Tag Archives: performance

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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An Interview with Andrew Logan

The Alternative Miss World contest returns this year after a 5 year hiatus. We talked to its founder, Andrew Logan.

BST: Why are you holding AMW this year?

ANDREW LOGAN: Jes Benstock of Living Cinema shot the last event but didn’t have enough money to edit. So he then raised money with a new idea which was to take it right back to 1972 and to show how culturally it had influenced so many people and things. With me, I suppose, at the head of it. It is very much a family and friends thing. Very family-orientated but absolutely huge at the same time.

Can anyone enter?

Yes. I think we have 19 or 20 entrants this year.

What are the criteria for entry?

The contestants kind of find their way there. We don’t have auditions. It’s about transformation. Of course, it would be nice to have hundreds of people. But it’s quite tight and everyone takes 2 minutes on stage. And if you’ve got 20 people on stage that takes an hour. It kind of limits itself — finds its own level.

Can you confirm who the judges are this year?

We’ve got Ken Russell, Zandra Rhodes, Richard O’Brien, Tim Curry, Amy Lamé, and Betty — my housekeeper of many many years. And Tony Elliott. And then Philip Hughes who gave me a wonderful show up in Ruthin Craft Centre up in North Wales and he also published the book on my work. Altogether there are about twelve.

[The judges tend to be] the kind of people I’ve been involved with. And people that I admire. I’m not into names, names mean nothing to me. It’s just a bit of paper. That’s not the point of it.

You’ve described AMW as a family affair. Can you explain a bit more about that?

My brother Quentin has been in quite a few now. And my sister has been in every one. My mother judged it a number of times. My brother Peter used to the music and him and his wife — they both entered it. It was in 1973, when Derek [Jarman] shot it. Peter was doing the music so he had to get up — as the music was playing, walk up and down. It has always been a family thing.

Where do the similarities to Miss World start and end?

Contestants have a questionnaire which they fill in. Daywear-swimwear-eveningwear. Great isn’t it? It’s three outfits. It’s also fantastic to have an interview. It’s such a simple idea really — we just enlarged on that. In 1972 Miss World was huge in the UK, like it is in India is now. Every household watched it. Every household! No one escaped it.

Crufts Dog Show was the real inspiration. I’d been to Crufts Dog Show and we had one of the forms, for the dogs. Which kind of inspired the form for AMW.

There have been several films made already of the contest. Can you tell us a bit about the film that was made of the 1978 contest?

[The director Richard Gayor] was interested in disappearing tribes — so he chose us. He had been to 1975 so wanted to film 1978 and actually made a very beautiful movie. That’s the movie you should see. It’s about the event and the build up. It was the first time that 35mm handheld cameras had been used in this country and it was lit beautifully. Very sensitively done. I remember the credits — they said the AMW in mirror pieces. We laid it out on velvet and threw it up in the air and then reversed it. It produced a wonderful, magical movie and it’s timeless. You look at it and you wouldn’t really know it was 1978.

This year’s theme is The Elements. Can you tell us about how the themes work?

[The central theme of transformation] is timeless. There is a continuum between this generation of contestants and previous ones. Sometimes, I’m sitting there and someone comes out and I think — I’ve seen this before. Of course I don’t say that — I smile and applaud. Of course I’ve seen it before — there are only so many things you can do with the human body. Even though some of the transformations are absolutely fantastic.

There is always a theme. But I don’t know what the contestants are going to come as. I have the form, I read out the name and the description of the outfit and we do that all the way through the performance.

When you launched AMW the UK was in recession — and now we are again. It seems that AMW comes back whenever we need it most.

When I started the event and as it unfolded, I saw more and more that I wanted to continue with this event ‘til I dropped dead — brought in on a wheelchair. It’s fascinating that the format remains exactly the same and yet you get these things that happen. We had the war in ‘82- that was Miss Aldershot [who won]. There was punk in ‘75 — that was shot by Mike Ballard — the art editor for Interview, Andy Warhol’s magazine. The Alternative Miss World seems to indicate what is happening — or what is going to happen.

