Last spring, Natacha Stolz, a performance artist and a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, performed a piece called Interior Semiotics at an apartment gallery in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. Stolz had the piece videotaped, and soon after the performance it went up on YouTube, where it remained unnoticed for upwards of four months. On August 5th, someone posted the video to 4chan, and it started to spread. According to Know Your Meme, during the week of August 5th, the video received over 200,000 views in 48 hours. People didn’t like it, which may be an understatement. Commenters flocked to the video’s YouTube page—where they remain. As I write this, the last comment was posted 48 minutes ago. The post before that 55 minutes ago. Before that 1 hour ago. And so on.
“So many dislikes, this isn't even funny,” opines one person. “Get fucked and die from aids,” writes another. One commenter delivers the summary judgment, “This isn't art. Its retardation made pretentious.”
What is it that made, and is still making, people so angry about Stolz’s performance? The video (below) contains graphic material, but in the age of Goatse, and Tubgirl, explicitness alone cannot shock or offend most people—especially internet trolls. Rather, it was the label on it—art—and the work’s perceived demographic—hipsters—that crawled under people’s skin. Many on the internet seem as angry with the audience—for sitting there, for clapping—as they are with the performance itself. Whether or not you like Stolz’s piece may be a matter of personal taste, but taste is never strictly personal. It stands at a nexus of hot-blooded issues; issues relating to class, status, accessibility, belonging and not belonging. Taste necessarily begs the question not just of how we assign value to things, but also of who should be doing the assigning. The hipster has come to epitomize for many what’s seen to be the ridiculousness of taste; and so it struck people who hated Interior Semiotics as no mere coincidence that many audience members in the video were punked out, or gothed up, or otherwise retrofitted.
A lot of the comments on the video fall into two categories: comments addressing the definition, or ideal definition, of art, and comments addressing the nature of hipsters. The latter tend to be violent expressions of a kind of inchoate rage. One person wrote:
hipster are so fucking ridiculus comon_ wake up ur art is fucking sensless and its not because im not an artist its because u are fcking freak there nothing good are beautiful with these video comon.... ur sa fcking big fagot i muck u ALL hipster by shy.
Not, perhaps, the most articulate post, but a pretty good summation of a common attitude nonetheless. Another writer clearly sees goose-stepping written in the future:
Those people have a lack of self-awareness and reflection. They can’t think for themselve. They need other people’s opinion to conform theirs… that’s not only retarded, it’s plain dangerous. Now it’s an innocent retarded performance. next time it’s some kind of dictator who wants to exterminate a minority whatsoever… As long as it’s hip I guess…
The comments relating to the nature of art, on the other hand, tend to be long, attenuated arguments between users; the kind of intuitively philosophical ping-pong that thrives on message boards. Responding to a previous message, one person wrote:
Do you think all performance art is "crap" or just this instance? To me, the fact that it's easy doesn't necessarily make it bad art, because I think performance art is supposed to send a message. If you find a way to get the concept lying in your head out in a way where you perform it, then you've made good art. Isn't theatre like this?
To which he got the reply:
Specifically this instance. To compare it to theatre is laughable as for it be considered good, it takes talent, skill, effort, and creativity, four things this garbage lacks. And what message is sent here? It's unoriginal, yawn-inducing nihilism that we've all heard a million times presented in a pretentious fashion. If sending a "message" is the only prerequisite for art then the term is meaningless.
The debate about skilled versus unskilled art, the debate about the conformity or non-conformity of groups that assign themselves outsider status; these are old issues, of course. They have firm roots in the 60s—academics have long dealt with these things, while a journalist like Tom Wolfe was an incorrigible prattler regarding both issues. But these debates probably stretch further back, to the beginning of the 20th century; the birth of sub-cultures and avant-garde cultures. It’s remarkable that one should find these arguments being staged, with passion and fury, in the comments section of a YouTube video, bad grammar and general one-sidedness aside.
I talked with Natacha Stolz recently about Interior Semiotics, becoming a meme, and her plans for the future.
What were some of your original intentions when you made Interior Semiotics?
What happened was I started thinking about alphabet soup and how I used to eat it all the time as a kid. And I was thinking about what sort of meaning is contained in alphabet soup, in that material. It’s this incredibly processed, condensed consumer product. I thought that was kind of similar to how we process language and how we use words; how we just kind of consume what’s given to us, what’s pre-processed, and just digest that. I really like Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll and I like how the structure of that piece is mirrored in the text that she reads. I wanted to create a piece like that, where the text mimics the overall structure. The poem I read is supposed to be really simple; it’s a simple text that repeats itself, and it’s meant to be a flat, everyday thing. But I wanted there to be a final reveal, like in Interior Scroll.
Was it the first time you performed the piece, when the video was taken?
Yeah, and it was the first time I’ve performed for an audience. I’ve done performances in public, but never with an audience.
What was your sense of how the show went?
I thought it went well. I mean, people were shocked. Some people there knew what was going to happen, but even they seemed shocked by the reveal. It’s not something you see every day, but at the same time I don’t think it’s all that disgusting, or too shocking. But YouTube would disagree. (Laughs)
Did you post the video online yourself?
No, my friend posted it online. And actually, he posted it online because I was having trouble transferring it to my computer. And I was fine with it being on YouTube. I thought ‘great, good; I’ll show my mom, I’ll show my dad. I’ll just e-mail it over to them.’
