Interview with Nina Arsenault
On Dec 13 to 15, 2012 Nina Arsenault will be exhibited in a 72 hour performance installation which echoes her involuntary 3 day incarceration in a mental institution in 2005. At 8pm each night N.A. will perform a workshop of her new performance piece OPHELIA/MACHINE.
Video Fag. 187 Augusta, Toronto, Canada.
Open to the public starting at 6pm Dec 13 – 15.
Reading of new script-in-progress at 8pm nightly.
This interview was conducted in Summer – Fall 2012, and is an excerpt from Tobaron Waxman’s forthcoming book, “Trans women Artists: interviews with artists on the MTF spectrum” with forward by Susan Stryker (forthcoming 2013).
TW: In what you have been developing around live art as an act of service, there is a dynamic tension: you are simultaneously cultivating identity thru body and yet your work is not about a transition to citizenship or to personhood, it’s about service and self-nullification and it’s simultaneously glamourus. So it seems like you have simultaneously altered your physical appearance and cultivated uniquely trans relationship to the symbolic. Sometimes it seems like, watching your artistic trajectory, almost like the body of work is male-to-symbol rather than MTF?
NA: As a transwoman I always sought to understand my body as it was being viewed by others, from the outside. I wanted to know how passable I was, how beautiful I was, how plastic I was. I wanted to know the definitive objective image of myself that existed in reality so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by believing I was sexy, by believing I was beautiful. Of course, this is impossible. I don’t think any of us have a single objective body.
But my body seemed to change so much depending on how I was standing, posing, if I was tired, if I was thin. To me, little differences made a major change to the effect my body had when viewed.
So image became very important. I think for a long time I stopped feeling my body from the inside. I wasn’t very in touch with sensation, and I mainly lived in my head.
Mainly because the outside never matched the inside. My body was a little boy with the spirit of a little girl. My body was a man with the spirit of a woman. My body was an awkward transsexual body with the spirit of a “real woman,” a really slutty one. But by the time my body was that of a silicone porn star I had the spirit of an intellectual. I think one day I will have an old body and a young spirit. I don’t think it will ever match up, and I don’t think anyone should expect it to.
The French artist Orlan read from Eugenie Lemoine Luccione’s “The Dress” before her plastic surgery performance art: “Skin is misleading… in life, you only have your own skin… There is a mismatch in human relationships, because you never are what you have… I have the skin of an angel, but I am a jackal… the skin of a crocodile, but I am a puppy dog… the skin of a woman, but I am a man; I never have the skin of what I am. There is an exception to the rule, because I am never what I have.”
For me, I know at different times in my life I tried to figure out what my image was, then I tried to vivify an aesthetic effect of a personality beneath it. I tried to match my image with who I was, by performing the “me” that matched.
Then, I stopped worrying about that and started to search for who I was authentically. But, then I became obsessed with creating symbolic images in the form of artistic photography that expressed an image of my authenticity.
I thought I would find my authentic self (the way they talk about it on talk shows like Oprah.) But my authentic self was also constantly transforming. So, I created more and more images.
I became obsessed with the idea of authenticity because so many people called me “fake” because of the plastic surgery, and other people said I wasn’t a “real” woman. So, I was on this hunt for The Real me.
So, my question is: is it a process of unveiling that never stops or is there a state of pure being I can reach? is there a state of un-selfconsciousness for me, as a visible transsexual in a transphobic world? can I be immediate, unguarded, uncomposed?
I can have intimacy and empathy with my friends and some people who I work with who I trust. But these moments of unseparation – of not being separated by a plane of glass looking in – are rare.
I wonder, is it something I am doing wrong? Or, do I just not “get” something integral to life that others understand.
So I am asking a lot of questions. Oh, I should also add that I am as well doing a photo project with BlaB in January. So I am working with more than one guy to burn off/through these images of myself.
TW: You have been photographed by a number of artists, and the projects you make with them are truly collaborative performances for camera. Talk about the collaborations with Bruce la Bruce and Istvan Kantor? Not only are they both senior artists of international renoun, but they could both –though in different ways — be considered extremely masculinist.
NA: Not only are they objectifiers they are among the top objectifiers in Canada.
They have taken objectification to more radical places than any Canadians.
With Bruce I am interested in the relationship of his work to exploitation, so my interest in him is similar to Istvan. My interest isn’t just academic, it is also because I love them as artists and as people otherwise I couldn’t take the emotional risks without feeling supported.
TW: But we are all trained to prioritize that gaze. I mean, what if instead you just decided to wear a blindfold for a month….!
NA: I think that is a great idea, or a year.
A friend of mine also suggested that a radical continuance of the surgical procedures would be to self-blind.
TW: Are you sure that’s a friend?
NA: Yes, a friend who takes performance and ritual very seriously.
I considered it and I think I still consider it an option
but it would be an extremely privileged and rarified action.
TW: Why not shift the idea such that you forfeit your gaze, and give it away so someone else could have it.
NA: How to shift the idea?
TW: Like donating your eyes.
NA: OMG thank you. Is that possible with today’s technology?
Could I donate my eyes even though I have free silicone injections I wonder…?
It is very Oedipal. And I have often contemplated that I might not be able to deal with watching myself age.
TW: When you die you could do it literally of course, as an organ donor. What I meant was about the gaze, not about the organs.
NA: It’s interesting, my artistic gaze is such a source of empowerment though.
TW: Then it would actually be an artistic gesture, and something you would have to be responsible for. You could start by getting rid of all the mirrors in your house. When I was religious, we lived without mirrors.
