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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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A camera you focus AFTER taking the picture.

Lytro.com / Eric Cheng — click the kitteh!

Photography has always required a few technical decisions before shooting. You (or your expert proxy, the camera’s computer) need at the very least, to focus the lens and set the exposure, based on your artistic intent, the subject at hand, its setting, and various parameters related to constraints specific to your lens and sensor or film stock.

Those choices always take a little time, and define irrevocable characteristics of the final image. A seriously out-of-focus subject will always remain a blur, while a blown-out highlight will always glare whitely and detail-less out of the print. Short of repainting the subject, there are limits even to post-processing stalwarts such as Photoshop.

But of course ‘exposure’ and ‘focus’ are concepts of optical engineering, of the process of photography, not characteristics of the world. The visual world is a field of light, from within which field a photograph is constructed by placing the limitations of a specific combination of lens and sensor at a specific location, at a point of time. The visual world itself is neither focussed nor unfocussed, neither over- or under-lit. It is merely light.

What if we could capture more fully a description of that field of light, and, after the fact, at our leisure, decide on what should hold focus, what should be the depth of field, what should be a highlight, what a mid-tone, what deep mystery of shadow? Aesthetically, such a choice offers obvious freedoms. Pragmatically, it means that time need not be wasted on camera-system configuration, but rather in getting access to, and framing the shot –- important for sports, street and wildlife photographers alike.

Two emergent technologies offer to deliver on that promise of leisurely, post-production exposure and focus. On the exposure front, High Dynamic Range sensors have been ‘the next big thing’ for several years now. When it comes to focus, the revolution may have just taken place. US-based startup Lytro has decloaked from stealth mode to announce its first Light Field camera, based on founder and CEO Dr. Ren Ng’s academic research. The camera itself is still vapourware, but Lytro’s algorithms are demonstrated in interactive Flash images on their site. Click on any part of an image, and hey presto, it springs into focus. This is a genuinely disruptive imaging technology, and comes with other interesting claims, including massively improved low-light performance, and single-lens 3-D.

It all looks cool — though rather low-rez — in the demos. Given the potential value of their intellectual property, we’re surprised that Lytro aren’t focussed (ahem) on licensing it out to the big players. Instead, they are (apparently) planning to swim their cool tech, under the flag of a startup brand, into the perilous waters of the consumer electronics market, buoyed only by a vapourware product and a brand positioning — living pictures — which is a weak undersell of the scope of their innovation. One has to wonder, why not aim elsewhere? Why not focus on the professional photography customers to whom Lytro’s very real benefits should have a high commercial value? Why, indeed? Is it possible, for example, their Light Field technology throws away resolution in exchange for its magic? Maybe there’s no way to integrate it with legacy optics, which would reduce its utility for professional photographers? There’s simply not sufficient information on Lytro’s site to tell.

Damn, though, their tech is cool, and double-damn I want one of their cameras, to take for a spin some steamy night at Superstore. We’ve asked them for an interview. We will keep you posted. In the meantime, we’re off to read Dr Ng’s original research papers…

UPDATE — some answers from Lytro

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Japan Textures

Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama.

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Addictive TV at the National Theatre

Big beats, and the biggest screen in town

Addictive TV at the National TheatreVideo artists Addictive TV were back in town on the weekend, after a marathon session of live Olympic mashups in Europe. Braving the London weather on Friday night, they played to a crowd so enthusiastic that at least one of them had to be dragged half-naked off the roof.

This was Addictive’s third annual outdoor gig at the South Bank, which has become a highlight of the BST summer calendar. This year was even more fun for us, as they invited us along to document the evening photographically. Our photos are up on Flickr.

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100proofTRUTH Issue 5

New issue of our favourite street art zine hits the web

Work from The Clipse, DJ Cam, Asbestos, James Dodd and many more. Dig in. Dig deep. Big up Adz!

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The Polaroid Kid

Extraordinary images from American edge culture

Mike Brodie — aka The Polaroid Kid — documents outsider Americana in astonishing one-off polaroid images. Read this interview and check out his work here. He also runs a rather excellent site for polaroid photographers, PLRDS.COM

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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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Make3D (Does Exactly That)!

