This winter, The Cinematheque is hosting Traces That Resemble Us, a screening series and art exhibition that explores art and cinema in Vancouver. SAD Mag’s Helen Wong caught up with acclaimed Canadian artist Vikky Alexander to discuss architecture, photography, and “revenge.”
SAD Mag: Why did you choose the film Playtimefor Traces That Resemble Us?
VA: My interest in Playtime comes from its satirical perspective on architecture. I like to think that is a film about architecture’s “revenge”. In the first part, the uniformity and perceived inhumanity of International Style architecture is identified in the complete confusion it causes for the protagonist, who cannot find or connect with the bureaucrat he’s looking for because of the office building’s unkind intervention. At an International Trade Fair, a group of American tourists are only allowed to peep at the historic city of Paris through reflection in portions of glass-curtain walls, which the monuments seem to literally slip off. When Hulot goes to meet a friend for an evening, he is confounded by the entrance to the apartment. He can see his friend and family from the street through the floor-to-ceiling window, but cannot figure out how to access them, and when he leaves, he cannot exit the main door. Finally, on the opening night of a chic restaurant, the room, furniture, food and costumes literally self-destruct in front of us. The more ruinous the interior, the more fun for all.
SM: How does your piece currently on display at Monte Clark Gallery use aspects of the film? What is the importance of reflection?
VA: My piece at the Monte Clark Gallery is a photograph of a shop window that I took in Istanbul a couple of years ago. The shop was one of many on a street that specialized in decorative furniture and objects for the home. I really liked how the shop window was like a pristine stage set that was untouchable because of the pane of glass in front of it. And yet the reflections on the window literally superimposed the life of the street into the virtual ‘home.’
SM: Do you often reference architecture in your works?
VA: I often reference architecture in my photographic, collage, and sculptural works. I am particularly attracted to utopian projects and have documented places like the West Edmonton Mall (Alberta), Disneyland (California), Las Vegas (Nevada), Vaux le Vicomte (France) and the Palm House in Kew Gardens (London). I see these projects as fantastic, fascinating, and flawed.
SM: What do you think of the term “environmental determinism”? Do you think that our thoughts and behaviours are influenced by the built environment?
VA: The film I chose, Playtime, makes a mockery of environmental determinism, I think. It seems to prove that regardless of architectural and environmental restrictions, human nature will triumph, and the film demonstrates that with humor.
SM: Most of your works reflect on the notion of utopia, how do you aim to situate the viewer within this space?
VA: I think all of us, either on a small (domestic) or large scale, construct and design our own utopias, and yet they are flawed because it’s human nature to want something better…better sofa, better house. And the minute you get that better sofa, guess what, you want the one that’s even better than that one.
SM: How do you work to achieve a self-reflexive nature through the recontextualization and reconstruction of appropriated images?
VA: In my early work (1980’s), I appropriated images from the editorial sections of European fashion magazines, cropped and enlarged them and reframed them. All text was eliminated. When I reframed them, I added a large black overmat, which functioned as a sort of black mirror when glass (for the frame) was placed on top. In this way the reflection of the everyday viewer was superimposed on top of the utopian fashion models. These works are similar to my more recent photographs of showrooms in Paris, Istanbul, and Tokyo. Quite often the passerby on the street is superimposed on the luxury objects in the shop windows.
SM: Vancouver has a distinct history of art and film, how do you see this reiterated in contemporary art?
VA: I’ve always seen Vancouver as having a very particular photographic history and I’ve always felt that photographers have a close relationship to the cinema, originally because of they were both film mediums, I guess. But for some reason (maybe because Vancouver is so “photogenic”) I find it difficult to photograph here. Maybe because we have so much soft light, due to the climate.
SM: What is your favourite building and why?
VA: It’s difficult to pick a favorite building, as I have so many, but one really spectacular building is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven Connecticut designed by Gordon Bunschaft in 1963. It belongs to Yale University and the exterior walls are gridded marble panels, so that when you are inside on a sunny day and the light shines through the veins in the panels the whole building seems to be on fire. It’s amazing.
