Interview with Rebecca Patek
By Abby King
I sat down with performance artist and recent Philadelphia transplant Rebecca Patek. A friend had recommended I look into her work because of a mutual interest in the intersection of pornography and feminism. Our conversation went beyond the provocative blurring of porn and art and delved into the problematic world of censorship, hatred, and gender power games. Rebecca opened up about being censored by MoMA PS1, defamed by another female artist, and being called a prostitute by the New York Times. Since our conversation spanned several hours, I’ll be popping into the dialogue below to paraphrase a few times. Enjoy.
Rebecca: You say the word porn and all hell breaks loose.
Abby: I did pornagrahic centered pieces for the first 3 months in grad school and until I left I was still seen as the porn lady. You get labeled very quickly
R: Yeah. Even if what you are doing isn’t really dealing with porn. It’s dealing with just sexuality... I fell into some weird category where like, Porn was like ‘That’s weird, that’s art.’ Art people were like, ‘That's porn.’ So, I don’t know. I fell into the internet hole.
R: I actually succeeded in making a short video that can’t exist anywhere on the internet. It got banned from Vimeo, from Pornhub too.
A: What's the video?
R: It’s so innocuous... It’s just me in a bathtub. The first shot I am sitting on the edge of the bathtub and I have underwear on. So there’s not even genitalia in it. It involves fake blood, that is obviously fake, like corn syrup and food coloring. It comes out of my underwear as if I’m having an intense menstruation.
R: It was a gusher of menstruation. Next shot I’m in the bathtub. I’m kind of rolling around in it. And that's it. I’m topless. I never take off my bottoms. That’s it. I’m sort of playing with the water and fake blood. It’s obviously fake. There’s whale songs to it. It’s funny... I wasn’t trying to be, ‘Let’s see if I can get myself censored.’ It basically looked like another naked art bath video. It was sort of a joke. And what was interesting is, I ended up getting pulled from Porn Hub. Then pulled from Vimeo.
A: When they pulled things did they tell you why?
R: With Pornhub I asked them...They said, ‘Any video with body fluid gets banned.’ Or flagged or whatever. Well, I don’t understand that because there’s tons of cum shots.
A:There’s cum everywhere.
R: They said menstrual blood is not a part of sex. I said, ‘Really?’ Number 1, women bleed sometimes not just during their period. Just, when you are ovulating you might bleed. How is that not part of sex? It comes out of your vagina. It's not like you poop it or pee it. It's a natural body fluid.
R: Also, I have a screenshot of when they said, “our community has flagged your video.” It’s super funny. Our community has flagged your video and then right above it it says, Teen Gang Bang and shows a girl with pigtails. Looking like she is getting beat up. Our sweet community has flagged your bathtub video because it's grotesque. But we condone rape or pedophilia, whatever.
A: Why did you want to put work up on Pornhub to begin with?
R: It was a joke. It’s funny because I was crossing this line between art and porn. So why don’t I just see what happens if I put my artwork up on a porn site? My porn on an artsite. I was flipping things deliberately. Pornhub profile had my artist statement. I branded myself sort of as this artsy girl on Pornhub. So I was putting things where they are absurd. When people would message me with a dick pic I would send them back a “thank you for your interest in my work.”
A: Did it drop off after that or did it continue?
R: I deleted my profile because I was so pissed off about the menstrual blood thing. Fuck Pornhub. They make it seem like an anything-can-go kind of place. There’s nothing violent [about my piece]. I could understand if that is so, but violence seems okay. The nature of these open formats, like Vimeo, Youtube and Pornhub, they are actually very curated. It’s not like they just censor the most extreme things. They censor my work usually. The randomness of it ends up being biased.
A: How did the Vimeo thing happen? Is it that same video?
R: I made another bathtub video. The Vimeo thing was even more exhausting for me because it ended being a thing. It started out political. Long Story.
