Bashing back: Interview with Cassils

City of Women first hosted Cassils in 2010 when they performed Terezias and this year they returned with another performance on transformation, body resilience and (trans)gender issues. In Becoming an Image Cassils takes on an 900-kilo block of clay in complete darkness, their fight only illuminated by sporadic flashes of a camera, burning glimpses of the struggle in audience's minds. Making camera the medium of visibility may be the most intriguing part of the piece, opening questions about which bodies and victims are deemed worthy of being seen and what, in turn, happens to those whose struggles are purposefully ignored and erased. Limited view of the scene also puts the audience in a conflicting, almost perverse position where they are aware of the brutality of the violence taking place in front of them and yet wishing to be able to see more of it while Cassils' increasingly desperate panting keeps building the discomfort until the end of the 20-minutes performance.

Becoming an Image was accompanied by a public discussion in which Cassils and the performer and art historian Dominic Johnson tackled the issues of unrepresentability of trauma in art, accountability, advocacy, and (anti)representation. They placed Becoming and Image in the wider context of Cassil’s body of work, and their inspirations and references, avoiding the trap of giving the audience a singular explanation of the performance while staying incredibly informative and critical, opening at least as many questions as giving answers, making the discussion one of the highlights of the theoretical part of the festival.

After their conversation I sat down with Cassils to expand on some of the issues brought up in their discussion, and in other festival events.

I know you haven’t attended the round table Ženske – mesto – politika because it was in Slovenian but one of the questions that came up in that discussion was the revolutionary power of art and whether art’s impact on society has diminished over time. Since your work is very socially conscious I was wondering what is your take on the question.

I think that art used to play different role than it does now. For example think about Picasso’s Guernica which was made while he was in exile from Spain. Cubism partially arrived from the fact that he witnessed the bombing of the village of Guernica in the newspapers and collaged the images of traumatised bodies. The painting became such a symbol of Basque revolution that to this day you can find a print of it in most of Basque homes and yet the painting itself is in Madrid in its own underground guarded museum because people often try to take it back to the Basque country. That is an example of a work of art that still has influence today. However, I think that we are facing a saturation of images and a lack of education about art that bring us to a situation where it’s not so much that art doesn’t have the power but we don’t have the tools to read it. High schools in the USA don’t teach art at all and people don’t even understand what cubism is yet alone know contemporary artists so you’re forced to make things look like advertising. This is a tactic that I have used in my work because I don’t want only people with PhD to have access to it. I do think it’s still possible [for art to influence society], but the role of an artist is different from that of an activist. Activist can change laws whereas art doesn’t change laws but it can change minds. Art influences subconscious and can ideally turn the key in the mind of a person who can then go and change the law. Art’s influence is not as direct.

Which audiences are you trying to influence and reach with your own work? Is it mostly transgender and LGBTQIA community or the wider society?

I’m interested in both but it also depends on different context-specific works. For example, Theresias was originally commissioned as a fundraiser for a non-profit art organisation and I knew that meant a wine-and-cheese event. I don’t usually do that kind of context where people can drink some wine and chat and it was very interesting to make a work that was very still yet very expressive. In that particular piece I’m talking to an audience of art patrons and ironically using the notion of the new classical sculpture, and the language traditional to art history in a way that activates the conversation about current issues in a pretty aggressive way. Similarly, Becoming an Image was originally made for the audience of One Archives. I would say my work is very context-specific but I also try to open it up so it has a larger reach. The piece last night was for this specific audience but the sculptures [moulds of the post-performance remains of the clay block erected at the sites of transphobic violence] will become for anybody that passes them on the street. I like Diego Rivera’s idea of popular murals and the notion that somebody with a PhD might get five layers in a work but somebody without it might read it in a different way.

And what kind of feedback do you get from these different audiences? You and Dominic discussed the very negative response you got from the gay male community but how do other types of audiences react to your work?

