Image by Phil Jasen
There are few lawyer/performance artists in the world but, for Vanessa Place, practicing both is a logical marriage. Each relies on the sculpting of language, whether representing indigent sex offenders, or reciting relentless, uncomfortable work to a mortified audience.TRANSCRIPT
Vanessa Place – Attorney, Artist
When I was very little, maybe four or five, I read the children’s version of the Greek mythologies. And quickly the Greek gods became my favorite gods and I decided that if I was going to believe in a God, I would prefer to believe in those.
I think I’ve named my first pet Hermes after the Greek messenger god, who is also the God of thieves and lawyers. The thing I loved about the Greek gods were that they were extra human. They were gods, they were mortal and all of that, but they had all of the characteristics and all the foibles of human beings. They would get angry, they would get jealous, they would cheat, they would steal, they would lie. There was this notion of this is all somehow wonderful, wonderful in part because it just is.
It’s inescapable. We can be better. We can have our better days, our worse days. We can have our better representatives of our species, our worst representatives of our species, but the point is is that we are all of these things. We have to on some level accept that. Not just accept it as well, I guess this is unfortunately the way it is, but maybe it’s part of the thing itself.
The pyramids had a body count. Cathedrals have a body count. In our aspirations towards a kind of magnificence, towards a kind of transcendence of ourselves. We also excel in hurting people.
My very first job as a lawyer was, I actually was a prosecutor for a brief period of time for about a year or so, and I did a lot of trial work in that capacity. The thing was was that I ended up being very uncomfortable with… I don’t know what to call it, zeal? On the part of some police officers and some prosecutors. The disclaimer is not all and there’s very ethical prosecutors and very ethical police officers, but with certain ones I would see a bit too much happiness in really going after the bad guys or the scumbags.
The humanity of the defendant or the person who was accused was really just not acknowledged at all. And one of the things that I think upset me the most, which is when I just decided I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to represent the state, was that I had a case that involved taking nude photos of underage girls. The defendant was a commercial photographer. He had gotten out on bail. I was with the detective and the detective was supposed to be getting his cameras back from the property room to return them to this man so that he could work.
I saw the detective take the box of cameras out and the man’s watching. He’s waiting on the other side to get these cameras and the detective dropped the box in front of him, smashing a number of the cameras and it was just so petty and so gratuitous and so it’s such an abusive power. It really made me see that whatever, so to speak, the “criminal” does, the reason why the state’s bringing them to court is because they’re a criminal. They’ve broken the law.
That’s kind of part of the job is to break the law, but that’s not part of the police officer job. That’s not part of the prosecutor job. When those kinds of incidents started happening, that was when I thought, I want to represent the criminal because at least he’s doing his job. That’s when basically applied to start working in defense.
My name’s Vanessa Place. I’m a criminal defense attorney specializing in representing poor sex offenders on appeal. But that sounds a little bit like a sympathetic moment. The poor sex offenders on appeal, but mostly, I mean that they’re indigent. It really did occur to me at some point that these were the clients, these were the defendants, no one liked, no one cared about, nobody had any empathy for.
Versus, take somebody who, for example, was in a gang or is a gang and they shoot someone. On some level, people understand that that might happen if you’re in a gang. This isn’t monstrous behavior. It’s not outside the realm of comprehension. We can disapprove of it or whatever, but we understand that to cultural fact.
With sex offenses, we want to treat it like a robbery or some other kind of violence legally, but it comes from an entirely different organization for the individual. I wouldn’t say that I became okay with it, but I stopped trying to fit it into that same frame of understanding.
I don’t understand it, but I understand that it is. I hate having clients I think are innocent. Generally speaking and statistically I’m going to lose, and when you have a client that you think is innocent and you know the chances are you’re going to lose, it’s a really terrible feeling. There’s nothing worse than having an innocent client. I think if I was a trial attorney, maybe I’d be welcome to that a bit more, but as an appellate attorney, I just want them all guilty.
I had a client once where he confessed to the police that it was kind of a date rape situation and he had started to have sex with this girl. She had told him to stop and he had stopped. Then she said, “Oh, you might as well finish. I don’t care.” So he did. And what he didn’t really realize was that the way he was describing it, he essentially confessed to raping her. He knew at that point she didn’t want to. That was not really concent, but in his mind he was so to speak, playing by the rules.
