Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Manifesto! Part I. History.

My Manifesto

The History of Femme 6

It’s not hard to imagine how I got here, once I think about it. I have long been intrigued by constructed femininity, bawdiness, edginess and the glamorous power of sex appeal-- just ask my degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. My devoted interest in eroticism on-the-fringe is well documented in my month-long intensive study of sex workers in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, which culminated in a dense, eighty-page thesis wherein I explored concepts such as performativity, gaze theory and personal agency in the context of window prostitution. It is no surprise that through my immersion into the District’s culture of body currency I developed an awareness of my own body as being a part of this larger structure. I became very interested in objectification, subjectivity, self-objectification, and the power of the object of the gaze verses the power of the subject of the gaze. I wanted to, but never did, stand in one of the many ubiquitous luminescent windows that line the streets of the Red Light District. I never intended to sell any sexual services; my only interest was in knowing what it felt like to be observed like that, and be able to exercise my prerogative to close the window curtains or display my body. I wanted to be like those women-- to be sexy and desired and even elevated on a pedestal of tourist’s fantasies, but still be in control.

When I returned to the States to finish my final semester of college my interest in the aesthetic of eroticism on-the-fringe only intensified. I inhabited the characters of sex workers in two plays that semester and developed a passion for assembling innovative, pushing-the-envelope costumes which became hits at my notorious themed dance parties (which usually devolved into semi-nude or completely nude dance parties by the end of the night). Wigs, corsets, fishnets, glitter and other such items became my modus operandi at almost any event on campus, including graduation. I completed a few performance art pieces involving gender, the body, objectification and spectatorship, and I culminated my college experience by participating in the traditional May-Day naked bike ride across campus.

My appreciation of the feminine aesthetic and my penchant for pushing boundaries should not be seen necessarily as extensions of a desire to just be a sexual object, though. In all of my explorations I aimed to not only play with objectification, but find ways of subverting it. For example, my costumes as well as my gender performance did not simply mirror heternormative standards of femininity; instead I used the properties of femininity to push my costumes and performances beyond what is traditional and into the realm of hyper-femininity, which mocks itself by revealing through it’s obvious use of implements its own created artificiality. In other words, by imitating and performing femininity I sought to emphasize the constructed nature of it, thus subverting its meaning by deeming it a man-made cultural construct. When I dressed up at a party to play a role for the evening, it was like donning a character for a play. I could be anyone I wanted to be, and people seemed to sense that energy coming from me and were attracted to it. The attention made me feel empowered and in control, like the women in the windows I had envied before.

If I wasn’t already, I became somewhat obsessed with gaze theory. I spent countless hours researching different theories of the gaze, subject/object power dynamics and objectification, and I incorporated these theories into numerous performative as well as academic projects. For an upper-level Art class titled Site, Installation, and Performance I created and documented a performance piece called “Objectification Zoo”, for which I sat in a store-front window dressed only in a leotard and cut out images of various female body parts from magazines and glued them to my skin. I then crawled around the space of the shop window like an animal, exhibiting myself as a “creature” of the media, not a human person anymore but a collage of adopted images of disembodied female parts-- a constructed, unnatural disfiguration of femininity. I had a friend film the episode and also capture the reactions of my audience, who were street-spectators passing by my window. I intended to present my view of what the female body has become in a culture saturated with prescriptive feminine body ideals. Another performance art project was an installation in a black box theatre which featured a projected image of me reading aloud from my real-life diaries to the camera/audience. My “ghost”, which was my projected image on the wall, spilled my secrets to audience members who were free to enter and leave the space within the four-hour “reading”. I called the project “An Installed Experiment Involving Memory, Space, Art, Spectatorship, and the Spillage of Secrets.” In this project I invited my audience to explore their own notions of spectatorship by inviting them to listen to me read material from my own diaries that dealt with personal issues like sexual experiences and my sexual identity. Sometimes during the reading the image of me looked up and spoke directly to the “camera”, which in turn became the audience in the theatre. I was interested in challenging my audience by acknowledging their presence. Quoting my Artist Statement, I questioned:

“What is appropriate protocol on the part of the spectators? Should they be listening to me reading from my diaries at all? Are they innocent spectators, or hungry voyeurs? And lastly, what am I-- a radical exhibitionist, an artist, or a person caught unawares on tape reading her secrets? WHO is innocent and WHO is responsible?”

As you can see, in my work the most important thing is that looking at me should not be made easy. It is never my intention to present myself as pure “eye candy”. Using whatever devices I have: intellectualism, campiness, a queer bent, I am always trying to challenge, play with and subvert how I am looked at and objectified. It is also important to me that I enjoy being objectified in a situation that I create. I do not enjoy being objectified in situations outside of my own control, such as on the street simply because I am a female and it is generally socially acceptable for males in public to objectify unaccompanied females in public. But if I can create a situation using my own devices where I am objectified and also in control of the experiment, then I can enjoy being a spectacle. It took me a while to figure out how to do this outside the safety of the classroom, where everyone was on my side and understood my intentions.

