Darling Try Me
My ex-boyfriend is making art about our abusive relationship
Artists may self-objectify if not demote themselves to being their own “muse”. This is especially true for performance artists. I wish I had a solo exhibition for every time another artist has told me “you’re my muse,” literally verbatim, or has asked to photograph me with no compensation. Every artist should be their own muse instead of bothering anyone else: B.Y.O.M. (be your own muse). We only know our own truths.
Sometimes self-objectification is political, sometimes it’s personal. Maybe it becomes interpersonal: I objectify myself and so you feel as though you’re allowed to objectify me, too. I thought that sort of relationship was chill to engage with for a second, but in retrospect: nah. It was messed up. Even when I was self-aware enough to objectify myself first, feeling stuck as somebody’s muse wasn’t good for my already-low self-esteem. Some people are “into that sort of thing,” but outside of a controlled environment, simple awareness of uneven power dynamics isn’t enough safety. When imbalanced power dynamics are being playfully activated within a controlled environment, knowing where to draw the line should be as easy as speaking your mind. If you’re too scared to pipe up, that’s a red flag that reads “you should probably leave.”
From my experience and studies, I’ll say women, especially young women, self-objectify. Sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s personal, but much of the time no other options are offered to us. Embody the stereotype or do nothing. From what I’ve gathered, it’s only gotten worse. A lot of people make art about it. Sometimes my art is about it. I could go on. Basically, self-objectification is a depraved survival mechanism that is rewarding to perform and exploit.
Camille Claudel (1864–1943) was a multi-disciplinary fine artist more famously known as Auguste Rodin’s muse, collaborator, and lover. At 19, she was Rodin’s live-in assistant, modeling for Gates of Hell and helping him sculpt hands and feet for the Burghers of Calais, which I guess is when he gave in. Rodin already had twenty-four years on her, as well as a baby and a pre-existing bond with another woman, Rose Beuret. Feelings were hurt. Rodin kept poor Camille Claudel around as a trophy side piece and collaborator for fifteen years. During the period he had her talented assistance and full attention, he was at the most productive point in his career. She was at her least productive point. Rodin rented out a small apartment in Paris where the two could stay together while he kept his wife and son at his primary residence around the block. After Rodin and Claudel broke up, she made a ton of artwork, which she would create obsessively and then destroy. Soon after, her family committed her into an asylum, where she spent the last thirty years of her life.
Everything I’ve read about Camille Claudel’s work centers Rodin and their love affair as its main reference. The first I ever heard of Camille Claudel was when I walked past that Parisian love shack last summer; a tour guide pointed it out to my class before giving me the information I’m recounting here. I realized then that I had to let go of one of my primary relationships for my own growth and mental health. I didn’t want to become Camille Claudel. I wasn't about to institutionalize myself for some man who wore a dolphin mascot uniform offering "Free Bouncy Rides," on his lap in the subway station for ... I don't know how long it was – probably like every day for six months. So I told ex-boyfriend Nate Hill about Claudel and Rodin in a break up email I spent hours composing from my dorm. It was the beginning of the end. I don't even know where to start.
I recently visited Nate’s new website for the first time in months, Sociopath.online, to check in on his new NSFW performance Darling Try Me in which he gets you (a woman) alone, wears nothing but a paper bag over his head, and masturbates while he tells you that he cheated on his pregnant wife with a 20-year-old girl (hi mom). He “fell in love” and now he’s attempting to reconcile. Once he’s confessed, he gives you three options: have sex with him, do anything torturous to his dick, or do nothing. I guess I had the same three options, too. Nobody is really powerless – except when they relinquish personal agency in codependence, or suffer from a disease known as addiction: forgetting the bigger picture, losing sight of the core values of their identity, disrespecting themselves and everyone around them. I know the cool thing to say would be, like, “I regret nothing,” but of course it’s fucking shameful. I want a sexy paper bag too.
His former domain natehillisnuts.com was as memorable as sociopath.online. Since we broke up, he deleted documentation of much of his other, minor works, sort of cementing his status as a part-myth, part-legend; as far as I know he doesn't keep a CV, and like all of my favorite artists (the ones I end up dating) he doesn't have any fine arts degrees or official gallery representation. With his art he likes to be provocative, inciting media spectacles, like a walking clickbait headline. He’s definitely a socially-engaged artist. I can’t quite call it “social practice,” since most social practice art I know is done as goodwill or like some sort of politically graceful community-building strategy, whereas Nate prefers to play the bad guy. He’s a lowbrow social sculptor, like if Beuys used Twitter and threw McDonald’s cheeseburgers at people from a speeding bicycle.
