I recently got the following email from musician and artist Antony Hegarty, from Antony & The Johnsons. We both got our start at Pyramid Club in NYC's East Village and Antony has gone on to become a beloved singer-songwriter whose haunting vocals now sell out opera houses worldwide.
Antony identifies as transgender and will therefore be referred to as she in this blog. To celebrate the release of her "TURNING" documentary and concert on DVD and CD, images from her 2004 collaboration with filmmaker Charles Atlas has been revived in one of the most unlikely places to create a unique, unmissable NYC moment every night in December. It's called "You Are My Sister" and it's free!
From Antony's email:
I am writing to invite you to a very exciting event in my life.
At 11:55 pm every night in December they are showing "TURNING" for 3 minutes on almost every single screen in Times Square. Portraits from "TURNING" the size of football fields, like butterflies taking over the insane corporate overload of Times Square.
It is shocking to see all of those giant advertising screens suddenly synchronize and reveal gorgeous "TURNING" portraits on New York City's underground beauties such as Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler, Joie Iacono, Joey Gabriel, Honey Dijon, Connie Girl, Lola Naise, Julia Yasuda, Eliza Douglas... the list goes on.
PLEASE MEET ME THERE! I WILL PERSONALLY BE THERE EVERY NIGHT STARTING TOMORROW.
Come and spend five minutes with us tomorrow or in the days that follow. We meet at the red staircase at 7th avenue between 46th and 47th street at 11:50 p.m. The projections span boards from 47th to 43rd street. It starts at 11:57 and its over by midnight.
My last interview in Huffington Post was in a series on NYC nightlife, with most participants whining about what's been lost and how the city is no longer cool. So Antony's email hit me like a ton of bricks. Here was someone bursting with enthusiasm instead of whining and actually creating a giant, exciting counter-culture art project to enliven the city, rather than continually cursing Manhattan as the new Dubai. In addition, the streets of the city are currently raging with protests against the police. I'm thrilled that so many have gathered to denounce the epidemic of police brutality against young black males. But in stark contrast, Antony's "TURNING" exhibit is a reason to get out into the streets and experience the triumph of something both joyful and thought-provoking -- which provoked a few questions I had for the artist.
Lady Bunny: How did this project come about? There are so many huge corporations paying a fortune to have their images broadcast on the screens of Times Square especially with the holidays being the height of consumerism. How did something so underground mesh with something so commercial? It's mind-boggling and someone deserves some high praise.
Antony: There is an organization called Times Square Alliance that produces a series called "Midnight Moments." I think it has been going on for a couple of years. For three minutes before midnight, many of the screens in Times Square synchronize and project a selected artwork. They approached Charlie about screening his music video for my song "You Are My Sister," which is comprised of imagery generated from our live concert collaboration "TURNING."
I first met Charles Atlas in the early '90s. He used to come and see my friends and I perform at the Pyramid in a motley ensemble called Blacklips. We started talking then and we never really stopped. I greatly admire his work. "Hail The New Puritan" and "Because We Must" are among my all time favorite films.
"TURNING" was a concert that I presented with Charles atlas in 2004 (NYC) and 2006 (Europe). For each song, a different NYC "beauty" would come up onto the stage from the front row and stand on a turning platform to my left. Charlie's team would generate video portraits of each model. These portraits were then processed and simultaneously projected onto a giant screen behind me, filling the theater with a very intimate and constantly evolving image of femininity. The video portraits of the 13 women from those performances were later edited into the music video for "You Are My Sister." Charles Atlas has created a version of this music video for the "Midnight Moments" series in Times Square. The song is being simultaneously podcast though Clocktower Radio.
This event is also a celebration for us of the DVD release of the feature film "TURNING" that we released this month.
Lady Bunny: The projected images are of models with an alternative approach to beauty. Can you spotlight several of your models and explain why they were chosen? Many, like performer Kembra Phaler and international DJ Honey Dijon, are well known, but many simply caught your eye.