To make her long story short, Rebecca created a fake performance at the venue New York Live Arts. She did so purposefully during the month of January, when the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) descends upon New York city and every performance artist is hustling to show their chops. She picked her imagined event to be held at New York Live Arts because of it’s conservative identity, a place she has performed in the past. She put her promo out on New Year’s and within days was picked up by events listings, gaining 30,000 views. The theater did not react as the artist expected. In rapid succession Rebecca’s Facebook was deleted and her Vimeo video taken down. Whether the two are connected or not when she tried to re-upload a pixelated version of the video in accordance to Vimeo’s conduct guidelines, which was the reason given to the artist, they in turn deleted her entire profile.
A: What was the poster [for the fake event]?
R: Just my vagina. It was called Fluid Spiral.
R: New York Live Arts is also uptight... So I thought they would see this and say ha ha ha. Oh Rebecca. That’s it. But they really didn’t like it. So, they...immediately flagged my Facebook event as harassment...
A: You were fucking with their public image.
R: And then they deleted my entire profile. My work. Everything, gone. Without notice. Overnight. That means everywhere it was embedded. That’s like 8 years of work. Gone.
So I wrote them. I don’t understand.
In Rebecca’s words, “they [Vimeo] basically said screw you.” Despite months of correspondence with a man named ‘X’- who also pretended to be a woman named ‘Melissa’ at one point after Rebecca called him on sexual harassment- nothing had been resolved. Her profile remained deleted until a women on Twitter with a lot more followers took to Rebecca’s cause. Within 6 hours of this person’s twitter post, her page went back up.
R: The only reason I was only able to get the attention of someone above him, around him, was because of this social media celebratory. I didn’t have that. So, that was upsetting. It was a victory but didn’t feel like a victory because they didn’t do that because it was right. They did it because his boss finally heard about it. If I hadn’t somehow gotten this woman on Twitter to tweet about it that wouldn't have happened.
A: You're not being censored because what you are doing is explicit. You are censored because you are a woman and you're exploring parts of your body that make people uncomfortable. It makes men and some women uncomfortable.
R: I’m also combining that with a particular thing. I’m not just showing sexuality and nudity. I’m doing it in this way that deliberately provokes people’s prejudices. It's deliberate, portraying a character that people love to hate. Who is very hateable. Who is annoying in this particular way. Also invoking this anxiety. All of this negative shit. But it's deliberate. Its part of the work. I think we all have these prejudices, we all have this hidden judgemental bullshit that we carry around with us that we project onto one another and what I am trying to do is put it out on the table and like unload it and look at it. All of this ugliness. Look at the way I feel, about other women, about myself. I don’t want to walk around with that burden. I don’t want to internalize it and carry it. I think we need to be honest. The same way we need to be honest about our racism in order to get rid of it. You can’t really get rid of it but to deal with it
A: To see it
R: With this particular kind of sexism it is so deep and so hard to pull out because it's combined with other kinds of hatred... Combined with sort of social biases, just the way we look at each other. The way we dehumanize each other
A: Porn and sex. Porn dehumanizes. But you are using sex as the spot where you deal with that. You are playing with things that happen everyday. How we look at each other, how we experience. But it's magnified in sexual situations, the power dynamic. You picked the most intense place you could explore those moments
R: It hits your emotional core. You instantly are like, “I feel very uncomfortable.” It does it to me too. That’s why I use it. It's not like I’m free of that
R: It's like a caricature of myself...I exaggerate aspects of my own personality that I am uncomfortable with. Or take the way I am seen. Like a caricature
A: That sounds like such an uncomfortable process to figure out how people see you
R: You know the process of making a clown character, it's sort of like that.
A: No, what's that?
R: Well, I’m not really a theater person but you look at your mannerisms, like the way you talk and you suss out what is funny there and you just exaggerate it to create the character version of yourself. So, yeah, it is a little bit like making fun of yourself. It is uncomfortable. Because you are watching yourself. With a critical eye. A parody of myself. Its masochistic. But it’s fun because it's also a way to get free. To be like, ‘That's okay.’ To liberate yourself. You don’t have to take yourself too seriously. I know the way I’m seen at least, from outside. And what social stereotypes that fits into as well...
