"What relationship of obedience is most familiar to you?" the first question asked. I considered the question for a moment, clicked on the bubble that best corresponded to my answer (C, "Student/Teacher"), and scrolled down to the next question on the Personality of Endurance Test.
I was taking the Personality of Endurance Test because I wanted to see Authority Figure, a choreographed performance piece at Queens' Knockdown Center that explores data-gathering, surveillance, policing, and other structural phenomena that increasingly define the world we live in.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I was taking the Personality of Endurance Test because the website on which the test is housed told me to take the test. I had to take the test before I could get a ticket, the site informed me, as my answers to its questions would determine which of the show's time slots I would be best suited for. I didn't question that line of reasoning, just like I didn't question the all-caps "BE OBEDIENT" button that I clicked on in order to begin the test. And after two minutes of questioning, I had voluntarily handed over a bunch of personal information concerning my sense of agency, the kind of power dynamics I respond to, and how likely I am to do something that I might not want to do—all because some plain black text flickering on the screen of my MacBook Pro had told me to.
It was only later, while reading over my correspondence with 10 of the artistic collaborators behind Authority Figure, that I realized how easily I'd been manipulated. The performance began the second I agreed to take the Personality of Endurance Test, choreographer and installation artist Kathleen Dycaico explained in an email, a full day and a half before I attended a special preview of the show for friends, family, and press on Thursday. Embarrassed by my suggestibility, I tumbled down a bit of an auto-interrogative shame spiral—one that only deepened as I entered the Knockdown Center the night of the performance.
In terms of scale, Authority Figure is massive. The piece, directed by Otion Front Studio co-owners Monica Mirabile and Sarah Kinlaw, is a truly collaborative effort, combining the talents of choreographers (Colin Self, India Salvor Menuez, Juri Onuki, Kathleen Dycaico, Richard Kennedy, Sigrid Lauren, Tara-Jo Lewis), installation artists (Bad Taste, Ilana Savdie, Jerome Bwire, Nitemind, Signe Pierce), composers (Caroline Polachek, Dan Deacon, Devonté Hynes, DJ NJ Drone, Eartheater, Hot Sugar, Ian Drennan, Pictureplane, Ross Menuez, SOPHIE, UMFANG, VIOLENCE), and a diverse young cast of more than 150 performers.
While Authority Figure bears the unmistakable hallmarks of its directors' work, the perspectives of its nearly 200 collaborators are equally tangible—important for a piece that deals with phenomena like surveillance and policing that impact people's lives in vastly different ways, depending on their race, gender, class, and other categories of identity. Authority Figure demonstrates a radical, collective approach to authorship, which in turn serves to deconstruct the singular notion of authority itself.
"I think that this multiplicity of authors was one of the most important structural decisions in approaching this project," choreographer Colin Self of drag collective Chez Deep, who will be supporting Radiohead on tour alongside Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst, told Fusion in an email Tuesday. "Inevitably, I think it harbored a plurality in how all of us view authority and authorship…and how radically different it affects us as individuals."
"It's important to have a wide variety of perspectives present when dealing with a topic that is as subjective and varied as 'authority,'" installation artist Signe Pierce added. "The concept of obedience bends and shifts within a certain person's periphery throughout the day, every day. Having many different voices contributing to the project allows us to be spectral in our representation of obedient structures."
With its cavernous halls and claustrophobic oubliettes, the Knockdown Center is a fitting venue to stage a production of Authority Figure's scope. The event space—a former glass factory and later door factory just east of the Brooklyn-Queens border in Maspeth—offers 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space in which to house the many tiers of the performance.
As designated "guides" coerce the audience through the compound's rooms and courtyards in groups of roughly 20, they expose attendees to a variety of choreographed installations. These scenes explore Authority Figure's central themes of surveillance, obedience, and policing at both their largest scales (systematic police violence against black communities, military allegiance, the male gaze, literal NSA-style surveillance and data gathering) as well as their smaller, more interpersonal ones (toxic friendship, competitive sisterhood, familial abuse). The range is diverse and unexpected in its breadth.
