PER­FOR­MANCE— JUSTIN VI­VIAN BOND

BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Joy Episalla

Bond, for­merly Kiki of the leg­endary cabaret duo Kiki and Herb, keeps ex­pand­ing a per­for­ma­tive reper­toire that’s equally per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal. On the oc­ca­sion of V’s gallery ex­hibit in Lon­don, Episalla queries the self- des­ig­nated “trans- genre artist.”

My Model / My­Self:

LOOK I’LL EVEN WEAR THESE OLD LAU­REL LEAVES, 2013, wa­ter­color, 11½ × 14½ inches. Cour­tesy of VIT­RINE, Lon­don.

BOMB’s per­for­mance in­ter­views are spon­sored in part by The Se­lect Eq­uity Group Foun­da­tion.

In the early 1990s, Justin Vi­vian Bond lived in San Fran­cisco, and would soon move to New York where we were both part of the co­hort liv­ing through the dark­est times of the AIDS epi­demic, chang­ing all of us for­ever. This was the time of Kiki and Herb, the leg­endary cabaret duo act cre­ated by Bond and Kenny Mellman. Most of my friends had al­ready seen them and re­galed me with tales of their ge­nius—I seemed a lit­tle late to the party.

The first time I saw Bond per­form as Kiki DuRane was a few months af­ter 9/11. On the day of the per­for­mance at West­beth Theatre, my friend, the late pain­ter Frank Moore, who’d been bat­tling AIDS, told me that he now had non-Hodgkin’s lym­phoma. As we talked on the phone, he could tell that I was cry­ing and said, “Dry your eyes, dress in your fin­ery, and get your ass over to see Kiki and Herb. Their magic will lift your spir­its, re­fur­bish your en­gine, and be good for your soul.” Of course, he was right. From the mo­ment Kiki en­tered— by jump­ing up onto the bar be­hind us, singing, snarling, crawl­ing and sashay­ing across it, mak­ing her way up to the stage—I was hooked.

We first met in per­son in 2003, af­ter the per­for­mance of Kiki & Herb: Coup de Théa­tre, at the Cherry Lane Theater. The mo­ment was brief, but I felt a sense of kin­ship, which we have been build­ing upon ever since. It has been a trans­for­ma­tive priv­i­lege to watch V move on and be­come the mes­mer­iz­ing trans- genre artist Mx Justin Vi­vian Bond—per­former, singer- song­writer, vis­ual artist, and ac­tivist. Viv has the rare abil­ity to make one laugh, cry, and be moved all in the turn of a song, a phrase, or the ex­quis­ite ren­der­ing of a wa­ter­color. The loop­ing and in­ter­lac­ing of the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal, the public and the pri­vate, in V’s work con­tin­u­ally en­thrall me. I try to catch Justin Vi­vian Bond in per­for­mance as of­ten as pos­si­ble. There is a trans­parency of process hap­pen­ing in the mo­ment and, when the fairy dust set­tles, I come away feel­ing elated and inspired.

—Joy Episalla

JOY EPISALLA: So we’re talk­ing about your up­com­ing show at Vit­rine gallery in Lon­don, on Ber­mond­sey Street. My best friend lives two doors down from there.

JUSTIN VI­VIAN BOND: Oh re­ally? I used to live right by there, next to the Lon­don Bridge Sta­tion, above the Hep­ati­tis C Trust. I’d wake up in the morn­ing and scream, “Put me on the wait­ing list!” ( laugh­ter)

JVB: In the win­dow of the gallery, I’m go­ing to have a step and re­peat back­drop—a wall­pa­per with Karen Graham’s face and my face and leaves in a re­peat­ing pat­tern. There will be a red car­pet and a vel­vet rope and a plant and it will all be lit. Dur­ing the open­ing night, I’m go­ing to stand in the win­dow and model in a pink dress. I was look­ing through Vic­tor Skrebneski’s book with pho­to­graphs of Karen Graham for Estée Lauder. Googling the de­sign­ers of her dresses I found out that at least three of them had died of AIDS. So that day I went down some crazy AIDS hole. It just trig­gered me.