A: We are put into boxes. Like, you and I are both blonde skinny white girls.
R: So, becoming that thing. Portraying that. And then fucking with it. It’s interesting.
A: So how do you play with that slippage? That's what I see it as... I don’t really know what's real and what's not. I don’t go into watching your videos thinking they are all a parody. You set up this world. You are in a room in a hotel. Its grounded in reality but then I start to question it. For me that's what makes me uncomfortable, not the sexual parts. It's more of just ‘What's going on?’
R: I think your right. That is what makes people uncomfortable. Its disorienting.
And it's uncomfortable for me too I guess. There is a lot of blurring
Rebecca was invited to perform at a Sunday series at MoMa PS1. Over time elements of her proposal were systematically rejected by the curator. Days before the performance was set to happen the curator texted Rebecca that he would not be on her panel, the sole remainder of the piece she has designed. Flipping back and forth over text messages, the curator would at one moment agree to be on the panel and the next suggest she find another participant. Ultimately, on the morning before her performance, he decided to bail. Rebecca responded to this censorship by creating a faux documentary on her experience which was displayed during her panel. The video piece is at parts truths but also fucked with what actually happened. It blurred lines of perception by mixing in real events with exaggerated falsehoods, like the look of awe on the fake curator’s face. The viewer is not clued in what is real or staged. I didn’t start to doubt the awkward exchange was a performance until a man playing security came onto the platform and engaged in sexual banter with Rebecca. The piece pushed closer and closer to an exaggeration of anxiety until it became apparent.
A: With the MoMA PS1 piece, what in that was real?
R: It was basically all real. All the text messages with the curator. All the drama around the “I’m going to do it, I’m not going to do it.” Censorship is real. It really did happen that a week before the show he was like, “No we are not doing your show. Come up with a new show.” I can’t come up with a new show. I have a show. That was real, that drama.
What was not real? Oh well the day of the show we texted and he said “I’ll be on your panel. Then I won’t be.” And finally he was like, “we will talk Sunday” and that morning he was like, “I’m not going to do it.” So I called up my friend Sam and asked him to come down and pretend to be a curator.
A: Yeah that’s the part I couldn’t tell because we never saw the curator. I thought, ‘Is he really reacting like that?’
R: Also, they didn’t print the title of the piece. Because my title was the list of rules they emailed me. They emailed me this stupid list of rules like no this, no that. I was like, ‘Alright fine. You are going to give me a list of rules, I’m going to print it as the title of my piece so the audience knows what happens.’ So, then I get onstage and there’s no title.
A: You wouldn’t think this would happen from something from MoMA PS1, it's not even MoMA.
R: It's like doing art in an office. It's so. I was enraged. I was onstage trying to control my anger because I couldn’t start yelling right now. I decided to not. They also said, do not disrespect the performer after me. They treated me like I was going to do something horrible. There was a woman performing after me, “so don’t disrespect her.”
A: Do you think that's a response to what happened before? I did a little internet digging and saw that someone came onstage during one of your performances and yelled at you.
R: Yeah, she interrupted my show and censored me. She interrupted the show and then she came back with a bullhorn and told the audience they should leave.
A: That's bullshit.
R: That’s New York
A: She was another performance artist so she used the opportunity to make my show her show. It was the first time anyone from Europe was in the audience. It was calculated, opportunistic. And then she rationalized it. Hid her true agenda by saying she was protesting the work.
You don’t protest the work by interrupting it. You choose to protest it when there is an international curator in the audience. And then she went on for a year. Online. And bullied me basically. She went on twitter, on Facebook, and said this girl is horrible and should, her work should not be shown. It had an effect because she was more famous than me. It did have an effect. Those curators didn’t see the show.
A: You were doing artwork about rape culture or dealing with that. You are dealing with something that women should be more bonded, or have a common stance on.
R: I don’t really think she was offended... She just wanted to get attention. She had to rationalize it. To make an argument. So I’m some annoying white chick. It’s kind of funny because that is what I play.
