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Vaginal Davis by John Vlautin
Vaginal Davis, 2002Photography John Vlautin

‘Drag terrorist’ Vaginal Davis on her life as a queer outsider artist

As her video work ‘The White To Be Angry’ shows in Chicago, the legendary performer reflects on whether the film’s commentary on America still rings true today

The godmother of queer outsider art, Vaginal Davis first exploded onto the punk performance scene in late 1970s’ LA and instantly made an impression: “People would always stare at me, so I figured I might as well just be on stage!” Informed by her German, Jewish, Mexican and French-Creole heritage and intersex identity, she’d create fictional characters or political punk bands that were “multi-racial and maxigendered”, transgressing the neat identity boxes that society tries to place us in. Moving between musician, performance artist, filmmaker, and drag artist, Davis’ practice can also be described as indefinable, slippery. 

In the 1980s, Davis was an integral part of the homocore movement – an international queer punk scene that later influenced the emergence of Riot Grrrl – with Davis making zines, low budget films and giving live poetry performances. She recorded a punk album with her band Pedro, Muriel & Esther (or PME) in Chicago in the mid-1990s called The White To Be Angry, and later decided to turn it into a video piece. The film, completed in 1999, is soundtracked by the album and sees Davis and her friends play comical and at times frightening American characters – from a serial killer to a far-right Angelino skinhead – who seem to comment on the state of the nation as a deranged and dangerous white supremacist culture. 

This week, “The White To Be Angry” will be shown at the Art Institute of Chicago as it enters the museum’s permanent collection. 30 years on from its creation, it feels as though not much about America has changed. Vaginal Davis will be performing alongside the screening, and a collection of her zines and music are also exhibited.

Below, we talk to the artist – famously described as a “drag terrorist” – about the film’s legacy.

For people who haven’t seen your famous 1999 work “The White To Be Angry”, can you explain more about it? 

Vaginal Davis: It was in the making for about three years because the way I worked was not low-budget but actually no budget – borrowing and stealing! I worked with people who pilfered equipment from more mainstream projects that they were working on, for their day jobs in the film industry. It took forever to make, even though it’s not a feature film, just a little short. It’s about 20 minutes and it was shot on hi8. I started it with my band PME as a live stage show where I’m sort of a drag king in male drag as a white supremacist militia person. The stage show led to The White To Be Angry album that was recorded by Steve Albini, then this experimental short film!

A lot of this film is a parody, but it also has a very serious subject matter. It’s a mixture of playful and political – is that important to you? 

Vaginal Davis: Well, I don’t believe in being dogmatic and didactic with the work that I do and I like to use a lot of whimsy and humour  because, you know, I think people tend to get it more when you don’t try to beat them with your point. A lot of my work does deal with very serious things – class, of course, that’s a major issue with the work I do, and race and gender – but also my work is kind of nuts because I come from the underground queer scene and that’s just how we did things!

How do you remember the “homocore” movement?

Vaginal Davis: Everyone from the 80s queercore movement, we all were in our own art or band projects. We made little underground movies in the old fashioned cut and paste, analog-style, with either Super 8 or video, in the cheapest way possible. This was before desktop publishing, and somehow the DIY work that we were doing at that time got around the world to people. It’s actually quite miraculous because these days to get things out there you need a power publicist! Social media didn’t exist then and all of us who were working with the queercore scene, we only knew one another through writing 20 to 40-page handwritten letters to each other in the various homocore cities, like LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, New York, London, and Paris. The first time that all of us actually met in the fleshy flesh was at a zine conference called SPEW, The Homographic Convergence in 1990 at Chicago’s Randolph Street Gallery. And now the film brings me back to Chicago to be part of the Art Institute permanent collection! For someone who’s sort of an outsider artist… Well, it’s a big deal for somebody like me. A funky, funky person like me!

This outsider status – you’ve always had that. But have you ever kind of had a moment where you could think about “selling out”? 

Vaginal Davis: Well, last year, I won this queer arts award – like a no strings attached cash art prize – and when they contacted me, I ignored it because I thought it was an internet scam! I said, “oh, the world doesn’t give prizes to people like me!” I thought that the only people who get awards are people who come from wealth and privilege. That’s how you make money – you come from a background of money, then it just perpetuates itself. That’s the status quo, the way of our world. 

So it’s really rare for someone like me to sort of sneak in through the back door and get some kind of attention. I didn’t get my first solo exhibition in New York until 2012, and that was for a non-profit gallery. I didn’t start getting commercial gallery representation until 2013, 2014. I never thought I’d have shows at museums and art fairs. But I guess if you don’t die, if you stick around as long as you can, it happens – you start having some kind of longevity. When I have a show people probably think, “Oh my god! She’s still alive?”

You left America for Berlin in 2005. Why?