Antony: The models are all people from the underground NYC scene that I was a part of in the '90s and early 2000s... a mixture of iconic female performance artists who use their bodies as canvasses for their expression of a world view, such as Kembra Pfahler and Johanna Constantine, NYC women who have a unique and powerful aura about them such as Stacy Mark, and transwomen who I have always admired, such as Joey Gabriel and Connie Girl. My mantra in casting was "everything moving towards the feminine." To me, "TURNING" mediates on the intersection between what some of us have come to describe as Future Feminism and the emerging new sense of transfeminism that was whispering of its existence when we first staged "TURNING" in 2004. A lot has changed since we first staged "TURNING." Riccardo Tisci saw "TURNING" at the Olympia in Paris in 2006 and presented Leah T in the years that followed, which was one of the stepping stones in introducing a conversation about trans lives in the daylight culture. Now it's in full swing. And in the intervening years, groups like Pussy Riot and Femen have introduced new generations to feminist activism.
Lady Bunny: Why is it important for you to show images of non-traditional beauty?
Antony: Some of the women in "TURNING" are extremely traditionally beautiful. There is a wide spectrum of ages, ethnicities and experiences represented in the casting. And yet for me these portraits represent an American frontier. All the women in "TURNING" explore their own pioneering expressions of femininity. I simply chose the people who I have always been drawn towards, who I felt were most beautiful, who I most admired. Most of them were my friends; a few were people who I approached for the first time to participate in this production.
Lady Bunny: It's a busy tourist season. What has been the response of visitors around the world to these unusual images, presented out of the blue in silence? Spellbound? Inspired? Mystified?
Antony: I have no idea! One of the things that is interesting for me is the fact that the screens in Times Square are usually filled with such as barrage of discordant advertisements that are always fighting for our attention in their attempts to sell us something, that i think that people usually avoid looking at the billboards too much. So when the screens all link up for a minute and show something artistic, that doesn't have the obvious agenda of trying to market products to the viewer, it is kind of shocking and very engaging.
Lady Bunny: These video portraits aren't just arresting images -- there's a message behind them. While many are taking to the streets nationwide to protest the system, which was known as "the man" when I was growing up, you are offering female images in what you describe as a "quiet resistance." What exactly are you protesting?
Antony: Much of my work reaches towards femininity. As a trans person it is a natural impulse for me. It is almost as if my body has a built-in mechanism to resist patriarchy. I feel that my identity as a trans person stands naturally in opposition to the values of what Gore Vidal classed as "sky god religions" that have long sought to oppress gay and transgender people. With the impending collapse of the ecology of our planet and the vanishing of so many species, I find that there is an insidious collaboration taking place between these old sky god doctrines, many of which forecast rapturous apocalypse and the consequent ascension of human souls to another, more illustrious, dimension and the activities of today's corporations, which are setting the stage for the virulent destruction of the natural world. "TURNING" and its images of an unfurling and eternal creative feminine essence resist the slash and burn values that our society subscribes to.
Lady Bunny: With the country so disenchanted with its government and two political parties, which both offer perpetual war and legislation which favors corporations over hard-hit workers, can a passive protest work if we need to dismantle our entire system and re-set our priorities? I guess the first step is opening our eyes with a visually stunning art happening. But the same corporate interests which bought our government own the media, which ought to be informing us. Will a passive protest lead to the outrage needed to effect fundamental changes? The powers that be won't give up their position and wealth without a fight.
Antony: "TURNING" started out as something very internal and community-based. The front row was filled with the models and we took turns watching each other step into the light and be witnessed. There was something very empowering and revelatory about it. The audience watched us as we empowered ourselves in this ceremonial way. After I won the Mercury prize in 2005, I had the opportunity to bring "TURNING" to Europe. I thought of it as a kind of ambassadorial project, a way to reach out to communities in other major urban centers and create greater visibility for the community I care about and the values that we embodied. What we found was that "TURNING" resonated with audiences from many walks of life. I had an Inuit woman approach me after the first "TURNING" performance and say, "This is what we do in my community, I recognize this raising of feminine spirit." It blew me away, actually.
I began interviewing the models during our European tour in an effort to try to understand what it was that we were actually doing. It has taken me ten years to find the words to articulate why "TURNING" was meaningful for me and conducting those interviews was the beginning of that investigation. Along with the live footage, we used those interviews for the basis of our feature film "TURNING." The women talk about their lives and reveal a personal aspect of themselves that obviously was not a part of "TURNING" the concert, in which the intimacy was anonymous. People who saw the live concert didn't even know the names of the models. So in the film, the concert is grounded in these very personal narratives, as well as my music from the period, which often circled themes of gender, victimization and transcendence.
