Mikiki is a performance and video artist and queer community activist of Acadian/Mi’kmaq and Irish descent from Newfoundland living in Toronto. They will be in Calgary along with collaborator Jordan Arseneault for the M:ST Performance Art Biennial from October 2-7. During the Biennial they will perform Disclosure Cookbook, a project that involves communally preparing and partaking in a lavish meal with people who are HIV positive. If you would like to participate please call HIV Community Link Support Services at (403) 508-2734.
Mikiki, you’ve said that you ‘fight for the autonomy of sexual minorities’ (although, this is true of both of you and Jordan) can you talk about what this entails?
When I was living in Calgary in 2003, I worked for what is now the Calgary Sexual Health Network. Their current ED Pam Krause was my supervisor and really instilled in me the importance of honouring what is beautiful and sacred about queer communities and experience. A lot of us who don’t or can’t access genetic families congregate later in the evening and that we can consider our ‘family’ time as sacred and worth defending as if we were spending time parenting kids.
This taught me to worry less about fitting ourselves into a mould of what we have been taught to see as normal or acceptable in how to configure one’s life, and to demand that others have the same ability to decide what their life, sexuality and gender look like.
Disclosure Cookbook challenges the politics and stigma that surrounds HIV, what motivated you both to become invested in this dialogue?
My HIV+ diagnosis reads to society as scientific proof that I did something ‘bad’ (read: have condomless sex at least once in my life) and thus am ‘paying for it’ by getting HIV. That’s total rubbish that has been downloaded onto us by generations of moralizing about illness, queerness, women’s sexualities, etc. In doing the kinds of anti-stigma work Jordan and I both do in and out of Disclosure Cookbook, we get to flip the script to say: I care enough about managing my health and my partners’ health by knowing my HIV status, in that I went to get an HIV test even though I knew there was a chance I’d get back information that carries a LOT of stigma. I would say that is the epitome of responsible, wouldn’t you?
Both of you are bicultural artists, advocates, and drag performers, how do these diverse roles intersect and play out in your daily lives?
Jordan and I have been dragoons collectively for over 30 years and that started with both of us hosting political fundraisers and cabarets within the radical queer scene. We are a different breed of ‘stunt queen’, hahahaha. We are still very committed to the RealPolitik of drag in the current Ru-niverse, which tries its hardest to suck any of the REAL JOY of political drag from its bleached, boney catwalk. Disclosure Cookbook is a place where we don’t have to check any part of ourselves at the door, whether that be our cultural histories, gender expression(s), sero-status. I went to art-school when I was still a baby anarchist in the late 90’s and took video art and performance classes. There learned of the amazing histories of Indigenous Artists, Queers, POC, and Women taking hold of these new ‘Art’ media without the baggage of centuries of ‘Man Art History’ in their way. So there’s a solid tradition we situate ourselves within.
Privacy is not common in life or in art, yet your performance for the M:ST 9 Biennial is closed to the public, why is this an important factor in this artwork?
Being Queens, we are obviously obsessed with aesthetics, opulence and frivolity, but I think right now is an important time to question that. Late-Stage Capitalism and income disparity are things that we both think a lot about and these are issues that also affect us and our community of HIV+ folks.
So in that regard, we still want to make something so luscious and decadent and over-the-top, but both in terms of economies of scale (teaching some of the cooking techniques to collaborators and learning theirs!) and the desired affect of the experience – it’s so much more meaningful when it is a smaller, closed group. And of course HIV stigma is still real and deleterious – and bringing negative people into our space can be dangerous, and excludes folks who are unable to be out about their status.
This project also treats the participants as collaborators, how do you help create an environment of intimacy and trust in these situations?
We both have work histories in social services, with young people, people who use drugs, are homeless, are LGBT2Q, and through this work we know how to create and hold space, to build a culture of inclusion and consent within a temporary community.
Some of it is as simple as building a framework together for how we expect to treat each other while working, or asking questions and allowing for silence as people think about how to answer, or how much room they can take up with their voice and story.
What writers and thinkers are you invested in?
Claire Bishop who writes beautifully about authorship and autonomy in collaborative and social practice and Grant Kester’s A Critical Framework for Dialogical Practices; Douglas Crimp, D.A. Miller, Susan Sontag and the AIDS Activist History Project for thinking about HIV/AIDS; The Nourishing Arts by Luce Giard, Prune cookbook by Gabrielle Hamilton for talking about domestic and commercial labour within the kitchen respectively and many conversations with the brilliant Mark Clintberg who teaches art history at Alberta College of Art & Design (ACAD); and No Future by Lee Edelman in relation to nihilism and queer accountability. Because all we have is each other, right now so let’s eat!
Image: Cloud Ascension, 2014. Photo by Malin Enström.
In anticipation of the M:ST 9 Biennial, an abridged version of this interview was published in freq. magazine and is accessible here.
Adriana Disman is a performance art maker, thinker, and organizer from Toronto and Montreal, currently living in London, UK. She will be in Calgary for the M:ST Performance Art Biennial from October 2-7, performing at Theatre Junction Grand, Saturday October 6. She will also be teaching a workshop titled SEARCH ENGINES with Didier Morelli at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge from September 28-30. To sign-up e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those who have not yet encountered your work, what does it typically look like and what are its ambitions and concerns?
My current work is usually minimal, repetitive, and slow. Small gestures, stretched. As when I balance on an edge for as long as I’m able, or repeatedly heat a kettle with my palm against it. Gestures that use banal objects from my daily life and try to create sensitive relationships with them.
