Performance Musings

Ariel Osterweis

Month: August, 2012


[I like to write about/with Narcissister. I shared this short paper at the Performance Studies International conference at the University of Leeds on June 28th, 2012. Anna Fisher and I invited Narcissister, Ann Liv Young, and Barbara Browning to join us on our panel, “Self-Gratifiers: Feminist Appropriations in the Performances of Narcissister and Ann Liv Young.”]

I was introduced to Narcissister by dance-maker Trajal Harrell, who recommended my services as a performance theorist. While flattered, I was a bit hesitant to meet with her, given my feeling that dance and performance dramaturgy in recent years had resulted in performances at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop that I referred to as the let’s put on layers and layers of clothing, walk around, remove layers and layers of clothing, slither around naked, and try to get a smart review in the New York Times series. However, because Narcissister was introduced to me as a performance artist (and not a choreographer), I decided to meet with her, come to find that she was someone I had studied modern dance with at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Thus, this introduction was a re-introduction, allowing me to re-imagine the dancing body in contexts not typically reserved for dance. Because I felt Narcissister’s performances already did their own theorizing—inherently and intentionally—I felt my job was to place words around her work, as opposed to dictating her work through the likes of Deleuze, Benjamin, or Lepecki. In fact, many of our discussions have no direct impact on the work itself, allowing us instead to explore everything from the black feminist body in visual culture to how exactly did you get that dress into and subsequently out of your crotch?

Needless to say, there is an accidental dimension to my reunion with Narcissister, just as there is an accidental dimension to the ideas I’m putting forward here at this conference. Barbara Browning and I were asked to produce an epistolary essay for the journal Theatre Survey. While we have only recently begun to think about her work in academic terms, we decided to write to each other about Narcissister. In our discussion, we focused mainly on anthropological theories of the gift and the secret, and only touched upon what now seem more important to us in terms of her work, namely the related concepts of racial kitsch and the disavowal of dance and virtuosity.

Browning pointed me to Tavia Nyong’o’s essay, “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance.” Nyong’o expands Clement Greenberg’s proposition that kitsch is failed seriousness to include the idea that racist kitsch, from historical ceramic figurines of black children to the self-conscious curating of such imagery in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, generates in the African American and anti-racist viewer shame and oppositional spectatorship. Nyong’o’s hope is to locate a way to transform the shame of feeling less than human that comes with racist kitsch’s oppositional spectatorship into an experience of racial kitsch that escapes scapegoating and instead engenders self-recognition. He wonders if there is a way for the African American spectator to regain innocence without the bloodletting of—and identification with—the scapegoat in black performance.

I find Nyong’o’s provocation important when thinking about the way Narcissister calls upon the objecthood of racist kitsch, then complicates it with the performance of the moving body. By donning hard masks and placing doll-like heads in various orifices, Narcissister places the brittle surface of the racist kitsch object (such as that of Nyong’o’s figurine) onto—and into—the mutable, muscular surface of a live fleshy body. Her performances in masks and merkins are costumed (and un-costumed) in a way that questions the fluctuating status of objecthood and subjectivity in performances that cite racialized and gendered figures such as the mami, Topsy, Josephine Baker, even Marie-Antoinette and Whitney Houston. By reappropriating cultural stereotypes, Narcissister relies upon a combination of what Nyong’o refers to as the oppositional spectator’s reaction of disgust in the face of racism and, as you will see momentarily, abject humor.

I want to suggest that Narcissister’s refusal to linger in any one character or style provides a way for the spectator to circumvent the scapegoating to which Nyong’o refers, ultimately drawing attention back to herself, yourself. Just as Narcissister avoids embodying a character for the entirety of a performance, she also avoids embodying a single dance technique or performance genre. Just as characters are cited, dance techniques are also cited, only to be effaced by a glimpse of something else. Such citation functions as what I am calling the active disavowal of majoritarian modes of subjectivity and expression. In other words, dominant references in theater, art, literature, and dance often reiterate racist images of the black female body, and we are expected to locate a sense of freedom or release in the limited tropes of overcoming found in the likes of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; by fragmenting and citing both racist kitsch and the Ailey aesthetic, Narcissister enacts an active disavowal of the imagery mainstream culture has reserved for the black female body.

