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.”

How has the metaphor behind the key “turning” image of Turning evolved since you started the project in 2004 for the Whitney Biennial?

It emerged over the course of the performance and even in the years since the performance, and kept taking more shape. I feel like I almost stumbled upon the form long before I had an idea of its ramifications. As the years have passed, I have been more able to put language around the curation of the models. Even if you look at the way people discuss [the project] in the press, most people can’t really get beyond one aspect of the curation. People have described them as “13 transgender models.”

Right, which is not the case. In the film, you talk about that — how Le Monde dubbed the Turning tour a “transsexual manifesto” in 2006.

How incomplete that vision is! The people are still doing it in the press because  — I think it’s a lot for people to take in. I’ve been collaborating with a group of women from Turning — who are some of my best friends — over the last three years on Future Feminism, which is where we thought to articulate our perspective. And it was the first time we really had the language. So it’s been really wonderful for me to bring the language of Future Feminism — now that we’ve started to clarify — back to Turning and to say that Turning represents the alchemy or the meeting point between transfeminism and Future Feminism. When we were first doing Turning, I knew I’d asked all of the powerful women I knew in New York to stand next to all these powerful trans icons and artists, but I didn’t have language to talk about why that was happening and no one could really put it together. We literally didn’t have the language yet in 2004. And now we’re in 2014.

Now the “You Are My Sister” video, which features similar imagery of both trans and cisgendered women slowly turning, is going to be playing in Times Square.

It’s the series they call Midnight Moment, which is an opportunity that they afford artists to show work in Times Square, each year. The theme this year is circling contemporary women’s issues in America. This year they chose to show “You Are My Sister,” which was actually a video for a single that I released nine years ago. And now it’s been deemed not just contemporary but kind of frontier and relevant in an American conversation. It would never have happened nine years ago. When we did Turning in 2004 for the Whitney Biennial, it was as underground as something could be. It was so intimate and it felt like something was being born. It felt so precious. For those images, a decade later, to be ricocheting through the billboards of Times Square, amidst all that advertising, swimming against the tide of all of that dominant culture — it’s a very exciting opportunity as an artist.

In that vein, have you been been keeping up with other widely disseminated depictions of transfeminism? Transparent, Laverne Cox’s plot on Orange Is the New Black

I have friends involved with both of them. Zackary Drucker was a part of casting for Transparent and I’m dear friends with her, and also my dear friend Gaby Hoffmann is acting in it. She’s a fantastic person, I just love her so much. And then Laverne Cox, who I’ve known for years — Laverne came up in the same scene as me. She lived in the building where my best friend Chloe [Dzubilo] used to live — Chloe, who was another trans activist who died in 2011, was kind of like my spirit mom in a way, and Laverne knew Chloe.

I’m so proud of Laverne. We’re really blessed to have her out there on the front lines, speaking as articulately and courageously as she does, giving so much language to daylight culture. Her second appearance on Katie Couric was a complete milestone. Laverne thanked Katie Couric for being teachable! It was such an incredible moment in American television. It’s just one of those really subtle moments when someone from the subculture can be the kind of spirit guide for the evolution of the nation. And that Katie Couric also had the courage and humility to be open to it. It was just so cool. It was my favorite thing to happen on TV in a million years.

Before the release of Turning, you put out Cut The World. In the video for the album’s title track, Willem Dafoe’s throat is slit and he bleeds out. What led you to finally make such a direct statement about patriarchy?

My sense of urgency has been compelling me to create work that has been more and more vigorous, less and less opaque, because the stakes are so high now. It kind of came from a Laurie Anderson song. She has an amazing song called “Only an Expert Can Deal With the Problem.” We all use that to disqualify ourselves from participating in the conversation about what’s going on in the world. But we’re expecting a collapse of the ecology, a collapse that we’ve never seen in our time on Earth as a species.

And my grandmother, who had a fifth grade education, knew exactly what was happening with the weather. In the early ’90s she told me she was going to have to knit sweaters for birds because they were forgetting to migrate. In her own way, she knew exactly what was happening. She wasn’t a NASA scientist, she hadn’t been gathering eco-data from the North Pole, or gathering samples of ice for the last 70 years in order to justify her intuition that the weather was changing. And it was this Future Feminist idea about trusting that every one of us, deep down, intuitively knows what’s going on.

Because as a part of the body of the Earth, we know what’s going on. On some level the Earth’s consciousness is our consciousness. And there’s this alienated point of view that we don’t have a right to participate or to give voice outside of our sphere of expertise. But as an artist, what am I supposed to be doing? Am I supposed to be creating pop music to provide fodder for, or a soundtrack to, people’s romantic lives? To help people believe in perfect love or whatever? You know what I mean? People are used to relying on my voice as a comforting voice, and I think that I’ve been using my singing voice and increasingly the imagery around my work in more challenging ways in the last few years. It was scary making the “Cut the World” video, I have to say. It frightened me, but sometimes I’m compelled to do the things that intimidate or frighten me. Because there’s power in them.