The latest contender for ‘coolest imaging/photography tool’ turns snapshots into 3D scenes. And it works!

MIT’s Technology Review highlights the new web service Make3D, which does a truly amazing job of extracting 3D data from normal 2D images.

A spinoff from research at Stanford, Make3D works its magic using:

a machine-learning algorithm that associates visual cues, such as color, texture, and size, with certain depth values based on what they have learned from studying two-dimensional photos paired with 3-D data. For example [...] grass has a distinctive texture that makes it look very different close up than it does from far away. The algorithm learns that the progressive change in texture gives clues to the distance of a patch of grass.

Note the key phrase ‘machine learning’. They haven’t tried to understand the world — they’ve built a tool which can learn to understand depth cues in visual imagery. Cool.

Currently the system only understands scene cues in outdoor landscapes and (rather curiously, we think) indoor scenes which feature staircases (but why not?). Future work will help their system learn about other kinds of scenes. But what it does, it does very well indeed as proof-of-concept. See the Make3D site for demos, or to upload your own scenes for processing.

Impressive as it stands. But as we see it, the most exciting place for this technology to turn up will be at the point of capture — in cameras. Our Nikon D200 already features a ‘programme’ mode for autoexposure, which uses scene cues to understand something of what’s in front of the lens: a big blue rectangle top of image , for example, is probably the sky, and should maybe be overexposed relative to the lower half of the scene so that whatever’s underneath doesn’t come out pitch-black in the photo. Add in Make3D, which could profit from a whole slew of data available at time of capture (by, for example, capturing more depth data before and after the photo is taken by playing with autofocus…) and you’ve got consumer 3D photography done and dusted. We can’t wait.

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Paul Hartnett Interview

Photographer Paul Hartnett has been documenting the club scene since before many of our readers were even old enough to sneak out at night. In advance of his upcoming show in February, he kindly granted BigShinyThing an exclusive interview

From the early London punk scene, through Leigh Bowery and the clubs kids, to street culture in Japan and the Asian mainland, Hartnett has been there to capture the look while it’s still fresh and raw. We were keen to ask a few questions of the man who’s seen it all.

BST: You’ve been documenting youth and street culture for over 30 years now. What is it about those worlds that keeps you excited?

PAUL HARTNETT: I started documenting street and club culture at the age of eighteen as a means of social lubrication. I wanted to get close to the key punk players such as Soo Catwoman and Sid Vicious, who lived in the next road to me in West London back then. I wanted to go beyond the visual. A camera seemed a perfect excuse to talk, exchange ideas, develop a rapport. Sometimes there’d be very little beyond the hair spray and eye-liner, sometimes there were all kinds of viewpoints, the most brilliant perspectives.

At the core of my work there is a continuing look at customising, how individuals have crafted a look. My pictures are portraits, executed with a Kodak Instamatic, a Polaroid camera and a range of Nikon stuff. I’m not a technical person. For me it has always been about faces, dimly lit, content driven, not style driven. Faces, colours, textiles, soul. The messed-up, the dressed-up. The fucked-up.


You’ve recently been exploring Chinese youth culture. What were the most interesting things they’re up to?

I recently visited Shanghai and Beijing for i-D magazine. I was involved with a street and club exhibition at Source’s Kong Gallery and this was a way in to meeting some creative souls. Visiting fashion schools such as IFA Paris and Raffles Design Institute was my focus, away from the gallery. There is such a rawness to Chinese fashion. It is often quite crude and quite different to the work Chinese students do at the likes of Central Saint Martin’s in London or FIT and Parsons in NYC. Having observed over 600 fashion students at work, having photographed a selected few, I gained insights. The Chinese are so very different to the Japanese. The work at Shinjuku’s Bunka, for example, is on another planet compared to what is happening in Shanghai and Beijing. Yep, it’s superior. That said, I was fascinated by the grounded approach of so many students at IFA Paris in particular. It’s a place to watch, they certainly have the technical skills.


You’ve covered the most important musical and style movements of the last 30 years. Which of those do you feel the most empathy with, and what’s going on at the moment that you are most excited by?

