Nate Hill’s storage locker is filled with the costumes he has worn: bear, dolphin, panda, milkman, millionaire. Playing his many roles in the name of performance art, Nate has been invited into the homes of strangers. They have given him their most intimate possessions. They have sat on his lap while he bounced them up and down. They have stripped naked and let him wear them as scarves.
For his latest project though, the pretense 0f costumes has been dropped. The artist wears street clothes. Nate is dressed as himself.
“When I came up with this idea, I was feeling crazy isolated.” Nate recalled, in his usual manner when talking about his art – each word wrung out as if under duress, “I was having a lot of problems with the changes that were taking place in my life with my wife now being pregnant. Oh boy, where to begin? It makes you crazy. It makes you crazy. Hormones changing from second to second. Was I cut out for monogamy? Probably not, but I like a challenge.”
The challenge for Nate, was to satisfy his animal urges, without violating the terms of his marriage. With that in mind, he wrote what at first glance appears to be a fairytale for children: The Hunt Storybook. The illustrated tale begins:
“Once upon a time, there lived a boy who became a man. There were things about being a man that he liked. He liked when he felt strong, like he was a virile Wolf. He liked when he could have fun with women, like they were his prey, like they were Rabbits. It was all really fun. Everybody had so much fun!”
Under the heading “How To Play The Wolf,” the book concludes with instructions for a game that reproduces the sensations of a being a predator in eight steps:
Find monogamy within marriage difficult
Embrace that you are the Wolf and need to hunt
Find a menstrual blood source other than your wife
Dress your dog up like the Rabbit
Spread the menstrual blood on the dog’s costume
In any way you can, scare your dog away
Track it using only your nose
Don’t stop hunting until you find the Rabbit
Nate chased his blood-smeared dog through Central Park for several weeks, until, in his own words, “She just kinda lost interest. She caught on to the game and didn’t want to run anymore. I think she just got bored.”
At that point, the artist teamed up with artist Jane Doe, who agreed to be his rabbit. He would track her by the scent of her own menstrual blood.
“I think it meant two totally different things to each of us,” Jane explained, her sentences bubbling with uptalk. “I thought it was such a strong image that transcended language: that my outward appearance consents to being preyed upon. I was really excited by it. I know that people have actually experienced the literal translation of this performance, so I felt kind of guilty about it. Maybe I’m telling people that it’s their fault. I don’t want to tell people that, but people do fantasize about being raped.”
“Have you ever fantasized about being raped?” I asked.
“No, not necessarily, but I often wish someone would force me to do things. I was thinking about that earlier when I needed to finish writing an essay. I fantasized about someone sitting me down and forcing me to finish it. It’s sort of the same desire about not having control. I feel like rape fantasy is a privileged fantasy though.”
I spoke with sexual aggression researcher Dr. Neil Malamuth of UCLA, about the prevalence of rape fantasy in our culture. “The majority of women have them some of the time,” he explained. “Typically these are not realistic kinds of rape, but they do involve being taken by force by a very powerful and perhaps handsome man. There is research indicating that women who are more powerful in their own daily lives are more likely to have those kinds of fantasies.” By contrast, about one out of three men report having had fantasies of committing rape.
I talked over those statistics with Deborah Tucker, executive director of The National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence. “People have all sorts of fantasies,” she responded. “That’s what they are, and that’s what they should remain. What has been shown, in research with sex offenders, is that when they’re asked about the acts that they’ve committed in the past, it just reinforces their desire to engage in that conduct again. Art is an important way in which we express our views and experiences, but art that reinforces stereotypes or is exploitative of any person doesn’t lead us to enlightenment. I think that [Nate] needs to consider what aspects of his personal desires are influencing him to believe that this is stimulating to him. Too often, I’m afraid, it has to do with a sense that you don’t have adequate power in your own world.”
Nate and Jane met regularly in order to practice their performance and negotiate their roles. Nate sent me regular updates of their progress in the form of diary entries.
“After a short discussion, the plan was to stalk Jane while she pretended to walk normally in the woods. It felt a little silly because with the tan coveralls Nate was wearing, she could easily see him contrasted by the snow. Nate tried to hide behind trees, but creating suspension of disbelief was a problem. Finding the right tone was a problem. The overtones of rape were a problem.”
“They got bored and Nate suggested they raise the stakes and add a punishment. If he caught Jane then he would do something bad to her. He proposed sticking his finger in her butt. She said no. He said he would rip her white tights. She said ok. They agreed to race to a light pole up the snowy trail. Jane got a head start.”
“They started racing. She took the path, but he went off it. Before she reached the light pole, he tackled her hard into a snowy branch. He tried to rip her tights but couldn’t because he had a handful of underwear, so he just man-handled her a bit. She got scared but was still smiling when she shouted ‘Safe word! Safe word!’ and threw snow in his face. Later, she said he didn’t know what he was doing, and she didn’t know what she was doing, so she thought it’d be best to stop…”
“Nate suggested they move on to taking ‘rapey pictures.’ Jane agreed. She said it was an important part of the collaboration. They looked for a good location. Jane hesitated, so Nate demonstrated the positions that a woman might be found dead in after being raped. Facedown in the snow was one. Jane again hesitated. She said that it was making her think of hookers in trash cans. Perhaps this is when the collaboration crossed into exploitation for Jane…”
“They walked back to Nate’s apartment, so Jane could change her bloody underwear. When they got there, Nate’s wife was home. Nate’s wife was tolerant of this stuff to a point. Nate was constantly pushing this point.”