Sometimes people get it and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you expect that but it can also be very surprising who does (not) get it. For example, you expect the solidarity of the gay community with the trans movement because they have been through the same struggle but I have recently encountered a lesbian curator who refused to helped me because I »wasn’t her issue«. Ideally, humans would be more open to understanding and empathising with subjectivity that is not their own but unfortunately not everyone is like that. My work calls into action the people that are willing to do that and calls into action the idea of a more humanist way of living and interrogating your privilege instead of just being caught up in your own subjectivity.

You and Dominic also discussed trauma and how it’s basically impossible to represent it in art. However, the very emotional responses to your performance yesterday and the way your portrayal of a certain kind of violence and trauma resonated with people shows that might not be completely true.

There is a difference between for example me setting myself of fire [in the Inextinguishable Fire performance/video] and someone whose situation is so dire they have no other choice but to self-immolate as a form of protest. I am only approaching the corporeal part of the experience. The context is self-imposed and I’m talking about a situation instead of actually being in it and that’s what I mean by the impossibility of representation of trauma, does that make sense?

Yes, but I also think there is a difference between making a work about a situation you will never be able to fully experience and representing your own trauma, between what you’re doing in Indistinguishable Fire versus what you did in Disfigured Pinups.

I agree but I don’t often talk about my own personal trauma in my work because I don’t want it to be just about my experience. I recently did a piece in Finland about the LGBTQI community in Russia and the propaganda laws there. The festival where I performed took place about 200 kilometres away from the Russian border and I performed in a parking garage lit by car lights and used the sound of the scan function on the radio that picked up Russian radio stations. The piece talked about the proximity and yet the distance from that space. I performed a fight choreography from the online “Occupy Pedophilia” videos of a self-elected militia of men who pose as queers online and then kidnap, torture and force their victims to out themselves, and basically ruin their lives. I watched several of these videos and memorised the movements and I was enacting only half of the conversation, switching back and forth from the role of the victim to that of the perpetuator. I don’t usually act in my work and pretending to be strangled is very different from punching clay and at a point during the rehearsal I started to convulse uncontrollably and my body went into the state of trauma. It was a really strange experience. I imagine that is how actors feel when they are playing a role and I really had to cool myself out of it.

Coming back to yesterday’s performance, I really liked the duality of possible readings: of violence against transgender people on one hand but also of resistance of bodies and identities that are not supposed and expected to control their environment and be strong.

Yes, I’m definitely enacting bashing back and defense instead of just taking trauma. And in an art historical way it’s also about the form of the tower and the historical representation of minimalist sculpture, Donal Judd’s clean lines devoid of personal subjectivity, the focus on just the form, and the idea that you can divorce yourself from the form. Becoming and Image is a literal beat down of that notion that  is bullshit to me.

The last thing I want to talk about is activism and something that keeps coming up in different festival events which is the intergenerational conflict in activism and the question of how to stay respectful towards each other without compromising your ideas.

A lot of my friends in America, especially cis lesbians were really happy about the gay marriage passing and I was thinking that yes, it was good but also not a privilege for everybody. Do we really want this kind of relationships regulated by the state and is this really the answer? But the fact is that it is a civil right and that now certain people have immigration rights. Should that be the context for civil rights? No, but that's how it is and I think it's about finding the balance between utopia and the world that we live in. I think young people get caught up in the utopia versus the lived experience but as you age things get less and less didactic, and black and white. I think you have to have a tactic. It's about understanding what has been done and learning from those mistakes and being open to what older generations are saying and being aware of the context. It's about sharing information and people not just holding on to their peresent experience. It's about saying I know you fought really really hard for gay rights and [marriage equality] is a milestone but this is not the end of the road and it's not where we lay down the sword. Because now that you're comfortable you have to help the others who are still not in that space. And not everybody is prepared to do that but you have to remind people of subjectivity outside of their own experience. Intergenerational intersubjectivites are difficult because a person's privilege can prevent them from being able to even read you and pick you up on their radar but it's about human connection and having an honest relationship with somebody.

Ada Černoša

Related project: 
Becoming an Image