Vaginal Davis is undeniably one of the most prolific artists to come out of the ’70s punk scene. The black, inter-sex born, self-declared outsider artist is nothing short of a queer icon. And even though she’s from Los Angeles (South Central, to be precise), she has a special place in New York City, where she’s had a serious impact on contemporary underground culture– the Bushwick drag scene is particularly indebted to her, as Davis is one of the founding mothers of “terrorist drag.”
While Davis has been living in Berlin for nearly a decade, she pops up across the pond from time to time. She and her work will be holding court in the city for at least the next month or so with Come on Daughter Save Me, a solo exhibition at Invisible-Exports that opened Friday. She’ll also be performing, along with a cast of collaborators, her own rendition of Mozart’s tragi-comic opera, The Magic Flute. Soak it up while you can– Davis is an accomplished artist with a powerful presence, and even after all these years she’s managed to maintain her subversiveness.
Over the last several decades of her career, Davis has produce influential zines, played in punk bands galore, performed and produced experimental theater, kabarett, and declares on her website that she “even had a lesbian love affair with actress Gwyneth Paltrow before she married rock star Chris Martin of Coldplay.”
Last week we had the pleasure of attending Vaginal Davis‘ talk at NYU. Tisch Professor and Chair of the Acting program Tavia Nyong’o introduced her as an “icon of the underground and alternative/queer/drag/punk/rock scene since to 1970s.” Davis fawned over the students in attendance: “You’re all so young! I have clothing that’s older than you are!” She was surprisingly humble and self-effacing, while strutting when she wanted to, but always revealing, funny, and honest.
She appeared alongside her creative partner-in-crime and close friend Susanne Sachsse, the East German-born stage and film actress. Working under the moniker Cheap Collective (the “C” is the USSR hammer and sickle emblem) the two have written, produced, and performed in many productions of their own for nearly 15 years, including 2010’s Communist Bigamist. Davis called Suzanne the “fearless leader” of the collective. “We work together, we live together, she even raised two of my children– they’re twins, and she did a great job,” Sachsse said.
The talk focused mainly on Davis and Sachsse’s latest project, The Magic Flute, which is set to take place at NYU’s 80WSE Gallery at the start of December. Sachsse declared that the new score, “is better than Mozart’s.” At first, Davis was going to do a simple remake of the opera. But Jonathan Berger, the director of 80WSE and a colleague of Davis’ as her former student and collaborator, convinced Davis otherwise.
“[Jonathan and I], we have a wonderful history,” Davis explained. “My first idea was to do [the opera] literally, and use the original libretto and use Mozart’s music but then Jonathan was like, ‘Why don’t you do it a little bit differently?'” Berger convinced Davis to make this “a Cheap Collective project” by bringing in Suzanne, who explained she and Davis made some character changes because “we don’t believe in dictatorship.” They’ve also made the female characters more complex. “The music was never meant to be this,” she said. “But [every production I ever saw in Germany], the way it was produced was totally misogynistic. [The Queen of the Night] doesn’t deserve to be just a woman with a temper problem having a beautiful aria.”
A number of other artists (Suzanne estimated 80 altogether) who’ve worked with Davis in the past are also participating in The Magic Flute including Jamie Stewart of the band Xiu Xiu who composed the music, while Berger contributed an “absurdist libretto.”
“Jamie his [other] band Ibopa played regularly at my club in Los Angeles,” Davis explained. “Jaime is a true freak. All the elements have been coming together and we’ve been collaborating with so many amazing artists– Jessie Bradford, Michel Auder is doing the film– because documentation of performance is always flat and horrible.” The result is a two-part take on The Magic Flute– the first is a non-traditional live performance, or a “rehearsal in six steps” and the second is a multi-channel installation that will be on view in the gallery in 2016, from June through August.
Find more tidbits from the long discussion below.
[On playing Jaunita Castro in The Life of Juanita Castro and working with Ronald Tavel] It was very spontaneous. I’m a control queen, I like to control every aspect of everything and it wasn’t under my control, because Tavel was feeding me the lines. And because he’s such a legend, Tavel can be a little bit dictatorial. God, this was 2001 it was so long ago, I don’t remember too much. I think I was pretty drunk that night.
I was wearing my bed sheet and my towels from the hotel. This was toward the end of my residency, and I didn’t have anything new to wear, so I said, ‘I’ll just use a bed sheet.’ I was in a lot of pain at that time. I didn’t know it, but I had gout. Because I was living in the States, I didn’t have health insurance so I didn’t know these pains I was having in my feet swelling, and not being able to walk– I didn’t know what it was. I just thought I was ancient. Later when I moved to Berlin and I got Künstler insurance, health insurance for artists, then I went to this amazing doctor, Dr. Mink. He does both Eastern and Western medicine, it’s hard to find that– anywhere, really. I lived up four or five flights of stairs at the time, and when you get the attacks you can’t walk. The pain is excruciating.
