Nando Messias on ‘political dressing’

A guest post by performance artist, choreographer and academic Nando Messias.

Nando Messias is a longtime friend and collaborator of BST. We asked him for his thoughts on ‘political dressing’ and the other facets of queer theory that his work covers. The post is illustrated with pictures of Nando by BST co-editor Darrell Berry.

I have a PhD in queer theory and dance-theatre performance. Queer theory, in a nutshell, is concerned with anything that might be seen to be going against the so-called ‘normal.’ That is clearly a quite wide ranging field of study as it can encompass sexual behaviour, body image, social, ethnic, racial issues and so forth.

My research is concerned specifically with gender behaviour. To be even more specific, I look at the effeminate body or, in other words, male bodies that act, behave, move, walk in ways that might be described as ‘feminine’. It is, of course, incredibly more complex than it sounds as the words ‘male,’ ‘feminine’ and ‘body’ are all nuanced and, in a way, up for grabs, as it were. That is, what we consider feminine in the West in 2012 might be different than other cultures around the world and across history might have seen as feminine.

My work then involves analysing current understandings of male femininity and the social implications that might derive from a man who wears high heels and make up but who still identifies as a man (rather than as a drag queen or as a transwoman or a transvestite or a cross-dresser…). The choreography, especially of my PhD performance piece Sissy!, comes out of observations of the effeminate body and its social interactions with others.

Nando Messias Sissy

My work as a dancer-actor and choreographer has been hugely influenced by the work of Pina Bausch. I situate what I do within the tradition of dance-theatre and Bausch is the main figure in the world of dance-theatre.

I often work with Biño Sauitzvy, who is someone I admire profoundly artistically speaking. We did Sissy! together and also a stage version of Jean Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers in which I play the transvestite Divine. Our next project is a duet in which we play Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, the creators of Butoh. In terms of my modelling work, I always try to incorporate some of the queer ideology that guides my other work. I have been featured in W magazine as part of the Theo Adams Company. That job was shot by David Sims, styled by Camilla Nickerson and the make up was done by Linda Cantello. It was one of the most amazing fashion jobs I have ever done. Lorna Luft was photographed with Theo as part of that same story. Having her on set was super special for me considering that her mother was Judy Garland, the high-priestess of gay and queer culture. I have also been featured in Candy magazine (the first ever transgender-focused style magazine), Issue One and POP.

Part of my research and my work is this idea that I am unable to disguise my effeminacy. Not only am I unable to do it but, more to the point, I am unwilling to even try so I am only interested in modelling jobs that reflect that philosophy.

Nando Messias in Violence

I am interested in make up and garments traditionally associated with the feminine universe as an act of subversion of social norms. The term ‘feminine universe’ sounds really strange and hugely generalising to me as I read the previous sentence back. It makes it sound like there is a completely different universe out there that is totally detached from anything else. But I suppose you know what I mean. I am talking about lipstick, high heels, dresses and so on. Generally speaking, I use these not in order to make me look like a woman. I am not interested in ‘passing’ as a woman, although I have occasionally done that as well. Rather than ‘passing,’ I am more interested in reaching for the things (objects, garments, accessories, perfume, nail varnish, etc.) that have conventionally been denied me. I am interested in blurring the lines.

I would not define myself as a drag queen but would not object to being called a drag queen either. I think there is some contempt for the term ‘drag queen,’ especially within gay/queer circles that I actively want to avoid. It is somewhat analogous to what I identify in mainstream society as the contempt for the feminine. My appropriation of these signifiers is, to me, a political act.

Bette Bourne talks about political dressing. I like that term. I like that idea. I use these signifiers of femininity not only in my work but also in my daily life. I have my nails painted, I wear lipstick, I wear heels when I go out. I enjoy dressing up. I am always a lit bit shocked by how much this can push people’s buttons. Most people like clear lines. They like a man to look like a man and a woman to look like a woman, whatever that might mean. Going back to the contempt for femininity I was talking about earlier, I think it is still more easily accepted in today’s society for a woman to dress in what we traditionally associate with elements belonging to the masculine wardrobe. In other words, a woman with a gamine haircut, wearing a suit, tie and brogues is not that outrageous anymore even though, as we very well know, some suffragettes were arrested for the simple act of wearing trousers. But Yves Saint Laurent made it chic for women to wear a tuxedo back in the 70s. A man wearing a dress or heels or make up, however, is still largely ridiculed.

