For the closing of our exhibition LUCKY at the nGbK, we invited artist Travis Alabanza to give a final toast, The Obituary for the Not-So-Lucky. In this notice of death, Travis Alabanza eulogized those that didn’t make the cut. We were invited to remember those that could not quite get up the ladder because ‘luck’ was not on their side. As the dead rest among us uneasily, the audience were invited to continue in the festivities and forget that anyone ever had a hand in their demise. It was festive, aggressive, and dramatic. It was uncomfortable and transforming. It was very Travis.
The day after, we met Travis for a quick interview, photoshoot, and an orange juice near their Airbnb in the Moabit neighborhood of Berlin.
Tell us a bit about how you came to performing and doing spoken word.
In Bristol, where I grew up, I was always making theatre, with my friends, in our room. We would be making performance and I’d be writing, but I guess writing wasn’t my first love. It was more that all the theatre schools in Bristol cost too much money to go to. So the only thing that was free, that you could get to a stage every week, was the open mic poetry nights. I don’t love doing open mic, I always felt too performative for that world. Then, when I moved to London and did my year at University, I started circulating in the live performance art scene. Then when I left after the first year (I was studying Philosophy and Political Sciences), I was kind of like, how the fuck do I make this full time. And I was lucky enough, well, I applied on a whim, to the artist residency at the TATE, not thinking that they would pick me, because I had no portfolio, I had no body of work. You know, thousands of people apply. And then I got the job. Yeah, so I was the youngest artist at residency at the TATE program with three other proper artists. But I had to pretend that I was a real artist. The residency was a year long and fully paid, so I could pay my rent through the residency. What it allowed me to do was spend that whole year figuring out what to do, because I had the stability of the residency but also I was at the TATE. So I did that really quickly.
How did your family feel about you leaving college to become a performance artist?
Well, my mom… now she’s fine. Just this year, really. Because we have no link to art in our family, a career like mine has never really… I didn’t know it could exist. I was learning on the job. I always knew I wanted to perform but I thought the only way was to be an actor. And then, when I found live art for the first time, I was like, what the fuck. These people are kind of being themselves, kind of not, they’re making their own shit. And I kind of got lost in that world. But my mom, she’s coming around to it.
How did you feel during that time at the TATE residency?
Sometimes I wish I could go back to that year. Because I had that unashamed, no self-doubt, unabashed self-confidence that my work was incredible. I’m like, where the fuck is that self-belief now. When I came onto the London performance scene, none of the initiatives that have started up now and that are related to queer people of colour existed. There were none of these big collectives, like the Cocoa Butter Club, none of that had started yet. So it really felt like on the live art scene, there hadn’t been a lot of visibility for queer and trans people of colour. In some ways that was really hard because I sometimes felt like I was the go-to person that they were going to. But it also meant that I wasn’t being pushed to make the best work possible because there was no other thing around me. People were already just happy that I was in the door. Whereas now because there is such a breadth of different people on the scene it’s really good because I can push my work better. But in that year I made my first show, Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid, and we toured that to over 40 venues in the U.K. I don’t know how it took off, but I think lots of different artists that had been in the game for a while were noticing my work and sharing my work and I kind of woke up one day and realised that suddenly people were knowing my work. I feel like I’ve been playing catch up ever since.
What did you think when you received our invitation to participate in LUCKY? And how did it resonate with you?
I was excited because I wanted to make new things. At that time I was quite bored of being commissioned to just do me and myself and not be given a brief. And I loved in the email that they suggested this idea of a toast, I thought that was such a performative thing to do.
I was thinking about how annoying it is when people say, oh how did you get this? Well I was just lucky. And it fucking infuriates me so much. And that happens in the arts I think loads at artists talks, young artists will be asked, ‘how did you get to being here?’, and they’ll go, ‘oh I worked really really hard and I was lucky.’ And I was like no you weren’t. You worked really hard, there was some luck, and you also have these privileges. And I think that was really nice about the show, that people were naming that. That luck isn’t really luck. Or as we’ve been saying, that word hides all the ways that the world is pushing you to this place and benefiting you in this way.
I still stumble when someone asks me, at a party or whatever, ‘what do you do?’ I still stumble and say artist. I look around and be like, is anyone gonna check me on that? What’s happening?
So you think you have imposter syndrome?
Oh god yeah. If anything it’s gotten worse. I have notes on my iPhone; a mixture of different things people have said about my work that I trust and respect, but also things I’ve said to other people about when they have imposter syndrome that I read back when I get it.
At the moment I’m doing a theatre show that launches on Monday. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with a huge team and big press for me and my work in this manner. And I’m getting imposter syndrome nonstop. I’m like, I don’t know what I’m doing… And then I’m like, so many people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. These institutions need more people that haven’t got training, they need more people that are coming in with this fresh unabashed way. So I just remind myself that these places need us, they would be stale without us. They rely on us to create relevancy.
Do you feel tokenized sometimes by these institutions?