Let’s face it, nothing’s coming out of this womb, I’m too old now— I’ve got menopause, hot flashes, the whole shaboozy. So the only way I’m going to experience having children or whatnot is through mentoring younger people. When you’re in one of my seminars, I sort of art-direct your entire life. You start learning how to do analogue things instead of focused on gadgetries, and writing letters via post, the old-fashioned way. Because that’s how everyone in the queer-core scene throughout the whole world communicated with each other through these weird letter– we had photos and drawings and paintings and ephemera. Introducing that to younger people, it’s such a different world.
On how she and Susanne Sachsse met
She’s a classically trained actress, I’m not an actress at all– I can’t act my way out of a bag of potato chips. I knew that the Berliner ensemble was playing at UCLA, that was when I worked at UCLA a long, long time ago. It’s amazing that someone like me could actually keep a job, but that’s another story.
My German is nonexistent, but I knew I had to go see this performance. I saw this woman on stage, I didn’t know who she was or what she was saying, but that voice of hers! And her presence! It just shows you that you don’t really need to know the particular language. If someone can still communicate something to you so strongly, and so heartfelt without even knowing that language that you’re just completely sort of whooshed up in them. I was wrapped up in the house of Susanne Sachsse immediately.
I got invited to this after-party thrown by Eric Brayden […] he became a star on the US in the 1960s on the adventure television show called “The Rat Patrol” […] later on he was the star of the daytime television soap opera, “The Young & the Restless.” Whenever the visiting German dignitaries come, he has a big house on Mulholland Drive. And I’d heard the stories about his parties, so I was so glad to be invited to this party. There was a giant pool, there were tons of people, and there were these platinum and silver platters with mounds of cocaine. You don’t have those kind of parties anymore.
From 1994 to 1999 I had a sort-of-performance space and underground punk rock place, I called it the “Sunday Afternoon Punk-Rock Beer Bust and Old English Tea Dance,” inside a garage in Silver Lake. It was $5 all the beer you could drink and it started at three o’clock in the afternoon and went until about 12. I like doing things at odd times, and I thought an afternoon party was just perfect because you get to see what people really look like.
I’d have my parties at this place called the Monte Carlo II. That’s where I lived, in Korea Town. In the 1930s and ’40, before it was Korea Town, it was the Irish section of Los Angeles, and that same bar back in the ’40s was called The Daughter of Rosy O’Grady. But now it’s called the Monte Carlo II. But I still called it The Daughter of Rosy O’Grady, even in the invitations I sent. I always send my invitations by post. What are these e-invites? What is that?! I ignore that. I will not answer an e-invite! Ewwwwww! So gross!
To me a party isn’t a party if it’s all people of one class. A good party mixes people up. There’s somebody like a debutante from a patrician family that owns everything, and then somebody who just came out of prison. You don’t see those kind of mixtures anymore. But the kind of parties I would throw, the performances I would do, always mix those kinds of elements. It’s not kumbaya, every one of different races get together ooooo! It’s a natural coming together. This is also what we try to do in Berlin with Cheap– bringing people together of different background and different ages. It has to be intergenerational and people from all walks of life influencing each other.
On the good old days
Do you know what that word ‘dinge queen’ means? You’re too young to know those old school, Harlem Renaissance gay black terms, it came out of that period of time. A dinge queen is a white person who is voraciously attracted to blacks. And a black person who is voraciously attracted to caucasians is a ‘snow queen.’ Maybe it goes back even further. It might go back to the Five Points time, you know the Gangs of New York time. I don’t know, I’m not a scholar. You can’t go by everything I say. I haven’t done the research.
People are always telling me I’m too tall. I’m 6’6″, without high heels. I guess it’s 2 meters in the metric system.
I was writing original songs, performing original songs and back then, queens only lip-synched. Well, I can’t really sing, but that didn’t stop me. At that time, especially in the gay world, if you’re going to sing with your own voice, you have to have this very slick, very professional, clean voice. And I don’t really have that– I’m always out of key, I’m never in tune. And my look was just too bizarre for the black queens at that time.
The only place that allowed me to perform were the emerging punk clubs and the punk scene. My cousin is a lesbian and the drummer of this punk band, The Controllers. So she was already a full-fledged member of the punk scene. I was just sort of the tag-along, younger cousin. With my nutty style of performing, I was actually able to perform in front of an audience and sort of workshop things. I was too weird for the gays, and I was too weird even for the punks. At least the punks actually let me on stage, but they didn’t really get me either. I was just this sort of nether region.
On Growing Up
It was an interesting period when I was still in elementary school because the education system in LA was just so horrible and all the teachers thought I was retarded, because I didn’t learn in the way I guess that the educational system expects a child to learn, and if it hadn’t been for this particular lesbian teacher named Dorris Tepper who had a crush on my mom, because my mom is like a Barracuda, thin top, and Dorris was like a proper butch bottom, and so it was like ggggrrrerrrrrrr!!
