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Artnet News
Sept. 3, 2010 

Call it the "pee in the pan" saga. In February 2010, a performance by Ann Liv Young during "Brooklyn Is Burning," a queer cabaret held at MoMA PS1, spun out of control, provoking an onstage confrontation with fellow performer Georgia Sagri, and endless, sensationalized debate. (The whole thing is viewable on Young’s Facebook page, for those looking to judge for themselves.)

The incident may well be revisited this Labor Day weekend, as A.L. Steiner, an artist whose work is currently featured in "Greater New York," has asked Young to return to PS1 for a "performative moderated discussion" in her studio at 2 pm on Sept. 5. After initially refusing permission for the event, PS1 has now agreed to allow it to go forward.

The details of February’s contretemps are well known. Several performers were slated for the afternoon of "Brooklyn Is Burning," and Georgia Sagri’s brief performance involved inhabiting the persona of a character, "Jane," in which she talks over a pre-recorded track, an act that Sagri describes as an exploration of how identity is constructed in contemporary society.

Next up was Young, who emerged in the persona of "Sherry," a deliberately abrasive alter-ego with a blond wig and Southern accent. According to Young, she had intended to center her piece on auctioning off a pan of her own urine to the audience, as a protest at being forbidden by PS1 to sell DVDs during her show. But, after observing what she considered to be amateurish behavior by Sagri -- Young calls her someone "yearning for a mic with nothing to say" -- Young decided to make her the target of her character’s abuse, opening the show by having "Sherry" ridicule Sagri’s performance.

Sagri, who was in the audience, responded with an obscene gesture. Young escalated the confrontation by stripping naked, spreading her legs and masturbating in front of Sagri, who stormed out of the room, only to return to scream angrily at Young. At this point, PS1 head Klaus Biesenbach killed the lights -- later a MoMA press rep said the move was made out of concern for the safety of the participants -- and the cabaret concluded in darkness.

The subsequent publicity has brought a degree of broader fame to Young, whose theatrical transgressions made it into the New York Times; in the current issue of Artforum magazine, she is celebrated as part Don Rickles, part "Pop avec Sade" in an admiring feature by David Velasco.

Meanwhile, Sagri is getting rather less attention. Velasco, who notes that Sagri "fell into Young’s trap," did not actually speak to her. Nor did dance writer Claudia la Rocco, who covered the story for both the New York Times and WNYC. "I was astonished by the fact that the writer never contacted me to ask about my perspective on the incident," Sagri told Artnet News.

Needless to say, Sagri is no fan of Young’s work. Sagri’s "Jane" performance is expressly designed to examine the loss of identity in media culture. "The piece was actually commenting on all these character fashions, and the image industry that eliminates the person and creates brands," Sagri said. Young, in Sagri’s opinion, exploits the very kind of media stereotypes she is trying to challenge. "By creating this violent brand, by hiding behind it, Young suggests the rest of us are also acting like brands, and that’s precisely what made me mad. It’s a cowardly act."

Did Sagri go over the top at the "Brooklyn Is Burning" event? "Dignity is perhaps a word that does not feature in Young’s vocabulary, and I felt obliged to remind her," Sagri adds, explaining her own outburst during the "Sherry" performance. "I was very conscious of what I did -- I screamed out of anger and left PS1 of my own will."

For her part, Young told Artnet News that her critics are naïve to hold a performer to account for the actions of a character. Sagri was under no obligation to take Sherry’s trash talk seriously, in the context of what was, after all, a theatrical event.

Young admits that her staged mockery of Sagri was rooted in real dislike. A dancer by training, Young professes herself to be both ignorant of, and actually hostile to, the tradition of performance art. When pressed as to whether she has any obligation to respect fellow performers, Young does not hesitate to say what she thinks. "If Georgia made better work, I wouldn’t have to say it was shitty."

As for the A.L. Steiner-sponsored event on Sept. 5, Young had proposed that Sagri and Biesenbach participate in a discussion moderated by Young’s incendiary character "Sherry" -- hardly a sincere invitation to dialogue, and a gesture that Sagri essentially considers rubbing salt in a wound. In any case, Biesenbach is out of town, according to the New York Times.

So what, finally, is the moral of the story? Though the "Brooklyn is Burning" affair has brought Young notoriety and admirers, it has also brought a fair degree of negative attention her way as well. She claims to be the object of enough hate that she is hiring professional security guards for Cinderella, a one-woman show scheduled for Sept. 4 at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, if David Velasco’s Artforum article is right that Young’s performances succeed best when she manages to offend her collaborators, it seems likely that the pool of people willing to share the bill with her in the future may well be limited. Stay tuned.

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