Art
FlucT Is Reinventing Performance Art to Confront Rape Culture

On a brisk November morning in Bushwick, Brooklyn, artists Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile of the performance collective FlucT are leading a rehearsal for their newest work, Bigger Than You (2017). Working with dancers Quenton Stuckey and Jes Nelson in the narrow auditorium of the artist-run space Secret Project Robot, they acknowledge that the actual performance—debuting this week in the chandeliered ballroom of the Bath Club in Miami Beach—will likely end up being quite different. But FlucT will adjust. “That’s one of our specialities—adapting,” Lauren offers. “We’re like amphibians,” Mirabile agrees.

Toward the middle of the piece (which, in full disclosure, was commissioned by Artsy Projects and curated by Elena Soboleva), several lines of dialogue from the 2017 film IT take over the soundtrack, and the performers gracefully convene on a balance beam, freezing into endurance-testing poses. Suddenly, the thumping chorus of Ariana Grande’s 2014 hit “Break Free” interrupts, and their stoic expressions melt into grins.

Portrait of FlucT (Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile) in Brooklyn by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Portrait of FlucT (Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile) in Brooklyn by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

This is the part when I say I don’t want ya, I’m stronger than I’ve been before/ This is the part when I break free, ’cause I can’t resist it no more,” Grande croons, and FlucT lunge into a punchy dance sequence, not unlike something the pop star herself might do onstage. Then, just as suddenly, they crash to the floor, as though possessed, their bodies maneuvering in sync as a child’s voice returns, warning “This is what IT wants. IT wants to divide us.”

FlucT has made a name for itself over the past seven years—at art venues from MoMA PS1 to the Guggenheim—with equally unpredictable combinations of cultural touchstones, integrated with extreme physical prowess and jarring choreography. “They don’t settle on any one particular kind of work, style or medium, but rather draw on a cross section of sensibilities, mediums, and recent histories,” says RoseLee Goldberg, founder of Performa, which curated and co-produced a massive, 18-person FlucT performance at the modernist Lever House in Midtown Manhattan this past May. “Their furiously paced performances are also infused with a not always obvious, but deeply felt critique of power systems—between people, institutions, and modes of expression.”

Monica Mirabile during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Monica Mirabile during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

While transcending the strict boundaries and traditions of dance, music, installation, and performance art, FlucT’s works launch fierce critiques against capitalist society and what they see as its byproducts: rape culture, elitism, and psychosis, among them. In a given piece, performers (which can range in number from just Lauren and Mirabile to a large troupe of a dozen or more) engage in sexualized acts; screech and flail wildly; and display impressive strength and flexibility as they entwine with one another.

“You can’t really call them a dance company as such,” Goldberg says. “Instead they coax individual styles from each of their dancers, some classically trained, some self-taught. In a way, their ability to bring together so many different parts into a coherent whole is what makes them so fascinating.” The name FlucT (short for fluctuation) alludes to their nimble nature; every piece is composed with the flexibility to improvise or make changes at the last minute, based on the space, the audience, or the way the performers are feeling.

Portrait of FlucT by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Portrait of FlucT by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Lauren and Mirabile first met in 2010 in Baltimore and founded FlucT there the following year. While Lauren danced growing up, neither has formal training; Mirabile studied sculpture at MICA and Lauren went to college on an athletic scholarship.

“Primarily, FlucT is is just the two of us; it’s about a relationship,” Mirabile says. “It’s about people interacting, getting along, or not, and why that happens.” In 2011, they moved to New York and began to build a larger community, which led to Otion Front, a Bushwick rehearsal space and dance studio they opened in 2014 and now run with five fellow artists.

“The FlucT mentality is something that we’ve been developing for seven years now and so there are signatures,” Mirabile explains. “We go through a number of processes to work on dance, the soundtrack, and very emotional facial expressions. There’s also a running theme through everything that is about control and lack of control, and about how we give and receive power.” The underlying narratives are drawn from current events, personal experience, and psychology, while also deeply considering the audience and how they may react.  

Jes Nelson and Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Jes Nelson and Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

“I think the really exciting thing about using the body as an art form and also a storytelling mechanism is that it’s not pre-recorded, it’s not painted already,” Lauren offers. “We often use set choreography but then sometimes we’ll have a narrative improv moment, and so we can really change our choices in those moments, as long as we're staying on track with what we want to relay.” An unrehearsed moment dubbed the “Freak Out” often punctuates their performances. “It’s not really a freak out,” Lauren says. “To me, it feels more like an exfoliation, a cleaning of the self, where we’re throwing our bodies around and flailing as hard and as fast as we can.”

“It feels more like an exfoliation, a cleaning of the self, where we’re throwing our bodies around and flailing as hard and as fast as we can.”

A typical FlucT performance begins with communication. Like most close friends, Lauren and Mirabile depend on each other to help make sense of the world—whether that’s the President’s attempted bans on immigration, or something intriguing they heard on a podcast—and then translate these discussions into physical actions and movements. “We always start thinking about what has been bothering us, how we are feeling emotionally, and then usually that stems to what’s going on systematically on a greater scale,” Lauren explains.

Their pieces often revolve around power dynamics, abuse, and societal norms. This also bleeds into their appearances, from costumes to hair color. For a long time Lauren was blonde, Mirabile brunette, and they played with the attendant stereotypes; recently, they reversed hair colors, and roles. “We’re playing with assumptions,” Lauren says. “You fuck with expectations,” Mirabile adds. “The ideal is to change the paradigm.”

Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

During a performance this summer at Montauk’s Surf Lodge, organized by Brooklyn gallery Signal (with whom they’ve been working for years), FlucT was well-positioned to make an impact on an unsuspecting audience. An upper-crust crowd—including many who were frankly inebriated, and unfamiliar with contemporary art—were to varying degrees shocked by the performance, titled Sissy Joker, during which Mirabile and Lauren stripped down to Calvin Klein underwear and covered their faces in clown makeup.

The audience wasn’t exactly primed for FlucT; a band had performed just before the group came on, Lauren says, and the Surf Lodge didn’t have the same built-in context that a museum or gallery would. The experience made her feel terrible.

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“But those are the people that need to see things like FlucT,” Mirabile counters, finding a silver lining to the evening. “Some really interesting things happened during that performance because people had no idea what they were about to see.”

She points to a moment in the piece when she’s acting demonic while perched on Lauren’s back, mouthing prescient lines from the 1981 movie My Dinner with Andre: “Has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government based on money, and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks?”

Jes Nelson during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Jes Nelson during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

This didn’t exactly play well. “These bros and screaming girls—these rich, fluorescent, expecting-a-party people—were just like, ‘[Gasp!] This is not what I thought it was,’” Mirabile explains. “We were dirty and slimy and covered in broken glass and paint, and seeing that transition in people’s faces was like: ‘Gotcha!’ That’s what I wanted.”

“Their performances are exciting and often shocking, and they use their bodies and sexuality in ways that are transgressive and confrontational, but the spectacular elements of what they do are always in service to a message they’re looking to get across,” says Alexander Johns, co-director of Signal. “Frequently that means implicating the viewers themselves. You get captivated and then have to question what you’re seeing. Or the way you’re looking. But it never gets pedantic—it always remains a performance that’s compelling to see. That’s a rare balance that they always seem to strike.”

“They use their bodies and sexuality in ways that are transgressive and confrontational, but the spectacular elements are always in service to a message.”

The new Miami work, Bigger Than You (2017) is in many ways a signature FlucT performance. Five performers (Mirabile, Lauren, Stuckey, and Nelson are joined by Emil Bognar-Nasdor) eerily lock eyes and intertwine with one another to the chaotic soundtrack, which includes everything from a rap about Hurricane Harvey to audio snippets of giggling children, news broadcasts, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar’s acceptance speech in 1999—in which she thanks Harvey Weinstein.

FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

The work feels especially timely now, in the midst of the large-scale reckoning over sexual misconduct and assault, but the artists insist that this is something they’ve always dealt with. “So much of our work is about rape culture and part of that is being women,” Mirabile says. “It’s something you think about your whole life—the danger of being around men who are shaped by culture.”

Presenting the performance in Miami has also played a role in shaping it. “Art Basel in Miami Beach is a very specific place,” Mirabile says. “It’s an art market, it’s a VIP crowd. We are playing to a specific audience in this piece.”

The costuming adds additional layers of meaning; the five performers will don satiny dresses, pajamas, and underpants, while painted head-to-toe in shades of green. “Part of the feel of the piece is that it’s as if aliens were looking onto our American culture and repeating it in some ways,” Mirabile explains.

Portrait of FlucT (Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile) in Brooklyn by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Portrait of FlucT (Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile) in Brooklyn by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Bigger Than You’s set will be a sort of obstacle course, made up of balance beams, a goal post, a shiny leather oversized couch, staticky TV sets, and a police golf cart—which, taken together, conjure the tangled web of capitalism, through which the performers must navigate. As the title suggests, the piece reflects recent overwhelming economic, cultural, and environmental shifts. “It’s a really complex time,” Lauren reflects. “People are understanding how they’re in pain physically, from things that happen mentally. We need to empower and help one another.”

It’s not an easy process overall. “There’s this magic that happens,” Mirabile says. “Your adrenaline is released when you’re about to perform in front of a bunch of people. There’s this animal, instinctual, physical thing that happens where you have to adapt and evolve and you can’t stop. It’s very intense and so beautiful.”

Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

They’ve developed a ritual before each performance, a way to quell anxiety. They clasp hands, lock eyes, and recite in unison, “I will not hurt myself, I will not hurt you, I will not hurt anyone else, and we are amazing,” then give each other a peck on the lips; they do it three times. “It helps us be conscious, and aware, and feel safe,” Lauren explains.

Reactions after FlucT’s performances are generally positive, and often intense. Many a teary-eyed woman has approach the pair to give thanks, and even to relate their own stories. “You can tell they’re having a very emotional experience,” Mirabile says. It’s a different experience for men, they’ve found, who “understand the power of our work, but tend to feel more ashamed.” Men might miss the point entirely, mistaking sexualized performance for sexiness, rather than a commentary on abuses of power. On numerous occasions, guys have approached them to compliment their bodies, or ask for their numbers.

“How do we make an impact in the art world? And beyond the art world?”

After Miami, FlucT will continue to branch out into other media—including installation and video, which will figure in a solo exhibition at Signal in March of next year. But live performance will continue to be the heart of their practice. “Being able to experience something with other bodies is so important,” Lauren offers. “The physicality of performance is something for the people that get to be there—it’s not replaceable.”

“A lot of what we talk about is: ‘How do we make an impact in the art world? And beyond the art world?’” Mirabile says.

Casey Lesser is an Editor at Artsy.

Header: Sigrid Lauren, Monica Mirabile, Jes Nelson, and Quenton Stuckey during a FlucT rehearsal in Brooklyn. Video by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Correction:

An earlier version of this article stated that FlucT was founded in New York in 2012. The performance collective was actually started in Baltimore in 2011.