.txt – Regarding the artistic context in NYC between the 80s and the 90s, what was its influence over the appearance of new practices around “performativity” and over the deconstruction of gender behaviour; and in particular over the creation of the workshop “Man for a Day”?
Diane Torr – In the 80s, NYC was a laboratory in which to experiment with new ideas. Everyone was very involved in their projects and nobody was necessarily looking over your shoulder. Because of this freedom to create, it was a fertile context in which I could develop my performance concepts. The first performance on gender that I worked on was with Bradley Wester, a visual artist and gay man. We researched the performance, “Arousing Reconstructions” for several months in 1981 and our intention was to create a performance with an androgynous movement vocabulary. Within our rehearsals we also gave each other licence and support to cross-dress, and these cross-dressed performances were included in the final performance which was a commission I’d received from St. Mark’s Dance Space. We performed the completed work in January 1982. At that time there were drag queens like Holly Woodlawn, Ethyl Eichelberger, Ru Paul, Hapi Phace, John Kelly, among others, who I’d seen at Club 57 and the Club/Performance Pyramid Club. They were fabulous and did wonderful daring, entertaining shows. Here’s a link that will give you some idea of what it was like: http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2014/03/
I also did several sexy dance performances at Club 57 and performed as Prince Andrew with a group called “Christians from Outer Space” who did a kitschy re-enactment parodic performance of Princess Di’s wedding. It was at the Pyramid Club that I first performed in drag in the early 90s and where in 1991, we presented the first Drag King contest. In the late 70s, I had also seen Klaus Nomi, whose performance in everyday and on the stage, we would now describe as “transgender”. However, I don’t think that word was used then – the focus was more on “androgyny”, and this probably was also on the back of David Bowie, Marc Bolan -glamrock stars who played with gender in their performances in the early 70s. The band KISS were also ostentatiously challenging gender in their stage performances in the 70s.
The sexuality of all these rock stars may have been in question, but the general assumption was that they were heterosexual. In relation to women doing drag, the other main artist on the club scene besides myself in the 80s was Shelly Mars, who had a wonderful male character she performed. You can see her performance in Monika Treut’s film, “Virgin Machine”. There have always been women playing men in lesbian theatre and I had seen performances by Peggy Shaw and The Five Lesbian Brothers at the WOW (Women’s One World) Cafe in New York in the early 80s.
During the 80s, the presence of so many wild drag queens performing at Club 57, the Pyramid Club and at the yearly festival “Wigstock” that was held on Labor Day in Tomkin Square Park in the heart of the East Village, gave everyone the opportunity to dress up and celebrate drag. This was a good time for me to explore a lot of different male characters, which I did throughout the 80s at the Pyramid Club and elsewhere. In the 90s, when gender was a big cultural focus, there was the emergence of various drag king events, like the “Drag King Dating Game” at Bra Bar, organised and hosted by drag king, Buster Hymen, who looked very much like a young Jim Morrison – very sexy indeed! Also, Club Casanova, which was run by the witty, charming drag king called Mo B. Dick.
Club Casanova existed for one year in 1996. Despite its brief time in the East Village scene, it became a focus for drag kings who arrived from everywhere to perform and to see the performances of women in drag. It moved from a bar called Cake on East 7th and Avenue B to a bar called Velvet on East 11th and Avenue A. It was closed down because neither of those bars had cabaret licences. Under Giuliani’s provenance, this law was introduced. It meant that punters were not allowed to dance in a bar if the bar did not have this licence. As the bar owner could not prevent the eagerness and exuberance of the crowd to dance their ass off, Club Casanova came to an end. Very sad, but by then the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, and drag kings and drag king troupes sprung up in Tucson, Winnipeg, London, Berlin, Vienna – all over the place.
In 2001, and two months after 9/11, reigning New York Drag King, Murray Hill organised a “Drag King Extravaganza” on the west side of Manhattan. There were so many performers who descended on NYC to perform, the last Drag King performance happened at nearly 5am. I left NYC the following year so I lost touch with further developments of the Drag King cultural scene.
.txt – How these artistic practices can influence and help towards the deconstruction of the dialectic’s logic masculinity/femininity? Which other practices would help to increase the visibility of the production of gender performativity?
D.T.- When Johnny Science, female to male transsexual, and I first started teaching Drag King workshops in 1990, we had no idea that they would be so popular. We were then both determined to get the phrase “drag king” and the concept behind that – the idea of male impersonation by a female – included in common parlance. There was coverage of the Drag King workshop in broadsheets such as The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and a big article, plus photos, in The Washington Post. This article in the WP came out in 1995 and then my phone rang continuously with invitations to come on talk shows in the US. In order to be paid to appear on TV, I joined the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which was a big investment but it paid off as many TV stations did not want to pay a guest fee. The ones that did, including Montel Williams, Gayle King, Jerry Springer, had a wide viewership, and we used these guest appearances (mainly myself and other women who had participated in the workshop) to get the word out and thereby confront the notion of the “naturalness” of gender, and challenge the notion of a gender binary.