JE: It’s con­nected to your history.

JVB: Karen Graham rep­re­sented an as­pi­ra­tional, white woman of el­e­gance and she em­bod­ied an Amer­i­can ideal in the

’70s and ’80s sold by peo­ple like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lau­ren. But it was re­ally started by Estée Lauder her­self, a lit­tle Jewish lady from Queens who made this ul­ti­mate shiksa the face of her brand. And Billy Bald­win, a queen from Bal­ti­more, be­came a top dec­o­ra­tor of that era. They ba­si­cally cre­ated the en­vi­ron­ment and the aes­thetic of the rul­ing, elite class who op­pressed them.

JE: There is a deep irony there. How did you first en­counter Karen Graham?

JVB: I ac­tu­ally thought she was Estée Lauder. I didn’t even know her name un­til af­ter she was no longer a model.

JE: The com­plex­ity of how you un­der­stood her im­age echoes the dis­junc­tion you grew up with as a trans child in a het­eronor­ma­tive en­vi­ron­ment.

JVB: Yeah, there’s no one for you to at­tach your iden­tity to, or form your iden­tity with, or against.

JE: You dis­cov­ered an out­let, some­one who res­onated for you, and only years later you re­al­ized, Oh my God, that im­age, that per­son has al­ways been in my head.

JVB: Ex­plor­ing that iden­tity, dis­man­tling it in a way, while main­tain­ing the ob­ses­sive qual­ity through the eyes of an adult, has been very pow­er­ful. I’ve been un­der

its spell. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily a healthy spell, want­ing to be an as­pi­ra­tional white woman of el­e­gance. It means you’re never ac­tu­ally go­ing to be what you are as­pir­ing to be, be­cause as­pir­ing to some­thing im­plies that you are, in fact, not that. I like to keep the white part in there too be­cause it begs the ques­tion of what it is to be white and it frames “white­ness” as other.

JE: I can tell that you read a lot and that seeps into your work.

JVB: I read po­ems a lot. I ap­pro­pri­ate and put texts into my show the same way as songs. Ob­vi­ously I don’t just go up on­stage and do some­body’s lines with­out cred­it­ing the writer, at least not in­ten­tion­ally. For in­stance, my show The Drift was inspired by the Ten­nessee Wil­liams novella The Ro­man Spring of Mrs. Stone, and I read en­tire pas­sages from the book on­stage.

JE: I saw The Drift three dif­fer­ent times a few months apart. Each time the per­for­mance evolved and be­came more lay­ered. I think your process of draw­ing from a range of sources and the flu­id­ity with which you ma­nip­u­late your ma­te­rial also plays into gen­der flu­id­ity.

JVB: It’s all rooted in an idea. Noth­ing is re­ally fact- based but noth­ing is re­ally false ei­ther. I don’t know if I’m mak­ing any sense now.

JE: It does make sense. What I’m get­ting around to is process. I have the im­pres­sion that you walk onto the stage with a text and ideas you may use, but there’s a lot of—I don’t want to call it im­pro­vi­sa­tion, but I hear it hap­pen in the mo­ment. You’re play­ing your in­stru­ment, which is not only your voice but also your think­ing. It’s ex­cit­ing for us in the au­di­ence to see it come to­gether and see how you can turn on a dime.

JVB: I’m not one of these peo­ple hellbent on set­ting the pro­gram, then stick­ing to it no mat­ter what—think­ing that af­ter hav­ing writ­ten ev­ery­thing out, and per­form­ing it in the cor­rect or­der with­out fuck­ing up, I have suc­ceeded. I can’t work that way be­cause then all I do is con­cen­trate on the task of remembering some shit I thought was clever sev­eral weeks ago but the per­for­mance is just dead, bor­ing, an ex­er­cise in recre­ation. I just can’t force my­self to care un­der those cir­cum­stances. There are no stakes.

