‘American Reflexxx’: Performance Art Video Uncovers Shocking, Violent Dehumanization

A disturbing video has begun to make the rounds on Facebook. Titled “American Reflexxx,” it’s the work of performance artists Signe Pierce and Alli Coates, and it involves the former walking through a city while the latter films her. The result is 14 minutes of deeply unsettling footage.

There have been several of these “a woman walks through a hostile environment” videos of late. Last year, there was the Hollaback video about walking in NYC as a woman, which was praised to the rafters and then hit with an almighty backlash in the space of about eight hours. A couple of weeks later, it was followed by the oh-so-21st-century spectacle of a social media bro posting a video about the treatment of an apparently drunk woman on Hollywood Boulevard, and sitting back to watch the clickzzz come in (that video later turned out to be a hoax, because of course it did).

“American Reflexxx” — which predates both of those videos but only appeared on YouTube this month — starts from the same place: a camera following a woman as she walks through a public space, recording the reactions of the members of the public she encounters. In this case, the woman is Pierce and the space is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Pierce certainly cuts a striking figure. She’s wearing a skimpy blue dress and neon yellow heels, and most strikingly, her face is entirely covered by a reflective mask. She’s also of apparently indeterminate gender; much of the video involves passersby trying to work out if she’s a cisgender man or woman, or a trans woman, or what. (I actually have no idea what Pierce’s gender identity is, which is kind of the point.)

The results are, as one might expect, pretty depressing. People seem genuinely terrified by her — several times groups of people scatter as she walks toward them, and at one point a girl shouts, “Oh hell no, don’t walk this way!” As the film progresses, the reactions become more violent — she has water thrown on her, someone attempts to trip her, and eventually she is pushed head-first into the pavement. Notably, all the acts of violence against her are carried out by women. The film ends with a sort of survey of her body, lingering on the blood streaming from the knee she gashed open when she hit the ground.

Beyond the obvious — the fact that the simple spectacle of a tall woman wearing a tight blue dress and a weird mask is enough to send Myrtle Beach, South Carolina into a terrifying frenzy — the most discomfiting aspect of “American Reflexxx” is the way it illustrates how quick people are to feel threatened by someone they deem to be unlike them, and to channel that fear into a justification for violence. Dehumanization is often a prelude to violence — it’s easier to convince yourself that someone deserves to be hurt if you convince yourself that they’re somehow less than human. That’s exactly what happens here — from the initial cries of “Is that a man?” and “It’s a shim!” to the final push, the crowd moves through stages of seeing Pierce as a curiosity, then an object of fun, and then something to be actively provoked.

Each step seems to deny some portion of her humanity, and by the end it’s like watching people discover an animal they’ve never seen before — some of them are fascinated, and some of them just want to poke it with a stick to see what it’ll do. In this respect, “American Reflexxx” is reminiscent of Marina Abramovic’s famous Rhythm 0 project, where she stood motionless by a selection of objects with which the public could do whatever they desired. As with this performance, Rhythm 0 started with curiosity and ended with violence: “What I learned,” Abramovic said later, “was that if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.”

In this case, the process is helped by the fact that Pierce is wearing a mask. She is literally faceless; anyone looking at her face sees only their own visage staring back at them. The fact that her face is a mirror means that it literally reflects their own aggression back at them. Pierce does nothing to provoke anyone — she gyrates in a suggestive way at times, but mostly she just walks. To the people who harass her, though, her very existence seems to be an act of aggression. So it goes with pretty much any minority or oppressed group, of course — mere visibility is enough to provoke violence.

As a piece of documentary filmmaking, “American Reflexxx” isn’t perfect. I suspect people are going to talk about the racial implications of this video, in the respect that Pierce is tall, blonde, and white, and the area through which she’s walking seems to contain a disproportionate number of people of color — though it’s worth pointing out that her most aggressive assailant is a white woman. Anything where the camera is so obviously part of the spectacle, too, is going to suffer in recording “natural” reactions; it’s unclear what might have happened had Coates not been there with the camera, or not been so prominent. One can imagine that it might well have been worse.

But as a piece of art, it works disconcertingly, frighteningly well. (Indeed, what transpired seems to have taken the filmmakers aback, too. The video’s YouTube description says, “The pair agreed not to communicate until the experiment was completed, but never anticipated the horror that would unfold in under an hour.”) Under an hour for blood to be drawn, for a hate crime — because, let’s be honest, that’s exactly what attacking someone from behind for dressing provocatively or (maybe) being trans is — to be committed. As ever in human society, violence and intolerance are very, very close to the surface.