“Hotel California” plays at half speed as Cassandra Troyan and Rachel Ellison slow dance, one standing on the other’s feet. Classic Rock standard and childlike intimacy smash together, a song that emanates jukebox staleness slowed, almost unrecognizable, each guitar note seeping then dripping, as if from above, onto an embrace of feminine friendship. How would Don Henley interpret this? How do I?
Performance is an art of correspondences. Gesture with text. Image with song. Identity with conflicting identity, each new layer contorting the others, calling for reassessment. DADDY’S CAVE, the latest from performance duo TRAUMA DOG, attempts this non-hierarchical relationship between text, body, image, costume, sound. Honed while in residence this summer at Flying Object, Troyan and Ellison say the work starts with words, with each element then taking turns at center stage, overlapping contexts and superimposing signifiers. And as one moves through the chain of association, hopefully translation is lost, hopefully stereotypes seem nonsensical.
At one point, Ellison traces Troyan’s body on the wall, once with hands extended, once with hands behind her head, once with hands on hips. They step away, leaving the outline, an empty figure in three poses, a bevy of possible interpretations. In the hands extended, I see echoes of Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” a five hundred year old sketch that somehow still remains in the contemporary image bank. In the hands on hips, I see the power pose, also known as “The Wonder Woman.” Hands behind the head could read as someone under arrest, or as a pin-up, turning and winking. Each association gendered, all forming a cacophony of signifiers, every role at once.
– Patrick Gaughan
Patrick Gaughan: So while watching DADDY’S CAVE, I copied down the line, “Bros always make me feel not myself.” It’s something I feel all the time but rarely articulate so directly.
Rachel Ellison: I wrote that part. In March, I went to an old friend’s wedding and ran into someone I’d gone to summer camp with, and the whole weekend I couldn’t be myself. I didn’t know how to get back to it: nothing I said was right or funny or anything and I was so bewildered, and I knew it was his presence, that he was always this person in charge, and his goal is to perpetuate that. Anything that stands in its way, he’ll belittle it because it threatens his role, his security within the system. It’s not just about men either. Women are bros too.
Cassandra Troyan: It’s about bullying. I feel it too and I’m not even interested in straight men. When bros are watching me, say, at the gym, I know I’m performing, but at the same time, what sort of thing do I perform?
RE: And in a sense you want to perform, you want to intrigue them, to either please them or be bewildering to them, I find.
PG: How does that ‘pleasing’ or ‘bewildering’ enter the work? Is it an attempt to bewilder or is it more confrontational?
RE: I think it’s a more proactive call to break down the facade. It’s not a manual, but maybe it’s an invitation.
CT: I think that in many ways the performance is a kind of exercise in possibilities of thinking, how to negotiate a more fluid sense of gender. What would it mean to have these encounters with certain types of masculinity but to refuse those expectations?
PG: One way I think you rupture masculinity in DADDY’S CAVE is by coupling sound with gesture. You pair a masculine sound, like soldiers marching or helicopter blades rotating, (maybe those aren’t ‘masculine sounds’ per se, but I associate them with the military industrial complex, and therefore they’re masculine to me)-
PG: And then pair those sounds with a feminine action: the braiding of hair, etc, leaving the audience to parse out their dissonance. How do you construct those kinds of pairings?
CT: We have a reservoir of gestures.
RE: And we’ll go through them and we’ll often know, for instance, a female gesture goes here. Often, the best way to break down a gesture or a sound is to pair it with the thing that feels most opposite. The negative spaces.
CT: It’s about finding the antithesis of what our cumulative ideology is, and confront it with something. So there’s a trigger, such as the military industrial complex, and we’ll confront that violence with an extremely vulnerable action.
RE: But at the same time, it’s an action that’s part of the beauty industry or the way that you’re brought up. I was a nanny and I had to braid little girls’ hair. If I didn’t brush and braid their hair before they went to bed, the mom would go batshit. That’s another complex.
PG: The beauty industrial complex.
CT: Yeah, and it was interesting too that we had a friend who talked to us about how the performance itself as a kind of braiding. The monkey rolls. The suicides. Our bodies are crossing over each other perpetually.
RE: Unweaving and then weaving again.
Troyan: black Doc Martens, white tank, black pants, two-toned.
Ellison: pink and baby blue Asics, leopard print leotard.
PG: So there’s braiding of these dueling sexualities and then we have two of you live in the room. For the most part, you perform gestures in unison, yet your costuming is starkly different. How do the clothes relate to ‘roles?’
CT: Well, we have personas, or particular characters that we are performing-
PG: So you think of them as characters?
CT: Characters, but more a characterization of myself, through different stages.
RE: Yeah, I think that they’re each things we want to see ourselves as.
CT: Or have at one point. I’ve talked to Rachel about this, how in my teenage years, I identified more as a boy. I played sports and would wear a tie and dress shirt and bind my chest every day. For the performance, I’m thinking back to that time. And so if the ‘man cave’ is this place that protects masculinity, I’m trying to detourn it in a way where masculinity is present but not the stable normative.
RE: And I think it’s the same with the princess castle. My history is of a policed female body and going through ballet and believing I was a little chubby girl and I look back and maybe I wasn’t actually, but I formed this long time fear of ballet class. I’ve become much more comfortable with all of that, but I think the performance puts those two places, the man cave and the princess castle, in a room together and smashes them up against one another.
