my pisces lover, abstract and wild

Zebra Katz’s underground/high fashion hit ‘Ima Read’ is one of those music videos you never forget seeing for the first time. Over a dark, driving minimalist beat, Ojay Morgan’s sinister alterego details the many lessons he wants to teach the world in a pressing monotone, dressed cosily like the proverbial schoolteacher but marking papers with giant red Fs and staring down the camera like he’s trying to will himself into your nightmares. In empty corridors and library stacks we see twin “schoolgirls” dancing messily in their ski masks and lashing beaded braids, crashing into one another like drunken toddlers one minute, pulling the Shining stance the next. The whole scene is lit like an evening in custody. And amongst it all sits Njena Reddd Foxxx, petulant in her pleated schoolgirl skirt, wool cardigan, and knee-socks; smiling coquettishly and flipping her bunches while she promises to slice, dice, and ice that bitch she just doesn’t like. The song’s lyrics extrapolate the ball scene idea of “reading” — the great queen tradition of destroying someone else’s soul through pithy, painfully accurate putdowns — and Katz and Reddd Foxxx show their own hardy commitment to realness, carrying the concept through to absurdly academic lengths. ‘Ima give that bitch some knowledge, Ima take that bitch to college,’ he says. ‘It’s gon’ be cohesive,’ she says. ‘It’s gon’ be my thesis.’

I was lucky enough to catch them live not so long after the track began to gain traction, supporting Azealia Banks on her 2012 Fantasea tour, in a mindblowing performance that began in creeping leather bondage masks and fast became a high-energy exhibition of playfully vicious rap battles and floor exercises. A particular highlight was hearing the bemused crowd around me refer to Reddd Foxxx as Katz’s “dancer girl” as she chair-vogued her way Kit Kat Clublike through the set’s opening tracks, only to lose their shit when she grabbed hold of a mic of her own. Things have been a bit quiet on the music front for Njena since 2013’s wonderfully strange take-no-prisoners EP Needful Things — and sadly also on the twitter front since early this summer. But, trained at prestigious arts institute Cooper Union, she has been involved in exciting creative projects in other spheres, including a recent co-exhibition at Washington’s Smith Center (under her given surname Jarvis), and this mesmerising video collaboration with London fashion designer Kitty Joseph and Absolut Vodka (directed by Rohan Wadham) at the tail end of last year. Soundtracked by her own track ‘Watercolor’ — an uncharacteristically mellow paean to a long-distance lover, produced by Jepordise and built upon a Tom Brock sample — Reddd Foxxx models three bespoke looks — “drop”, “flow”, and “settle” — twisting and dipping her way through a series of subtle contortions, mimicking the dispersion of ink dye through water.

Taking inspiration from traditional Swedish glass crafts, every bottle of Absolut Originality has a drop of cobalt blue infused into its glass. This colouring technique has been used for centuries in hand-made art glass, but never before has it been applied to create four million original bottles. Added just as the molten glass goes into the mould at 1100°C, the drop of cobalt blue streams down inside the glass creating a unique streak of blue. At that temperature the cobalt is invisible, but as the glass cools off, a beautiful and unique blue infusion appears. (x)

Absolut is a brand with a really interesting advertising history. Originated by Madison Avenue art director Geoff Hayes in 1980, the company’s primary print campaign is by now the longest-running in advertising history, with over a thousand incarnations following a very specific format: bottle front and centre, two-word tag, first-word absolut(e). Through this repeated motif, the iconic bottle becomes something of a fond acquaintance, recurring in a seemingly inexhaustable series of visual gags that veer from heroic “straight man” stances to the bottle rendered as a kind of conspicuous secret agent character, peering out from behind its camouflage and sneaking around the tableau in the comic vein of an Inspector Clouseau or cartoon trickster. In a precursive move that, for better or worse, propelled the enmeshment of high art and high commerce, the company has also commissioned original works from over eight hundred artists throughout the years, beginning with Andy Warhol in 1986. But creative charm aside, the Swedish brand is one of very few famously known for its refined social consciousness. You’d have to be perilously naive to think they’re in it solely for the karma points, but nonetheless Absolut has been staunchly team lgbtq* since placing back cover advertisements in gay-interest periodicals The Advocate and After Dark back in 1981, long before it was considered anything other than brand marketing suicide to do so. However, the spare simplicity of Absolut’s flagship campaign proved a perfect vehicle for queer-friendly double-coding, with a series of meticulously constructed and magnificently executed ads that acted as commercial optical illusions, open to interpretation, and the appreciation of a wide variety of potential consumers.

