Maybe Ann Hirsch’s art should come with an NSFW (not safe for work) warning. I speak from experience—watching her video performance piece “Semiotics of the Camwhore” in my office cubicle made me feel a bit self-conscious.
But to Hirsch’s credit, I couldn’t look away from the video’s comedic/brainy bedroom scene, in which the slim 31-year-old performer, spanks herself and says “Ass” in a sexy, somewhat babyish voice, squeezes her chest and announces “cleavage,” purses her lips and goes “duckface.”
Now based in L.A., the performance artist was born and raised in Baltimore, attending the Krieger Schecter Day School and Park School. Her father, Alan Hirsch, co-owns Donna’s Restaurant and helps run Cosima; her mom, Dina Sokal, is a child psychologist in Owings Mills. The middle child of three, Hirsch attended beloved after-school art classes with Calvert instructor Victor Janishefski—“Mr. J”—in Lutherville.
Hirsch, whose work has been written about in The Guardian, New York Magazine, ArtForum and many other national publications, uses the digital sphere to expose cultural taboos and biases, especially around women and sexuality. Some of her media include online video, reality television and the internet.
“I think I’m someone who my favorite space to be in is just the fantasy in my head,” she says in her authentic Kristen Schaal-esque kid voice. “And there’s no better place to really do that than the internet because you’re interacting with other people, but projecting onto them a lot of things, and you can make yourself more who you want to be.”
Though the life of an artist is often accompanied by the moniker “starving,” Hirsch’s dad, Alan, was never too concerned about his child’s odds for success.
“Most of those kids [in her art graduate school] will go out there and just wait for things to happen,” he says. “But I wasn’t worried about Ann. She knows how to make things happen.”
And happen they have. If you were an avid YouTuber in the early days, or have a penchant for late-2000s reality television, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Hirsch in smart action.
In 2008, while attending graduate school for video art in Syracuse—“a middle-of-nowhere, nothing-there, miserable place”—Hirsch became “Caroline,” aka “Scandalishious,” racking up 2 million views and thousands of subscribers. The channel featured Caroline confessing vlog-style and dancing sensually. The idea was to show viewers, especially young women, someone they might not have seen yet—namely, a woman both flaunting her sexuality and possessing a weird, funny human life. A fresh, new character appearing on a platform that, for all its experimentation, tends to favor the typical.
“We’re kind of still recycling some of the same tropes and stereotypes that we were using with old forms of media,” Hirsch says.
It’s those tropes and stereotypes Hirsch takes on. Post-Caroline, she became “Annie,” a contestant on VH1’s “Frank the Entertainer in a Basement Affair,” a 2010 reality show in which several women lived in Frank’s house with his parents and competed—literally, in weekly challenges—for his heart.
She began to realize how manipulated all the women were by production—fitting them into certain categories (Annie was “the realest, nicest girl in the house”) and then humiliating them to justify kicking them off. So, before she could become the next victim, Hirsch sealed her fate her way. During the “crooning” challenge, she broke out in an expletive-laden dirty rap.
“Of course, then they kicked me off that night because they realized they couldn’t control me,” she says. “But my hope was that viewers at home would see this complete shift in character and question my realness as ‘the realest girl in the house’ or whatever and then also thereby question the reality of how the other women were depicted as well.”
In 2013, she debuted a coming-of-age play, “Playground,” which details the relationship between a preteen girl and a predatory older man through an online chat room.
The work is based on personal experience. When Hirsch was 12, she engaged in an online relationship with an older man she met in an AOL chat room. And as she workshopped the play, more and more women told her their own stories of similar experiences.
As she matures as an artist—and a person—Hirsch addresses ever edgier themes. She recently exhibited a conceptually exciting installation at The New Museum in Manhattan called “horny lil feminist” that I’ll leave you to Google at will. Incidentally, Alan Hirsch freely admits he hasn’t seen some of his daughter’s more recent work. He trusts her when she says it may not be fit for a father’s eyes. But, hey, we recommend it.