My mother was so gorgeous and beautiful. She looked like Lena Horne, and my mother always wore a pearl necklace and earrings. I never saw her out of high heels. Even when she was cleaning the house, it was always high heels. And she never spoke louder than a whisper. All the women in my family have the save, really, really quiet tone in their voices. But my mother was a powerful figure in South Central LA because there were all these vacant lots and food deserts, because there were no super markets.
My mother, since she grew up on the farm in Louisiana, she would plant food on the vacant lots for the whole community– all the Latinos, all the blacks, anyone who needed food. She was really a pioneer of going into action, just action. And then when the authorities tried to come in and take the food gardens away from us, everyone was so scared of [her], all she had to do was give them one of her looks, and the police backed away. Those vacant lots that became the gardens are still there to this day, and they were planted in the late ’60s, early ’70s.
The last time I was in LA– even though I’m from LA, the city of cars, I never learned how to drive– so I had someone drive me back to the old neighborhood and [the gardens] are still there, and they’re still feeding people. That’s a wonderful legacy.
I was put in this program called MGM, like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but it stood for ‘Mentally Gifted Minors.’ I got to do all this extra-curricular work and I got to see all this theatre and opera. And the very first opera that I saw in– well, I won’t tell you the year– was Mozart’s Magic Flute.
On her mother
I’m so intertwined with my mother. My whole career as an artist, and all of my visual art, is basically co-opting my mother. My mother didn’t consider herself an artists, she just made stuff. Looking back to the things that she did, they were installations, assemblages– things in the art world that have proper names to them– she was doing this way back then. If I get any notice for any of my art works or any of my performances, it’s because I just copied my mother.
She had some kind of radical period in the ’60s because she was influenced by Liberation Theology. When she died my sister– because I’m the youngest of four sisters– she called me and said, ‘Oh you’ve got to come over here and help me get rid of the weapons.’ And was like, ‘The weapons?’ I rode to my sister’s in Hollywood, because she was in this dingbat apartment in Hollywood, and my mom lived in the apartment next to her. We went into my mother’s apartment and in the closet in the bedroom. My mother was sort of a hoarder. My sister’s a hoarder too. I’m a little bit of a hoarder myself, but I’m a neat hoarder. She had three or four of those old travel trunks, and there were hand grenades. There were shotguns, there were rifles. And there was even, well, it looked to me like it was a bazooka. And my sister said, just casually, ‘You know, when mommy was a revolutionary and she was trying to have a feminist state and…’
On Angela Davis
When I was growing up, a little girl in South Central Los Angeles in the late ’60s, the Black Panthers basically took over the education system. They came into the schools, they had guns, and they took over. They were teaching us all these revolutionary songs and chants and what not. At that time, when Angela Davis was the most wanted woman in America, I was just fixated with that image of her. I just thought that she was so beautiful.
By the late ’70s I had decided I sort of wanted to sexualize her name and become her, more or less. So I started in the late ’70s calling myself Vaginal Davis. I started to perform– or tried to perform– at these gay clubs in Los Angeles, in Hollywood. The people in these clubs, they would look at me and say, ‘Vaginal Davis? Well who are you supposed to be?’ And I said, ‘Well, Angela Davis– it’s a homage to that.’ And they’d say, ‘Well who’s that?’ They didn’t know who Angela Davis was.
One of the stories was that there was a connection between my mother and Angela Davis, because she was one of the people that actually helped hide Angela in Edendale. If she had just stayed in Edendale and hadn’t left Los Angeles, it’s likely she wouldn’t have been arrested. I was so young at the time, and when you’re a kid information goes to another are. We did incorporate some of that into the Communist Bigamist Cheap collaboration with me and Susanne.
When I was doing my zine, “Fertile La Toyah Jackson,” and its supplement “Shrimp, the Magazine for Sucking Bigger & Better Feet” back in the ’80s and early ’90s, I got this close to interviewing [Angela Davis]. Because a friend of mine went to school with her niece and Angela was very intrigued by me, and she wanted to meet. But she has an incredible schedule– she’s like all over the world. I was in San Francisco for the Frameline Film Festival, but she had a gig somewhere else and she had this little small window. She wanted to do it, but it just didn’t work with her schedule. But I almost got close to having a sit down– Vaginal and Angela together.
Rent is cheap, too! I pay for an apartment that’s like a studio size, one room with a kitchen and a hallway, with a shower and no bathtub. When I moved there it was 200 Euros a month.
On her relationship with Susanne Sachsse
Her son Richard, he’s going to be coming here to NYU. He’s 22 years old, he’s my height. He is gorgeous! Gorgeous! Gorgeous! I remember one time when we he was younger, he was 15 or 16 and we were walking down the street in New York and says, ‘Oh mama, are the mens cruising me or you?’
Come on Daughter Save Me opened Friday Nov. 20 and runs to December 20 at Invisible-Exports, 89 Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side.
“The Magic Flute” (Cheap Kollectiv) at 80WSE Gallery, open rehearsals December 1 through 5: 6pm, 7pm, and 8pm, by reservation only. Part 2: a film in pieces.