“A number of factors made this collaboration more challenging this week, but in Nate’s opinion they were external. Nate’s pregnant wife grew jealous of the attention paid to Jane. Jane’s girlfriend was also put off by Jane’s obsession with the project. This was further compounded by Jane’s girlfriend being sexually assaulted (ass grab) the same week by a stranger in an art gallery. These external forces seemed to cloud the collaboration further…” “They drank a bottle of wine in the woods where their performance was supposed to take place… Nate thought out loud that maybe this was the performance, and expressed that maybe it’s ok that it amounted to simply conversations, concerns, and innuendo. It was supposed to be problematic, right?” “Then to his surprise, Jane said that they could do the original idea where Nate chased her bleeding as long as they ‘dressed like animals’ to separate it from reality.”
I was invited to join the two artists the following week for their fourth performance. We met one cold midnight, at the northwest corner of Central Park. The date was picked to coincide with Jane’s period. Nate offered me a Styrofoam cup of half-drunk wine as a couple of cops eyed us from inside their warm cruiser. With nearly all their natural predators eliminated from the park, the place was overrun by fat raccoons.
As we walked into the north woods, the pair talked about some of the problems they had encountered in their game.
“Nate runs in the park every day,” explained Jane. “But, I’m very lazy. I don’t live an active lifestyle. We tried to make handicaps, like I would start running before he started running, or I would run from a different location, but he still caught me anyway.”
“You really have no chance of getting away,” I concluded.
“No, I don’t.”
As a consequence of some of the issues that had been brought up during their previous practices, Jane pulled out a statement that she wanted Nate to sign before they began the hunt. Jane’s girlfriend had urged her to write it.
She recited the two page document to us both.
“I understand that I can never blame the victims of violence for their many experiences of traumas…”
“Who am I representing?” Nate asked.
“Yourself,” Jane replied. “That’s why it says ‘I.’ It’s in first person.”
“I do not condone the use of violence,” Jane elaborated, “If I want to be punched in the face, I will ask to be punched in the face.”
“It’s unlikely that I’m going to sign this,” Nate said, shaking his head. “I’m not interested. I just want to have power over you.”
In order to reconcile the dispute, the two parties decided to employ a role-playing game with vague rules that neither of them seemed to entirely understand. They stood on opposite sides of a tree, in aw-shucks postures reminiscent of childhood.
Jane began in falsetto, “I don’t think you should do the project.”
“Who is that?” answered Nate.
“It’s the tree,” Jane replied. “I think the image you’re creating really just reinforces the things you’re trying to talk about. Why is he chasing you? Why don’t you chase him?”
It was negotiated that Nate would respond as Jane.
“Yeah,” he said, “I think you’re right. I see what you’re saying. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re right.”
“I think that it’s a really bad idea,” the talking tree continued. “I think that it’s going to upset a lot of people, and it’s really fucked up.”
“Yeah,” replied Nate as Jane, “Nate probably has a hard time seeing it from a female perspective. He thinks about boobs a lot. He’s kind of on that level.”
“I think Nate’s a sociopath,” the tree replied.
“Well, you know,” Nate countered, “if Nate was here, he would probably say that empathy is paralyzing to an artist. And, if you get too mired in social contracts… you’ll never do anything without qualifying it which decreases its power.”
We stood around looking at the ground and nothing happened. The performance had ended and nobody seemed to know exactly what it had meant. Nate and Jane had been attracted instinctually to the image of the hunt – to their roles as predator and prey. But, in trying to impose a rationale onto their behavior, another more subtle power structure materialized. The Rabbit had become the Wolf.
As Nate led us to a nearby bar filled with Mexican prostitutes, he talked about how his performance art had been evolving. “I felt really bad about taking advantage of people in the past and I didn’t want to do it anymore, which is why I originally didn’t want to involve humans in my work this time.” He talked about how by collaborating with Jane, he could relinquish control to some extent and be forced to examine his behavior.
“I think what was successful is that I didn’t really let him take advantage of me,” Jane elaborated, “which is probably what excites him about working with me.”
“One of the girls who was involved in my last project got really angry with me,” Nate added, “She said, ‘You’re reckless. You don’t treat people well. You’re self-centered. You use people in art.’”
“Is she right?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Nate responded after a long choking pause, “You know, I never actually stopped to ask.”
It made him think of an old performance piece of his in which he threw half-eaten cheeseburgers at unsuspecting pedestrians from a speeding bicycle.
“When I did that, I wouldn’t stop to ask how they fucking felt about it. It’s hard when you ask someone how they fucking felt about that cheeseburger. That’s why I never did it.”