September 11th seems like a strange date to schedule an art event. A dark cloud will always hang over that date in this country, especially in New York City. I spent it in the most patriotic way that I could think of. I joined a group of artists and friends at Freight + Volume gallery for the closing reception of Rebecca Goyette’s exhibition, Ghost Bitch USA. We combated fear, bigotry and misogyny with Lynchburg Lemonade and the art of protest. Rebecca Goyette used the story of the persecution of her ancestor as a jumping off point for a multimedia show filled with humorous and erotic imagery which also addressed the serious threat of a Trump presidency.
A massive group undertaking was required to produce the theatre and film elements of the exhibition. The project brought together a community of artists, demonstrating everything that is right about the New York art world and is rarely publicized. A screening of Ghost Bitch USA and Ghost Bitch: Arise From the Gallows was followed by a panel of cast members, moderated by Priscilla Frank, Arts and Culture writer for the Huffington Post.
Priscilla Frank: Let’s start off with Rebecca. Can you tell us about the story of Rebecca Nurse and how you learned about it and how you first started thinking about the piece?
Rebecca Goyette: My great-times-eight grandmother is Rebecca Nurse, discovered my genealogy through my aunt right before I went to grad school at SVA in 2008. I started working on a ceramic village called Gallows Hill Playground at that time. I discovered that my great-times-eight grandmother was Rebecca Nurse and with her being my namesake, I became more intrigued and began to research the era.
Priscilla Frank: Were you named after her?
Rebecca Goyette: No, not on purpose, and what’s really crazy is that there are a lot of Rebeccas, descendant of Rebecca Nurse, with that same story where the family didn’t know. It’s very cultish with Rebecca Nurse. Every two years there’s a family reunion that meets in England in the town where she grew up in for the Rebecca Nurse Society. It’s actually really crazy, there’s more for me to do for sure, but she was considered a Christian martyr 100 years later after she was hanged as a witch.
She was seventy-two years old when she was hanged in the Salem witch trials and they inspected her for extra teats in jail. They jailed her and had eight men checking out her naked body thinking that she might have these extra teats that her animal familiars would suck off of, so, of course, I imagined that to be very rapey, right? My mind started to spin. In my art work I’ve always been dealing with sexuality and power struggles and all kinds of different issues of power games and sexuality. It was insane when I found out about the ancestry, because it gave me a whole platform of things to try to do, relating my work to the witch trial era.
Priscilla Frank: Can you talk a little about why Rebecca Nurse was sought out by puritans or why she was pinpointed as a witch in the first place?
Rebecca Goyette: Rebecca Nurse was actually a female landowner, which was very rare during those times. This was the mid-1600s, very soon after the Mayflower landed and we started creating townships in Massachusetts and in New England. A male relative died and she inherited the deed to the land and the house. She was really not connected to any sort of spiritual activities that people were suspicious of at the time, they targeted her because she was a female landowner and then she got caught up in this mix.
She was partially deaf so at the time when they hanged her. At seventy-two years old, they asked her, “You’re guilty of witchcraft, what say you?” She said, “What, what?” and they literally hanged her while she was saying, “What?” She didn’t even understand what they were saying. She was looked at as much more of a pious woman than sort of like the bawdy bitch character of Bridget Bishop in the time. It was like a tavern owner accused of witchcraft. In my film, I called myself Bridget because I was seriously not at all pious or quite as old of a cougar as Rebecca Nurse. I’m getting there though.
Priscilla Frank: Can you talk a little more about the modern day…the pilgrims back then, who pilgrims are today and the connection between them?
Rebecca Goyette: The pilgrims today, like the Red Sox boys. That’s really like true though. There’s all these Red Sox cap wearing dudes, frat boys who come from Boston and go to Salem for their little Halloween adventure. Sometimes they go all summer long. They go to get tarot cards read by a real witch They’re privy to it. I noticed that to and I thought that is actually the modern pilgrim.
Later on when I made the Trump video it was like I also see Trump as this modern day pilgrim. This really limited point of view, this really misogynist, racist xenophobic point of view. It’s basically a modern day pilgrim.
Priscilla Frank: Do the modern day witches believe that there was some sort of witchcraft going on in the 17th century, or did this just all happen as a result of the trials?
Rebecca Goyette: They believe that there was some spiritual activity happening and some pagan beliefs happening. My main interest in that part of it really manifested and I can have Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow talk about this more, too, but basically there’s a character from that time frame. A real person, Tituba, was brought in as a slave from the Barbados. This bizarre situation occurred where Tituba sparked up the whole Salem witch trial situation by performing innocent rituals like the egg ritual in the film. She would read teenage girls their fortune by cracking an egg in a bowl of water. Very innocent, very sweet right?