I wonder what that is all about. Something to do with male and masculinity representing power and the idea of a man wanting to relinquish that power being confounding.

Nando Messias
I personally think the increased visibility of transgender and transexual models in fashion is progress even though I think there is still much work to be done. There is a lesson to be learned from history. If we think about the reality of a different minority group, namely models of colour, than we can really see how far from acceptance we still are. The first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue was Beverley Johnson in 1974. I think British Vogue got there first even though there were rumours she was covering most of her face in order to hide her (ethnic-looking) nose and mouth… Britain has always been on the forefront of equality in many aspects, I think. But back to the reality of black models in fashion today… Only this last week there was an article on the Sunday Times that talked about Philip Treacy’s all black model cast for his latest show at London Fashion Week. It relates how non-Caucasian faces in fashion are still exceptions, how there are still very few spaces for ethnic minorities despite the likes of Beverley Johnson, Beverley Peele, Iman, Naomi, Alek Wek, Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn, etc. having made it somewhat more acceptable. Why is this still an issue 28 years after the first black model made history by appearing on the cover of a mainstream fashion magazine?

Perhaps things haven’t moved that far forward. The reality for transgender and transsexual models is, realistically speaking, even tougher, I should think. We have Andrej Pejic and Lea T, who are, by the way, both amazing!!! but that is it, really, in terms of recognisable faces (and names) in fashion. And even these two examples are very much confined to a specific niche of the fashion market, which is, itself, already very niche and elitist. It is very few designers who are brave enough to use these transgender and transsexual models. From the top of my head, I can only think of Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier. How long will it be before a transgender or transsexual model makes the cover of Vogue? And then after that, what will be the next taboo to be tackled?

Nando Messias in Sissy

Basically, and really generally speaking, ‘normal’ is a made-up concept. Its invention has been traced back to the 1800s and the Victorian obsession with classifying things. It is a term connected to the birth of statistics, where what the majority of us does becomes accepted as the norm. The problem than becomes what is done to those of us who fall outside the parameters of normal. This is when it starts to get complicated and we, as a society, begin to create categories of abnormality such as mental (and physical) disease and criminality, which are then associated with behaviours that prior to the invention of ‘normality’ were not necessarily seen as such.

There is another important question to be asked here: who determines what is normal and what is not normal? It is all very much associated with white male supremacy, where being white, heterosexual, masculine-looking and masculine-acting (if you’re a man), feminine-looking and feminine-acting (if you’re a woman), thin, healthy, financially-solvent, not too tall but not too short and so on and so forth. Normal changes and evolves as we change and evolve as a society. It is not a fixed concept. Queer theory evolved as a way to challenge this way of thinking, it offers an alternative way to think about these categories. In what regards sexology, for instance, why have ninetheen-century scientists decided to categorise the whole of humankind according to whom they have sex with? If with someone of the same sex as you: homosexual. If with someone of a different sex: heterosexual. Why not classify people according to how often they have sex or where they prefer to have sex or whatever other random category? It has clearly to do with Judeo-Christian values of marriage and family but also with how the state controls its subjects.

No human being falls completely within the boundaries of normal.
We all have our idiosyncracies. Human behaviour is more fluid than normal allows room for.

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Talking about ‘Err’

An interview with artist Jeremy Hutchison.

‘Err’ is an installation of deliberately broken prototypes conceived by Jeremy Hutchison. We caught up with him to discuss the project.

BST: How did the idea for Err come about?

JH:I came across an article about the Apple Macintosh factory in China. Consumer hunger for iPads had reached such an extent that factory employees were throwing themselves off the roof. Life on the assembly line had become devastating. One worker said ‘sometimes he would deliberately drop something on the ground so that he could have a few seconds of rest while picking it up.’

