Mar 24, 2015
Naked, posed unapologetically on an auction block, Robbie McCauley stood and called on the audience to hear the brutal tale of her great-great-grandmother Sally’s rape. “Bid ‘em in!” bellowed her performance partner Jeannie Hutchins. The audience shifted uneasily in their seats as the uncanny discomfort of history settled over them. Were they being asked to repeat after Hutchins – to implicate themselves in this reenactment of the slave trade? Hutchins urged the spectators to participate. Arms outstretched and fingers pointing, she reached to drag the words from the guts of a shocked audience. Behind her McCauley was still standing, tall and trembling, detailing exactly what Sally’s white master did to her those years back. “Bid ‘em in,” mumbled a smattering of viewers as McCauley’s hands flew across her body using the discarded dress to cover herself. Exposed, on display, asking spectators to claim her body, McCauley left the audience suspended in the afterlife of slavery and shaken by their own confusion and denial regarding the sexually violent legacy of the slave trade.
In this moment, the climax of her November 1991 show Sally's Rape: The Whole Story , McCauley used the direct vulnerability of her body and truthfully painful words to illuminate the unspeakable acts that haunt her history and the history of nearly all African Americans. Her performance was a literal and brutal show-and-tell where she reminded the audience that they are not distanced from slavery because “We all participated.” With this history of participation in mind, McCauley structured Sally’s Rape so that all could participate again. Beginning the show with friendly, almost phatic, conversation between herself and Hutchins, McCauley soon called the audience into the dialogue. She and Hutchins explained that they would like the audience to participate in the discussion when prompted by particular hand signals. These signals may elicit a responsive sound, agreement/disagreement, or statement. Warming the audience up for active engagement, McCauley and Hutchins passed out orange slices, cookies, and drinks while assuring patrons that reactions didn’t need to be influenced by their seat or neighbors. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it matters how you think that makes you different,” McCauley says. The back and forth between performer and audience kept a playful quality as they volleyed cues and responses relating to race without embodying it in the way McCauley planned for later in the show.
Familiarity and rapport established, the two performers began laying the foundational rhetoric to allow history to bleed directly into the show. “I become others inside me,” McCauley stated early on. Taking advantage of the axiom “history repeats itself,” McCauley asked viewers to note explicitly that she was repeating history as an attempt at reconciliation and dialogue about wrongs never fully realized or dealt with. With McCauley performing the ways in which ghosts remain ever present, the audience witnessed a performance of and about personal genealogies of life as the greatest endurance piece of them all. McCauley’s identity as a human and artist became a performance of perseverance laden with the inherited consequences of Sally’s rape.
The visual nature of rape as seen in McCauley’s performance has resurfaced with a vengeance in the media over the past year due to another performance engaged with sexual assault. After reporting her on-campus rape, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz underwent months of university proceedings in an attempt to have her story, and the stories of other assaulted women, acknowledged by the school. Dissatisfied with the results of her case, Sulkowicz began her endurance piece Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight in which she vowed to carry around a dorm mattress, much like the one she was raped on, until her rapist was either asked to leave Columbia or left on his own accord.
While Sulkowicz’s piece may not be a part of the broader topic of Atlantic slavery, it does speak to the publicity needed in order to keep the violent mess of sexual assault from being reconciled in anonymity. Like McCauley, Sulkowicz refuses to let her story settle in history, politics, or any institutional bureaucracy. Both women enact an artistic intervention, one in The Kitchen’s theater and the other across Columbia University’s campus, in which they ask viewers to see their private experiences with sexual violence so that they may know that all are complicit in burying this issue so long as they refuse to talk about it. Of Sally’s Rape, McCauley has said, “That’s what art can do…it can initiate a long-term process toward resolution.” So join the process. Shout “bid ‘em in” as this piece stands on the auction block, naked and public, nagging at those who turn away and reinforcing the complex artistic interruptions that continue to occur at The Kitchen and in other spaces around New York City.