My Article, “Public Pubic: Narcissister’s Performance of Race, Disavowal, and Aspiration,” is published in the Winter 2015 issue of TDR/The Drama Review. You can read it here:
My Article, “Public Pubic: Narcissister’s Performance of Race, Disavowal, and Aspiration,” is published in the Winter 2015 issue of TDR/The Drama Review. You can read it here:
I contributed this short essay to Dirty Looks NYC (Creative Director Bradford Nordeen), a monthly platform for queer experimental film and video. It is on Narcissister and Josef Kraska’s video, The Basket. Here is a link to the site:
It takes a person about four minutes to read aloud one single-spaced page of text. That is one minute less than Narcissister and Josef Kraska’s video, The Basket. Skimming here and there, you should get through this particular text in a time frame that corresponds with the video. While The Basket is based on Narcissister’s performance piece of the same title, it is not merely a documentation of that performance. It is an archive of another sort, a simultaneous weaving and unweaving. During the course of this five-minute journey, The Basket crisscrosses temporalities such that an Eastern European woman morphs into an African American mammy figure who, in turn, finds herself stripping down to a shiny red Louis Vuitton bra, exploring the impossibility of nakedness in commodity-driven culture. Bound to the moving image, cinematic time weaves multiple temporalities—historiographic, imaginative, textual, musical, and choreographic. By stripping off layers and layers of clothing in real time against various painted backdrops of lost times, Narcissister juxtaposes the disparate temporalities and visualities available to her through her combination of performance art and visual arts. Welcome to the melancholic mash-up of Narcissister’s post-Soul, mixed-race feminism. Drawing from her family heritage, Narcissister’s scavenging of imagery takes us on a trip from pre-war Eastern European folk dance to the blinged-out sexuality of Lil Kim’s millennial hip-hop America. Because her timeline seems to terminate with the year 2000 (the year “How Many Licks” debuts), Narcissister is afro-futurist not in her choices of source material, but in her mutability. Her stylistic quick-changes and her insistence on wearing a mask and merkin engage a kind of magic, one in which we are impelled to believe in a utopic fluidity of identity.
In Narcissister’s performances, things are also scavenged. Embracing a DIY craft aesthetic, she appropriates both material and image, constructing her own sets and costumes out of found fabrics. Narcissister recontextualizes tropes typically associated with the objectifying gaze and commodity fetishism of capitalism by placing them in reflexive performance settings that lie on the fringes of capitalist modes of commodity circulation. Her disavowal of theatrical virtuosity—and its fetishization of the cult of individual persona—asks us why and if we want to know what lies under the mask and what we expect of racialized performance. Denying us a consistent character, Narcissister’s dance performs ruptures along a continuity of striptease. For her, surface is supplemented by material thing; even when a piece of clothing is removed, it leaves a trace. Her mask and merkin are things that haunt even in their presence. Robin Bernstein tells us in her book Racial Innocence that “performance is what distinguishes an object from a thing” (74), an idea that gestures toward Jane Bennett’s vital materialist theory of “thing-power.” For Bennett, Kafka’s Odradek functions as a kind of remnant of culture—neither subject nor object, animate or inanimate.
In “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance,” Tavia 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. 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 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 Josephine Baker, Marie-Antoinette, and Whitney Houston. While auto-, object-, or thing-based penetration can perform self-care, Narcissister’s appropriations of culturally rehearsed images such as the Topsy doll can also evoke masochism and rape. As Bernstein writes, “The scripts of black dolls often merged servitude with violence (206)….A scriptive thing [is] an item of material culture that prompts meaningful bodily behaviors…a script for a performance. The script is itself a historical artifact” (72). Bernstein provides the example of “rape imagery…of the skirt-flipping topsy-turvy doll” (206) and asserts that, “All dolls in play…trouble the boundary between person and thing—the terror at the ontological core of slavery” (222).