It existed on YouTube for a while before people found it, right?
Yeah, it was on YouTube in March or April, I think. Around the same time, coincidentally, I started a parallel identity on Facebook named Gabbi Colette. Once the video went viral, I changed the name on the video over to that persona.
What was the original intention of the Facebook profile?
That I can’t tell you, because the work is still in progress.
How did you first find out about the piece going viral?
That was craziness. My friend, the one who uploaded the video, texted me that it was getting a lot of activity on YouTube. When I first checked it, the video had a few hundred views and within hours it had thousands. My roommate was the one who said the language in the comments section probably meant people were coming from 4chan; comments that were like, ‘I’m twelve and what is this?” So we went to /b and we started following the threads, and in some cases participating. And we could see what they were doing. We could see that they were looking to find out more information about me. Even beyond 4chan, people were using Facebook to try to find out who I was.
In what ways did you participate in 4chan?
At first I had some dialogue with some curious people who added me on Facebook. This was before I knew exactly to what extent they were trolling. But I noticed some of them were taking what I would write to them and posting it on 4chan. So, I went through their images and started taking screen caps of them from Facebook and posting them on 4chan. These people eventually realized I was on 4chan, and some deleted and blocked my Facebook account immediately.
What was involved in the decision to participate in that way?
Well, a lot of the initial messages I got were violent toward me; about raping me and choking me and so on. And I wasn’t going to take the video down because that would have been stupid. I mean, this was my work—you have to face the critique. It’s unfortunate when the critique is a million views and everybody hates you (laughs). But I was hiding everything I could about myself, because again, I could see they were looking for information about me, which they eventually obtained anyway. I knew almost nothing about 4chan before this. I learned about Jessi Slaughter when this was going on and started trying to understand what was happening and the kind of reaction they were seeking. I knew not to get my dad and have him scream at the camera. But I wanted to intervene somehow, to understand more what was going on. I also archived all the 4chan posts that I could, and I’m in the process of archiving the YouTube comments, but there are a lot of them.
I’m amazed by just how many people have seen the work, there are almost a million hits on the YouTube page. Seth Price makes a point, in his essay ‘Dispersion,’ that the way we conceive of “public art” is very likely changing. Now, a lot of things distributed online can be seen as in some ways more “public” than something installed in a city park. How do feel about your work becoming public art, in that sense? Do you think of that way at all?
I certainly didn’t intend for it to be a public art piece. I don’t have access to that kind of audience, so I don’t make work with that kind of an audience in mind. Another thing that the internet has changed is that you get a written record of many different people’s reactions. Before, if an artist made something a lot of people didn’t like, maybe they’d get a bad write up in a magazine. Now there’s the possibility that thousands of people will give you a bad write up.
A lot of the criticism focuses on the audience, and on their perceived hipster-dom.
Yeah, in the video you definitely see a group of 20 year olds, eccentrically dressed. Those weren’t the only people who were there; my friend’s dad and another friend’s mom were there, too. But it was a certain art community and then people related tangentially to that community.
A lot of commenters seemed outraged that there was applause at the end, that’s what really got to them.
Clapping is just what an audience does when something ends; it’s a way to exit the piece.
One common complaint about confrontational, or oppositional, or incendiary artwork is that it only ever reaches a niche audience, an art world audience, people who already know how to interpret it and file it away. Your piece, though, reached a more varied audience. I’m wondering how you feel about it being moved into another context like that?
I have mixed feelings; I go back and forth. It was really exciting, in a way. Not necessarily because of how many people were viewing, but because it was on 4chan. Watching it go from 4chan to Facebook to redditt to Hipster Runnoff to Know Your Meme and all these viral websites was strange. Sometimes I feel—I wouldn’t say I feel bad—but there are some people who don’t intend to view it. That’s just part of the internet, though. You see things that maybe you don’t want to see. And 4chan is definitely not a place to go if you don’t want to see controversial things. It’s interesting that it was such a big deal there, because child pornography gets posted there, and a lot of other, crazy pornography and really intense, violent stuff.
It is an interesting group to offend.
But part of what’s interesting is that it really is an anonymous group. It’s the epitome of anonymity. There’s a stereotype about the people who go on 4chan, but it really could be anyone; we don’t actually know.
Why do you think the piece touched a nerve?
I think people are still uncomfortable with women’s bodies. It’s offensive to people to see woman touch her body the way I do in that piece.
I was thinking more about people’s idea of what art is supposed to be—
Well, of course there’s that too.
But there might have been a very different reaction if it was a man doing similar things. I think people might have been more likely to dismiss it as horseplay.
After the video went viral, my friend got into an argument about it with a guy at a bar. And the guy was saying it was wrong, and that if you knew your girlfriend had done something like that—how could you go on with life? (Laughs) I can understand why it offends people, but many of the reactions, like that one, seem silly to me.
Given your experiences, do you have any plans to make use of the web in future art projects?
Maybe. I don’t ever want to degrade or exploit people with my art, so I’m not going to use the internet for trickery. Participating in a way with 4chan was just something I did naturally. A game was being played, so I was playful back. The whole thing was very emotional, especially at first, and then they started calling my house… And it’s not really over. It’s died down, but people still see the video and still contact me. Someone remixed the video; they set my words to Tupac’s “Baby Don’t Cry.” They clearly put a lot of work into it. I respect that. I like their video.