One of my greatest efforts to transplant my work on gaze theory into the “real world” (that is, outside the classroom, the theatre, and out from behind glass) was my attempt to academically legitimize my participation the May-Day naked bike ride by literally inscribing my theoretical framework for how I planned to subvert the gaze on my nude body with magic markers. I wanted to have complete control over how my nude body was “read” by an audience that promised to be objectifying (male strangers from the nearby town were fond of attending the event with telescopic camera lenses, even though the bike ride was always intended to be a closed-campus affair). Although we considered changing the time of the event to dupe the town visitors, I was largely responsible for convincing my class to go through with the event at the scheduled time so that we would have a chance to “fight back” against the unwelcomed gaze of the leering spectators. At my suggestion a group of us called ourselves the “Gaze Warriors” and planned to douse our uninvited spectators with water from water guns and water balloons with the intent to ruin their cameras as they attempted to steal our likeness for their own pleasure. A few of us including myself also wore dildos attached to us with handmade harnesses and I wore a wig to be more completely in drag. I intended to subvert the event by troubling the heterosexual male gaze with my unexpected body modifications: my gaze theory thesis written all over my body in runny marker ink, my boyish hair and my erect, pick dildo-penis flopping at my crotch. I hoped to exhibit total control over how my body was interpreted by my audience-- at the very least, I felt confidant that no one would be able to successfully objectify me as if I were just another nude female co-ed. Unfortunately my plan backfired, leading to serious consequences. My best friend and roommate was physically assaulted by a man with a cellphone camera after she attempted to pour water from a cup onto him. No one around us came to help. There was no reaction on either side of the battle lines. I was stunned. The event concluded with both of us in the Public Safety office making an official claim of assault against this man whom we had never seen before, and who we never saw again. He was never identified. It seemed that despite our best efforts we were all still just a bunch of scared, naked, objectified and exploited co-eds. Pictures of us still ended up on a bunch of local forums. I became doubtful that, for all of my knowledge of gaze theory, I was really able to be in control.

But I wasn’t finished trying to figure this whole thing out. I liked being looked at, but I still wanted to feel empowered. My investigation led to posing. During college I had posed a couple times for a very, very close girlfriend of mine who is a brilliant feminist artist, and posing for her was exciting and full of meaning, like we were underground conspirators collaborating on revolutionary, female-empowering art that was really going to change the world. I have never been prouder to be the subject of photography than I was posing for her projects. I loved the idea of being her muse and the lovely feeling that I was a significant part of her body of work. We always worked together and within a shared comfort zone to produce the final photographs, and she made me feel beautiful, empowered, and even thrillingly dangerous. She also shared my academic fascination with gaze theory, so her work was meant to challenge her audience and subvert the gaze. We spoke the same language on this subject, and I think it came through in her photographs. I miss connecting with an artist that way.

Post-graduation I set out to find something similar in the art world beyond my friends. I discovered the advantage of working with non-friends is that being a life model can actually pay! Seduced by the romantic fantasy of supporting myself as an artist’s muse, I started working with an artist named Andrei who had me hod very bizarre and strenuous poses for short periods of time while he sketched me. These sessions were the preliminary leg-work before he decided which pose and at which angle was right for a painting. I felt comfortable with him, even though I was nude and sometimes had my legs over my head or was in some other strange position and my muscles often ached for days after a session due to the strain. He was never inappropriate; he was a very serious and hardworking artist. I felt that I could trust him to look at me without objectifying me in his work. It also made me feel like a completely non-gendered, non-sexual specimen. Feeling like this was relaxing in a way, almost as if I was getting paid by the hour to feel the calm blankness of forgetting my gender and sexuality. I thought and then I believed, “I am just an interesting thing to draw.”

Then I think I got bored of feeling that way. I didn’t feel explicitly objectified, but on the other hand I didn’t like feeling like an impersonal object either. I never did end up posing for one of his paintings. Somehow our relationship tapered off and I began looking for other paying gigs on Criagslist, which is not something I would recommend to any female model, by the way. I met a lot of (always male) photographers on craigslist and posed nude for them and they paid me a little money, but it was not worth the risk. I was stupid and naive and meeting these photographers alone in their houses/ apartments/ hotel rooms (!!!) was just about the most dangerous thing I could have done, and I did it more times than I should have. I am very fortunate not to have been hurt or worse during these private meetings. Also, I did not find what I was looking for. When I left these photo shoots I did not feel empowered; though in many cases I had been paid for my time I still did not feel compensated for my work. I felt that my image was stolen from me in their cameras. It didn’t feel like I was in control.

