First published in Polyester Zine, Issue Three
Polyester interviews reality artist Signe Pierce, star and victim of the now landmark film American Reflexxx. With 1.5 million hits on YouTube, the film directed by Alli Coates documents Signe in a tight blue dress, stripper heels and a reflective mask, moving down a busy street in South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach. The following 14 minutes shows Signe verbally and physically assaulted, branded a “shim” and called an “it.” Her identity as a woman was questioned, her body shape mocked, and misogyny and transphobia proved itself to be deeply embedded in the American psyche. Since then, American Reflexxx has featured on websites and news outlets across the world, and has even been used by teachers in schools across America to educate young people about LGBTQ rights, mob mentality and bullying. We talk to Signe about what it means to be part of the conversation and about violence and acceptance in American culture.
The introductory credits bounce along to the beat of “blurred lines” by Robin Dick [sic] and Pharrell, an apt choice of song considering the rapey, misogynistic connotations of the lyrics and the title that somehow implies the notion of consent is a grey area; a concept sadly familiar to most girls. The jagged beat joins Signe who is pressed up against a tree, swaying her hips provocatively, her masked face tilted back: an invitation as much as an act of confidence. “At most we anticipated some heckling and cat-calling,” says Signe. “While it was happening I felt kind of protected by the mask. They couldn’t see me and therefore they couldn’t shame me.” But the come-ons swiftly turned into something much more sinister. The sickening flow of the video documents jibes progressing from, “Will you do me in that later?” – “I’d love to make love to you with that on” to “EEWWW” - “That’s man right? Look at them feet!” Quickly Signe loses personal pronouns, her existence reduced from human being to a genderless creature that sparks fear and violence in her onlookers resulting in terrifying physical violence towards her.
The aftermath of the film has been sensational. Although completed two years prior, American Reflexxx circulated art shows and exhibitions before finally being published on the Web. And now, its impact is being likened to other culturally and socially progressive documentaries such as Paris is Burning. “This video has always been extremely personal and important to Alli and I since the night it was filmed. My love for American Reflexxx keeps growing, especially since releasing it online and realising how the themes of the film impact viewers,” Signe relates. “So many people have reached out thanking us for making work about the kind of treatment that they face every day.” The young duo have already created a breakthrough piece of work that’s actually made a difference in peoples lives and altered archaic perceptions. “Personally I think that creating progressive dialogues is one of the most exciting things that art can do, it means everything to be a part of these conversations surrounding tolerance.”
Months on, the mirrored mask Signe wore that night becomes more and more significant. Initially it reflected the madness and hate in the crowd, now it forces every person watching online to reflect on their own morals and social responsibilities. Signe adds another layer to the mask’s new relevance, “The film seems to provoke a visceral reaction in most people, but the difference between watching it online to watching it in a gallery is that people on the Internet have a means for leaving their feedback.” She says, “in a way, the mask serves as a bit of a metaphor for the exchange that occurs between someone who posts something online and the commenters. When you can’t see someone’s face or eyes, it’s a lot easier to pretend that they’re not real.”
Although the positivity in the aftermath of the video has been so important, your heart still breaks for the treatment Signe received that day. It’s interesting that the majority of the verbal and physical assaults came from fellow women. Her body was scrutinised and picked at. But more than that, her confidence was intimidating, her nakedness an insult. “A byproduct of a patriarchal society is that women are conditioned to hate themselves and to view other females as a threat. It’s a part of the power structure, and I think it’s telling that all of the people who got physical with me were women. I think that because I was playing an idealised, hyperfeminine character they viewed me with disdain. In a weird way I understand where my aggressors were coming from, because I’m aware of the ways that society perpetuates these feelings inside of us.”
So, how much of the violence in the film is a result of transphobia? And how much is it the desire to punish and shame a sexually confident woman? “I think that both were motivators for the harassment. I am friends with brave trans women who have to fear their lives in the least ostentatious of situations. Strangers spew hatred when these women are minding their own business, modestly dressed in the middle of the day. They don’t have to be sauntering around scantily clad at night to garner reactions, and that’s a sad fact that needs to be examined and rectified.” Signe continues, “Alli and I didn’t set out to make a piece about transphobia, those themes found us.” If the film teaches us anything it’s that we must still fit into a physical mould to be accepted by wider society.
Signe’s other work is branded as cyber-feminism, her bright photography and videos are unashamedly pop culture and a love letter to the US. Signe explains, “I’ve lived all over America and feel keenly attuned to this place. I’m very interested in modernity and ‘the new’. To me, the country’s colonisation represents the successes and failures of a place whose infrastructure was built late in the game in the grand scheme of world history. The aesthetics surrounding dead malls, strip malls and parking lots are all very interesting to me, both as a cultural consumer and visual artist.” Signe believes, “These types of spaces signify physical representations of capitalism in an increasingly digital society, and their decay is an embodiment of the burgeoning change that’s happening in the US economy.”
The Internet acts as Signe’s playground to explore consumer identities and gender stereotypes. “I think Tumblr and Instagram are the new TV. Instead of watching shows we watch each other. We can curate our feeds to create our own worlds, and within that you can curate your own identities. It definitely creates a metaphysical mindfuck in terms of ‘what is real’, but that’s why I make art about it.” And Signe, like many girls, has found Tumblr to be a breeding ground for feminist expression. “I especially appreciate Tumblr because it gives anyone who doesn’t fit into the patriarchal idea of what’s “relevant” a place to live out our own ideals. The internet provides anyone female identifying with an outlet to express our ideas and interests in a way that I don’t think was overtly available before.”
There is obviously so much more visual candy and cultural mind slime to be generated by Signe Pierce as well as her partner Alli Coates. Together they broke the internet, (the important kind), and made real movements for social equality, confronting the ugliness in humanity so that maybe some people might be kinder, some more willing to help and hopefully some who might feel less afraid.
Words by Claudia Walder
All images and video property of Alli Coates and Signe Pierce