As Nyong’o reminds us, Manthia Diawara has put forth a concept related to (but different from) racist or racial kitsch, namely that of “afro-kitsch” or the “kitsch of blackness,” defining it as the “‘imitation of a discourse of liberation’ in the service of ‘mass identification.’” At least between the late 1980s and 2011, I would place the Ailey company’s aesthetic of liberation within Diawara’s framework. Choreography initially committed to politics of the Civil Rights movement became, over several decades, performed as an imitation of itself. If traditional notions of western high art are associated with value, kitsch is thought of as mass-produced imitation of high art, therefore lacking in value. I would argue that the Ailey aesthetic, while implicated in the kitsch of blackness, is not devoid of value in its recent iterations. Rather, value is transferred to its announcement of a certain kind of racialized virtuosity, epitomized by the dancing of Desmond Richardson in 1990. While my current monograph focuses entirely on Richardson’s virtuosity as both uniquely developed and ever-imitated (in fact, he just guest starred on So You Think You Can Dance last night), my subsequent work suggests that Narcissister and artists such as Trajal Harrell and Yve Laris Cohen merely cite such dance-based virtuosity in a way that points to virtuosity’s excess while denying us access to its excellence. As a term popularized through newspaper journalism, virtuosity is a term of critical judgment and public taste-making. I am more interested in observing the way the term is actually deployed over time to describe soloist performers than in creating novel ways of expanding its use. As such, we are able to locate the racialized and gendered dimensions of virtuosity’s supposed excess, or that which surpasses critical standards of excellence in technique. Without lingering for too long on the term, I’d like to remind us of virtuosity’s alternating celebratory and derogatory designations, and most of all, of its tendency to define boundaries between high art and mass-produced popular culture.

We find in Narcissister’s active disavowal of dance-based virtuosity—always delivered in a mask—an eerie ambiguity, one devoid of facial expression or stylistic stability. Such performance functions in stark contrast to the virtuosity of Desmond Richardson, one of technical versatility and individual expression. In Richardson’s dance, often teeming with facially and corporeally legible joy or angst, we are urged to feel with him. Narcissister provides no instructions for how or what we should feel. Certainly not devoid of affective fodder, however, her performances rely on the spectator’s cultural knowledge. In any single piece, Narcissister will cite references ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Chaka Khan to gangster rap to yoga to earlier feminist performance art to porn to tropes of burlesque performance. Narcissister is astute in citing moments of Ailey choreography that epitomize virtuosity’s dual quality of popular appeal and difficult execution, while withholding our access to more than a snippet of “excellent” movement. And if Richardson’s versatility is one that hybridizes multiple dance techniques, Narcissister’s is one that lays bare moments of various forms of art and performance: the feminist craft of homemade costumes meets the running man, which subsequently rubs up against g-stringed merkins and female body-building. Artistry is eclipsed by art-making: the pursuit of generating pleasure for the audience—that found in “artistry”—is abandoned for glimpses into the uneven terrain of process, making the audience privy to the hangnails of pastiche. Insisting on the handmade, Narcissister’s pastiche lies just outside the realm of the smooth, mass-produced sampling we find in commercial hip-hop and also outside of Richardson’s seamless combining of popping and locking with ballet.

Narcissister cleverly alternates between the activation and disavowal of her Ailey dance training. On the one hand, she is always sure to mention in publicity materials that she trained at the Ailey school; but on the other hand, the only times she makes reference to such dance technique in her performances is when she makes almost mocking use of movements typically reserved for frenzied, climactic sections of choreography. We find that in her hand dance (which she performs in a larger-than-life wedding-banded hand costume), she inserts a series of turns from the Horton technique, the kind in which the dancer extends her arms in a vertical overhead parallel position, tracing a circular right-back–left-front circular pattern. The arms and upper body are circling through the air as the legs execute traveling turns.

Alvin Ailey choreographed a series of these very turns in his piece Memoria, an homage to the Horton dancer Joyce Trisler. This type of traveling turn (with arms circling overhead) is a favorite one to use when mocking the Ailey aesthetic, especially because it looks ridiculous when executed haphazardly. It is also the type of movement that those of us who trained at Ailey might use to parody the extreme nature of our training. To reference such a turn sequence is to comment on expectations and imperatives for popular black performance to be presentational, outwardly directed, and deliberately kinetic. To dance those turns in a mask is fascinating: we can read the mask as a minstrel “mask,” an allusion to European modernism’s obsession with African masks, or as a sign of anonymity. I find the latter the most interesting, as Ailey’s choreography epitomizes a certain popular black aesthetic linking “body” and “soul” such that we are urged to believe that the dancer in question is baring her soul, offering up her emotion in the service of both the audience’s pleasure and a higher spiritual power. Unlike contemporary dancers influenced by the Judson Dance Theater’s pedestrianism—after Yvonne Rainer’s imperative “No to virtuosity”—you would seldom find an Ailey dancer pairing Horton turns with a masklike gaze.

I find Anne Cheng’s discussion of mutability—as the reading of the versatile dancer or performer through surface quality without assuming her subjectivity—very relevant to Richardson’s dancing, but such theory ends where Narcissister’s probing of her various orifices begins. During such insertions of, say, dildos, and removals of, say, cellphones from her vagina, we are asked to consider the abject, the penetrability of the feminine in the face of the impenetrability of Narcissister’s gaze, ever-hidden by the neutrality of the mask. As her subject consumes its object, we are left to wonder when and how the object will speak.