Ever one to try to take down the insistence of Marxist theorists that society is defined by economic relations, structural anthropologist Pierre Clastres reduced the division between men and women in primitive Guayaki (Aché) Indian society to bows and baskets: men handled bows for hunting and women handled baskets for gathering. Queer theory doesn’t love this limited view since it fails to acknowledge the possibility of queer or trans* gender roles in primitive society (Clastres said that men who carried baskets metaphorically became women). There is a certain uncomfortable tinge to the stereotype of women as basket holders (and weavers); at the same time, we find evidence of the feminization of baskets in almost any culture. Narcissiter’s entire oeuvre depends on the recognition of stereotypes—both our belief in them and our desire to dismantle their hold. Moreover, she situates us as viewers within that shameful space of perceiving the degree of truth inherent to any stereotype. In The Basket, Narcissister is the basket holder: she does laundry and folk dances in a white mask which gives way to a mammy in a black mask doing chores to Nina Simone’s pained rendition of “Wild is the Wind.” Regardless of race, Narcissister’s women-selves are subjected to basket holding, even once stripped down to a merkin and a shiny red bra with metallic Louis Vuitton logos.
Throughout The Basket, Narcissister’s flow is interrupted by calls—a call to change, a call from home, a call from the unconscious, a call from the future? She answers old school phones buried in laundry baskets. Evoking a decaying filmstrip, the edges of the frame are blurred; every time the phone rings, Narcissister answers her own call, and her present and future selves are indicated by a split screen. Curly phone cords eerily conjure umbilical cords which she does away with upon answering a first generation cellphone. Finally, Lil Kim’s confident cunnilingual anthem, asking, “how many licks does it take till you get to the center of the?” is interrupted by another ring, the sound of a more recent cellphone. No licker in sight, Narcissister points to the way popular culture withholds images of black women being taken care of. Her hand (one presumably practiced in acts of self-care) reaches down to remove a cellphone from her pussy. Narcissister brings the phone to her ear, pivots around with a basket overflowing with dangling phone cords atop her head, and inaudibly answers this final call. At once deliberate and unhurried, she saunters upstage in beat-up yellow pumps, her bare ass shifting from left to right, all while balancing her precarious load. Here we 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 and ejects its object, we are left to wonder when and how the object will speak, when it will become thing-y, even person-y.
Barbara Browning and I engaged in an epistolary exchange about the performance art of Narcissister.
Please read below or use this link to read our publication in Theatre Survey:
Barbara Browning and Ariel Osterweis (2012). DANCING SOCIAL. Theatre Survey,53, pp 269277 doi:10.1017/S0040557412000087
EDITED BY PATRICK ANDERSON
Barbara Browning and Ariel Osterweis
Editor’s Note: For this issue of Critical Stages, Ari Osterweis and Barbara Browning consider the multiple publics at play in the work of artist-performer Narcissister.
Barbara Browning teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She is the author of the aca- demic books Samba: Resistance in Motion (1995) and Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture (1998) as well as the ficto-critical novels Who Is Mr. Waxman? (2007, audiobook), The Correspondence Artist (2011), and I’m Trying to Reach You (2012). She is also a poet, dancer, amateur ukuleleist, and a stalwart of the feminist collec- tive editorial board of Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her Web site is http://www.barbarabrowning.info.
Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and her B.A. in Anthropology from Columbia University. Osterweis has been published in Dance Research Journal, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, e-misférica, In Dance, Dancer Magazine, and Studio: The Studio Museum in Harlem Magazine, and is forth- coming in Mediated Moves: A Popular Screen Dance Anthology (Oxford). In addition to writing at the intersection of race, gender, virtuosity, and perform- ance in the United States, Osterweis also researches contemporary geochor- eographic practices in West and Central Africa. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Heidi Latsky Dance, and Mia Michaels R.A.W. and has choreographed works based on pregnancy, dou- bling, and the experimental “Drawing Poems” of Robert Grenier. Most recently, Osterweis has been theorist/dramaturge for performance artist Narcissister.
ARIEL OSTERWEIS: I think we ought to begin with the conclusion: we both want to be Narcissister. With a bit more grit, time at the gym, vaginal accoutrements, and mistrust of academic discourse, we could come close—very close. We linger here in cyberspace, flirt- ing with live/mediated performance, but mainly writing about it instead of just getting up (like Narcissister), going to the club, and pulling evening dresses out of orifices in a mode both dismissive of and desperate for academic contextualization.
Perhaps this is a good moment to shift to the beginning. I met Narcissister at the Ailey School in the 1990s. Because she had gone to college (and a fancy one at that: Brown) and I had dropped out of high school to dance, I thought of her as sensible and intelligent. We were reintroduced by choreographer Trajal Harrell, who recommended my academic ser- vices when Narcissister sought a theorist. (“Oh my goodness,” I said, “it’s you and you are now so artfully pulling things out of orifices and saying things with your body that I can barely muster in the space of an entire dissertation!” “I’m so happy that you are giving me these readings and meeting with me to talk about theory,” she replied. “I will pay you!”) This all plays perfectly (if melancholically) into my underacknowledged stripper envy, for strippers have a way of getting to the point more directly than the concert dancer.