A: That’s another slippage
R: “You shouldn’t be talking about being raped because you are white and annoying.” First of all she is white. Also what, I don't get it? But it was slippage because she was triggered into hating me in exactly the way I was seeking and showing. The piece was successful. Very successful. She was like, “she is a fucking annoying white bitch” and I’m like, “yeah”. That’s what I’m trying to invoke. That hatred that we have.
It’s there, it’s real. My Mom always says, ‘The layer of civility is very thin in society. Very thin layer of civility.’ Whatever it is that keeps that in place, it only takes a little bit of your this, your that. Then, I want to kill you.
A: Even with the woman who attacked you. Like you said. There’s these two women trying to create a space and platform for yourself, you are fighting for resources.
R: The real story is she felt threatened about me invading her space in the performance world because there isn’t a lot of resources. “I don’t want her going to Europe.” So, she nipped that in the bud. She’s threatened by other women. That’s fucked up and sad. That's the culture I’m presenting. Because I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to be threatened by other women.
A: That's why we have people like Trump. Because there’s no organization. It's weird infighting
R: That's how you keep people oppressed
R: I looked her up and she has only gone after female artists. She has never attacked a male artist or a male run institution. It’s really sad. And then people hold that up as rebellious or subversive. Really, if you fight institutions, you get censored. They don’t fight you, they shut you down. Delete delete.
A: They have the power
A: What was the New York Times responding to when they called you a prostitute?
I made a show that was about so many things that were happening. A few sex scenes in it. Sex scenes were with men I didn’t know. It was clear that I didn’t really know them so it seemed like random hook ups.
A: So, you had live sex with them?
R: No. It was just audio. It wasn’t even in the show.
A: Oh, I thought you had sex in the show.
R: No, the review was insane. The show was an hour long. But they [NYTimes] focused on a five minute sex scene. Just audio of it. It was a male dancer dancing to it. In it was just sex with a guy who was older and that's it. It was unclear. So, the review comes out and it says: Rebecca Patek supports herself as a prostitute. Like seriously? What the fuck. This is in print now. I thought that was the kind of thing you would fact check it or I would have to be specifically saying that in the work.
A: You also use your body. You make yourself the source of it. I think that's a really important distinction.
R: If you are going to do something like that you need to use yourself, put yourself out like that.
A: I think it's really important that you do that. You use other performers like males but the spotlight, this character, this sexual experience is anchored in your body. For another person to then attack you and take this thing that you’ve made and use it, is wrong
R: Because she is a bully. She is a sadist. For her it's about being violent to other people
A: That's a cowardly thing.
R: It is, it’s exceptionally cowardly. It’s supported by the community. That's ultimately what made me say, fuck you. I have values. On some level that sadistic behavior. I’m not going to sign onto that, onto bullying and harassment. What happened is not right. There was nothing okay about it. I had to leave. I learned a lot. On the flip side. I don't have any expectations about humans and what they are capable of.
A: It sounds like you are in hibernation mode. Dealing with what you experienced.
R: Yeah. I don’t want to go back to that community. I can’t. I had offers but I couldn't do shows after that. In that same community. How can I perform in front of people that supported that? I couldn’t do it.
A: Even something small. A social microaggression makes you not want to be around those people. Because they were complacent with it.
R: It's a nightmare. It’s like let's put this on a stage. Let’s give this person a show. Let’s interview them.
R: When people read that shit and believe that. ‘Yeah, Rebecca is a fucking cunt.’ And they don’t even know you. I had people commenting on my stuff. I had people comment on boring pieces saying, “You’re a fucking piece of shit” She started a movement.
A: I hate that what you did, playing with people’s hate, the backlash of it. You were right but then you had to deal with it.
R: I never thought it was going to go that far. I thought people would be like, ‘Maybe, we shouldn’t publish things about other people’s rape.’ I thought that would be edited. Reading that.
A: What? Reading what?