“Sociopath” is what my ex-girlfriend called Nate Hill when we were working together on The Hunt Storybook, a long performance about rape culture and infidelity for which I am credited as both a writer and “blood donor.” I was underage with a fake ID, singing karaoke with Nate and his glamorous feminist art world friends, when I told everyone my girlfriend called Nate a sociopath, and suggested that I try to “subvert” his weird project. I guess he never forgot about it. Nate’s project, as well as our friendship, upset my ex-girlfriend in a lot of ways. She and I ended up breaking up over it. I guess you can tell a relationship is toxic when it destroys your other relationships and makes you feel bad about yourself, but you still desire it nonetheless. Whatever, art is not here to subvert anything, anyway, people! It’s just what it is, showing you what the world is like. But when you’re just reciting stereotypes, even if it’s satire or kink or art: you play with fire and you get burned, especially if it’s a real fire and not a painting of a fire. I was confused as to where art ended and real life started. There are aspects of our relationship that I am only now processing as “abusive” through this writing. Other people called it that so now I’m starting to see it, too. Abuse is hard to recognize. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.
I initially panicked when I saw that what was partially my work, The Hunt Storybook, filed as a “prequel” for Darling Try Me. In The Hunt Storybook infidelity was centered as an impossible fantasy between us. In Darling Try Me infidelity becomes his praxis, and Nate attempts to purge his guilty conscious with some good old-fashioned masochism and antagonistic (somehow vulnerable) performance art. This type of work is uniquely Nate’s style. It’s so masculine and self-involved. I can see how other people hate it, but I get him. It makes sense, to account for how one thing led to another, so I can't be mad at my work being listed as a “prequel”. We explored the fantasy of an extramarital affair in The Hunt. Because I (in theory, at least) respected his family life, I didn't want anything other than friendship. I didn't want to ruin his life. I told him “I don't want to ruin your life” so many times that it became a meme between us. He found ways to ruin his own life, taking the blood from my hands.
Nate and I worked closely for only a couple of years (not fifteen) but, like Camille Claudel, I spent more of my time in undergrad working on his art than on my own. That’s toxic heterosexuality for you. Of course, he helped me when I could figure out how to ask. He gave me a lot of important input on my own work. We were friends. Sometimes I miss him, but I asked him to leave me alone for a while. After I distanced myself, he texted me saying he wanted to make art about what happened and at first I was nervous but then I was like: well, whatever I’ve wouldn‘t expected anything less from you.
At the onset of our relationship, I was expecting mentorship but my sexuality and naïveté were, frankly, exploited before everything spiraled out of control. When he invited another 21-year-old undergraduate artist, a male NYU photography student with a more impressive portfolio (with whom Nate had no intention of sleeping with) to his crit group, I realized my place. I was so offended. Even though I felt totally taken advantage of, I can't help but feel responsible for him. He was in a vulnerable place and acted out. I could have ended things with him as soon as I noticed a start. If I had more access to therapy, I’d probably say something like “victims of abuse often feel responsible for what happened to them, especially when they’re super traumatized,” but I don’t know if that always makes sense.
Nate‘s new work is good, but my friends still disapprove. Especially since he so often blurs his life and his art. Social practice gets confusing, it’s easy to get lost in the sauce: even if that’s not what you’re going for, it’s the nature of the medium. The way Nate is documenting his Darling Try Me encounters is through stylish, romantic long-form prosaic accounts, creepy (problematic, non-consensual) audio recordings, photo shoots, and text message receipts. Everything about it is painfully reminiscent of the things we created together. I have flashbacks reading the performance documentation. You know that scene in Annie Hall when Alvy Singer tries to get new women to recreate memories he shared with Annie? Nate and I have discussed this scene at least twice. It’s one of my favorite movies. We actually never went on that date where we visit all of the different locations where Annie Hall was filmed and reenact different scenes, scripts in hand. I’m pretty sure the first time we had sex was after watching Manhattan, in which Woody Allen’s character dates an 18-year-old girl named Tracey. Everything is disgusting. They almost break up in the end because she’s going to Paris and she’s literally 18. Woody Allen is problematic and so is my ex-boyfriend. I can’t remember what happens, I was stoned when I watched it. The night we broke up we tried watching Manhattan again but it wasn’t on Netflix anymore.
