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Vaginal Davis Is Sustaining

Performance artist Vaginal Davis has been a pioneer of punk, queercore, and terrorist drag for five decades, creating spectacles and sparking conversations through several different mediums. The intersex Afro-Latina frontwoman of the 1978 musical group the Afro Sisters named herself after radical activist Angela Davis and became known among the homocore crowd for her zine Fertile La Toyah Jackson, and then went on to perform with Black Fag, her band whose early ’90s albums were produced by Kim Gordon and Beck.

And this was just the beginning of a multi-faceted career that sees Davis traveling the world with live performances, visual art exhibitions, classes and workshops, political-tinged speeches, and celebrations of their work, which is always rooted in intersections of race, sex, gender, art, punk, and politics. She’s collaborated with Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin, and served as a muse for German choreographer Pina Bausch, fashion designer Rick Owens, and noted lesbian photographer Catherine Opie.

Opie was the inaugural recipient of the Queer/Art/Prize’s award for Sustained Achievement in 2017, and now this year, Vaginal Davis is being bestowed the honor, complete with an $10,000 award prize sponsored by HBO. Queer/Art/Prize praised Davis in a press release, saying she “disrupts hetero and homonormativity” with her “low-budget performance, experimental film, and video practices critiquing exclusionary conceits from the outside.”

Though Davis may be less of a household name than past collaborator RuPaul, she is less concerned about recognition than she is about creating and engaging in meaningful art. As she tells INTO, her “sustaining” is owed to her ability to simply “stay alive.” She left Los Angeles for Berlin in 2006 and though she still makes regular international trips for appearances and performances, she says she has no plans to come back to the U.S. Not in this economy!

INTO spoke with Vaginal Davis about longevity, sustaining, and how she plans on spending her unexpected prize money.

Congratulations! How did you feel learning you were receiving the award?

Vaginal Davis: Well, I really didn’t believe it because I have just been traveling quite a bit. I’ve been back in the States — the Pacific Northwest — where I had a big exhibition of my visual artwork, my makeup paintings and these limited edition etchings that I do on a mirror. And then the minute I came back to Europe, I had to go to Copenhagen because I was doing a performance art workshop at the Royal Danish Art Academy and I was completely jet-lagged because I just started teaching. I was just completely, utterly jet-lagged from coming all the way from the West Coast to Europe and then I was getting back on a plane again and do a workshop on Copenhagen and then that was like for a week. And then I had to start a new two-year position where I’m going to be teaching this performance arts seminar in Geneva.

And so then I was there in Geneva and I just came back and then there was like an email and I just thought it was some new story, new angle, new version of a Nigerian internet scam so I just ignored it, you know? I had never heard of this award before. I know I didn’t apply for any kind of grant or anything so I was just “Huh, what is this?” And I just ignored it. And then the next day or so, I started getting all these phone calls and emails from people saying “You have won an award. Contact these people, they’re looking for you, right away.”

And then I realized that it was actually real because I didn’t think that they give no strings attached cash awards anymore to funky people like me, you know? And I’m an outsider artist and they don’t give awards like that. The only place that used to give awards to funky people was the MacArthur Genius awards but they stopped doing that in the early ’90s. 

But this award is brand new award. It’s only the second time it’s been given, and the time before was given to [photographer] Cathy Opie, who of course I have this long history with. And she’s not so funky anymore. [laughs] She is a regular tenured professor at UCLA. She came from the same funky team that I came from. But it’s really that — with my being the second person to get it, I’m following after the heels of Catherine Opie. So that’s really great.

Vaginal Davis by Catherine Opie

The award is for “sustained achievement,” so I wonder what that means to you. 

Well, you know I think sustained achievement is just a euphemism for “She’s old and she hasn’t died.” I think that, if you just stick around long enough, you just don’t die, you eventually can get some kind of recognition. The key is to just not die and if you keep some form of longevity in your life, you know, they eventually tend to sort of give you a little attention, give you some notice. I think that’s really the key is don’t die.

What has kept you wanting to create in the space of all of the things that this world can be sometimes, which is not necessarily, like you were saying, a space for funky people?

Well you know — I’m not one of those people that’s involved in a social media and all these kinds of newfangled gadgetries and whatnot. I have a very old, old laptop that’s basically on its last leg. I don’t have internet access at home, you know. I have to go to the library or I have to go to an internet café. I’ve only had a smartphone in the last year and that’s only because my boss at the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video, she gave me her old one. I’m like the last century. I’m not of this century. I’m of the last century.

