A CONVERSATION BY JØRGEN CALLESEN AND EMMA MØLLER Copenhagen Photography Jackie Baier, Fabrizio Terrezza, Iben Mondrup, Jørgen Callesen, the Danish artist behind the un-categorisable performance figure Miss Fish, operates be- tween mainstream cultures, fine art worlds and subcultures in order to break down normative structures and exclusionary boundaries. His work in turn takes on a flexible format. ‘Half man, half woman, half fish’, Miss Fish, presents work as a solo-performer, the lead-sing- er in Miss Fish & The Drowners (a wave-punk band), a lecturer, host and much more. I sat down with Jørgen, August 21st 2014 to learn more about Miss Fish and her art activism. Emma Møller: What is Miss Fish? Jørgen Callesen: Miss Fish is a performance figure, which works with gender, identity and body aesthetics to challenge norms—the way we perceive each other as humans. Jacob Tekiela EM: How and why was Miss Fish created? JC: Miss Fish began in a radical queer art group in Copenhagen, a social network of people who were bored with mainstream and commercial culture. We were all tired of how a group of people that had been marginalized, that had fought for the right to be who they were outside of society’s norms suddenly themselves developed a set of norms and an identity that excluded others. A lot of new subcultures had developed — within the BDSM scene, within the transgender scene and they were more or less excluded from this new mainstream in LGBT culture. We wanted to oppose that and we did it by creating a manifesto where we said, we are strong because of our differences. Everything is allowed. Everybody who struggles with some kind of exclusion because of their gender identity is welcome. We don’t label people. We started to do events, and we developed this performance art nightclub for- mat where we produced music, did performances, and came up with shows that were completely different to what you normally saw in commercial LGBT entertainment. My first name was Frau Seltsam, which in English means ‘Miss Strange.’ In English, you say that there is something fishy about something you don’t understand. Later, I came up with the name Miss Fish and the concept ‘half man, half woman, half fish’ be- cause it doesn’t fit in any category; it’s absurd. It’s about how when you try to transcend your biological gender, you go into a space between reality and fiction where you develop a persona that is away from your biological gender, but maybe closer to your psychological gender. And this kind of spectrum is really, really interesting, and it’s filled with taboos. Now Miss Fish is breaking into the mainstream because I can and have used this character on television, in my rock band Miss Fish & The Drowners, in lectures, in official speeches, in demonstrations, etc. For example, when I talked to the Yugoslavia ambassador in Denmark about LGBT problems in Belgrade in 2003, it was as Miss Fish because that gives me a platform to speak from. EM: Where did your influences for the development of Miss Fish come from? JC: I have an academic background and I work with media arts. In media arts, you work with presence and you work with the representation of reality. These two poles between your physical-bound biological background and your persona, which is based on your psychological perception of yourself and others, can be related to this spectrum between reality and fiction. My own work is always on this spectrum between the materiality of things and what they represent, and how you navigate between them. This is also why my performances are gendered and not gendered. They are gendered because I work with three elements: man, woman, fish. But I bring in ‘the other’ in the sense that, like Wittgenstein says, if a lion could speak, I wouldn’t even understand what it would be saying, even if we have the same language. I don’t know what it is to be a lion, or do I? So, it’s also on this more philosophical linguistic level that I think my work functions. But Miss Fish also comes from pup- pet theatre. I studied puppet theatre in The Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Art in Berlin. And puppetry works with exactly this thing. You have a physical object in front of you that you see for what it is—its materiality. But the object can transform in front of you so it triggers your imagination and you have this oscillation be- tween fiction and reality. I also learnt a lot from Butoh. I trained with Kit Johnson, in Copenhagen. Butoh is a very generous art form in the sense that it is also activist-based. It’s counter culture, and quite controversial – Butoh always also had its underground. It had a breakthrough in the performance scene, especially New York; it influenced the whole west and dance scene. In Butoh you work with your body as a material and it is non-psychological, which I like. And it also becomes non-gendered; you have a material you can transform. Artistically for me it is very, very important that I know exactly when I’m dealing with a material reality, and I really try to articulate that. I have this body. I have my age. I have my biological gender. And then I have this ability to transform into different things, and that’s what I work with. EM: I understand that you consider Miss Fish art activism. JC: Yes! EM: Could you describe how your art is a form of activism? JC: As a performer I come from an activist background, but I also have an academic background, and I have some formal training. Art is political. The art activism is sort of professional acrobatics [laughs]. You need to be able to navigate in many different contexts. That is why it’s important that I one week can perform in a night club in Berlin, the next day at an underground queer performance tent at an anarchist vegan hardcore punk festival in Czech Republic, and then the following week I can be part of an established production in Denmark, then maybe I do a solo piece in a literature tent somewhere. I think art activism is concerned with the fact that you use your abilities as an artist to express yourself in many different contexts and you use them for many