Interview with Monique Jenkinson

Bad at Sports

Interview with Monique Jenkinson

By Bad at Sports October 31, 2013

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

Monique Jenkinson is an artist whose work draws from but is not reducible to dance, theater, performance art, and drag. It is that last category within which Jenkinson is perhaps best known as a performer, having stunned San Francisco gay-bar audiences over the years with her “high femme” drag character Fauxnique: a protean combination of outsized glamour, impeccably choreographed lip sync, and an ability to transmute the affective reach of a song, be it Morrissey or Meredith Monk. Jenkinson has also presented her work on other, more varied stages, including the Movement Research Festival at the Judson Church in New York City and the de Young Museum in San Francisco where, following a string of exhibit-specific performances, she was an artist in residence last year.

On a chilly October evening, Bad at Sports’s Brian Andrews and Art Practical’s Matt Sussman met with Jenkinson in her cozy Mission District apartment. The discussion, which can be heard at its full length on Bad at Sports Episode 426, touched on many subjects—femme identity, Disneyland, aging divas—but always circled back to the power of playing dress-up. Below is an abridged excerpt.

Brian Andrews: Because the persona of Fauxnique is so essential to your work, perhaps you could introduce her to us?

Monique Jenkinson: I view Fauxnique more as a filter or a practice than as a persona per se. I don’t feel as if I’m different from Fauxnique. Fauxnique is a way for me to contend with the performance of femininity; she is definitely a drag character, but more like an amplified version of myself or of my concerns.

I’m interested in combining a kinetic exploration with drag and vice versa.

I’m based in dance, and while the work isn’t always dance per se, whether I’m performing as Fauxnique or performing as Monique Jenkinson, it always comes from a place of physicality. Fauxnique is a physical manifestation of drag and an overly stylized feminine gesture as a kind of dance. I play a lot with dancing, or doing stunts in heels, or what happens when you thrash around in your wig—what are the technicalities of pinning down a wig so it doesn’t fly off your head? I’m interested in combining a kinetic exploration with drag and vice versa.

Matt Sussman: It’s the idea of generative constraint, since what you just described requires an intense amount of precision and practice, and yet the effect could be one of total chaos or coming undone. Between conceiving of the piece and the moment of performing it, is there room to actually cut loose?

MJ: I do like to say that I like working from obstacles. I love to work with women’s fashion or drag as an obstacle. I’m using drag as a constraint to generate movement.

I have done a piece—and this reflects more on scores in the tradition of Judson Church—in which I run back and forth across the space in heels while people throw beaded dresses at me. I try to catch them and put them on. I end up wearing layers and layers of these beaded dresses, and then there’s this restraint or this task that has to happen.

Monique Jenkinson/Fauxnique. Drag Movement Study: 'These Shoes Are Called Pleasers,' 2010. Performance at Movement Research Festival, New York City.

BA: Is there a critique of drag itself in that? These pieces seem to be, at least performatively, a little oppositional. This layering of dresses seems to push against the polished, refined look of a particular drag performer. Is there something in that, or is it that drag itself as a medium is something that needs to be toyed with?

There is this specificity or technique to building a movement within drag, and then there is space to be unhinged.

MJ: It can always be toyed with, for sure. I don’t know if it needs to be. I love seeing classic drag or a beautiful drag queen performing. Coming from my background in contemporary dance, I’m interested in what information I can get from drag as an artist. There is this specificity or technique to building a movement within drag, and then there is space to be unhinged. I’m really interested in that space in which you put something together, you are very specific about the choices, and then inside that stricture, there can be freedom to become unhinged.

I claim myself as an unabashed feminist, and so there is a critique of the performance of femininity, but it’s complicated. I love wearing heels, I love wearing high-femme drag, and I think for me, it is an empowering stance to take that power. When he was in Rome, my friend Scott saw this woman coming out of church one Sunday afternoon. She had big blonde hair and fabulous Versace sunglasses, a silk printed blouse, and her boobs pushed up to here, a pencil skirt, one stiletto, and a cast and crutches. Another person might say, “Oh poor thing, she feels like she still needs to dress up!” For me, it’s like, “No! Don’t let your broken leg interfere with your fashion. Werq!

