Katy Howe: Becoming Birdgirl
Throughout the week of the first CSM degree show, MA Fine Art student Katy Howe has performed “Becoming Birdgirl” twenty-eight times. Isolated under a heavy and exuberant wig made with fake blonde hair that covers her face completely, Katy is unaware of her audience and confined in the immediacy of her body. She directs the attention of the spectator’s gaze highlighting some elements — nails, shoes — in white. For her, these are “body interventions” or “body sculptures”, understood as “exaggerations of things that are fetishized about women’s bodies; they define limits because they limit what can be done whilst wearing them”.
The central prosthetic objects in her performance are a pair of quasi-surreal shoes with the foot en-point, which allude to animal hooves. A strong presence in her work is the idea of transparency, the act of revealing what happens with the material flesh under the gender-specific clothes and conventions when performing in the social scenario. During the performance Katy’s body, standing on a mirrored floor which constitutes the base for the installation, speaks a silent language of protest. The extreme difficulty to walk and the pain caused by the shoes strains every muscle, noticeable under her tights. We talk about fetish, fashion and gender.
“EXPECTATIONS ARE PLACED UPON US FROM A VERY YOUNG AGE, IN TERMS OF THE WAYS IN WHICH WE ARE EXPECTED TO BEHAVE IN ACCORDANCE WITH OUR GENDER, OUR AGE, OUR ETHNIC OR CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS ETC. THIS PERFORMANCE IS AIMING TO HIGHLIGHT AN ASPECT OF THIS.”
Your degree show work has the title “Becoming Birdgirl” and bird in slang stands for “young woman”. I wonder if your title echoes the well recognized quote by Simone de Beauvoir “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”?
Yes there is an echo of this in my title and there is also a strong allusion to the slang term “bird”. It is also a reference to my life as a dancer: I worked at the Moulin Rouge in Paris for a number of years wearing feathery costumes, along with the other dancers and we were all birdgirls, exotic desirous creatures. The notion of “becoming” is for me an important one, as it suggests that there are possibilities open to us all, or there could be, if only we open ourselves to them and allow them to happen.
From the very beginning of your performance, you build up a climate of tension and implicit protest: what do you want to provoke in the people looking at you?
Throughout the performance my body has to be in a state of high tension in order to make the very slow and deliberate movements and also for the act of balancing in the sculptural shoes. I am hoping to provoke a sense of the difficult struggle I am experiencing in maintaining my position, a difficulty that many of us may be able to relate to. I think for all of us in our everyday lives expectations are placed upon us from a very young age, in terms of the ways in which we are expected to behave in accordance with our gender, our age, our ethnic or cultural backgrounds etc. This performance is aiming to highlight an aspect of this.
How is the artist’s relationship with her own body during the time of the live performance? Do you find any conflicting points between the way you relate to your body during and after performing?
The performance is not only very uncomfortable physically but there is a real possibility of danger from the falling off the sculptural shoes, in which case I would break my ankle. Throughout the duration of the performance I must have very clear concentration. I also must trust my body and its muscles to remember everything I learned as a trained dancer and be very centred. I have to ignore the pain in my feet and ankles and try to make it look relatively effortless. Along with the soundtrack to the video (incorporated into the performance frame) and my movement inhibiting sculptural costumes, I would say that I experience a kind of zoning out, an almost meditative state where I am only concerned with the strength of my body and getting through the performance and I am not concerned with how I look. I almost feel invisible because I can’t see anything through my wig. When I stop and take the shoes and the wig off, I feel much more exposed, like I am me again.
“THERE IS NO ORIGINAL, ALL THAT WE DO IS A COPY OF A COPY OR A SIMULATION.”
Let’s talk about references; how do you research? Can for a Fine Arts student “raw” theory like academic books productively co-exist with visual references?
