Last Thursday’s one-time performance of Paperdoll Psychology at Artspace raises several questions about the relationship between art and politics, a subject that fascinates me. Surveying the 2001-02 Triangle theater season, I sense that I am not alone in that fascination. Amid the growing popularity of works like Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues–and, importantly, the Monologues’ migration from college campuses to mainstream venues–Paperdoll Psychology, based on the fictional diary of a girl named Anna who commits suicide at 16, seems less avant-garde than it would have five years ago. Both the Vagina Monologues and this new work experiment with episodic vignettes rather than entrusting women’s stories to classical narrative structure, both underscore the distinctions between performer and role, and both position individual performers within an ensemble of women which functions as a postmodern Greek chorus. And finally, both performance pieces give voice to women’s experiences in all their diversity.

Written and directed by gifted Raleigh high-school student Michael Quattlebaum and performed by a dynamic and talented ensemble of high-school students comprising Kaytlin Bailey, Anna Creagh, Marie Garlock, Katie Grosskopf, Dani Harris, Kristella Pifkowski and Rosa Wallace, Paperdoll Psychology was presented by P.I.C.E.T. (Paint In Consciousness Experimental Theatre). This new work represents performance art at its most vital. Against a minimal set–a white mural onto which video, slides and red lights were projected to produce an eerie pinkish wash–and accompanied by the compelling tones of Adam Baker’s vibraphone, this earnest and energetic troupe of seven young women in white slips sang, danced and laughed until they cried as they acted out Anna’s demons. The piece incorporates the formal concerns of performance art by combining the multimedia and literary interests of Dada-Zurich’s short-lived Cabaret Voltaire (1915) with the conceptual-body art fusion and emphasis on audience participation in the Happenings of the 1960s and the sexual politics of the NEA Four (performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck, who were denied National Endowment for the Arts fellowships because their art was controversial).

As a secular feminist, I thoroughly enjoyed the edginess of Quattlebaum’s piece and the enthusiasm of the seven luminous performers. But I worry that the popularity of works derived from the Vagina-Paperdoll aesthetic can only further consolidate the “you go girl” boosterism and individualist ethos of the women’s self-help/self-esteem movement–the kind of feminism that used to be called “liberal” to distinguish it from radical and socialist feminisms.

That tendency to erase the radical political dimensions of feminist movements in favor of a new kind of essentialism–promoting women’s issues within the status quo–reveals itself in Paperdoll’s program notes, where several performers include disclaimers that distance themselves from feminism and “neo-feminism.” It seems odd that young women involved in a performance that so brilliantly externalizes the psychic despair of a suicidal young woman (who, by the way, presents a feminist analysis of her plight) would hasten to assure us that valuing women’s lives as much as men’s is not part of their political program. But, of course, they are in good company. Much ink has been spilled debating the reasons why so many women shy away from the feminist label. Given the backlash that distorts feminist positions and promulgates images of feminists as angry, unattractive, man-hating spinsters, it’s not surprising that so many women and men retreat from the political fray.

Still, Paperdoll Psychology is such a compelling piece that it has the potential to transform performers and spectators with its feminist sensibility. The show moves far beyond the therapeutic to suggest that damaged psyches and brutalized bodies are remainders generated by our culture’s divisional logic–the system of privilege that rewards those of the appropriate class, profession, race, sexual orientation and gender. Both the Vagina Monologues and Paperdoll Psychology violate taboos by substituting women’s voices (reading other women’s stories) for the deafening silences that perpetuate sexism. Armed with more overt class and race critiques than the Vagina Monologues, Paperdoll Psychology addresses the social context that sanctions myriad forms of violence against women, in one important instance linking self-inflicted violence to devastating contradictions that govern young women’s lives.

Reading the section of Anna’s diary that recounts her decision to challenge taboos by experimenting with sex, one performer cries out, “I tried to reverse a double standard, but it reversed me.” Her liberating sexuality turns into a trap when she discovers a humiliating conspiracy among her male sex partners; she sinks into depression and begins to cut herself. Anna kills herself at age 16 for a reason: Sweet 16 marks the end of girlhood, the moment of transformation into “one of the master’s paper dolls”–a fate, obviously, worse than death.

Paperdoll Psychology was presented by P.I.C.E.T. in conjunction with Youth Voice Raleigh. YVR’s motto is “Make Noise/Make Change,” and this group of teenagers from Raleigh high schools carries out that mission in a radio broadcast every second and fourth Wednesday at 7 p.m. on WSHA (88.9 FM). This well-realized performance staged by spirited teenagers may serve as another occasion for making noise in order to make change. It would be a mistake to underestimate these students’ commitment and ability to render visible and audible the issues facing young women like Anna. Because performance art historically has functioned as a dissident form that forces its participants to question the relation between audience and performer, between subject and object, and between art and everyday life, it claims a potential to transform performer and spectator in ways that realist theatrical representation cannot.

But can the energies unleashed by mere aesthetic representation induce political change? Perhaps if more groups like P.I.C.E.T. and YVR are courageous enough to stage imaginative and intelligent work like Paperdoll Psychology, then making art will make change. EndBlock

P.I.C.E.T. will be performing regularly at Artspace every other month. Their next performance is scheduled for Jan. 31. For details, call Artspace at 821-2787.