In a studio visit on the Lower East Side, Arthena engaged in sprawling conversation with the reality artist Signe Pierce, touching on bohemian studio environments, Real Housewives & the Kardashians as work inspiration, and using data-mining for improv performances. Signe Pierce's work has been shown at Art Basel Miami Beach, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, MoMA, and BHFQU Brucennial. The artist has also been featured in publications like ArtNews, Rhizome, Paper Magazine, and Vice. Signe Pierce pushes past boundaries to give new dialogue on gender roles, femininity, and technology.
Tell us a little bit about your background... What made you interested in art? Who were your early influencers?
I grew up all over America... born in Arizona and then moved to CA, then moved to MD. In high school in Maryland, I was into theater and was an actress but around junior year, something happened with my relationship with acting where I just fell out of love with it. You are constantly handed something that you have to read and recite and there is a director and writer.... I wanted to be in control of my life and my work. So I moved to photography to get in front of the camera and play characters and was inspired by David LaChappelle, Cindy Sherman, and Saturday Night Live (SNL) ..... I've always loved character play. I interned at SNL senior year in the photo department where I would be shooting Jon Hamm and Rihanna would be performing in the background. I loved being involved with photography, character play, creating photos of pop stars while also being able to watch funny & talented performers create great content. SNL reminded me that I genuinely love being in front & behind the camera and has helped me hone my craft as a performer.
What are your thoughts on the label of multimedia artist vs. performance artist vs. reality artist?
I call myself a reality artist but I can be considered a performance artist. I don't consider myself a "net artist"... My work is very popular online and I get that term alot. I don't love the word "performance artist" or "performance art". Performance art is something that I do but to me, especially with "American Reflexxx" [one of her video works], there is an element of method acting than necessarily performance. When I put on an outfit and am in character, if something happens to the character, it happens to me too. When you're bleeding and on the ground and being truly threatened, it moves beyond the scope of a performance and becomes a reality. Multimedia art makes the most sense but I am also trying to explore the label of reality art since, to me, it is the best way to describe my work.
Who are your current art inspirations? Do you look to other contemporary artist's work during your artistic process?
I honestly try not to look at what other people are making. Part of the reason I moved to LA was because I needed to get away from the noise of New York. I felt like I was distracted here be that socially or what's trending/selling... It is really easy to make what is "hot" at the moment. I think a really important aspect of creating new ideas is having your own vision and my own inspiration draws from photographers I love like Helmut Newton and Greg Bourdin. I also love James Turrell and I hadn't thought of light as a medium until I started to delve into his work. I carry my color lights with me in the car in LA to constantly "paint" my spaces or "paint" my reality. I am really inspired by performance artists and comedians too... People who are honing their craft to ride the line between what is reality and what is made up. I also like pop artists, like Andy Warhol, because it is accessible to many people. Right now I find that I am making work with the concept of mass appeal in mind. I think that is it really cool to make art that can can be felt and seen by millions of people across the globe, especially because the internet allows us to access anything instantly anyways.
Why show your work on Tumblr than creating your own website?
I have wanted to create a website for a while but there is something pretentious about uploading all of my work onto the perfectly organized website. The great aspect about reality being my medium is that it is immediate and every-evolving: A lot of the time, I take a photo, edit it on my phone, and Instagram the work within 10 minutes of taking it. When I print works, I do go back in and spend hours editing the photo in Photoshop, but I like the accessibility and the honesty of quickly uploading works onto my Instagram and my Tumblr. If someone needs to see my work ASAP, then my Tumblr profile is a quick & easy portfolio of my preferred color palette, photos, and performances.
What are your thoughts on "post-internet" art?
People continue to label my work as "post-internet" art and I keep thinking about what that means to me. I like the ability of being able to re-upload a better version of my work. Art doesn't necessarily have to be DONE once it's finished & sold ...even Kanye West made changes to "Life of Pablo" and re-uploaded a different version on Tidal. That's the great thing about post-internet art: its always in flux.
Why did you prefer the color palette of neons, pinks, and purples as reflected in your work?
My work has always had a hyper femininity: I like neons, pinks, and purples that have always been associated with girly subject matter .... I think it is interesting how [women] are trained to like these colors from essentially the womb and yet, in real life, the same colors are demeaned and not truly represented in adult life.... You never see pink architecture, for example. Pink and purple are considered 'girl colors' and if you like those colors then you are girly and considered 'weak'. I like to use these ideas surrounding femininity and real life to play hypersexualized, hyperfeminine characters.
What was the inspiration behind the jarring scenes in your video work, American Reflexxx?