My work has a strong theoretical base, an eclectic visual one and to some extent an autobiographical one. From Judith Butler’s books, Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter and more recently Undoing Gender, I have looked at the ways in which our gendered behaviours are imposed upon us and “acted” out and the notion that there is no original, all that we do is a copy of a copy or a simulation. But I have also been interested in Rosi Braidotti’s Metamorphoses, where she discusses multiplicitous possibilities of “becoming”, something other than a simulation, where there are opportunities and freedoms to be had, other than what is initially imposed upon us or expected from us. My visual references come from the world around me and the things that I have experienced, fashion, music videos, and popular culture as well as the world of theatre and most predominantly dance, having been a professional dancer for twelve years. There is much well established theory with its base in early feminism continuing up to gender studies of the present day, surrounding the policing of women’s bodies through fashion, popular culture, art and dance and so for a Fine Art student or artist such as myself, this kind of raw theory only serves to strengthen my practice helping me put words to the things I am intrinsically aware of through my own daily experiences.
“THE FASHION INDUSTRY IS SELLING A PRODUCT, AND FETISHIZED OBJECTS CLEARLY SELL WELL FOR ALL SORTS OF COMPLEX REASONS. THE WAYS IN WHICH WOMEN’S BODIES AND THE CLOTHES THEY WEAR ARE FETISHIZED BY THE FASHION INDUSTRY, ARE DEEPLY INFLUENCED BY THE HEGEMONIC CULTURAL STRUCTURES THAT ARE CONTINUALLY PREVALENT, ALWAYS SHIFTING SLIGHTLY AND INFLUENCING US ALL CONSTANTLY.”
Extreme femininity is a signifier that belongs to nobody. During the performance you stay in strict silence, while wearing a wig that covers your face completely: the subjectivity of the character is erased. The following question might also arise: are we seeing a male in drag? A female?
This question “Are we seeing a male in drag? A female?” for me reiterates Butler’s assertion of how the ways in which we enact gender are copied and often exaggerated to greater or lesser degrees depending on the person or the situation. Sometimes I see men in drag who act out “woman” and they are enacting all the affected feminine actions, but sometimes I see women who act out these same actions to such extremes that they may almost be mistaken for being in drag themselves. They are acting out their gender and we all do to greater or lesser degrees. Equally we see men acting out certain manifestations of maleness to macho extremes and Drag Kings who are simulating these same macho tropes. So in answer, what you are seeing is one manifestation of how “woman” can be enacted regardless of it being a male in drag or a female.
In what way do you think the fashion industry collaborates (or not) in fetishizing objects that are actually subtle and exquisite elements of torture?
The fashion industry is selling what it believes people want to buy or is it in fact directly influencing the things that people want to buy? Of course it is, but it is difficult to know which comes first. The fashion industry is selling a product, and fetishized objects clearly sell well for all sorts of complex reasons. The ways in which women’s bodies and the clothes they wear are fetishized by the fashion industry, are deeply influenced by the hegemonic cultural structures that are continually prevalent, always shifting slightly and influencing us all constantly. These hegemonic structures always relate to a particular moment in time or the contemporary cultural climate. For instance, from the late 1990’s throughout the 2000’s with the rise of internet porn and table dancing clubs popping up on many high streets, the pornification of culture was translated into the clothes that were marketed to women in the form of stacked stilettos, hair extensions, fake nails etc. They were being sold an exaggerated version of femininity, one that was extremely controlling, physically uncomfortable and restrictive.
“IN MY WORK WHILST I AM USING MY BODY AS A SCULPTURAL OBJECT AND AS MY MEDIUM, I HAVE NO DESIRE TO BECOME AN OBJECT OF DEVOTION. IF ANYTHING I AM CRITIQUING THIS NOTION OF THE OBJECTIFIED BODY PUT ON A PEDESTAL, DISCIPLINED AND RESTRAINED INTO THE PERFECT SHAPE OF SUBMISSION.”
Do you think that the inhibition of a woman’s body movements caused by particular clothes suggests erotic fantasies which imply female passivity?
