For December’s LADA Screens George Chakravarthi will present a single screen video of Barflies (2002). Originally a three-screen installation, the work which is performed by Chakravarthi offers representations of the different investments in femininities embodied by transvestites and cross-dressers, the pleasures, fears and dangers of being in public ‘en femme’ and the particular dialectic relationship they have with the heterosexual male.
The different styles of Maureen, Claire and Jasmine signify some of the variations found within feminine identities in the transvestite/cross-dressing communities. Barflies also highlights the specificity of TV/cross-dressers in relation to public, social spaces. Many women ‘born female’ do not feel comfortable alone in bars because of the threat of unwanted attention from heterosexual men. Being out in a social space such as a bar for most TV/cross-dressers is often celebrated as a triumph, where a mixture of fear and delight may be experienced through a public expression of one’s female self.
Recorded on telephone chat-lines, the soundtrack offers an intimate undercurrent to the unedited footage. Transvestites, transsexuals, cross-dressers and their seekers engage in conversation, which interlace the private, confessional and sexual.
Barflies has been screened at Site Gallery (Sheffield, 2002), Tate Modern (London, 2006) and was screened most recently for LADA’s Just Like A Woman programme for the City of Women Festival (Slovenia, 2013).
Barflies: An Afterword 16 years on…
In 2001, I filled out the application for a commission called ‘Shooting Live Artists’. The handwritten proposal was a hopeful attempt at continuing with my practice after graduation. It was a particularly testing time; my mother had died a year earlier. I postponed continuing with the MA I had just started at The Royal Academy of Arts and was living in a tiny room in a hostel, in north London. On a global scale, 9/11 had just occurred and the world had changed overnight. So, I was thrilled to receive a response from the Arts Council, showing interest but asking me to send a typed version of the proposal! The following months were the best in a long time. Things started to change in many ways; I was re-homed, had secured a place at The Royal College of Arts to finish my MA and I was commissioned to make Barflies!
Personally, I was going through a more ambivalent journey. I was, yet again, questioning my sexual and gender identity. I have found myself on this path at several points in my life, but something beautiful always emerges. This was reflected in my work as a student and this seemed to be a more important opportunity to continue down this path. I had been exposed to a few ‘tranny bars’ by now, which had given rise to several new thoughts and questions. Barflies, as with much of my work, is a reflection of that chapter in time.
Simply shot on a mini DV camera, wedged by the optics behind the bar between the upside-down spirits and above buckets of ice and lemon, the most difficult thing was to get venues to permit filming on their premises. The devastation of 9/11 meant that all public spaces were on high alert. Everyone, especially if you were brown, was treated with suspicion and blame. London was congested with security at every corner and the number of CCTV cameras seemed to double overnight. However, I was determined to make this work just as I had conceived it but had started to wonder about the possibilities. The conversations of rejection with bar managers and pub owners and the longer ones over details were frustrating, but I did manage to persuade a few in the end. Filming commenced having confirmed three specific types of venues. I secured a traditional English pub, a more modern bar and a bar/night club - all heterosexual social spaces in predominantly white areas.
The production was simple and straightforward. I would arrive dressed, with fully charged camera batteries and my assistant Mel. Having researched the space on previous visits, all decisions were already made about angles, the best space to use at the bar in terms of lighting (no extra lights or any other technical equipment were used). Mel would help me set up the camera while I was in position, press record when ready and sit at the far end of the bar to keep an eye on things. She would also give me a countdown of time using her hands when I casually glanced over at her during shooting. The mini DV tapes limited shots to 60 minutes long, so it was crucial not to waste any time once the camera had started rolling. Each screen is one hour long to make the triptych.
The exits were easy. I would get up and leave the bar (as seen) and Mel would turn the camera off, take it off the shelf and find me in a dark corner somewhere, emotional and exhausted. We would do this several times over weeks, sometimes it wouldn’t work; the bar would remain empty for hours, meaning we’d have to rewind the tape and start again or the alchemy of what I was trying to capture would just not manifest.
The soundtrack was recorded over the telephone using a pick-up, a tiny cable running from the landline handset to a music system and onto a cassette. I would call telephone chat-lines catering to ‘trannies’, CDs (crossdressers) and their ‘seekers’. The messages I listened to and the conversations I engaged in were predominantly sexual but sometimes confessional and moving. I was trying to make a piece of work which layered the visible (screen) and the invisible (voices) to reveal the external, public front and the private, internal complexities.