That person doesn’t either know or doesn’t understand the the lack of consent because oftentimes a woman will freeze because she’s afraid, she’ll be afraid to say no. So if you’ve got a woman who’s afraid to say no, and maybe rightly so, say a date rape situation, she doesn’t really know the person that well. So you have a woman who’s trying to protect herself by not antagonizing the man. You have a man who basically believes well if she didn’t want to do it, she would have said no.
And so I look at that particular person and I think, one, this is not the person I’m afraid of. I’m not afraid of this person as a rapist. Two, they’re going to have to be a registered sex offender for the rest of their life once they got out of prison? Three, I don’t know. I don’t think he’s guilty in a moral way, but he is legally.
I would say about 98 to 99% of my clients are male. I have had innumerable cases where I have no doubt the woman was raped. She had non consensual sex. I also have no doubt that the defendant didn’t rape her in the sense that he honestly does not believe that he had non consensual sex. So right there you have the same event that’s producing two different conclusions as to what that is.
It’s a Venn diagram. The fact is there was sex, that we understand the consent portion. Well, who do you believe? And then the law builds on this by adding other language, by promulgating a set of rules. For the lay public’s understanding, they think the laws, the sort of model that’s like a cathedral or something, you can go inside and stuff. Makes sense. You put it in the machine and it comes out legible.
We bring to the law goo that doesn’t make sense, and sort of are brutal goo and what the law is supposed to do is intervene and turn all this go into a symbolic register in which things are slotted into right order and justice distributed appropriately. And even if we’re going to be really cynical about this and say, well, we understand that never happens. We still operate under that fantasy, but it’s never going to be satisfying and we’re always going to be left still holding this goo.
No more, no more lines on the luminescence of light of whatever variation. No more elegies of youth or age. No polyglottal ventriloquism, no more songs of raw emotion forever overcooked. No more the wisdom of banality, which should stay overlooked.
Yeah. Talk a little bit about your art practice. That started after you were a criminal defense attorney it sounds like.
Basically, yeah. I’m a bit of a strange entity in the sense that there’s not really a noun for what I do.[No more verbs of embroidery, no more unintentional fallacy. No more metaphor. No more simile. Let the thing be concretely.]
It’s not technically speaking performance art exactly. It’s not poetry exactly. I see myself as an artist first, but primarily I would say I see myself as somebody who works with language.[No more politics put politically, let the thing be concretely. No more conditional said conditionally. Let the thing be already.]
The Guilt Project is a nonfiction book that I wrote about my work representing sex offenders.[No more death without dying.]
I took 15 iconic feminist texts and got rid of all references to women’s, they’re only about men. I published only the racist portions of Gone with the Wind, as Gone with the Wind by Vanessa Place.[Interiority of that unnatural.]
All I do is move language around spaces.[No more reversal of grammar as if emphasis…]
Different kinds of spaces to different kinds of effects.[No more nature, less natural, no more impiety on bended knee.]
So I move it around in a courtroom and it does one thing. I move it around in a museum. It does something else.[No more [French] No more retinal poetry.]
Okay, let’s talk about rape jokes.
There was a standup comic who basically was heckled or something by a woman while he’s performing and he said something like, “Well, wouldn’t it be funny if she was gang raped right now?” That started this entire, again on Twitter, and then picked up by mass media and things about rape jokes.
Speaker 3: but is rape something that comedians can have a joke about and didn’t you say-
Speaker 4: Rape is not a laughing matter.
Speaker 6: I think people should be able to make jokes about whatever they want.
Speaker 7: If you’re going to make a joke about rape, you got to be careful, right?
Speaker 8: You’re going to have to take away every single thing that people have been victimized from and take it out of the vocabulary and the vernacular of comedy then because then everything. Like I’ve been beat up before, have you been beat up? You ever.
Speaker 9: I’ve been robbed with a gun. That’s way worse than getting raped.
Speaker 8: Yeah, Brian’s been robbed the gun and he was…
Vanessa Place: When that started happening, I started getting interested in it and thinking about, well, rape jokes must be funny in the sense that they keep being told. They may not be funny to everyone, but they are funny. Why are they funny? What is it about this particular genre of joke that carries it forward always?
Freud actually said the joke was basically the discharged of repressed hostility, usually sexual or obscene, so it’s a bit of violence, but it’s a sublimated bit of violence. And I was thinking about it, I was thinking, well then the perfect joke is rape joke. What I did start to see is yeah, there’s a formal structure to it, which obvious to stand up comics and all of that.