That’s an extraordinary idea. A deliberate error is completely illogical. Which is what makes it fundamentally human. So I wanted to know what would happen if you extended this human gesture, and inserted nonsense into the smooth logic of a hyper-efficient globalised machine. What if you commissioned workers to produce errors, intentionally? What is an intentional error?

What were the reactions from the manufacturers?

Well, there was a lot of feedback… a lot of confusion. The workers in the Indian comb factory fell about laughing when their boss asked them to make a dysfunctional comb: ‘everyone thought I have gone mad or mis-read your enquiry as everyone in the world strives to improve not to create error.’

But the confusion wasn’t limited to the factories: it continued through the customs ports. A factory in Pakistan agreed to make me an incorrect football. The patches were in the wrong places, the stitching was terrible, the bladder poured out. It was lovely.

But I got a frantic call in the middle of the night: my contact Waleed was at the customs port. The authorities had seized the ball. When he explained than an Englishman had ordered a ball with errors, all hell broke loose. They said it was illegal to fabricate incorrect products, and they would revoke his company’s trading licence. I explained that this product wasn’t incorrect since it was exactly what I’d ordered. And it wasn’t actually a football. Days passed: nothing. Lost in the bureaucracy of Pakistani customs, I eventually got through to the high commissioner in Islamabad.

She was very apologetic, and explained that 20kg of heroin had recently passed under the radar at Sialkot customs. So everyone was feeling a bit paranoid. She issued a document stating that ‘the sculpture/artwork looks like a football but in fact is not a football and primarily this object is not for using as a football but is an artwork.’ But it was too late: someone had destroyed the ball, and it disappeared without a trace. I never quite found out who.

But Waleed and I are still friends.

The project seems as much (if not more) about the personalities of the makers than the objects themselves. Did you keep in touch with any of them or have any of the makers actually seen the work?

Yes, absolutely. Waleed sends me photos of his baby son, Mohammed. The man who made the ladder endlessly asks when we can make another projects. The project was about identifying a curious, human element within a faceless industrial mechanism. Factories normally take orders of ten thousand – not one. And certainly not one with an error. So I guess it came down to finding people who were willing to engage with an absurd line of thinking – who wanted to see what would happen. I made lots of friends, and exchanged an awful lot of emoticons.

I sent all my contacts documentation of the installed work. But I never told them it was art: it was research. The word ‘art’ can be unhelpful: it seems to answer the question I’m trying to set up.

What was the fastest turnaround time? 

None of them took less than a month – some took almost four.

Which is your favourite piece and why?

Hmm.. maybe the teapot. Primarily because it came the closest to being a major disappointment. I’d communicated for months with the factory, waking up at 5am to talk over Skype. They’d assured me that Mr Luo (their factory worker) had really gone to town on it, and that I should expect something paradigm-shifting.

When it arrived, I was giddy with excitement. I was expecting the perfect conundrum. I tore open the box, and there it was: a normal teapot. Unblemished… flawless… immaculate.

I felt sick, then enraged. I took it to the sink… and found I couldn’t get the lid off. Which really cracked me up. I love the little teapot, it’s quietly terrifying: the most insidious of all the objects. It looks like something you know, but somehow it’s all wrong. Every time I’ve shown it in galleries, people always twiddle the lid, like they really want it to be stuck.

Has anyone expressed interest in either buying or reproducing commercially any of the items? Are you planning to develop the concept, maybe produce multiples?

Yes to both. At the end of this year, the project will regurgitate in a completely new form: as a luxury brand [Jeremy Hutchison's first solo show opens at Paradise Row Gallery on December 4th 2012]. The objects will be swamped by an immaculate, glossy surface – a world of panelled interiors, velvet cushions and vacant supermodels. This is obviously the wrong thing to do with this project. Which is why I’m interested in it.