On now at The Cinematheque is Traces That Resemble Us, a screening series and art exhibition that explores art and cinema in Vancouver. The Cinematheque invited 12 prominent artists to each program a film that has been influential to their work. I had the pleasure of visiting Ian Wallace at his studio to discuss his involvement in the series as well as his thoughts on film in Vancouver.
SAD Mag: How did you get involved with Traces That Resemble Us?
Ian Wallace: Shaun Inouye from the Cinematheque called and said they had come up with this concept for an exhibition that takes a range of Vancouver artists whose work has been involved with film in one way or another. In my own work I’ve made reference to films, I’ve attempted to make films, and in the 1970s I was shooting and taking stills off my own films and using them for large scale works. Since then I have been citing and referencing well known films from the European avant-garde in the 60s.
I am interested in the theme of the male and female relationship reflecting from a gender politics point of view. I aim to express this symbolically, taking stills from well known films and cutting and separating the male and female figures on the canvas. That was my basic strategy as I’m not commenting on the film themselves insomuch as I’m using the theme and figures to make my own statements.
SM: Why did you choose Contempt for the exhibition?
IW: The film is about the breakdown of a marriage. The male character begins to question why his wife doesn’t love him anymore…why she feels contempt towards him. I’ve taken references and images from this source and converted it to my own expressive iconography.
SM: What is it about the male/female relationship that attracted you to explore this theme?
IW: It is very much my philosophical mindset. I explore the idea of difference and opposition. In my own work an opposition between abstraction and representation exists. It acts as a formal expressive sense of opposition in regard to how marks and meaning can function in different contexts. And of course in our everyday lives—in the gendered politics of our lives—there is a biological difference in contrast between male and female that is subliminal. We try to erase it but we have to recognize that we have completely different bodies and emotional senses as to how we see the ‘other.’ I am interested in and influenced by the feminist movement of the 70s and all the questions that come [with it]. We must recognize that the organic world is constructed biologically as a gendered structure, even plants have male and female structures.
SM: That’s interesting from a biological point of view, what else are you interested in?
IW: I’m interested in the fundamental image of difference and how we can understand that and absorb that into our image consciousness. How images influence how we think and…meditate on what those differences mean through the image. By cutting, splitting and often reversing the image of the male and female [my work] exaggerate[s] this difference.
SM: Does the binary between photography and painting have any relation to the male/female relationship?
IW: Yes. Painting is only a field or ground for the signifying mark which is the photographic image. The photographic image is itself full of representational material. In a photograph, it’s hard to avoid references to the world; I like this because it enriches the meditative aspect. I like thinking of paintings as fields for meditation for thinking out subject matter. I’m interested in abstract painting, how a jolt of colour occupies space in an image, how it unifies, fragments, and marks an image. Abstract painting doesn’t mean anything, there is an absence of meaning while photography is full of meaning. I have to say, though, in the end everything has some kind of meaning in the sense that it has some context. A mark on a canvas has a context of the whole history of the representation of painting.
SM: You mentioned that you were influenced by feminist artists in the 70s. Artists such as Barbara Kreuger and Mary Kelly were working with language and exploring its patriarchal roots. Do you think we can subvert this patriarchy?
IW: I try to listen and be sensitive to the female aspect. I cannot speak to the female aspect, I can only speak from the male point of view. I don’t think language is exclusively patriarchal but much of language is. The practice of women in culture today is more engaged than it has ever been historically which works to overcome the framework of language being patriarchal.
I don’t necessarily account for it except for…within the references I’ve made in my work. For instance, a woman is going to have a different feeling than a man when viewing my work, and a woman is going to have a different feeling than another woman. Someone who understands the film will have a different relationship than someone who has just seen the image for the first time. I don’t think there is any exclusive reading, I only put the general notion of the meditative object into context: an object for aesthetic contemplation.
SM: Can this apply to film?
IW: The critiques of feminism in the 70s have opened up how we read movie images and film images and [have] caused a lot of change in how they are produced as well. It addresses what kind of responsibility a director, artist, or author has in the meaning he creates.
