The body can be perceived as a social construct, or a site of repeated performance of gender, social class, race, and even age. These categories can be considered socially constructed, transient and not real. How do we experience our own bodies through these categories, and how do we perceive others’ bodies? What is the act of looking and how is it to be looked at? Do we put a mask on when we are looked at? To masquerade means to pretend to be someone one is not, to be disguised. The matter of masquerade and the mask is addressed – among other aspects, such as the gaze and identity as a social construct – by a variety of artists.
American Reflexx is a performance art video by artists Signe Pierce and Alli Coates, which uncovers violent dehumanization as a result of masquerade. The video soon became viral on social media.
“American Reflexxx” was shot by Coates with a camera following a woman (Pierce) as she walks through a public space (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina), recording the reactions of the members of the public she encounters. Pierce is wearing a short tight blue dress and neon yellow heels, and most importantly, her face is entirely covered by a reflective mask. She’s also of seemingly indeterminate gender, as the passersby try to figure out if she’s a cisgender man or woman, or a trans woman.
People seem terrified and scatter away from her. The spectacle of a tall woman wearing such an outfit drive the city crazy. As the film progresses, the reactions become more violent — she has water thrown on her, someone attempts to trip her, and eventually she is pushed head-first into the pavement. The crowd moves through stages of seeing Pierce as a curiosity, then an object of fun, and then something to be actively provoked. The video indicates how quick people are to feel threatened by someone they deem to be unlike them, and to channel that fear into a justification for violence. Notably, all the acts of violence against her are carried out by women. Does this fact suggest that the woman’s appearance/mask is something other women are jealous of? Is this the reason of their aggressive behavior?
American Reflexxx reminds me of Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0, where she stood motionless by a selection of objects with which the public could do whatever they desired. As with this performance, Rhythm 0 started with curiosity and ended with violence.
“What I learned was that if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.”
In the case of American Reflexxx, Pierce is wearing a mask that works like a mirror. She is literally faceless; anyone looking at her face sees only their own aggression reflecting back at them. Pierce does nothing to provoke anyone — she gyrates in a suggestive way at times, but mostly she just walks. However, her very existence to others, seems to be an act of aggression.