CT: And realizing what does it mean to have certain desires like femininity but also having desires for masculinity, and what kind of world can you create or attempt to live in if you want to inhabit both of those? How can you do that? And I think the space of performance allows that. I can do whatever I want. It’s really incredible the way in which, specifically in gender roles, how pervasive and how completely recognized they are. You don’t even have to BE consciously taught that, you’re just taught it every single moment from the moment you’re born. When we performed in Philly, CA Conrad read this poem where he says he was from the last generation before the ultrasound, and through all these terms of pregnancies you wouldn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. There would be a male and female name, “waiting for you at the end of the birth canal.” Now, from the moment you have a heartbeat, you’re designated as one or the other, until you make some extreme gesture (according to society) to go against that.
PG: So I recently saw this show about surveillance, a straightforward almost Michael Moore kind of piece, where the guy’s cracking these jokes, and then at the end he’s like, (deep, serious voice) “Isn’t it about time that we put a stop to all of this?” Blackout. And he gets a standing ovation, right? That’s one method of activism, and then there’s a way that leans much more on aesthetic choices. The activism is present, but the performer favors aesthetic choices over ‘the message.’ So how do you balance aesthetic choices with the activism?
RE: I just keep thinking about language, a language of gesture, and I think that our practice is about language and the codes that we live with. Everyday movements, everyday experiences.
CT: I have a more discrete political activism than Rachel: I do political work and this performance work, which both very much influence each other. I think a lot about “Can one exist without the other?” If I sometimes feel more drawn to politics, can I exist? And I think, in a way, I can’t, because I think this performative practice is so necessary for conceptualizing certain problems that I can’t do in any other way. I’m someone who thinks about and deals with language all the time, but I think it’s necessary for trying to build different ways of how we are in common with others.
PG: And I think you use popular music as a way to tap into that commonality. There’s a lot of music in your work, but it’s mutated. In DADDY’S CAVE, you play songs by Guns’N’Roses and the Eagles at half time, and in “Shame Dream,” it’s emo: Ben Gibbard and…
CT: Chris Carrabba.
PG: I couldn’t think of his name! The Dashboard Confessional guy. So emo is dealing with a certain kind of masculinity that maybe isn’t aware of its perspective towards women. There’s sensitivity, but they’re still treating women as love objects.
CT: Yeah, melancholia, because of the loss of the object.
RE: I think “Shame Dream” is about desire and those songs are, especially for us, the epitome of that longing and wanting and “feeling it.”
CT: When we re-sing them and strip the songs of their masculinity, they sound really fucked up, like an insane person, at least in terms of what they’re saying. It’s about feeling, but it’s also about obsession and possession and male entitlement. “I want you, why don’t you love meeeeeee (nasally voice).”
RE: Now I’m just thinking about the obsession, in general.
CT: What, like our obsession?
RE: Maybe I’m thinking of intensity of feeling.
CT: But it’s interesting to me because I don’t even think they’re that raw. It’s a performed raw. I’ve been to a Dashboard Confessional show.
RE: I’m not talking about him specifically, I’m talking about the kid listening to it. I’m talking about what the song wants, not what they actually are. Making “Shame Room,” we’d have these moments with those songs, driving around for hours screeeeaming that shit.
CT: It’s true.
RE: So there’s the possibility for those kind of moments in these things that could be seen as trite. We’d go through these bro’d or hipster’d out spots-
PG: (sings) “Breathe in for luck, Breathe in so deep…”
TRAUMA DOG, formerly known as JIMMYBROOKS, is a collaborative project between Rachel Ellison and Cassandra Troyan. Through performance, dance, and writing combined with spontaneity and play, they reconstruct the boundaries of female identity, pop culture, voyeurism, and spectatorship to formulate a heterogeneous subjectivity that seeks to create an identity out of the already present detritus of ever-fluctuating trends. Cassandra and Rachel reside in Chicago and met while attending the University of Chicago.
Rachel Ellison is an artist, writer and sculptor of experiences based in Chicago, Illinois. Her performance-based inquiry tracks the significance of gesture and fantasy in relation to a multiplicity of subjectivities through means of recontextualizing, re-performing and rethinking scenes of everyday life. Recent projects include Tru Touch: Spa of Guided Conversation (next showing at MCA Chicago May 2015), XXX DADDY’S CAVE XXX with TRAUMA DOG, hosting We’re All Dying Radio Hour: A Show About Care on Chicago’s WHPK 88.5 FM (the pride of the South Side) and ongoing posts via her Twitter handle @YesJewess. You can also find her at rachelellisonhappyforever.com.
Cassandra Troyan is writer, activist, organizer, ex-artist, and former college employee. Her work develops out of a deep curiosity for uncovering situations of trauma in the everyday, as she demarcates spaces for experience through exploration of myths, historical legacies, and cultural influence in site-specific projects as a means for re-organizing agency in the disorganization of daily life. She is the author of THRONE OF BLOOD(Solar Luxuriance), BLACKEN ME BLACKEN ME, GROWLED (Tiny Hardcore Press), KILL MANUAL (Artifice Books), and most recently HATRED OF WOMEN (Solar Luxuriance). Recent projects include: BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE, a collaboration with poet Johannes Göransson for MCA Chicago’s “Word Weekend”, a summer poetry curation at Fanzine, and she has curated the reading and performance series ARTIFICIAL EAR(formally EAR EATER) since 2010 in Chicago, IL.