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Identities of a Feminist Performance Artist

Interview by Jana Astanov.

[Photo: Maria Baranova]

Christen Clifford is a feminist performance artist, writer, curator, professor, actor, and mother. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter

3:AM: We all exist within our social networks, you in particular seem to engage with your audiences in unusual ways, for instance sharing your personal battle with cancer via social media channels. Some could call it exhibitionism, others performance art, how do you perceive it yourself?

Christen Clifford: In 2016 I was diagnosed with uterine and ovarian cancers. I very quickly understood that my social media was turning into my art. I couldn’t do anything else. My Instagram became my work. It started with documenting the process. I’d been documenting my healthcare when I started to get mammograms a few years before with a breast cancer scare and tagging it things like #womenshealthcareasperformanceart and #feministperformanceart so I was posting mammograms about every 6 months and then when I was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancers it just seemed normal to me to document it.

All I could think about was what was directly in front of me. That experience was similar to the experience I had with an infant. Keeping a baby alive and keeping myself alive were almost the same. What I needed to pay attention to was very simple and clear.

And then, because of the isolation of surgery and chemo, my IG became a way to perform.  It became a digital performance. I tried to use humor, and I guess I was hopeful that my voice would come through, and that maybe I would get to be funny and make people laugh, or tell a story and create a moment of silence, but online, in details. I only realized it was a performance for real, when I was aware of the audience, sometimes even in the form of a clapping hand emoji. A standing ovation was like X  amount of likes and comments. I began to use #fuckcancer and show my hair falling out, my pubic hair falling out, the bone pain in the middle of the night. The art was a way to express what I couldn’t express in my home, where I was trying to be strong for my kids.

Some of the pictures became about this supposed triumph of how good I looked.  Or maybe I just got addicted to the likes. I know that we all know we get a little adrenaline spike, and maybe some oxytocin, when we get a “like.”

My appearance was a big part of the performance. How good of a cancer patient can I be?  The better I look, the more people think I’ve defeated cancer or that I’m healed or normal. The #hospitalglam shots were more popular than the posts where I complained about being constipated. I wanted to unveil the experience. A few people got mad at my treating my illness this way. A friend whose infant had had cancer – well she did not think my attempts at humor were funny. So I got booed too. It was also a performance in that I was aware of the appearance of total honesty, when in fact I left out a lot of personal information that was really the story of my diagnosis.

The performance is an actualization, an action, a way of controlling the experience and of wanting to control the illness.

3:AM: What are you currently working on?

CC: I have been named a Feminist in Residence at Project for Empty Space, run by Rebecca Jampol and Jasmine Wahi, as an intersectional feminist gallery.  I’m beyond delighted to be one of 4 feminists in residence and have the space to work on some large scale pieces. The love the object-ness of the big photos.  And I’m framing them under Plexi or printing directly onto aluminum white and silver aluminum – which I’ve never done before. And a video installation. It’s called  WE ARE ALL PINK INSIDE : Interiors.

The show is called Incision, the work is part of a  group show with Camille Lee, Chaya Babu, and Katherine Toukhy- it runs January 24th to March 16th at Project for Empty Space.

Another piece in the show is an audio installation about rape and rape culture called American Dream. I told a male curator about this piece about ten years ago, and I remember him  just rolling his eyes and wincing. His female partner took me aside and said, “if you feel like you have to do it, you should.” It still took a long time to get it out in the world.

I’m currently making my first film. I’m at very beginning stages, so it’s hard to talk about, but it is an autobiographical documentary about cancer and sex and relationships and love and rape. I hope that it has the intimacy of an Instagram Story with a classic structure.

Lastly, I am finishing a book about sexual assault and rape and death and forgiveness that I’ve been working on for almost ten years. I had two fabulous residencies at the Museum of Motherhood Art Annex in St Petersburg, FLA, and in addition to ocean swimming and sunlight on my ass I worked on editing the manuscript every day. I’m back again in January and hope to have a draft that I can send out. I am so grateful.