Our readers will note the first person singular, my own failingly artful attempt at self- reflexively taking on the gal-in-the-mirror narcissism that shall thematize this thread. To confess to this might be a mistake, but to continue otherwise would be to betray both the matter at hand and the fact of our own (albeit relational) narcissistic correspondence habit.
I think this brings me to one central question: What is Narcissister doing that we do not (or cannot) do? Why do we love her so? I have heard you frame her masturbatory video/photographic performance “Self-Gratifier” in terms of “taking care of oneself”; you also note that images of black women in U.S. culture are not sanctioned within tropes of being-taken-care-of (by a man/woman/lover). And as someone who has begun to write both for her and about her, I have been thinking about her simultaneous disavowal of and reliance upon the disciplining effects of dance technique. It seems to me that in Narcissister’s dance, there’s some serious selfing going on; and this selfing—while com- menting on the artificiality of our ubiquitous commodity fetishism—is both feminist and DIY in method and tone: she makes all her own sets and costumes.
On that note, I am compelled to reflect upon two binaries that Narcissister’s work troubles: namely, public–private and internal–external. By public–private, I’m provisionally thinking about both the forum of our discussion—this column about “dancing social”—as well as her persona’s locales in alternating spheres of the artistic, domestic, celebrity, per- sonal, and professional, as well as the making-public of her masks, which she will soon offer for sale. In terms of internality and externality, I am thinking of body parts and the abject. Narcissister is so easy to theorize in some regard; she is what I call a ready-made artist for performance studies fodder, playing with all the expected, studied tropes we like to throw around. So I’m trying to think of aspects or angles of her work that are unex- pected or perhaps private themselves.
BARBARA BROWNING: You mentioned to me that you and she have been working on a manifesto. Manifestos are manifest—i.e., explicit. Which in regard to Narcissister is always ironic, because what seems to be overly explicit is usually covering up something else, and what seems to be discreet is the real obscenity. There’s another chiasmus in her work: it tells you that the first person is never really about “me” and the second person is never really “you.”
So here we are in a public–private correspondence about Narcissister—ostensibly two performance scholars engaging in an epistolary dialogue about a performance practitioner with whom both of us are engaged in relationships that might be characterized as scholarly but in which our “scholarship” can be construed as part of her performance. Anna Fisher recently presented an excellent paper at NYU on parasitic feminist strategies.1 So parasite–host would be another interesting chiasmus to think about specifically in relation to our work with her. Effectively, you gave me your Narcissister parasite. Or intro- duced me as parasite to your Narcissister host. Either way, or both: thank you.
Nameless reader we’ll call “you”—let me explain. Ari told me about Narcissister’s work, which I didn’t know. I looked at some of her videos on the Web. For one, called “Man/Woman,” she played both a hypermasculine dude (flannel work shirt open to expose prosthetic chest muscles, jeans bulging with prosthetic schlong) and the hyperfemme, equally plastic dream girl that emerges from the pages of his porn. That one ends in a com- plex choreography in which Narcissister ravenously and ecstatically fucks her prosthetic self. But another, “Every-Woman,” shows a reverse strip tease in which Narcissister’s “real” breasts are exposed. And the second I saw them, I thought, “I know her! I saw her reperform ‘Luminosity’ in the Marina Abramovi ́c show at MoMA!” I remembered very clearly the angelic, indeed luminous, unadorned face of that performer, whose beauty would certainly fall under the clichéd descriptor “natural.” Her face of course was obscured by Narcissister’s mask. But I remembered very clearly those breasts. And that’s when I had a small revelation, which I later wrote to her: breasts are like eyes.