Darling Try Me reminds me of Trophy Scarves, which was how Nate and I met. I learned about his work through my feminist art heroes and I admired it. To model for Trophy Scarves you just had to be a thin white-passing woman ready to self-objectify. I saw it as a way to meet him. Of course I was nervous, but still, I was stupidly brave. I was so young. I’m still so young, but then I was 19. I wound up hanging out with my one of my favorite artists, creating what became a viral media spectacle as a model and photographer. It was a lot of partying, too. I didn’t think it’d end up like this, but anyone could have predicted it. History repeats itself.
Part of his documentation of Trophy Scarves included screenshots of text conversations between the models and the artist. I have trolled Tinder and used screenshots of the conversations in my own artwork, which Nate was heavily critical of. I know my trolling misandrist attitude inspired the tone of Laughing Urinal, a lighter and more enjoyable piece than Darling Try Me, if I do say so myself. Screenshots from online dating sites have been used as an attempt to expose online harassment on dating websites in and outside of digital art. In Darling Try Me Nate Hill uses text screenshots to document his “nonparticipants,” capturing failures of artificially created relationship dynamics in a vacuum, which is exactly what I did. I made it into a book.
Being a muse is cute until the conversation becomes one-sided. The artist slash muse power dynamic is cliché for a reason. I tried to deconstruct it in our collaborations but wound up being consumed by it instead. We maintained a toxic friendship-turned-love-affair for over a year, maybe two depending on how you define it. It was a confusing time for both of us. The Hunt Storybook details how our desires were impossible, shameful. After the project was over, he needed more. After our relationship was over, he needed more. This project he’s doing right now is a controlled experiment to perpetuate if not study an abusive power dynamic we maintained for too long. I don’t know if it’s going to help him gain perspective or if it’s a mode of escapism. Whatever happens, I hope he’s okay.
Yesterday I ran into Nate and his son a few blocks away from MoMA PS1, where my boyfriend and I were cuddled on a bench having just seen one of my recent professor Vito Acconci’s retrospective. Acconci’s earlier performance work reminds me of Nate’s: it’s vulnerable and it’s honest and it’s masculine and it’s mean. I was touched if not triggered by the way the exhibition revealed Acconci’s relationship with his early collaborator Kathy Dillon. I couldn’t find a way to express how meaningful their collaboration was to my boyfriend, I tweeted about it and I repressed it so far in my mind I think I actually summoned Nate into our presence by some divine supernatural consciousness. I had already been influenced by the work they made together before learning her name yesterday. Kathy Dillon was an artist too, but according to a quick Google search nobody, not even Acconci, knows what happened to her. After they broke up he made a lot of art about their breakup; in one of the videos he confessed to having hit her, which reminded me of the time Nate shoved a peanut butter sandwich in my face at a bar near PS1 in Long Island City and the other time he strangled me on Avenue A and the other time he shook me around in a LES pizza parlor. When I’m uncomfortable I laugh, so I guess he thought I liked it and I’m sure part of me did but that doesn’t make it alright. Like Camille Claudel, the reference point of Kathy Dillon’s entire career is her relationship with her more celebrated romantic partner. I just hope I don’t end up like them. I’m still young, I should be fine as long as I don’t give up. I fantasize Kathy Dillon changed her name and ended up being just as successful as Vito and we just don’t know about it. Nate politely introduced himself, shaking my boyfriend’s hand with the one that wasn’t holding his two-year-old son. Then he introduced his son. My smile was crazed. He said he was lost and couldn’t find PS1, I told him “it’s that way, make sure you see the Vito Acconci retrospective, it’s really great.” He walked away and I laughed steadily so that I wouldn’t cry.
My best friend Camille texted me about the piece when I told her I was writing about it:
“The letter that June wrote him hits a lot of good points / I think that it's interesting, but it paints him in a negative light to me / Even though he's honest about being detached from each of the women, he is still being advantageous with each of them / And I don't see how his act is absolving. It's completely narcissistic. It doesn't make me feel compassion towards him. / It makes me feel for the way we're conditioned as women to accept any sort of male attention. / Even if it's degrading and for someone else's benefit. / But I don't think he's interested in starting conversations like that so much as he is self pitying. / And it seems like he is bragging about how women still want to sleep with them even though he has no civility towards them. / I hate that he secretly records them. Plus using craigslist and tinder to hook up under the guise of art, ew.”
I texted Camille, “yeah he's trying to be a bad man,” and Camille responded,
“Convenient for him.”