Reclaiming Hysteria in The Reality Shows:
A Conversation with Karen Finley and Ann Pellegrini
New York University, 6 April 2011
Part performance, part discussion, all “love fest,” The Reality Shows: A Conversation with Karen Finley was a provocative engagement with performance, theory, and the politics of public feelings between Ann Pellegrini, Associate Professor of Performance Studies and Religious Studies (NYU) and Karen Finley, the internationally renowned artist, cultural provocateur, and professor in the Department of Art and Public Policy (NYU). The discussion focused on Finley’s The Reality Shows, a new compilation of performance pieces derived from the past decade’s news-worthy events. The collection showcases how the artist employs, in Pellegrini’s words, “multiple aesthetic forms in order to disturb settled emotional and political responses to both individual and collective trauma.”
Pellegrini, who wrote the collection’s introduction, began by describing Finley’s engagement with the politics of public feeling as an “irreverent juxtaposition” of affective negotiation where the laugh quickly slips to the punch to the gut. Riffing on the popular notion of Finley’s oeuvre as politically and aesthetically “transgressive,” Pellegrini explained that “trans-” also implies how the work “carries us somewhere else in the course of her performance,” allows us “to see [a familiar event] anew,” and “turns seeing into witnessing,” thereby “transforming the audience into something more.” Responding to Pellegrini’s suggestion, Finley explained that many artists do in fact act as “historical recorders” who symbolically represent a collective experience by providing the space and time to process public events, such as 9-11 or the Terrie Schiavo controversy.
Yet, Pellegrini pointed out, instead of acting as a passive receiver of historical events, Finley’s aesthetic methodology of “sampling a mood” by distilling, recomposing, and layering a variety of voices—which we witnessed firsthand when Finley read selections from The Reality Shows—allows the audience/readers to experience the event differently. Finley, by analogy to how the experimental dance form Butoh came out of Hiroshima, explained that this abstraction of historical response is characteristic of both (public) artistic practices as well as the individual’s (private) psychic response to trauma, where trauma is experienced through a perpetual missing, a repetition and recomposition of the traumatic event.
Acknowledging that the title The Reality Shows references a specific aesthetic form, Pellegrini asked: “What the hell is a reality show?” Finley pulled from her experience as an artist whose work and controversy with the N.E.A. marked her as a celebrity. She explained: “The public creates this form that isn’t real [although it] says it is.” What results from the acquisition of a set of scare quotes around her name is an uneasy layering of the private and public. While Finley’s early work involved “private creation to make public work which [then] becomes politicized,” as a response to the way her persona, as opposed to just her work, was politicized, Finley, in the past ten years, flipped her process by focusing on the “public space and trying to look at the privatization of it.” In other words, Finley finds the intimacy within the public sphere of collective, public experience through the lens of celebrity culture.
In addition to the productive back and forth of Finley and Pellegrini, which canvassed such additional topics as artistic process and the theoretical implications of her performance work, Finley read selections from “Make Love” and “She Loves War,” elucidating the influences on and intentions of the work. While there is not space to go into a detailed discussion of these two pieces, I do want to comment on the aesthetic component of Finley’s readings and remark the relationship between “text” and “performance.” Fielding a question about the evocative transformation of her voice as the works gain momentum and affective force, Finley explained that she sees the texts (which have all been performed) as musical scores. She does not consider herself an actress but an orator. Strikingly, she never memorizes the text, but reads the work when she performs and lets her “voice go through [her] body to respond emotionally to how [she’s] feeling.” This is the pleasurable part of performance for her: “feeling an emotional energy from the body and the sound.”
Moving off of Finley’s description of how she uses her voice, Pellegrini offered a queer feminist psychoanalytic reading of The Reality Shows and Finley’s work more generally as a performance of the nonpathological hysteric. Pellegrini suggested that “Karen Finley,” “professor of traumatology,” is a historical recorder who intuits the emotional response of the audience and uses this affective charge to transform her mode of performance through the volume and pitch of her voice. By absorbing the suffering of others and twisting this public information in the creative process, an abstraction or transformation which is an aspect of the symptomatology of hysteria, Finley, Pellegrini proposed, offers the “hysteric” as an antidote to “crazy.” Delighted by this reading of reclaiming, Finley underscored that this process of reception and transformation is why “we want more art,” where trauma therapeutically evolves into art and culture thereby enacting a transformation of public feelings.
Krista Miranda is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University and the Book Reviews Editor for Woman and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her prior graduate work includes an MA in Humanities and Social Thought with a concentration in Gender Politics and an MA in Writing and Publishing.