In terms of increasing the visibility of gender performativity, I think the focus is now on transgender, transsexual and intersex people. Considering that there was no “T” in LGB until 1996, general perception/awareness has altered considerably since then. Brandon Teena was the unfortunate martyr to the transsexual cause. After his murder, which was claimed by lesbian groups as a “hate crime against a butch dyke”, there was a huge debate between the two camps that culminated in “T” being included as a separate and distinct category.
.txt – How significant is this artistic and political performative practice of drag king (in “Man for a Day”) in relation to the body, the streets and the “normal/common” every day’s life? Are there any other artistic/political practices that you would consider relevant/important?
D.T.- When participants of the MAN FOR A DAY workshop go out publicly, they don’t always “pass” as men. However, the intention is also to create “gender confusion”. This can be awkward and sometimes threatening to both the public that participants encounter, and the public themselves. Many people don’t even notice, but some are upset as they don’t know how to respond e.g. they might think “Is this a man? Is this a real man?”.
As I mentioned before, I think that trans people are on the cutting edge and they confront this gender confusion on a daily basis. Their performance of gender is enormously relevant and important.
.txt – In Latin-America, where breast and hips enlargement surgeries are highly noticed, and where men are seen as “machos Latinos”; could you please describe the experience and repercussions of your workshop in Brasilia in 2011?
D.T.- Actually, I can’t because this workshop in Brasilia was not long enough – the festival had only allowed one day for the workshop and it was also over-subscribed. Consequently, so much time was spent doing make-up, that there was very little time for training. It was more of a taster session, I suppose. I was not happy that I couldn’t do a thorough job and then give participants assignments so they could go out publicly with confidence in their new personas.
.txt – You were part of many important works related to the specific role of women in cinema, and also on how the sex is represented (both in commercial and experimental films). For example, I can think of “Mayhem” of Abigail Child or “The Deadman” of Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn. Do you think there is a relation between the context of the 80s and 90s in NYC with the current movement of post-porn cinema?
D.T.- I don’t know about that. What I would say is that all those filmmakers are very good friends and we all trusted each other as we were ahead of our time and charting new territory. I knew that what I was doing was cutting edge. We were all working in a context where there weren’t re-imaginings and re-inventions of sex and gender that are visible now in post-porn cinema like Mutantes, for example. We looked to the past – to the surrealists like Bataille and to theorists like Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari, for inspiration – well at least i did and I remember having individual conversations with each of them about avant-garde movements, and thinkers. We were excited by our discoveries and the collaborative work we did, which was also connected to having a sense of “the new” – of going somewhere with our work which hadn’t been seen before by our generation.
.txt – How this performative practice of drag king could shape other ways of being in the world? As an exercise of political imagination, which other ways of inhabit, could be shaped based on this practices?
D.T.- If all the women in the world would have an alter ego and an alternative name as a man that they could use, perhaps there would be changes in perception of who we are. That’s what needs to change. There is so much prejudice which comes from a lack of coherent understanding and also assumptions based on gender, which create unnecessary harm.
When the surrealist artist, Claude Cahun changed her name from Lucy Schwab, suddenly her /his photographs were given attention and her/his exhibitions reviewed. It’s amusing to read Cahun referred to as “he” in Paris art journals and newspapers from the 20s and 30s. My inspiration comes from Cahun and other women like Isabel Eberhardt, who saw how the cards were unfairly stacked against them. They simply changed their gender in order to be treated differently.
Diane Torr is an artist, director, writer and educator working in performance, film and installation. Diane is considered a physical philosopher – a thinker of the body. She has written a book about her work co-authored by Stephen Bottoms: “Sex, Drag and Male Roles; Investigating Gender as Performance”, was published by University of Michigan Press in October 2010.
She has been teaching the Workshop “MAN FOR A DAY/ gender as performance” since 1990 in a variety of venues throughout America, Europe and Asia.
She was one of the protagonists in Gabriel Baur’s feature film, Venus Boyz (2002), and the main protagonist of the feature film, MAN FOR A DAY by Berlin filmmaker, Katarina Peters, which premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival in 2012 and has since toured to festivals and venues throughout Europe, Mexico, S.Asia, Istanbul, Tel Aviv. and Montreal.
.txt texto de cinema works in the intersection of film and text, making workshops, translating and publishing texts (books and papers) in film and arts fields. It’s also a design studio that creates film posters, typography, lettering, credits and subtitles. It’s a pair/multitude: Carla Lombardo & Ж.