Opinion

A Performa Production Co-opted the Story of a Sex Worker

Without speaking with or even acknowledging the existence of critical members of the sex worker community, Performa has ultimately appropriated migrant sex worker organizing.

“In Honor of Song Yang,” temporary altar after prayer ritual with Lena Chen and Red Canary Song, for Shadow Traffic Productions’ “Alter/Altar,” November 8, 2019, in front of 302 Broome St, old massage parlor, Happy Endings bar and home of legendary sex worker open mic series, Red Umbrella Diaries (image courtesy Red Canary Song)

Commissioned and produced by the New York arts festival Performa, Taiwanese artist Huang Po-Chih’s project “Heaven on Fourth was divided between two spaces: a waiting area and a bar. While the former was a dimly lit, open space that projected newspaper snippets such as “sex workers demand justice,” the latter was a custom-made, two-story wooden structure where performers recited stories about Song Yang, as a bartender introduced and served Po-Chih’s signature cocktails to the audience members. Who was Song Yang, indeed? Beneath the exterior of neon lights, flashing headlines, and spice-infused moonshine, the protagonist was nowhere to be seen. 

On November 25, 2017, after repeated harassment from New York Police Department (NYPD) vice squad, massage parlor worker Song Yang fell four stories to her death during a violent police raid on her place of work in Flushing, Queens. After a letter was written to the Department of Investigation by elected officials, to urge for investigation into vice squads’ targeted assault against immigrant sex workers, the Queens District Attorney absolved the NYPD of any misconduct.  

Po-Chih’s performance is billed as a “socially focused project, engaging with members of the Asian immigrant community in New York,” but it’s unclear who this immigrant community is. If it refers to the community of migrant workers in Flushing to which Song Yang belonged, it is worth noting that the five short stories on Song Yang are fictitious narratives written by Huang Po-Chih himself and four other Asian-American writers who had no connections to the case or the community they invoke. That one of the stories described Song as “Jane Doe Ponytail,” which was a nickname given to her by the police quoted in a New York Times article, shows a lack of awareness regarding the media’s orientalization and fetishization of Asian massage parlor workers.  

Soon after Song Yang died, Red Canary Song (RCS), a coalition of migrant and Asian-American sex workers and community organizers, was created to support Song Yang’s case, her family, safer livelihood for massage parlor workers, migrant leadership, and decriminalization of sex work. Alongside coalition outreach and community organizing to create peer-led resources, RCS also collaborates closely with artists to bring visibility to specific issues affecting those who rely on sex work for survival. 

As members of RCS, we only found out about “Heaven on Fourth” one week before the show began. The initial description of the project on Performa’s website read: “In response to Yang’s death and recent advocacy work by Red Canary Song […] Huang will organize a requiem for Yang.” Despite Performa’s reference to the work of RCS, none of us had heard about the project. Months after this description had appeared on Performa’s website and press releases, we were invited to take part purely due to a chance encounter with the artist, curator, and event producer at a separate Performa event, though we were never given a concrete plan or timeline.

Descriptions of “Heaven on Fourth” on Performa’s website on November 6 (left) and November 22 (right) (screenshots by the authors)

When RCS members first met with the artist and the Performa curators (five days before the exhibition opening), we asked Performa to shift the language in the event description, which presented Song Yang’s story as suicide, as opposed to a targeted attack to her physical and psychological safety by the NYPD. It became concerning to learn that the artist relied so heavily on the New York Times article, which obscures the criminalized and vulnerable conditions of migrant care laborers to tell a sensationalist sex worker story. 

While the artist and the Performa staff apologetically acknowledged that they were missing basic information and crucial entry points into the topic, they did not substantiate or follow up on their claims. Instead, they deflected their relation to this community and issues of accountability by situating themselves as outsiders. The curator, Charlene Lau, mentioned that she is “not Asian-American” and “grew up in Toronto, Canada,” as if border identity and geographic distance justified a lack of proximity to the lived reality refracted in the exhibition (RCS founder KZ informed them that Butterfly, an Asian migrant sex worker’s project, is based in Toronto). Given their ‘outsider’ status, why were they invested in commissioning fictional retellings of Song Yang’s story? Among the Asian-American writers they commissioned, many do not live in New York City and none of them self-identify as massage parlor or sex workers in their bios. 