What’s the most surprised you’ve been by what someone came out wearing?

I think it might have been before someone came out. And it was my friend, the late, great Divine. I met him through Zandra and he came to the Alternative Tower of London. It was 1977 — it was the Queen’s Jubilee and we had a day-long party and he came to that. We became firm friends and he co-hosted the 1978 event.

I was getting ready in a caravan at the back because it was being held in a circus tent. I’d only ever seen him as a man — as Glenn. And a door opened and there… was Divine. He said, The look on your face, I’ll never forget it. I was a bit surprised.

Most of the others… Ok. When the donkey fell of the catwalk. That was a surprise to me. The donkey was the throne because it was in a circus. The donkey was fine because he fell on all these soft contestants in their outfits. I really wanted to have an elephant but it’s a good thing we didn’t because if that had fallen on the contestants it would have been most unfortunate. The whole thing is about surprises — you never know what will happen. All you can do is stand there and let the thing unfurl.

This year, a lot of health and safety seems to have crept in. however, it means that you have to use your imagination even more — so if you can’t use fire — what will I use? The postitive effect is that it stretches the imagination even more.

I remember the last contest drew some controversy because the then director of the Royal AcademySir Norman Rosenthal – took part.

Norman’s great fun. He got some artists to help him out, including Sarah Lucas. He didn’t win, by the way.

Do you see AMW as anti-establishment?

It’s what people make it. I just put it on — that’s it. I leave all the interpretation to others.


Other than the films, what other documentation do you have of previous contests?

Each contestant before they go on is photographed. So we have a documentation right back to the beginning. David Bailey came one year — he did 1973 — and took some pictures. That documentation is really important.

I want to do a book of these wonderful images. I have everything here. I’m just waiting for someone to come along and say they’d like to do an AMW book which I’d be very happy with.

You’ve mentioned Piers Atkinson whose work is currently part of the Stephen Jones hat exhibition at the V&A. Do you feel like AMW has nurtured talents like his?

Piers started here in 1995 for the Fire AMW. He’s actually here [in the studio] today. He’d just left college and came up and helped me work on the contestant numbers that they wear.

We have all these funny little customs and you need someone to help out with them. He worked with me for a number of years and then went on to work with Zandra. He did Daily Rubbish for Fashion Week and now he’s producing a souvenir programme for AMW.

Have you ever held AMW outside of London?

It’s very English but I’ve negotiated many times over the years to get it held someone else in the world. Places such as Japan, America — which was going to be a huge tour of all the big cities of America. Fantastic! Well, that didn’t happen.

And India but then a man set himself alight for Miss World. And we thought, well it might be a bit difficult — they might get a bit muddled up… I would love to take it somewhere else. We have many Russians coming this year if we can get their visas sorted out.

I think AMW is very English but it would transfer somewhere else but it’s never had the opportunity.

To conclude, can you tell me a bit about Andrew Logan?

I was trained as an architect. I think I am very different from any other artist anyhow. I think my work is unique. There’s no one else working like I do. I just happen to be based in London. But I am a great traveller. If I wasn’t an artist I think I would have been a traveller.

[Thanks to Andrew and his team for the interview and photo access. AMW 2009 - The Elements, is at the Roundhouse, 2 May 2009. Book tickets here. Jes Benstock's film, The British Guide To Showing Off, is due for release later this year]

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All About the East End

TimeOut’s talent issue is full of Shoreditch-based acts.

Jonny Woo curates a ‘hotlist’ of East End performers and makes special mention of Ryan Styles, Jeanette and – you read it here first – Underconstruction’s Lisa Lee.

The Underconstruction crew perform as part of TimeOut‘s On the Up festival at the Vortex in Dalston, 2nd August.

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South Bank Beau

Dickie Beau and his open clique bravely cross the river to perform at the South Bank Centre.