1990_absolut_ad_copy Absolut-Vodka-Creative-Valentines-Day-Ad mistake marilyn appeal-green images pride
warhol-2 haring-2 pierregilles originalsscanoram...-hirst-2-16cbf95 absolut-bourgeois
Top: a selection of print ads since 1980. Bottom: Andy Warhol 1986; Keith Haring 1986; Pierre et Gilles 1993; Damien Hirst 1998; Louise Bourgeois 2003.

I’ve been listening to Njena quite a bit lately, and have found myself returning again and again to the Absolut clip. It really didn’t get the attention it deserved. So many commercial collaborations are woefully misjudged, but this really seems like the perfect meeting of minds and intentions. With an evident background in the ball voguing scene, not only did Reddd Foxxx come to prominence in the queer hip hop wave, but her lyrics play with the very same strain of double-coding as those early advertisements, trading in silly bitches, fishy girls, and mad queens — understandable in very different ways to very different audiences. (‘If you catched the clues you know what I mean.’) Recontextualised in this way, constant jocular references to her metaphorical anatomy — ‘bitches on my tip like a full time waiter’, ‘fuck that bitch, no vaseline’ — can also be read in a completely new, queer light. From music to installation to performance, the many strands of her creative work attend to the body as metaphor, the metaphor of the body, and it’s incredible here to watch her gender presentation transition from scene to scene through just small alterations in her hair, garb, and mannerisms.

The original edit is beautifully pacy, accentuating the flow between music, movement, fashion, and imagery, but I really wanted to take a closer look at what Reddd Foxxx was doing with her performance. Below is a selection of gifs I painstakingly grabbed from the video clip. Watching each scene out of context, it’s interesting to note that alongside the mimicry of her fluid movements, the jump-cuts on the swirling liquid scenes echo her popped poses and the stuck-record cycling of the track, creating an even more profound sense of cohesion. Let the automatic slideshow flow for an abridged, slowed-down version of the video, or hit pause and click through one by one to see just how stunningly well-constructed the whole thing is.

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nothing like the real thing

Based in Edinburgh and supported by Creative Scotland, Arika is a non-profit organisation staging experimental arts events across the UK, including an ongoing series of festivals in Glasgow exploring the intersection of multi-disciplinary artistic discourse and radical cultural politics. I was gutted to have to miss their last event, but this time around made only slight progress by scoring a late-release ticket to the closing discussion at south-side venue Tramway. Episode 6: Make a Way Out of No Way (named from the African American folk proverb, drawn from Isaiah 43:16) dedicated its weekend to exploring race, sex, sexuality, and gender as social categories versus the reality of lived experience, through a programme of music, film, and performance. Variously tired, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and overstimulated, the assembled panel pressed on through two hours of in-depth discussion on black identity and experience. An introductory point about the whitewashed, cis-centric narrative of the gay rights movement was perhaps most illuminating, as activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett cited the work of key trans activists of colour Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, firebrands of the Stonewall riots of 1969 now yearly commemorated internationally as Pride. Gossett is currently working on Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a documentary about the important work and friendship the two women shared, and spoke of the mistreatment they suffered as the gay power narrative gained traction; the commercialisation of the movement in their wake; how parades that once ended in public parks now make their way to public houses. This set the tone for much of the discussion ahead: pride and passion in the work being done, but frustration at the enduring widespread sociopolitical and economic hardship of people of colour; the selective solidarity displayed by certain sectors of the lgbtq* community; the minority status within the minority status. At times anecdotal, at times abstract, at times angry, the conversation was passed around the table like a pliant piece of clay, shaped and reshaped by each speaker according to their background, encompassing institutional oppression, gentrification, theology, and molecular biology. The sheer wealth, breadth, and depth of knowledge and experience in the room was dizzying.

