Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Anastasia Tuazon reviews Ann Hirsch’s Playground at JOAN in Los Angeles.
Ann Hirsch’s Playground, a 65-minute play originally commissioned by Rhizome and performed at the New Museum in 2013, had its second showing at JOAN in Los Angeles on March 28, 2015. Hirsch’s performative and object-based works often explore female subjectivity and sexual power, and Playground draws directly on her experience as a preteen using AOL chat forums in the late ’90s , an online space that enabled her to explore her sexuality at an age when parental monitoring limited her agency.
The play centers on the communication between two characters: “Anni,” a 12-year-old girl (played by AnneMarie Wolf), and “Jobe,” a 27-year-old man (played by Gene Gallerano). With both seated at desks facing the audience, they communicate at first by typing silently onto keyboards, their messages projected onto the wall behind them. They then transition into verbally narrating these messages, and ultimately into interacting with each other physically; this is purely to express what is being communicated online—the two never meet face to face. Hirsch does an admirable job at tackling the problem of how to stage a play about instant messaging that doesn’t feel boring, and she does this by drawing viewers into Anni’s imagination.
The audience understands that Jobe is a predator interested in sexually exploiting young girls online. Hirsch illustrates this through a few scenes in which Jobe and Anni have cybersex or phone sex and Gallerano skillfully simulates masturbating at his desk. The most compelling aspect of the play, though, is how Anni emerges not as a victim within these acts but as something more complex: a person acting on her desires and establishing a sense of sexual agency. In this way Playground doesn’t appear to be a narrative of abuse. Even the fact that Jobe is played by an attractive actor—although it’s implied that Anni has no idea what he looks like—suggests that what we see on stage is her fantasy, not his.
Of course, there is a lot that’s wrong with Anni and Jobe’s relationship, and Hirsch succeeds in bringing out the audience’s nauseated reactions to this. Perhaps the most observably uncomfortable moment is when Jobe instructs Anni to penetrate herself with a pen and then send the pen to him in the mail. It’s also the turning point of their relationship, as Anni reacts not with compliance but disgust, and thereafter starts to distance herself from him.
Although the end of the play feels ambiguous, Playground succeeds in its complicated portrayal of the newly common adolescent experience of undergoing formative sexual encounters online. It’s also a dual portrait—of the time in a young person’s life when sexuality finds expression, and also of the early internet as the interface that shapes it.
Playground by Ann Hirsch was performed at JOAN on Sunday, March 28 and 29, 2015.
Anastasia Tuazon is an interdisciplinary artist and writer who is interested in making things personal and/or political. She has recently exhibited work at Surplus Space, HQHQ Project Space, and curated a group exhibition at composition gallery in Portland, Oregon.