Truth in Gender: Wu Tsang and boychild on the question of queerness

Photography: Bryan Sheffield
Photography: Bryan Sheffield

Artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang explores the relationship between the self, identity and the narratives that construct them while focusing on subcultures and sites of cul­tural resistance. In her club perfor­mances, boychild channels a raw, genderless being, whose muscular body contorts as if guided exter­nally, while lip-synching to dark electronic remixes of Beyoncé and Rihanna. The artists collaborate in film (they recently premiered “A day in the life of bliss” in Berlin), photography and performance. Sleek caught up with the duo on Skype while they were preparing for a performance at the MCA, Chicago.

Sleek: Let’s talk about the importance of nightlife to your work. Wu, you did a line of parties called Wildness with DJs Nguzunguzu and Total Freedom at the Silver Platter, a 60s landmark bar in L.A. that became home to the Latin/LGBT immigrant communities. The club was the subject of your first feature film, “Wildness”, and your installation at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. And boychild, your performance grew out of the San Francisco drag scene.

BC: Nightlife is important for my work because it creates a space for me to exist; nothing contextu­alises my performance the same way as these places do. It’s my world, my existence in the under­ground. Also, I exist in a world that comes after the internet, so my adolescence was spent finding things there. The underground ex­ists on the internet for me. As far as the way that people experience and perceive my performance, they’ll just see it at a club and I think that’s special, magical and spontaneous in a way that it’s not in other places. I performed in drag spaces, but the most drag thing about my performance is that I lip-­synch. I never really felt like a drag queen even though I always really wanted to. [Laughs]

There’s also a thing about the sincerity of nightlife; people are so present and unpretentious in a certain way. You’re on the same level with the performance and the viewer; you’re on the floor to­gether having the experience. I performed in festivals with sev­eral hundred people and there it’s more important to create boundaries in the dynamics of performer and viewer.

WT: It’s creating a shared space versus dominating.

BC: Yes!

Photography: Bryan Sheffield
Photography: Bryan Sheffield

WT: I agree that nightlife is im­portant to my work in different ways, though I share a lot of the appreciation that boychild does. There’s a tradition of queer night­ life spaces being places that people needed, to figure out who you are, not having a support group or a family in a way, and some of the communities that have come out of that. It’s queer people starting a club to have a place to go basically, a safe space. And a lot of the clubs that we go to may not function like that in general, but the people that throw the parties are people that come from that.

That’s important to me that there is a queer paradigm, and I say queer meaning maybe the party is super mixed, but they have some relationship to where the music comes from and how those clubs started. What I love about those spaces is that when you go in, you can leave a lot of things behind. You can just be a certain kind of person in that space and share it with people and there’s some kind of sincerity, of letting down a lot of social roles.

Photography: Bryan Sheffield
Photography: Bryan Sheffield

You both appropriate mainstream tropes in your work. Appropriation is a vital practice for any subculture seeking subversion.

WT: For me, appropriation means something very specific; I work with appropriation in a lot of my films, quoting material and re­contextualising it. Cinema has such a rich tradition, whenever I make a film I’m aware that everything I do will always bear a relationship to things that have been done in the past. I’m always looking at what the continuities are and trying to acknowledge that they exist, and acknowledge where the inspiration comes from.

BLIS [boychild’s film character] is very much a character that I cre­ated; I don’t see her as boychild. In sci-fi, if you’re going for a genre, there are a lot of tropes that work very well to embrace. A story about a character is only really interesting if she has flaws. So BLIS is a su­perhero, and it’s a special day, the day she discovers she has this mu­tant superpower. It’s a superhero origin story.

I built her character around thinking about what some of the obstacles might be in the world and how she might overcome them. And it has to do with looking. In the film, the surveillance system is this AI called the LOOKS, it’s about looking and being looked at. She has a dual relationship to that activity. She enjoys the attention, but it can be really scary how fans obsess about her. Also, some peo­ple “look” out of appreciation and fascination and some “look” with disgust and fear – it’s the spectrum of that experience. These emo­tional experiences are very univer­sal, showing ways that we might all relate to social media. And also being queer in the world and how it feels to be stared at.

Photography: Bryan Sheffield
Photography: Bryan Sheffield

I think the term queerness has come to represent, rather than specifically gender identity politics, also a way of being in the world that is a heightened form of critique alongside cultural production.

WT: When I was doing Wildness, we always had a performance and we liked that it was a drag bar with a drag stage lighting and décor. We’d invite people and tell them everything can be drag, because we’re all basically performing social roles. people talk about “realness”, how real can you be this or that. or how you’re completely not these things. In that sense I was always excited about boychild’s performance and I also thought about it as drag, though, as she said, she’s not “drag queen”­ drag but drag as in all the different ways that we might channel cul­tural references and combine them.

Drag is like the art of appropriation in a way, how you pick and choose references and put them together. And especially now, that the internet has broadened our spectrum of references, it’s interesting how we pick and choose. It’s not just the one thing that you can find, it’s everything you have access to. It can be overwhelming but it can also create amazing art. The music is also really important whenever we talk about nightlife and the underground. [DJ] Total Freedom talks about how being a DJ is not just about giving people the feed, like the pop culture feed, but showing them where the feed comes from. I feel like boychild’s performance has that quality to it too.

