The artist/bodybuilder inhabits a place where politics of gender, media construction and personal identity cross.
Francesca Gavin Endurance seems to be a central idea in your work—pushing your body and mind beyond its perceived limitations. What do you find interesting about that process?
Cassils I think there is so much in our society that is based on instantaneous transaction. I call it “the microwave mentality”—the idea that everything needs to be completely at ones fingertips. There is something very analog about the body, how breaks things down in a way that ruptures the current technological frenzy that we’re in. There is something really very gratifying to a slow and constant change you evoke through repetitive action. It’s resistant to all the immediacy that we face.
FG What are your feelings towards social media? How do you reconcile its role in documenting your work and the effect it has upon its content and audience?
C Because everything is so mediated these days, I think it’s interesting to think about the document as being part of the work itself, to make people aware of how constantly technology is used to affect our experience.
For example, in Becoming an Image (2012-present), where I build a 2,000-pound clay plinth in this darkened room, the only way the performance is made visible is through the act of being photographed. Delivering a series of kicks and blows in total darkness, the spectacle is only illuminated by the flash of a photographer, which burns the image into the viewers retina. This creates a “live” photograph and turns the viewers eyes into a temporary archive. You become much more aware of all those lapses of moments and images that are not being captured, and histories that are not being documented.
FG What is the role of sound in your work? In Inextinguishable Fire (2015), we can hear your breathing. What did you like about that intimacy?
C Inextinguishable Fire is meant to be a live performance juxtaposed against a film. I was thinking loosely about the first time a film did something like that to me— probably Pasolini’s 120 days of Sodom. I was really young when I saw that film, and I didn’t know what I was walking into. I remember having this moment and wondering, “Why am I still watching this?” It really made me question my own morality. I wanted to try and use sound in a similar way.
The piece is shot at 1,000 frames per second, taking a fourteen-second full body burn and slowing it down to fourteen minutes. It starts very close on the body and slowly zooms out to reveal various backgrounds. At first, you think you are looking at a traumatized body, but then you realize you’re looking at one that has been constructed. The sound is the way of talking about these notions of empathy. At first, the sound is coming from my perspective. My ears are blocked with gel; you hear the blood rushing in my head, the heart pumping from adrenalin, the initial inhalation. But then, as the exhalation occurs over those fourteen minutes, the sound of the flames becomes distant, detached. I try to use all the different aspects to draw or break or create a connection—in this case, using sound as a way to re-inscribe the notion of identification and alienation.
FG In a way, you’re translating your visceral experience to create a visceral experience in the audience.
C I was initially trained as a painter, which allowed me to see how all these different forms get historized and archived. A lot of the performance artists I admire were very anti-object; they wanted it to be this ephemeral moment that was left behind. This is not really possible at this stage in the game, especially if you’re interacting with a commercial art world. So rather than using ephemera, how can you retain the thread of that idea and explore it through media? I get a lot of pleasure exploring how that idea can translate through film and sculpture.
FG Some of your works deconstruct the idea or representation of stunts. What do you like about that expression—that performance—of violence?
C I live in Los Angeles, which is this very weird place. It’s transparently problematic, which I like. If Los Angeles were a drag queen, the tits would be out of the bra, you know what I mean? It’s a really messy place, but it’s also where the industrialized spectacle of Hollywood imagery is constructed. I went to Cal Arts, which is the last bastion of Marxist critique, and burst forth into Los Angeles with student loan and a world that really couldn’t give a rat’s arse for all the things that I had studied and taken to heart. I ended up getting a job in a box fitness facility called Crunch, which is this horrible corporate gym. This was during the break of the Iraq War, and I watched the Battle of Fallujah simultaneously on twenty monitors while blondes checked their heart rate for optimal fat burn. There was this obvious rupture between what one is hearing in the world and how one is experiencing it.
FG How did that materialize in your practice?
C Shortly after that, I had a lot of actors approach me as a trainer. Saying I’ve been cast as a soldier, I needed to look like a soldier in six weeks. It became my job to construct the effect of militarism on a body. I started to investigate all these overlaps between the Hollywood entertainment industry and the military industrial complex. For instance, there’s a base here called Fort Irwin, where they train for Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve built sets that look like a 2D representation of a mosque and imported expatriated Iraqi actors from San Diego. They have an elaborate game of laser tag and do this cultural conditioning, imagining what it would be like to be there. It’s very strange.