July 30TH, 2012, Brooklyn

ARIEL OSTERWEIS – Did you have certain dance-related goals in college and at Ailey, and how did you depart from those goals?

NARCISSISTER – I was not a dancer when I went to Brown [University]. I was actually recruited for the cross-country running team. I got to Brown and surprisingly and suddenly didn’t really feel like running anymore. My parents accompanied me on my first trip to college, and my father went to run with the cross-country team because he was a runner too. Normally he and I would have both gone. I just was not interested in running at all and I wanted to do new things when I got to Brown. One of the new things was enroll in dance class. So, I started taking modern dance with Julie Strandberg, who is Carolyn Adams’ sister. It was an incredible place to start learning because not only was she an incredible teacher, but there was all of this dance history in their family. Her daughter Laura Strandberg was a year older and we became friends. It was a very friendly place to start dancing.

A – Did you take their African dance classes as well? (Brown is known for their active African dance program.)

N – I did not. Just Julie’s modern classes. I was really terrible at the beginning. My body was stiff from being a runner. I was awkward and had a hard time learning the combinations. My body-mind coordination was not developed. But I was so determined at the beginning that I would stay after class and practice combinations over and over again. Or I would go to my dorm and practice in the hallway. I thought, “I’ve found this thing that I really have potential in.” I progressed so quickly. The first summer after my freshman year at Brown I went to Jacob’s Pillow and got a lot of amazing exposure there to other techniques. When I would go home to San Diego I would study modern there with a local company. My junior year at Brown I went to study at the Sorbonne in Paris and took a lot of dance classes.

A – What was your major at Brown? What brought you to Paris?

N – It was supposed to be French. What happened in Paris is that I was taking so many dance classes before my body was quite ready for it, so I got injured. I tore a ligament in my ankle. I had to come back early. So I finished the year at UC San Diego where my father taught and where I grew up.

A – What did he teach?

N – Physics. When my ankle healed I resumed dance training there. I also studied art with the artist Faith Ringgold. Looking back, these were both really seminal experiences for me as both a dancer and an artist. When I got back to Brown I hadn’t finished all the credits for the French major. But I had already completed the Afro-American studies major. I was interested in these ideas which I had already been exposed to through my parents. So, I ended up graduating in Afro-American studies, but that was not what I had planned to do. For the last couple of years at Brown I was in the dance company there, so the day after I graduated, I moved to New York and auditioned for the Ailey School and started training there.

A – You auditioned for the year-long fellowship program?

N – Yes.

A – I think that’s when I met you. So it must have been ‘9..

N- 3, ’93.

A – When you got to Ailey, how did you feel about the climate of dance training there compared to Brown?

N – It was very stressful for me because I was a very good student and I was sort of the ideal type of dancer for the Ailey company, with the look and the body type, but I didn’t have this competitive edge that one would need, really, in any dance environment in New York but especially at Ailey. So, I struggled with the pressure of that environment. I loved it, though. It was really very special for me in a lot of ways – to see dancers I had seen onstage or on video just wandering the halls. It was wonderful; it was also hard.

A – You mentioned that you started training in art alongside dance. Was visual art practice always part of your life?

N – Yes, during the summer in high school I would go to Parsons in Los Angeles to study art and fashion design. And ever since I was a child I was very interested in creative projects. I took a lot of extension classes with adults at UC San Diego. From a very early age I was very directed toward the arts.

A – When you left Ailey, did you return to visual art or were you trying to combine visual art and dance?

N – Well, I left Ailey because I started to get professional dance gigs. I did a tour in Germany for an off-Broadway show.

A – Which one?

N – Tabaluga and Lilli with a German star at the time, Peter Maffay. It was a very funny job; it was good experience. I didn’t leave Ailey for my art, but eventually I left dancing (professionally) to focus on my art.

A – Was that around the time you started doing window display?

N – Yes, I was living in New York and started doing window display here. Then I moved back to California, to San Francisco.

A – My hometown! For how long?

N – For four years. I was focused mainly on my art. I was doing window display there and my own artwork. For fun I would take dance classes. But I really stopped dancing professionally.

A – What did your own artwork consist of?

N – It was sort of installation. It was very connected to the window display work I was doing. I was living in a storefront in lower Haight and I would make my own art/window displays there. But it’s very connected to Narcissister also. When I look back, there’s this clear path that has led directly to this project, Narcissister. My window displays ended up being stills of the things I bring to motion in the Narcissister pieces. I also started working with mannequins, obviously. I was spending a lot of time around these life-sized dolls, dressing them, creating scenarios for them, and I started to own a few mannequins myself because the companies would give them to me or I would find them. I found I had a real affinity for mannequins. The first piece I made as Narcissister was The Mannequin. It led me to be a doll-like figure myself, as a character, to use that mask. Also a lot of my gestures as Narcissister are doll-like. I love having a lot of stillness where you have this illusion of Narcissister being a doll.

