Going Somewhere with Fakeness: Mica Sigourney Brings Drag to the Headlands

Studio Sessions

Going Somewhere with Fakeness: Mica Sigourney Brings Drag to the Headlands

By Emily K. Holmes November 17, 2015

Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.

I’ve always found the sheer existence of Headlands Center for the Arts somewhat fantastical. That an old military base could become a contemporary art center, complete with a live-in residency program, seems too blissfully utopic to be true. Although I couldn’t have dreamed of watching evocative drag performances in this beautiful natural landscape, on October 11, 2015, Headlands artist-in-residence Mica Sigourney made it happen. He curated Into the Woods, a series of site-specific drag performances, featuring a lineup of local queens: Laundra Tyme, Fauxnique, Honey Mahogany, and (Sigourney’s alter ego) VivvyAnne ForeverMORE!. The afternoon did more than entertain, though I was thoroughly charmed; both the performers and the location in which they performed made me seriously rethink what I thought I knew about drag.

Headlands is an unusual site for drag performances for multiple reasons. Being an established art-world institution, the venue puts drag, as a “lowbrow” or vernacular and queer performance genre, in a position of having something to prove. As the creator and artistic director of the semiannual series Work MORE!, which merges contemporary art and drag performances, this was not the first time he has curated drag performances for the art world. But Sigourney kept the queens unconfined by the proverbial white walls of a gallery setting, unleashing them across the entire campus: an outdoor basketball court, inside old buildings, a staircase. The act of releasing free-ranging queer artistic expression in an ex-military zone is itself meaningful; it’s a clashing of nonconformity with the most extreme structure of conformity, a culture known for its socially conservative views and, until recently, its enforced rejection of open homosexuality. (The laws have changed, but it doesn’t mean the social structures necessarily have as well.)

Fauxnique. Into the Woods, October 11, 2015. Photo by Andria Lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts.

Curious to learn more about Sigourney’s thinking after the performance at Headlands, I interviewed him by phone. “Context is everything,” Sigourney tells me. He could have chosen a traditional drag-show setup on one stage, which probably would have been well received just for the novelty of drag at Headlands. “But I wanted to play with the audience’s gaze, so they could look at the performers and beyond. The selfish part of me is saying of course I want to see a drag queen in beautiful nature. Why not? I wanted to see these grand moments that were just so beautiful. It could be formal in a less formal setting.” 

The afternoon of performances took place throughout the campus, with two groups led by guides to each site. In a basketball court surrounded by a grassy field, Laundra Tyme, dressed as Stevie Nicks, sang Fleetwood Mac songs while playing a teal guitar, bedazzled with an iridescent dolphin. To set the court-turned-stage, a lacy scarf was draped over the basketball hoop, and from behind a lavender folding screen peeked handmade cardboard suns and moons that danced along to the music. Later, Tyme was joined by multiple other queens, who sang, danced, and handed out flowers during a rendition of “California Dreaming.” Hearing this ode to hippies sung by queer performers, against the dramatic backdrop of Headlands, worked to form associations in my mind with the ways that hippies flocked to Haight–Ashbury, and queer people, especially gay men, came to San Francisco. As the queens sang songs from the 1960s, the antiwar sentiment tracing the peace and love movement echoed today in this demilitarized base. I couldn’t help but wonder if the rapidly changing Bay Area of today remains a place welcoming of political radicals and queers who stray outside the mainstream’s acceptance. Filled with dreamy nostalgia, I tucked two flowers behind my ears and moved onto the next performance.

Honey Mahogany. Into the Woods, October 11, 2015. Photo by Andria Lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts.

Honey Mahogany also performed outside, singing from a window of a tall white building. Framed by gold curtains and the bright blue sky above, Mahogany shimmered as she sang “Feeling Good” in her powerful voice, enthralling the audience below. Mahogany talked between songs, delivering a spoken artist’s statement about feminism, racism, and queerness. She told us that drag is a way to address not just gender, but also issues of race. She announced that she would sing a song that she sometimes pulls out in a nightclub when the audience is least expecting it: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” With the long shadows of the surrounding hills creeping across the building, Mahogany’s rendition of such a haunted and haunting song resonated past the context in which she performed it. Unnerving in its poetic frankness about lynching, the song’s continued relevance and evolution ring true, considering the disproportionate susceptibility to police violence experienced by people of color today. As with any art form, Mahogany proved that drag need not be limited by an audience’s expectation to be delighted and comforted.