There was one male photographer-model relationship that stands out to me as being overall a very positive experience. I posed regularly for a few months with a photographer named Rashid, and we collaborated on all the aspects of the shoot. I was not paid; in return for acting as his muse I was rewarded with CDs of the images he shot for my portfolio. I was given the freedom to dress in creative costumes and always chose powerful poses; I never felt pressured to look “coy” or “submissive” the way other photographers had coached me to do. My personality was able to shine through these photos, and I liked that.

Eventually I started looking for more work that was paying, and even though I went back to Craigslist (boooo!) I was lucky enough to find an ad posted by an established Baltimore painter, Sangram, who was interested in paying me regularly for posing for his paintings. He was a professor at the Maryland Institute for the Arts and he was very professional and organized. I posed for him for a few hours two to three times per week, and though it was actually very hard work I enjoyed it. As the summer months went by I saw my image come to life both in charcoal and in oil paint on his huge, towering canvases, and it was a beautiful experience watching his progress. At the end of the summer Sangram packed away his paints and canvases and moved to New York to pursue his art. I hope he is doing very well.

So here’s the segue: Sangram’s studio was located in a huge, labyrinthine warehouse building that housed many artist’s studios and living spaces as well as a gallery and performance space. I began noticing posters on the wall in the main lobby advertising events like gallery shows, local band performances, and other entertainment including burlesque. I had not been living under a box this whole time; I knew what burlesque was. But, despite having seen stranger things in Amsterdam like a live sex show, I had never actually seen a live burlesque show. Naturally, this had to be remedied.

The first real burlesque show I went to was the 5th Annual Holiday Spectac-u-thon featuring Baltimore-natives-turned-national-burlesque-stars Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey and Chicago’s Michelle L’Amour. Trixie and Monkey are known for their quirky, acrobatic blend of burlesque, trapeze artistry and farce, and Michelle is known for her exquisite grace and beautiful, round ivory rump (her tag line is “the ass that goes POW!”). I was intrigued by the dichotomy presented over the course of the show: Trixie’s comedic spunk and over-the-top campiness, and Michelle’s effortless feminine elegance (her fan-dance was literally jaw-dropping); I thought, could these styles be successfully combined? How many other styles were there, and where might I fit in? I went alone but ran into a good friend in the audience. After seeing the acts, I turned to her and whispered “I’m going to be a burlesque performer soon.” She gave me the proverbial thumbs-up and said she would be there for my grand debut.

Okay, fast forward a bit. You see, basically I was born with the uncanny ability to take whatever bizarre dreams I have for myself and turn them into reality. So it goes without saying that one month later “Femme 6” debuted to the world at the Ottobar with the Flip Kittys, Baltimore’s Pole-dancing and Burlesque Troupe. And MY style is, I like to think, somewhere in the middle between zany Trixie and divine Michelle, with a distinctly perceivable queer flavor to make it all my own. For my first show with the Flip Kittys I entered the stage in drag as an alter-ego of Femme 6, “Fire Man-Flesh”, a robust and macho fireman who says politically questionable things to the audience (“I know I’m wearin’ heels and fake eyelashes, but I ain’t a queer.”). Then my up-beat music starts and I remove my firefighter coat, hat, and finally my drag wig to reveal Femme 6, and I dance just like I’m a girl having fun. At one point during the dance I pretend that I might unzip my costume down the front and gesture to the audience in a way that says, “Do you wanna see this?” After hearing the audience cheer, I, like a true tease and just to remind the audience that I’m in control, wag a finger and deny the reward. The actor in me craves some narrative structure to keep the audience interested, so in keeping within the theme of the show, “Fire and Ice,” a blizzard interrupts my dance (this was accomplished with sound effects and a fan gag where I run over to a fan and over-dramatically fight against its breeze.). I then dive under the discarded firefighter coat to shield myself from the “storm” and to provide cover for my second costume change: I don a shimmering white mask. When I emerge with the mask on, a winter-themed Enya song plays and I slip out of my firefighter costume to reveal an iridescent costume that matches my mask. My style of dancing now becomes slower and more graceful. My movements are fluid and feminine and my poses are elegant. I strip languidly piece by piece, and then interrupt the flow with another gag (I sit leisurely for a moment and blow bubbles), just to permeate the dance with a gentle reminder of ridicule (as in, “look at me, I’m so delicate and beautiful... now I’m blowing bubbles because that’s what I do when I’m looking so delicate and beautiful!”). Finally I perform two tricks on the stage pole to end my performance with a strong finale, and my friend who promised she would be there throws fistfuls of dollars onto the stage, “making it rain” and causing even more of a spectacle of performance. This, being my debut show, was my chance to make a lasting first impression on my audience: namely that I, Femme 6, can be charming, glamorous, humorous and quirky all at the same time.

