For the second edition of queeringborders, I had the pleasure of paying a visit to American-born, British artist Greg Wohead.
Greg’s work is a world of wonder. Originally from Texas, he makes theatre performances, one-on-one pieces and audio works, prioritising a sense of the off-centre, the slippery, the queer. The sensitivity with which he explores his subject matters and aesthetics is at the same time incredibly moving, beautiful and gut-punching. I distinctively remember sitting through one of his performances and witnessing the lady next to me going through various states of horror (to the point of covering her eyes), laughing out loud and being completely enchanted. It’s an emotional ride, but one that gives you a strange sense of comfort.
We meet at his house and the result is a 3-Act multi-disciplinary piece, with different media being explored as we move in between different parts of his house: the bedroom (text), the basement (audio) and the bathroom floor (video).
ACT I – IN BED
Outside. A cold and lazy Monday afternoon in the suburbs of East London. Xavier arrives outside of Greg’s house in a long black winter coat, carrying with him a plastic Tesco’s bag with ice cream and cookies. He is slightly nervous but tries to shake it off. He rings the bell. After a couple of beats, we can hear the sound of a dog running on wooden floor and Greg slowly opens the door with a welcoming and slightly mischievous smile. Xavier comes in, greeting Kai, the dog, first and then hugging Greg. They smile and make their way to the kitchen table where they exchange niceties, slight chit-chat and every now and then play with Kai, the dog. The whole thing feels very British, but the kitchen is a comforting space and Greg the nicest of hosts, so Xavier feels happy.
After a while, they eat the ice cream and talk about some personal and quite violent recent events in their lives. The mood slowly becomes more introspective, and it would have been quite sad were it not for the licking of the ice cream and Greg’s tender voice.
Once the ice cream is consumed, they decide to move to the Bedroom. There, they exchange initial nervous giggles, and prepare for the chat, laying side-by-side under the duvet.
XAVIER: Oooh this is like In Bed With Madonna, but with Greg Wohead.
They both laugh.
XAVIER: But better!… Hmm… a couple of house-keeping things first…
XAVIER: Preferred pronoun?
XAVIER: Preferred professional title?
GREG: Artist is fine…
XAVIER: Hmm, there is no specific agenda here, nothing major that I want to get out of you. Let’s just have a chat and talk about you (smiles).
GREG: Great (giggles). I like that (giggles). Do you want to finish your tea?
XAVIER: Oh yes thank you.
GREG: (passing Xavier his tea) You’re welcome.
XAVIER: (sips tea) Do you want to introduce yourself?
GREG: Yeah. I am Greg Wohead and I am an artist. I make mainly performance, hmm, I make, yeah performance work mainly for theatres, also one to one pieces, erm… (pause) yeah that’s me. (laughs)
XAVIER: Ok (giggles) Do you want to talk a little bit about the work that you make?
GREG: Uh-huh. Yeah, I guess if I look back at my work, there are a lot of… I guess.. I get really interested in form. The form of performance, and what you can, what ideas you can work through that form in order to make something that feels differently alive, I guess, then if it were a piece of writing or film, or something like that… So at the moment anyway, and as far as my practice is concerned, it’s really… I’m interested in, like I guess a rigorous attention to form, to be able to explore ideas – and some of the ideas that I am interested in tend to be around (beat) I don’t know really – so if I talk, say say a little bit about the work that I actually made, some of the pieces?!
