Alessandra Cianetti / performingborders: I am interested in knowing more about live art practitioners that have multi-faceted practices and that create flexible, informal, shifting, and ongoing ways of working together so – and first of all – thank you Giulia and Niya for accepting my invitation for this interview. I am aware you collaborate on multiple levels through your individual practices as well as your collaborative one, InXestuous Sisters, in which you explore ‘transfeminist sisterhood and lesbian lust whilst reclaiming space in masculine environments and male-dominated queer spaces’. I would like to know more about the processes of your collaboration and the mechanisms and strategies you have devised to make it playful, meaningful, and sustainable. Also, I wonder if those strategies have changed over the past two years which have heavily weighted on live artists’ lives and work.
Niya B + Giulia Casalini: I think we should speak first about how we started InXestuous Sisters (IXS). We both have our individual practice, which is heavily conceptual or theoretical – Niya being an artist, working through notions of gender and ecology, and Giulia being a curator who is currently doing a full-time PhD. Through IXS we found ways in our shared practice to rely less on language and use instead the body, movement, and instinct as our main tools of communication. IXS allows us to do performance as interventions, or as responses to situations in places that are usually outside of the art circuit (we have performed, for example, at queer rave parties, on public squares and dinner events). IXS were born during a Riposte club night in 2019 and since then we have been performing on and off the dance floor (we even performed for one of the very first online club nights during the first covid lockdown in April 2020).
As IXS, we want to keep our art engagement playful yet committed. We believe that our performances can be meaningful for those experiencing them as well as for our personal dynamics as friends/lovers/collaborators. IXS is first and foremost an opportunity to know each other in always-creative ways, pushing the boundaries of what we experience in our daily life into performance practice. On many occasions, we ask ourselves ‘what would IXS do?’ and we respond with actions that we usually do not document (for example, when we walk in the countryside we perform ecosexual micro-actions inspired by mushrooms, trees, or flowers). In terms of sustainability, we have no pretense of developing IXS as a full-time professional art career, so we have more freedom to approach it whenever we have time for it, or without the restrictions of performing under specific funding guidelines. Our only reminder is that we should stop IXS if there is no fun in it.
We also collaborate as independent cultural practitioners. For example, Giulia has been acting as the camera woman in almost all of Niya’s impromptu performances (which usually take place during holiday time) and Niya has been co-directing and filming a documentary that Giulia planned for their 2022 residency in Ghana. Sometimes, the roles merge, and it’s hard to tell apart who does what, more specifically. People even say that we look alike (our friends Tuna Erdem and Seda Ergul have called it ‘the lesbian urge to merge’).
Alessandra / performingborders: Both of you are, in separate and very different ways, working on building networks of solidarity and actions with you Giulia focussing on TRANSNET (Transfeminist Net Working Group) and you Niya with the participatory project 912, which centres the experience of waiting of trans and non-binary people. Would you mind telling us more about TRANSNET and 912, as well as sharing with us an insight on the practical forms you have collaboratively researched to safeguard the people involved, as well as create a safe environment both in-person and digitally?
Giulia: What I am working towards, with TransNet and other projects, is to create communities across borders, disciplines and interests by mobilising solidarity among people. The now archived 9-year queer-feminist art project CUNTemporary (2012-2020) and Archivio Queer Italia (2013-2020) have been such cases. In the most recent years, because of my full-time PhD research, I have been working predominantly with texts and people involved in academia by co-organising, for example, ‘Intersections’ – a long-term monthly reading group – or the ‘Queer Feminist Currents’ conflux. Especially since the covid-19 pandemic, I have started working with smaller groups of people (always in a volunteer and free-to-attend way). For example, during the lockdown, I led a ‘reading-walking-action group’ (for not more than 10 people) in the Hackney Marshes: there, we would meditate, read creative ecofeminist texts, play, move, read tarots, sing… and finally collect trash abandoned in the surroundings. We even dug up from the Lea River’s bed a whole motorbike from 1976!
