Written by Eva Barragan
Photography by Djeneba Aduayom and Alex Stoddard
Dressed in pristine white business suits splattered in red paint representing blood stains, performers Savannah Harrison, Charissa Kroeger and Asha Hall steadily make their way to the center of Jason Vass Gallery to execute Ania Catherine’s disturbingly powerful piece, Imperium.
The three culturally diverse women create a human centipede, connecting their bodies, moving as one. They trot throughout the gallery, shoving in between anything and anyone standing in their way. Without saying a single word, they are making their presence known by simply invading everyone’s personal space (including my own). Unapologetic and moving with a sense of entitlement, the three women meet in the center of the gallery crowd and proceed to roll out a red carpet.
“There is something about a red carpet that has always seemed really dramatic and theatrical to me,” Catherine tells me, as we discuss her vision and inspiration behind Imperium. “Think of whenever you see heads of state or politicians getting out of an airplane, there’s always a red carpet rolled out for them.” Catherine points out that this is something that’s been done throughout history and she began to explore the symbolism of red carpets in Hollywood. “All of a sudden celebrities are on this thing, this long vibrant colored rug, and they instantly hold a certain level of importance, of significance. And the same thing happens when you apply a red carpet at small events or gatherings, like proms for example. They bring out red carpets to make us feel important.”
Catherine goes on to explain that the red carpet has always been fascinating to her as a social prop, especially now with current politics. “Seeing people like Donald Trump on red carpets, someone who is so horrible and simultaneously occupying this “significant” space made me think a lot about power and violence and the way in which we’re socialized to think about violence,” she continues. “When most people think about violence they think of petty violence, like a car being broken into, a fight on the street. I wanted Imperium to illustrate that the violence that is destroying our world is actually the violence that's wrapped in formal structures of power.” According to Catherine the worst kind of violence is not on the street, individual to individual, but its the systemic kind where the men walking in the suits are proudly walking on this carpet showing how important they are, how selfless they are, when they’re the ones who are the problem, in one way or another, they have blood on their hands,” she explains.
“When something is wrapped in a formal setting and has these symbols around it, the suit, the well-oiled hair, the red carpet, it's almost like we don't think these people are capable of violence,” she continues. A perfect example of this is the rise of the Time's Up movement. Time’s Up mission statement is a direct response to the courageous women who revealed the dark truth of ongoing sexual harassment and assault by powerful people in the entertainment industry. With Imperium, Catherine is aiming to show that as a society, we don't associate violence with social symbols like a red carpet even though often, that's actually the epicenter of social violence.
The choreography for Imperium, which means absolute power, has the performers walking down the red carpet proudly, authoritatively. They are doing business meeting kind of poses, hands in pockets, heads nodding intently, movements we’ve all seen displayed by influential individuals in press conferences several times. After a few minutes of very formal behavior, almost as if witnessing a computer malfunction right before my very eyes, the performers begin to spazz out, slouch, shake erratically, slip up, and mess up the social structure they have been abiding by. The women in suits then begin interacting with the crowd, extending their hand to different audience members, shaking it profusely, then retreating it and acting as if nothing happened. As I watched this all take place, I realize what Catherine is doing is not creating an original performance, she’s creating a replica of what we see, hear, and experience in society every single day. Not a single individual in the audience asked the performers to stop shaking them. Not once did I hear someone say “hey you’re hurting me,” or “please don’t,” despite the fact that several members in the audience looked uncomfortable or slightly bothered that they were being touched.
“We’re socialized to accept this kind of behavior from people in power whether we’re comfortable with it or not,” Catherine tells me. Listening to Catherine’s explanation and watching the audience members reaction in front of me, I can’t help but be reminded of the Bill Cosby case. I keep getting glimpses of the Gloria Allred press conferences where she sat beside countless women who trusted Cosby (an individual who was once in a position of power) were taken advantage of by him, and felt like they could do nothing about it. It took them years after the incident took place, for them to finally declare to Cosby, “you hurt me.” They felt they could not share their stories because they feared no one would believe their word over the word of a man who was protected by the red carpet.
When I ask Catherine what inspires her to create this kind of work she simply responds, “I have a low tolerance for bullshit. I want to design situations that are not that different looking than real life. Sometimes I make work that's dreamy, ethereal or otherworldly and other times I want the work to look so much like real life, it almost confuses you. You're not sure if what you’re seeing a performance or a real-life situation.”
Catherine went to graduate school at the London School of Economics and graduated with a master’s in Gender and Public Policy. It was there when she realized her academic studies and her love for performance, film and photography could merge in a really interesting way. She tells me she hopes that after seeing Imperium, people will realize what a performance walking on the red carpet really is, and they’ll be more aware of how this carpet is just a prop and just because someone is standing on it doesn't automatically give them all the characteristics that we’re socialized to believe this prop represents. Strength, glory, confidence, authroity, worth, the list goes on and on. She tells me often she works with performers who aren’t even dancers. “I want people to see themselves in the performances. I don’t want them to see acrobats or highly trained people that they can't relate to. I want them to look at my performances and see a mirror of themselves or the society in which they live in.”