JE: You wouldn’t be in the mo­ment.

JVB: Also, I’m not skilled enough to re­im­bue the lines with the in­ten­sity I felt when I was writ­ing them. So it’s more im­por­tant to keep ev­ery­thing live—for in­stance, I read three para­graphs of some­thing and af­ter the first one I think, I bet­ter stop here. You can tell when you’re push­ing peo­ple. You’re try­ing to im­pose on them what you be­lieve they should hear as op­posed to ac­tu­ally com­mu­ni­cat­ing with them. It’s im­por­tant for me to be at­tuned to what’s go­ing on. I’m feel­ing the vibe of the crowd.

JE: Let’s talk about the songs you choose to sing. I love the way you’re able to en­velop me in a song, but at the same time you are adding lay­ers of mean­ing to it. There is the in­ter­play be­tween the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal. Even though I’m look­ing at you, and you’re look­ing at me, and you’re telling me some­thing, you’re also telling me some­thing else. That’s the catch. That’s the best part.

JVB: Not ev­ery­body has a clue that it’s hap­pen­ing, which is awe­some. Some­times drunk straight peo­ple come up to me and want to lec­ture me about sex­u­al­ity and gen­der. Do they re­ally think they’re go­ing to de­liver any pro­found il­lu­mi­na­tions on that sub­ject? So I just act a lit­tle drunker than them and say some­thing ridicu­lous and scare them off. It’s the kind­est way to deal with it. There’s no point in ar­gu­ing with peo­ple when we’re not even talk­ing about the same thing. It can be fun but it’s also scary. Peo­ple can have a vi­o­lent re­ac­tion to some­thing be­cause they have no clue what’s go­ing on. It’s out of their psy­cho­log­i­cal realm to ac­tu­ally un­der­stand the sub­ject. Which is sad, but it’s also not my re­spon­si­bil­ity to ed­u­cate them. A new par­a­digm is here— it ex­ists and there’re plenty of us see­ing it. Ob­vi­ously, there are a lot of things I my­self can’t un­der­stand, but I’m not go­ing to start pon­tif­i­cat­ing about them.

Let’s face it, though, part of my job is to charm large groups of peo­ple, and as I’ve got­ten older, I’ve be­gun to see that par­tic­u­lar part of my job as very un­in­ter­est­ing, te­dious, and energy- con­sum­ing. Over the last twenty years I’ve spent a huge amount of time try­ing to charm crowds.

JE: It’s taken its toll.

JVB: Well, it’s taken away from the time I could’ve spent with the peo­ple I deeply care about. At least I’ve fig­ured that out, so now I’m fo­cus­ing on the peo­ple in my in­ti­mate cir­cle who re­ally mat­ter to me and it’s en­rich­ing the qual­ity of my life.

JE: What is it that ap­peals to you about cov­ers? Is it cer­tain artists? Is it the way you’re able to im­print your­self on the song?

JVB: I’m not recre­at­ing a song, I’m singing a song. I could go through each song and have a dif­fer­ent story for why I do it.

JE: What about “22nd Cen­tury”? Ob­vi­ously, it’s like an an­them.

JVB: I was work­ing with my friend Charles and a chore­og­ra­pher and a dra­maturge on a show based on the writ­ings of Joan Did­ion for what even­tu­ally be­came Lus­tre: A Mid-Win­ter’s Trans­fest, in 2008. I had this whole con­cept in my mind and we started to brain­storm. But I got in­cred­i­bly frus­trated be­cause they were from the dance world, where they spend hours and hours col­lab­o­rat­ing. Their process was very dif­fer­ent from mine. I just want to make de­ci­sions, put it to­gether, tighten it up, and present it. I ended up not work­ing with them. I love them all but it just wasn’t the right thing.