A – I was just interviewing Ana Marie Forsythe (the Horton teacher at Ailey) about Ailey training and the fact that she is quite deadpan in her expression but creates these hyper-expressive dancers. She was saying it’s all about dynamics and, often, dancers who know how to use stillness are the most effective in terms of expression. She even referred to Michael Jackson’s use of stillness. Relating to the doll-like quality of stillness, I wonder if we could discuss now the issue of the eyes in relationship to the mask. How do you feel about access to the eyes? Is that a threatening thing for you? You were saying (at our Performance Studies International panel on feminist performance at the University of Leeds in June, 2012 with Anna Fisher, Ann Liv Young, and Barbara Browning) that you prefer to dance with your eyes closed.

N – Right. When I was training as a dancer, I loved the feeling of dance in my body and I loved moving my body to music. I can connect that to some childhood experiences. It was very private for me, and I wanted to dance with my eyes closed. I often got this feedback from teachers: “Open your eyes!” They wanted me to be expressive with my face. But I really had no interest in that. I was feeling it so much in my body and I wanted to just concentrate on that experience. This is connected to the idea that I’m unable to be egocentric or aggressively confident as a dancer. The experience felt very deep and private and internal for me. I didn’t have this external “Me me me, look at me; look what I can accomplish, what I’m achieving!” as a dancer. It felt like a personal pursuit. I knew that when I started Narcissister, first of all, that I wanted to protect myself to a certain extent, that I wanted to protect my privacy and that I wanted to believably portray this character, Narcissister, and through her portray many other characters. I wanted to experience dance in a way that was really wonderful and workable for me and one of the ways in which I knew I’d be able to do that was to be able to create a situation where I could dance with my eyes closed. And the mask very much allows me to do that.

A – Is that something you discovered after putting the mask on, or was it intentional, as in, now I can finally put a mask on?

N – I think that it must have just been part of my thinking when I conceived of the project. How do I envision this? I envision this as something where I can retain my privacy, where I can dance with my eyes closed, where I can think about movement coming from a deep internal place.

A – About that deep internal place: I feel that what’s so interesting about your work is that there’s all this externality and excess (how you can have twenty costumes on at once, and take them off one by one), but then there’s this deeply internal—or at least abject—space in terms of removing things from your orifices (especially your vagina and ass). But that internal place is different than the deeply felt internal place. Or, are they somehow related?

N – I think it’s interesting. It’s always been my intention that my project be very strong, very authentic, and that there not be any fakery.

A – What constitutes fakery?

N – To me, fakery is more of a burlesque model, where you’re pretending that you’re extracting something from your body, but it’s all by slight of hand or by “Wink wink, you know that’s not real.” I wanted to follow more of a performance art [model] in the visual art world sense, where the body is literally challenged in order to accomplish these gestures. I think that there’s some kind of parallel there between the content of the work coming from this deep, authentic place in me emotionally and from my experience, and also in being reflected in how I accomplish the work, that it’s real and I’m using my orifices.

A – In a way, it’s the antithesis of magic because you’re not making people believe in something that isn’t really happening.

N – Yeah. I’m very interested in magic, actually. I ordered a book on magic and started reading it.

A – An anthropological book?

N – No, it’s actually a how-to, a very advanced how-to. I sort of figured out how to achieve my own brand of magic, unintentionally, I think. I would be really thrilled to incorporate some real magic tricks. I haven’t dedicated the time [yet]. I even at one point thought of working with a more experienced magician, but then I quickly realized they don’t really want to help you out because they don’t want to show you their tricks.

A – You’d have to sign a contract or something.

N – Yeah. I guess so. Inadvertently some of the things I do end up seeming like magic, but….

A – …but it’s also hyper-real in the sense that audiences—and especially the MCs who comment during your performances at The Box—are often saying, “Oh my God, is this really happening? Is she really going to pull something out of there?!” You can’t believe Narcissister is actually going to do this. I think a while back, when I was first reintroduced to you (by Trajal Harrell), you were saying there’s a link between your discipline as a dancer and the control you have to have with the things you put in your orifices (vagina, ass), and some of the more yogic postures you do onstage. Maybe you could say something about that, about discipline and control?

N – I really draw on that so much. I think it’s one of the main things that’s left from my training as a dancer because this ability to move in a strong authentic way I think I had before I trained as a dancer. The discipline I also had as a runner. I would train as a team, but I also had to run many miles by myself when I was in high school when my friends were at the beach or whatever.

A – What is that feeling of endurance? I’m not really a runner. I ran a little bit in middle school.