SM: Is the use of montage represented in the way you’re using film stills?
IW: It is definitely a form of montage; I’m cutting into the body of the images. In film there are a variety of shots, reverse shots, close ups, over the shoulder etc. I’m cutting into each still from a particular angle, [and] through this a participation that occurs; I am reconstructing and recasting a film text in my own subtle way.
A feminist artist, arguably more influential than Kreuger and Kelly, is Sherry Levine. She is an artist who has appropriated male art, such as Walker Evans and Egon Schiele, and reconstructed and reconverted them in her own way. So she has in fact provided a metacritique of a feminist point of view using male-produced works.
SM: In this case, are you providing your own metacritique?
IW: I am doing something similar. I’m appropriating an image and recasting it in my own way, but I interfere with the image a lot more than she does.
SM: Vancouver has a unique history of film, ranging from the variety of films shot here to the work of important photoconceptualists such as yourself and Jeff Wall. How is this history incorporated in works today?
IW: We’ve all been experiencing film, television, and the dramatic image as we unconsciously model ourselves [after] forms of behaviour given to us by the dramatized image. As a group of artists (Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas etc) dealing with cinema and intellectual things, the study of art history moves things forward into contemporary models of thinking. None of us are critical, political, or theoretical in an obvious way, but it deeply informs our work without being clearly read as a mandate to the viewer to think a certain way. I give personal forms and expressions of a general theme that probably identifies my position in ways that I don’t even understand. People can then contemplate and open doors for themselves. Art works as stimulants for people to produce their own meaning, not just to consume other people’s meanings. I mean, that’s the function of art. I try to keep my work as simple as possible, as open as possible. There is a precise set of information I have in terms of thinking about art and history and my own expressive context, but ultimately anyone can do what I do.
SM: Then what is the role of the artist?
IW: To open the doors of perception—that’s the name of a book by Aldous Huxley. In it he explores how drugs can open up new ways of thinking: That’s what art should do.
Ian’s pick Contempt has already been screened, but you can check out films selected by other artists such as Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, and Myfanwy MacLeod every Thursday until December 17 at the Cinematheque. You can also check out the corresponding Traces That Resemble Us art exhibition at Monte Clark Gallery, on until January 30.
Talking Heads is an interview column devoted to contemporary arts and culture in Vancouver. Look out for more of Helen Wong’s interviews on sadmag.ca.
Talking Heads is an interview column devoted to contemporary arts and culture in Vancouver. Once a month, Sad Mag‘s Helen Wong sits down with a couple of interesting, unique individuals to discuss a topic of her choosing. This month’s topic? The prevalent and renowned artist Paul Wong and the ubiquity of his mediums of choice.
Walking into Paul Wong’s studio is like walking into another, way cooler, dimension. Filled with an archive of televisions, recorders, monitors, and cameras; it’s every media artist’s dream. I got the chance to interview Paul about his latest projects for ISEA 2015 and Le Mois de la Photo in Montreal. It’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of other individuals, because although technology is something I do not have an affinity for, it’s a necessity for the expression of the self for Paul. He creates a notion of a new, cyber-connected, self-aware other that constitutes a way in which we can all participate in our world today.
Helen Wong: You primarily practice with digital media and video. How do you choose what to focus on when there are so many stimuli going off at one moment, in tandem with this being magnified by our society today?
Paul Wong: You have to make choices all the time; you are always subconsciously making a choice on what to see and focus on. You’re constantly filtering. What have I done today? Recently I’ve been playing with Generate, an app developed by Hybridity Media here in Vancouver. It allows artists to mix live and recorded visuals and sound. A significant event on social media today was the legalization of gay marriage in America. That’s a huge victory, especially at time of year, when the world celebrates Pride based on the Stonewall Riots that took place in June 1969 in NYC; the LGBT community fought back against the homophobic and discriminatory actions and raids at the Stonewall Bar. These are considered as landmark events for the gay rights movement. With this topic in mind, I took an image of the rainbow flag that MOMA posted and applied my favourite ‘swirl’ filter and mixed it with Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’. By doing this, I’m riffing on social media and it subsequently becomes today’s response to a significant moment. This also extends to my practice as I’m constantly thinking about colour, such as RGB and the colour bar. I’m working on a major public art commission, a neon that incorporates every possible colour available in hue form; every argon gas and every neon colour in direct reference to the idea of how the rainbow is a symbol for inclusion, diversity, and peace. This is how I incorporate the everyday into my work.