So I called up The Pixie Har­lots and Nath Ann Car­rera got on board and it be­came what it was. But dur­ing my re­hearsals with Charles and his peo­ple, Tali Bo­gen had brought that song “22nd Cen­tury” in and played it for me, and I thought, Oh my God, this song’s fuck­ing amaz­ing! It was re­ally hard to learn. I just messed up and messed up, but I put it in the show. I first per­formed it with Our Lady J on pi­ano, a cel­list, a flutist, and some­times a gui­tarist. Later I started play­ing it with just Nath Ann on the guitar. It’s so much more im­me­di­ate and in­tense with just the two of us do­ing it to­gether.

JE: Yes, and so beau­ti­ful.

JVB: I sing it like this, “In 1980 a plague struck the earth and blood­let­ting was the thing that was, 1988 men and women struck out for free­dom, they said there was no rea­son there was no cause, 1992 was ripe all the way, guns and bu­gles blar­ing through­out the day, right wing left wing, mid­dle of the road, back­winder, sidewinder whiplash, back­lash, lib­er­a­tion of women, lib­er­a­tion of men and ev­ery­body hang­ing their head low... .” In the orig­i­nal it says 1972 but I changed it to 1992 be­cause that way it talks about the suc­ces­sive years, which to me rep­re­sent the ac­tivism dur­ing the Rea­gan era in re­ac­tion to the AIDS cri­sis.

JE: When you do this song that’s ex­actly what I’m think­ing about.

JVB: I first heard Nina Si­mone singing it, but Ex­uma wrote it. I don’t think his in­ten­tions be­hind that song were any­where close to what I’ve turned it into. The song res­onated very deeply with me. When it goes, “Sex chang­ing, chang­ing, woman is man, man is woman, even your brain is not your brain,” I don’t think he was say­ing that in a pos­i­tive way.

JE: But you are. And that’s what’s so lib­er­at­ing about hear­ing that song. Dur­ing the AIDS cri­sis in the late ’80s and the early ‘90s, you were in San Fran­cisco and I was in New York. What we all ex­pe­ri­enced de­serves an an­them.

JVB: Right, and it’s an eco- an­them too. For us who lived through that, it’s like, Check, I’m with you.

JE: “Pa­triot’s Heart” makes me cry ev­ery time I hear you per­form it.

JVB: Mark Eitzel wrote that song. Kenny Mellman brought it to me. Of course we had lived through that, both of us hav­ing grown up in San Fran­cisco. When we met, Kenny was in col­lege and I was maybe twenty-six. We’d go to the bars where our friends worked and where these boys would be danc­ing. We had no idea what was go­ing to hap­pen to them. I had lived in DC in the ’80s and I wasn’t re­ally that aware of AIDS, to be hon­est with you. That wasn’t my re­al­ity in my early twen­ties. But then I got to know it well enough.

JE: I did too.

JVB: I used to go to this bar in DC called Tracks, which was on the edge of town, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had. There was another place nearby called Ziegfeld’s. It was all tacky show-biz fab­u­lous­ness and the drag queens would come in and do their lip syncs. Then you’d go through a door and there was the male strip­per bar, and it was all dark and smelled like pop­pers. Such an amaz­ing place in the shadow of the United States cap­i­tal. These young guys were danc­ing naked on the bar and you’re there, feel­ing young and alive and gor­geous. It’s all gone now. Be­ing true and hon­est in a cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety—sex work­ers, per­form­ers who are just try­ing to sur­vive—there’s some­thing ex­tremely noble about that to me, very clear and di­rect. It’s also a dan­ger­ous world for many rea­sons; so “Pa­triot’s Heart” is de­scrib­ing this scene as beau­ti­ful, against the hypocrisy of peo­ple ex­er­cis­ing power over the pow­er­less.

JE: Kiki and Herb per­formed that song.