Sometime later I was looking for an image for the cover of my forthcoming novel. My editor came up with one that Ari adamantly disliked, and she suggested an image of Narcissister. I thought this was genius. It wasn’t precisely illustrative of what the novel was about, and yet the image—from “Self-Gratifier”—touched on a lot of things in the book, from the profound (racial and sexual ambiguity, inability to connect in affective relationships) to the banal (exercise equipment). I wrote to Narcissister and asked if I might use the image. The actual negotiation would go on to include the photographer; but for her part, Narcissister responded warmly and generously. The only thing she shyly suggested I might offer her in turn would be a short scholarly piece of writing about her work. Of course, that request was more of an offering than a request: I had a ton of things to say. Her work seemed to be in dialogue with several female conceptual artists I’d long been thinking about—particularly Sophie Calle. I won’t go too far into that here, but what I loved about their work included its masturbatory quality: the way it thematized women taking care of themselves (I like that, a lot) and also (perhaps ironically) engaging other people in that process. Effectively, in this exchange (ostensibly of a performance piece for a work of scholarship), my writing became part of her performance, and her performance became part of my writing. And Ari, it seems to me like your work with her has also oper- ated along these lines.
I’m tempted to say that it goes beyond barter into the realm of the gift (I could go on about this, but for the feel-good version I’d indicate Lewis Hyde, and for the more hard-core— though to me even more pleasurable—version I’d indicate Marcel Mauss via David Graeber). Or we could go back to parasite–host. In a good way.
AO: The gift. Let’s take the Maussian route, shall we? In performance studies, it can be taboo to reenter foundational anthropological and sociological theory, for we are press- ured to fetishize the “new,” the avant-garde, the “radical.” (Given where I’m headed with this segment, I ought not to use “taboo” and “fetishize” so semicolloquially, or perhaps it’s appropriate to blur the anthropological and the colloquial here.) In any case, much of this foundational theory has been dismissed or avoided by performance scholars, largely because of its seeming incompatibility with newer queer and feminist theory, but also because of our field’s preoccupation with psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and/or dis- course from visual art. I’ve tried, to no avail, to think of Narcissister’s work in terms of camp and drag. Despite her seemingly novel approach and avant-garde tendencies, she can be fairly comfortably “read” by Mauss’s “gift,” Simmel’s “secret,” Bakhtin’s “carnival- esque,” and Taussig’s (and others’) theorization of taboo and transgression.
Both Mauss and Simmel stage their theories based on the concept of the third party, especially in relation to the question of economy. Mauss writes:
The taonga and all goods termed strictly personal possess a hau, a spiritual power. You give me one of them, and I pass it on to a third party; he gives another to me in turn, because he is impelled to do so by the hau my present possesses. I, for my part, am obliged to give you that thing because I must return to you what is in reality the effect of the hau of your taonga.2
In differentiating the kula ring and/as gift exchange from commodity exchange, Mauss points to both the aggression of the gift (as in the obligation of reciprocity) as well as the third party awaiting temporary possession of the gift (or kula). There are many aspects of gift exchange that apply to Narcissister, but for the sake of time and space, I would like to gesture to her imminent project of selling masks with accompanying manifestos. With these transactions, Narcissister will certify others to become Narcissister, as long as they enter into the contract of payment as exchange. And as these purchasers become part of a culture of exchange by purchasing a mask, the commandment to “be Narcissister” (in the manifestos) becomes a kind of “reciprocity.” Narcissister’s photo page now includes multiple Narcissisters wearing masks, under the rubric “Narcissister is you!”
We might also claim that Narcissister’s staged performances are a kind of a gift—or that we (you and I, Barbara) engage with her in a giftlike relationship of exchange—but what I find interesting is that her work continually comments on commodity culture (especially the many modes through which femininity is fetishized and sold) through chan- nels that have more in common with gift exchange culture. Of course, all this is deliciously complicated by the fact that she performs in multiple performance contexts for varying degrees of pay. By combining burlesque with modern dance and circus-type acts—and by performing everywhere from television (America’s Got Talent) to The Box (an expens- ive cabaret/burlesque club in New York City, London, and Los Angeles) to the Abrons Art Center—she confuses seemingly strict distinctions between commercial and experimental performance (and thus between commodities and gifts).