Tituba was working for the minister’s wife, Madam Parris who was being sexually abused by her husband. He would come home late at night from the tavern in his pilgrim suit and pretty much rape his wife. The wife developed a fever from all the sexual abuse that she was facing and Tituba said, “You know what, I can heal you, I can put you in a bath,” and she did. She put her in a hot bath with herbs. She gave her a massage and she helped this woman break the fever. The teenage girls witnessed this and went hysterical and told the men in the town, “We saw this thing.” You can imagine that it was looked at as a lesbian act, an intersectional lesbian situation and it was just this crazy drama that popped up from that.
To me, it was everything about America is in the story of the witch trials and all the seeds of a lot of the problems we have in America today were planted back then and the story contains it.
Priscilla Frank: Jodie, I know some of your work outside of this project deals with tourism and colonialism and capitalism. Did you see that playing, a connection between your work and this project? Also, if you could just talk about Tituba in general and how you decided to go into playing her.
Jodie Lyn-Kee-C: I designed the costume that I wore in this film.
Priscilla Frank: It’s a beautiful dress.
Jodie Lyn-Kee-C: Thank you. It was actually shortly after I first performed it last year in March at a hotel, Roger Smith Hotel in the city here. In that initial performance I’m standing on top of the actual dining table in the hotel room. The main dining table with a picnic basket on top of my head filled with exotic fruit and here I am like a commodity.
I’m referencing the Jamaican farmer lady, the one that goes to the market, brings all the crops and that particular costume is very Jamaican f. It’s a very traditional folk costume. It’s based off of that and also the picnic pattern on the dress is a combination of that folk costume. It’s always a red and white checkered pattern in Jamaica and the picnic blanket, which I think is more a traditional outdoor pastime textile.
It’s a combination of these things. it’s American and it’s Caribbean, it’s all of that. Rebecca saw it, she invited me to participate in this film. That connection with Tituba being of Caribbean descent, myself of Caribbean descent and the fact that my piece is also based off my grandmothers. This tied it all together. I think I definitely related to Tituba’s role as being someone removed from her homeland in Barbados, brought here to work as a slave for the minister.
It was pretty easily to slip into this role and I really enjoyed it. There’s this connection that I’m working with ancestry in my own work and so is Rebecca, challenging her own ancestry and I thought that was very interesting.
Priscilla Frank: In the video you talk about an incident that happens in the hanging scene where the dudes that you’re working with try to hang you without a harness. Can you talk about that? Was that something that really happened or was that part of the show? Tell me about the weird vibes that went down during the shooting.
Rebecca Goyette: Yeah, maybe it would be good if Irena and I talk about that to because Irena witnessed it and she and I actually ended up writing an article about that. Later on she interviewed me for Art F City about this, but basically, one of the hanging pilgrims … All the hanging pilgrims were white male painters and one of them got really randy and drank … It was true, he drank a bottle of whisky and he thought it would be really cool if he could put the rope around my neck without my harness on and just do the scene where he really tightens the rope around my neck first, and then … well, we would put the harness on later.
I said, “No, I really can’t do that,” because that rope was like thirty feet long and suspended over a pipe and even if that rope got disturbed, that rope was going to fall off the pipe and then hang me because the velocity of it falling down could really hurt me. I thought, “This is a nightmare!” Jodie was there too. The three of us really can tell you about it, but who wants to start? Irena or Jodie? Maybe you can tell us more.
Irena Jurek: I think the strange thing was that I didn’t really know how to react because it did seem very abusive towards you. It was a very strange evening collectively because there were actual physical fights that broke out within the audience. It was very Jerry Springer in a way but not staged, it was very real.
Rebecca Goyette: Do you have anything to add Jodie?
Jodie Lyn-Kee-C: Not much. I just remember how terrified you were of that. I said, “Is he serious? He really wants you to not have the harness and do this action?” I was just kind of bewildered by it.
Rebecca Goyette: Yeah.
Jodie Lyn-Kee-C: He was not thinking.
Audience Member: Did you talk to him after that much?
Rebecca Goyette: No. Not really.
Irena Jurek: I think I was surprised because you were really putting your life at risk with or without the harness. That was just a strange thing to come across in an art project I think.
Rebecca Goyette: Now, all of a sudden, I’m improvising a hanging scene, maybe those two things didn’t go together. What’s crazy about the fights breaking out though was that to me it seemed like we did really re-enact history and there were even racial slurs that got slung around the room so it was like we were re-enacting hanging in America from the hangings of the witch trials, to the lynchings and it was just like a horrible, horrible nightmare.
I thought, “Whoa! We’re caught in a fantasy world gone awry here!” The image of a hanging makes people think about a lot of things. That’s what I really hadn’t anticipated. The emotional reaction of the audience. What would be your emotional reaction if you went to be an audience member to a hanging scene right? It’s not real in the theater, but, the emotions of that are real because it’s not cool.
