Performing Politics: An Interview with Dayna McLeod

0 Posted by - September 18, 2007 - Conversations, Features, Performance

Dayna McLeod is a Montréal-based performance artist and video maker… and she’s very funny. Winner of many prizes and awards, her work speaks to the masses with rare and powerful humour rooted in visionary feminist politics. It’s very likely that you’ve seen Dayna, but didn’t even know it: she embodies her message everywhere and in every way–from her infamous Santa Beaver to her newer (picture on the right) Monarchy Mama –her art travels far and wide.

AT: Hi Dayna.
So, it’s all about tits lately, isn’t it?

Dayna: Totally.

AT: Tell me about “Car Wash”–your performance during Grand Prix in Montréal (June 9th, 2007).

Dayna: La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse asked me to do an intervention during theGrand Prix St. Laurent Street celebration- a time that yearly brings a stale taint of sexist, gross guy vibe to my neighborhood as well as millions of tourist dollars to Montreal. La Centrale was asked by the city if they needed the space in front of their gallery during the street celebration, because if they weren’t using it, a Grand Prix car would be parked there for the weekend. I wanted to do something that addressed this request and what it means. To me, it poses unasked questions: Is La Centrale’s reputation as an established and respected feminist gallery only visible to the community that supports it? Is it invisible to the mainstream? How does this (in)visibility extend to feminists and women? Are our politics/rhetoric/ideas merely tolerated until a more profitable venture comes along?

AT: “Intervention” refers to a mix of conceptual art and performance, right, which interacts with an already existing audience or venue… so in this case you’re complicating the relationship between this feminist venue and–somewhat on the other side of the spectrum—fans of the grand prix. What did your intervention look like?

Dayna: I asked 5 performers, (Alyson Vishnovska, Miriam Ginestier, Sarah Williams, Nadine Sures and Heather Kravas) to strap on fake tits, big wigs, drag queen make-up and camel toe shorts and wash a 1993 Toyota Tercel rust-bucket complete with soapy cat fights. By the end, they had ripped off each other’s shirts, were soaking wet, and had make-up running down their faces. It was really fun.

AT: What was your sense of how it was perceived? On your website you say that the performance begged the question: “fake tits versus real ones; does it matter?”
So, does it matter?

Dayna: Apparently not!
What was interesting and disturbing during the ½ hour Car Wash was all of the male attention that we got- guys with video cameras, cell phones, and digital cameras surrounding the girls and taking pictures during the whole thing just like they were really naked. I thought that by using constructed female bodies, this exposed how ludicrous these types of bodies are, but we still got all of this male attention. Another interesting thing that happened was that some men in the crowd thought the girls were men, and were perplexed and confused when they were told that they were “real” women because, “why would real women wear fake tits”?

AT: That’s really interesting—it reminds me of culture jamming where branding and subversion can occur simultaneously! It also makes me think that culture, or queer culture in particular, often comprises humour, pastiche, spectacle, subversion and that maybe, as a result, your piece spoke more to those who share this queer feminist language. That said, I think it is so fascinating that your piece raises questions about gender and sexuality in a post-gays-can-marry society, and that in some ways, more work like yours is needed to continue the conversation about these issues.

As seen on your website and FaceBook page, you also dressed up as a giant tit-matriarch while in Europe–can you tell me about that performance?

Dayna: Monarchy Mama is based on the (tired) concept that country, government, and monarchy provides for the people. I made a 21-tited outfit that is filled with vodka where the audience can come up and literally “suck on the teat of prosperity” and hopefully not choke on all of the obvious references that goes with that. Every country in the world has had some sort of relationship with a monarchy at some point in their history, and what I like about this piece is depending on which country it is performed in, this relationship changes how the audience interacts with me. It’s a durational piece that isn’t about me being on stage- I sit near or on the bar of the venue or off to the side, and get sucked, as it were, from an hour and a half to three hours- depending on what the evening is like.

AT: Do you make your own costumes?

Dayna: Yes! My Mom taught me how to sew when I was 8. She was always making clothes and costumes for Halloween, and I was hooked. She gave me great construction advice on the tit outfit too.