The overall theme of the evening was “realness”: a phrase popularised in the mainstream by Jennie Livingston’s pivotal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, a chronicle of NYC’s drag ball scene as it ebbed towards the end of its Golden Age. Beginning with the queer masquerades of 1860s Harlem, ball culture reemerged in the 1920s and 30s with the “New Negro” movement, developing in the neighbourhood’s myriad jazz clubs and speakeasies, where black bohemians and white voyeurs flocked to see Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sing the blues for hot poppas and bulldaggers in their tops and tails. Navigating the Prohibition-era cultural clampdown, the Puerto Rican influx of the post-war years, and the heteronormative ideologies of the 1960s Black Power movement, the scene continued to thrive behind barred doors, centring around competitions of theatrical catwalking categories showcasing the looks, moves, style, and attitude of femmes and butches in turn. In the 70s and 80s, the competitive circuit developed into a house system, with membership based upon personality traits and biographical kinship, echoing the burgeoning street gang and hip hop crew cultures. Here, nominated house-mothers and -fathers preside over family-like collectives, providing guidance, tough love, and understanding to their drag children. Ensuring shelter and safety for generations of homeless, ostracised lgbtq* youth, this community structure became particularly important through the heights of the Western AIDS epidemic, with entrance fees to underage balls waived for the sake of a visit to the HIV testing booth, and safe sex information disseminated by house-parents and respected emcees. Always preoccupied with the luxe spectacle of it all, the ball scene fell headlong into the haute hypercapitalism of the late 80s and early 90s, with houses often named for luxe labels and brand-conscious “mopping” (shoplifting) fast becoming a vital skillset for any serious competitor. Icon Ayana Christian was another member of the Arika panel. ‘Have any of you ever owned a real designer bag?’ she asked. ‘Real genuine leather, with that little card inside?’ The language of luxury goods easily lends itself to the ballroom.

We’re born naked, the rest is drag. –RuPaul

Filmed over seven years, Livingston’s film is a part tender, part ribald portrait of a maligned community on the cusp of being co-opted by the zeitgeist. Greeted with rave reviews and a cull of festival awards, its release came hot on the heels of Madonna’s smash hit ‘Vogue‘, and captured the spirit of the identity politics era, in which every college kid worth their bottle of CKOne belonged to a grassroots activist group designed to their own personal sociopolitical specifications (talk about theatrical catwalking categories). It was around the same time that the whiter, gaucher, downtown Club Kids caused quite the stir on the daytime television talk-show circuit, and it’s fair to imagine that, for most viewers, sightings of a befeathered Pepper LaBeija and displays by voguing godfather Willi Ninja all folded into the same spectacle, selling a scandalising vision of a post-Warhol, pre-Giuliani New York City populated by drug-addled gender-bending cartoon hedonists. In fact, though the two cultures were central to lgbtq* history and the development of postmodernism, and though both grew from the outcast’s fetishisation of fame, fantasy, and fortune, each was deeply rooted in a very different musical and artistic tradition — garage-house and techno-house, disco and punk, glamour and the grotesque, sequins and sci-fi. Without casting aspersions upon the cultural importance of the Club Kids, the ball scene certainly engaged more directly with sociopolitical issues, offering a safe space for the city’s economically and societally disenfranchised to congregate, celebrate, and imagine themselves living a divergent life. Beyond self-expressive role-play, ballroom drag allowed anyone bold enough to step up on that stage to be ‘anything that you’re not, and might want to be — or might want to make fun of, in some cases’. Alongside femme/butch queen and dance rounds at any given ball were categories such as ‘executive realness’ and ‘banjee realness’, with walkers competing to sell themselves to the crowd and judges, to prove they might “pass” in public, as a member of the social sub-group of their choice.