The luxury market swims in an ether of dysfunctionality. It moves beyond reason, logic and resolution. It wanders away from sense in favour of the hermetic, unreadable poetry of capitalism. So this brand will celebrate this economy: pushing the levers of capitalism as far as they go, plunging absurdity into the marketplace. It’s the same idiotic logic that I performed on the factory floor, now performed in marketing communication. So I’m interested to see what will happen.

Are any of the items trademarked or patented and if so who owns the trademark – you or the manufacturer/maker? [we recognise that many are 'interventions' of generic items but we live in an era where people sell teapots as lampshades]

The short answer is no: none of these products are patented. But your question really points to the problematic question of authorship. The workers designed the objects, but under a premise that I designed. So who, ultimately, is the author? I’d prefer to leave that question hanging dangerously open; the unsettling questions are the ones I find most interesting. They are the reason I make art.

AliBaba has collapsed the manufacturing system – do you think this is a good or a bad thing?

I think it’s a magnificent thing for the global economy, and a magnificently bad thing for human consciousness.

I think that individual freedom is enhanced by an awareness of socio-economic constructions; of the mechanisms that govern our daily existence. In other words, if we know how things came into being, we can understand how things are. Its a question of visibility. So as these mechanisms become increasingly invisible, I think we understand less about them, and less about each other. So I designed this project to expose the industrial processes that AliBaba has made a business of hiding. I wanted to show where things come from. What factory workers think about. How they feel about eating, living and sleeping in their factories.

Ultimately, I wanted to expose the potential for chaos in global mass-production. We are designing increasingly efficient technologies to become more productive, better organised. To disguise errancy and confusion. But I feel like the human mind is incredibly chaotic – and beautifully so. So I like reminding myself that things don’t always fit into 1s and 0s. That reality in 2012 is temporary, fabricated, arbitrary. That it won’t always be like this. And that nothing, objectively, makes sense.

How has your background in commercial art (or advertising as it’s otherwise known ;-0) informed your work?

[Full disclosure: BST editors Anne-Fay and Darrell met Jeremy at ad agency HHCL where he was undertaking a WPP Fellowship.] To begin with, I learnt how contemporary myths are made. I learnt how to present arbitrary modes of rationality as if they made perfect sense. I learnt that so long as the logo is correctly placed, and the models are well-lit, then you can make just about anything sound convincing. Working in advertising was rather like working in the upper management of a well-run religion.

And advertising taught me a lot about humour. It understands that humour is the most disruptive tool in the box. There’s a line in Singing in the Rain: ‘Just slip on a banana peel / The world’s at your feet’. Basically, provided that you make people laugh, you can perform radical gestures and people will praise you for them. But if you protest in the streets with horns and banners, people will get scared and label you all sorts of bad things.

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

Well, I’m currently examining one of the functions of an artwork. On a certain level, I think a work of art can be read as an advertising vehicle for the artist’s brand. Look at Damian Hirst’s diamond skull. Or Bas Jan Ader’s shipwreck. The success of an artwork could be judged by the myth it spins around its author. So I’ve outsourced my creative process to ad agencies (mythmakers) across the globe: W&K, BBH, Y&R, Start JG, Code&Logic. The agencies are generating the ideas, I’m executing the works. It’s an absurd premise – idiotic perhaps – but not cynical. You could say that everything we do advertises us: every action inspires some reaction. Anyway, it’s all in the pipeline…

Finally, are there any questions you wished we’d asked, and if so what are they? 

Well, you didn’t ask me about the exploitation that Err actually performs – people rarely do. Lurking in the depths of this project, buried beneath the humour, chaos and imagination, I think there’s something quite sinister going on. Its an extension of a very old colonial narrative: white British male brings freedom to less-privileged, less-educated people all over the world – but only on his terms… And that’s why I like the teapot with the lid stuck down. Because it says, quite clearly: fuck you.