GREG: So there’s The Ted Bundy Project which dealt with things about morbid curiosity and why we’re interested or intrigued or attracted to like violence and gore (beat) and hmm and can get a little fun and glee from it, you know. I guess it was like, trying to look at that and not – in some ways to not judge it – to be able to look at it in a different way… hhmmm and more recent pieces of work like Comeback Special, which was sort of a re-enactment of this Elvis TV special, was, I guess engaging for me around a lot of things to do with working the idea of identity and queerness really, through a form. So a lot of that particular piece was – really people could walk away from it and think nothing / that this was not a queer piece of work necessarily, because the queerness of that piece, for me, really lies on the form itself and from my impulses in making it. So yeah, the idea of re-enactment for me is about holding two different realities at once, or two different truths at once, that might be contradictory but it’s the attempt to hold them together are what that exploration for me is about. So I have a big interest in re-enactment and partly for these reasons, because the re-enactment is not about the event being re-enacted or even the current event. It is about the space between the two, and it is movement between the two. So yeah. That probably doesn’t answer your question…
XAVIER: It does.
GREG: … but I find it a little bit of a hard question to answer because (pause) in some ways I think about each piece of work (pause)… I don’t know… I find it a hard question because I make these pieces of work and then I do see clear connections between ideas in different pieces of work and also forms of different pieces of work that I make hhmmm but I don’t necessarily have like a mission statement or something for my work…
Kai, the dog, enters the room.
XAVIER: Kai is here.
GREG: He wants to join us.
XAVIER: (to Kai) Do you want to come up?
Greg and Xavier pat their hands on the bed, signaling for Kai to jump. Kai jumps on the bed, laying down over the duvet but in-between the two bodies.
GREG: (giggling) Sitting on the bed… Good thing I gave him a bath earlier.
GREG: Is this ok?
XAVIER: (giggling) Yeah of course it is. It’s cute.
GREG: OK cool.
Both laugh again and give Kai a couple of moments of caresses and attention.
XAVIER: So… It is interesting to me to hear you talk about presence and absence, in a way, and when I was watching Comeback Special, I remember it being very queer to me, but I didn’t know where to pinpoint where that queerness was, if that makes sense?
XAVIER: I also felt like the… the embodiment of or re-enactment of Elvis Presley, as such an iconic figure that is idolized also within the queer community, though perhaps to a lesser extent (pause) I wonder if you can pinpoint where that queerness manifests within that show, or where did you get that from?
GREG: I think for me, there is… hhmmm.. there is that connection – so in the show, the show is basically me, it’s a solo show in which I re-enact this Elvis TV special from 1968 where he performed with a studio audience, with the audience in the round. So I make that same set up. And so, that took place in 1968, in this in-between point for him, where he wasn’t the really hot young Elvis of the 50’s and he wasn’t yet that… what can be a more comical or sad figure even, like the Vegas Elvis of the 70s. So to me, that moment is about shifts or inbetween points of identity, and that connection with identity for me, is in many ways more personal engagement with identity and around queerness. So the re-enactment of it and me stepping into the Elvis position, which I did in various different ways, I guess, rather than just that kind of straight-forward, what you might think of as a re-enactment… but kind of enacting fragments of that or qualities of that, or aspects of that, or certain specificities of that over and over. So it is sort of breaking apart, fracturing that moment and that performance. To me, I guess, that relates to different part of anyone’s identity, who they are over their lifetime, and like I was saying before, the re-enactment meant that I was always engaging with this event in 1968 but also living in this present event of the performance, living in that place between the slippage of the two. That, to me, is more specifically where the queerness of that piece is. It’s about this constant slip-sliding, and never really landing anywhere; and it being about the going in between, more so than either being actually that past or this present event, or me actually being me, or being Elvis, or the audience being the audience from 1968 or the current audience. It is always about trying to hold the piece in this confusion between who anyone was or what it was. So to me, trying to hold this position which might be like uncomfortable or something, because it is never landing anywhere, was for me what the engagement with queerness was in that piece. But also, living in this uncomfortable place with it, but also constant energized place, a place of movement and action, I guess.
XAVIER: And do you think that the movement and action are also influenced by the state of always being a non-static – a non-defined thing that you are constantly stepping into and doing? Perhaps that constant fluidity and change/adaptation is where the work really resonated with me, where its queerness laid.
GREG: Yeah, I think so.
XAVIER: And so, on that. You were born in the US of A.