Though many of Paris is Burning‘s stars met with a tragic fate, dying young or in mysterious circumstances, the houses live on, and the ball scene continues to thrive today, albeit in a largely google-unfriendly fashion. Besides the widespread international influence of vogue, the culture has trickled down through popular culture in manifold ways. While pop artists like Beyoncé, Ciara, and Willow Smith have paid homage in their lyrics and dance routines, acts such as Lady Gaga and the Scissor Sisters have been even more overt in their shout-outs. Perhaps the most overlooked torch-bearer of the ball scene was Sex and the City, whose scarlet-headed Stylist-in-Chief Patricia Field had the dubious honour of founding ‘the first white downtown house to walk the uptown balls‘. The influence is evident in Carrie’s commitment to dressing the part (#executiverealness), but the most pointed tip of the hat is in ‘The Real Me’ (402), in which she is called upon to work the catwalk (with disastrous results) before play-strutting around her bedroom to Cheryl Lynn’s ballroom anthem ‘Got to be Real‘ in the episode’s closing scene. Though RuPaul’s background is more Party Monster than Femme Queen, his disgustingly entertaining Drag Race brings the zany humour of the Club Kids together with the unique lexicon and house-mother warmth of the ballroom, borrowing the America’s Next Top Model format to create something of a drag renaissance in recent years. This revival has been compounded by a new wave of queer black artists eager to pay their respects, from fashion darling Zebra Katz of once-ubiquitous ‘Ima Read’ fame, whose live shows feature gimp masks and Njena Reddd Foxxx’s creepily slow-mo’d voguing, to provocative lyrical spitfire Azealia Banks, who mixes voguing and ball lingo with posthuman iconography and post-CK electroclash covers. Despite being one of many subcultures riddled with homophobia, the more mainstream strands of hip hop too seem to echo with the legacy of ballroom. Rap — which grew up in the Bronx before spreading to neighbouring Harlem — is another genre quite uniquely preoccupied with the notion of “realness”: being real, keeping it real, authenticity and legitimacy. As Andrew Marantz writes in a recent article for the New Yorker, examining how this theme has developed through rap’s history, ‘realness in hip-hop has a slippery definition, related to the everyday sense of the word but not synonymous with it.’ While Maranz details the various examples of respected rappers whose backgrounds didn’t quite align with the hood narrative they were selling (Rick Ross was a prison guard?!), the article is essentially an attack piece on Iggy Azalea’s brand of glossy, ebonics-driven pop hop, and concludes that ‘realness, for her, is just another hip hop tic … nothing about Azalea feels real, in any sense of the word.’ There’s absolutely no denying that Azalea is a deeply problematic artist, but what such articles fail to consider is that, despite being a Tupac fangirl, rap for her is more a mode of artistic expression than a dyed-in-the-wool lifestyle. First things first, she’s a performer, and her public persona is infused with drag ball culture, as shown by frequent social media references to being “beat” (done up in flawless make-up), and her sheer glee at being called ‘a great drag queen‘ by RuPaul. Taken in this context, as a pretty young white Australian woman who gets up on stage every night as a flawfree swaggering rap goddess with a deep south drawl, Iggy is the realest: is practising ballroom realness on a worldwide scale. Indeed, the drag ball scene has featured plenty of cis-PYTs through the years, and bald bombshell Amber Rose found her feet there as ‘Paris Karan’ long before she was Kanye’s most infamous ex (now going by ‘Muva Rosebud’ on the internet). Considering the widespread cultural narrative that Yeezy taught her everything she knows, it’s interesting to hear such a ballroom influence in his 2011 collaboration with Jay Z, ‘N*s in Paris’. So good it defies all superlatives, the track is both a celebration of the jetsetting life of the young, black and gifted in the twenty-first century, and an ode to the city of lights as a place of freedom and frivolity for African Americans since early in the twentieth. Through homonymic and homophonic wordplay the song operates on two levels, ripe for reappropriation by the ball scene. The opening ‘Hova’ shout-out — a reference to Jay’s “god of rap” moniker — is voiced in such a way that it could be the ball scene warcry ‘ovaaah’, bestowed upon only the most fabulous of queens. A comment on the disproportionate criticism and ridicule levied his way whenever he acts or even just speaks out on America’s racism, Kanye’s ‘doctors say I’m the illest / cos I’m suffering from realness’ also serves to meld the worlds of hip hop and ballroom, extolling his authenticity, his aesthetic, and his willingness to stick his head above the parapet in one fell swoop. ‘Ball so hard’ is a given. To top it all off, Kanye wears a leather skirt in the promo. Give Jay his due but there’s a reason everybody says that Ye changed the game, Heidi Slimane.

These are some of the thoughts I took into the Arika round-table. What I brought away was an understanding that realness is a far more complex, political concept than I’d realised, tightly woven with notions of safety, survival, and catharsis, rebelling against the hegemonic strictures of the world we live in. While in the media and common culture lgbtq* people of colour are ignored and invisiblised, paradoxically in public spheres they are highly spectaclised, unable simply to walk down the street without risking the wrath of bigots and law enforcement agencies. In their ballroom walk, competitors at once take control of this hypervisibility, basking in the spotlight, while living out a fantasy of blending, passing, getting out from under the glare. Realness mediates the idealised self, the “true” self, and “reality” as defined by our culture. In living out these fantasies onstage, competitors escape the persona thrust upon them by society and socialisation, not by rejecting the narrow categories but by subverting them, proving them as fictions. Nevertheless, they do buy into these fictions, enjoying a brief taste of the attached privileges not afforded to them in real life — affluence, respect, adoration of the masses. Through realness they finally do feel real; feel recognised as valid social beings. What I brought away was leading advocate and Legendary House-Father Michael Robertson Garçon’s call for fury; filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s words on rejecting the idea of ‘difference as a basis for pressure’; poet-educator Fred Moten thinking aloud on ‘difference without separation’ and asking sound tech to restart the track, this time from the top, ‘this is Aretha‘. In a poignant moment, theologian Charlene Sinclair talked of the strangeness and difficulty of always discussing racial issues ‘under the white gaze’ at such events; Moten replied ‘I don’t care who is looking — look on, white people.’ I’ve spent the past four days reading over my notes with about twenty-five tabs open at any one time. Next year I’ll be sure to book early.