AT: Some of your other work is video-based. One of my favorites is Pleasure Zone which was screened at Edgy Women last year, and Ken’s Closet (collaboration with Jackie Gallant), which played at Image+Nation as part of the Local Heroes program. What inspires you? How do you come up with these crazy ideas?

Dayna: Contradictions in feminism, desire, and LGBTQIA culture inspire me, as do their literal and biased representations in mainstream media. I like to mach, mix, deconstruct and reconfigure the sides of polar opposite arguments to my own liking. Pleasure Zone is a pornographic sports parody that mixes the language, codes, and conduct of professional sports with pornography to expose pornography’s ever increasing banality, popularity, excess, and violent subtext. It assumes that the viewer is keeping score in a game that doesn’t make sense. Ken’s Closet is a project that Jackie Gallant and I made in a one-night challenge to ourselves. She made the soundtrack while I tried to make Ken fuck himself from found images a friend gave me. What I found funny and focused on after I twinned him, is that Ken has no actual penetrable holes- he’s got no fuckable orifices. He’s also got that mound of plastic instead of a penis which isn’t doing anybody any good, whether you’re another Ken looking to get laid, or a tween taking a peak inside of his pants trying to understand what male genitalia looks like. This tape also winks at LGBTQIA videos of the past in which artists have subverted mainstream culture by queering characters like Ken, Barbie, GI Joe, and other action figures by have sex with each other.

AT: Most of your work combines humour with social commentary–humour seems to be a political tool for you for getting your message out, but avoiding being preachy. This combination seems to be the thread of your work, from The Bathroom Tapes: “My Man” to Teabagging and Other Beauty Secrets. Who is your intended audience? Where is your work featured/where do you perform? Do you perform in queer venues?

Dayna: My video work shows predominantly in LGBT, Queer, and Lesbian film festivals, and I’ve performed in Queer, Women, and Performance festivals and Cabaret, Gallery, poetry readings and theatre settings with no particular queer or feminist bent.

AT: What is the significance of “queer” for you–if any?

Dayna: I definitely have a queer audience in mind when I make work. I don’t want to have to explain the joke, and I feel like a queer audience gets me. I feel the same way about subtext and politics. If you have to explain it, then the work is either not ready, or it’s the wrong audience.

AT: Tell me about your creative process. How do you develop your ideas?

Dayna: Ideas that won’t leave me alone are the ones that get produced. I do a lot of writing and research, and love to experiment with costumes. Since I discovered the fake tits, costuming has again become an integral part of my practice, especially in the development stage. I also tend to get obsessed with ideas, and have a great peer group that I bounce ideas off of. I usually stretch ideas until I uncover the punchline for myself. I like using humour because it’s such a disarming way to communicate, so I often “test market” ideas to see if other people find them funny, or if I’ve gone way too far. Originally, Teabagging and Other Beauty Secrets was going to have a more intense performative element to it where I would present a slideshow that showed men having their balls waxed; kind of a do-it-yourself kit for straight women. Because the parody of the piece is that men’s balls are good around the eyes to get rid of crow’s feet and those unsightly wrinkles, women who couldn’t afford the $500-$5000 professional teabagging treatment at a salon or spa from a gay, homosexual professional, could turn their husbands and boyfriends into home beauty care kits. I had a whole routine about straight guys needing to take better care, as in, “it wouldn’t hurt to hose it off more than once a week”, and, “a trim might get you more blow jobs”, that sort of thing, but man, did the material bomb at a party I went to! Because I wanted to really make a piece that seemed straight on the outside with tons of lesbian/gay subtext, (and when I say straight, I mean more straight laced than exclusively heterosexual- I’m not trying to equate “queer” with “cool” or anything.) So scaring the straight people in this case with graphic images of bleeding scrotums after a ball wax, or criticizing their grooming techniques, because this is how my “test audience” took it, didn’t seem to be the best way to reach them.

AT: What topics are important to you right now?

Dayna: Queer identities, misogyny and growing up female in a culture full of mixed messages.

AT: You always have a million ideas on the go–What projects are you currently working on?

Dayna: I’m working on a three-part animation series about Vagina Dentata, a music video about violence against women, a website that looks at the language of pornography, and a lesbian soap opera theatre series that will have it’s debut at Edgy Womenin March 2008.

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