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Happy Birthday Dalston Superstore

How time flies when you’re having fun…

Outside Dalston SuperstoreSeems like only yesterday that still-coolest-venue-on-the-block Dalston Superstore opened its doors for business. In fact, we were there a few days before those doors were even screwed on properly… downstairs at the pre-pre-launch party. We were convinced then — and time has proven us right — that Superstore was more than a little special. Our photo, above, showing amongst other early birds, BST Co-editor Anne-Fay and friend Tom Hopes, even ended up in a Vogue Italia spread on new cool London…

So… Happy Birthday, Superstore!

Read the interview we ran with Superstore founder Dan Beaumont back in 2009, and the feature-ette that Superstore ran on BST’s very own Darrell Berry, earlier this year…

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Rinsing Out Fascism

In our censorious times, it’s nice to see a bit of good old-fashioned subversion.

These t-shirts handed out at a neo-Nazi concert challenge the wearers’ politics by changing message in the wash. The campaign was conceived by Exit, an organisation which encourages individuals to leave the far right in Germany. The message reads: ‘If your t-shirt can do it, you can do it too — we’ll help you get away from right-wing extremism.’ According to Bernd Wagner of Exit, the t-shirts not only reached some 250 of their intended target but simulated debate and conversation within both the far right movement and German society at large. Result.

Via The Next Web.

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Raw Muscle: Premier

A glimpse into the hyper masculine world of extreme body building.

Film maker and friend of BST, Lea Gratch, will be premiering her latest work — Raw Muscle — in situ at Muscleworks Gym in East London this Wednesday.

The film is an in-depth look at the subculture of body building and follows on from Lea’s earlier documentary about the Hells Angels’ annual Bull Dog Bash. Doors open at 7.30pm.

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James Unsworth’s warped reptiles.

Those suffering from hipster fatigue should visit Five Hundred Dollars for a reminder of why Hackney became so hip in the first place. James Unsworth‘s show is a return to form for East London art, a scene otherwise awash with indulgence and ketamine. Go see.

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BST in San Francisco

We’re currently in SF where we spotted this in front of the Bay Bridge.

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Kinetica Art Fair 2010

Interactive lushness at the electronic art fair.

Here at BST we have a ‘kid test’. If kids immediately ‘get’ a piece of interactive art and are engaged with it, then that’s a clear indicator of the effectiveness of the piece. Of course, all art is subjective, but interactive and new media art in particular can suffer from a degree of convolution and — to be frank — irrelevance. The kid test filters a lot of that out. One parent was overheard patiently explaining to their daughter that ‘not everything moves’, but if the art fair is called ‘Kinetica’ that’s a fair expectation.

There are lots of pieces which pass the kid test at this year’s Kinetica art fair at P3 in Marylebone. Special props go to Squidsoup‘s Ocean of Light, a startlingly beautiful ‘dynamic light sculpture’ that reacts to music. We can see all kinds of amazing artistic and commercial applications for this piece, not least in live performance. Bjork, get in touch! Cinimod Studio‘s Flutter which produces a rabble of virtual butterflies is also charming and effective — a real example of how digital art can be humanised. On the more Dorkbot-esque side of things, Monomatic’s P.E.A.L. replicates bell ringing with tubes of light, lasers and a iPhone remote (note, expect to see A LOT more iPhone remote controlled applications).

The fair also has some neat examples of first generation hacker art, such as Miss Rosa Bosom, a robot created by Bruce Lacey which won the Alternative Miss World in 1985 and SAM, a sound reactive cybernetic sculpture from 1968 by the late Edward Ihnatowicz. As an argument for the continued importance and relevance of digital and electronic art (are you listening, ICA?), Kinetica 2010 makes a pretty compelling case.

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Christmas at Number 42

Tony Hornecker was invited by the Architecture Foundation to replicate his installation The Pale Blue Door at their gallery…

“I had a childhood fantasy of having a tea shop with mismatched cups” — Tony Hornecker

Click to play slideshow.

[Photos © 2009 Darrell Berry]

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Introducing Fire & Knives

New food quarterly Fire & Knives launches this month. We spoke to its founder and editor Tim Hayward.