TransNet is one of these community-building projects. It has been created out of a shared frustration among queer/feminist artists and activists to see our accounts being shadow-banned, limited, censored or shut down by social media and other communication channels (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Vimeo). The trigger was when, in 2021, YouTube suddenly closed down CUNTemporary’s account, with precious educational videos and performance documentation without giving an option for contesting or claiming back the lost videos. TransNet is a group that aims to work through what alternatives are there already, and what else can be created to serve a digital transfeminist global community: How would a platform where the ‘Community Guidelines’ are made for us and by us look like? How would that function, and how would people communicate through it? The group, therefore, works through both theoretical and practical dimensions. As in all grassroots initiatives, a lot of unpaid labour goes into it – hence, it might or not continue in the long term, depending on many factors (e.g. people’s involvement, excitement, wishes, or dynamics). The most challenging aspect for me at the moment is to create and maintain meaningful connections among people that meet mostly online – most of whom are struggling with overwork and overcommitment (myself included!). If we want to work collectively, we need to make space for honesty and accountability to take our work further, beyond the moment of initial excitement. We need to show up and listen to each other, rather than imposing our ego. And, most of all, we need to really start believing more in the process rather than in the end products (and I am of the opinion that this is something white people, especially those living in London, find very hard to work with!). I feel that my role as a curator is to facilitate human (and nonhuman) connections, as well as to understand and learn from these struggles. With regards to community mediation, I recommend adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017).
Niya: My project 912 is a Virtual Reality (VR) work based on the idea of time, as experienced from a transgender perspective. It will premiere in Birmingham at BOM 6-16 July; in Brighton at ONCA 20 July-5 August; in London and Sheffield (dates TBD). The work is based on the participatory performance of trans and non-binary people who deal with the opposing forces of waiting (e.g. for medical care, for recognition, for rights) and having to carry on. The project started from my personal experience of waiting for my first appointment at the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC), which was approximately 2.5 years (912 days). Currently, the waiting lists at GICs across the UK are getting longer, with estimated times for the first appointment between 3 and over 4 years.
This performance was meant as a personal ritual to make sense of the waiting. It was conceived in 2020 during Jerwood-funded research on the use of 360 cameras in performance. As the project developed, it became clearer to me that the ritual had to be a collective one: we are not alone in this journey, even if often we may feel the opposite. What helped me going through this experience was the support of my community and the presence of people who are themselves in their own journeys. This project is about raising awareness about the implications of waiting times in the lives of trans people as much as it is about the resilience and strength of the community. I believe that VR can create empathy and understanding beyond the marginalised trans and non-binary experiences and reach the wider public through the circulation of affects. The recent lockdowns and other restrictions brought by covid-19 are a good example of this: waiting for something to end, while finding ways to be resilient.
Involving participants from the community is complex. Every time I do this, I learn from the people I engage with and adjust accordingly. How to keep the process open, accessible, diverse and non-extractive? In my experience, it comes down to personal networks, relationships, and spending time together. This is not easy to schedule, because of project constraints and because of the limited time people have to dedicate to a project. In practical terms, the space that is used is also crucial. For 912, for example, the workshop venues had to be wheelchair accessible and have gender neutral toilets. Also, as the lead artist, I personally undertook all the communications with the participants because I believe that constitutes an important stage for building trust. In the end, time is never enough – I always wish I had spent more time together with the people involved in my projects.
Alessandra / performingborders: You have both returned from a recent residency in Ghana (ok it might have been a little while ago but I’m still experiencing pandemic feelings of compressed and hyper-expanded times). In the collaborative work you have created during the residency, I Am here, you celebrate artist, activist, and – as she defines herself – ‘transvatar’ Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi. I’d love to know more about Va-Bene’s work and your experience of the live art scene in Ghana. Also, you are building an interesting series of cross-border, transnational collaborations that are spanning various countries in the Global South and that will bring you to the Philippines soon. I wonder if you can tell us more about your future international projects and the ways you, as Global North-based practitioners, build those relations from a decolonial perspective.
Giulia: I will respond to the first part of your question, as I have planned the Ghana residency for both of us. This residency has been part of my PhD research, which investigates queer-feminist live art (as an umbrella term) from a transnational perspective. In my thesis I analyse four artists or collectives whose works have been influenced by texts, activism, traditions, spiritualities, aural cultures, etc. from geopolitical areas that are usually at the peripheries of Anglo-American cultural and academic hegemonies. The artists are: Quimera Rosa, a migrant Spanish-born transfeminist collective who, through (bio)hacking and speculative fiction, has been dismantling the notion of the human towards cross-species kinships and becomings; Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi aka crazinisT artisT, a Ghanaian-Togolese artist who engages in extreme performances and abject aesthetics to speak out against human abuses from a queer African perspective; Linn da Quebrada, Afro-Brazilian ‘travesti’ who in her music uses the rhetoric of witchcraft to confront colonial machismo; Eisa Jocson, a Filipina dance-trained artist who explores the affective and sexual labour of cultural performances. I am specifically interested in how queer-feminism manifests in contexts other than those that have already entered the ‘canon’ of queer theory or live art (some articles are already out, but I’m planning to publish the whole thesis as a book when I finish).
