We Will All Howl: Antony Hegarty on the State of Transfeminism

“They announced two weeks ago that in the last 40 years, the number of wild animals has dropped by one-half, and we’re expecting a 50 to 70 percent extinction event of all species by the end of the century,” Antony Hegarty says. “I always think about those stories about the last bird, or the last of a species, when they’re calling out and they don’t have the other animal, the partner that can call back to them. The idea of the disappearing voice is very resonant for me. What hears a solitary voice. What responds to a solitary voice.”

These disquieting half-questions, which Antony mutters soothingly down the telephone, have fueled a great deal of her work in the last half-decade of her career. When, in 2008, she sang, “I’m gonna miss the birds/ Singing all their songs/ I’m gonna miss the wind/ Been kissing me so long,” the song itself — “Another World” — sounded like the world’s last breath. It embodied the most essential form of disappearance: apocalypse.

Given the statistic above, a list of goodbyes to the world’s simplest forms of beauty doesn’t seem farfetched. It’s for this reason that Antony’s art has become increasingly political in recent years, in protest of such an end. To combat this broad form of destruction, Antony has looked toward another broad idea: a societal shift toward archetypes of femininity. The larger goal is a matriarchal government.

On the heels of a large exhibit by Antony’s “Future Feminist” arts collective — which includes performance artists Kembra Pfahler and Johanna Constantine, the CocoRosie sisters, and others — at New York space The Hole, she has released Turning, a collaboration with video artist Charles Atlas. Turning isn’t a typical tour documentary, focusing on Antony’s songs, lyricism and performances only insomuch as they bolster the portraits of 13 women that accompanied her on tour in 2006. The women — both trans and cisgendered — stand atop individual spinning pedestals, their images broadcast on a screen behind the singer. “The image intuitively felt right, and for me it’s about seeking essence through the passage of time, like watching something on a potter’s wheel,” Hegarty says. “The way that everything extraneous sort of falls away and what you’re left with is an essence. I feel very compelled by this consolation of movement towards the feminine.”

The documentary shows that each night of the tour, Antony would give the participants a different, abstract prompt. One night, she told them to imagine the time they felt the most loved. Another, she told them, “If you’re tired, imagine that you’re already dead. That you’re just a skeleton. Let the wind be alive. The wind blowing through your bones.” But the last night of the tour, she was out of prompts. She said, “Tonight is your night. Step into your moment. That’s what we’re always trying to do, I guess.”

It’s fitting that the tour culminated without the need for a prompt, that the final non-prompt was a statement as simple as “Be.” “Be,” as women, that is. Society has a history of unproductively, often destructively gazing at women: the “male gaze” has reduced them to objects, to commodities. Turning does not wish to turn the gaze, but rather, to focus it. The project says, yes, stare. Pay attention, because the bodies that have for so long been the object of lust or derision are, in fact, what the world needs to be staring at in order to survive. The last of 13 tenets at the core of “Future Feminism” is that “the future is female.”

As I was writing this, it struck me as curious that just about all media coverage of Antony’s work has noted that she’s transgender, but has continued, however, to assume she aligned herself at least verbally with masculinity. “He” pervades most articles on Antony’s art and persona. It seemed odd that this would be preferred by the artist. Why, in stringently focusing her aesthetic and her politics on the female, would she maintain a verbal alliance to a male pronoun? I ended up emailing Antony to inquire.

“I leave it up to others to decide what pronoun to use,” she wrote back. “My closest friends and family use feminine pronouns for me. I have not mandated the press do one thing or another… In my personal life I prefer ‘she’. I think words are important. To call a person by their chosen gender is to honor their spirit, their life and contribution. ‘He’ is an invisible pronoun for me, it negates me.”