Heather McLean (Athabasca University) and Alex Tigchelaar (Concordia University)
Ten years ago, I co-created the video below, the Garden Hos, with sex worker activist, interdisciplinary artist, and feminist scholar Alex Tigchelaar. Sharing ideas with Tigchelaar over the past decade has deepened my understanding of the potentials and pitfalls of performance-based methods and methodologies for researching the absurdities of neoliberal and colonial urban politics. In this accompanying interview, Tigchelaar and I express how performance work, especially alter-ego work, enriches our urban research.
The Garden Hos was part of a live drag king TED Talk-like presentation I performed for Operation Snatch’s Revered and Reviled: Dirty Plötz—A Conference Cabaret. Tigchelaar and performance artist and theorist T.L. Cowan curated this cabaret in 2013 for the Canadian Association for Theatre Research (CATR) Women’s and Gender Studies et Recherches Féministes (WGSRF) at Brock University. Featuring queer and feminist dancers, comedians, drag performers, and musicians, Dirty Plötz explored the historic and ongoing erasure of women, 2Spirit, trans and non-binary people and sex workers in artistic movements. Working with Dirty Plötz, I found a place to birth Toby Sharp—The Tool for Urban Change, a composite character based on the masculinist consultants I encountered while working as an urban planner. Toby is also my way of composting the uneven power dynamics and cognitive dissonance of the corporatized university sector promoting collaboration and community engagement, but also fierce and individualizing competition.
Dirty Plötz offered a feral feminist and queer space for women, trans, and 2Spirit artists to explore politics through dance, storytelling, body art, video art, hip-hop, and theatre. The cabaret’s title is a homage to Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (born Else Hildegard Plötz), a poet, performance artist, and living embodiment of Dadaism. Debates in arts communities still rage on whether von Freytag-Loringhoven was responsible for the famous urinal that is attributed to Marcel Duchamp. Dirty Plötz was also a tribute to Quebecois graphic artist Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte comics. Named after Quebecois slang for a women’s vagina, this 1990s comic series investigated the depths of the female psyche, charted male fragility, and explored Doucet’s complicated relationship with femininity.
This video is also based on my doctoral research, an intersectional feminist analysis of the contradictory role of queer and feminist arts practices within neoliberal urban policies shaping Toronto’s arts and urban politics. The video specifically references one community-led initiative that set out to transform Toronto’s disinvested Bloor and Lansdowne neighborhood into a “Clean, Green and Civil” site for community arts, gardens, and murals (McLean 2014). In one of their initiatives, this collective collaborated with a local Business Improvement Area group, community arts organizations, Toronto Crime Stoppers, a community policing organization, and Nuit Blanche, a large-scale arts festival to transform Bloor and Lansdowne into an all-night interactive arts district with the Bloor Nightlight project. As part of this project, this network transformed the House of Lancaster, a local strip club, into a community arts space. Even though the sex workers employed at the strip club lost an evening’s wages, the arts organizers claimed that the event shined a light on more “healthy” and “positive” way to use the strip club space. As Tigchelaar argues, this cooptation and policing of sex workers’ spaces and sex worker culture is part of the underrecognized gendered, classed, raced, and colonial dimensions of carceral neoliberal urban policies.
In response, Tigchelaar and I co-created this video, our own “healthy social mix”, with our friends in the Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market not from the Lansdowne and Bloor neighborhood. All the people involved in this project deeply shaped our learning of gentrification and creative sites of resistance. Tigchelaar and the Beevers of Operation Snatch performed the sex workers who dug up and sold weeds amongst the market stalls and the Garden Hos’ clients. After putting a call out on social media, I managed to find and borrow Toby’s recumbent tandem bike through long-time Toronto bike activist Yvonne Bambrick’s networks. As Toby live-blogged the urban landscape, his intern Dana Seguin commandeered the bike. At that time, Dana was living on various precarious creative industry contracts and had worked as a bartender in the House of Lancaster. Toby’s interns, union activist Christina Russo and prison abolition activist Chris Rahim, also helped with filming. And Mi’kmaq artist and musician Glen Gould, who I met through my research with the Toronto Free Gallery, an artist-run center and site of nuanced anti-gentrification activism, edited the video and sound.
The process of creating the images and the video also generated intersectional learning and praxis. At the Dirty Plötz conference cabaret, Toby’s interns sold Garden Hos canvas bags at a merch table. Toronto artist Sebastian Koever created the design based on Tigchelaar’s critical analysis of the objectification of sex workers in the mainstream media. For Tigchelaar, dehumanizing and criminalizing news stories on sex workers often feature images of sex workers high heeled shoes or women leaning into cars.