The second song on Cut the World, “Future Feminism,” is a speech in which you talk about the ideal of a feminine system of governance. Can you elaborate on how such a system might actually function? 

Many feminists see an essentialist idea of femininity as a threat to our equality as women to men. There’s been this fallacy that we’ve had to put forward over the past fifty years that men and women are fundamentally, biologically the same and capable of making the same kinds of decisions. Because we’ve had to insist upon that in order for women to take a seat in governance. That Margaret Thatcher is as capable of being warlike as Ronald Reagan. But Margaret Thatcher is an example of a woman functioning within a male power system.

And globally, men and women organize themselves in different ways, and follow different patterns. Over and over again. The Feminist Party in Sweden, which is a really exciting new development, has been asking the same questions [as the Future Feminists], like saying, “We no longer want to participate in male systems, we want feminine systems, what do women look like when we organize governments? How do we do this differently?” These are really valuable questions because women naturally form circles instead of pyramids. It’s like a prehistoric formation that kind of emerges from the necessity of our biological role, like, on the savannah! We form a circle to protect children in the family. We form circles instead of hierarchies.

And it’s hierarchies that are running us into the ground. What’s very exciting for me is this idea of drawing on this other skillset, the un-utilized brilliance and skill of women. And the ways that women organize, and to turn these systems inside-out, and to ask legions of women, not just one woman, not just Hillary Clinton, but 80 percent of the government, fill 80 percent to 90 percent of the government with women. Ask female culture to guide us, not a male patriarch, but ask female culture what they would do differently. And I guarantee you, it would be the end of war. Because women don’t kill each other’s children. Women know the cost. If you ask a thousand women in Palestine and a thousand women in Israel what to do, the war would stop tomorrow. If you took a consensus amongst all women, the answer would different. It just would. And it’s a frightening proposal to a lot of men. They find that really intimidating. We’ve been depriving women. Women have been subjugated like cattle for thousands of year.

Sometimes it seems as if you store up the power in your music for wordless moments. On numerous tracks, at one point, you’ll disengage from lyrics and simply moan.

Everyone sings, and the first thing we do when we’re born is we cry out. And that cry contains the story of life. It contains that pain and joy, the ecstasy and despair, at times, of creation. And loneliness. When I’m crying out like that, it’s an opportunity for a journey for me. It can be quite spectral, especially when you’re performing in a big space and there’s a chasm that you’re giving into, that’s being observed by thousands of other people. It’s like a point of entry. It’s a way of engaging a kind of pure imagination. Everyone knows the sound of a baby’s cry, or the cry of a mother when a child dies. There are sounds that we make that are universal. In certain circumstances we will all howl, and crying out and singing with other people has been one of the main ways I’ve connected with the rest of humanity. I’m so grateful for that ability, to make sound, to call out.

This moaning style doesn’t just define your own work, but also your many collaborations. Is there one collaborative vocal session that you remember being particularly resonant? 

I think one of the longest collaborations I did was with Lou Reed, where in 2003 he brought me on tour around the world, and for the encore he’d bring me out to sing “Candy Says.” He was one of my best friends and mentors and he was very influential in helping me to establish a career. Every night he would play the guitar, and I would sing that song for him, and our spirits would kind of merge. He had a very specific way of playing the guitar.

People don’t talk about it, but his guitar playing was so crazy and amazing. He had like a claw. He would claw at the guitar, but it was so tender. His capacity for tenderness was so extreme. And if he wanted to, he could cradle you so gently while you sang, and I got to experience that with him hundreds of times, singing that song. It was probably the closest I’ve ever been to another musician. In terms of walking side-by-side. In song. Together. He was a tough guy, he was rough as well. If he was in a mood or wanted to veer off or didn’t feel like listening to me very closely, one night, I’d have to beg with my own voice, and it would be this give and take. It was so electric, wondering each night how deeply he would listen to me, wondering would he push me around, would he cradle me, how would it go? I always knew he loved me.

I’m also curious about your collaboration with Robert Wilson in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. You have an almost jerky freedom of movement in performance, but Robert Wilson’s all about bodily rigidity. How did that go?

It was really a relief. Because [the movement] wasn’t conscious. I think as a performer you want to be able to present yourself how you want to present yourself as opposed to feeling victimized by what you’re presenting. And I’ve actually credited Bob with helping me to finally learn how to stand still.

It was a relief to return to that, because it was something that I knew in my early twenties but lost track of. People liked watching me spasming and doing all sorts of weird shit on stage, but I always felt kind of out of control, so it was really wonderful for Bob to put that tight girdle on me and force me to stand still. I loved it! I won’t ever flinch and flicker again!