But also sort of appealed to the poets still in me of how do I figure out what this formal structure is and then what could I do with it? I have this body, so what happens if I get up and I tell not one rape joke, not two rape jokes, but 240 rape jokes.
Do you mind reading a couple?
I’d have to get..
Let’s see. Problem is that I really like a lot of these jokes, which is very not necessarily an attractive quality. I was always told that I can’t rape girls, but it’s actually super easy. It used to be afraid of pretty girls until I realized they were far more afraid of me. Pedophiles are fucking immature assholes.
I was disgusted to hear a man on a bus tell a co-worker, “You’re too ugly to be raped.” The poor girl was visibly shaken by his hateful, misogynistic jibe. To do my good deed for the day and make amends for male pigs everywhere, I decided to prove him wrong.
As a judge, I’m constantly faced with the same dilemma. The black guy obviously did it, but then again, the woman is always wrong. They say that 90% of people are raped by someone they knew, but shouldn’t that really just be someone they thought they knew?
The thing I hate most about rape is that a week later you have to sit there and pretend you’ve never seen her before. A man and a little girl are walking in the woods late one dark and stormy night. “I’m scared,” says the little girl, “You’re scared,” says the man, “I have to walk back alone.”
After I was convicted of pedophilia, my wife said, “I think you should be the one to tell the children.” I replied. “They already know.”
I’ll be standing at the front of the stage. There’ll be a mic on a stand that’s capturing my boys. The sound will be coming from monitors in the front of the audience. When I speak, I speak very evenly and I’m reading from an obvious text. They’re not presented like stand up. I’m not pretending these things are just coming to me or it’s conversational.
And then about two thirds of the way through the performance, I’ll step back the sound source shifts to headset mic that I’ve been wearing. I have another set of monitors behind the audience.
I followed a woman through a park last night. As I got closer, she started running, so I ran after her. When I finally caught her, I said, “Do you have a cigarette?” “Thank God,” she said, “I thought you were going to rape me.” “Right,” I said, “the cigarette is for after.”
This voice is coming, not from me, but from behind them. And so it enacts that shift when they realize that I’m not really the performance, they’re really the performance, and they have to make decisions about how they’re going to perform. I didn’t want to laugh at all and then I did, or I thought rape jokes were kind of fun and then suddenly I became kind of repulsed or sad or just started really liking the sound of the voice.
They say two wrongs don’t make a right. On the other hand, I rape pedophiles.
What’s happening here? Exactly. Why am I here? Why am I staying here? This is intolerable.
Something about Christmas makes me feel like a little boy or a little girl. Wait a minute. Why is the guy next to me laughing?
People who are afraid of pedophiles just need to grow up.
Wait, okay. That was kind of funny and that’s just wrong.
Little Johnny was taking confession and he told the priest he was having impure thoughts… The girl says, “You look familiar.” I just asked, “Have you been raped before…” The priest nodded and said, “Yes, Johnny…”
That’s the thing about pedophile jokes. They never get old. Look at the two beautiful brothers you have… There is no I in you, yeah. Whether you’re a Christian, Muslim or Jew, one thing is true, all gods rape.
I think I might have written that one.
Like any other chunk of language., You start working with stuff and then you start seeing it and then it becomes, yeah, it became kind of can I do this? And it was satisfying to actually write a joke, but then also I felt in some ways it would be a bit easy to distance myself if I said, “Well, all of this is appropriated, my hands are clean. I just, I’m not participating. I’m just the dummy in this ventriloquist’s act.” And I thought, but if I write a couple, then I’m also, my hands are also dirty, so I should do that as well.
Has anyone ever walked out or the performance?
People always walk out of my performances. It’s, yeah, which is great, fine. They’ve made a decision that their desire not to hear something or their desire to be faithful to a different conception of themselves is greater than their desire to sit in an art performance. That’s a great choice. This is their privilege. This is the difference. I mean, at one point somebody said, “Well, rape jokes are like being raped.” And I said, “No, you can walk out of a joke.”
So, what about this interview? What if someone turns off this interview because they don’t want… Because they just can’t sit with it?
It’s audience participation. That’s what a performance should be in part. And so turn it off, change the channel, condemn it. It’s not that it doesn’t matter. It obviously matters to you and that’s the whole point.
Speaker 10: Has anybody come up to you afterward and told you their criticisms or…
Or that they are fact that they’re like a sexual assault survivor?