Further illustrating the layered complexity of drag performances, Sigourney’s own work took on meta references to gender, theater, and film. Inside a retro-looking gymnasium, Vivvyanne ForeverMORE! stood in front of a camera, a rough-around-the-edges Elizabeth Taylor, projecting her image live onto the wall behind her. Volunteers read George’s lines from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), while ForeverMORE!-as-Taylor-as-Martha drank vodka, her responses increasing in volatility. Rawly she screamed, “I’ll show you who’s sick!” With one bright spotlight, ForeverMORE!’s body cast a monstrous shadow that moved with her. She performed the same scene three times in a row, increasing in bleakness and ferocity each time. The combination of repetition and rugged emotion, much like Mahogany’s earlier rendition of “Strange Fruit,” took the audience to the edge of aestheticized discomfort.

VivvyAnne ForeverMORE! Into the Woods, October 11, 2015. Photo by Andria Lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts. 

Yet another provocative performance came from Fauxnique on an outdoor staircase. Before it began, the audience gathered at the base of the stairs while our guide announced a disclaimer: “This is a slow-moving piece. You may look at and move around the performer, but do not touch her. Also, be careful of the poison ivy.” Starting at the top of the staircase, Fauxnique, wearing a gaudy purple dress, rolled her body down the stairs at the slowest possible pace. Moaning or humming quietly, Fauxnique formed oddly beautiful contortions over a fifteen-minute performance. Viewers debated where to move their own bodies in relation to hers, as the descent forced them initially up the staircase, then later down to watch her agonizingly slow unravelling. Fauxnique’s indistinguishable singing, perhaps to herself, presented a contrast to Mahogany and Tyme’s sung performances. All of them provided a counterpoint to drag’s strong association with lip-synching. At the same time, as Sigourney would be the first to tell you, the fact that they were singing in drag upends the assumption that acoustic-style performance is more authentic and intimate than lip-synching.

“In drag, there’s an understanding that everything is fake. We're in a nightclub. I'm wearing a lot of makeup. I might be wearing padding to affect, accentuate, or enhance my body. I'm lip-synching. We all know I'm lip-synching. Then, by acknowledging that fakeness, we can go somewhere new with it. […] With drag, there's an acknowledgement and agreement that we're all on the same page. It's one step closer to each other.” Those moments of audience-performer agreement, Sigourney adds, are spaces for exchange that are unique to the context of drag. Stumbling into the nightlife world after years spent training in the theater, Sigourney found drag to be “fertile ground for creativity, spontaneous creativity. Not just in the performers, but in the crowd. It was high stakes, low risk. You could do anything and have a really wild moment.”

Headlands campus. Into the Woods, October 11, 2015. Photo by Andria Lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts.

These moments of connection drive Sigourney, who co-founded SOME THING, a weekly “art drag” night at the Stud Bar with DJ down-E and Sigourney’s drag mother, renowned performer and couturier to many drag queens, Glamamore. There you might find the more avant-garde drag that San Francisco is known for, but Sigourney is quick to acknowledge that the city holds more diverse—and abundant—styles of drag than people assume. (This region does remain more welcoming to weirder forms of drag than other cities, a subgenre that often struggles for acceptance.) Tellingly, Mica showcased a variety of drag for Into the Woods.

As a multidisciplinary performer for whom drag is but one option, Sigourney crosses contexts fluidly, although drag, as a form of performance, may not always blend so seamlessly. As integrated into their natural surroundings as the performances were, and with all the associations that Headlands brings as an ex-military base turned art center, I found that the scenic Marin backdrop remained secondary to the conceptual challenges issued by the performances. When asked about what it means to bring drag into the art world, Sigourney notes, “I never want to change drag from what it is. But I do want people to recognize that it's culturally valuable.” Sigourney’s understanding of the wide-ranging spectrum of what drag is, or can be, is mirrored by his proposals to showcase drag (almost) anywhere. If anything, the estrangement that might have resulted from such an unexpected venue as Headlands merely served to more prominently feature the nuances and possibilities for both performers and audiences that drag enables.


This article is made possible through the generous support of the Artists' Legacy Foundation.

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