I don’t often look back at work once it’s complete and exhibited or ever try and recreate it whatever its success or response. However, having it screened and discussing it recently for LADA Screens has made me look at it and analyse it, sixteen years on…
It seems to me now that the piece is about many things, which shift and transform from screen to screen and frame to frame. Art is always received within present contexts, which is demonstrated by this work to reveal new and relevant insights. What comes forth now is the ambience of shame, conventional Western ideals of beauty and femininity, race and misogyny. I do not exclude my own, consequential contributions to these issues. I am a male artist, after all, and I created a dangerous piece of work in an impermanent feminine guise. However, those are just visible facts. I kept silent and overlooked my shame, my perceived lack of desirability buried deep within my psyche and as a queer person of colour, was insufficient and indifferent to my supposed male privilege. Essentially the work was not about me, it was about three distinct trans identities and the interactions that each of them experience. I had to remain masked about my ‘stuff’, as so often most POC artists do when making and presenting their work.
The three trans personas had names, Maureen, Claire and Jasmine. Maureen was mostly a transvestite, unapologetically masculine, Claire was a transsexual and Jasmine, somewhere in-between and somewhat larger in life and sexuality. Each one was based on individuals I had met or observed in niche bars and clubs. It was compelling to sketch and create these identities. They evolved through a number of stages and looks but versions all three types can still be found in underground trans spaces and fetish clubs.
What comes through Barflies now, in the context of the social media phenomenon, is the indiscriminate disclosure each frame and recorded conversation exemplifies. The oversharing, risking expressions of vulnerability and the spilling-out of our internalised worlds. All are a sure cry for what we are all seeking - connection and validation. Maureen, Jasmine and Claire ask to be seen, accepted or celebrated. One could perceive Barflies as an earlier, real-time attempt at interconnectivity, as experienced currently and commonly in social media interactions, though unlike and without the somewhat, remote safety our digital devices.
The dangers of course are elevated when putting yourself at centre stage in a physical space, as experienced while making the piece. The risks of humiliation, rejection and even violence are high. When I initially spoke about Maureen and her presence and expressions, I claimed that it was how I felt and that I really wasn’t performing. This is not entirely accurate. I did feel rejected and I was ridiculed but it was a performance of those emotions, not a reaction. The reaction to what I was feeling would have been inappropriate and uncomfortable for both me as the performer and the viewer, and perhaps dangerous for the instigator! For this particular work, a form of censorship had to take place in the given situation. Barflies was not only performed but also directed by me, as and when the action takes place. There is a continuous shift in my consciousness, from artist, performer, director, to the living person with specific histories and experiences.
Claire, the central figure in the tryptich is what I classify as a transsexual/transwoman. Being the most ‘acceptable’ of the three also meant having to make her conform to western, heterosexual stereotypes of attire and behaviour. She is not overtly sexual, feminine but not too feminine and friendly but reserved. Her acceptability was reinforced by the numerous positive interactions I had with males and females. Her vulnerability surging throughout at the danger of being ‘found out’. I enjoyed being Claire. She integrated easily, blending into the moving traffic of people. I sometimes became the backdrop of the piece and the punters more interesting. I experienced, in somewhat small but significant hits, the joys of connection, so much so that I was willing to give up my real identity and integrity.
The fetish for ‘trannies’, CDs (crossdressers) and transwomen is prevalent in our culture as evidenced in the soundtrack. My experience as Jasmine can further corroborate the fascination with ‘chicks with dicks’, a term commonly used in pornography and also used on the soundtrack. As Jasmine, I felt strangely empowered andvulnerable at the same time. The very high heels made me appear tall and imposing and gave me the bravado required to express this persona. I was brazen and sexually gleaming, which commanded attention and fear at the same time. Men behaved badly around me; pushy, insistent and competitive. Though this gave me a certain thrill and helped form the work, it also made me feel objectified and distrustful. This was perhaps the biggest insight into the heterosexual male psyche in the given space and context. I became compelled to bridge desirability and connection but had little success. The primal male gaze was too overbearing, there was little beyond or between surveillance and seduction and the danger of being caught out by it.
Barflies is also about race. Depending on the viewers’ experience and sensibility, it exposes micro-nuances about race and indeed offers other readings beyond what I uncover. Race was not at the fore of this work. I was interested in gendered social spaces and trans visibility. My race is visible and a given, and there is very little to add to the historic and existing discourses about race in this instance. However, it is important to highlight the othering of people of colour in predominantly white social spaces, as Claire, and what we are willing to give up for social acceptance, for example internalising our shame, as Maureen or as Jasmine, and struggle to connect beyond our appearance. Sadly, the sentiments of race are kept fuelled by each generation. It was 9/11 sixteen years ago and it is Donald Trump’s administration and Brexit now.