HW: In our society, there seems to be an incessant need to document and capture everything. Do you think this causes us to construct our own realities rather than live presently? How does this notion apply to your artistic practice?
PW: As an artist, I am conscious of the democratization of media; I’m given the tools to turn my eye/ camera away from the mainstream doctrine. Instead, I actively choose to turn the camera towards myself and my community in order to tell my own story and to share our thoughts and images. This has always been my politic. In this way, we are constructing ourselves as our own realities. It’s turned things upside down for mainstream media because we now have a multimillion-channel universe and we are no longer subjected to only 13 broadcast channels. Suddenly, whatever platform I decide to use becomes my own network to share, to take, to make, or inhale or exhale. In this regard, we’ve come a long way from Narcissus on his knees looking at his own reflection. What we see, what we get to make, and ways of looking and seeing are radically different than what it was in the past. We are no longer being fed information and images because the control on what we can or cannot see, what is true or untrue – this monopoly on cultural history – has radically shifted. It takes a lot more work but we are creating this new other.
HW: In this thread, you play on the idea of Bressai, a surrealist, who stated that the world of the real is continuously making art and that we become quiet observers. Do you view yourself shifting into this role as social media dominates?
PW: My practice is really based on observations and stories from everyday life: things that are immediately around me. What I find constantly around me includes the Internet. Looking Looping and Listening, Flash Memory, Year of GIF, and Solstice are four works that are covering shooting everyday stuff over the span of 6 years, its part of a larger body of work called the Multiverse.
HW: Video gives the notion of immediacy; do you feel hindered by how fast technology is changing? How do you continually adapt to new forms and modes?
PW: I don’t think technology is changing too fast at all, in fact I think technology is still very primitive. The fact that your phone wasn’t working the way it did an hour ago, theres no wifi in places, the wifi isn’t strong enough, you’re running out of memory, you have low battery, or the camera isn’t good enough, are evidence that it’s still primitive. Technology is not there; I’ve been waiting for the promise of technology for 40 years. The promise has been dangling in front of me for my entire life and career, to the point where it’s still a promise. The amount of time and money I spend on staff and resources, troubleshooting, rebuying, downloading, uploading, reconfiguring, upgrading, and updating on a weekly basis is insane. But on the other hand, the post photographic condition has been making the evolution from the analogue world to the promise of digital a possibility.
HW: You’re presenting work at the ISEA 2015 (International Symposium of Electronic Art, August 14 to 19) are you able to tell me a little bit about your work? Or at least provide a little spoiler?
PW: We’re debuting a project we’ve been working on for a couple of years called the MIMMiC Mobile Interactive Modular Multiscreen iPad Canvas. Patrick Daggitt and I wanted to create a work for multiscreen, to synchronize and de-synchronize 9 iPads so that they can talk to each other using gestures in order to create something very interactive. The iPad hit the market in 2010 and the iPhone hit the market in 2007, so suddenly touchscreens have become our main form of interaction. We’ve gone from flipping pages to scrubbing, stroking, and feeling a screen. I was doing an interview via Skype on my iPad with this lovely young man and I realized after 45 minutes I was cradling and holding him as I was moving around my studio; it was a very beautiful, intimate experience that made me realize the possibilities of gesture. For the MIMMiC Project we are creating a work that allows one big image, 9 images or 9 parts to be manipulated by colour, timing, and sound, so that the viewer can construct their own work within the boundaries we set up. The first work ‘Westcoast Wave Cycle’ was shot in Tofino. We will be premiering this at ISEA along with demonstrations of three artists we have commissioned: Sammy Chien, who will be doing a sound based live performance; Evann Seibens, who is developing a work using the hand gestures of herself, her mother, and daughter; and Adam Myhiil with Christine Wallace, a cinematographer and a body builder, who will explore ideas of sculptural genderbending between form and content.