JVB: It’s one of the few songs from the Kiki and Herb days that I con­tinue to per­form be­cause it res­onates with my own life. I just couldn’t not sing that song. Kiki had been a bur­lesque dancer in Bal­ti­more in the ’50s, so it was a great song for her to sing.

JE: Then, of course, there’s “Golden Age of Hustlers,” about the San Fran­cisco hus­tler scene in the years be­fore AIDS.

JVB: Writ­ten by Bambi Lake. I first heard that song in the early ’90s. She and Jonathan Bas­sil wrote about five songs and be­fore I moved to New York she gave me the EP. I car­ried that cas­sette tape around with me for­ever and even­tu­ally dig­i­tized it. Bambi leads a dif­fi­cult life with men­tal health and ad­dic­tion is­sues. I felt that these songs should be heard. We have to tell our sto­ries and the sto­ries of those we’ve lost to get peo­ple to see things that are around them but which they don’t nec­es­sar­ily ac­knowl­edge.

JE: We are the wit­nesses and we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the peo­ple we’ve lost.

JVB: For me, spir­i­tu­ally, it’s re­ally im­por­tant to con­tex­tu­al­ize my work, or your work, with the peo­ple whose work should have been along­side ours. If I hadn’t been friends with Miss Kitty Lit­ter Green, whose por­trait is on the wall over there, or Jerome Caja, I can’t imag­ine I would have been com­pelled to do the things that I did when I moved here to New York. To host the club Cream at Cake where I presided over a Big Load con­test where peo­ple would jack off into con­doms and we’d weigh their load on a drug scale and who­ever had the big­gest load would win a prize. Or to fluff and pho­to­graph con­tes­tants for the Pretty Penis con­test on stage— for me that was lib­er­at­ing and im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal work.

I had been this lit­tle Chris­tian kid from Mary­land try­ing to get over that,

and Miss Kitty and Jerome took me places I would’ve never gone to—just crazy shit we did. When they weren’t around any­more, I felt com­pelled to con­tinue spread­ing that kind of joy­ous and free sex­ual energy in a public arena. I con­sid­ered it to be a mis­sion be­cause their free­dom had, in a way, lib­er­ated me and this gave me a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to try and do that for oth­ers. Blow jobs for Je­sus, re­ally! ( laugh­ter) I’d get up on stage and ex­pound on the joys of sex­ual lib­er­a­tion at a time when ev­ery­one was ter­ri­fied of queer sex and even peo­ple within our own com­mu­nity were try­ing to shut it down.

JE: I re­mem­ber that night at West­beth when you, as Kiki, came out across the bar.

JVB: Kiki was an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ket­tle of fish, but that’s right, I jumped up on that bar. The thing was, I never wanted to be that char­ac­ter but it was some­thing I had to do. I wanted to be in a beau­ti­ful dress and be glam­orous, and all of that, which I was to a cer­tain ex­tent. But I never imag­ined that I would go to Carnegie Hall as Kiki. It was re­ally re­ward­ing and im­por­tant for me and for the au­di­ence who came with me, but I never ex­pected to make a name for my­self as a char­ac­ter or a per­sona. That came as a con­fus­ing sur­prise. JE: Kiki tran­scended cer­tain things. When I saw Kiki and Herb a month af­ter 9/11 at West­beth, I was still feel­ing un­set­tled, es­pe­cially in large en­closed spa­ces with lots of peo­ple, and Kiki said some­thing like, “I guess you’re all won­der­ing if there’s any­thing still out­side.”

JVB: Those weren’t my ex­act words but it was De­cem­ber 2001. That year our hol­i­day show was called Kiki and Herb: There’s a Stranger in the Manger.

JE: In the midst of this wild per­for­mance, you were able to ver­bal­ize the gen­eral un­ease that sat just be­low the sur­face. That abil­ity you have, to be tran­scen­dent and ironic at the same time, is rare.