Ten years later, Toby’s work continues as he is collaborating with Glen’s daughter Nakuset and her drag king character Skus Akwisen, an Instagram influencer and green smoothie salesman, and Secwepemc and Nlaka’pamux Nation Chris Bose‘s alter-ego character Donny Dreamcatcher, a leg wrestling coach and property developer. Together, we co-created a Zoom professional development webinar on how to survive climate disaster for the Vancouver Fringe theater festival and rEvolver Festival of performance in East Vancouver.
In all this work, performing alter-ego characters offers pathways for learning about the absurd violence of neoliberal and colonialism, as well as ways to co-create strategies to wiser, more caring futures.
Heather: How does performance-based research add depth to our understanding of neoliberal urban politics?
Alex: I don’t think I’m ever going to want to understand neoliberal politics. But, you know, I’m forced into this relationship with them. We all are, in every fucking city.
When I moved back to Montreal from Toronto and the rent had gone way up, there’s nothing we can do about it. For me, performance-based research, in my case using alter-ego characters, provides ways to research and work out my frustration with the absurdity of neoliberal urban politics. I want to be clear: this absurdity is not hilarious—it’s fatal for many people, obviously. It is exhausting. But I just sometimes find that there’s no other way to engage with these politics than through parody. And I think those of us who are at the receiving end of this, we need to laugh. We deserve to laugh because the stress and pressure of living under socioeconomic models that are inhumane is exhausting.
Heather: For me, neoliberal policies and politics can be the raw material, the everyday crap that we’re surrounded with. And performance-based research provides a way to embody and create agency. Taking these neoliberal dynamics as raw material—turning them around to tell other stories. There’s a kind of solidarity within these acts because we are always on the receiving end of undermining politics.
Alex: Yes, the racialized, classed, and gendered performances of neoliberal urban politics are excellent material. I mean that photo of Richard Florida with his guitar. I made a whole stamp collection out of that—I invented this whole world based on that photo of him and his guitar. The photo of him in a forced repose of forced play. I am never going to have an audience with this guy or men like him that effects any kind of meaningful social change. All I can do is create artwork around him that makes people laugh and think critically.
Heather: And then the Garden Hos video and some of the organizations that we encountered in Toronto. Organizations that wanted to “re-invent” neighborhoods with murals and art while they policed communities.
Alex: It’s so frustrating and layered. It’s hard to have debates in public about these layers, it’s difficult to discuss the weirdness and violence of these layers. For example, people want to be able to use the signifiers of sex work culture and they don’t think through the violence of these behaviors. Strip clubs, people have no problem opening a pole dancing studio on Queen Street. But if a strip club could not open on Queen Street, or a site where there wasn’t a strip club before, the licensing to do this is extremely expensive. But people can open a pole dancing studio where people can go and learn stripper culture. People are okay with co-opting the images of sex work communities while engaging in practices that actively erase them.
Similarly, city policies allow people to do graffiti in specific sanctioned spaces. And you need to download this application to apply to do your graffiti. All these forms require ridiculous superfluous skills to exist. And yet other people just doing this artwork will be fined for doing their art. I understand that artists in that community are involved in those sorts of initiatives, but it’s the fact that it requires cordoning their art off in a way. Neoliberal urban policies are always remarketing and commodifying art practices.
We can joke forever about that year when one community arts group partnered with the BIA to put the community arts project in the House of Lancaster strip club but we must remember that they were displacing real strippers on a busy Saturday night, a vital night for working for certain women.
Heather: The year before, the Nuit Blanche arts festival showcased a fake red-light district downtown. The police harassed and moved along sex workers while there was a fake red-light district for festival goers. In these cases, performance gives us an opportunity to have conversations when there are so many layers and contradictions (see Levin and Solga 2009).
Alex: Here’s another example. As sex workers, we spent years launching a constitutional challenge that showed how the laws in Canada created by a conservative government and that defied the Supreme Court of Canada negatively impacted sex workers. After a year, the judge presiding over this challenge finally handed down his decision on Monday last week (see Brown 2023). In his decision, he behaved as if everything seemed fine. He acted as if sex workers all are just misreading and misapplying the laws.
