Hyperexposure and vulnerability: Interview with Kris Grey

Kris Grey is a New York City based genderqueer artist whose work exists at the intersection of communication, activism, community building, storytelling, lecture, and studio production. Their performance Body Dialectic about a body becoming and about changing the binary systems of gender is going to be the last in the series of transfeminist events at this year’s festival and after their rehearsal we sat down to discuss transgender visibility, representation, body autonomy and different ways of addressing all of these issues in art and activism.

You took part in City of Women's public interventions in the form of transforming advertising billboards. What was your intervention?

It was very simple. When I was asked to do something with the festivals' blank advertising space I wanted to incorporate some of the topics from the show. I will actually soon produce a video piece where I'm doing the same thing [as in the intervention]: holding a book on my head in reference to the Victorian era girls in finishing schools who would do exercises in balancing a book on their heads to show they were able to move gracefully. It has a connotation of women learning how to be women and how to move. I'm very interested in how people move in public space under the influence of their surroundings. The public is also an inherently gendered space. It used to be the realm of the men and women were relegated to the domestic and the private. Public spaces are also the most policed. If you do anything a little bit different you run the risk of being stopped, arrested, harassed, or even becoming a victim of violence. So I’m quite interested in making works in the public space and for the intervention I used the book Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) because it’s  irreverently liked to the history of the transgender experience. In order to have access to hormone and surgery or even be deemed transgender you have to get a mental diagnosis. This is interesting because I don’t feel like I have “a mental illness” but what I’ve done to my body is seen through the lens of medicalization and pathology. In the intervention I stood with the book on my head and invited people to trace around me which created an echo of my body [on the empty billboard] and over time I slowly walked away from it and faced it. We disrupted the people walking and bicycling past. They noticed us but kept moving which is similar to how we experience difference. There was also an element of danger because of the moving bodies, bicycles, and motorbikes.

And there’s always an element of danger in being visibly queer in public.

That’s true. I my show I talk a lot about passing because that’s an issue I think a great deal about. Everybody passes as something and when talking about gender we often forget people aren’t just read as a certain gender but also perceived on whether they seem able bodied or not. And because of the medicalization and pathologisation bodies that do not pass as able (due to young or old age, illness or different ability) are rejected from having access to the technology of change. The problem is that medicalization grants access but subjects you to medical violence that renders a healthy body as a sick one and makes it conform to certain standards. This is a very strong intersection of gender and ability but also race, class and sexuality. Trans activism is going to be stronger if we connect across these different identities and address the questionable medical system. The problem with [this system of pathologisation] is that we can’t just abolish it because that would take away our access to treatment. There is no simple fix.

I think a big part of why people find this kind of system necessary is gatekeeping and making sure no one “makes a wrong decision too fast”. But transition is not something one does for fun in the first place.

I often hear it called “cool” or “a phase” but you have to go to incredible lengths to do what you want with your body. It’s actually very similar to reproductive rights: you understand your body as your own but other forces are telling you what you can and cannot do with it when in reality everyone should have control over their body.

Even if you do want to change it for fun. People modify their bodies with procedures such a plastic surgery or tattoos all the time and gender shouldn’t be seen as such a sacred concept either.

Exactly. Tattoo is a permanent change and you don’t need a note from two different doctors in order to get it, you just have to be an adult. But gender is such a sacred concept because there are people who are benefitting a great deal from it and want to maintain their power. I see binary gender as a kind of power dynamic and in my work I try to demonstrate one way of disrupting it using the technique of vulnerability.

In activism there is a great division in how to dismantle this binary system of power, though. Are you more in favour of gender abolishment of just abolishing the binary and expanding the spectrum of gender?

There is a line in the show where I say “I’m not here to eradicate systems of gender, I’m here to elaborate on them”. It would be difficult for me to take up a position of wiping out gender and starting anew because some people feel very seeded in their gender, including trans people. I want to expand what’s available and what we see. When eight years ago I have asked the audience of my lectures who knew of a trans person there would be a couple of hands up and those people would mostly have heard of celebrity figures. When I ask the same question today every single person in the audience raises their hand because the trans issues have become a part of the daily discourse. The last time a trans person was a household name in the USA was in the 50s when Christin Jorgensen became the first famous transsexual.

However, the mainstream transgender representation is often criticised for prioritising wealthy, white, conventionally attractive binary trans people.

Yes, popular media and popular culture reduce trans issues to the least common denominator. They are very sensationalised and have the goal of selling things and I think visual art offers a different opportunity. The increased visibility brings about change because it gives people a touchstone but it doesn’t translate into safety for non-binary, visibly gender non-conforming people, and trans people of colour.

Mainstream transgender narrative is also very reductive and stays within the cisnormative perception in the name of accessibility. Gender theory on the hand manages to deconstruct that but is often inaccessible. Since your work is often very public-oriented how do you balance that? Does accessibility have to come at the price of distorting the content?

My answer to that is practice. My language and my ability to talk about myself have evolved right along with my understanding of my gender. The most difficult concept to grasp is also the simplest: everybody’s body is always changing and we’re constantly becoming. As a culture we’re obsessed with stories of change such as makeovers and even though all of our bodies are changing (we used to be children and we will shrink again when we age) that idea makes people feel unsafe. I think the fear of change might be based in the fear of death.

The mainstream perception of transgender issues also often reduces trans people to their bodies, objectifying, fetishising and pathologizing them. Since you also use your body a lot in your work I was wondering what strategies you use to subvert that kind of narrative?

My strategy is hyperexposure and making myself as vulnerable as humanly possible. There is no difference and no separation between my work and my daily life. I use my body as an object not unlike other sculptural material but I try to cast a net as wide as possible and use all the available opportunities to agitate conversation about the idea of the gender binary: I do individual work about my own stories, I collaborate with other artists, talk about power and authority based on perceptions of gender, some of my work involves a lot of explaining and text, and some is completely silent and only operates with images. I want to avoid the risk of people leaving my show thinking “well now I know what trans people are about” because it’s impossible to represent a self in front of others yet alone a movement or identity in a singular body. We need to elaborate on different transgender people’s stories because the more we see the more we can be. This is a sort of a tagline of my show: you can’t be what you can’t see. There are different ways of approaching visibility and change but we must change.

Ada Černoša

Related project: 
Body Dialectic