HW: The post photographic condition is the theme for Le Mois de la Photo [The International Biennial of the Contemporary Image in Montreal]; what do you think this condition is? Photography always has a hint of loss and death, so post photography is seemingly an attempt to reestablish the link between history and the present.
PW: With the recent improvements to the iPhone 6, its improved video and photo quality, along with the fact that I have 128MB, it has become my primary creative tool. I shoot all my video and photographs and edit them on my phone. The post photographic condition is letting go of the fact that photos need to be shot in high resolution, or with 300dpi for editorial; letting go of the fetishization of the big format photo which was never my thing anyway. Conventional print media of magazines and books are disappearing, not entirely, but there is huge distribution on the net and other media where you only need 72dpi. The post photographic condition is letting go of all those previous expectations of the former realms of analogue photographic practices. Instagram is a great platform; more people can see what I do than ever before and I can see their stuff too and I can do all this without leaving the bathroom or the bed!
HW: As a Chinese Canadian, I often find myself between two sets of identities, almost in a constant state of dislocation. Does this idea pertain to you? How do you remedy this?
PW: In reference to the letters, I find myself literally in between two languages! That is cultural difference. In 2014 I made a neon piece titled #hashtagplus. I put the symbol of the hashtag on a metal box in the shape of a plus sign. In this way I’m taking the current use of a hashtag and its initial use as a pound sign and paired it with the plus sign, which looks like a geometric piece of art, but can also look like a Chinese character. I took a successful symbol and addressed its different applications in its form and language and presented what it was and what it has become. It’s a comment on how you can make an art object out of an ephemeral stroke on your keyboard; to amplify it’s meaning was a very successful pop art thing to do.
HW: You are known as one of the Main Street artists, how do you actively try to incorporate your Chinese heritage and Vancouver roots into your work?
PW: At the moment, I have someone who reads and writes Chinese organizing and translating 700 letters written to my mother over the last 50 years. There are over 100 writers in these letters so it becomes an interesting narrative between my mother in Vancouver and her relatives and friends in China. It’s a portrait of my mother and her generation woven around the absence of her direct voice; it’s a story of an extraordinary half century 1950-2000. I’m trying to navigate through all the interesting history, timelines and perspectives
I can’t read or write Chinese, and it gets tricky because I only understand a very specific regional dialect of Cantonese. I need a translator who can read and write to tell me what’s in these letters. The translator I have speaks Mandarin from Taiwan, and I also need a trilingual translator from Toisan. There is this concept where we communicate through common language, but the loss of language and what is further lost through translating illegible calligraphy makes it even more challenging and interesting.
I like the ambiguity.
HW: Seeing as summer solstice just occured, talk about your work Solstice in which you condense 24 hours into 24 minutes. How does the ability to manipulate time and cycles in such a way speak to the integration between technology and life?
PW: Solstice was a work based on the summer solstice a couple years ago; it was a camera recording out of the 4th floor building at Hastings and Main. It’s an observation of 24 hours. The camera took one frame every 10 seconds creating a series of still photos. I used an Aftereffects filter to fill in the missing information that happened in-between the 10 seconds. In this way, I’m using digital means to generate data to artificially fill in the gap between two real moments.
I find the human condition and the planet endlessly fascinating. We’re always trying to figure out who we are and our place in relationship to everything else. History, science, medicine, and capitalism all try to lay it out in a linear understandable fashion; however, it’s really such an abstract notion. So the fact that I can create moments of how I can look at you in another way is kind of cool. I can slow something down, I can alter the framing, I can position things in different contexts, and all these contribute to a reawakening of a whole other way of looking, listening and feeling.
In the end I am drawing with light, because that’s what I’m interested in: light.