JVB: To me, that was the golden era of Kiki and Herb. I was thirty- one when Kenny and I left San Fran­cisco. The pe­riod be­tween Flamingo East and Fez, from 1998 to 2001, was a mag­i­cal time; a whole com­mu­nity co­a­lesced around our shows. The last show we did at Fez ended on La­bor Day week­end, the week be­fore 9/11. The name of that show was Stop, Drop & Roll, where I was go­ing off on Mid­dle East pol­i­tics and on the way it was re­ported on, like CNN ex­ploit­ing these sto­ries of hor­ror—fetishiz­ing the vi­o­lence but not ex­plain­ing any of it, which re­ally de­hu­man­ized the cit­i­zens of that part of the world. And of course we were pro­vid­ing most of the weapons. It was all so skewed and it was ob­vi­ous to me that we were all fucked. That was what the show was about! A week later—

JE: —we were re­ally fucked.

JVB: Well, Kiki warned you. Did I con­jure it? I don’t think so, but it was so vis­ceral for that char­ac­ter and for what we were see­ing around us. It was like, of course 9/11 hap­pened. And then af­ter the ac­tual hi­jack­ing, the hi­jack­ing of the nar­ra­tive was so ut­terly shock­ing.

JE: Ev­ery­thing got hi­jacked af­ter­wards.

JVB: The whole world changed and at that time I was, I would say, some­what rein­vig­o­rated cre­atively be­cause of the in­san­ity of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion— the stolen elec­tion, the ho­mo­pho­bia, the ul­tra- con­ser­va­tive agenda, all of it. Ev­ery­thing that was go­ing on was like Back to the Fu­ture. But my cre­ative resur­gence quickly wore out be­cause, like so many oth­ers, I think I was go­ing through PTSD. First AIDS, then 9/11, I mean, re­ally. I felt like, I don’t want to be here, so I’ll just check out and do a lot of coke and keep scream­ing for a cou­ple more years till I can’t take it any­more. ( laugh­ter) That’s ba­si­cally what I did. For­tu­nately, the “keep scream­ing years”

I’d get up on stage and ex­pound on the joys of sex­ual lib­er­a­tion at a time when ev­ery­one was ter­ri­fied of queer sex and even peo­ple within our own com­mu­nity were try­ing to shut it down.

were at Carnegie Hall and on Broad­way. But those weren’t par­tic­u­larly sat­is­fy­ing years for me cre­atively.

JE: But you’ve made a very in­ter­est­ing tran­si­tion for­ward.

JVB: Yeah, thank God. Kiki and Herb al­lowed me to do a bunch of things I’d al­ways wanted to do when I was a kid—so when Kiki and Herb ended I was able to walk away, hav­ing ac­com­plished those goals. Then I set about re­con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing my work in a more per­sonal, sat­is­fy­ing, and I guess you could even say adult way.

One of the rea­sons I love cabaret so much is that Kiki and Herb cre­ated the world that they lived in. That char­ac­ter Kiki, her makeup, her cos­tume, were very spe­cific. Kiki and Herb ex­isted wher­ever they were play­ing.

JE: It was hap­pen­ing in real time.

JVB: And in a real place, ex­cept for the video we did for To­tal Eclipse of the Heart, which was made with flash­backs. I’m al­ways where I am when I’m do­ing cabaret shows, like when I did Lus­tre at PS122 (2008) and Re: Galli Blonde (A Sissy Fix) at The Kitchen (2010). I worked with Ma­chine Daz­zle to cre­ate these in­cred­i­ble sets. Ma­chine is a ge­nius vis­ual artist who came up with rep­re­sen­ta­tions of things we had dis­cussed. For in­stance, the Galli, who were gen­der vari­ant priest/esses of the an­cient Etr­uscan god­dess Cy­belle, grew their hair long and bleached it blonde. One of their sa­cred rit­u­als was that when some­one died they would cut off their hair and hang it from the trees. So Ma­chine sus­pended branches from the ceil­ing of The Kitchen and cov­ered them with all of this blonde hair rep­re­sent­ing the hair of our de­parted trances­tors. It was gor­geous and chill­ing.

