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Girls Girls Girls… Yeah I Dig Them
7/22/09

Kate Brandt. Performance by Heather Warren-Crow, Sound by Seth Warren-Crow
Part of “Landlocked,” group show at HungryMan Gallery, Chicago, IL.

A recent performance in Chicago by two Milwaukee-based artists made several Wisconsinites and Illinois folk unite under one roof, an ironic union as everyone traveled from a Great Lakes coastal city to see the group show Landlocked at the HungryMan Gallery. After completing her doctoral studies a few years ago in Berkeley California, Heather Warren-Crow moved to Milwaukee to teach conceptual studies in the film department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She’s a performance artist and media theorist, interested in visual representations of women in media culture. Her husband, Seth Warren-Crow, is a musician and multi-media artist who teaches in the film and dance departments at UWM as well. The two collaborated on their most recent piece, Untitled Virgin (girls girls girls yeah I dig them).

While writhing around on the floor in a hand-sewn costume consisting of plush flowers and blonde hair, Heather crooned the lyrics of “California Girls” by The Beach Boys over a soundscape of beats and bird calls designed by Seth. The lyrics were spoken and sung out of order, and executed with varying degrees of intensity, creating a multi-layered performance. It was humorous, seductive, awkward, and, at times, pitiful. The soundtrack hummed continuously, creating a consistent background to the image of a real live California girl looking expectantly up at her audience from the floor.

photo by Naomi Shersty

The lyrics to “California Girls” relate broad, generalized qualities of women according to geographical location: [to paraphrase] East Coast girls are hip, all Midwest girls are farmer’s daughters and West Coast girls are tan, wear bikinis and look like dolls. The performance of the Beach Boys remixed called various stereotypes of women into question on several different levels. On one level, Heather represented feminine juvenility by constantly seeking approval of those watching her by asking for their recognition. “Applause, please,” she would say from time to time. When asked, her audience would either half-heartedly clap their hands (unsure of whether or not they should applaud such acts), or they would remain silent and continue to feel uncomfortable, looking around for a beer to drink or a different conversation to engage in. In doing so, the audience indirectly exhibited another generalized stereotype of gallery goers: the tentative observer.

By exploring if and how women seek approval, the performance complicated the role of femininity. If the audience had really clapped their hands and cheered her on, would it have encouraged her to stand up on her own two feet and sing the song with full intention? And if this were to happen, would Heather represent strong women everywhere, or would she fall under the Beach Boys umbrella of stereotyping by representing women as attention-needing and/or getting creatures? She locates the female identity under the stereotype of a woman as an attention-seeking creature, and by clapping and affirming her actions, the audience confirms the stereotype that women need direct attention and approval. By not clapping, or remaining silent, the audience rejects, or disapproves, her actions. Thus, the performance would not necessarily engage the audience directly, but implicitly implore the viewer to accept female stereotypes with one of two responses. She’s trying to get attention and the audience will either affirm her actions or disapprove of them.

photo by Naomi Shersty

However, she didn’t stand up and really sing the song. Instead, she stayed lying on the ground, complicating the role of female identity. By acting out stereotypical female qualities while singing the song - pouting her lips, giggling incessantly, and trying to get the attention of others - she does, undoubtedly, perpetuate feminine stereotypes. But by reclaiming and literally remixing the “California Girls” lyrics, and by acting indifferent to the reactions of her audience, she empowered her female identity. Instead of demanding her audience to directly react to her actions, she doesn’t care how her audience reacts. She sings and writhes on, regardless of whether or not someone is paying attention to her. Her empowerment comes from giving options back to the audience, creating the reality that she has power to give. By giving the audience the opportunity to accept or reject her actions, she forces the audience to become aware of our assumptions of women. What makes the performance so successful, and sneaky in doing so, is that she inadvertently puts the assumptions of female identity back on the audience, creating a more interesting dynamic. Meaning is created more through the audience’s reception, or lack thereof, and less through Heather’s portrayal of femininity. There is more to the performance than just accepting, rejecting, or highlighting female stereotypes. Perhaps it is pertinent to ask why I am assuming she is an attention-seeking feminine creature just because she’s giggling? What is so wrong with crooning to an audience that may or may not be listening?


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