I just published this in the Guardian– it took me two years to get published.

I’m working on the CAA/TFAP Day of panels for February 2019 about Sexual Justice.

This is all to say that the world of the sexual and feminist and hidden and queer has always been compelling to me, and that making performances and writing have always helped me to explore the in-between spaces, and to help me figure out what I think.  Writing is so intimate; I can write things that I can’t say – to anyone. I can say things in performance that I can’t say to my friends.

My energy levels are still really spoonie- it varies day by day.  Using a lot of energy one day puts me flat on my back for days, so I must be very careful.

[Photo: Christen Clifford and Maria Hupfield collaboration BirdWoman]

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

CC: Sexuality, gender, love, childbirth, liminal spaces, equality, rape, what it means to be feminist. The work I am trying to get out into the world is about my experience in my body. This includes childbirth and rape and sexual assault. Years ago I made a piece where I covered men in menstrual blood.

Now with WE ARE ALL PINK INSIDE : Interiors, this is work that was interrupted by cancer, I am glad to get back to it. I am putting the inside on the outside, using the tropes of classic feminist performance art but making them about everyone. So the inside is not just inside my vagina, but other vaginas, inside anuses, inside people that do not define themselves by gender.
They are a series of Interiors, but made with low res sex cameras not medical cameras.

I often use myself as the extreme example in which I hope others can see a bit of a universal experience. My work is frequently autobiographical and sexual, yet it is concerned with examining the areas where we are all trying to connect. I feel like the work is ultimately about exploring the nature of love.

3:AM: Since you are also teaching performance art and feminism, how does it influence your own practice?

CC: After cancer I went back to work teaching right away. Even though I’m adjunct I didn’t want to take time off.  I was afraid if they knew I had cancer maybe they wouldn’t hire me back. I love my students.

I also still co-curate Experiments and Disorders at Dixon Place because it’s part of my job as an artist to support other artists. I work with  The Feminist Art Project  because feminist art saved my life and I want to give back. I volunteer at the kids’ schools, and this year I am also a Girl Scout leader! I’m hoping to do a make your own badge about feminist art, or sexual health.

Teaching and curating give me pleasure. I don’t think it influences my practice, it IS part of my practice.

I am an enthusiast and love to share the work of artists and writers I love. It influences my work by keeping me connected to artists I fell for early on: Ana Mendieta, Karen Finley, Tom Murrin, Faith Ringold, Dancenoise.

3:AM: Could you please tell us about your recent performances?

I was asked to do an Art After Trump piece and I made a performance called GoldFace. I covered my face in gold leaf, a reference to Joseph Beuys and his How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965. The text is about Trump Tower, his taste, the sexual assaults he committed, the economy, feminism.

My performance Wolf Woman is relatively easy to take on the road.  I just need a grey rabbit fur jacket coat to destroy at each performance. It’s about motherhood, fashion, women’s bodies, technology, our primal selves. I had a really fun time performing it for Milk and Night Curatorial. I ended the performance crawling out into the street and we were all howling at the moon and then I climbed into the sunroof of my rental car. Martha Wilson said all performance art is therapy.  It was a few years ago at the BiPaf long table organized by Esther Neff and the wonderful people at Panoply Performance Laboratory.- that it’s the central question of performance art.

3:AM: What is your current reading list?

CC: I am really into the novellas of  Torrey Peters, and I adore bell hooks. I teach her work every semester and it just grounds me. This year has made me really confront the sexual assaults in my past and so I keep In An Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine on my bedside table.

I read a little Artaud every fall because I give it to students, I always read that medical diagnosis column in the NY times- I loved a recent book Kate Zambreno recommended, Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker by Marie Darrieussecq.

3:AM: If you were to mention one person who influenced your work who would that be?