The most ambitious ambition of my work is to create moments of livability. I understand the world-at-hand (“world” being a description of all matters affecting each other) as one that attempts to eradicate most ways of being that I care about. Survival right now is linked to things like producing, owning, individualism/scarcity thinking, and competition. I do not want to survive through these modes. But dreaming otherwise is challenging since everything I’ve been taught runs so bone deep. Performance is a place in which I think it can be possible to follow other logics than those provided. Simple but fucking radical. I don’t think we can be “free” but I think we can be “free-er.”
You once wrote that ‘the love of my life is performance art,’ could you tell us more about why performance art is your medium?
Because it holds what I need held.
It’s the only place I’ve found where the limits I want to explore are willingly held by others. By organizers and curators and colleagues and witnesses. In a profound generosity. Sometimes I’m able to articulate almost nothing about what I’ll do before I do it and yet people commit to supporting my work or show up to see it. This is a step beyond generous and includes faith. Sometimes it’s a faith built on my previous body of work (and joined with a wild recklessness), but that’s still faith. I am in awe of these optimistic performance art organizers and witnesses who still keep showing up. It’s something particular about a field where (especially here in Canada) there isn’t really the possibility of “making it big.” This faith-based, generosity of engagement that’s seeded in the work, this immanent engagement with each other’s practices, this is what I value in performance art.
I also deeply value that performance art audiences are (often) willing to witness difficult work. I am not very interested in making entertaining work and this field is one in which that can be received.
Your performances often comment upon ‘quotidian violence’ by portraying a rupture or a breaking point, often through moments of potential or actualized self-wounding. What is the relationship between this type of violence and these performative actions?
So much of the ways in which larger systems of power violently organize our bodies happens on a daily basis. These daily violences are ways in which we are kept in line. Their very regularity often makes them unseen, invisible. They create a kind of unspectacular banal suffering. Some people will experience more of these violences than others. They can build up. They can take their toll. Common coercions.
These systems of common coercion become visible at moments of rupture.
Under some logics these ruptures do not hold sense, for example logics offered by unequal systems of power often attempt to maintain the invisibility of those violences. Thus creating moments of rupture as “crazy.” It’s not crazy to break under the weight. It might seem crazy to watch another break if you yourself are in a position where you do not feel the weight. It might seem crazy to break if you are told that the weight you bear is not weight, there’s no weight there, there’s nothing there. This is to say that those who bear intersecting oppressions, often rooted in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, meaning those at whose cost others are able to benefit through larger systems of power, often experience first an invisiblizing of their suffering through a making-common and then, should they rupture, through a making-crazy.
My performance practice is a dedication to making visible these daily, unspectacular sufferings. A making sense of the rupture. Sometimes I do this by physically inhabiting the wounds—marking my skin, drawing my blood—as a way to refuse to allow these moments to go unnoticed. I have been told over and over again that a racist comment was “just a joke” or that a sexist action was “just how things are.”
You cannot look at this wound and tell me it is not a wound. And you cannot stop me from doing this with my body because it is mine and I have the will to access all of it, from the flesh through the blood right down to the bone.
I hope that one day I will feel that I possess my body wholly and that it is not continually monopolized by different powers. For now it is an aspiration.
A performance artist rarely works inside a studio, can you tell us a bit about your artistic process? How do you make new work?
In different periods, I make new work in different ways. Sometimes it is an articulation of a question that cannot be asked in words. My studio practice is very funny: I sit and stare. Ideally out a window but if that’s not possible, an empty-ish wall or corner will do (high ceilings help me think better). In the winter I take baths and let my mind wander. Sleeping is an integral part of my practice—when my mind starts to whirl around a problem, I take a nap and just before I fall asleep I usually find an answer. Much of it is relaxing the body so that the mind can make links it doesn’t otherwise allow itself to. Tostay flexible but in my integrity is the goal.
How would you describe the relationship between performer and audience member during your performances? How could a spectator prepare themselves for witnessing performance art?
I don’t think it’s possible to describe in a general way those relationships since they are so deeply specific to the time/space of a particular performance. I can say, though, that I always attempt to relate to witnesses of my work with respect, generosity, and thoughtfulness. I imagine those who witness my work as incredibly smart and sensitive. I try to make work that is like a hand, palm up, gently opening. Offering the witness to move towards the work and meet it as closely as they wish. Or just as easily to turn away if they like.
To prepare to see my work, I would wish for those witnessing to remember that I choose to do these acts, and that when it comes to self-wounding, my choice changes these gestures drastically. I would wish for curiosity, heartfulness, and generosity along with criticality, holding me to account, and (oh! the ideals!) interesting exchange about the work after it has settled.
But we all have bad days and we all perform and witness from where we are, how we can. And this is fine. Humans are very human.
What thinkers and writers are you invested in?
Presently, I’ve been doing thinking about some specific works by my performance art colleagues, including pieces by Rachel Echenberg, Shannon Cochrane, and John Boyle-Singfield. I’m also very influenced by the excellent thinking-making and doing-living of Panoply Performance Lab in NYC, Grüntaler9 in Berlin, and the collective of Marion Lessard.
I return to Sara Ahmed’s Willful Subjects and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts when it comes to theoretical style and the slipperiness of attending to logical identity (which, though never actually stable, we have to deal with because identity is how systems of power so often organize us). In terms of rigour and engagement in the work, I think of Anne Michael’s novel Fugitive Pieces and Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. My practice is very influenced by film and, since childhood, I watch and re-watch the work of Michael Haneke and the films of Joan Crawford.
1 Image: Swallow, performed at The Fonderie Darling, Montreal, QC in July 2017. Photo by Manoushka Larouche.
2 Image: Untitled mourning (dying and dying and dying), 2015, curated by Joel Mason. Photo by Christian Bujold.