N – It’s an opportunity to connect with oneself deeply. It’s an extended period of time where one is feeling their body. Walkmans were in mode at the time. You remember them? You would run with them but the headphones started moving annoyingly. This was not a time when people were constantly running to their ipods. I would run for hours with no music. This was at a time when I was connecting with myself very deeply, being with my body, being with my thoughts. I look, still, for that experience.

A – Do you ever feel any part of that is an escape, as much as it is a kind of burrowing into the self?

N – Sure. I try to think of it less now as an escape because I’ve tried to think of it more from a meditation standpoint in terms of being really present with my body in the moment. If I were to exercise to music, that feels like more of an escape, which I still do sometimes. I end up forgetting or not noticing what my body is doing. I’m in a fantasy that the music is directing. I can always perform even if it’s very late at night and I’m tired or I’m processing some heavy duty events in my personal life. I seem to be able to give myself over to that experience. Maybe in that way it is an escape for me because I’m just enjoying being in this fantasy realm that’s separate from the trials and tribulations in my life at that moment.

A – I wonder if we can shift over to the conceptual aspect of your work. It’s interesting that you said you studied fashion design when you were younger because I see that in your work you simultaneously comment on and critique commodity culture (especially what it means to be a woman in commodity culture). It’s as much a positive embrace as a critique. I wonder what Narcissister is trying to say about being a woman in capitalist society.

N – She’s never really critiquing one side. She’s not really able to 100% join or 100% critique one side or another. My hope with Narcissister is that she shows the complexity of being a woman with these opposing forces and desires that are around us. Narcissister very much wants to be a part of that world, of capitalism and of fashion and adoration and luxury, but she is also critical of it. So I try to celebrate it and also to debunk or critique it.

A – Sometimes she’s religious, in a hijab or burka, or an old lady with a cane.

N – Right. But as a character in a burka, she was in a Barbie box. She had all of her accoutrements – her purse, her mirror and makeup and accessories, so I was juxtaposing some heavy statements there.

A – I don’t know if you always feel the same way as Narcissister or if you sometimes have differing feelings, but if you or Narcissister could say something about a woman’s body or how one might think about her own body, what would you say? Do you have ideas about this, or are you just putting it out there and complicating the issue, allowing the audience to generate its own thoughts?

N – I think about that a lot because my own body has changed in the period of time that I’ve been doing Narcissister.

A – How?

N – I’m 7 pounds thinner. It was very stressful at the beginning to start doing Narcissister. There was the pressure of the late night performing, and something changed in my system. I look back on my life before Narcissister and there was something easier and less heavy duty. Now I feel I have (very gladly) the responsibility of this project; I feel the impact of that.

A – Would you do Narcissister if you were chubby?

N – Yes, of course. I now have this specific body that fits within these silly ideals around body types in society. It’s shocking to me how women come up to me after my show and say, “Oh my God, you have the perfect body, your body’s amazing.” I struggle with feeling my body’s too thin, and I’m thinking, “What’s up with these women?” It’s written a lot: “Narcissister and her amazing body.” And I’m just thinking, “Wow, there are so many people who internalize these values.” One reason I’m interested in portraying women of different body types is that I’m interested in diversifying my message. I have a piece where I’m a fat woman; I have a piece where I’m a pregnant woman…a muscular man. In these ways, I very much embrace fakery. I love that you see without a question that I’m wearing a fat suit or that I’m wearing a rubber chest plate or fake breasts. When I’ve included other Narcissisters in my show, I’ve been open to other body types.

A – Like in This Masquerade at Abrons Arts Center? How have people responded to the female body builder or voluptuous women onstage?

N – I didn’t get direct feedback on that. I got feedback on the fact that people liked seeing multiples of Narcissister.

A – Let’s talk about some of your pieces. Sitting here in your studio in Brooklyn, I’m looking right now at a metallic heart made out of many different shiny fabrics, and the heart is going to emerge from a large airbrushed woman’s chest, bringing the heart to life.

N – I’m really excited about this piece. I started working on it last summer [2011] when I was being considered for America’s Got Talent live show because I wanted to create something that would be so stunning visually. The trajectory/narrative of the piece was not clear to me at the time, but I just forged ahead with making the costume and the props so that if I were called to be on the show, I would come up with a narrative quickly and be ready to go. Nothing materialized with the show and because the narrative wasn’t complete, I took a break on the piece and started focusing on other things that were clearer. Now I have the answer. I created the piece initially when I was going through a breakup, and the piece is about heartbreak and healing of the heart. The piece has a new resonance because I have a new heartbreak I’m processing since my mom passed away. It’s lovely because I talked to my mom about this piece; I talked to her a lot about my Narcissister work. This piece was closer to her because she had rheumatic fever as a child in Morocco and they did not have Penicillin.

A – Aw. Why was she living in Morocco? Is that where she grew up?

