Two students share their stories of assault with on-campus performance art
On Friday, Eliza Cadoux, a LSA senior majoring in Women’s Studies, will be standing in a thin, white, spaghetti-strapped nightgown in front of a white canvas on the corner of North University and State Street. She will be painting her body and the canvas behind her so that a vague snow-person shape will emerge, and then she will step into a crib-like structure and wash the paint off. She’ll launch herself out of the structure and scrub her body clean.
Then she’ll do the same thing, again and again, for eight hours straight. This performance piece is called “Trauma Rite.”
She will attempt not to break, because “Once you’ve had a violent experience pressed upon you, it is difficult to take a break from your own reality, and I want to create that conceptual continuum.”
During the last weekend of March, Larissa Marten, a senior in SMTD majoring in acting, will be performing her one-woman play, “I Killed the Cow,” in the Duderstadt Library on North Campus. The piece is multimedia and interactive; she will be interacting with audience members before the show while they’re waiting in line, and much of the set is composed of projections.
Both of these performance pieces deal with sexual assault, and more broadly, disclosure of trauma, female sexuality and the histories of violence that people bring with them when they arrive on campus.
“‘Trauma Rite’ ruminates on and deals with trauma, vulnerability and social reaction to survivors and to survivor bodies,” Cadoux said. “I came up with the piece originally as a type of reclamation ceremony ... it has become a piece about disclosure of rape and sexual assault and mental health repercussions of assault.”
Both performance pieces are partly academic. Cadoux’s piece is her Women’s Studies honors thesis, and Marten calls her piece a “pseudo-thesis;” acting majors aren’t required to create theses, but Marten feels strongly about the need for acting majors to be constantly creating their own work, a message she hopes to convey to the theatre department.
Both Cadoux and Marten said they realized when they were thinking about what they wanted to do for their theses that they couldn’t separate their experiences from the art they wanted to create.
“The words ‘the personal is political’ are both antique and incredibly contemporary, in that the scholarship that I love the most is emotional, and the art I love the most has something to say for itself politically,” Cadoux said. “And I can’t separate my need to create theory with my need to create art. Those two things are inextricable for me and deeply entrenched within my affective being in the world.”
Cadoux sees her thesis as a way to “project her voice into a space that is void of survivor voices, but is full of orations and writing on sexual assault as a concept, as an action and as an essentially disembodied talking point. My piece comes into purposeful conflict with that disembodiment.”
When Marten was first deciding on the kind of piece she wanted to perform, she said she was drawn to ideas of female sexuality, and the kind of questions that young people are asking themselves at this age, especially in terms of who they are as sexual beings. The title comes from a relationship that Marten sees between cows and female bodies in how they are used; the “killed” part comes from the idea of “obliterating the use of the female.”
“ ‘I Killed the Cow’ is about a woman who unearths moments in her life that create her as the sexual person she is,” Marten said.
It deals with her relationships with her sexual identity and with family members. It is also largely autobiographical; Marten said because her first sexual experience was one of assault, she knew that her piece would have something to say about that.
At the beginning, she said, the piece was largely therapeutic, because it was the first time she had written about her assault. Her adviser, Performing Arts Prof. Gillian Eaton, was blunt with her about that, and helped her turn what started out almost as a diary into a play.
Though her work is highly centralized on her own experience, she believes a lot of it is accessible to anyone who sees it.
“A lot of the scenes that precede the sexual assault scenes in the play in the end could be scenes that precede any sexual assault in reality,” Marten said.
Scenes like parties, or talking about sex with friends, she noted, are ones she’s heard over and over as the kinds of days that have preceded other people’s stories of their own assaults. For example, when Marten recalls the details of the night of her assault, she remembers feeling excited. She was a teenager out on the town in New York City. She had gone to a fancy dinner with her friends. She had just gotten a new haircut. She still has pictures from that day.
“I Killed the Cow” ends on a dissatisfied note — Marten believes that we as a society are not in a conclusive place when it comes to discussions of things like rape culture and discourse about sexual violence, so there was no reason to have a play focusing on those topics end in a conclusive way.