You know, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and I never learned how to drive a car. The city of cars and I never learned how to drive a car. Of course when you’re living in Berlin, Germany, I don’t need to drive a car in Berlin. There’s public transportation here. But you know, I’m from the city of cars and I never learned to drive a car.

That’s another aspect of being funky and eccentric and just following your own simmer and not listening to anyone else and just doing things outside the gray.

When I used to ride a bike in the streets of Hollywood, nobody was riding a bike there and people would look at you like so insane like what are you doing on a bicycle? Why are you in the street? What’s going on? I do a lot of things, like also letter writing is a part of my art practice, writing letters via post. How many people still do that anymore? Hardly any. That’s a really big part of my practice is to continue to keep correspondence with people all over the world. Something I’ve been doing since I was like seven years old.

Someday you’re going to have a very large like archive to leave to somebody and then we’ll get to read all your juicy letters.

I use my juicy letters in installations where the audience can come and just read through my personal mail. Of course, I always have to ask the people who I kept the correspondence “Is it OK that I use your letters for teaching purposes in the class or in an installation or an exhibition?” Not everybody wants all their personal business out there that way in the context of a class or in an installation. But some people don’t mind.

I’m sort of a neat hoarder. I don’t throw away anything so that’s why I have so many letters. I don’t throw away anything. Even postcards, I recycle postcards because I use postcards to paint on top of. I don’t really paint on canvas, I use found paper or pages from old magazines and things like that. Things that are already there. I don’t like use anything new, I just paint on what’s already there. I love painting on postcards. It’s nice quality for painting on, especially when you only paint with makeup because I use makeup to paint, not regular paints. I’m a little nutty. You have to be as an artist. 

What do people ask you about most often? What do they want to know from you?

A lot of times they just want to know “What did you do to be so tall?” Because if you see photos of me, I look like I’m an average height person. I don’t look like I’m so tall and then they see me in person, they’re always like startled at how tall I am. I’m like 6 foot 5 or six foot, well I used to be 6 foot 6 but once you start getting older, you start shrinking so I think I’m shrinking a little bit so I think I’ve gone down to 6 foot 5, but that’s still pretty tall.

That’s the main thing that people always seem to be in awe of, you know. Like once they see me, they look up at me and this is even without high heels, you know. I can’t really wear high heels so much anymore because I have problems with my feet and knees. I have knee and feet problems, so even if I’m on stage in my stocking bare feet, you know, people are always shocked I’m as big as I am and I’m so tall because in photographs, I photograph tiny. And I kind of think of myself as being sort of tiny. I kind of act tiny, you know?

What does living in Berlin lend to you that living somewhere in the States doesn’t?

Well, I could never live in the U.S. Never. Never could I go back to living in the U.S. I lived here in Berlin now for like what, 14 years or so and every time I do have to go back to the States, I’m always like oh my god there’s no way I could move back, especially Los Angeles. My city of LA used to be the cheapest of all the international cities and now it’s even surpassing San Francisco and New York, which were always expensive. Always. And the tent cities, all the poor homeless people. So many people in Los Angeles now, the last time I was back there, I was just mortified. There’s all these wealthy, wealthy people who are completely clueless. Absolutely clueless, living in a bubble foam and everybody else who’s like all ragged, with forlorn, troubled faces. It’s just — oh, it’s so sad to see.

And my few relatives that are still alive, they couldn’t afford to live in LA proper anymore. They had to move out either to the mountains or the high desert because that’s the only place the rents are somewhat affordable. I only have my nephews and nieces, who like, they’re young and they have children. They live out in the high desert and in the mountains, you know. Well actually my nephew, he’s had a heart attack because trying to like you know this so-called gig economy and trying to work work work work work work work and never having enough money basically killed him. He had a heart attack in his early 40’s. He had a heart attack, my poor nephew. It’s so sad.

Because rent control laws in California and Los Angeles particularly are so weak, but here in Germany, the rent control laws are much more geared towards tenants’ rights and now owners’ rights. There’s still that kind of leftist social consciousness here so that things are more geared towards people — renters and not owners. But of course, things are gentrifying also here in Berlin. Not quite as quickly as in the States, but it is gentrifying. But I’m lucky I moved here when I did because if I had waited just a few years later, it would have been too late. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to live here, you know? It’s just like you know pretty soon, will there be any place on earth you can live or go?

Oh my god. Not to be Miss Debra Downer. I don’t want to be Debra S. Downer.