R: She published an interview with the Brooklyn Rail where she called me a horrible artist and said, “I don’t think she was raped. I think she was lying.” She just called me names and said I was making up this thing.
A: So, the piece she interrupted was about your personal rape?
R: Yeah. So, I had to read that. And now that's out, the story, it was a combination of two stories I had meshed together. A sexual assault I had endured and another story of a man who was HIV positive that I was working with, his story. I superimposed them together. That was the piece. I definitely played with the white bitch stereotype and brought that out. But the content was real. The story was real.
A: What did she have to protest about?
R: Because in the piece I was using the shit that people had said to me when I told them I was assaulted. I was using quotes from family members. And from my co-worker that they actually said. So it was definitely not the usual rape story. I mean, when that happens to you it is not how it is in movies. It is not clear.
First of all, when the police came, it happened in the doorway in my apartment building. My front hallway. The police came I felt like they were interrogating me. I didn’t act the way I felt I was going to act. I didn’t understand how I acted. Now looking back I don’t understand why I acted that way. I asked them to leave. I begged them to leave. Just leave me alone. I was screaming. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh I’m so glad you’re here.’
A: Yeah, because you had just been violated.
R: I was belligerent. With them. I was like, ‘What the fuck? You are out of your head. You aren’t acting rationally.’ I just wanted them to leave, leave, leave me alone. I felt like they were interrogating me. I felt like they were looking at me like I was a crackhead. All this stuff. That they were looking at me. So, I put all that in the piece
And then she used that to say I was a misogynist.
A: That's fucked up.
R: Yeah. And then she published it. And those people don’t know me. They don’t know the piece, the people who published that. “Okay, let’s publish exactly what she said.” That’s what happens. So, the piece was not easy to watch. It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t how you are used to hearing women talk. But it was real.
A: We don’t need nice pretty bows on our rape culture.
R:The way you are used to hearing about rape in art. I was fucking with that, totally. That’s not honest. The honest way is you see me. When I got in the detective's car I was wearing a miniskirt and I thought about it.
A: I get sexually harassed everyday and I’ve had people say, “Well, you dress a certain way.”
R: The reality, part of your head is like, ‘Yeah I do.’ We have this inner thing. You’re like fuck you but part of me is also like, ‘Did I really fight him?’ You start to question what happened.
.R: It’s never really that simple. You can’t explain it. Why didn’t I cooperate with the police?
A: Yeah. Why didn’t we play the role we were supposed to?
R: That’s what they said to me. It was a stranger and I had my key in the door and when I turned the key he grabbed me from behind and pushed me inside and assaulted me in the doorway. So this is a situation with not a lot of grey area. Still the policeman was like, ‘I wish that young man had just asked you for your number instead of doing that.’ The detective was an older man and I think he was just making conversation, make it less awkward. At the time I was just like, ‘Yeah, I wish that he had just asked me for my phone number.’ I wasn’t in that mindset. It was normal to violate someone.
Because of the type of work I had been doing I felt like I had it coming
A: You were doing the more sexualized stuff before?
R: I was stripping and I think when that happened I took it as my pussy is available. I remember just feeling like anyone could grab me. After that happened I took it like I’m disgusting, trash. I’m just one of those girls who is a throwaway. Do whatever to. Because I’m a slut. That's how I felt.
I don’t feel that way now.
A: So I could see if you are embodying a character that is this sexual thing, or you're playing on those themes and then you get sexually assaulted... I could see how those things would muddle. I don’t know how you deal with creating characters that are reflections of yourself and then you are attacked for those reflections.
R: It gets more and more complicated.
I am definitely now very much against censorship. It always affects the wrong people. I don’t understand the harm it is doing.
A: It sounds like it, the lack of transparency is really troubling
R: I always want to know why. You never find out.
A: It's been years since I used pornography as a subject matter. I do feel like I was using it for awhile. In grad school when I used pornography people were like, “this is so boring” but it still bothered them.
R: It's’ so interesting that you worked with it. It really gets at people. It triggers people in many ways. It’s like fucking with something.