Vaginal Davis: Yes I saw the writing on the wall early! In 2001 I was part of the CHEAP Collective in Berlin with our fearless leader Susanne Sachsse, the  German actress and director who founded it. I had a rent-controlled apartment in Korea Town in LA, but I lost it when the original owner’s husband came down with Alzheimer’s disease and she sold the building to an evil capitalist fascist insect and carpetbagger who wanted me out of the building as I was paying below-market rates. Susanne said, “why don’t you move here? If it doesn’t work out, move back!” And I didn’t because Berlin completely changed my life and because of how America has become with danger capitalism and whatnot. 

“Christeene and I share this Deep South heritage and people from the South are the ultimate freaks! Tennessee Williams was a freak, Eudora Welty was a freak” – Vaginal Davis

Do you feel like “The White To Be Angry” did some foreshadowing about that? 

Vaginal Davis: It was almost prophetic. It was. “The White To Be Angry” was dealing with race, class, injustice, social injustice, gender – all these things are addressed in my movie from, what, 21 years ago. And it’s still so relevant and so timely because prejudice and inequality are more so now. Because the USA is ruled by that aesthetically unappealing orange-coloured tetrarch, whose name I refuse to utter in polite society. And I think that explains the movie getting a second life.

The late theorist José Esteban Muñoz wrote a book called Disidentifications and I’m the cover girl of that book and it came out in 1999, the year of my movie. He wrote about how those of us outside the racial and sexual mainstream negotiate majority culture not by aligning ourselves with or against exclusionary modes of operating but rather by transforming our work to fit our own cultural purposes. That feels very true of the film now. So maybe I’m like this sort of newfangled soothsayer or something.

Muñoz came up with the term “terrorist drag” for you, is that right?  

Vaginal Davis: Yes, he coined that phrase. I’m always a little scared that when I’m at the airport, especially when I’m going to a country that’s authoritarian like the US, that they’ll look me up on my computer and they see the words “terrorist drag” and just will just focus on the terrorist part and lock me up and I’ll be stuck in Guantanamo or something. 

You probably don’t want to be stuck there in drag… 

Vaginal Davis: No, no, but maybe it would help me find a really hot husband. Maybe it would be a good thing!

What do you think of performance artists like Christeene, who the term “drag terrorist” has now been applied to?  

Vaginal Davis: I love Christeene. I opened up performance at Berghain recently with Christeene and Michele Lamy and Boychild. It was riotous! I’m not really a DJ – I don’t know how to do those fancy DJ things a real DJ can do. I just play the music that I like – I call it pop-punk slop with a focus on femme voices – and it’s always fun for me. I met Christeene through Rick Owens and Michele ten years ago. When Christine first came on the scene Rick and Michele asked me where could she perform so I hooked her up with a night called Pork at the infamous Berlin sex pub Ficken 3000 in KreuzKolln. Pork was one of Berlin’s most unapologetically sleazy queer spaces where public nudity and wilding was not only encouraged but nurtured!

Anyway, now Christeene is a huge, huge star and I think she’s truly a drag terrorist. I love it because it’s Southern. I have a Southern background because my mother is Black Creole. So Christeene and I share this Deep South heritage and people from the South are the ultimate freaks! Tennessee Williams was a freak, Eudora Welty was a freak. Carson Mccullers, oh my god, she was the ultimate outsider and freak! And Christeene completely, in the way she talks on stage, her persona, the sort of dirty white girl look, it all goes back to the origins of Southern Freak Culture.

Talking of freaky, can you tell me more about your painting work? 

Vaginal Davis: Yes! I have my make-up paintings! I don’t really paint with traditional materials, like I sort of paint on what I find. I am a big recycler, I paint like on old postcards and old pieces of stationery and business cards. I use discontinued make-up and kitchen and bathroom products and old medicine – when my mother died in 2000, I took her medicines and painted with them, her old tablets from migraine headaches – also Witch Hazel, coconut oil, lip stain, nail varnish. I’ve always painted, just to amuse myself. But it’s only within the last 10 years that I’ve been getting attention from my crazy paintings and art objects and sculpture pieces. I perform less now than I did. I came out of the club culture scene, but I’m a little too old to be performing at five o’clock in the morning in some club now. In the afternoon at a museum maybe...

What did that name “The White To Be Angry” mean to you in 1999? And what does it mean to you today?

Vaginal Davis: Well, it’s the same – I think it’s about the fear and hatred of all things femme. Tied into the fact that when you’re femme, you’re the bearer of sacred secrets, and people are fearful of that and that’s what propels all this gender violence and hatred in our world. I think the title “The White To Be Angry” enunciates that in my own select kind of way. And the white part, that’s about the racist aspect. That basic hatred of all things Other but also desire and wanting to know what you don’t understand. Wanting it but also wanting to destroy it. I think that’s where all this hate comes from.

“The White To Be Angry” is showing at Art Institute Chicago from February 1 to April 26