I remember the days when nobody wanted to live in Echo Park or Silver Lake. I remember those days. People were scared to live in those neighborhoods and now they’re the most trendy neighborhoods that everybody wants to live in when they come to Los Angeles. You know? And own property and of course somebody like me, I could never own property. It’s just — I could never see myself living back in the U.S. I keep my visits back in the States very, I don’t like the carbon footprint of flying.

I’m gone for good. My heart goes out to so many people in the States who are stuck there now, you know?

I’m really curious about your thoughts on, and if you keep up at all with more modern depictions of drag and how they’ve come up in American pop culture.

Well, one of my closest, dearest friends Michelle Mills — she’s an executive producer on the RuPaul television show and she’s someone who I’ve collaborated with and worked with. I used to do a performance club and nightclubs in LA back in the early aughts, right before I moved to Berlin, called Bricktops. It was like a 1920’s style speakeasy and performance space and Michelle was my door person. She was the guardian at the gate. I would let people in. She’s the first person everyone saw when they came to my club and now she just won an Emmy award. An Emmy award. That’s somebody who’s as funky as I am and she’s won an Emmy award. Isn’t that something? I can’t believe it. Michelle has now won an Emmy award for working on that particular show, and before that show, she worked on Toddlers and Tiaras, another reality show, and some other show called America’s Top Model with Tyra Banks. She worked on that show that was her entrée into reality TV world with Michelle Mills, and now she’s like an executive producer on an Emmy award-winning TV show. That’s like really something…from the funky punk and underground scene to reach those kinds of heights. It’s really, really, really, really something.

And I do get letters from a lot of the young kids from all over the world, really, who contact me and I get invited to a lot of causes and art schools and universities, blah blah blah, and you know, they always want to know about what it was like back in the old days in the ’80s, in the early-’80s and the mid-’80s and the early ’90s and you know, I’m still nostalgic about my past. I’m all about the future, you know. I try not to dwell so much about the past. I don’t believe in having a nostalgia fetish. I like to get moving on and keep, just keep on truckin’ and keep on doing the work that I do and you know, whether people are interested in it or not, you know. 

I think it’s probably best to do your work and be the sort of soft sell approach as opposed to the hard sell. Because so many people now, these days, so many people are such careerists and they’re always self-promoting, with all these social media things and blah blah blah. And I have a presence on these things. I don’t really do them myself. I have some young people that like, the young person that has a Vaginal Davis fan page on Facebook, he tweets that, and some other people that have done little pages saluting me on Facebook. And then another former student of mine when I taught in Sweden, she created an official Vaginal Davis Instagram page and she puts up all the things that I have some representation in that world.

I’m not technical in the least. If anything, if I’m near a television set — even if it’s analog technology or digital technology — and it comes near me, I think the electrical currents in my body, things with any kind of technology, it stops working. My smartphone will stop working. I don’t know why, it stops working. I think it’s something to do with electrical currents that come out of me. Somehow it’s just like any kind of technology, whether it’s analog technology or it’s digital technology. The currents in my body just makes these things sometimes crazy and stop working. It’s so bizarre. It really is. That’s just the way of my life, I guess.

Do you have any specific plans for the money you received from the award?

Well, here in Germany, I have artists’ insurance, health insurance for artists and it’s really, really good because my general practitioner is a doctor — he’s very famous here in Germany. He does both Eastern and Western medicine, so my health insurance, it pays for free acupuncture, it pays for free massages. The only thing it doesn’t really pay so well for is dental work. 

There’s some things I need to take care of with my teeth and so the prize money, since it’s no strings attached prize money, I’m going to really just put it into my mouth. A lot of the money is going to go to that because there’s a lot of things I just haven’t dealt with because I didn’t really have the extra money to deal with it. But now I can like get it taken care of and so, oh my god, that is such a blessing, especially since I never thought in a million years I’d ever get — I’d win an art prize. I never in a billion, trillion years did I ever think I’d win an art prize, so I’m just like, I still think maybe it is a, it still is a Nigerian scam. But the scamming is coming from HBO because it’s not like they’d given me the money yet. Like I haven’t seen this money so I don’t believe I really won something until it actually like, I actually see the money into my bank account, you know? 

Let me know if you don’t get it because I’ll call them out. But I’m pretty sure you’ll get it.

Honey, I will be the first to give that story. I will be screaming and yelling and getting all excited like this. With my luck, that would be the thing. “Oh, well we were going to give you the money until we ran out.”

Images via Getty and Facebook


Trish Bendix

Trish Bendix is the Managing Editor of INTO.

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