"When we think of surveillance, especially in New York City, the cops come to mind, handing out menial tickets, intimidating those of lesser power," choreographer Tara-Jo Lewis, a writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn, said in an email Tuesday. "We all know they're there, acting out these roles of entitlement the uniform offers them, but I'm not interested in their modality. I'm much more interested in the subtleties and the way we may or may not respond to each other. When we interact with those who are close to us and know us personally, or even just navigating the world on a day-to-day basis, we are always data-collecting… When there are people who we love and care for deeply that are involved [in this data-collecting], the smallest critique or contempt can have the biggest impact on the ego."
The audience plays an integral role in these explorations of surveillance and data-gathering. Voyeurism—whether we're talking about staring, cruising, cyber-stalking, or even systematically tracking—is never a passive act. Authority Figure hammers that point home.
"Even a voyeur is a participant through the act of observing and changing the situation through their presence," choreographer and installation artist Kathleen Dycaico told Fusion. "The audience is not just an observer."
"The performers sometimes outnumber the audience," installation artist Jen Monroe, a.k.a. Bad Taste, noted. "It becomes less clear who is observing and who's enacting. Everyone's an object. Everyone's a voyeur."
I was never more aware of my role in Authority Figure than when my group took its "bathroom break" midway through the production. Installation artist India Salvor Menuez had transformed one of the Knockdown Center's restrooms into a steamy, faded-pink, ultra-femme sanctum—a Turkish bath by way of Portia Munson. In order to access the functioning toilets, I had to first carefully traverse a narrow pathway to the left of a dozen or so semi-nude bathers and then turn a corner where a pair of "girls standing in the line for the bathroom" were posted up around the stalls. As I made my way through the bathers, I found myself averting my eyes for the first time since Authority Figure began. After peeing in one of the stalls around the corner, I hovered around the line girls, one of whom rattled off basic philosophical platitudes while the other performatively yeah'd and mhm'd as she scrolled through her Instagram feed.
Was I making the bathers uncomfortable, as my gut feeling insisted? Or was I the one who felt uncomfortable, merely projecting that unease onto the tableau in front of me?
This conversation with myself persisted through every second of Authority Figure—really, from the very moment I realized how easily I'd been swayed to take the Personality of Endurance Test.
I found myself questioning every choice I made: Why did I sit on the couch in Bad Taste's waiting room installation when I arrived at the Knockdown Center? Was it because I wanted to sit down, or because the artist had placed a couch in her piece, subtly ordering me to make use of it? Why didn't I sanitize my hands when my group's guide told us to? Why did I feel the need to enact this petty show of resistance? Did I gain anything from it? And why did I immediately reveal my name to the personal guide assigned to me? Why didn't I lie? Why did I "stay right there" when he told me to "stay right there" before leaving my side? Why did I move to the center of the room, only moments after he told me to stay put, when my group's guide suggested that I could move closer to the center of the room if I wanted to?
Authority Figure did not provide the answers, but it did alert me to the number of obedience structures I submit to on a daily basis without even thinking. It's not a problem, per se, that Amazon has my address on file or that my roommate knows that my day has been "good" so far. But why am I so willing to hand over any part of myself without a hint of resistance? What pieces of information have I thrown out into the ether that I can never again call my own? For instance, every attendee had their personal IP address collected when they took the Personality of Endurance Test—they were used to title the choreographed pieces within the show.
Or at least that's what the Authority Figure program says. I probably shouldn't believe everything the Authority Figure program tells me.
Authority Figure runs from May 20–22 at the Knockdown Center, located at 52-19 Flushing Avenue in Queens, N.Y. You can buy tickets and take the Personality of Endurance Test here, and you can donate to the production's Kickstarter here.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.