“When We Collaborate, We Only Strengthen”
Cassils in conversation with Lennart Salek Nejad
Within the accompanying programme of Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography, the gender non-conforming, transmasculine artist Cassils held a lecture in which they shed light on the background of their artistic practice. In a conversation with Lennart Salek Nejad, Education Fellow at the Gropius Bau, they elaborate their thoughts on the employment of their own body as material in their works, spanning performance, film, sound, sculpture and photography. At the core of these body-centred interventions lies an investigation of historical and present oppressive contexts in which LGBTQI+ communities are forced to navigate their lives.
Lennart Salek Nejad: Could you explain where your interest in employing your own body as an art medium originates from?
Cassils: My interest comes from a long lineage of artists who have worked with their own bodies beforehand. I went to study at Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (NSCAD), Halifax, which was strongly influenced by a conceptual, Marxist ideology, and had introduced me to a heavy diet of conceptualist and feminist practices from the 1970s at a young age. It was really revolutionary to me as a young person that art didn’t have to just hang on walls and belong in institutions but can be something that is carried on your body and moved out into public space. I was, too, very much influenced by an internship at a non-profit archive of performance art called the Franklin Furnace Archive in New York City in my early twenties. My job was to digitalise the archival documentations of early works by Linda Montano, Karen Finley, Tehching Hsieh, Liza Lou, Robbie McCauley, Ana Mendieta, William T. Jones and many more, whose works are deeply important, but had yet to go online – and so I had this very amazing, unofficial education of performance’s legacy and history.
Lennart Salek Nejad: How would you describe your photographic series Time Lapse (2011) to our readers who have not been able to see it in person?
Cassils: Time Lapse is one part of a durational performance-based work called CUTS: A Traditional Sculpture, that I started in 2011. It developed through an invitation by the LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) to respond to their archive, including works by Lynda Benglis and Eleanor Antin, who were using their bodies in very different ways to speak about restrictions of gender. Antin’s CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (1972), in which she crash-dieted for several days and took photographs of her body from anatomical positions daily, particularly resonated with me. She replaced the typical marble or bronze medium of sculpture with a grid of 148 black and white self-portraits, analysing the male gaze in art history as well as the idea of a woman’s body, particularly its societal expectations and pressures to adhere to form. I began to think about similar sorts of codifications in relationship to binary representations of gender, which were collated in Time Lapse. In contrary to Antin, I decided to see how much I could grow the material of my body rather than wasting and starving myself. Hence, I trained with an expert, force-fed myself with a caloric intake of a 180-pound male athlete and underwent six weeks of steroids. I participated in this project for six months and took a daily photograph as my body changed. This project speaks to a fluidity in which one gender ends and the other begins to show the absurdity of the ways in which we hold on to delineations.
Lennart Salek Nejad: Was there something specifically liberating about the masculine physique that you acquired?
Cassils: For me this project stressed more the adherence to strict gender binaries and signifiers by miss-performing these signifiers, which is why I chose bodybuilding as opposed to just getting surgery. There’s a certain slippage that takes place, when you’re sort of “imperfectly” trying to occupy these spaces. Getting strong has a certain aspect of liberation to it and that’s something I’m familiar with since I’ve also been a professional athlete working with my body my entire life. However, the protocols that were in place to manifest the extremity of this “transition”, were in fact pretty oppressive. I couldn’t leave the city because I needed to be at my studio every day, I had to eat every three hours of a particular balance of macronutrients and had to undergo these grueling sort of training sessions.
Lennart Salek Nejad: Could you give an insight in how you position your practice in and against art institutions?
Cassils: In my life at different stages, I’ve had different relationships to structures of power and institutions. As one of the few trans artists over the course of my lifetime, having worked very hard to get here, I try to leverage my position when I can. There are limitations within the structures of institutions, but I really think it’s about finding like-minded people. It can be tempting to talk about these sorts of systems as hegemonic, but one thing I learned is – there are allies everywhere, and they’re at different levels of power.
When we collaborate, we only strengthen, we do not take away – it does not dilute, it only makes something more complicated and more beautiful.
Lennart Salek Nejad: In your latest project In Plain Sight you and performance artist rafa esparza collaborated with more than 80 artists and a multitude of different organisations. Could you tell us about your experiences?
Cassils: My dear friend rafa esparza and I developed the idea for In Plain Sight, a large collaborative work dedicated to the abolition of immigrant detention in the United States, which was launched on Independence Day in 2020. We hired sky typing planes and formed partnerships with 17 immigrant justice organisations. We didn’t want to make an artwork about immigration, we wanted to make an artwork that served the organisers and used our tactics as artists, our imagination, our ability to cut through the rhetoric to permeate the consciousness of the country. We’ve invited over 80 artists across many different disciplines and generations, who came from very diverse backgrounds, and we matched each artist with sites of historical relevance – detention centres, immigration courts and border lines – inviting them to write a phrase over the site in the sky. The writing was so large that each letter was the size of the Empire State Building, visible up to six miles in every direction. And we also created a hashtag that was attached to each phrase, which would drive viewers towards a website that we created called xmap.us. Here, you can enter your US zip code and it will tell you the closest detention center to where you live. There are detention centers in every single state in this country, not limited to the border – over 200 facilities that are active every day – often close to where you live. Our project also gave people the ability to donate to immigrant justice bond funds, so that we could help bond people out so they can fight their case on the outside. We really wanted to produce a large artwork that drew attention to the large problem, because many people in the United States didn’t know that this was in fact happening and that they were complicity funding these sites with their tax dollars.
I really think that it’s about thinking how we can, from our various nodes and places within those systems, work in solidarity, to reimagine the structure of systems. When we collaborate, we only strengthen, we do not take away – it does not dilute, it only makes something more complicated and more beautiful. And so, I think that there are ways to move within structures and ways to just not let structures anoint you. You can’t wait for people to give you an opportunity, especially when you’re from a minoritised subject position – you must create your own opportunity and show them how it’s done.