Tim Hayward is The Guardian‘s food blogger and won the New Media Award at the Guild of Food Writers awards earlier this year. He’s also a very good mate of ours. Tim has now launched his own food magazine, Fire & Knives, and he kindly agreed to tell us all about it.

BST: What is the concept behind Fire & Knives?

TIM HAYWARD: Mainstream food media have become immensely ‘lifestyle’. I knew loads of food writers who just couldn’t get longer form, intelligently written pieces commissioned anymore. I also knew, through social media, hundreds of food lovers who couldn’t find anything interesting to read anymore.

Pulling it together — particularly using digital printing, a distributed ‘zine’-style production team and using social media to build audience — was pretty much a no-brainer. That’s as high a concept as I can give you.

How is Fire & Knives different from mainstream foodie fayre such as Observer Food Monthly?

The traditional food magazines rely entirely on advertising. They will increase (or at least try to maintain) revenue if they can expand their audience from a special interest group to those with a marginal interest or, indeed, those attracted to celebrities and their opinions on food.

The result is an unavoidable dumbing down and celebrity focus. It’s now too late for any of those mags to go to a subscription funded model. With no advertising, our subscriptions pay for the printing and production. We don’t have to worry about how wide our audience is or their demographics — it’s only advertising that requires that. The magazine is as big as the audience want it to be. So we’re really growing, building and attracting an audience rather than seeking one out and attempting to address it. It’s the opposite of ‘focus-group’ thinking and that has to be the first time that’s happened in years.

Why start a food magazine, particularly now when magazines are closing down?

I think the magazine world is in uproar because the model of a mag involves 20 staff, an office, advertising revenue to pay them and a marketing function to attract both advertisers and audience. There’s no other way — until you look at ‘zine world and realise there are kids putting together creditable magazines with pocket change. The way Big Mags are heading now they are inevitably leaving behind a valuable audience and talented writers.

Can you explain a bit about Fire & Knives’ distinctive design?

Rob Lowe. Rob worked on Sleaze Nation and combines design and illustration skills with years of magazine experience. Rob and Cathy Olmedillas form Present Joys who are responsible for the design. I gave him an odd brief — all my favourites for the last year from stuck into an apple-printed booklet — and asked him to make something of it. The result is superb. He hit it on the button first time. That logo would have looked great on a government information pamphlet in the 40’s, on a packet of cheap Canadian bacon in the ’70’s and it looks fantastic on a T–shirt today.

What are the criteria for contributors?

We’re looking for new writers who may not have been in print before, for established writers with a story they can’t sell elsewhere and for writers in other fields who might bring a new perspective to food. Most importantly we’re looking for the tonality of the true ‘amateur’ — in the sense of ‘one who loves’ food — rather than a connnoisseur or ‘one who knows’. I guess the other important thing is that we are interested in British food. We are getting in touch with our own food culture now and it’s time we stood by it. Finally… no recipes or celebrity stories — others do that better.

Are there plans beyond a printed magazine? Or is the intention to keep it simple and focused?

Print only. All the way. We can build fame online but we can only establish value for the written word and the photograph, in print. The brand might expand into other things but the mag stays in print forever.

As a blogger yourself, do you think that there is a revival in writing for passion rather than purely profit?

I’m certainly finding that writers now — both the the new writers who’ve come through new media, blogging and the like and the traditional writers who get what’s going on — are aware of the importance of their personal brand. It’s great getting paid to write but if unpaid media are the only place to show your potential then you need to balance both. I regard our writers as a key audience too. They need to know they are being showcased at their best. We make sure their stories look great and are circulated to a list of influential people with commissioning power.

Of what other trends do you think Fire & Knives is representative?

I guess a growing confidence in British food culture, a revival in specialist print publishing, media properties that grow online but monetise offline and a trend for creatives taking control of their medium and speaking directly to an audience they know.

We at BST are delighted to have contributed a photo story about legendary pop-up restaurant The Pale Blue Door for the first issue. Fire & Knives is available via subscription from Article pitches should be sent to submissions[at]fireandknives[dot]com

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