Oh yeah, hands down. Oh my god. All the time. But I’ve gotten better at creating performances where if they try to tokenize me it isn’t going to work. I feel like I disrupt spaces. And I feel like, when it’s my own work and on my own terms, disrupting isn’t my own goal. But when these institutions hire me and I can sense that maybe there could be some tokenization, or I’m going to be the only black person on the line up, I revel in the power to disrupt as a way to be like, you tried to tokenize me but I’m still going to make you hella uncomfortable, and you might have to deal with the complaints afterwards. I know that I’m tokenized and I know that that’s probably always going to happen, unfortunately. But I think there’s ways to work it in your advantage.
Yeah, I wonder if this tokenizing is the first step to breaking up the spot and owning these institutions. Like infesting them, queering them, taking them over.
Well, I think for me, what I’ve learned the most in the last 4 years isn’t to be a better artist, but to be a better sharer. For the first couple of years, I wasn’t enjoying being tokenized but allowing it to happen. I was the black voice on this panel. I was the trans voice on this panel. I was the working-class voice on this panel. And now when these places invite me, the first email my team sends back says Travis no longer does this if they’re the only person, here’s a list of people you should also book alongside them. Especially if it’s an institution that has lots of money. Because then they’re having to get a breadth of voices and they’re having to realize that I don’t say the same things as the black queer artist next to me. We’re not making the same work. Our practice is different. But I also think that that confidence only comes with privilege. When you’re first working, you don’t have the confidence to tell an institution, don’t book me unless you book them too. You only have that confidence when you know that they really want you.
How do you feel about performance art, your role in this, and social change? Where do you see yourself as an artist? We as a collective deal with making our own art and pursuing our own artistic positions and at the same time being activists, so I can understand that there might be times when you think about this…
Yeah, thanks for recognizing that. So often in interviews I never get asked about the craft of performance because everyone’s so focused on the identities that I may or may not hold. So it’s really nice to have that recognized.
I think it’s such a luxury the bodies that can be seen and have this binary of ‘I’m performing’, ‘I’m not performing’. Whereas I think my body and my femininity will always be seen as a performance. People are seeing this, me walking down the street today, as a performance, not as real. But this is real for me. And I really love using that to flip the audience. I think it’s only come into my practice in the last year or so. I think when I was first starting out, all my work was about here’s my trauma, here’s how I’m feeling, fuck all this violence. And now I’m really like, who is the audience. Because most of the time the people coming to my shows are white. So I’m so much more excited by playing with the audience, playing with power, and fucking up the expectations of how they want me to get free. And what I’m trying to say now is, I have the privilege to have stages where people will listen to me fuck being polite. Whereas so many people who have my identities have to be polite, at their workplace, on the street, with their colleagues. So if I have the freedom of the stage to not be polite and to question why we need politeness and niceties as a prerequisite to talk about race, then I’m going to take it.
In which direction do you see yourself evolving as an artist? Into bigger theater productions?
I love making theatre and it’s always been my first love. I guess where I’m wanting to go is to find new ways to heighten performance. I love taking performance into public space. I love getting commissioned to make specific performances for public space. So hopefully in the future I get to do more of that. What I’m loving for this new show is that I have budget for design and I feel like that’s where I really come alive.
How do you feel about the Internet?
Internet used to be my one true love and now it’s my one true job. But I think without the internet, we would not be here.
Travis Alabanza’s clothing for this photo shoot was provided by Don Aretino, a local Berlin designer.
Interview by Lorena Juan
Photos by Judy Landkammer
Travis Alabanza is a performer, writer and theatre maker. In the last two years they have been noted by numerous publications, such as Artsy, i-D and MOBO Awards (Official), as one of the most prominent emerging queer artistic voices, and also listed in OUT as an influential queer figure. In 2016/17 they became an artist in residence at the Tate workshop programme, starred in Scottee‘s theatre production ‘putting words in your mouth’ and the Royal Exchange Theatre show Jubilee, performed in venues such as Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate, ICA, The Roundhouse and Barbican Centre – and had their work featured in The Guardian, BBC, Huck magazine and more. Known for increasingly paving much of the UK conversation around trans politics, Alabanza has became a staple part of the London queer scene and further afield. Their debut poetry book Before I step Outside (you love me) has been shipped to over 19 countries worldwide and listed as one of the top trans literary books of 2017. Their interests and work surrounds their identity as a trans, black, gender non-conforming person.
Lorena Juan is a curator and writer living in Berlin. She has curated several exhibitions and events focusing on gender and intersectional queer feminism with varied programs that mix art, media, theory, and social activism. Lorena is COVEN Berlin’s co-founder.
Judy Landkammer is a video editor and multimedia artist based in Berlin. She co-founded COVEN Berlin in 2013 and has been working with gender and art on a curatorial level since then. Her film work has been presented at various international festivals, such as Berlinale, Hofer Filmtage, and the Max Ophüls Filmfestival.