CC: Ann Kieffer was my drama teacher in high school and she helped me to believe in myself at a very difficult time. I am so grateful to her. I love you, Ann!

3:AM: Who are some of the most interesting artists within the feminist agenda?

CC: These are artists whose work I am compelled by:
Ayana Evans

Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow

Aya Ogawa

Nina Chanel Abney

Xandra Ibarra

Jennifer Tamayo

Additionally, these are the artists I am in residence with at PES:
Camille Lee, Chaya Babu, and Katherine Toukhy
Artists that I was in Otherwise They Don’t See You with at SoHo20:
Andrea Arrubla, Debora Castillo, Scherezade Garcia, Mona Saeed Kamal, Baseera Khan, Sarah Maple, and Hồng-Ân Trương + Hương Ngô; and writers Nicole Goodwin and Rindon Johnson.
I also adore The Feminist Art Project!

3:AM: How long have you been making work with issues around rape and sexual assault and how do you see that related to the current climate and the #metoo movement?

CC: American Dream is an audio of the friends of the guy that raped me when I was 15. They made an audio tape mocking me and gave it to me. I first used that in performance in 1999 in my first solo, a one hour performance called 17 Guys I Fucked that I did at The Culture Project, a downtown theatre dedicated to social justice.

I’ve been teaching classes about Rape Culture and Rape and Representation for three years.

In the spring of 2017, I came forward along with some other brave women about sexual misconduct and abuse at the Nichols School, the High School I attended on scholarship.

It sent me back into therapy.  I couldn’t believe that at 46 I’m still so fucked up about it- that I still have such complicated feelings. I mean I talk about rape all the time, I was interviewed for a documentary called It Was Rape, I teach a class called What Is Rape Culture for fucks sake – but when I revisited my 8th grade memories of a teacher who emotionally manipulated me and sent me 100 letters, I felt like I was 13 again. I wanted to send secret messages to an old friend, forgetting that we were adults and could email and call each other.

I am currently doing Prolonged Exposure therapy with a therapist who specializes in sexual assault. I still struggle with feelings that the assaults I experienced were my fault. If it is this hard for me, imagine what it is like for women who do not have the same 25 years of therapy, who have internalized the patriarchy so deeply that…. I really believe that all of our stories matter, that there are clear differences between a hand on a knee and a hand on an inner thigh. We need to be reminded that sexual harassment is illegal. Rape and systemic abuses are often covered up by an old boy network that must be dismantled. These are connected by patriarchy and capitalism and imperialism and white supremacy. So I am grateful to the #metoo movement and Tarana Burke. It is still very difficult to find my voice.

3:AM: How do you perceive the internal dynamic of being a mother and an artist?

CC: It’s delightful and violent. It’s sacred and profane. I experienced such connection breastfeeding and loved the eros of parenting, and also dark days of crying on a pile of stuffed animals. I had postpartum depression after my second child.

The whole partner-motherhood thing is complicated and wonderful.  My partner is on sabbatical this year so I’m excited about him and the kids having time to explore together. My daughter is a meat bag of joy. My son is is a teenager and sometimes he doesn’t see me.  Sometimes it’s scary how much of my identity is tied up as a mother.  And at other times I feel like I am only an artist.
I can’t not be an artist. I’m just who I am.

3:AM: Given the recent polarized political climate what would your idealized vision of the world look like?

CC: I want climate justice and solar and wind energy. I want equality. There is no reason for anyone on this earth to starve. I really want Universal Basic Income, Universal Health Care, and Child Care. I want abortion on demand and without apology, I want an ERA. I want an end to poverty and the mass incarceration of black men and an end to voter suppression. I want everyone to have time for contemplation and walking, for pleasure in living.

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?

CC: I cannot answer this question. It causes me great anxiety. Of course I hope my work has an impact. I read and write and make art to feel less alone in the world and would be honored if I was able to give someone else a little bit of that.


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: Saturday, January 20th, 2018.