This review looks at the work of five North American artists who tackle the prevailing social demand upon transgender subjects to make a spectacle of their bodies. They reflect upon the body as a social site in order to resist and redeploy the scrutiny under which transgender is drawn. In film, dance, and visual and relational performance, the artists contest conventional social constructions of transgender and articulate existential possibility in ways that contribute to and echo the development of new ideas about embodiment.
The relationship between Alexis Arquette and the British television station that funded her 2007 movie She's My Brother is emblematic for contemporary artists tackling the performance contexts in which they represent transgender.1 The celebrity family member substantiated her on-screen identity by achieving legal, medical, and cultural agency while confounding Channel 4 expectations for a Hollywood surgical transition story. Due to her concern about side effects, she procured a therapist's letter for the right to vaginoplasty that precluded the usually compulsory course of hormone treatment. Yet Arquette denied the viewer a spectacle of surgical transition, which has come to dominate representation of transsexuality in mainstream culture. She achieved visibility for transgender bodily self-possession by fighting on camera for medical intervention on her own terms, and she insisted on her claim to female identity while keeping private whether she has undergone, is undergoing, or will undergo surgery. Arquette used the spectacular conjunction of her gender identity and popular culture notoriety in a way that subverted the usual demands of performing reality television.
Contemporary artists are engaging transgender subjectivity to reflect upon the body as a social site. In the twenty-first century, critical transgender performance has exploded into a challenging field as part of the emergence of community, activist, and academic movements. Bodies from across the globe have increasingly come into view configured through the term transgender.2 They are seen in focused festivals, the art world, and mainstream media. Artists are articulating a performing self that contests the conventional social construction of transgender and articulates existential possibility in ways that contribute to and echo the development of new ideas about embodiment. The terms by which such bodies achieve legibility are politically bound in ways that precede any performance intervention. But artists resignify the conditions under which their bodies come into view, stretching the significance that they are called upon to fulfill. I take a brief look here at how the conditions for performance are negotiated by a handful of American-based artists who critically embody transgender.
Zackary Drucker, like Arquette, is a Los Angeles artist screwing with the burden of spectacle that attends transgender bodies. In her performance “The Inability to Be Looked at and the Horror of Nothing to See” (2008), Drucker ritualizes and thereby exposes the misogynist construction of femininity.3 Her “Live Art”4 context is wildly different from the one in which Arquette performs; Live Art practitioners are from various fields and push against any given genre, foregrounding sociopolitical concerns in performance staged as provocation; and like off-off-Broadway, they play to small audiences. If the transitioning body is called upon to fulfill the demand for provocation, it becomes a spectacle.5 But Drucker averts this tendency by cultivating audience complicity: spectators standing around her gagged supine body become participants as they are led through an ironic New Age guided meditation. The audience is instructed to approach and pluck hairs from Drucker's body using tweezers that surround her. Drucker's recorded voice instructs them to direct their negative energy into her: “This body is a receptacle for all of your guilt and shame and trauma.”6 The audience is prevented from anonymous consumption of a transgender spectacle, and through their collaborative act they are called upon to embody transphobia. Even while they apparently collectively enact part of Drucker's corporeal transition, her voice dismisses the activity in which they are engaged: “You will never be a woman,” she insists.7 Her voiceover suggests that her body is in a state of trauma, reflecting upon the social challenges of transition. Yet by implicating the audience in the process, Drucker resists the construction of a spectacular-heroic narrative of overcoming.8
Beyond the glare of Tinseltown, San Francisco–based DavEnd also critiques the spectacular construction of transgender. Gender variant identity and self-sufficient community are central concerns in her Bay Area art context.9 DavEnd argues that unpaid performing is inescapable for trans/queer bodies in heterosexual culture, but she insists that invisible labor can be culturally remunerated through conscious acts of performance. She recuperates self-possession through collective methodology in which intimacy is cultivated behind a veil of spectacle. In the 2012 project “Intimasew,” DavEnd staged an ideal vision of community through the catwalk-like presentation of ostentatious hand-made garments constructed directly onto queer/trans bodies, creating images of desirable and self-desiring superheroes (see fig. 1).10 The spectacular construction of these bodies was made explicit and redeployed, yet it was underpinned for the subjects of DavEnd's sartorial artistry by interpersonal value generated through the tailoring process. DavEnd insisted that there is a relationship between theatrical and existential concerns by representing the creative process in the concert performance of “Intimasew”: “I use collaborative garment construction to transform feelings of scarcity around style, options, intimacy, desire, time, and safety, into a world of custom-made abundance.”11 She articulates as aesthetics the interpersonal practices through which trans/queer bodies negotiate their spectacular conspicuousness.