N – Yes, Tangier. If you don’t take Penicillin when you have rheumatic fever, it can do a couple of things to your body, and one is affect your heart valves, which was the case with her. She had a heart condition most of her life. When I talked to her about this piece, I had this idea of embodying an anatomical heart, and this idea of flying through the chest. We were talking about what could happen next with the narrative, and she said, “Maybe you can become a heart surgeon who then heals the heart.” I thought that was an incredible idea! So, the heart leaps out of the chest and does this broken-hearted dance (which is amazingly expressive) to a Billy Holiday song.

A – Which song?

N – “Good Morning, Heartache.” And then out of the (broken) heart emerges this heart surgeon, so I went and found this great evening dress in surgeon scrubs’ color and I made myself this surgeon’s cap and mask and white long satin gloves. So, it was sort of this evening-wear surgeon. I have a stethoscope. I listen to the heart and do a healing dance. The choreography is really wonderful and kind of jazzy and technical, so I get to do some kicks and turns.

A – That’s something that’s always exciting to me, how you draw upon certain heightened Ailey/jazz/Horton-esque moves that might otherwise be reserved for very climactic, expressive moments [in, say, Ailey’s choreography], and it seems that in the context of a place like The Box, you’re both embracing it and mocking it.

N – Yeah.

A – But do you ever feel that you’re mocking it, or does it feel sincere?

N – It feels absolutely sincere. I think what’s interesting about Narcissister is that my experience doing the movement inside is very different than how the audience is receiving it because they’re seeing Narcissister doing it.

A – Do you ever smile under the mask?

N – Absolutely. I totally emote under the mask.

A – What percentage of the time are your eyes closed?

N – Most of the time. I can see a little bit through the mask. It’s hard to see. In this most recent piece [Changes] where I’m wearing four masks, I can barely see. The fact that I’ve always loved dancing with my eyes closed has helped me very much deal with these kinds of costume challenges. I think somebody else might feel very disoriented or claustrophobic. Sometimes I will actually look out and see a little bit of audience, but very rarely. Either my eyes are closed, or they’re internally directed, looking at the inside of the mask.

A – I’d like to shift to the question of race and racial ambiguity. What is Narcissister doing in terms of race? Are you using ambiguity in intentional ways? Also, your musical choices are very interesting in the way they draw on Motown and hip-hop from different eras, and the way you draw from various diasporic traditions.

N – It’s not super intentional. I often work with music that moves me.

A – And it’s popular, as in, everyone knows the songs.

N – Yes, and in some ways I suppose I’m kind of outing myself in that way because I’m acknowledging that some of my music choices are a little passé or not cool, but I use music that moves me. And the mask of Narcissister allows me to let this music make some kind of political or social commentary. But the honest truth is that I pick songs that initially inspire me. The fact that I’m a woman of color probably means that I’m drawn to certain artists or certain messages through music. But I don’t set to pick music primarily by African American artists. I’m following my own instincts. Obviously in my project critiquing and considering pop culture is so essential, so using pop music is essential. I really allow myself to indulge in this because I think it makes an interesting commentary.

A – Also, there’s so much feeling and affect—personal and societal—when people hear certain songs; it’s interesting how the performances play into that and twist it.

N – I agree and I think there’s an element of cannibalism around this choice too. Like most people (and as a little girl) I had a lot of fantasies. When I would hear music, I would suddenly see myself as the star of this music video in my mind even before MTV was around. I had Barbies and I would make these very elaborate Barbie set-ups in the house.

A – Would the Barbies dance to pop music?

N – They would maybe dance, but I remember creating romantic scenarios. I had some Ken dolls. They had cars. They were what Narcissister has become. They had accessories and purses and cars. They were the antithesis of my home life. My parents were very liberal, the kind of people who take vows of poverty. I mean, we weren’t living in poverty, but they just didn’t have these values of a lot of materialism. I wanted to be living these lives that I was trying to create with my Barbies or these fantasies I would create when I heard music. But I’m not Madonna or Janet Jackson…

A – …or Whitney Houston…

N – …or Whitney Houston or these people I aspired to be. But by being Narcissister, by almost making my own music videos to their songs, it’s sort of a way I can attach myself to their success or consume their success and regurgitate it as mine, as Narcissister’s. She takes what she wants and puts herself into their scene.

A – Is Narcissister ever trying to imagine different kinds of blackness within that?

N – I think so, very much. I really have my own way of being a woman of color, or an African American woman, or a mixed woman. To some extent, I think anybody can say that. But I’ve always very much struggled with these clichés around blackness. When I went to Brown, it was sort of expected by the black students that I would join them and be part of their clique. And I really wasn’t interested. I followed where my interests led me, which was to the dance department. And there were some black students in the dance group, including Julie Strandberg’s daughter, Laura. But it was a mixed group and that’s what felt right to me. I was drawn to the arts scene. I struggled with this, to be black in the way that I’m uniquely black. I do explore this complexity with Narcissister, and I allow her to be surprising in her own expression of blackness.