Perhaps even richer for Narcissister’s work is Georg Simmel, in particular his focus on the “third party”3 implicated in the secret. I find that the secret operates for Narcissister in multiple ways, the most obvious being the concealment of her face and vagina in an other- wise explicit show. Barbara, you noted that “what seems to be overly explicit is usually cov- ering up something else, and what seems to be discreet is the real obscenity.” With the proliferation of Narcissisters made possible by the purchasing of the mask, Narcissister (our Narcissister) exposes some of her secrets (through the manifesto) while, paradoxically, creating a secret society. Consider, for instance, this:
The sociological character of the individual elements of the secret society, cor- responding with this centralized subordination, is their individualization. In case the society does not have promotion of the interests of its individual members as its immediate purpose, and, so to speak, does not go outside of itself, but rather uses its members as means to externally located ends and activities—in such case the secret society in turn manifests a heightened degree of self-abnegation, of leveling of individuality, which is already an incident of the social state in general, and with which the secret society out- weighs the above-emphasized individualizing and differentiating character of the secrecy. This begins with the secret orders of the nature peoples, whose appearance and activities are almost always in connection with use of disguises, so that an expert immediately infers that wherever we find the use of disguises (Masken) among nature peoples, they at least indicate a prob- ability of the existence of secret orders. It is, to be sure, a part of the essence of the secret order that its members conceal themselves, as such.4
BB: When I mentioned Mauss, I was really just pointing to Narcissister’s relation- ship to performance scholarship, which seems to me to differ from collaboration in the typi- cal dramaturgical or critical exchange and to move into a realm of “take this ball and run with it,” which I like. Keep it moving. When I said “Mauss via Graeber,” I meant that I’m interested in a more utopian reading of the gift than the mere obligation to reciprocate. Graeber says that that’s a reductive reading of Mauss, and I think he’s right. Mauss gives you reason to consider another possibility: that objects themselves want to circulate (the politicized expression of this is that wealth wants to circulate). The fetish (as magical, ero- ticized, or commodified object) is animate—it moves (or moves you). When people are objectified (exoticized, eroticized, commodified), it’s often in the context of performance. Ari, you’ve heard me talk about Marx’s invocation of dance when he’s trying to explain how commodity fetishes perform. Narcissister’s performances precisely play on both racial and sexual objectification5 and of course both Narcissister’s mask and her almost imposs- ibly mannequinlike body evoke the S.I.S. Barbie collection6 even as they manifest her tech- nical abilities as a dancer. You’re right that the different venues in which she performs and the different forms of value associated with those venues (artistic/intellectual, monetary, erotic, sentimental) are of interest, but it is also true that in practice she’s open to all of these notions of her own value as object/performer. And, too: the mask of course is signifi- cant, but the merkin is hilarious, and it’s intriguing because it’s less theorized. And now I’m back at discretion, and what I said at first about how what seems to be overly explicit in Narcissister’s work is usually covering up something else and what seems to be discreet is the real obscenity. You linked this to the triangulation of the secret, and I like that because of the triangle of the pubic (public) hair. So if we’re sticking with the pubic, and if I’m going to pun on the phonic/graphic slippage between pubic and public, I also want to slip in pudic— from pudenda, shameful parts—because it implies, again, its opposite. Pudor is modesty. When the Portuguese explorer Pêro Vaz de Caminha landed in Brazil in 1500, he wrote that the indigenous women had “shames” (this was a euphemism for their pudenda): “so naked and uncovered with such innocence that of this they had no shame.”7 This seems to be something like the same joke that Narcissister is going for, playing on a history of racial exoticization/eroticization. It’s simultaneously very sweet and entirely horrific if you think about it.
AO: We ought to explain what we mean here by merkin. Vagina wig, period. The merkin appears in pieces such as “Hot Lunch” and “This Masquerade.” Often in pop culture, “vajazzling” is likened to the merkin, but I would refer to such glued-on pelvic feathers and Swarovski crystals as adornments. A wig is not merely an adornment. While vajazzling’s bling is the stuff of fetish, the merkin leaned a bit more toward function. Historically, the merkin was used by prostitutes to create a faux tuft of pubic hair in times of uncontrollable crabs. It was also used by prostitutes and wives in times of disease in order to conceal the symptoms of syphilis. So in addition to the coincidence of (Simmel’s) triangulation of the secret and the triangular shape of female pubic hair, we come to find that the merkin is itself an object that conceals, creating the availability of a secret. The merkin is at once an invitation and a barrier that dissuades entry into the vagina. It also brings attention to the vaginal region’s very externality—it’s not an entirely internal area of the body. Narcissister’s humor—whether intentional or otherwise—raises some serious questions about the relationship between sex and disease. As a vaginal wig, the mer- kin’s history is one of inviting the penis into a diseased environment. Are we prepared to refer to such disease as a “secret” “gift,” exchanged through a misogynist economy of sex? And in the case of the prostitute, the merkin was used to ensure a wad of cash; herein we discern a connection among sex, disease, and economy. Certainly, we could invoke commodity fetishism, depending on whether or not we are prepared to call the vagina— or the prostitute—an object/commodity. I prefer to see them more as the personification of commodity fetishism at work than as actual commodities.
