Larger than life performance artist and music icon, Vaginal Davis, was probably the only person in her native city of Los Angeles to go everywhere on a bicycle way back in the 90s. She finally moved to the more bike-friendly city of Berlin almost six years ago, where her work with the art, music, film and action collective CHEAP became her key focus. Davis’ overwhelming creative output – as a visual artist, in writing and most prominently, on stage – has become a staple of Berlin’s queer subculture as well as its more mainstream theatre and stage venues.
Her apartment is located in the heart of Schöneberg’s “Rote Insel”, the historic neighbourhood that was once home to such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich and Albert Einstein. A fitting address for Davis, who has covered the walls of her home with colourful magazine clippings of faces and genitals, scribbles, sketches and notes from friends accumulated over the years – an ever-growing collage
sleek: Were the walls too white for your taste?
Vaginal Davis: All my friends joke that when they leave, they will always have stuck something on them. I like printed images, I don’t surf the internet for imagery. In fact, I’m really bad with computers. I don’t like the immediacy of it, there’s no mystique to the process of discovery.
sleek: But you’re considered one of the world’s first bloggers, you have an enormous readership and major publications have written about your blog, “Speaking from the Diaphragm”.
VD: I started it back in the 90s, as my diary. I had no idea what blogging was. Then someone told me that I what I was doing was actually a blog. I would write an entry by hand, then type it and send it to my web master from an internet café. I’m very lo-tech.
sleek: You’re a very busy woman, what’s next on your agenda?
VD: I’m currently working on a theatre piece, “The Communist Bigamist”, directed by my fellow CHEAP art collective member Susanne Sachße, who you might remember from Bruce LaBruce’s film, Raspberry Reich. It’s inspired by the 1953 Hollywood film The Bigamist, directed by Ida Lupino. Lupino was one of the few female directors in Hollywood’s golden era and she played in her own movie, too. There are many intertwined layers in the play: Susanne plays Ida, but she’s also Ruth Fischer, Germany’s first lady communist, while I’m both myself and American activist Angela Davis. And both our characters are married to communism, the bigamist.
sleek: We’ll probably have to see it to understand it, but in essence this is what you do best – morphing gender, class and race, low and high culture, camp and politics. In fact, you embody it.
VD: I’m intersex, born with both female and male genitalia, so I’m a strange hybrid creature. I’m also part German, quarter Jewish, my father was born in Mexico and my mother is French Creole. People would always stare at me, so I figured I might as well just be on stage!
sleek: You’ve been embraced by academia, teaching performance at Berlin’s Weißensee University, Frankfurt’s Städlschule, Princeton, Vassar, Columbia and most recently, Malmö. Next stop is Goldsmiths College. Is teaching more gratifying than performing?
VD: It’s often the students who petition to have me come. I love teaching. I invest a lot of time and get very involved. I’m not a dogmatic person. I mean, the students get a syllabus and everything but it’s more a ‘salon’ style of teaching. I make hour-long studio visits and do a lot of gentle nudging. These visits get intense. We talk for hours, get emotional and cry. I’m like the Big Black Mama and everyone wants to nurse at my breast, get that chocolate milk!
sleek: What advice to you have for students who want to become performance artists?
VD: I usually remain in touch well beyond the seminars, and collaborate with former students on new projects. It’s important to be connected to youth, you know, being a woman of a certain age… It keeps me young and vibrant. I’m never going to have any children of my own – but I can be the mentor. However, I do not encourage anyone to be a performer. Not everyone is meant to be on stage, you know! There’s nothing I hate more than karaoke. Not everyone should be given a mike. I’m a little dictatorial like that.
sleek: So you’re the anti-Beuys?
VD: Not everyone’s an artist… No, no, no!
sleek: What makes a good performance artist in your opinion?
VD: To me Josephine Baker, aside from being the first black international superstar, was also a performance artist through and through. She created her own biography, her own mythology, she was sensational! And she sought to mix all races by adopting a so-called ‘rainbow tribe’ of children. She was a little cuckoo too, but who isn’t? Considering where she came from. I can relate to that.
sleek: Your work is specifically focused on gender issues. Do race and class always play a role, too?
VD: I grew up in inner city L.A. I’m not middle class. I have a slight disdain for the wealthy but you can’t help that when you grow up poor. I always have this underlying urge to ‘kill the rich’, but I do it on stage instead. If you choose to work with me you have to know where I’m from. I’m a sweetheart, I’ll give you my last pantyhose, or the bra off my back, but I can get down and I can throw down. Let me tell you, when a black girl takes off her earrings, you know she’s ready to fight!
sleek: Would you say that the new piece is a non-violent, keep-your-earrings-on answer to current economic trends in European politics?
VD: It’s a political piece but it’s not dogmatic. It’s playful and whimsical, and hopefully will make you think. Europe is going backwards. Susanne Sachße lost her agent after she appeared in Raspberry Reich because of the real sex scenes! And politically, it’s disconcerting that people have such short memories. History will repeat itself.
sleek: That’s a bleak outlook.
VD: Oh yeah, I believe we’ll create our own Armageddon. I don’t understand why people want to have babies when there are already so many unwanted children out there. Just adopt, why overpopulate the planet? My mom was an actress, she didn’t want to be a mother and a wife, but women had less of a choice at the time. But today? People say the human race will ebb then and I say “great!”. Maybe something less damaging to the planet will arise. A new species will take over. Here’s to the new species!
Interview by Hili Perlson
Check out our interview with Matt Lambert