ET: On your website, alongside a photo of you, is a caption that I love: “Just a small feminist note…this is what a real, non-photoshopped, 5′ 7″, 127 pound, size 4 to 6 body looks like. Yes, I look chubby by magazine and fashion-industry standards, which gives you an indication of how misleading and manipulated most commercial images of women are.” You also mention striving to be a feminist role model for your daughter. It would be very easy for me to project here, but I would like to hear in your words how your work combats negative stereotypes and stimulates dialogue about these issues.
AFF: So part of it is the classic subversive move of taking the language of the oppressor, recontextualizing it, and using it to one’s advantage. A woman in fancy lingerie (or otherwise skimpy clothing) draws attention. Once that attention is drawn we can use it for dialogue and critique. Also, I think seeing women doing unexpected, non-feminine, non-submissive things (like butchering meat and barbecuing) while attired in garb that would tend to dictate quite a different role, in and of itself simulates dialogue. Also, to be completely honest, we are all products of our societies, and I do enjoy wearing lingerie and feeling typically “pretty”. It’s also much harder to do these kinds of tasks in lingerie and heels (especially heels which require certain strength, physicality, endurance, etc.), so it kind of one-ups guys (my competitive spirit at play).
ET: I live in the neighborhood where the performance took place and frequent The Butcher and Larder. On your blog, you encourage your audience to visit that shop as well as Insight tattoo and piercing Studios. Can you talk about how the proximity of both of those establishments informed the site-specificity of this work, and also discuss your relationship with the two communities they represent?
AFF: To be honest, they didn’t factor in. When I wrote up the blog post letting people know what else they might do in the DFB ‘hood while attending my performance, those just jumped to mind as great serendipities.
ET: In an anecdote on your blog, you use one of my all-time-favorite terms: mansplaining. For those not familiar with the concept, can you elaborate on it/your personal experience with mansplainers? (Related – have you read this? It’s on my required reading for humanity list: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174918)
AFF: Yes! I love that article. It was very thought-provoking to me to. Hmmmmm, without getting into too many personal details, let’s just say I was married to a mansplainer for way too many years, but that kind of behavior is so transparently insidious that we don’t really notice it. I feel sheepish (even mortified sometimes) for having endured it in my own relationship dynamic for a dozen years. (I first read Solnit’s article shortly after getting out of my unfortunate situation, and it was revelatory.) But I’ve encountered so many similar scenarios to what Solnit describes–men trying to tell me what I think or feel, or not realizing they’re talking to someone who has expertise in what they are trying to fake (because I’m a woman), or getting aggressive when I try to gently (or admittedly, in the past, not so gently) try to correct the record. Working in the still very misogynistic and male-dominated tattoo community a lot for my academic research, I’ve encountered this more than I can stomach, at times. I used to be more overtly aggressive in trying to counter mansplainers, but I got tired of that kind of volatility. So now, politically, I tend to do what Solnit did, and just kind of let the mansplainers dig their own graves. A lot of head nodding and “let’s agree to disagree.” My actions (in writing, performing, etc.) will speak louder than any conversation I could have in the moment.
ET: Can you talk about some of your influences? I was reminded of UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW and Liz Cohen’s Bodywork, while others in the audience brought up Carolee Schneemann and Lady Gaga.
AFF: I guess my influences fall into two camps–people that inspire me and people whose work bothers me because of something I perceive as a flaw that could be improved upon in my own work.
In the former camp with respect to the Burlesque Butcher character, inspiring people include Annie Sprinkle (her early work), Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth (especially in her later years when she figured out how to strike a great balance between high-fashion and old punk-rocker kick-ass-ness), Dita von Teese (I know a lot of people criticize her, but she stays very true to herself, and some of the interviews she gives reflect a self-awareness and advocacy that maybe people don’t get just from seeing her perform), Marina Abramovic (I actually missed a plane flight because I was so enthralled at her MOMA retrospective), yes, Carolee Schneemann (although I dont like the Meat Joy piece). There are so many more…Rocio Boliver, Hannah Wilke… Also men who are willing to really put their bodies out there publicly in terms of nudity, hacking into the body, etc.–Franko B, Ron Athey, Paul McCarthy (especially his early work even if it’s sometimes pretty anti-feminist), Chris Burden, Keith Boadwee.
In the latter camp, I’d place Schneemann’s “Meat Joy” piece in particular–I hate that the meat gets wasted, one of the reasons it’s important to me that the meat was given away for people to use in this particular Rapid Pulse performance. I actually have quite a few ideas for reperforming some of her work with twists…(if anyone wants to host those reperformances, contact me!)
ET: On the same note, you mentioned you view your work as counter to the Vienna Actionists, because nothing is wasted and the women in your performances are acting on their own agency (did I get that right?) Why do you think it is important to subvert misogynist works?
AFF: Right, so the Vienna Actionists are a group of artists whose work I find fascinating, but so problematic for their treatment of women. The Hermann Nitsch piece, “Maria” (1969), in which a lingerie clad woman is objectified, defiled, and essentially dehumanized, along with a lamb carcass and animal blood that gets completely wasted, was a huge influence on this particular Rapid Pulse piece in terms of offering something quite opposite. You can view it here: http://www.ubu.com/film/nitsch_action.html (Actually, I’ve been trying to think of how to really make a proper response to that piece. Would love to hear from other people who’d be interested in collaborating on that.)
I guess I don’t feel it’s important to necessarily subvert these works, because I do appreciate them for their point of view. The Maria piece is shocking, and my reaction to it is different from, say, a misogynist. And that’s fine. I’m provoked to make work from it. The discussions that stem from showing that piece to my students are always provocative, engaging, and fascinating. I’m not sure I would say my recent performance is subverting “Maria”, just making a parallel piece with a different view of women’s bodies and a passionate meat-eater’s respect for animals (I almost never eat meat these days that hasn’t been humanely raised and treated).
ET: I read about the social-media backlash you experienced. Do you have any advice for other artists/activists as far as dealing with controversy and criticism?
AFF: Have a thick skin??? And just ignore and/or ban the haters. Haters will always hate. We can’t please everyone. Try not to engage the haters too much.
ET: Do you have any upcoming performances for those that missed you at Rapid Pulse?
AFF: Several things in the works. A lamb butchering demo at my house later this summer. A few other public things in negotiation. Like my FB page for updates! (That’s the social media I use most often for the Burlesque Butcher character.) There are also a few performances I’m working on not in her character, but I’ll most likely post those to her page (or in the public feed on my personal FB page).
Keep up with The Burlesque Butcher! http://burlesquebutcher.wordpress.com
Photo by Ahyun Kim
Erin Toale graduated from Moore College of Art and Design with a BFA in 2D and 3D Fine Arts in 2006. Since then, she has worked as an administrator, educator, curator, researcher and arts advocate at non-profits, galleries and research centers including the Social Impact of the Arts Project, the Sullivan Galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Dorchester Projects. She is a recent graduate of the Dual MA in Modern Art History, Theory, and Criticism and Arts Administration and Policy Departments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a working artist.