Now, as for the name “Femme 6”...! From the inception of my journey into the realm of visual, performative eroticism (my intimate study of sex workers and their window performances, my experiments in performance art dealing with gendered issues, my various gigs where I have displayed my nude body for an artist’s gaze, etc.) I have always used my academic training as the foundation to my art-making. “Femme 6” was born out of “Girl 6”, which is a film I studied in a Film and Media Studies class in school. The film Girl 6 (1996) was directed by Spike Lee and written by Suzan-Lori Parks. On the most basic superficial level, the film is about a phone-sex operator, but what the film was really designed to do is subvert the way its audience perceives films in general, and more specifically subvert sexist representations of women in films. The film uses devices such as reflexivity (which is when an art form makes deliberate reference to itself) and irony to call to the audience’s attention that the film is in fact, a film. It therefore separates itself from the traditional “blockbuster” film’s master narrative that completely envelops its audience in the world of the film, letting them forget that they are watching something constructed for specific purposes. Instead, Girl 6 refuses to allow its audience to become passive spectators; it actively engages its audience with little reflexive and ironic hints (Naomi Cambell wearing a shirt that reads “Models Suck”, Quentin Tarantino’s cameo as an obnoxious, sexist and latently racist Hollywood director, etc), all of which were placed in the film to provoke a reaction.

Similarly, in my burlesque acts I strive to use devices like humor, irony, and satire to actively engage and provoke my audience in a way that is thoughtful but still fun. Something I love about burlesque is that it often does this all by itself! Burlesque acts typically provoke audience response (for example, the audience is made aware that the performer wants to be cheered with she teases a zipper or bares a bit more skin), and the very nature of burlesque as a performer on a stage with the most outrageous feminine accoutrements that are, one by one, removed, automatically reminds the audience that the over-the-top bastion of femininity on stage isn’t “real,” it’s parody! Entertainment! I like to take it just one step further and toss something queer into the mix. This is how I hope to stand out, and also why I call myself a “Burlesqueer”. Not only is it a cute play on words, but in the context of “stripping” (which is usually associated with “feminine”, “straight” females removing clothes and objectifying themselves for the pleasure of “masculine, “straight” males) I think queering a burlesque performance is a bold choice. Once again, I am not here to do a little dance and be easy on the eyes. I want my acts to be fun because they’re complicated, because I come out as a gay leather daddy circa 1985 and I seduce a closeted business exec in a park except when I undress him he has breasts and we make out behind a tree and you’re not sure if we’re both supposed to be men or if we’re men pretending to be women or WHAT! but we’re grooving to “Queer” by Garbage which is funny because it’s self-referential and ironic and we’re telling a story and you’re a little confused but you’re having a good time. That kind of fun. See my video “Femme 6 and Roma Mafia ‘Queer’ Burlesque” to see this in action.

The story of the woman who plays Girl 6 is also relevant to why I chose the name: she is an actress on a quest for success, but finds that the only work she can tolerate that will at least make her enough money is phone-sex work. She feels in control at first, but eventually she is fighting for control as she gets taken in by the fantasies of her callers and begins to trust and believe them. Throughout the film Girl 6 also struggles with reclaiming power over her own body. The theme of being in control speaks to me and is something I often think about when I devise my performance acts.

“Femme 6” as a name also pokes fun at the fact that indeed, I am one of many. As far as female performers who use their sexuality to entertain, there may be millions, or more! I’m just girl #6 out of them all. But isn’t a name with a number somehow more memorable? Like prisoner #24601, otherwise identified as Jean Valjean in the novel/musical Les Miserables? Or James Bond 007? Just sayin’.

Oh, and of course I cannot fail to mention why “FEMME 6” as opposed to “GIRL 6.” Besides preferring my primary reference not to be too obvious, I also enjoy the queer connotations of the term “femme,” which is commonly used to refer to a feminine lesbian. It’s “opposite”, per se, is “butch”, which commonly describes a lesbian who exhibits a gender performance that is read as masculine. There is also the term “high femme,” which is a gender identity marked by an exaggerated, theatrical gender performance of femininity that is so stylized that the effect achieved is close to drag. AND “femme” is not even necessarily attached to biology at all! It can also be used to describe a male who exhibits a gender performance that is read as feminine. So you can see why “Femme 6” is a more gender-ific name than “Girl 6.”

Also, the Swedish words for “five” and “six” are “fem” and “sex”, respectively. I thought this was funny (since I apparently have the sense of humor of an eight-year-old) and was fond of chanting “fem sex fem sex fem sex!” while I was visiting Sweden. So “Femme 6” is kind of a Swedish joke, at least to me.

So that’s the history of how Femme 6 came to be. I hope you have learned something.


Photos by Nate Pesce.

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