A – I have similar—but different—experiences, as someone who is “half”-Korean and “half”- Jewish. In some sense, it’s given me some sense of mobility, but in another sense it’s as though I’m not living up to this expectation or that expectation. I go to Korea, and they say, “You’re a bad Korean; you’re a hybrid.” That kind of thing. I’ve always wondered if my attraction to stylistic hybridity [especially in dance] has something to do with growing up not defined as this or that. The word “mixed” can be a positive or negative word, but difficult when one is asked to relate to a group.

N – Yeah. Right. That resonates with me too, that my creative sensibility in many projects and with Narcissister is to draw from many different references and experiences, and that it’s a whole mix of different elements. That’s very much what I am and what my family life was, so that’s a really interesting point.

A – In terms of the way you make you work, for example DIY aesthetics, the way the audience can tell these aren’t store-bought costumes and that there is that very individualistic touch to aspects of your pieces, do you try to make craft and the homemade explicit in your work, especially as it comments on precisely the opposite of the homemade, the artificiality of commodity culture?

N – Yeah, a couple of things: one, it’s part of this whole aesthetic of mixing and drawing from different sources. I think it’s interesting to juxtapose materialism or some form of materialist expression—whether it’s through Narcissister’s costume or the music or the gestures—with something that’s obviously very homemade, very low budget, very lo-fi. I’m following what feels authentic to me. As a child I took classes through the UCSD extension in ceramics, batik, life-drawing, connected to what one can create with one’s own hands. With Ringgold, I studied contemporary quilting. I’m interested in making things with my own hands. It suits my philosophy in general as a person to recycle materials, to do things in a low budget way and to make them accessible to people.

A – You said “materialism,” and it made me think that your work is like materiality confronting  materialism.

N – Oh, that’s awesome!

A – As in, your handiwork is exposing materiality. About recycling: a lot of your fabrics are recycled or found? Your images are also recycled, in a way.

N – Definitely. I find a lot of the fabric when someone’s discarding it.

A – Where does one find fabric?

N – When working in buildings like this with a lot of artists who try to let go of things in their studios. Things are left in the hall. People donate fabric to me. The person down the hall gave me two bags of fabric recently. Often something coming to me is the source of inspiration. It happens with music. I’m out dancing, and I’ll hear a song. It’s very rare that I’ll think, “Oh, I want to make a heart costume” and go buy stuff.

A – This space [of artists’ studios] is really amazing. Do you find it’s mostly visual artists and furniture makers here? Any performers?

N – No, I don’t know of any other performance artists. There are a lot of art studios of different disciplines. It is quite inspiring. Until about two years ago I was working at home; it had always been my fantasy to have a live/work space, but I realized it was quite overwhelming and unproductive to be living and working in the same space.

A – Do you usually work during the day here, or sometimes at night?

N – Both. What’s nice is that my schedule is open and I come when it feels right.

A – What about when you need to turn on the music loudly and actually rehearse? Does that happen more at places like The Box?

N – I do it here. The stages where I perform are often quite small, so it’s not a problem to move things out of the center area and rehearse here. I tend to be very shy and private, so the idea that people there would see things in progress or I would have to worry about someone walking in and watching me rehearse is really unappealing to me. My rehearsal videos are quite wonderful because it’s just me alone in here with the camera. And they’re very funny because sometimes I’m half in costume, and I’ll turn the camera on and walk away and set something up and then I’ll realize that I can’t get my mask on right so I’ll walk back over and turn it off, then turn it on again. I really need to have that private experience with the pieces to really get it in my body before I’m willing to make it public at all.

A – I can relate to that. When I first started choreographing I had to be in the studio alone. I was wondering about your daily practice, and if it had a rhythm to it. What does your week look like?

N – I like to exercise almost every day. In some ways I feel I need to do that as Narcissister because I want my body to stay strong and flexible for this work I’m doing, and often the work is late at night.

A – Do you wake up late?

N – I wake up late. I usually go to bed between 3 and 3:30AM, and I let myself sleep. So I generally get up around 11AM. I don’t have an administrative helper, which I’d love to have, so there are always a lot of emails. I get a lot of requests for images or screenings of my films. I do my best to get through it. I mostly swim or go to the gym, and every once in a while I take a Bikram yoga class.

A – I used to like Bikram. I feel like it balances strength…

N – …with flexibility. Then I come here to the studio during the day or night, and I have rehearsals. There’s a choreographer who I work with primarily who has become a really good friend of mine, Wanda Gala. She’s like a midwife for Narcissister.

A – I like that term.

N – It helps to have someone to talk through my concepts with; she makes certain suggestions. Then I see how it feels and she gives me feedback, and we create movement together.