Dickie Beau as Alma MaterThe show forms part of the South Bank’s Wizard of Oz season. We can’t best Dickie’s official press release so we’ll just repeat it here:

Dickie Beau’s artistic open clique presents an evening of cabaret inspired by The Wizard of Oz. Inhabiting a distorted version of Dorothy on a metatextual journey beyond Oz, Dickie, together with his travelling companions, discovers that when you dream in colour, not everything is black and white. With a bespoke soundtrack arranged by music supervisor and DJ Helen Noir, Wicked Witch of the East London club night, Film Noir, expect an evening of original performance from an eclectic collection of artists, including Bistrotheque’s Lisa Lee; spellbinding dance practitioner, Nando Messias; Geisha School dropout, Ingenue St John; and the obliquely unique Amanda Pet.”

Friday 8 August 2008, 10pm. Be there.

[Photo ©2008 Darrell Berry]

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Listless

It’s that time of year again…

Yes, slow news and the heat getting to journalists’ brains means that it’s time to put together lists of the most influential/cool/powerful people in media. Folks in advertising and TV will be frantically scanning the Mediaguardian 100 — in particular for leads, mates, or (most importantly) themselves. Meanwhile, BigShinyThing was delighted to have got a namecheck on our friend Lisa Devaney’s renegade list on BrandRepublic which was MUCH more interesting than the Mediaguardian‘s (natch). Also worthy of note is The Hospital Club’s Top 100 which is sooo alternative and cool you have to be a member to read it. (Full disclosure: we write for The Hospital Club’s site.)

Now this is not just a pat piece about our mates (honest). There is — as The Hospital contends — a new world order upon us, and one in which the old heirarchies no longer apply. It’s very sweet and retro of newspapers to ply us with the Mediaguardian Power List and Observer journalists’ idea of what stands for ‘cool’ but we don’t have to listen to them any more. Besides, old media has always been obsessed with glorifying those who have already made it — those cronies who are already ‘in the club’. We’re much more interested in the renegades, the iconoclasts, the innovators… Generation Next. Some of them have been paid lip service — drag artist extraordinaire Jonny Woo gets a namecheck in the Observer cool list — but we suspect that’s just print journalists trying to look ‘with it’.

No, the new power networks are defined by all of us and not by them. And influence is no longer a numbers game dictated by salary, age, employees, readership, viewership … all of that is blown. The true influencers now exist in a long tail of cohorts: the clubkids, knitting circles, flash mobsters, gamers, bloggers, weirdos, geeks, freaks, kids … whatever. For instance, within the perfomance art cohort, Lisa Lee’s Underconstruction night has quietly helped launch the career of many a star of the current Performance Art explosion. And in street art, stencil originator Blek le Rat is finally getting his dues. And those are just in BST‘s little corner of the world.

With Generation Next, their influence is obvious: it’s in the clubs, in social media, on the bus, on the streetwhere it matters.

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Horse Meat Ball

With the first Ball of the year last Sunday, Spring must be on its way. At least we hope so

Horse Meat Disco Drag Ball 2008Horse Meat Disco’s 2008 Drag Ball attracted a huge (and vocal) crowd and inspired entries from all competing Houses. More photos on Flickr.

[Photo ©2008, Darrell Berry]

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UNDERCONSTRUCTION

Photo evidence from Scottee, Bourgeois & Maurice and Chycca’s performance of SPEECH at Bistrotheque

Scottee, Bourgeois & Maurice and Chycca performing SPEECH at BistrothequeUNDERCONSTRUCTION is a season of alternative cabaret and other innovative new works, every Tuesday evening at the rather wonderful Bistrotheque space in Hackney (or is it Bethnal Green? WHATEVER). Check details of future events in the season on the Bistrotheque site. More of our photos from UNDERCONSTRUCTION are on Flickr. [Image © Darrell Berry]

[Thanks to Lisa Lee]

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