JE: I was think­ing about the no­tion of trav­el­ing and honor­ing na­ture and be­ing out­side the gen­der bi­na­ries. It’s like

utopia. Trav­el­ing to some­thing. A lot of the time you seem to be talk­ing about utopia or dystopia.

JVB: Well, that’s what the Galli did. They built lit­tle stages and did their shows in honor of the god­dess, and that’s what we did.

JE: Let’s talk about the dif­fer­ent hats you wear. You are a per­former, a song­writer, a cu­ra­tor, a vis­ual artist, a writer, an ac­tivist…

JVB: I call my­self a trans- genre artist. There’s a word for it—hav­ing a hor­i­zon­tal prac­tice—but that just sounds dirty. ( laugh­ter) I’d only had two solo ex­hi­bi­tions be­fore this one in Lon­don. In my show at Par­tic­i­pant a cou­ple of years ago, I had mostly wa­ter­col­ors of rad­i­cal fairies and friends of mine, and I used fur­ni­ture from my own house, which was be­ing torn down in or­der to build a glass, steel high rise. It was about that history be­ing erased by the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem so I pre­served it tem­po­rar­ily in the non-profit art space down the street.

This new show at Vit­rine is more per­sonal. Sit­ting in my ex­hi­bi­tion, with no­body else there, know­ing that ex­actly what I want is on the walls or on the floor, that the story I’m try­ing to tell, ba­si­cally to my­self, is there—if I want to change any­thing I can—gives me an over­whelm­ing sense of sat­is­fac­tion. It’s just like, Oh my God, this is amaz­ing! When I walk out of the room I can carry that with me.

JE: Now it’s no longer in your head. You’re com­pletely im­mersed in it.

JVB: It’s dif­fer­ent when you’re per­form­ing be­cause ev­ery­thing is in flux. It’s not like you do the re­hearsal and you can walk out and leave that show as you would want the au­di­ence to see it, and then you can go back and re­visit it.

JE: Af­ter that mo­ment in time, it’s over. JVB: Per­form­ing can feel great and sat­is­fy­ing while I’m do­ing it, but I’m of­ten forced to re­live it through what­ever peo­ple say about it af­ter­ward. It’s won­der­ful to re­ceive com­pli­ments but it also sep­a­rates you from your own ex­pe­ri­ence. I do love the ap­plause and the mo­ment where we’re all like, Oh yeah, we just shared this, but then when it’s over you just feel so com­pletely naked and vul­ner­a­ble—while you’re still in that space where your mind has ex­panded to take in what­ever the uni­verse was throw­ing at you dur­ing the per­for­mance.

JE: You’re open.

JVB: Yeah, you’re let­ting it fly and it’s hap­pen­ing. But then you come off­stage and find your­self in that mid­dle space where you’re the most vul­ner­a­ble. You’re not re­ally your­self yet, and you’re no longer what you were on stage. That’s when you have all that energy com­ing at you, usu­ally from peo­ple you don’t know so well, and it can be re­ally in­tense. Then you have to run away or drink some­thing or be around peo­ple you know who cre­ate a safe space around you so you can un­wind.

JE: Your ex­hi­bi­tion My Model/My­Self is a pretty deep jour­ney, also time-wise— hold­ing onto some­thing, your ob­ses­sion with Karen Graham, for so long and then com­ing back to it.

JVB: Iron­i­cally, it’s about how I, as a young trans per­son, iden­ti­fied with this ideal of ul­ti­mate fem­i­nin­ity. As an adult, I re­al­ize that she was an icon rep­re­sen­ta­tive of cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety and de­signed to per­pet­u­ate an ideal and to sell things.