NA: I like where you are going.
TW: I guess I lived without mirrors for 5 years.
NA: …and no self-representation on popular media, no self-imagery.
TW: Well, no its more like, you don’t get to see it. You can’t control what other people get to see, and you can’t attempt to manipulate it, by checking yourself in the mirror before they get to look.
NA: Oh that is interesting…but I can control my own website and facebook.
TW: That’s another level, I guess, it’s not your physical appearance, but it’s an appendage.
NA: Taking photos of oneself on the computer and not looking at them.
TW: I’m just suggesting even to go without mirrors. Not manipulating, not having a self-gaze but still partaking in society and media, and notice how it changes how you relate to your visible presence in the world. You still exist in the world, yeah — but your original concern was about self.
NA: I’m afraid I would become even more a heretic if I couldn’t manage my wigs and make-up. (laughs)
TW: (laughs) l know its hard to let go of makeup!
NA: This is all very interesting to me, even if it’s not something I choose to do for a while. I like the potential of it. I like that there are options.
TW: I think the first conversation we ever had was in a bath house, with Bruce la Bruce, when I challenged him about what I call his ‘ecstasy envy’ — this was a month before he was shooting the Catholic imagery with you for his ‘Obscenity’ show in Spain at the gallery of Rocio Fresh.
I’m curious about what seem like religious themes in your work and in some cases, how your work is a religious experience for others. Shannon Bell compared you to a Zen monk. The Ecstasy of St. Theresa comes to mind in the motifs in your monologue about the waking facelift, and throughout your endurance performance “40 Days + 40 Nights”.
NA: I have researched religions and mythology my whole life. I have put together my own beliefs from an assemblage of these philosophical systems.
My performance piece in Summerworks “40 Days + 40 Nights: Working Towards a Spiritual Experience” asked the question what if someone – not a holy person, not a saint, not a prophet – dedicated themselves to rigorous disciplined rituals designed to raise their state of being for an extended period of time? I got the idea when I was having a conversation with a friend. He suggested we go see whirling dervishes perform. He was telling me that there is a very interesting point in the performance. You can see them begin the swirl. Then, he observed, there is a moment when the swirl takes them, and they are passengers within the experience. This is a spiritual practice. I wanted to make my own rituals. Rigorous exercise, self-whipping and other exercises that made me ecstatic. I combined them with rituals like meditation which grounded me. Heightened states tempered with stillness. I wanted to know how ecstatic I could become while keeping my feet on the ground. I wanted to know if I could induce a spiritual experience. Eventually I was living in a perpetual non-stop state of love and acceptance. Also, love and acceptance for all of my own darkness. I could exist calmly within this because I was safe and protected within the performance installation, and because the rituals perpetuated the state of being. The experience changed me for a long time afterwards. I carried that love and radical acceptance with me for a long time. But I have not been able to maintain it without the constant discipline of the rituals –a very privileged practice which relied on a team of people. Also, now I am living in ‘the big bad world’, and try as I might, my heart is not full of love and acceptance all the time. It just isn’t because I am afraid a lot of the time, and I often feel hurt. But this does not negate the lived reality of being inside 40 Days + 40 Nights. It makes sense to me now why certain monks and nuns do not want to leave their monasteries – why they feel closest to their spirituality within those safe spaces. I think these forces play upon me as well as others. I just name them and recognize them. I don’t think society has evolved and now people aren’t prey to these energies.
TW: And now you’re coming to New York to present your work with scholar Paul Halferty at CLAGS. I’m really grateful for your presentation of an art practice as an act of service. You are in very good company with some of the people I love the most. Please talk about what it means to you to be in service of the work.
NA: As an artist the work asks that I reveal things, unflattering things sometimes, things that come at a personal cost. This is the cost of speaking one’s truth. People have reactions. Sometimes these reactions make you popular, sometimes they make you unpopular. I’m interested in the work, and it’s continuing revelations. It isn’t art for art’s sake.
In New York there will be a presentation of my visual art collaborations – some photographs and video art I have made with people who I considered the most talented people in world. Artists whom I consider geniuses. Then, I will also be telling the story of my waking facelift — a story I call The Ecstasy of Nina Arsenault.
I believe in the power of ritual. I believe in the power of the artist to see inside people and paint a greater emotional truth than only the eye can see. I believe that capturing an image of a part of a personality fragment can in a way burn that piece of your soul away. I think that the degradation and embarrassment of making these images real forces me to look at them. It forces them out of my body. I see them. I can name them, so I can know them and understand them better. I want to burn and destroy my image so I can find out what is underneath.
Nina Arsenault is a Toronto based multi-disciplinary artist. She has worked in live performance, video art, photography, writing and popular national media to document her continuing physical and psychic transformations. In 2007, Nina was chosen to receive the Unstoppable Award by the Pride Committee of Toronto and Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, for continuing to challenge and illuminate her community’s culturally constructed notions of sex and gender. In 2011, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association honoured Nina’s body of work with an Excellence in the Arts Award, acknowledging a profound contribution to human rights in Canada. In 2012, Intellect Books published “TRANS(per)FORMING Nina Arsenault: an Unreasonable Body of Work”. Edited by Judith Rudakoff, this book contains the published script of Nina’s critically acclaimed one woman play ‘Silicone Diaries’, a selection of Nina’s photographic pieces and lengthy analysis and interpretation of her work by a collection of international scholars, critics and artists. For more information about Nina Arsenault, please visit her website: http://ninaarsenault.net