During the meeting, Huang Po-Chih explained his artistic interest in “socio-economic realities of workers like his mother,” who was a garment factory worker; however, he had no insight into local or global context of migrant sex worker organizing. As this exhibit is partly funded by Taiwan Ministry of Culture and Taipei Cultural Center of New York, RCS founder, KZ, offered suggestions for how the exhibit could spread awareness about Taiwanese sex worker collectives, including the Collective for Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS). According to the collective’s website, it “formed in 1999 to continue the fight for the rights of all sex workers in Taiwan, making it the only sex workers’ rights organization set up by sex workers and for sex workers on the island.” Neither the curators nor artist, in hearing about these global networks for the first time, took down any notes during our meeting. 

Upon our suggestion to host a workshop with massage parlor workers as part of the performance, we set up a tentative meeting in KZ’s office in Flushing. However, Performa did not confirm until a day before the show opened. From an organizational standpoint, Performa had 20 original artist commissions, as well as 21 consortium events in its 2019 lineup. With such a packed schedule, its staff are understandably overworked, resulting in miscommunications and missed opportunities. Yet the ad hoc, improvisational nature of the biennial cannot serve as an adequate excuse for the inability to commit to a self-proclaimed “socially focused” project. 

In this second meeting with the artist, this time with massage parlor workers, we realized that very few of our asks would likely be honored, especially as Performa’s budget was already allocated to the elaborate production of the exhibition (a bar space with neon light installations serving flavored moonshine). Po-Chih offered tickets to Red Canary Song to attend in the six nights, ultimately saying that “what would make [him] happy would be if we showed up” and we “didn’t even have to speak” at all, that there was “no pressure” to collaborate. Unsurprisingly, the massage parlor workers did not seem impressed by Huang Po-Chih’s invitation with free tickets to go drink at a bar and listen to English-spoken stories about Song Yang, without being properly compensated with travel, time, or translation services. Again, it was an indication of his lack of consideration into the material realities of migrant massage workers.  

Ironically, Performa’s “Heaven on Fourth” makeshift exhibition bar space on 47 Wooster was one block down the street from Leslie Lohman Museum of Art, currently hosting the exhibition, ON OUR BACKS: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work. The exhibit contains photographs, videos, media artifacts, and objects by queer sex workers in the US. Curator Alexis Heller produced the show in consultation with sex workers, like Red Canary Song organizer and Kink Out founder, Yin Q. During the week of “Heaven on Fourth,” which took place from November 14 to November 23, Yin spoke on a panel in the museum about sex workers in arts and activism. It was confounding that the Performa team behind “Heaven on Fourth” be so clueless of public conversations around this work, while investing international resources into fictional art productions divorced from lived reality.

The sex worker community is often marginalized and misrepresented by mainstream media, so educational resources, including through the arts, are important channels for shifting dominant narratives. However, without speaking with or even acknowledging the existence of critical members of this community, Performa has ultimately appropriated RCS and migrant sex worker organizing, which is merely referenced as background context to their commissioned writings. Rather than produce “socially focused” art that meaningfully engages with a community, Performa clearly preferred a model of co-opted storytelling. 

In watching the end result of the performance — poetic narratives and spectacle-making that depoliticized Song Yang’s story — again it became painfully apparent that no consideration was given to whom this exhibition was intended for. Given the power, privilege, and access to material and media resources that Performa wields, both in New York City and Taiwan, it was incredibly disappointing that neither artist nor curators made any substantial efforts to sincerely connect with and be in sustained conversation with Song Yang’s family, RCS, migrant care workers, massage parlor workers, and sex workers. The bar set-up relies on the concept of ‘conviviality’ to bring people together. Yet it fails precisely because it operates within the realm of aesthetics, without any effort to branch outside of the art world’s comfort zone. 

One of the ‘fictionalized stories’ anthropomorphized the surveillance camera inside of Song Yang’s residence on the day of the tragedy: “I scramble the feed, interrupt the DVR. Snow crackles across the screen. I burn up my wires. I fade to black.” In glossing over the systemic violence inflicted by the NYPD and the manipulation of evidence, in favor of a poetic rendition, it is symptomatic of the erasure of lived realities prevalent throughout this whole process. While artists have the freedom to tell stories in a way of their choosing, they also have a responsibility to tell it with an ethics of care, particularly when the work involves “multiple narratives” but doesn’t actively invite the voices of marginalized communities from which the stories originate.

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