I most definitely think that this inhibition suggests not only erotic fantasies which imply female passivity, but imply in general a way of controlling female bodies. When I watch little girls playing next to little boys, I notice that when they are in complicated dresses with frills and bows and long hair falling in their eyes, they play differently to when they have jeans and sneakers and their hair out of the way. In jeans and sneakers they are less inhibited. This continues through to adulthood where girls and women are not only encouraged to wear more complicated skimpy, revealing clothes but also to spend a lot more time and money on hair, make-up etc. Throughout history we can see ways in which women’s bodies have very clearly been controlled, from Chinese foot binding techniques to corset wearing where women were constantly fainting from having their stays laced so tightly. They all imply passivity.
In Fetishism in fashion when talking about the “worshipping of the modified body” and the corset as a fetish object, Lidewij Edelkoort writes: “the body itself is trained and tortured to become the sculptural object of devotion…the disciplined body is restrained into the perfect shape of submission”. How would your work dialogue with this quote?
In my work whilst I am using my body as a sculptural object and as my medium, I have no desire to become an object of devotion. If anything I am critiquing this notion of the objectified body put on a pedestal, disciplined and restrained into the perfect shape of submission. However once more I harbour certain ambivalence in regard to this kind of objectification because as I already mentioned, having been a professional dancer I spent the early part of my life training hard and yes, sometimes torturing and restraining my own body for the sake of my art. So I suppose my work now is taking all of these things into consideration from the point of view of my own experiences.
Following this line, to what extent do you agree with the idea that clothes not only subliminally inform sexuality but also determine and construct it?
Clothes represent the part of the external image of our individual identities, the part that we show to the world. As soon as we become independent, we choose what we want to wear which in turn expresses something about us. Clothes and our external image are the surface, the interface between us and the people we interact with but it is inescapable that from as early as babyhood people are moulded into the “correct” gender model by amongst other things, the clothes their parents dress them in. So I would agree that clothes do subliminally inform sexuality but they do not necessarily determine and construct it, otherwise how would we account for the spectrum of different sexualities and gender non-conforming people that exist. There are other ways to be and clothes are not the only things that dictate this.
“I STILL THINK THERE IS A LONG WAY TO GO IN TERMS OF EQUALITY AND THAT A VERY LARGE PROPORTION OF SOCIETY NEVER EVEN QUESTION THE GENDER NORMS THAT SHAPE THEIR LIVES. THESE REPRESENT VERY RESTRICTIVE REGIMENS OF CONTROL THAT A LARGE SECTOR OF SOCIETY JUST ACCEPTS AS TRUTH.”
In what way have gender studies helped you in being able to analyse and put into words problems that still remain “natural”, “impossible to change” for a large sector of society?
In the last few years issues surrounding feminism and gender studies have thankfully come much more to the fore, bringing with it better understanding of the different parts of our society. Gender studies have put onto paper everything that I was always aware of while growing up and throughout my life so far. For me the limits of growing up as a girl were something I resented. I could see that there were double standards everywhere, that I was valued for my looks first and foremost and I felt that I didn’t necessarily fit into the heteronormative gender binary that our society is based upon. I still think there is a long way to go in terms of equality and that a very large proportion of society never even question the gender norms that shape their lives. These represent very restrictive regimens of control that a large sector of society just accepts as truth.
The V&A’s next summer exhibition will be about shoes, more specifically about how they inspire and provoke both agony and pleasure. Your work is to some extent the reverse of the discourse in which, for instance stilettos appear as empowering for women.
I am looking forward to seeing this particular V&A summer exhibition because I have always loved shoes. I have an ambivalent attitude towards the idea that wearing stilettos is empowering. Stilettos are both a desirous object for me and a repellent one. I love the look of them, the smell of the new leather, the style of a beautiful shoe, the anticipation of wearing them, becoming taller than I already am. I am fascinated by the way in which they force you to change your posture and adjust your step length. I also know the pain of spending long periods of time in a pair of high stilettos, walking in them, dancing in them, followed by the moment of relief when you take them off and then the throbbing in the balls of your feet while they recover. They are a perfect demonstration of agony and pleasure. I think my ambivalence is illustrated in my performance.