Now the "TURNING" portraits have transformed again and are being screened in this unusual environment, Times Square, that represents the heart of American capitalism. The images turn silently, disconnected from their sources and even from my music. The women's faces are silently turning like butterflies in a machine on billboards the size of football fields. So to answer your question, is quiet resistance meaningful, I would say yes it is. Obviously we are not going to take down patriarchy and late-stage capitalism with three minutes of discrete video portraiture, but it does represent a kind of occupation and an affirmation of a different set of values. At this point it's all hands on deck. So, obviously, we need to be taking actions in every arena if we want to change our trajectory. Public art is one of them, but it wont single handedly win you a war. "TURNING" is a utopian piece; it is setting our sights on a different set of values, a different way of feeling and seeing and living.
Lady Bunny: Your own connection to the transgender world is rooted in the fact that you are trans yourself. In a male-dominated world of aggression, oppression, mass shootings, war, torture and rape, is "You Are My Sister" offering a feminine alternative? And, if so, what does that alternative represent? Where do we need to be moving towards? Women are often seen as more conciliatory, less aggressive and more nurturing. Would women taking the reins from men help set us on the right track in your view?
Antony: I started a group with a bunch of my friends in the last three years called Future Feminism. We had an exhibition in September at the Hole on the Bowery, and we presented 13 tenets that we had developed, carved into pink rose quartz discs. We also staged a 13-night performance series. Some of our tenets were criticized as being "essentialist" which basically means that we were allegedly assigning men and women certain in born characteristics. This became a taboo notion in feminism. Women felt it was limiting their spectrum of possibilities and obviously this idea of inborn difference has been used as a basis for disqualifying women from participating in governance since time immemorial. In order to participate in governance feminine people have had to assert that we are as capable of waging war and making "tough choices" as men are. But what we started to realize in our Future Feminist circle was that we actually do feel that women generally observe certain tendencies in the way that they operate, as do men, and the revelation of modern transsexualism is the way that the biological intervention of hormones affects ones approach. I defy anyone to take a course of treatment in the hormones of the other sex and tell me that it didn't change their feeling, values and behavior. So, yes, I do believe that women and, more specifically, femininity is our species' last great untapped natural resource, and that our only hope really for creating a sustainable world is to observe femininity in our approach to governance on every level.
Lady Bunny: One recurring theme in your work is that Mother Earth is being defiled by corporate-run governments' greed at an alarming rate. It's seen as a feminine instinct to protect one's home. And it's obvious to anyone not brainwashed by the corporate media that the inhabitants of this planet must ban together to stop the erosion of our environment. Yet it doesn't stop. The recent climate deal in Lima, Peru basically kicked the can down the line with vague promises to be "finalized" at the next climate summit in Paris. Meanwhile, 2014 was the hottest year on record. Explain your frustration with world leaders' refusal to deal with such a pressing, unavoidable issue. And why you think this vital issue isn't gaining more traction?
Antony: In the U.S. we have always been hoodwinked to believe that addressing identity politics will provide the solution to all of our problems. But unless we can see that these things are all interconnected, our individual liberties and entitlements will be worthless. Unless we can start to realize that gay and lesbian and racial and transgendered oppression has everything to do with corporate eco-cide, we are kind of missing the point. It is all part of the same system. It was Vito Russo that first told me that you can't fight for gay rights without being a feminist. My point is that you cant be a feminist without being an environmentalist. Its like a string of X-mas lights; they all light up together.
Lady Bunny: This video exhibit will take place every night until New Year's Eve, when Times Square will take on a very different sort of countdown to midnight with very safe, mainstream entertainment and corporate sponsors galore. What's next for Antony in 2015?
Antony: I have been working on a dance record with some quite hardcore content. But more will be revealed.
Lady Bunny: You and Charlie Atlas have given us a valuable message of hope with "You Are My Sister," which even got my jaded ass out of a dark, doomsday rut. I know this might be pushing it, but I see you as a visionary. Could you possibly give us another such message? We sure could use one.
Antony: Jesus is a girl, Allah is a woman, Buddah is a mother. xxx