JE: But she also gave you an op­por­tu­nity to hold onto a cer­tain kind of vi­sion.

JVB: Ex­actly, a vi­sion of who I was or who I wished to be.

JE: That’s a rad­i­cal repo­si­tion­ing.

JVB: When I was ad­mir­ing and lov­ing her and de­sir­ing to be that ide­al­ized crea­ture, I wasn’t think­ing crit­i­cally. She was there to sell me an iden­tity, and so I bought it. An iden­tity that I couldn’t even be­gin to have.

My in­ter­est in her wouldn’t have been rekin­dled if I hadn’t found out that she

went on to be­come a fly-fish­ing in­struc­tor. I found this in­ter­view with her where she talks about be­ing a child and sneak­ing off into the woods to play with the tad­poles and to sleep naked in the moss.

When I left Kiki and Herb, I went up to the Queerup­tion fes­ti­val in Canada with Nath Ann—we lit­er­ally had just met—and we pitched our tent over this lit­tle in­den­ta­tion in the for­est that was just moss, and we laid with each other in this bed of moss for a week, and that was a re­birthing for me into who I am now. If I hadn’t read that ar­ti­cle about Karen Graham and her re­la­tion­ship to na­ture—

JE: —you wouldn’t have no­ticed all the con­nec­tions. She wanted to be out in na­ture and be a real per­son.

JVB: She wasn’t into those guys who would sit with the sun re­flec­tors work­ing on their tans. ( laugh­ter)

JE: In your es­say on Karen Graham in the 2014 Fem­i­nist Press an­thol­ogy ICON, I read that you were al­ready re­con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing as a young child with­out com­pletely be­ing aware of it. For a young per­son, it’s an im­por­tant rev­e­la­tion: you can know some­thing about your­self, but not ev­ery­body else needs to know.

JVB: I was men­tor­ing four per­form­ers re­cently at the Ty­rone Guthrie Cen­tre in Ire­land. We cre­ated a space with the five of us, wherein they could be as vul­ner­a­ble as they needed to be, with­out any judg­ments what­so­ever—with crit­i­cal thought but not crit­i­cal judg­ment. They got to be in­cred­i­bly open with their feel­ings and thoughts, and with their at­tempts. It was beau­ti­ful and mov­ing to watch their ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Af­ter about five days of that I said, “It’s good that you can get to that place while we’re here but you don’t need to do that any­where else. Just be­cause you’re ca­pa­ble of it doesn’t mean you need to share it. You can change it, you can use it in what­ever way you need to.”

JE: What a gift that is, what a keep­sake.

JVB: I wish some­one had told me that when I was young. I wish I’d had a place where I felt safe enough to be vul­ner­a­ble. But I didn’t—not with my fam­ily and not in my act­ing school.

JE: See­ing you per­form and look­ing at your art, hear­ing you read, be­ing with you across the ta­ble, gives me that serene sense of grace that you have.

JVB: Thank you. I prob­a­bly got that from my grand­mother. She used to tell me sto­ries about the old days. I hardly re­mem­ber them but in her pres­ence I learned how to be a wit­ness for what she had wit­nessed and how to tell sto­ries my­self. The gift she gave to me was the grace of lis­ten­ing and from that I learned how to just be.

be­low: MY NAT­U­RAL RHYTHMS, with Claudia Chopek, per­for­mance at Rock­wood Mu­sic Hall, New York, 2015. Photo by Joy Episalla.

STAR OF LIGHT, per­for­mance at Joe’s Pub, New York, 2014. Photo by Kevin Yatarola. Cour­tesy of the Public Theater, New York.

KIKI & HERB, 2007, per­for­mance at Joe’s Pub, New York. Photo by Kevin Yatarola. Cour­tesy of the Public Theater, New York.

Per­for­mace view of RE: GALLI BLONDE ( A SISSY FIX) at The Kitchen, 2010. Photo by Paula Court.

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