Masked and Unafraid: Narcissister On the Naked Choreography of Performance

Photo by  A.L. Steiner

Donning stripper clothes, wigs, breast plates, and a plastic mask, Brooklyn-based performance artist Narcissister dresses and undresses to use her own body as the narrative anchor for videos and staged works. Whether she is writhing to rock and roll, roughing up a sexual partner, or climbing on top of a self-flagellating sex machine as she does in her Self Gratifier short film, her movements are deliberate, precise, and with loaded meaning.

Always masked, her art practice is in making a production out of self—but don’t let the idea of the spectacle misguide you. Just because her theatrical performances teeter on the outlandish and comedic, they often explore themes of feminism, sexual liberation, race, and religion. She uses her lithe and bare form to animate cartoon-like pieces that make the personal embody the political.

Self Gratifier -- Excerpt from NARCISSISTER on Vimeo.

From an 18-headed Marie Antoinette character, to a 80s fitness queen mounting her Self Gratifier machine, the characters Narcissister acts out are women on a mission to divulge their full selves, unapologetically and without shame. Their personas are sharp-witted and command attention—and that's the point. As a performer, Narcissister gleans inspiration from 70s-era feminist artists like Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper, Carolee Schneeman, Valie Export, and Rebecca Horn. Her quick and calculated movements come from studying modern dance at Brown University and training at the Ailey School. 

Perhaps most impressively, Narcissister makes and sews all of her own costumes and props by hand. When she sets out to develop a narrative or persona, she culls from history and cultural references, crafts her sets, and then choreographs what she calls her “message.” She then either captures the skit on video or performs the act for audiences in academic or art institutions. Over the years, the artist has been invited to perform at global art fairs and museums like The Getty, The Hammer Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. 

I recently met Narcissister in person at the United States Artists assembly in Miami. In 2015, she was named a USA Ford fellow for theater and performance and will use the financial support to develop a feature-length film as Narcissister. Full disclosure: I knew going into the assembly that I wanted to sit down with the artist and ask her about her process. Her videos do a lot: make you laugh, make you feel vulnerable, make you want to talk about the importance of feminism, but most importantly, make you want more.

18 Heads Excerpt from NARCISSISTER on Vimeo.

The Creators Project: How do you label what you do?

Narcissister: I primarily call it performance art. To be honest, I wish I had a more precise term for what I'm doing. Yeah, when I'm talking to people in a very casual way, I say that I do movement-based performance works that involve elaborate costumes and props that I make by hand, and that the work is very political and talks about issues of race and gender and sexuality.

Where do you find your influences for your video work?

I have been looking at things for a long time. My parents were intellectuals and one of our regular family outings was to browse in bookstores. Just consuming visual culture is something that started from a very young age. Sometimes I'm amazed that when I’ve finished a piece I realize an image in one part of the piece, or one of the characters that I portray, I realize it is connected to something I had seen many, many years before. I just take from my personally ingested catalog of imagery and experiences. I also obviously look at a lot of visual art. I see a lot of performance and dance and I have for a long time, as I used to be a professional dancer. I get inspiration from music, I get inspiration from certain forms of graphic design, graphic art. Yeah, I love to go to thrift stores and sometimes objects or juxtapositions of objects inspire me. Fabric stores with all the colors and the textures.

Image courtesy of United States Artists

Does wearing a mask give you more freedom?

The mask for me is essential. I created this performance project knowing that I would be wearing a mask. At first, I was wearing different masks then I settled on this mask. The mask makes everything possible.

One of the things that is really striking is that your physical body is the canvas or the anchor to everything that we see.

I feel really excited to continue to do this project when I'm 80 or 90 years old and still have this mask. The juxtaposition of my body right now, the fleshy body with the plastic mask, I think is very interesting. I have a history as a professional dancer and I love that the mask asks me to be so incredibly expressive with my body, because many performers use their face and eyes as the primary or as the in tandem form of expression. The face shows excitement or sorrow or humor or transcendence, whatever it is. I don't have access to facial expressions with a mask, my body expresses everything, and I think that's wonderful to behold, that we don't necessarily need our faces to express.

Image courtesy the artist. 

How long does one of your short art videos take to create?

It's very fast. That's something that I like about my project, that in some ways, it's very un-fussy, as with the creation of my low-fi art videos. There's a lot of thought that goes into my concepts and my performance pieces are thoroughly rehearsed. In that way, my process is very fussy.

Who shoots your videos?

I often find a videographer on Craigslist. Not necessarily someone who is an art person. I like to think that the artistry is in my work, so I don't need a lot of artistry in the way that it's captured. Sometimes I edit with that person. Sometimes I just get my footage and then I edit with someone who I've done a lot of work with, like PJ Norman. In a day or two, I can finish one of those videos. Recently I have been shooting art videos as I travel. I had the opportunity to work with two great camera women: Sarah Lyon in Louisville and Joshua Tree, and Ava Porter in San Diego and LA. 

What do you say to people who label your work as purely sexual, or who are shocked by your naked body on screen?

I have a lot of comfort with nudity. Just showing a woman's naked body, that's a radical gesture and a step towards insisting on acceptance. I did a project supporting bare breastedness in New York City. This concept ”To bare one's breast," is a symbol of power and vulnerability in the best sense of the word, but we don't reserve that same right for women to bare their breasts. When women bare their breasts, it becomes this whole other thing about it being sexual or shameful or that it must have something with breastfeeding and motherhood. Again, I feel that just using my bare body in my work asks us to consider these different questions and these imbalances that are built into our everyday gender experience.

Image courtesy United States Artists

Is there a message you try to impart to your audience?

I would love to encourage other people, men and women, to find their own self-generated resources for empowerment or for radical self-expression or for healing. I know that I'm making very bold use of my body. I do feel comfortable with that. I have no shame around that. I'm not saying I don't have shame in general. I just don't have shame around using my body in my work. I think that comes across to people. I get the feeling that it inspires and it emboldens others to perhaps take some steps of their own to release any kind of shame or fear they have around their bodies.

Click here to learn more about Narcissister. 


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