I learned a lot about gender performance in Rome while I was there over the summer with a wonderful group of drag kings and faux queens called Eyes Wild Drag. The event was called the GendErotica Festival and the Femme Conference. It was a really ambitious project and interesting because they’re grappling with femme and whether it can actually be radical to embrace femme or not. I actually think it’s fundamentally radical to embrace femme, and I’ve been trying to articulate this.

Monique Jenkinson as Fauxnique. Press photo for Our People. Photo: Arturo Cosenza.

BA: I’d love to hear that experience contrasted against your experience at the de Young Museum, in which you dealt with a much broader public, as opposed to a more queer or queer-positive audience.

MJ: [The museum staff has] been very trusting and just wonderfully generous. The more pieces I’ve done, the more they’ve understood that I wanted to engage with the art, that what I want to do there is not just site specific but context specific. I was reflecting on the work not just as a fun drag queen, but as an artist.

There were all those Friday night things that were appropriate for the context and were entertaining but were also art pieces. From there, they invited me to be part of their second round of artist fellows, and that’s when I received their institutional support for my work—to do whatever I wanted, which was incredible. During the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition, I made a piece called Our People reflecting on Jean Paul Gaultier’s multicultural vision and how we might find that problematic or celebratory. I gathered this group of people; we all reflected on our lineages and made traditional costumes out of magazine pages, which figures prominently in my work.

My friends do this weekly party, Some Thing, at the Stud. They would host an event called Project Runtover, which is a play on Project Runway. A drag queen and a designer are teamed up, and the designer has about an hour to make an outfit for the drag queen, who performs in it. They also had a craft table that matched the theme for the drag show. And the Friday nights at the de Young also have a craft table for kids to make art that engages with the museum. So we combined Project Runtover with the kids’ craft table at the de Young and had teams of children making outfits for drag queens. It was really amazing. A long answer to your question, but that is the apex of it: children dressing drag queens in the museum.

Monique Jenkinson/Fauxnique. Poses (circa 2003, with Kevin Clarke). Drag performance at Trannyshack, San Francisco.

MS: We’ve talked about the power that can come from femme drag: from the heels, from the pencil skirt, from the tools that Fauxnique uses in performance. But what’s the emotion that goes along with that? Or what’s the affective component? Your work covers a range of emotions; is that something you think about ahead of time or is that just what comes out of the score?

MJ: There are subtle and ostentatious ways of working with emotion, and I’m interested in both of them. Sometimes emotion is not part of the score; it comes out later.

I came into dance at a time when we were still really under the influence of the Judson Church aesthetic. I’ve come to think of it as an aesthetic of refusal, fueled by Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto”: no to spectacle, no to virtuosity, no to sets and costumes, no to involvement of the audience, no to the performer, no to seduction of the audience by the performer. It’s amazing, but it’s stark. I was an emotive performer and that was tamped down where I was. I went to Bennington College, which was a forerunner of contemporary dance and really steeped in that tradition of Rainer and Trisha Brown. That education was so valuable, and yet as a dancer, I’ve always been an actor, I’ve always channeled emotion through performance. I would often be in a piece and not necessarily know where I was or what I was supposed to be doing or the arc of the piece. To keep it interesting for myself, I would make up a story for myself. I think that stuck with me and made me interesting to watch. The kinds of people that I ended up performing with valued that. And ultimately, I ended up making my own work because I wanted to make work that valued that quality, as well.

When I encountered drag, it was like, “Hallelujah, we can be hysterical. We can be angry. I can channel stuff. I can be campy. I can be hammy. I can be spectacular.” Instead of keeping a blank face, a soft gaze, "dance in your sweats," all of the sudden it was, “I can be crazy, gorgeous, and fiery, and scary.” Drag liberated or re-liberated that childlike joy of performing and make-believe.

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