He even stated that some of our most valued community members who are activists, scholars, and deeply entrenched in the most marginalized communities of sex workers, including migrants, are not credible witnesses because they’re activists. According to him, because sex workers are so genuinely entrenched in the community and doing all this frontline work, they are not credible witnesses.
So, tell me please what the fuck else we’re supposed to do? So we make art.
And, for me, making art with my friends is a healing response. It is an absolute healing response to me. Making art calms my nervous system. It is love—and we all deserve to have moments of joy (see brown 2019). I just don’t know what else to other than make art that holds up a mirror to this legislative and socio-economic violence.
Heather: For me, creating art with you and the people involved with the Dirty Plötz cabaret—T.L. Cowan, Judy Virgo, Jess Dobkin, Moynan King, the Ghost Taco—I found a powerful voice, another way to engage with my research. When I met you, I was working away on collective responses to neoliberalism, alone in my tiny apartment. At university, I was working with critical Marxist men who told me that my work was weird and not radical enough. After working with Dirty Plötz, my research and teaching grew in so many interesting ways. Feminist and queer geographers, performances studies researchers, urban researchers, activists have reached out to me wanting to discuss my writing and videos. Through this other work I grew into a whole ecology of thinkers, makers, and researchers.
Alex: Yes, it’s all the competitiveness of the neoliberal and colonial university that is soul sucking. But there’s a level of excellence and richness in our performance-based work. We can respond to the scarcity thinking that thrives in these competitive institutions—we can respond with art, by creating work out of a nickel, a potato, and a paper clip, right? I’m not even kidding. Where there is scarcity, there’s a fecundity. We are just brimming with ideas and brilliance and beauty and solidarity. In the university, many people act as if someone’s going to take that job, or idea, or cutting-edge theory away from them, or whatever. But we all need to work in spaces where everybody feels secure and valued. Working with Dirty Plötz and other feminist and queer artists, we are creating an alchemy, co-creating abundance in the cracks.
How did your relationship with performance evolve?
Heather: Yes, I was naïve about this competition. When I returned to do my doctoral research in the neoliberal university after working in urban planning, I encountered a similar world. As researchers, people were jockeying for power. I was told, “oh if you work with that person, you won’t get a job”. Seeing your shows with the Scandelles made me want to create characters. Then working with you and Operation Snatch, I found that performance research provided a way to further explore neoliberal politics. For example, through performance, I investigated how the consultants, the “world leaders” in city building, carry themselves. The little gestures and the ways they assert power with their bodies, their speech. But we are all performing. My friend, geographer David Seitz, once said we are all in a clown show, or a wrestling show, in our institutions. And as feminist performance theorists point out, the reiterations of these performances offer space to intervene and disrupt and hack something new.
Alex: I use characters to be able to say those things, those risky kinds of things, and protect myself. I use the character of alter-ego to explore female rage and slyness. My character Baroness Von Hag, she’s mean. Because women are not allowed to be mean, of course. But it’s there; it’s revealing, right, like she’s a very revealing character. But underneath my characters’’’ meanness is a softness and humanity.
Heather: As groups like La Pocha Nostra write and show in their performance work, these neoliberal, colonial structures and systems are way bigger than us. But we can use our bodies to metabolize these politics and co-create alternatives (see Gómez-Peña and García-López 2021; Machado de Oliveira 2021).
Alex: 100%. Performing alter-egos can be like a cleansing. I know that like I always feel, you know, after performing those characters. And performance creates endless material. There are always going to be enclosures and then we’ll always find ways to fuck around with them.
Heather: Yes, within neoliberal structures, we are always getting snagged in, trapped, we become complicit in weird shit. And then we’ll chew away at the edges and build something new together!
brown a m (2019) Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Chico: AK Press
Brown D (2023) Disappointment, joy after Ontario court dismisses sex workers’ Charter challenge. CBC News 19 September https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/sex-workers-1.6970016 (last accessed 12 December 2023)
Gómez-Peña G and García-López S (2021) La Pocha Nostra: A Handbook for the Rebel Artist in a Post-Democratic Society (ed P Martinez-Cruz). New York: Routledge
Levin L and Solga K (2009) Building utopia: Performance and the fantasy of urban renewal in contemporary Toronto. TDR/The Drama Review 53(3):37-53 https://doi.org/10.1162/dram.2009.53.3.37
Machado de Oliveira V (2021) Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
McLean H (2014) Digging into the creative city: A feminist critique. Antipode 46(3):669-690 https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12078