On the other side of the country, spectacle seems like a handmaiden to the critique of representation staged by New York dancer niv Acosta. Experimental aesthetics define the postmodern dance community in which Acosta is choreographing. Small, well-informed audiences typically attend the dance concerts, in which playful, risky, implicit, and veiled references to political identity are often staged, while proselytizing is frowned upon.12 Acosta achieves explicit reference to his identity while averting polemics by insisting that his subject exists in the relationship between subsequent works.13 Across his dancing body, the artist contemplates the intersections of race and gender by layering references from film, musical, song, and dance forms such as classical ballet and vogueing, which first came to broad prominence through the film Paris Is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston, 1991). For example, in “I shot denzel,” Acosta juxtaposes dance and conversation, camp and seemingly authentic acts of personal frustration.14 He refers to his masculinity and Black Dominican identity in “I shot denzel,” but questions linger that may or may not be answered by four other related “denzel” dances. Like Arquette, he limits access to his embodiment of transgender, because the answers to Acosta's body and story are hinted at and obfuscated through references to absent performances and in the detritus of mainstream culture.
Tobaron Waxman also points toward and obscures the legibility of his body-identity. Performing primarily in visual art contexts and declaring his address as unfixed, Waxman references his gender and religion-ethnicity through ritual acts such as shaving his hair and beard as well as singing in Hebrew. Conscious that he can become an ethnic-religious transgender spectacle, he draws attention to the looking process. For example, in “Fear of a Bearded Planet” (2012), the artist commissioned street portraits in various cities, which when viewed together draw attention to the way in which his ambiguously raced Semite appearance signifies in post-9/11 culture.15 Waxman foregrounds his transgender Jewish-diasporic masculinity to critique heteronormative Zionist masculinity, which he argues is underpinned by the conventional idea of virility in nation building. At the same time, by exposing the multiple meanings embedded in a beard, he offers religious-ethnic critique within FTM (female to male) culture and thereby insists that gender transition must be understood as infused with other cultural references.
The artists whose work is touched on in this review deftly navigate the obstacle course created by the demand to make a spectacle of transgender visibility in film, performance, and dance. Arquette, Drucker, DavEnd, Acosta, and Waxman all critique prevailing two-dimensional representations, and in the process they generate aesthetics through which greater possibility for embodiment is achieved.
1. I am using transgender as an umbrella term for artistic practices staged across bodies that disidentify with sex assigned at birth. I am not distinguishing between surgical and nonsurgical trajectories or grappling with the class and racial politics of the use of the term in academic and cultural spheres. While I acknowledge problems with glossing of the significance of “transgender,” I am doing so in order to focus on other dimensions of artists' practice in the short review.
2. Both non-Western and Western, including indigenous, cultures have played a role in the emergence of transgender as an umbrella term. Gilbert Herdt's 1993 book Third Sex Third Gender is a good example. The anthology includes cross-cultural anthropological and historical examples of lifeworlds that contest the paradigm of male and female in a way that suggests a third identity is a universal phenomenon. Similarly, festivals such as the late 1990s London-based International Transgender Film and Video Festival and the twenty-first-century Netherlands Transgender Film Festival programmed cinema, performers, and speakers from non-Western and indigenous contexts. Nevertheless, activists and scholars have acknowledged that applying the term universally can flatten out differences and impose Western assumptions.
3. I first saw the performance as part of PRAXIS Mojave 2008, a performance art workshop showing in Morongo Valley, California. The work has subsequently been performed at Resonate/Obliterate, Sweeney Gallery, University of California, Riverside, 2009; at Visions of Excess at Spill Festival, London, 2009; at APF LAB, New York, 2009; and at Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles, 2009.
4. Live Art became an important term in the United Kingdom. However, I am associating Drucker with this context because it has become transnational in scale both through an association with the academic area study of “performance” and also through a network of artists and venues that align themselves with either performance or Live Art. Drucker's work is increasingly becoming significant within this context, a fact to which the performances of the work detailed in note 3 attest.
5. I put forward the argument that Live Art privileges provocation as a critical strategy and articulate some of the problems with such a methodology for transgender among other bodies in “Forget Provocation Let's Have Sex” (George 2013).
6. Quoted directly from the performance text, courtesy of the artists.
8. A heroic narrative of transsexuality has begun to replace the figure of horror as transgender identity has been increasingly represented as a viable possibility in mainstream media. The difference between the main protagonist in the 2005 movie Transamerica (dir. Duncan Tucker) and the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs from 1991 (dir. Jonathan Demme) is a vivid illustration of this change.
9. I define some of the ideas and history of the artistic community in which DavEnd works in “Forget Provocation Let's Have Sex” (George 2013).
10. “Intimasew” was commissioned for the festival “This Is What I Want 2012,” for which I was a cocurator. I saw the project at the festival in San Francisco in June of that year, at SoMa Arts.
11. Text courtesy of the artist, from DavEnd's proposal for “This Is What I Want.”
12. I am situating Acosta's work within New York East Village dance. I trace the development of this artistic community in “Whose Queen Is It Anyway” (George, forthcoming). East Village refers not to its current location but to the origins of the artistic community, which is now in Brooklyn as much as on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
13. My understanding of Acosta's approach is informed by his artist statement published on his website (Acosta 2013).
14. I first encountered Acosta's “denzel” series at Pieter Performance Art, Space, and Dance, in Los Angeles in May 2012. The piece was “denzel minipetite bathtub happymeal.” I have viewed “I shot denzel” online courtesy of the artists.
15. I have viewed “Fear of a Bearded Planet” online courtesy of the artist, and my reading is also informed by the interview transcript “Gender Diasporist,” with Waxman, by Shawn Syms, also courtesy of the artist.