A – What kind of choreographer is she normally, when she’s not working with you?

N – Modern dance. She also does performance art. She’s very involved in the noise scene in New York.

A – Remind me of the name of the artist who does your airbrushed torso set and others.

N – Malcolm Stuart. He used to have a studio space next door. Now he and his partner are based in LA. He airbrushed my hand costume, which you saw.

A – And that piece seems most similar to the heart piece.

N – I’m going to make a video of it soon. Often I feel a piece is too complex to take on within the confines of live performance.

A – What were you about to tell me earlier?

N – I had this experience of being in a German choreographer’s piece recently. In his work, I was just portraying myself—no mask, no costume, no choreography, no rehearsal. He rehearses, but you’re just rehearsing getting to really authentic places. There’s nothing planned. This is so different from my process. After performing in a piece of his in Berlin, I came back to the studio and I was working on this Changes piece, which is my most complex in terms of costumes. I was in here trying to rehearse. It was summer. It was so hot. It was a lot of work to figure out how to achieve those quick changes. And I thought, “Why am I doing this? Why is my project so complex when I just performed in this other piece that was very powerful and there was none of this?” At first I thought, this is terrible. I’m putting myself through all this struggle and discomfort. Sometimes it’s extreme discomfort. I don’t mind if I can’t see well, but sometimes I can’t breathe well. Sometimes after my rehearsals I feel a bit light-headed, as though I’ve been deprived of…

A – …oxygen?

N – Oxygen. I was feeling, “What does this say about me, that I’m willing to put myself through so much strife?” But I realized it’s an essential experience for me as a person that I go through layering these costumes and masks, stripping myself. It parallels layering personal issues, social issues, physical issues, family issues, all of these things that burden me in my everyday life, that I experience as a person historically and personally. Sometimes five days a week I have this experience of being weighed down, and I systematically remove each layer. I feel like I’ve moved on and I’m here with just the essence of myself.

A – What’s so interesting about that is when your body is nude, you feel the most psychologically free, at least in the context of that performance. But that’s precisely the place where, say, some old dude at The Box who just got a bottle of vodka might objectify you the most.

N – Totally.

A – Do you ever worry about that? Or is there something about the mask that allows your experience to be a personal release for you?

N – I think the mask is central to that. It seems that the audience comes on this journey with me of self-liberation and some kind of unburdening, or some kind of connection to joy at the end.

A – You’re not just a nude girl standing there with her tits and ass out. Do you think skill and ability have something to do with the sense that you are not being objectified and the idea that the audience is connecting with your performance? You are always doing something, and often something that requires years of training. What do you call that yoga posture you were doing in Changes when Narcissister morphs into a gymnast? (Then you become Venus de Milo and a pearl in a shell, after extracting white fabric from your vagina and placing it on your head.)

N – It’s so funny that you brought that up. I do some unabashed yoga moves. At first I thought, “Gosh, that’s not good choreography. I need to complicate those moves a little bit.” But then I realized I’m interested in quoting pop culture, and yoga is so much a part of pop culture. I’m quoting forearm stand and scorpion.

A – Yoga can include tricks, like circus tricks, even after everything that it says it tries to be, as a spiritual practice.

N – The last thing I’d be interested in doing is being a beautiful body up onstage doing something not so impressive. That would be such a disappointment to me. What makes the project kick ass is that I am drawing on all this training I had as a dancer, and I just realized as we were talking, as a runner too – all this discipline, training my body. Training as an artist and working with my hands; I still use a sewing machine that was my mom’s. It’s very carefully considered. You can also make work that’s very strong that’s not carefully considered in these ways.

A – It seems that you are okay with the evidence of all these different trainings you have had. A lot of training works toward the illusion of effortlessness. In your work, there is, at once, the evidence of effort as well as the aspect of “Wait, how did she do that?!” There is a play between effort and effortlessness.

N – Right. It’s hard to explain, but I just love the lo-fi aesthetic or ethos, and it’s my way of being kind of punk rock. It suits my moral concepts and belief systems.

A – The last quick thing I want to ask you is in regards to the way Narcissister has allowed herself to bleed into popular culture, with the whole Marilyn Manson sighting (“date”) that made it into the tabloids (in that great crotch cut-out dress): is Narcissister going to step out into the world a little bit more? Does she want to be seen out there?

N – Yes! Absolutely. I’m trying to figure out how it feels right to expand my project without selling out, without having to compromise my content. I really would love for Narcissister to go as far out into the world as possible, and I’m very interested in more opportunities to take part in the high echelons of pop culture. I just think there’s no way Narcissister can not be critical. So, just putting Narcissister in these scenarios is interesting.

A – Will she always be in the mask and the merkin in public?

N – Yes. She’s not Narcissister without the mask.

A – That was about an hour long.

N – What time is it?

A – It’s time.

N – We could talk again.