ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished artwork or project. This week, Brooklyn and web-based performance artist and playwright Ann Hirsch speaks candidly about Twelve, a digital media piece inspired by her cybersexual preteen relationship with an older man, which was turned into an app and censored by Apple for being “excessively objectionable or crude.”

In 2012, a non-profit gallery I admired approached me and asked me if I’d like to contribute something to a show they were doing about children and obscenity/sexuality. The show never happened, but this prompt triggered a memory that I had been suppressing for years, something I had done when I was 12 that I had never told a single soul about.

It’s crazy to even call it a memory, because it was something I did over the span of 2-3 years of my adolescence. I had a romantic online affair with a 27-year-old man. We met in a chat room community and became friends first and then started having cyber sex and phone sex.

It was the most intimate relationship of my life at the time. He never wanted to meet me or wanted to know where I lived, or anything like that. For both of us, it was just about living in this romantic and sexual fantasy. But I was so ashamed I had done that for so long I never told anyone. So from this one gallerist’s prompt, all the sudden I was like… oh yeah, I did that, that’s insane. I need to make work about this.

I started writing and knew automatically I wanted it to be a play. I proposed the project to Rhizome and got a commission for it. Then the story was kind of “out in the open,” everyone knew what I was working on and I had to come to terms with this information being public knowledge, and deal with this shame I had felt for so long.

Curator/writer/Yelp king Brian Droitcour approached me and asked me if I would like to turn this material into an ebook for his ebook series with Klaus Von Nichtssagend gallery. My idea was to expand the writing I already had into being more about the whole chat room community I was involved with, not just the older man.

We thought it would be fun to visually recreate AOL instant messages and chatrooms as the way to display the narrative and realized it needed to be an app. I worked with designer James LaMarre to turn Twelve into an amazing app that looked just like AOL 3.0/4.0, that was interactive. You’d sign in online like you used to in the nineties and then scroll through the chatroom to read the narrative. Instant Messages would pop up and you read through them, click out of them, go back to the chat etc.

As I was writing the piece, I would start with one small memory and as I would remember that, I’d remember a lot of the other crazy/weird stuff I was involved in that I’d been suppressing the whole time. The whole thing was made from my memory, getting back into who these people were that I was talking with, how our relationships evolved, etc. There isn’t any part of it that was made from a saved archive.

So it was very unfortunate when the iTunes Store decided to censor the piece after some months of it being up and getting some nice press. Of course, we appealed the decision, which basically just means they call you at any time they want. The app is on James’ account so they called him at a random time, unexpected and basically just said, the content is ‘excessively objectionable or crude’ and even if you put a 18+ advisory on it, we will still not let it back into the store. They were surprised it was even approved to be on the store in the first place.

It was upsetting because even though the app has some dirty language in it, there is nothing that graphic or visually sexual in it. It’s pretty tame in that sense. The story is intense. Ultimately, it’s about a young girl and an older man at some points saying dirty things to one another but the whole point of the story is to tell this “classic” tale of a younger girl and an older man, but from the young girl’s point of view. I wonder if they would censor Lolita, or something from James Franco’s new film about him being an older teacher seducing a high school student? It really feels unfair, that when this story is from a man’s point of view, it can be considered great literature, but when it is from the viewpoint of the young woman, it is suddenly crude and objectionable. My point with telling this story is just to be honest and convey both the benefits I got from this relationship (intimacy, sexual knowledge) but also show the manipulation and exploitation that was involved in a relationship like this as well.

Klaus Von Nichtssagend has committed to preserving the piece, but since the piece is censored, it is kind of difficult. It is available through them as a limited edition jailbroken iPad.

ANN HIRSCH, TWELVE (2014) 

Ann Hirsch’s solo show “Muffy” opens at American Medium on May 16th.

Previous Artist’s Notebook selects:

Artist’s Notebook: Am Schmidt
Artist’s Notebook: Rhett Jones
Artist’s Notebook: Clement Valla
Artist’s Notebook: Brenna Murphy
Artist’s Notebook: Mike and Claire
Artist’s Notebook: Andrea Crespo
Artist’s Notebook: Genevieve Belleveau
Artist’s Notebook: Georges Jacotey
Artist’s Notebook: Saoirse Wall
Artist’s Notebook: Jesse Darling
Artist’s Notebook: Addie Wagenknecht
Artist’s Notebook: Lorna Mills