different purposes. This autumn I have a performance piece at a gallery opening with an oil painter and I see it as an opportunity for me to develop some very subtle, very refined, highly aesthetic aspects of Miss Fish. But I also like to bring these aesthetics into squats, which I did in Berlin at Köpi. EM: Could you elaborate? JC: Köpi is one of Germany’s biggest squats, but the anarchist scene has realized that it is quite heteronormative. So, every year they give their performance space to a queer group that organizes Queer Gala. I came in with a performance piece called ‘Skin Amnesia’ [developed in collaboration with musician Prafix Aztech]. We wanted to do something different; we came in with a choreographed piece based on the sensation of skin. Our subtext was, if the skin had a memory that was shut off from the brain, what story would it tell? And is that memory gendered? Is your gender in your brain or in your skin? We worked with big balloons, working with weightlessness. And Prafix produced a musical score. We did this very subtle, highly aesthetic piece in this squat for this audience who are used to seeing more in-your-face, radical, fierce work. And it was so well received. I think that if you see something you’re not always used to, or in a context where it’s not normally present- ed, that it creates some kind of openness. And I think that that is where the activism really starts. EM: Because you navigate through different spheres – fine art, mainstream and subculture – are you concerned that your work becomes compromised for accessibilities sake? JC: I work with this very consciously. I say, I have to perform in a nightclub in Berlin. How can I create an initial dialogue with these people? What kind of means do I have to use? Okay, I use my disco-punk interpretation of Donna Summer as the performance figure Miss Fish. I find some kind of key to get a platform to speak from and when that’s established I can speak freely – I can develop my performance figure. Even if you put it in the mainstream there is still a reminiscence of more and the curious people always find it. I think that is how you use mainstream culture, to reach new audiences. If I am asked to perform at, for example, Köpi, I don’t bring a hard- core-punk in-your-face piece. I bring something highly aesthetic, sensitive and poetic, to bring them something new. When I perform in a hedonistic gay nightclub I bring something more punk with an edge. I am always nervous before I do it, but I think that the risk is worth it because you never know what will happen and that is also what has kept me going – I am curious. I have always been fascinated by the outsider and with the performance figure Miss Fish I have this position. Every time I enter a new context I have to win people’s confidence and Miss Fish says that openly because no body understands the construction. If I can win people’s confidence as this strange performance figure, I am amongst people who are able to transcend normative exclusionary structures. And that is also where my art becomes political. EM: By taking the position of the other, how do you respond to the exoticisation of the other in art? JC: I mean, we know it – we know it from freak shows, we know it from media sensationalism – and this has also now become some- thing that we see in the art scene. I think the answer is the same now as it has always been, which is that this exoticism is very ambivalent. It has a thrill and it attracts people’s attention. People are curious. They want to see this, sometimes to be convinced that they are not like that; to enforce their more normative thinking. But it also attracts people who are open to new things. Every time you present your work on any stage, in any media, it is exotic. It has to be. Art is not reality and art is exotic because it is extraordinary. But to use that without any awareness, it becomes cynical and mainstream. I see this tendency growing in the art scene. I navigate around it and I am highly critical of it, as you know [laughs]. EM: Lastly, can you share some more examples of Miss Fish’s work? JC: I have two examples. The first example is ‘Emotional Fish’, an interactive installation piece with video. It was a moving video sculpture that would change according to people’s movements in space. I worked with being present, but non-present. ‘Emotional Fish’ really stands out as one of the pieces where I could really define, but also flesh out Miss Fish in many different ways. The piece I like the most is ‘My House’ because it is so simple. ‘My House’ is based on the transformation of a dress; the dress transforms into a house in front of the eyes of the audience. The piece has been presented in many different contexts: at the Danish Royal Art Academy, at Roskilde Festival in Gyldendal’s literature tent (the biggest publishing house in Denmark), and in nightclubs. The idea is that your identity, your gender-identity, and the way you appear in daily life have to be re-performed every day. You have to become a woman or a man everyday; it is always negotiable. Your identity is a very fragile construction and you have to keep up the appearance or you will lose it. I recite a text [written by Gritt Ulldal] and then the piece develops: I step onto a box, suddenly the dress transforms into a geometrical shape of a house and I’m standing inside the house. My identity becomes a building. And a building is different from your fragile identity because you have an address, you have a door you can lock. It’s stable and there are laws protecting you; if you have a house, your identity is kind of safe. People who adhere to normative structures connect their identity to their buildings because it’s safe – you can’t move it. There are so many ways to stabilize the fragility of your identity – through having insurance, a big house, an expensive car. This piece, very simply, by transforming the dress into a house embodies all of this.
Emma Møller Independent Producer & Curator / New Producer @SPILL_Festival
Jorgen Callesen ARTIST – CURATOR – ARTISTIC DIRECTOR – RESEARCHER www.jorgencallesen.dk