Irena Jurek: It got very real that night. All that tension was between members of the audience having their own fights and then … Yeah, it was really intense. It’s funny because I went there with a couple of friends and we were all really traumatized and shocked. I felt really uncomfortable leaving that night. We thought it was going to be a pleasant evening of theater.
Rebecca Goyette: There were thirty people in the audience. I think the weirdest one was that I had a girlfriend who came all the way from Newark to see this and she actually was on a first date, and the date came before she did. She was locked out, she was knocking on the door while we were setting up to do the hanging and then the date got the cell phone text message from her, “Let me in.” She let her in and it was already this date who had come to meet her was embroiled in the drama and had seen this guy yelling at me. I’m glad to be a part of your dating history.
Priscilla Frank: Did they work out?
Rebecca Goyette: I am not sure, but they did have a wonderful date.
Priscilla Frank: Good, good. Did you have a question?
Audience Member: I was just going to say, in that hanging scene did you feel like there was a sexual element to the hanging part of it or more just in the retribution?
Rebecca Goyette: That’s a really interesting question. I think there could have been a really nice autoerotic asphyxiation kind of thing, if I had the right dude there. But then the guy went off and it was, believe me, this wasn’t the aggressor to whom you would say, “Take me. Take me over your shoulder and spank me.” It would be the person that one would look at and say, “No, you’re fucking wasted and you’re not hanging me. I don’t want to die tonight.” I wasn’t feeling any sexual vibes that day. No. There have been shoots that I do in my situation that people go home and do the funny stuff and I do to, but not that night.
Audience Member: You mentioned searching for the other nipples on your ancestor and the sexual element of the Salem witch trials. I thought that you were kind of floating that around in the ghost half of the film. You have these men in the first scene with their fake penises out. Is there possibly a form of male dominance thing as opposed our sexuality thing in the first part of it or maybe it’s not at all related?
Rebecca Goyette: Now I get more of what you’re saying, you were referring to the first scene. In terms of the eroticism of the scenes, there is definitely an erotic element for me and maybe if anyone else wants to answer that too? I shot the domination scenes of Jenny dominating men in Salem first and then it was my turn to dominate a man in Salem.
There were certain things that I felt were missing because she’s a Tantrica, she’s had tantric experience, but for this I asked her to be a dominatrix — that was a very different kind of vibe for her. She wasn’t into the aggression of dominating and then I thought to myself, “I’ve got to really make sure that I dominate here but I didn’t want it to be, per se, a sexual domination. I wanted it to be more of like a humiliation in a way.
I chose that day to get the dog collar, chain, dog bowl and the radishes. I got those organic radishes that are really spicy. It was like my mind was not in the right place. I imagined, “There’s a red carpet. Maybe I’ll get some cherries or some strawberries and I’ll make him eat it out of the dog bowl.” Then I realized, “Wait a minute, I don’t want to get that on the carpet because I’m only renting this place so I cannot have him eat that, but I want it to be red.” Then I thought, “Well, then it should be radishes. Yeah, because radishes will be harder to eat.”
That guy was tortured by that. I made him eat a whole bowl of radishes. I told him the safe word and he never used the safe word at that time. He just kept going and I thought, “This is fine. This is cool.” I was having fun. By the end he was like, “Whoa, I’ve done pet play before but I was always the dominating one and my girl was the dog.” He was like. “I feel uncomfortable,” and I said, “Well I’m sorry, but you didn’t use the safe word because you should have said ‘aliens’.”
Then I felt really vulnerable in the situation and thought to myself, “Shit, I don’t know if that went okay.” By the time that happened, I realized that I needed somebody to dominate who really wanted it. That’s when I found Brian Whitely. Then I got to have a lot more fun because he says, “Give it to me. Go as hard as you can on me when I’m the Trump.” And I tell him, “I can do that. I can’t wait. There isn’t a safe word either.”
Priscilla Frank: When did you start becoming interested in Trump? I know this isn’t your first piece involving him. When did you start working on your wonderful impersonation?
Brian Whitely: I’m a performance artist and I think as a performance artist you can look at him and say, “This guy is fascinating.” You don’t know it it’s an act or if it’s the truth. Some of the comments that come out of his mouth … It’s unlike any other type of presidential campaign.
He was a joke before then, being the Republican nominee now, it’s just become so real and everything you say you have to kind of question and think about and respond to. It’s like no other election of our time. Before you could analyze someone’s policy and find something small to respond to and get upset about, but it’s like every other day this guy is saying something, humiliating some person from some place. It’s unprecedented.
I was fascinated by him as a character, as a person, as a candidate, like everybody else was. I feel like a lot of have responded to him and as a performance artist, I can’t help but mimic things that I’m interested in and phrases and language and lingo and body gestures. I started acting some those things out and Rebecca and I started collaborating because I was asked to do a performance at White Box here in the city and I wanted to do Trump.
