by Troy Williams
Recently on KRCL’s RadioActive we released a spectacle of pure gender anarchy and aural pandemonium. I interviewed two performance artists who are both known for transgressing established boundaries. Locally, Alex Caldiero is a Sicilian born poet and sonosopher who now makes a living disrupting the once certain minds of Utah Valley University students.
Jennifer Miller is a performance artist living in New York City, and the founder of Circus Amok – an alternative circus with a political edge. Currently she is an Associate Professor of Humanities & Media Studies at the Pratt Institute.
Earlier in the week Alex Caldiero called me up:
“Troy – Have I got a show for you! Jennifer Miller is a woman with a beard who juggles machetes. Would you like to interview her?”
Listen to the entire interview here (complete with spoken word performance art):
Alex Caldiero: In 1990…remember 1990? I went to revisit New York, Brooklyn to be exact with my two sons. I said listen, we need to go to the Coney Island to the Freak Show. There’s nothing like it. Forget about the Statue of Liberty. Forget about the Met and the Whitney! We’re going to the Coney Island Freak Show. I’ve loved it since 1958. My father used to take us always to the 42nd Street shows. So I took my sons there. And this woman comes on and starts juggling machetes and lecturing on male chauvinism. I want you to know that at first I cringed and I closed…
Jennifer Miller: Closed your legs?
AC: Just in case!
JM: That was smart.
AC: But within moments I recognized a higher consciousness. That image stayed with me all these years. Finally when the apple is ripe, it falls.
TW: Was it a mutual attraction to facial hair?
AC: I come from a long line of beards and mustached ladies.
TW: Alex, you have a mighty beard. It’s like an Old Testament beard.
AC: This is my more rabbinical look. I can go for my Castro look. It depends on how I shape it. I have a devil look. I can coordinate my hair. Seriously, her image stayed in my head. It played many times over. My kids were also struck by what you were doing. Struck.
TW: Jennifer, Alex describes you as a freak show. How do you feel about that?
JM: Well, he’s describing the place where I worked. Not me. Traditionally the sideshow is sometimes called the freak show. He’s calling it my it’s folk-loric name.
TW: You were making a living as a freak?
JM: I wouldn’t say I was making a living as a freak. I was making a living in the sideshow. When I’m in the freak show performing there is a little meta discussion about what a freak is.
TW: Circus Carnies are the ultimate American alternative culture and you founded the ultimate alternative circus? You’re counter to the counter-culture?
JM: It’s a double alternative that brings you right back home. Just apple pies, bearded ladies and anti-capitalist politics free in the parks of New York City.
TW: I imagine you don’t abuse animals. You perhaps abuse gender hierarchies?
JM: Well put. We do have paper machete animals but even those we don’t abuse.
TW: Describe Circus Amok.
JM: Circus Amok is a one ring, no animal, free, queerly situated, political theatrical circus extravaganza that’s main mission is to perform free in the parks of New York City. So usually, once a year in the month of September we tour different parks every day. It’s really like traveling the world. From the North Bronx to the top of Manhattan – all different communities and neighborhoods. We’ve been putting on these politically themed shows for years.
JM: All of these terms are so malleable these days.
TW: How do you identify?
JM: As a woman. But gender non-normative. But that’s in the performative sense, not in the identity sense.
TW: What do you mean by “performative sense”?
JM: There’s so much language about gender now as we try to understand and make a home for people who don’t feel like they want to be in the traditional two categories. I feel settled as a woman. It’s not comfortable for me to search for another category. I don’t feel anything too different. But my idea of “woman” is very different from many other peoples. I can’t say we are all thinking of the same thing when we think of ‘woman’. One of the terms that is battered about right now is “gender non-conforming.” That works for me. A beard doesn’t conform to traditional notions of what women look like. But I feel fine being a woman.
TW: But it’s a transgression.
JM: It is a transgression. Exactly. So when offered the question, ‘are you transgender?’ I say yes, I transgress gender boundaries. But again that’s in a performative sense, that’s how I’m seen. In terms of my sense of who I am, I don’t think I’m essentially a man, or essentially trans-man. I’m basically in terms of those questions, a woman.