Returning to Simmel, it’s interesting to think of the merkin as a locale of secrecy in the first place, given that “discretion” is central to theorization of the secret. He discusses the idea that the “body is our first ‘property’” (and it’s significant that “property” is in quotes because of course we don’t exactly own ourselves). But then he goes on to refer to the idea of the “invasion of this possession,” and we can think of the merkin as an ineffective shield to such invasion.8 Can we speak of the merkin in terms of discretion when to encoun- ter one is to assume intimacy? I think Simmel would suggest that some of our most intimate relationships are upheld by the dynamics of deliberate secrecy (surely others are not).
Now, as for the eventual sale of the merkins, I find Simmel’s distanced “third per- sons”9 interesting in terms of performance. How will Narcissister know if “other” Narcissisters will perform according to the rules set out in the manifesto (rules that are cur- rently being drafted)? Keep in mind that the masks will definitely be sold; the merkins too! Will there be a form of witness built into the system? (Is it even a system?) For example, Narcissister and I were thinking of creating an optional public video site where all Narcissisters could post at will. Will this deter or invite “bad”/“failed” Narcissisters?
BB: So, yes, a wig, and the popular understanding is that it originated among seventeenth-century ladies who wanted to conceal that period’s version of “the gift that keeps on giving.” And in burlesque, it now sometimes serves the comical function of allow- ing a dancer to appear to be fully naked—seemingly more naked than she would appear if she were in fact to fully reveal her depilated sex, since depilation, instead of revealing, seems to make a woman’s body appear more like a Barbie body, less “natural,” so less exposed, ironically. Narcissister wasn’t the first burlesque performer to make this visual joke or provocation, but her very public “date” with Marilyn Manson seemed to take it to a different conceptual place, particularly since it followed on the heels of her America’s Got Talent appearance. I noticed that the Urban Dictionary entry for “merkin” notes the word’s resonance with George W. Bush’s pronunciation of “American,”10 and indeed, Narcissister’s dream date reconfigured the doll-play scenario of the All-American girl next door who gets to go out with a rock star, just as her America’s Got Talent performance could be read as a slyly monstrous rejoinder to the suggestion that A-merka’s Got Talent—and we know how to commodify it.
The fact that in that performance it’s her sex that serves to give face—if not voice—to her own marketing is interesting. As is the notion that she would then parley that into a mar- keting venture (or is it a conceptual art piece?) in which she is selling the mask and/or the merkin. Of course I agree with you that she should mass-market the merkin. If she chooses to go with just the mask, though, it will appear to be out of “discretion,” even though this image makes it clear that the mask similarly obscures and reveals the same triangle of sex, disease, and money that the merkin does.
AO: Visuality clearly plays an important role in Narcissister’s work, and we are beginning to see how the history of the merkin is also a history of visuality. First of all, the merkin is, as we should always remind ourselves, supplemental, not inherent, to the body. Second, while they are/were typically attached with adhesive, Narcissister constructs hers with a clear elasticized string, creating more of a merkin G-string of sorts. G-strings were first created by strippers, and Narcissister’s burlesque plays with stripping a great deal. Does the string make her merkin less of a merkin and more of an undergarment? In any case, what I find most interesting here is that she constructs her own (and all other Narcissisters’) merkins! Just like the mask, each one includes elements of preexisting items, paired with her own crafting and artful embellishments. Barbara, you mentioned the “mass-marketing” of her merkins, and what is so alluring is that Narcissister’s artful touch precludes mass-marketing, thus limiting the number of people who would have access to the masks or the merkins. That each mask or merkin betrays the proof of a certain degree of handiwork can be seen as a resistance to (what Marx points to as) the abstraction of human labor from the commodity. In other words, we could find ourselves hard pressed to label Narcissister’s masks or merkins “commodities” since they are partially handmade objects. Rebecca Schneider picks up on Marx’s abstraction when she suggests that “com- modities [are] obsessively secreting the social relations of production.”11 So while on the one hand Narcissister comments on objectification, race, and gender by appearing Barbie-like in a mask, she is also precisely resisting a certain kind of objecthood forced upon the commodity (and the human-as-commodity) by insisting upon a practice of femin- ist craft: we see (or at least ascertain in retrospect) evidence of imperfection, individuality, and handiwork.