Talking Heads is an interview column devoted to contemporary arts and culture in Vancouver. Once a month, Sad Mag‘s Helen Wong sits down with a couple of interesting, unique individuals to discuss a topic of her choosing. This month’s topic? The sassy, fabulous and controversial world of drag.
Earlier this month I sat down with two queens, Jane Smoker and Tiffany Ann Co, to discuss their experiences and thoughts on drag. Jane Smoker is a professional drag queen. Having recently won Vancouver’s Next Drag Superstar, she’s slowly taking over the Vancouver scene and it has been a delight to watch. She is everything from edgy to glamourous as she continually pushes the boundaries of drag.
Tiffany Ann Co is an up and coming drag queen in Vancouver. Hailing from Richmond, she brings her Asian heritage into the mean girl world of Vancouver. Her performances are original and captivating, to the point where I’ve found myself watching them on repeat!
Helen Wong: How did you first get involved with drag?
Jane Smoker: I first got involved with drag when I moved out for the first time to live with my boyfriend and his roommate. We all lived in a one bedroom and found ourselves attending a lot of drag shows like Apocalypstick. Through this, I met the Cobalt queens and did my first show at Apocalypstick as Lindsay Lohan. From then on, it was just something I kept doing and it eventually evolved into Jane.
Tiffany Ann Co: I first got involved with drag during Halloween. My friends and I were brainstorming ideas for a group costume and we had settled on TLC. During our night out, we ended up winning a best group costume contest, which resulted in a promoter noticing us and booking us for future shows. The name Tiffany Ann Co emerged by playing with the letter T from my real name and incorporating the world of fashion, which is something that is very important in my life.
HW: How did you create the persona of Jane Smoker and Tiffany Ann Co? Does it feel like a construction?
JS: Jane’s persona is like a mix of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson, Courtney Love and Tara Reid. I’ve always been fascinated with these crazy, messy blonde celebrities. They appear to lead such chic lives with the way they dress but they are always getting arrested due to their partying and antics. Jane channels this contrast of beautiful people looking bad. Jane acts in a way that I wish I could act on a regular basis. She’s basically a hot mess. But with anyone, Jane has different sides to her and I like to play on her image, sometimes she’ll look more androgynous, and sometimes she’ll be very classy.
TAC: Tiffany kind of just takes over when I perform, but the idea of Tiffany was based off of the first performance I did on Vancouver’s Next Drag Superstar. She is the lovechild of an Asian Regina George and Blair Waldorf. I feel like Tiffany is an exaggerated form of my personality. She is like the rich Asian girl of Vancouver: a party girl at heart.
HW: Does Jane Smoker or Tiffany Ann Co feel like an extension of yourself or like a completely separate entity?
JS: Initially, she definitely felt like a separate entity. When I first started out as Jane, I would always refer to her in third person. But the more I’ve been performing, the more I’ve become used to her. I’m at the point where I sometimes even refer to myself as Jane.
TAC: Tiffany feels like a character that is related to me, like a twin sister. I like to think of her as a characterized form of Tony that does things that I normally wouldn’t do. She is who I become on stage, but when I finish performing she just turns off and I go back to being myself. Tony isn’t a part of Tiffany; Tiffany is a part of me.
HW: What reactions have you received from friends and family when you first started performing?
JS: My parents were not okay with the fact that I was performing drag. They saw a picture of me dressed in drag at a Sharon Needles performance and confronted me about it. My parents are religious and believed that drag was a sign that I wanted to transition into a woman. I remember having to frantically scrub off my make up when I would meet up with them because I told them that it was a one-time thing. However, when it became impossible to hide, we had a big talk about it. Now, they see it as more of an artistic thing. I’ve always loved performing and view this as performance art.
TAC: I mainly received a lot of positive feedback and support from friends and family. I think Tiffany is a lot cooler than me, I find people want to know about Tiffany’s life more than mine! Sometimes it’s overwhelming when I have people coming up to me and recognizing me from Vancouver’s Next Drag Superstar because I feel so much like myself (Tony) even when I look like Tiffany.
HW: What is it that keeps you performing?