Both Cadoux and Marten emphasized that their projects have been emotionally taxing. Marten performed a part of “I Killed the Cow” during Wall-to-Wall Theatre Festival last year, titled “Lost, Shared, Taken.” Before she performed, she said she hadn’t realized at the time how scared she would be, and she anticipates that performing the full play in March will be similar.
However, their pieces do not solely deal with sexual violence in a campus sphere.
“I was not raped (on campus), and to me the interface of the city with the campus is very important. Campus assault is talked about, not enough, but it is more on people’s political radar right now than gendered violence in society and I’m concerned with both groups of survivors,” Cadoux said, adding that the University has done “pretty incredible works of institutional negligence,” and is absolutely deserving of the ongoing Department of Education Title IX investigation it is currently under. The investigation was opened in 2014 in response to several complaints about the University’s process for investigating sexual assault claims.
“So many people come to campus with histories of violence behind them and so many people have experiences outside of the university setting that are really important to note and can’t be invisibilized by campus assault rhetoric,” Cadoux continued, noting that this is why the location of her piece is meaningful.
Marten said her assault also did not happen here; she was still in high school, and didn’t tell anyone for a long time. It wasn’t until she arrived on campus that she started to realize how universal an experience it was.
Both Cadoux and Marten have found supportive environments in their respective departments. Marten said many people in the theatre department who had heard about her piece followed up with her this year, asking her if she was still going to do it and if they could help in any way.
When asked why she decided to major in Women’s Studies, Cadoux answered, “I was driven to Women’s Studies by a grumbling feeling in my stomach that I was missing the point. I had an idea of how I had been affected as a girl, but until becoming part of this department, I can’t say I had racial consciousness, ability consciousness … the work that Women’s Studies as a department does is transformative to the people who do it and incredibly necessary to counteract a social ambivalence and ignorance surrounding privilege and oppression.”
Cadoux, who identifies as genderqueer and uses both she/her/hers and they/them/theirs, also noted that her queer identity has affected her reaction to assaults. As well, like several other students at the University, she has had the experience of walking into a classroom and seeing her attacker.
She said she plans to focus her life’s work on combating gendered violence, and her life dream is to create a home and community space for people who have survived abuse, assault or violence to create a community where they can find a break from isolation. While rape crisis is incredibly important to her, she is also interested in long-term healing from trauma and the people who are edited out of assault narratives.
Both Cadoux and Marten also want to make their art and messages accessible to the wider Ann Arbor community. Marten’s performance will be filmed, edited and put online, and Cadoux plans to set up a website where people will be able to anonymously log their reactions to the piece. There will be a sign in front of her performance that will indicate where and how to do so.
“I hope to receive the gamut of possible reactions. I’m not looking for people to validate me, I’m not looking for solely art critics or solely political critics, I’m interested with how the public deals with this material, be it negative, positive or neutral; I think that’s more valuable than searching for the correct reaction,” Cadoux said.
Both Cadoux and Marten talked about a community of survivors on campus, a community that is full of powerful and passionate individuals working for change. But they also both noted that even within the survivor community, there are no fail-safe ways to talk about these issues. Cadoux said that the hardest part of her performance will be knowing that there will be survivors who are encountering her work, and she won’t be able to engage with them in that moment, though she strongly believes that “art surrounding survivorship does need public space.”
“Retriggering or re-traumatizing one another is something that is common in survivor communities and while I know I have the obligation to work for the rights and safe spaces of people who have suffered this kind of violence, I also recognize part of what keeps survivors silent and from each other is the fear of re-traumatizing others, when every day we come across media that can start up triggering,” Cadoux said.
Cadoux has reached out to SAPAC and SafeHouse to alert them that this performance will be happening.
When asked what she hopes audiences will leave feeling, Marten thought for a minute before answering. “I would hope that they lose a little bit of fear. Yeah. I’ll leave it at that.”