TW: My FtoM trans friends will take hormones to grow facial hair, but yours came in naturally?
JM: My facial hair came in naturally, which it does on many women. Because it’s so stigmatized, most of them don’t let it grow in. When they see me perform, a lot of them speak with me. I have an insider view. They tell me stories about electrolysis, shaving, etc., I have a lot of personal stories from women around the country.
TW: Wherever you go people are staring at you, because you are transgressing this boundary.
JM: I think they are. It’s interesting today, when we were at the Tabernacle…
AC: The LDS Visitor Center.
JM: Alex noticed before I did that people were scoping me out. I don’t know what it’s like to be in public without me. I don’t generally feel like extra stared at, but I imagine I am.
TW: Jennifer, you are going to Orem, Utah – “Family City USA” — There are guardians to the social order who are probably already on high alert!
AC: He’s right.
JM: I’m not afraid.
TW: Alex — We don’t know the effect she will have on Orem — The whole town may descend into chaos!
AC: One can only hope.
TW: We’ll have Mormon bishops buying dresses for themselves at THE MOD BOD.
TW: So, one thing you talk about is hair and masculinity. When men have hair it’s power.
JM: It has some mythological roots. Hair has so much meaning in particular religious contexts. Fundamentalists of all kinds either don’t shave their hair, or curl their hair or shave their heads…
TW: Our fundamentalists use Aquanet to really get their bangs up high – High to heaven!
JM: I just found out about the pioneer Mormon women who crocheted doilies out of their hair. I’m not a hair historian. I was kind of actually thrown into the world of hair by having this hair. I collect hair tidbits now and then, but I don’t really have a general theory of hair and power to offer. One has to make their own. Oh, alright, I can make up some stuff! We do know for example that facial hair is a male signifier. So when women wear facial hair she treads on male territory. She’s treading on male power. Even in the trans world it’s used as a male signifier as well. It’s coming into manliness when the body starts to make those changes. I put its social meaning into question wherever I go.
JM: I don’t think I ever realized that this would give me power. Eventually I did realize that it had given me power. The power to survive this radical otherness. I think all of us live afraid of being kicked out of community, whatever that might be. Women live in fear of many body issues; fat, age, and hair. To face one of those fears — I can survive not being the “perfect women” – is very liberating.
TW: Alex Caldiero – how on earth did you end up at Utah Valley University?
AC: Only God knows. I was guided across the plains.
TW: It’s kind of a radical school – we have interviewed active communists from your campus.
AC: As I was telling Jennifer, there is incredible pockets of wonderful people doing, experimenting, and opening up in ways you wouldn’t imagine.
TW: Are you, or have you ever been a member of the Revolutionary Student Union?
AC: As a matter of fact I had a run in with them because I told them that they were not that revolutionary. It’s on YouTube as a matter of fact. I found them more revolting than revolutionary and they didn’t like that. It caused a big ruckus. I was hoping that they wouldn’t try to assassinate me.
TW: I don’t know if you remember this Alex, but when I was a student at BYU I went to a belly-dancing party at your house in Orem – and now look at me!
JM: Did it all happen there?
TW: There were all of these Mormon housewives were moving their bodies in provocative ways! Talk about transgression!
AC: Belly-dancing has always been transgressive. It’s always been the proto-feminist movement, especially in Turkey, which is the lineage of my daughter, wife and mother-in-law at least four or five generations going back – women grouping together and dancing for each other. Often in preparation of birthing.
TW: These are the Real Housewives of Utah County.
AC: I’m not going to split hairs.
TW: Alex, you are a good Mormon boy!
AC: I am a true believer!
TW: You know that transgression is dangerous! We are counseled to avoid the very appearance. And here you are encouraging these young people to get in touch with their bodies and to open their minds to new thoughts! What are you doing down there?
AC: You’re making me squirm. Jennifer say something. Come to my rescue!
JM: Your beliefs are bouncing up against your beliefs and you’re going to explode! But you of all people can embrace all of it! That’s what you’ve been saying!
AC: It’s the pluraverse!
JM: The pluraverse!
RadioActive airs weeknights at 6pm on KRCL 90.9 FM, http://www.krcl.org