Vanessa: Sure. I mean I did a performance, not of the jokes piece, but a different piece. There was a woman in the audience who became hysterical and laughed and apparently was in the toilet for two hours being hysterical, and the next day it was a part of a conference, and the next day she came up to me and said, “How do you feel about doing that to me?” And I said, “Well, I didn’t do anything to you.” I said, “I presented language and a context of a performance, and you had a really profound emotional response to that.”
Speaker 10: How did you feel when she’s tying you this, put me through this experience, did you feel bad?
Vanessa: This is going to sound very cruel, but yes, there are people who will be hurt, but there’s also people who will have a very different experience. Maybe I just have a kind of dumb fidelity to thinking these are things that are significant, like my law work is significant. When I’m making an argument that, for example, I think it’s actually a painful argument to somebody that minimizes what they went through or something like that. Well, that’s part of what happens in remaining faithful to the thing that I want to do. Or the thing that that the work wants to do.
In the rape jokes performance, it’s not, oh, I’m going to do this piece so that you come out with a new agenda for social change. There’s better places to do that. It’s about something else. It’s about art. It’s about violence and art and beauty and art and desire and all these things. So is it worth it? Yeah, I think it’s worth it. She may not.
Art is a representation of its world, not a prescription of how the world should be or a fantasy about how the world should be. It is about the world in which it’s made. The truth is that I, or the truth is, the truth as I see it, is that we’re a violent creature. There’s something about us that’s brutal. There’s a lot of utopianism, so this sense of there’s some future in which we will be past all of this. It will be better, and yes, it can feel very nice to again, take a brave stance against slavery or think rape is bad.
I mean, I heard somebody last night say something like, we should do away with violence and you just start laughing. It’s like we love violence. We’re never going to do away with violence. I don’t believe there’s a way out, and what I want more is what do we do in this insufferable present? We don’t have the answers.
I’m performing something or making an object or whatever it is I’m doing that’s representing my culture. I have a different kind of obligation not to sanitize it or make it a utopia, but to make it be what it is.
And the transgressiveness of the work, is that something that that you get off on?
I get off, I mean transgression is sort of a genre that I’m not that interested in, but what I think fascinates me is the part where people are shocked by themselves. That’s very interesting to me. I’m not looking to elicit any particular reaction. I’m just looking to create an event in which people will have some sort of response of various visceral degrees. I’m not there to lead you to a better place. I’m there to give you a situation.
So this was a performance and then you adapted it into a book. And can you tell me what that process was like with the publishing house?
Yeah, and it was interesting, there were a couple of different things that happen, but one was that there were some people at the house that didn’t want to work on the book, and so I was brought to the publishing house to speak to these various staff members. During the conversation, one woman said to me, “Well, I would feel more comfortable if you identified somehow with this. I mean your subjectivity or what’s stake only goes so far. Like if you said that you had been a victim of sexual violence, if you said, ‘Yes, this happened to me, then I would feel more comfortable with this material.'”
And I said, “Well, so it would make you feel better to know I’d been raped. Would you feel better if I was raped by my father? Would you feel better if I was raped by three strangers? How much better would you feel if I had been raped and beaten? What does it take in terms of mind victimization to make you comfortable?”
I remember going to see Tosca. Sondra Radvanovsky was playing Tosca. I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t have any of that, but suddenly I was weeping. I didn’t consent to that and it had a profound emotional impact. I don’t feel bad, just like, I don’t think Radvanovsky would have felt bad that she made me cry.
It’s the great beauty of that kind of transcendence. Sometimes it’s pleasure, you start laughing. Sometimes it’s very profound and upsetting and you cry or you want to vomit or something like that, but there’s something that’s disturbed the way I have been until now.
What’s not interesting to me at all is when I go into an art situation or any situation and people walk out feeling exactly the same as they did when they walked in, like something should shift. And even if it’s a shift of, I saw something in myself I didn’t want to see, I saw something in myself I didn’t know it was there. That means the work has worked. [inaudible]
Okay. Yeah. Okay. [inaudible] I’m just thinking. I don’t know, where I just don’t want to repeat the conversation that we’ve been having, but I’m kind of like, can’t you get to that feeling in a different way?
I don’t know. I mean, some people have a lot of cats. I don’t have a lot of cats, so I do other things.
Nick van der Kolk, Host and Director
Mooj Zadie, Producer
Carter Conley, Producer
Julia DeWitt, Producer
Steven Jackson, Producer
Phil Dmochowski, Managing Producer
Original score by Steven Jackson.