JS: I love to do it; it’s something that I’m passionate about. Other performers always inspire me and I have a huge vault of performance ideas to the point where I’m always trying to push my own limits and try new things.
TAC: I have been performing my whole life. I love the adrenaline and feeling I get on stage. It’s a fun process and something that I like to look back on especially since the way I perform on stage is largely constructed inside my head so it’s fun to watch performances back. I become a different person on stage, I have more confidence and attitude and I like how it’s different from who I am in everyday life.
HW: Drag as a performance often uses stereotypes associated with how woman are portrayed in the media regarding how they’re supposed to look. How do you think drag reaffirms or subverts this notion?
JS: I think this depends on the queen. There are classic queens who do create the look of big hips, big ass, big eyes and lashes. But I feel like drag has evolved. Drag is whatever fantasy you want to feel; it’s all about the fantasy because there are no rules in drag. For instance, I sometimes choose not to wear any padding on my chest or I choose to wear minimal butt padding, in this way I’m still beautiful without using any of the stereotypes portrayed in the media.
TAC: For lack of a better word, Tiffany is a bit of a slut. Like I said before, she does things that I normally wouldn’t do, such as deep-throat a banana. I think that there are different forms of drag and the way that I created Tiffany doesn’t necessarily use the normative stereotypes of what an ideal woman should be. I think the main difference is that I didn’t create Tiffany for men; I created her for girls.
HW: How do you think gender construction surfaces in drag? Do these issues occur to you while performing?
JS: I feel like I’m the classic example of a drag queen. I’m a gay man dressing up as a woman. But there are so many types of drag that it’s not so simple to categorize. Sometimes I will wear a bald cap, or I’ll have short hair; I’m androgynous one day and sometimes I won’t even look human.
TAC: Aesthetically I created Tiffany to be like a normal girl, someone you wouldn’t naturally notice in a crowd. A lot of drag queens like to go all out with their costume and make up, but the character I created doesn’t do that. Tiffany’s onstage persona is largely a comedic and sexualized version of how girls behave, so when I’m on stage I’m just performing.
HW: Drag by its very nature assumes and reaffirms gender roles through the performance of wearing clothing associated with certain genders. Do you think this further reifies traditional gender norms?
JS:There’s a wild cluster of clothing that performers are wearing. You can wear whatever you feel like. I generally like to look sexy but I can’t see why you can’t wear whatever you want. If you want to wear leaves all over your body and all over your hair, then do it. Real cisgender women don’t do that. Drag isn’t about clothing rules; kings can wear bras and underpants or queens can have beards. At the end of the day, it’s all just drag.
TAC: Clothing doesn’t have gender; society puts gender on clothing. I think drag allows us to put new norms on gender roles because clothing is a form of expression that doesn’t define who you are or dictate gender.
HW: How do you like being identified?
JS: I identify as a male, but, really, why put a label on gender these days? There’s such a broad rainbow spectrum of gender and I believe most people are gender neutral. We all have masculine and feminine sides within us.
TAC: I identify as male, but for some reason I like using the pronoun ‘she’ for everyone. Boy, girl, straight, gay—whatever. I don’t do this in a negative or conscious way; I find it’s just how I speak.
HW: What advice would you give to up and coming queens and kings?
JS: Be patient and don’t do it for anybody else but yourself. Do what makes you happy and don’t follow the rules. The beauty of drag is that it’s so punk you can make it anything you want it to be. I think you should find something that makes you unique. But also, have a mix of self-confidence and delusion.
TAC: My main advice would be to do whatever you want. Don’t let other people tell you how to act because a large part of your growth comes from experience. You should determine your own ‘right’ way, because who is to say if your art is right or wrong? Rules are meant to be broken. At the end of the day, you just have to be happy with yourself.
Want to see them in action? Jane Smoker and Tiffany Ann Co host Back It Up Thursdays at Celebrity Night Club. Jane is performing at Edmonton Pride and has weekly and monthly shows coming up, so stay tuned! Tiffany also has an event called Sorority House at Celebrities on July 16th.