Sunday, 1 April 2012

Ann Liv Young: self consciously unstructured critique that isn't just badly written but an attempt to break critical strictures as the artist attacks performance convention

First of all, I scored an interview with Ann Liv Young. Although I haven't finished unpacking that conversation - I played a few segments on the radio hour, and intend to release the full recording on the mixcloud - I was initially surprised and relieved at how different she is to her on-stage personae. She was thoughtful, respectful of other artists (even when she says that she doesn't like Katy Perry's music, she is polite and adds "I don't know her as a person)" and even demure.

Then I invited Alan Miller from RPZ onto the radio show, and we talked about the NYC performance art scene. He brought in a recording by Karen Finley. It is probably the most offensive track I have broadcast: Finley is an earlier generation's shock artist, and we talked about how provocation is not only a familiar strategy in live art, but that it has to be experienced to be understood. As always, Alan wised me up to a fault in my thinking: by trying to put Ann Liv Young in a tradition, I was shying away from acknowledging that her work - this weekend, it's The Mermaid Show at The Arches, which is then nipping down to Fierce in Birmingham.

After that, I actually went to see Ann Liv Young's Mermaid Show. For the sake of being a responsible reviewer, I'll slip in a quick act of criticism. If you don't fancy having fish spat at you, or getting wet, don't go. If you can handle loud music, disorientating episodes and the uncanny sound of a huge fish tail slapping against the floor as Young moves around the audience, there is much to consider in her representation of the fish-lady myth.

Then I was sent a video by Zebra Katz. It's a minimal hip-hop track with some offensive lyrics. They do sound as if they are copying Finley's wild style, only the video, which features a female rapper doing a bunch of glamour shoot poses, seems to locate Katz on the wrong side of the misogyny boundary.

Fascinating as this insight into my week might be, at least for me, I am not sure how these elements relate to each other. I've seen Ann Liv Young three times now - and every time, there has been issues with then sound levels, a constant sense that she is about to walk off-stage and a genuine tension as to whether her rants at her co-performer (and husband) or the sound-guy are genuine. She did end The Mermaid Show abruptly by flopping off stage - the version of Firework I had expected did not materialise, so I assume that the ending was not the usual finale. She is known for polarising audiences - love her or hate her. I want to get past that.

The problem is - and I read this on wikipedia last week - that I tend to reify performances. That is, as far as I understand it  - admittedly, that is about as far as the corner shop - I put live performances within a specific tradition. I did say to Young that I thought her art was representative of a New York aesthetic. She countered that I could not be more wrong, and that Europe is more sympathetic.

She elaborated on this during Mermaid: she specifically said that Norway is where it's at. That was just after she'd shouted at The Arches for giving her a rotten fish and announcing that she was pregnant.

For Ann Liv Young, I go back to Karen Finley, or maybe line her up next to The Wau Wau Sisters. Look: female artists who use the body! Nudity that is not intended to titillate! Of course that is who has influenced her! Just like PJ Harvey gets compared to Patti Smith gets compared to Kate Bush gets compared to Tori Amos gets compared to Bjork.

By doing this - but now I have done it, I don't think the comparison with The Wau Waus is too bad - I am hoping to make sense of the experience of Mermaid. But the point and purpose of Mermaid is what I experienced. She says as much during the interview: "I just want people to be honest..."

For the record, here is what I felt as I watched Mermaid. I hope it helps.

The Mermaid is an icon of femininity, and has been sentimentalised, mostly by the children's entertainment industry. The original tales of Mermaids had them down as sexy, soulless seductresses, and when Young lures a male audience member with her song, then goes ape-shit, she reinvents the more terrifying aspects of the myth.

She's like the counter-weight to New Age idealisations of mermaids, a savage creature, disabled on land, flapping hopelessly, rounding on the audience but unable to escape thanks to her lack of legs. There might be something wrong with me because I think getting spat on and splashed with water is not too high a price for a night out. Other people were fuming.

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