient Greek tragedies, completed in July with She Work, her adaptation of Medea, and is forthcoming as a book. “Man Church” is part of the collection, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles (The Town of Our Lady, Queen of The Angels), which Hedva will finish now that she’s retired from performance art.