BC: There’s a number of people whom I’m very lucky to call my friends, who have a way with sound similar to what I have with the body. Wu and I did this exer­cise together, in the first stages of understanding each other and our respective work, where I tried to explain my performative language and movement; there’s a way in which sound moves me that is es­sential to my work and also cor­relates to the things Wu wants to say. I love the way that certain DJs will take a pop song and make it totally gruesome and dark, but also super alive and emotional.

WT: Like the pop diva’s voice, and what makes us all obsessed with someone like Rihanna or Beyoncé. Total Freedom will somehow cap­ture that, but then also capture some feeling like you’re falling or being sucked into a vortex. Both those experiences are in a remix at the same time. I feel like boy­child’s performance is like that too: the things about pop and spectacle and fantasy which are why we’re all wrapped up in that kind of cul­ture production, but also the feel­ing in our bodies and ourselves of being grounded on the earth, hurting in pain, suffering.

BC: Life sucks! [Laughs]

Photography: Bryan Sheffield
Photography: Bryan Sheffield

WT: The whole industry manipulates us. The internet exaggerates our celebrity obsession, it gives us distractions but it also gives us constant reminders of how fucked up the world is. We’re living in this constant state of distraction and of feeling hopeless and emotional. At least that’s how boychild and I feel.

BC: It’s also my relationship to music because it’s my way of be­ing. It’s more fun, instead of work­ ing against pop culture, to work within it, recontextualise it and appropriate things. Relating that to my queer identity, if I were fighting the mainstream or the non-queer world I’d constantly just be fighting, instead of enjoying the really wonderful things about life, you know? And that’s the nightlife too, there are people and projects that might not identify thems­elves as queer, but represent some new ways of breaking down the structure of the mainstream in a way that feels very queer to me.

WT: Talking about subculture and my interest in it and the idea of counterculture as being against the mainstream, that’s a model that doesn’t really work anymore be­cause it’s a dead-­end idea that the world is black and white, and that you can resist the things that are capitalist and patriarchal. That’s just the moment we live in. There’s a lot of irony in the way people ap­propriate pop culture and embrace corporate aesthetics, like normcore and all these things. There’s a lot of irony but it also comes from ambivalence about what the fuck to do. We have a love/hate relation­ ship to these things, because if we reject them all, we will be para­lysed, so there has to be a way to move through it, and to make art.

You also perform the work “Moved by the Motion”, where Wu is the voice and boychild the mover. There’s a spiritual ele- ment to it, like an Ur-form breaking down to a bodiless mind and a guided body.

BC: Each iteration of “Moved by the Motion” is different depending on the space. Tonight’s perfor­mance is in a black box theatre and is a lot more theatrical. I’m ex­cited because my performance works in these settings, with chan­nels and spirits, my makeup and the lights. It feels a lot more spir­itual to me in that sense; it really accentuates the dichotomy of the voice and the performer or the body. Would you agree?

WT: Uhuh. We each represent di­mensions of the psyche of the character of BLIS. She has this dream, and we each play different parts of her persona that come up in the dream. When we first start­ed working together, we came up with this idea of different charac­ters associated with different types of boychild’s movement. And so the voice and the mover is really about thinking about body lan­guage versus verbal language, and how we can create a space between us that evokes certain emotional states. like, how a word can affect our understanding of the experi­ence, but also how movement cre­ates an emotional experience that might be outside of language.

Photography: Bryan Sheffield
Photography: Bryan Sheffield

There’s also a series of photos, and the one titled “A Child and a Man on his Deathbed in One Body” deals with duality, of the two of you being two sides of one thing.

BC: The photos in the exhibition are the physical embodiment of the four aspects of BLIS’ character. The one you’re referencing shows a character called “The Jester”; it’s about the thing in your conscious­ness that are two things pulling at you. For me it represents the am­bivalence that I have towards pop culture. The jester is about what’s happening in your mind, those battles, trying to translate informa­tion that exists in the world, the internet and on the feed…

WT: …and sort of like anarchy and total destruction, the part of you that enjoys the pain of others. The Joker in Batman represents this kind of almost philosophical point of view, that there’s nothing precious to hold on to. These archetypal figures, I think, are in all of us.

boychild. Photography: Bryan Sheffield
boychild. Photography: Bryan Sheffield

Wu, a short film you directed for PBS [the US Public Broadcaster], “You’re Dead to Me”, just won an IMAGEN award. How’s film-making different to you than art-making?

WT: The biggest differences are audience and context. Films circu­late differently than art works. Art is for me very site-specific, and allows a more full body experience; how you walk into a room, what the sound feels like, how big is the image. You can really affect people on a lot of levels with scale and volume – but it also limits your audience. Films can circulate on a lot of different platforms, they can be shared or people can encounter them in a personal, individual way.

Or collectively. But they require different things narratively. I’m also interested in that tension – they’re almost antithetical to each other. It’s almost impossible to do work that functions as both. We’re now working on a version of “bliss” that will be a bigger feature film, where you can follow the character of BLIS from beginning to end, for the whole day.

Wu Tsang. Photography: Bryan Sheffield
Wu Tsang. Photography: Bryan Sheffield

Text by Hili Perlson

Photography by Bran Sheffield

Taken from Sleek Magazine 43: Youth/Truth

See more print features here

Hili Perlson

– Hili Perlson is Berlin based writer, art critic and fashion journalist. From 2010 – 2014 she was deputy editor of Sleek Magazine, where she’s now a regular contributor. She is also a co-founder of the online magazine META and a certified Pilates teacher. Her writing on art, culture and fashion has been featured in numerous exhibition catalogues and publications such as Artforum,, and the New York Times.

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