It was anxiety-inducing wasn't it? Considering how heavy American Reflexxx is, it's funny where the origins come from. I had been thinking about art school with reality as a medium. Living in NY, there is so much world happening around you and so much chaos that is out of your control... When I am walking down the street, I feel very hyper-present and hyperreal.. I am very inspired by literally existing. Part of my process for the work was watching alot of reality tv like the Kardashians and Real Housewives. Even though [what is represented in the shows] is fake, these women have turned their lives into a performance. It is a heightened realism... even if they are playing personified versions of themselves, the things that are happening in their lives are part of their storylines in their performance. From there, I tried to use what a reality star looks like to figure out what a reality artist would look like. I also started to use this hypersexualixed, hyper feminine woman that you would typically see in porn or on tv as sex objects in my work. When I was filming my performances early on, I would make tests where I walked up Midtown or FiDi in a slutty dress and observe how people reacted to me. What happens when you see the sleazy girl that you have seen on all over tv walk down the street? She is not a person, but simply an object to be gazed and catcalled and projected fantasies upon and she doesn't have an identity or sense of self. I was interested in taking that character further.
How was filming American Reflexxx in Myrtle Beach, SC?
I had been using a mirrored mask in some performances/galleries around Brooklyn and I was doing burlesque-type performances so when my ex-girlfriend and I knew we were going down to Myrtle Beach to visit her family, we knew we had to do something down there with this character. We wanted to take this character to a place where people honestly never see art and never think about queer theory or gender studies. What happens when they are confronted with this girl from a place where everyone gets it? Everyone in NY knows that I am performing but when you bring art & performances to the middle of America, no one knows what to do with them. So we decided one night, Saturday night, to walk down the boardwalk and the plan was to follow me around this whole time, catch as many reactions as possible, and don't talk to eachother until the mask is off. Allie [my ex-girlfriend] is an incredible photographer and videographer and she managed to capture it so beautifully. The length of the entire video was 45 minutes but we cut it down to 14 minutes. It only took 2 minutes of me walking out of my car before things got hostile, rape culture-y and immediately transphobic. I thought that was a wild part of being an aspect of the film and that wild edge really mattered to me.
What happened post-American Reflexxx?
I am fine and we got good work out of it.... I'm happy that that woman pushed me and I'm happy that the work was exposing chaos, exposing what people are really thinking. I was being provocative and the mask was creepy but as a woman walking down the street, you don't have to be wearing a sleazy dress and heels... you can literally just be in your sweatpants and you are hyper present of being gazed at. I noticed that any time I was being cute and flirty with my body language, [the mob] threw bottles at my head. Anytime I puffed my shoulders out and gave a little masculinity, they would run away. The male gaze is everywhere and it made me feel powerful in a way to make someone else feel afraid of the female form. We teach women to have these docile, weak poses and it's funny because women can have strong personas as well. I wasn't expecting the work or the mob to escalate to that level. After we filmed it, we edited the video and showed it at Art Basel that year and showed it around galleries in 2014. It took us a couple of months to show it online because we felt we had just accomplished what I had been looking for in my work, in reality as a medium. It worked on so many levels... I love how it looks aesthetically and even the weird noises we got. I didn't do any performances until this year, mostly because I just did what I wanted to do.... Now I do want to continue exploring reality as a medium, but it comes down to the place, the character, and the point of why I'm doing it.
Where has your work been headed more recently?
I did a performance at MoMA in February as part of an installation called Booklub 10 located at the Newsstand that was a curated performance series in which, every 15 minutes, different performance artist would take the stage or be in rooms. I would lure about 5 people into my room on the side. Then I would slam the door and alarm them with a mic that distorted my voice. What made it cool was that it was fully improve and I would interrogate them about their "data", in which the only questions I was interested in were banal security info like mother's maiden name, social security name, etc. I called it a "Reality Hack" since I was 'hacking' for information. You wouldn't believe how many people gave me everything... one guy actually read me his social security number. People were so disarmed when they are confronted with someone hacking their information, even though its what the internet does all the time. I would mix in questions like "Does it turn you on when your personal information is used to create relevant target ads that show up on your Facebook newsfeed?" And people wouldn't know what to say. My character even got kind of turned on my data mining, and through that I wanted to fetishize surveillance. I loved working with people and playing with their reactions. It's something I see within the next phase of my work... crowd-work in small settings with improv.
What are your thoughts on the art community & market in New York as compared to LA?
I am still a bit of a novice when it comes to LA because I have lived in New York on-and-off for 7 years but have been in LA for only a year and a half. After going to gallery openings, collector's homes, etc, I think that the work created in New York is more saleable and created for what will sell. LA has a bad reputation for being superficial, but I have noticed that some of the galleries are softer. Sometimes it's nice when compared to the opague, super conceptual work you see in Chelsea.