It is not easy to reduce Va-Bene’s work into a few lines, but what would strike anyone who meets her is her tireless dedication to the LGBTQI+ cause in Ghana, her desire to connect people through the predicament of love, her generosity, and her intense engagement with performance. For her, there is no separation between life, performance or activism. For Good Friday in 2021, for example, she crucified herself in the middle of a dangerously busy crossroad in Kumasi and stayed there, in agony, until some passers-by decided to take her down. She then carried the cross back, bleeding and limping. Va-Bene is very active on social media, and her website offers comprehensive documentation of her work, so I suggest checking that out and following her on Instagram.
Since 2018, she’s been running the international artist residency pIAR (perfocraZe International Artist Residency) in her studio-home in Kumasi, where about 6-8 artists per month are invited to research, curate, perform or produce work. The residency is very important for the Ghanaian cultural context because it is the main place where to develop and experience live art in a supportive environment for LGBTQI+ people and, in general, for artists at any stage of their career who want to experiment with unconventional ideas and body politics. In conversation with Va-Bene, I noticed that in Ghana there are very few artists who use performance as their main medium, and these are usually men. In general, because of traditions and family expectations, it is hard for women to pursue a career in the arts. Once completed a fine arts education, artists are pressured to make money by selling figurative paintings through commercial avenues, whilst performance is usually not remunerated (Va-Bene herself told me that she was never paid to perform in Ghana). However, in the north of Ghana, in Tamale, White Cube artist Ibrahim Mahama has founded three vibrant art spaces: SCCA, Nkrumah Voli-Ni and Red Clay. Through a site-specific and community-based approach, these initiatives engage with artists, schools and the local public via live art methods. However, because of political/religious pressures and public opinion, it is hard, if not impossible, for any art organisation in Ghana to engage explicitly with themes related to sex and gender dissidence. This is why Va-Bene’s work has been progressively cut out of the country’s art circuits. And this is why a space like pIAR is so important in Ghana: there is now a crowdfunding campaign to save the space before an inhumane anti-LGBTQI+ bill gets approved by the Ghanaian parliament. The bill intends to criminalise not only LGBTQI+ people, but also their supporters, sympathisers, employers or whoever rents properties to them.
On this note, Niya can you say something about I Am Here, the collaborative work we made for and with Va-Bene in January this year?
Niya: The work I Am Here, as it was eventually realised, bears many similarities with 912. It was documented with a 360 camera and the participants were sitting around, in a circle. I don’t see it as a performance, but as a ritual. Since Va-Bene does so much for her community, we decided to homage her by having her community sitting spiritually and physically around her, holding the space for her and repeating the mantra ‘I Am Here’. Thirteen people participated in this work, including artists in residence, regular assistants, interns and Va-Bene’s extended family. Due to our limited time at the residency, the whole process felt much faster than I would have liked it to be: allowing more time helps to exercise care, build deeper relations and make space for conversations to happen. But how equal these conversations really are?
I never felt my white privilege as apparent as in Ghana. I’ve lived in places where being Southern-Eastern European equals being ‘less white’, ‘not properly white’ or even ‘not white’. I believe that colour is a spectrum and a comparative relation. So, in Ghana I came head-to-head with my privilege. I can’t claim that I have already found one way to decolonise my relations and collaborations. The process is ongoing, and it changes according to country, region, culture or individual. To me, the borders between Global South and Global North are another binary categorisation: I find it inaccurate when the world is divided between South and North, East and West with no mention of class or other intersections. It gives the impression of a false equality/inequality and homogeneity within geopolitical regions; and within these, a false uniformity of class, gender or race dynamics. I feel I owe it to the broken-by-manual-labour-bodies of my parents to apply more critical analysis to where I am, who I work with, and my positionality. And, of course, this has to start with the acknowledgment of the privilege that I am an artist based in London.