This was right around the time that Sarah Palin had come out and endorsed him. Rebecca, in her past history, has done Sarah Palin and as a Missile Dick Chick and has done a lot of performance around the elections. So it made perfect sense for me to collaborate with her at that point. That’s when we started working together and performing. During the filming it became a little more fetishy.
Audience Member: You did a project in-between, could you tell us about it?
Brian Whitely: I put a 500-lb tombstone for Donald Trump in Central Park on Easter Sunday which was a lot of fun.
Audience Member: How did you have a 500-lb tombstone erected?
Brian Whitely: That’s a very long story but it took a lot of logistics, people, a giant vehicle with a lift gate. A team of people basically to move it into place.
Audience Member: Did you expect when you were doing this the amount of backlash that you ended up receiving? I mean, publicity and excitement and also terrifying scrutiny?
Brian Whitely: I knew I was playing with dynamite. You could tell. When I first conceived of it and got some funding from some collectors to help commission the stone, he was still one of twelve Republican candidates. By the time the stone was done and I had picked a date and was ready to move it in, he was one of two candidates, he had a secret service detail and the stakes in the project were exponentially greater.
The night before placing it was really hard. I’m a father and I have kids and I’m like, “Should I do it?” I was thinking about my kids and I’m like, “I really don’t want them to have eight years of President Trump underneath them, I should do it for my kids.” That’s what kind of compelled me, pushed me to go ahead and do it. I’m fascinated by the man, but he’d be better as a sitcom show president. He’s not the real president, he’s like the one you watch and you’re like, “Oh that Donald,” but not for real.
Priscilla Frank: One of the really awesome parts of the video is the taco bowl scene. Would you like to talk about how that happened, where you got the taco bowl and why that was an important thing for you to shove in Trump’s face?
Dulce A. Romero: In Woodstock apparently it was really hard to find the perfect taco bowl. It took forever and I was like, “Come on I could just go back and do it myself. It’s not that hard. It’s really not that hard.” For me it was greatly satisfying because of all the racial slurs that he talks about like Mexicans being and this and that and my parents coming directly from Mexico. That directly, the things that he says and then all these people that are behind him. I was just so angry.
I was walking around with him in my Donald Trump costume and nobody was reacting. That got me even more angry. I was thinking, “Why is this so normal for everybody?” I know it’s happening but to walk around with somebody that looks like Donald Trump and nobody says anything and they’re just like, “Oh! This is just a normal day.” That got me infuriated. He didn’t have to say anything to me. We were having a normal conversation. I didn’t think I was ready to do it but as soon as that was handed to me I thought to myself, “I got this,” and just did it.
I thought, “This is for my parents, and this is for all my friends because what’s happening is just terrible.” Somebody needs to say something. I know a lot of people are saying things but I felt like I needed to do my part as well.
Priscilla Frank: Do you have a history in performance art? Was that something that was a challenge for you or were you surprised by how easy it felt to do it?
Dulce A. Romero: It was a challenge but I’ve done performance art before with Rebecca because I take one of her classes at Montclair State. It was funny because I didn’t think that I’d be good at it but I had several performances in her class. They were very effortless.
I’m not a performance artist, but I am a photographer and I just went for it. I think it was all this pent up rage and just being the one observing I had to speak up and take action and that was my action.
Rebecca Goyette’s video and multidisciplinary work reflects her complex view of sexuality, specifically the notion of fantasy from a feminist perspective. A penchant for the bizarre is apparent in her artistic practice, which involves embodying a broad range of characters in an ongoing series of psychosexual scenarios, acting as both director and protagonist. She works with an evolving ensemble cast who help facilitate scenarios that range from simulating nature to historic reenactment and outer space/time travel.
Goyette is represented by Freight + Volume Gallery. She has exhibited internationally with solo shows at Jersey City Museum, Jersey City, NJ and Galerie X, Istanbul, Turkey and group shows/performances at Whitney Museum of Art, Queens Museum of Art, Weisman Museum of Art, MN, Winkleman Gallery, NYC, Stux Gallery, NYC, Slag Gallery, NYC and Gallery Poulsen, Copenhagen, Denmark. Her work has been reviewed in The Village Voice, Vice Magazine, Hyperallergic, Art F City, the Huffington Post, NY Arts Magazine, among others. Goyette is also a lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art and has taught/lectured at Cooper Union, Montclair University, Eyebeam and The New School.
Rebecca Goyette’e Ghost Bitch USA and Brian Andrew Whiteley’s The Legacy Stone Project (The Donald Trump Tombstone) are currently part of the group show, Why I Want To Fuck Donald Trump:
October 13 to November 12, 2016
Joshua Liner Gallery
540 West 28th Street
New York, NY 10001