XAVIER: Where abouts exactly?
GREG: In Texas. In a suburb of Dallas, Texas, called Mesquite.
XAVIER: (leaning in) Called?
XAVIER: OK. When did you arrive in the UK?
GREG: (his voice drops a bit, hesitant) 2005, that’s when I moved over.
XAVIER: Oh, same as me.
GREG: Oh really?
XAVIER: Yeah, 12 years!
GREG: 12 years!
They cheer with their tea mugs. Kai looks at them for a second and then turns his face back down, resting on Xavier’s right leg.
XAVIER: So why the UK?
GREG: (sips tea) Hhhmmm because I got into Drama School in the UK. I came to do a 1 year MA to be an actor – an actor-y actor…
They both giggle. The giggle turns into a laugh.
XAVIER: So what’s changed? Why –
GREG: Why am I not an actor?
XAVIER: Yeeeasss Greg, why are you not on Eastenders?
Greg laughs. A guttural laugh.
GREG: I had always – well in Texas, where I grew up, I guess the only context that I had for performance that I had seen was hhhmmm plays, like quite traditional plays, and not even like new plays, generally the ‘newer’ plays I saw were from like the 50’s or 60’s. I knew nothing about contemporary performance, or performance art or live art, or anything like that at all. So that was all I knew, so I came to do that and I started to do some acting which… you know… I wouldn’t get that many jobs and when I would get some jobs I would be like ‘meh’ I am not really having that much fun anyway. But I was interested in making my own work and writing also, but I never – I just was afraid to try it, for a long time… And I always thought that I was able to do it but I never quite got the context or the confidence in myself to be able to just do it. You know?!… So it wasn’t until many years later actually, I think the first time I actually wrote and performed something that was mine was in 2011, quite a few years after I moved here and finding a kind of contemporary performance scene to go and just see stuff before I started to make it, you know?! I needed that context to be able to start making it for me, I think.
Greg sips on his tea.
XAVIER: (stroking Kai) You work between UK and America a bit. How do the different contexts compare?
GREG: I have only started to work in American quite recently and I’ve worked a little bit in LA, so I have got to know a little bit of that community, and some work that goes on there which I think it is interesting but I can’t really talk too much in depth about what it is like to be an artist in America, you know? Even though I am American in most ways, I would say I am a British Artist.
XAVIER: Interesting. How does that work?
GREG: Most of my context for making and seeing work is in the UK, certainly my development as an artist pretty much just happened in the UK. But I do think that there is such a different in the effect of influences from different places have on a performance or an art culture, or scene. I guess this also connects what I was saying before, you know… The work that people make is so influenced by the work that they see, I think, and so…. Because of the land area of the US, and the fact that it is so much farther away than here from Europe, and because it is harder to tour in the US, because of land area, largely, there are art scenes in American that are much more localized and there is less of a national network – or at least you would need to reach a certain level as a company before you tour the country. For instance, during my time in LA I met loads of interesting LA artists who very rarely go outside LA and also people from other place – it would be rare for anyone to come to LA and get into performance. Whilst here in the UK, I feel like there is a more national network of people making and touring performance work.
XAVIER: That’s so interesting because we in the UK complain about the fact that everything is so focused on London and specifically the South East. But I suppose in America it would be a very different thing. Do you think that has to do more with funding structures?
GREG: It has everything to do with funding structures. But also just like what the culture is, you know? Because in different states, in different regions, they are just so culturally different… I find there to be more dramatic differences than here in the UK – as far as different areas and regions. Also you have very clear divisions of states in the US. I am also coming from Texas, which feels like it has a very strong – a lot of people there, who are from there, feel a very strong identification with the state, and that is the case for a lot of states. So I think people are even a little less interested in seeing other stuff or being influenced by other places.
They have a last sip of their tea, remove the duvet, and move downstairs towards the basement.
ACT II – The Basement
ACT III – The Bathroom Floor
Featured image credits: Rachel Mars