I saw The Sex Pistols perform many weeks before the Punk Festival of 1976. It was just electric, kind of like Brecht entering the stage. Before that I’d only seen Sparks, Bowie and Cockney Rebel perform live. I was in a band as a teenager, Missing Presumed Dead, so inspired by the DIY ethos of Punk and Power Pop. What I love about fashion and music is when people are totally fired up, and a bit ‘bonkers’ with it. Really exploding internally and doing something individual externally, going beyond a commercial formula, a safe established pattern.

Right now there’s a musician named NIYI who DJs at club nights such as Gauche Chic. As a producer, NIYI is unpredictable, he uses the most unexpected samples. He is very playful and could certainly be categorised under ‘bonkers’. He is my #1 muse right now — a joy to photograph, when he can be bothered to turn up.

You’ve run clubs as well as documenting those run by others: have you always been that involved in the scenes you cover photographically? Have you ever had issues with access — scenes or subcultures who you wanted to document, but who simply closed ranks and didn’t let you near them? How do you deal with that? Who or what scene have you not covered, but would most have wished to?

I ran a club named Kawaii in London back in 1983. It was very inspired by Japan’s club culture. I also ran the world’s first club for drag kings, women who dress as men, back in 1995. The majority were female to male transvestites, some were heavy-duty transexuals. Every Thursday night there’d be 150 toughies, and me. There was one simple rule: NO CAMERAS! This allowed me a somewhat strategic exclusivity.

I’ve never had issues re access. I’ve had good coverage over the last three decades, and I tend to be guest-listed without ever having met the promoters. Door whores just know who I am. Being fat and a few months short of fifty seems to be a plus nowadays. Verification for clubs abroad is easier than it was in the past due to my website, people can check out editorial content, photographic approach, fast as click-click-click. Some fetish clubs can be stand-offish, they live in fear of News International and local councils.

The only club I have ever experienced shit with is that shit club named Boom Box. Oh, what a Hoxton hole. Just so hyped, so over-rated, and so over. I took a few pics… then pressed the delete button and left. I have little patience for fashion sheep.


You seem both fascinated by style and its associated fantasy worlds, but your photos are raw and uncompromising — you talk about showing the ‘reality of fashion’. What does that mean to you?

Take a look at street-style pics in magazines such as i-D and Dazed & Confused and you will often find credits for an entire team of mag slags; hair stylists, make-up performers… an entire circus. To me this ain’t street-style, it’s manipulation. What I have done for the last three decades is SNAP with seconds of seeing. No touching, no altering, no upgrading. SNAP. Same location, same same same reality. Sure, sometimes I’ll ask for a plastic bag to be put aside or an event bracelet to be concealed, that’s all. So many magazines provide clothes that their advertisers wish to be promoted. That sucks.

What’s the future of street and club photography as you see it? What’s the role for ‘photographers’ as such, when the ‘kids of today’ have MySpace and a bunch of club photo websites on which to show off their poses, and every phone is a camera?

The Internet has come along and fucked so many people sideways. The music industry is in a tizz, everybody
seems to be online so much of the time. Punk’s DIY ethos is everywhere. People pimp their profiles to a narcissistic extent on myspazz and facebore. There are street-style photographers such as Facecunter (I think that’s his name) who snap at fashion events, but in a really bad way. So cheesy and hap-hap-happy. All very Grazia or Closer, Heatish.

I think it’s great that so many people are taking photographs, even if it with with dinky telephone toys. I love that crap quality, that low-res fuzz. I love the diversity available. That said, I continue in my own way. I have CCTV eyes, and pay an almost forensic attention to detail. I like clarity and the portraiture I have amassed is for a future audience I have never met.

Paul’s work will be on display at the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane from 14 February 2008. Go see. Also check out the PaulHartnett.Com and PYMCA sites.

[Thanks to Adz!]

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Photo evidence from Ryan Styles’s Business and Balloons at Bistrotheque

Ryan Styles @ UNDERCONSTRUCTIONMore photos of Ryan’s show on Flickr, along with the rest of our London club photography. [Image © Darrell Berry]

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