It sounds like a grandiose generalization to describe anybody as an “artist of our time,” but for Signe Pierce, it’s an apt description. Pierce, 27, so effortlessly embodies her particular time and place (2016 New York City) that almost everything she said during our 40-minute phone conversation could be millennial gospel. She is, as she puts it, “a reality artist” and her body of work grapples with the most prescient social issues of our reality: sexism, racism, police brutality, LGBTQ prejudice, the surveillance state, the patriarchy, the ugly underbelly of capitalism. During our chat she is uninhibited but remarkably self-aware, and it becomes apparent before she says it outright that she doesn’t distinguish between the personal and the political. “I’m seeking answers just about the human condition, about life, about the past, present, and future, about space and time, and just about the way we are with each other,” she tells me. We touch on Kim Kardashian, the radical artistic value of SnapChat, Bernie Sanders and the recent reemergence of '80s cyberfeminism. She talks about reclaiming the color pink, genderlessness, using her body like a Venus flytrap to ensnare the male gaze, and how she's been thinking a lot about limitlessness lately. I wonder, What more could we ask of an artist in 2016?
The funny thing is that Pierce was an artist for the times back in 2011. It was her senior year of college; she was studying photography, interning at SNL, and watching a whole lot of Real Housewives. “They didn’t need a sketch, they didn’t need a script. I found it really fascinating and very Warhol-ian that these people had found a way to make a living and make a long-form performance out of their lives." She took her cue from reality stars for her final art school show, which she told everybody she wouldn’t be able to make. Signe bought some pink plastic on Canal Street and fashioned a contraption to hold her phone at a two-foot distance from her face; she called it a reality stick. “I’m not going to lie, I low-key invented the selfie stick,” she says with a laugh. “My dad is so mad at me for not patenting it!” That night, she crashed the opening in character as a chick named Bryssa.
How’d her premonitory selfie-stunt go over? “I’m pretty sure the head of my department hated it.” That’s probably because Signe’s work isn’t really for hanging on walls and prompting polite small talk over canapés. Though Signe doesn’t talk about that night very often or consider it a part of her canon, she says it's her first true performance as a reality artist. “It’s kind of just my life is my art, my body is my medium…the phone is my canvas and video and media [are] the canvas, then social media and the internet [are] my gallery, essentially,” she explains. “Life is art.”
Pierce doesn’t shy away from the less-than-pretty parts of life either. Take 2013’s American Reflexxx, the social experiment she performed on the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach while then-girlfriend and collaborator Alli Coates captured the sick scene that unfolded. Pierce used her body as a canvas to display what she calls the “hyper-sexualized female form” favored in the media — platinum blonde hair, a skin-tight skimpy dress, neon platform heels, and a shiny metal mask concealing her entire face — and let the crowd that formed around her direct the piece from there. “You take a sex object and you turn her inside out and you flip the gaze on all the people who are typically consuming her,” she explains. Pierce and Coates didn’t set out to create a shocking 14-minute study on the dehumanization of trans people, but that’s what happened when an angry mob formed under the assumption she was trans; it started with slurs and ended with Signe bleeding on the pavement. “When we found ourselves in that moment, there was really no preparing you for what you’re going to do when 100 angry people are following you down the street. There wasn’t really an exit strategy either.” The jarring footage that resulted reveals the unsavory reality that there is a latent transphobia in many people that requires frighteningly little prodding to erupt into violence.
If a reality artist reflects the current cultural moment, then Signe Pierce's work is by its nature ephemeral; she will never give the same performance twice. Three years later, American Reflexxx would probably unfold very differently — as would Signe's art show, now that we're all starring in our own reality shows broadcast on social media 24/7. Would anybody even look twice at a girl with a selfie stick on her head? That's something that Signe's been thinking about a lot lately: losing ourselves in — and to — technology. "I always say I’m part cyborg, like part iPhone girl, you know? But I’m also really part flesh and blood human, animal," she explains. "I’m an animal, we all are and the deeper we go into the iPhone generation and the matrix I think the more that that gets left behind."
Signe intends to help us all reclaim flesh-and-blood warmth that makes us human with her new installation at 29 Rooms. It’s called “Come To Your Senses” and she describes it as an immersive sensory peep show where all five senses will be engaged.
"I want people to be able to come in and feel something a little bit. My objective with this is to turn you on, essentially," she explains. “I want this to be a celebration of the more animal aspect of ourselves and how we can unleash that. I want you to behold something beautiful or something sensual, and I want it to remind you of your carnal instincts — and what it means to be a body, not just to be a body attached to a machine.”
29Rooms — Refinery29’s magical art and fashion funhouse – is back for its second year, kicking off during NYFW, from September 9 to 11. We’re bringing our commitment to women claiming their power to life, through the event’s theme, “Powered by People.” To celebrate this sense of possibility, we’ve curated content that embodies our theme and pushes you to do more — start the conversations you want to hear, make change. We built our dream world and want to inspire you to power your own. For more information on the 29Rooms event and our initiative, click here.