BB: I think it’s very interesting to specify both the construction of the merkin and its means of production. Narcissister’s use of the G-string to attach her merkin (instead of spirit gum) links it explicitly to stripper/burlesque costuming conventions, calling attention to its theatricality (I’m not saying performativity because that implies so much more, all of which would be of interest, but I just want to hold onto performance here in its more limited sense) —even if it’s worn out on the town on a “real” date. But even more interesting is the means of production, as you suggest. I was joking when I said “mass-marketing,” of course, because it’s unlikely that hordes of fashion victims would start running out to get their own; but it is great to think about the crafty construction of it. Realistically, it’s more of an Etsy item than something you’d find on an online brand-name fashion retail site. And of course there are feminist ramifications when we consider the handmade object as well as sentimental value (as opposed to both use value and market value) and “labors of love.” The fiber arts are especially interesting because they can be very labor intensive to produce and so seem most insistently to defy a logic of efficient labor and mass pro- duction—that is, a capitalist strategy for growth, which exponentially increases its power when exploitative labor practices are masked by a luxury brand. Narcissister appears to be branding herself, but the underlying practices are obviously throwing a wrench into the works of the process of commodification—and in the processes of sexual and racial objec- tification. I wanted to ask you about her dance technique. You’ve noted that it’s largely a question of contortionism, with relatively little referencing of the styles in which she trained. Do you think that when she’s framed as an “Ailey-trained dancer” this serves the purpose of making viewers consider race, virtuosity, and the fine line between beautiful and grotesque— and also marketability (Ailey as highly recognizable brand)—even if formally her perform- ances don’t incorporate Ailey versions of any of these?
AO: It is curious that Narcissister alternately activates and disavows her Ailey dance training. On one hand, she is always sure to mention in publicity materials that she trained on scholarship 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. When I was giving her some choreographic advice in a rehearsal of her hand dance (which she per- forms in a wedding-banded hand costume), I noticed that she inserted 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 entire body is executing 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 there. In other words, that turn sequence is a typical Ailey sequence, and it seems to me that Narcissister uses it for its citational qualities, to comment on expectations and imperatives of/for 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 ques- tion 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 never find an Ailey dancer pairing Horton turns with a masklike gaze. Certainly, the aes- thetic of “cool” infiltrates Ailey’s work, but more often we would find these turns operating in relationship to “hot” dance that demands expression of the “self” (or character).
BB: Thank you, that was just what I was wondering about.
1. Anna Fisher, “User Be Used: Parasitism in a Digital Age,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, forthcoming; Anna Fisher, participation in the panel “Not Not Precarious: Speculative Spaces and Zones of Suspense” at the conference “The Affect Factory: Precarity, Labor, Gender, and Performance,” New York University, February 2012.
2. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W. D. Halls (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), 11.
3. Georg Simmel, “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies,” American Journal of Sociology 11.4 (1906): 441–98, at 454.
4. Simmel, 494–5.
5. On the “shiny, hard, and brittle surfaces” of racial fetishization, see Tavia Nyong’o, “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance,” Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 (2002): 371–91, quote at 377.
6. See, e.g., the Barbie So In Style S.I.S. Trichelle doll at http://amzn.to/xCo4Tx.
7. In his 1500 report to King Manuel of the discovery of Brazil, Caminha wrote, “Ali andavam entre eles três ou quatro moças, bem novinhas e gentis, com cabelos muito pretos e compridos pelas costas; e suas vergonhas, tão altas e tão cerradinhas e tão limpas das cabeleiras que, de as nós muito bem olharmos, não se envergonhavam.” [Among them walked three or four young women, very young and nice, with long, very black hair hanging down their backs; and their “shames,” so high and tight and clean of hair, which we could plainly see, gave them no shame whatsoever.] The letter is published online at http://www.aliteratura.kit.net/carta.html (accessed 9 June 2012). The translation is mine.
8. Simmel, 454.
9. Ibid., 446.
10. See http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=merkin&defid=620594 (accessed 9 June 2012).
11. Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance (New York: Routledge, 1997), 80.
[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  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.