On the other hand, artistically and politically, I am interested in exploring the common cultural threads that transgress borders and connect our experiences across the seas and mountain ranges. I come from Greece – a place of crossroads, a South within the North, a culture that has been proclaimed as the pinnacle of Western civilisation (and has been appropriated as such), but that is still questioning itself whether it belongs to the West or the East… Last year, I worked on an online residency with Filipina artist Bunny Cadag, and we called our collaboration Intimate Threads [link: https://www.niyab.com/Intimate-Threads]. We were meeting and discussing almost every week, for 5 months: I felt we knew more about each other’s lives than friends who live in the same city. The video-performance that emerged was based on pre-colonial spiritual traditions in the Philippines and pre-Christian Greek mythology.
Giulia is also engaging with artists from the Philippines…
Giulia: Yes, in my upcoming trips, later this year, I will follow artist and curator Rhine Bernardino on a journey around the islands of the Philippines to meet and document the work of indigenous queer artists who work in rural environments. There, I will assist with the production of podcasts and blog posts to platform their voices and experiences. In parallel, I will also work with Chilean/Mexican artist Amanda Piña to document her project Mountains in Resistance. Through this project, which will take place between Vienna (June 2022) and Mexico (March 2023), I aim to connect my body to those of mountains and earth beings through creative somatic writing. In November this year, I will also move to Brazil for three months, working for the Fundação Bienal in Sāo Paulo.
As an Italian-born person who has lived abroad in different countries for many years, and who speaks five languages, I have a strong interest in the politics of migration and transnationalism. My interest in transnational movements and approaches means that my research and work will inevitably involve artists from the Global South. However, I am careful to work with them (and with anyone else) in non-extractive ways and to use my privilege in order to uplift others. An anti-colonial and anti-racist practice is therefore integral to my lifelong project of learning, collaborating and building alliances across borders. Such work requires attention, care and, especially, time. My method is based on a practice of deep listening – listening to the contexts, the environments, the cultures and (most of all) the artists I am working with: I believe we must first and foremost learn how to listen in order to act and form coalitions beyond the triviality of tokenism.
Giulia Casalini is an independent curator-artist and transfeminist community organiser based in London. Her curatorial methodologies create multidisciplinary exhibitions and events across institutional and alternative spaces, with a focus on performance and audience participation.
She is a PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton: her study analyses queer-feminist live art from a transnational perspective, in an attempt to decentre the Euro-Anglo-American aesthetic canons and discourses. She has been co-founder and artistic director of the non-profit arts organisation Arts Feminism Queer (aka CUNTemporary, 2012-20), of the project Archivio Queer Italia and of the exhibition-cum-performance club night Deep Trash. She recently curated the festival Ecofutures (London, 2019) and has led ecotransfeminist talks/workshops at Lokomotiva (North Macedonia, 2022), Tate (UK, 2022), Bitef (Serbia, 2021), Centrale Fies (Italy, 2021). Recent residencies: pIAR (Kumasi, Ghana, 2022); DOMUS (Galatina, Italy, 2021). She sits on the advisory board of Mimosa House gallery (London) and she performs with Niya B as the InXestusous Sisters.
Niya B is a transfeminist artist, working at the intersections of visual art and performance. She uses video, soundscapes, text, live acts and immersive installations to explore themes related to ecology, posthumanism, (trans)gender politics, class and equity in health and wellbeing. As a counteraction to political polarisation, Niya seeks to establish intimacy with her audience, creating a meditative space of vulnerability, affect and interdependence.
Niya has shown work in exhibitions, festivals, live art events and academic conferences including Tate Britain and The Yard Theatre (London), CCA (Glasgow), Performance Space (Folkestone), NEoN festival (Dundee); 5th Thessaloniki Biennale; 5th Moscow Biennale; International Print Biennale (Newcastle); Goldsmiths University of London; University of Leeds.
Her work has been featured in Dazed, Elephant magazine and Future Now / Aesthetica Art Prize. Niya has been supported by a-n, Jerwood Arts, Arts Council England, the British Council and the Cultural Institute Leeds among others.
This interview is part of On Work, a series of conversations by Alessandra Cianetti (June 2022 – ongoing)
Main image credits: InXestuous Sisters, Galatea, 2021, Photo by Eda Sancakdar