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Performative Trance Trauma

Interview by Jana Astanov.

[Photo: Mark Shaw]

Leah Aron is a New York-based performance artist interested in methods and aesthetics that are not traditionally associated with standards of perfection. The calamity of being female saturates her work. Her main goal in performance is “to achieve altered states of consciousness, exploring the polarity of embodied experience from exhaustion to exhilaration, pain to pleasure.” Aron’s body is her medium, often working with duration, repetition, movement, and stillness. She has worked closely with Karen Finley, Linda Montano, and Marina Abramovic. Finding inspiration in her self-described surreal perception of moving through the world, she stages acts of desire and repulsion that unmask the power and trauma of female identity.

3:AM: How did it all start? What made you a performance artist?

Leah Aron: I trained at NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing (ETW), planning to be a conventional Hollywood actress with unconventional education. I always hated the artifice and the vibe of the theater scene though, but I didn’t know there was a fitting alternative means of self expression until I finished my degree in my late 20’s. Two college courses opened my eyes to performance art: one was about the performative nature of gallery art. I learned that I was much more comfortable in a white cube gallery than a black box theater. The other class was ETW’s Self-Scripting class, where we were encouraged to make original work. I made my first eight or ten performance art pieces in that class. The freedom to experiment without the pressure to be theatrical fascinated me and continues to do so. I made myself a mantra: “If you can’t get the part, make the part,” and I took that to heart.

[Leah Mandala]

3:AM: Where there any people who influenced you in the choice of performance as a way of expression?

LA: I was lucky enough to study with Karen Finley, both in class and independently. She taught me the power of using my voice, the power of exploring that which we shy away from, even cringe at. Karen got me out of my comfort zone and assigned me to investigate Jewish identity as it related to me, and to camp. Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” was highly influential to me as I embarked on a one year stint embedded in the burlesque scene.

Julile Atlas Muz is a muse of mine, her work is balls-out and utterly badass. She once took a diverse group on non-dancers and staged a choreographed ballet with the whole group dressed as Jon-Benet Ramsey’s. It was stinging! I would say badass is the common thread among all of my influences. Anne Hanavan gravitated toward art making after a lifetime of hard living- sex work and drug addiction. I saw her wild video self portraits she had made at age 39 and suddenly I was given permanent relief to my fear that it was too late for me to be an artist. I lost a good decade of my life to heroin so coming back to the life force- the creative community- in my 20’s was and still is scary, as welcoming as people out there are. I struggle with paralyzing self-doubt and my inner critic tells me “it’s too late for you.” Then I cover myself in body paint and perform with Kembra Pfahler, now in her 50’s, who still kicks ass with her unique performance style. All of these artists, all of them women, have in common a generosity which comforts and inspires me. There are many more: Kate Durbin and Linda Mary Montano. Too many to name…

[Image: James McNally]

3:AM: What are the themes that you explore?

LA: My work deals with the power and trauma inherent in being female. I try to externalize those visceral responses to the world around me in a way that implicates the viewer, forcing them to examine their role in perpetuating pop culture poison and worrisome expectations put on women. Be it an ad campaign for American Apparel or the audio extracted from a porn clip, I recontextualize elements that both repulse me and draw me in. I struggle to gain power over these haunting things, often altering my state of consciousness in the process.

I am constantly seeking altered stated of consciousness, through manipulated breath or subjecting my body to long durational physical challenges like trying to dance- or at least remain upright- while standing in a kiddie pool full of the slipperiest of soaps. I make myself hurt and I make people watch. I conjure a sense of potential violence. That potential is more potent and palpable than violence itself.

My work often hangs out in the discomfort, the simultaneous alienation and implication of the viewer. Show them something raw, show them a trauma and show them a trance, amplify the calamity of being a woman, let them think what they want but make. them. think.

[Pic: Mark Shaw]

3:AM: What are some of your notable past projects?

LA: Does being censored count as notable? My work is often controversial, which sometimes stupefies me and other times just makes me smile proudly.

In 2007 I created an imitation American Apparel store in New York’s garment district. I simply copied the prurient pervy ads pasted on billboards hovering above my head near my apartment. I re-appropriated existing sexually suggestive content and was told ten days into a month-long installation with with-hour daily performances that I could keep the storefront but had to take down 90% of the signage, the merchandise, all of it. I was furious and dejected. I called Karen Finley since she was censored by the godddamn NEA and sued them, and won! She was instrumental in helping me cope.

My burlesque name was Amber Alert, chosen for its conflicting connotations of sex, violence, fear, crime, victimhood and the veiled power that lies within the “victim.”. A true inversion of high and low, which is the definition of burlesque. I was passed over for many gigs because people were so uncomfortable with the name. My acts always shocked and elicited applause, my ideal attributes for burlesque that verges on performance art.

Whenever I push my body to endure a physical challenge it’s usually notable, if I may be so bold as to assert that. I have nearly drowned myself, fallen and stood up repeatedly for a half hour, lay statue still on the floor for hours as viewers poured hot wax onto my naked body. I feel as if all of this is notable within my microcosmic niche community of performance artists and enthusiasts. Notable is a relative term I guess…

[Photo: Emily Raw]

3:AM: What are you working on currently?

LA: Five days ago I performed in a Brooklyn subway station as part of the Online Performance Art Festival. My piece, “Long Durational Upskirt,” was blocked and deleted by YouTube fifty minutes into a two-hour performance, which i completed not knowing the content wasn’t available online. YouTube suspended the festival’s account for three months because my performance violated their terms. They either got rid of my footage or are holding it hostage.

Naturally I am outraged and also wounded by this experience, how arbitrary it seems given how many similar (and more sexualized) videos are hosted with no problem at all, so I am working on developing a new work in response to this almighty website committed to eliminate a woman’s attempt to own the representation of her own body.

I realized that only men can show women’s bodies and get away with it easily. Men own our bodies as they exist in representation. It’s enough to make me cry and it breaks my heart, but as Carrie Fisher once said: “Take your broken heart and turn it into art.” I will challenge Youtube’s power to rob me of my art, and my own image in a new performance. Catharsis is always within reach.

[Photo: Kimberly Perharlow]

3:AM: As a character in art history, what impact do you think you’ve had? How have you changed the ways in which people look at art?

LA: It’s very hard to gauge my own impact, but my aim is to continue the strong tradition of feminist performance art that has influenced me. I think at this moment in time, many art viewers are familiar with the feminist critiques that were embedded in earlier performance work, there are themes they expect to see invoked. For me, it’s fun to give people what they think they’re expecting—a commentary on women’s bodies being exploited, for example—but to devise a way to push them further, fuck with them a little bit more, by forcing a certain discomfort, or proximity, or complicity. This is what artists like Ana Mendieta and Valie Export really excelled at. The performance is also an invitation, as well as a mirror. It should show you something about yourself. That’s what I hope my impact is.


Jana Astanov is a multidisciplinary artist, poetess and Priestess of Impermanence at Red Temple. Her work includes photography, poetry, performance and new media. She published three collections of poetry: Antidivine, Grimoire and Sublunar. She can be found here: website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 10th, 2017.