The multi-hyphenate performance artist speaks to Shon Faye, Dazed’s LGBTQ editor-at-large, about their new show BURGERZ
In a relatively short period of time, Travis Alabanza has become one of the most eminent young performance artists in the queer arts scene here in the UK and abroad. As the youngest ever leader of an Artist-in-Residence Workshop at the Tate, their career has been shaped both by an industrious attitude to touring – having performed at over 200 venues in Europe and the US – and by critically acclaimed performances in larger productions, such as Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. A self-published book of poetry about their experiences, Before I step Outside (you love me), and a TED talk praised by Laverne Cox, have also made them a well known – if slightly reluctant – ‘voice’ on trans issues. Unsurprisingly, this is an arena which has also, at times, attracted brutal press attention.
Now, Alabanza is launching their first full-length show, BURGERZ, at Hackney Showroom. Travis spoke to Dazed about what to expect from the show, and their hopes for its impact in the ongoing conversation about gender and violence.
Shon Faye: How would you describe BURGERZ?
Travis Alabanza: For me, BURGERZ is the first show of this scale. It has the same name as an earlier manifestation I performed two years ago, but it’s very different. The show was called BURGERZ because in April 2016, someone threw a burger at me on Waterloo Bridge in broad daylight, and called me a tranny. Since then, I recorded myself in public for seven months. With my phone, with my diary, (I) videoed what was happening to me. Originally, I wanted to relay this to the audience. But since then, I’ve toured the world and performed, and I think I’m done with trauma. We only see trans people on stage relaying trauma, and it’s always about the ‘I’. So BURGERZ is now more about the 100 people who saw the burger being thrown at me doing nothing. What happens when you have 100 people in a theatre – what does it take for someone to do something in that room?
Shon Faye: Do I smell audience participation?
Travis Alabanza: Without any spoilers, we’re definitely interested in flipping round the idea of who is performing in the show. And who is performing generally – because trans people are so often told we’re just performing, as a way to invalidate us. In the past two years there’s been a huge explosion in trans theatre, and I also think people have become desensitised to hearing about trans violence. So in this show I’m keen to not have it talked about as something ‘going on over there’ but for us to look at what’s going on right now, in the room.
Shon Faye: There are studies into social justice issues and polarisation – especially online – that show there is in fact an empathy gap. The more people ask for empathy, sometimes the colder and more insensitive responses become. Do you hope live performance can bridge that?
Travis Alabanza: Well, compared to a few years ago, I now have done performances where I see journalists taking notes in the audience. I get stalked online by people looking for things to screenshot and repost (in transphobic posts). But I realised I’m already censoring myself in public, censoring myself online – do I censor myself in the one place I’ve always felt free: on stage? So I’ve gone the other way, and here’s where I hope I can really push some buttons and go further than I can elsewhere. If we can’t do it on stage, where can we?
Shon Faye: I’ve seen you grumble about being introduced as your Instagram handle at arts events.
Travis Alabanza: (Laughs) Yeah.
Shon Faye: I guess that’s because you see it as cheap in some way? Because another thing we’ve seen the rise of in trans subcultures is the rise of what I call the ‘Instagram Activist’.
Travis Alabanza: (Wincing and making dry retching noises) Okay. Sorry, I started complaining before you finished the question.
Shon Faye: Well, you kind of answered it. I was wondering how you feel being perceived as that? It’s certainly something you do get perceived as – even if you want to be perceived purely as an artist, surely it’s good for profile-raising?
Travis Alabanza: Well, my mum is pleased I’m doing something other than selfies! With this show, having the Instagram following – it’s a tool to get the exact people in the room who wouldn’t normally come to theatre. A lot of people in the art world have used my online platforms as a way to discredit the legitimacy of my work. So for a while, I was trying to distance myself – but now I’m like, ‘Let’s troll with this, let’s use it’. And let’s be real, the theatre world is dead! Lots of people see it as boring! It needs a relax in form.
Shon Faye: The US campus performance circuit tour is wild, right? It looks like the American colleges just have money to throw at getting in these speakers and performers – often from marginalised backgrounds or groups – but then they’re performing in the most bourgeois and the whitest of contexts. How did you find that?
Travis Alabanza: Yeah, they call it ‘the circuit’. And sometimes it does feel like people are primed to applaud me based on my identity and not actually listening to what I have to say. But that’s, again, why I focus on the performance. It’s easy to become inauthentic otherwise. I live with three trans people and they’re a reminder to me about staying authentic.
“This is from a trans person, but this is about gender – something which is killing us all. It’s beyond trans and cis. Everyone’s implicated” – Travis Alabanza
Shon Faye: It’s so true that right now – being trans – there is a market for it in the arts. You can sell your gender identity in many of those spaces. But I think all the time about how it won’t last.
Travis Alabanza: I think about this too. In creating my new work I thought, ‘Well, they’re not going to care about us in two years.’ All that will be left is the archive. They care about us only in very restrictive ways – if you show too much personality, any ‘bash back’, anything that goes beyond (being a) docile and grateful trans person, you’re out. We can continue to balance on these lines of visibility, but they’ll eventually crash and fall. I take it where it’s helpful and ignore it most of the time.
Shon Faye: Yeah, and being transfeminine just fits into a wider issue with femininity and women in the media generally, in that it has an expiry date. I realise that I’m a 30-year-old trans woman; soon I’ll be too old for a lot of these people.
Travis Alabanza: Your prime time is nearly gone!
Shon Faye: Thank you! Are you worried about being tagged as a ‘trans artist’?
Travis Alabanza: I go back and forth. But with BURGERZ, this is from a trans person, but this is about gender – something which is killing us all. It’s beyond trans and cis. Everyone’s implicated. My daily life is so shaped by this, by the misunderstanding. To be non-conforming and trans and non-binary right now is to be misunderstood, and I will always make work which assists people to understand me. For me, this isn’t about trans or cis – it’s about failing. Failing at being a man or woman. Because that’s a wider conversation – failing at gender because you’re trans or because you’re fatter or darker.
Shon Faye: Do you think it’s more important to look at people with similar experiences of failure at gender than people with the same very narrow identity label as you?
Travis Alabanza: Yeah, sometimes I look at the women in my family and identify with the way they’re being misgendered due to their darkness, and identify with them much more than the white trans woman who shares the trans label with me.
Shon Faye: You speak often about how gender is racialised. In the UK, compared to the US, our trans community is very white. Its leading figures are mostly white. I think the LGBTQ+ community has begun to talk about racism amongst white gay men, but do you think white trans people examine their own whiteness either?
Travis Alabanza: People will mention “trans women of colour” in a nod to history and Stonewall, but beyond that, there just isn’t a consideration of people of colour’s political needs. A lot of our politics around trans people of colour are imported from the US too, there’s no UK specific context.
Shon Faye: Theatre audiences are notoriously white as well, so I assume you find yourself professionally in all white spaces a lot.
Travis Alabanza: Oh my God. All the time. The best thing about BURGERZ is people are coming for a gender show, and they’ll realise these things can’t be separated from race. I’m really enjoying, with the burger motif, that it includes mayonnaise – there’s a lot of jokes about white people you can go with down that route! A huge bottle of Hellmans and a mainly white audience! Humour is really important in this show. I’m looking forward to turning that on some of the people who follow me online looking for a really body posi, Namaste evening – let’s get harsh!
BURGERZ will run at Hackney Showroom from October 23 to November 3 – get tickets here