I was able to get access to this base. As part of this research, I went to stunt school, where I performed these forty-foot falls, but the thing that really resonated with me was this full body burn. The only thing that contextualized it as a stunt was that we knew it was. That idea of context and representation of violence has been something of interest to me.
FG You’ve made work that highlighted notable art historical influences—Harun Farocki, Lynda Benglis, Eleanor Antin. What interested you about these artists?
C I was fed a heavy diet of Farocki by my professor Michael Asher, who’s the godfather of institutional critique. There is a moment in his film Inextinguishable Fire where he’s smoking, looks at the camera, and puts the cigarette out in his arm as he talks about napalm. He’s not saying, “This is the pain that I feel for the Vietnamese.” He’s talking about this index, about how removed we are from that situation. I see the fire stunt as being a contemporary iteration for that kind of thing. It’s a way of pointing to the distance, of being transparent about it. Particularly in light of everything that was happening when I made that piece two years ago—Ferguson and Baltimore, the way that was handled politically and the way the media reported it—this idea of unpacking how images are made, the way documents are made, the construction of the idea, was all a way of opening up a discussion not only of these social issues, but also how they’re constructed and translated.
FG How have these ideas informed the way you use your own physical body in your work?
C I see the naked body as a blank canvas. Obviously, you read me in certain way, given the color of my skin, my gender and the context of the performance space. In The Powers That Be, I was interested in what it meant to juxtapose radio broadcasts about Black Lives Matter and the routine battering of a black bodies, while the audience looks at a brutalization of my white body. What is it that the subject of race must always fall on the shoulders of artists of color? What does it mean to play with the break between hearing about something routinely awful that we associate with a particular subjectivity and violence performed on another kind of body? My goal is not to say that these bodies are one in the same but that the body can represent both identification and distance depending on the viewers subjectivity. My desire is to create a rupture in the viewers experience and implicate the audience in the process.”
FG You’ve spoken about being trans as a form of political resistance. How do you mean?
C I think anything that resists hegemonic, heteronormative, patriarchal, binary codes is in essence a form of resistance. A perfect example is what’s happening in North Carolina at the moment with this bathroom law, where you can only use the bathroom of the gender you were assigned at birth. My work Homage to Benglis (2011) is now in a show opening in Munster. The Deutsche Bahn censored the poster because they said it was sexist and pornographic, and that exposing my body that way was shameful. Would that happen if they didn’t know my biological sex, or if I was an H&M model in swim trucks? I don’t think so. There is still so much policing of bodies, and so living outside the binary is still to this day a resistant action.
“Because I chose not to take hormones or have surgical alteration to my body, people tend to read me, depending on the amount of muscle I have on my frame, some times as an aggressive lesbian and sometimes as a trans person. Very few people can occupy that perfect seamless adherence to what that binary fulfills. In the lack of fulfilling that position, you are always on the outside, which offers opportunities for criticality.”
FG What are you working on now?
C I just did the Power That Be (2015) at The Broad. At least twenty or thirty people were documenting that piece with their mobile devices, so I want to make a monitor grid of uploads rather than a single channel video. I’ve also been working on making a bronze cast of the clay bashes from Becoming An Image. The clay I used turned out to be a type called WED31—the same clay Disney developed for stop motion animation, to literally make mutable monsters. So what would it mean to cast this clay and place them in sites where violence against gender nonconforming people have occurred? It’s marking in a public space something that would not be noticeable otherwise. I’ve made one cast in cement, but I’ve gotten a fellowship in Syracuse to support making it in bronze. It’s interesting because although it’s made by my body— it retains the shapes of knuckles, elbows and knee strikes, and the cast is such as you can literally see hair follicles—it’s still not of my body.
Cassils (Canadian) live and work in Los Angeles. They are represented by Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. This summer, they will take part in the group exhibitions “Mapping the Body: The Body in Contemporary Life” at Galerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck, and “Intersectionality” at Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami.
Francesca Gavin is Editor-at-Large of KALEIDOSCOPE and Visual Arts Editor at DAZED. A curator and writer based between Berlin and London, she is currently the co-curator of the Historical Section of Manifesta 11, Zurich, on view through 18 September.
Images in order of appearance: Inextinguishable Fire, 2007-2015, Photo credit: Clover Leary; Fast Twich//Slow Twich, still, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman FIne Arts, New York