We all know the feeling, when you meet someone cooler than you and you have no idea what they’re talking about, but you smile and nod because you want them to think you’re cool, too. Yeah, that’s how most of my transatlantic call with Whitney Vangrin played out. The 28-year-old New York performance artist and Parsons graduate looks like Courtney Love and she has an avid follower in Dev Hynes.
The first I saw of Vangrin’s work, her screaming face was magnified a hundred times onto a screen at MoMA PS1 in Queens. Badass. “Gnarly”, she announces in her drawn-out American accent. If her art doesn’t resonate with you, you’re a liar. We’ve all got an underlying desire to scream until our lungs burn, or an egomaniac within who wants to see our own image multiplied.
Vangrin’s most recent project, Sugared, saw her spit, quite literally, on Valentine’s Day, confronting, “a tendency towards belligerency within interpersonal relationships, specifically through a narrative of mock violence.” She ripped through sugar-cast bottles of Peroni with her teeth in the basement of her bandmate’s house in front of a bewildered audience.
Days after she drenched herself in New York’s Times Square in the name of art (and on behalf of rollacoaster.tv), Vangrin schooled me on performance art over the phone whilst I pretended to be cool. You would too, if you were talking to someone who’s acted in a short film alongside Sky Ferreira and is mentored by Industrial music overlord, Genesis P-Orridge.
Rollacoaster: Hey Whitney. How’s New York? How’s work?
Whitney Vangrin: Yeah it’s going well, it’s kind of gloomy outside and overcast… I’m planning this performance series in May, so I’m just kind of working on all of that and situating that together.
R: You explore a range of artistic disciplines – from sculpture to performance and music. You’ve been in short films, too. Which medium do you find most comfortable to work with?
W: Right now, it’s definitely within performance… The thing about performance is you have the ability to do it anywhere, it is kind of about necessity, not to say that performance isn’t expensive. Bodies need to be clothes and housed and there needs to be some kind of monetary role within that… I can get such a visceral reaction between me and an audience and it’s a way for me to communicate authentically to the rest of the world.
R: Do you remember the first time you decided to explore performance art, and what led you to it?
W: I was in a class with the artist Nicolás Guagnini… One of the main pieces I did was just reciting lyrics over and over again and then just through that it because extremely emotional. Out of being put on the spot in front of the classroom, you start to shake and you’re diving into what that means, to quiver. Then you’re crying and it’s something that’s a real emotion, but then you’re constructing this emotion in the moment. I think that’s something I’ve continued within my practise, hovering between what is performed and what is authentic.
R: The only way you can tangibly preserve a performance art piece is to record it in pictures and on film. Do you think these mediums detract from the intended message?
W: This is a constant struggle that I go through back and forth – creating a new piece versus documentation. I am really interested in rooting my work within cinematic references. I think that there is an opportunity to have a performance exist and have someone get some type of visceral reaction from a recording of it… That’s something that I’m still confronting, as I delve more into making these film pieces.
R: Most of the performance art I’ve seen has been a reaction to something that’s happened in the artist’s life. Do you think the medium is always some kind of personal exorcism?
W: No! I try to be very aware of when I’m doing reactionary emotions and try to move past that. There are a lot of cathartic emotions that go in to what I’m doing, but I also really want to introduce a level of humour and go beyond an initial reaction that could just deal with a lot of pain. There’s no denying that a lot of my pieces are confronting that pain, but I don’t necessarily think that needs to be viewed as reactionary. I’m trying to flip it a little bit.
R: Always a tricky proposition: which of your pieces are you most proud of?
W: There are transformations, but I guess my most recent work that was initiated at a residency I did in upstate New York using the dual image. I did a workshop of that performance when I was upstate and then when I came back to New York in the fall, I presented it at a space called MX Gallery. That was titled Pump Screen. That was dealing with the reality of my body situated in the scene, hinging upon realism and construction. I have this echoing of my figure in space. I like that this is incorporating and confronting the recording of a performance image, but in a smaller space.
R: Do you think it is more limiting using your body to convey your artwork than tangible materials?
W: I’m always very aware that sometimes there is a brutality to it, but it’s never about masochism or pleasure in pain, it’s more about incorporating my body in certain ways. Things that just cause reactions, like holding a lit match in your mouth or even singeing your body with small little burns, people are going to have an extreme reaction to that. I’m always very conscious of the frailty of the body and I don’t necessarily end the limitations at that. Your body’s constantly in flux and you’re so present and you’re constantly observing how your body has changed. I was looking at a performance I did a couple of years ago in Miami when I was in top physical shape. Then a couple of years later, I wasn’t at that level of athleticism, but just trying to get back to that.
R: Do you think that makes you more judgemental of the way you look: not necessarily superficially, but artistically?
W: I’m posturing my face in certain ways that I want to evoke: I want there to be this ethereal quality in my face and how I move my body. I think it’s more based on aesthetic choices, being in a world where we’re always affected by superficialities of how we look. But when you’re confronting it because you’re specifically setting out to make an image, I think there’s something very liberating about relating to your body in the way that you’re performing, or creating this extended visual. You start to actually have a healthier relationship [with the work].
R: You’ve found something of a soulmate in Industrial Records founder and Throbbing Gristle expat Genesis P-Orridge. Tell us about how your relationship developed.
W: She’s a close friend and the closest thing that I, and a lot of other people, have to a mentor. She’s deeply involved in the support of us as young artists. We talked about why we see females as the ones making the strongest work. I think it has to do with this history of a female born into pain: it’s within a canon of visual history that there’s this connection to that. I don’t want to be so bold as to say males aren’t tapped into that same type of pain, because there are male performers around me that can see these very real reactions in, and extreme values of, pain. But I think with females, there’s something that is not as staged or precise within interactions… There’s this way for us to tap into these extremes, sensitivities, but we’re also able to draw them back and work them into a staged moment.