Q&A

An Interview with Brendan Fernandes, the Whitney Biennial Artist Who Uses Ballet to Channel BDSM and Queer Culture

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An Interview with Brendan Fernandes, the Whitney Biennial Artist Who Uses Ballet to Channel BDSM and Queer Culture
Brendan Fernandes, "The Master and Form," The 2019 Whitney Biennial, New York, 2019. Performance / Installation: scaffolding, carpets, ropes, and teak wood and leather sculptures all in collaboration with Norman Kelley, Architects; choreography for 5 dancers; costuming and audio. Originally commissioned by the Graham Foundation, Chicago. Image courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photography: Matthew Carasella.

With a major work in the Whitney Biennial and a slew of other engagements throughout the country, it seems rather certain that artist Brendan Fernandes is having a bit of a moment. What's less certain is which artistic categories Fernandes subscribes to. A former dancer, the Canadian artist of Kenyan and Indian descent now works with installation, video, sculpture, and... you guessed it, dance, to consistently challenge conventions and question the complextities of identity. And he's getting recognition for it. He has a dance-based installation up at the Museum of Contemporary Art in his hometown of Chicago. Last month he was announced as one of five finalists to be considered for the Chicago Artadia artist's award. And just last week he transformed the atrium at the Smithsonian American Art Museum into a dance floor to celebrate Pride in D.C. 

Meanwhile, in New York, Fernandes has two pieces currently on view that are definitly worth checking out. The first is In PrEP We Trust? (2016), a project originally commissioned for the PosterVirus Campaign in association with AIDS ACTION NOW!, and a response to biotech giant Gilead Sciences’ 2016 price increases for the medication they manufacture, Truvada for Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP)—the only drug approved to prevent HIV-negative people from contracting the virus. Fernandes’ conceptual poster indirectly endorses #breakthepatent, a movement spawned by HIV activists to urge Gilead Sciences to either make Truvada for PrEP cheaper or allow a generic brand to be introduced to the U.S. market. In PrEP We Trust? is currently on display at the New York City AIDS Memorial, as part of the installation Visual Impact: On Art, AIDS, and Activism.

The second work, also addressing the body and queer culture, is The Master and Form (2018), which was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. The installation comprises five structures animated by ballet dancers who interact with the pieces in a way that Fernandes compares to S&M culture. Here, Fernandes discusses what influenced both artworks, the anxious political times we’re living in, and what he feels is his responsibility as an artist.  

 Images courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photographer: Milo Bosh.

Let’s start by discussing your poster In PrEP We Trust?. Why did you choose to address PrEP in this campaign? How do issues around this drug resonate with you as an artist?

First and foremost, I identify as a queer, gay, male artist, and I’m on PrEP. The medication is something that I was questioning—I was asking things like, “What will this do to my body? Is this going to give my body a certain freedom? Will this allow me to feel safer? Can I afford this? Who has access to this?” When I was first on PrEP, it was through Medicaid, so I didn’t feel like it was something that I had a right to. Healthcare should be a universal right, it shouldn’t be a privilege, and so I started thinking about PrEP within this context.

The drug is something that gays and queers are trusting in medically, but also psychologically it’s giving us a sense of freedom. For a lot of gay men, there was a fear of having sex and contracting HIV/AIDS. Now that we have medication, people are living with HIV, and are living sustainable lives. So for me, part of trusting in PrEP is about breaking the stigma around the virus, and also creating awareness. Sexual liberation is something that’s part of the gay community; it’s something that we fought for, and that freedom was challenged and changed due to the AIDS crisis. PrEP allows for that liberation again, and feeling like we can be ourselves.

But people say we’re living “post”-AIDS crisis, and I’m not quite sure what that means, because AIDS is still an epidemic. We’re continuously fighting for our rights in many different ways. Also, much of the AIDS crisis gets put into a Western context. As a Kenyan, I’m aware of freedoms and rights that certain people don’t have. In Africa, money and advocacy around AIDS is just not happening, so I’m thinking about the epidemic within this global framework.    

The title of the piece and the text on the poster evoke the U.S.’ monetary motto, “In God We Trust,” suggestively questioning Gilead Sciences financial motives behind producing Truvada for PrEP. Recently, (on May 8th) Gilead announced that it will relinquish its exclusive patent on Truvada for PrEP and Teva will launch its generic brand of the medication in September 2020. Are you optimistic about this news? Do you believe the drug will become more accessible?

I believe it has to become more accessible. Pharmaceutical companies are evil in the sense that they control certain groups through medication. I don’t believe that pharmaceutical companies’ main efforts are to save lives; it’s about capital gains. And that’s sad and scary. I currently have a job at a university and I have health insurance, but when I lived in the States without healthcare for a number of years, I was always nervous. I didn’t know what would happen if I got sick. By referencing the moniker “In God We Trust,” and placing it within the context of PrEP being this larger entity—like God—that we’re supposed to believe in because it’s a magic-like drug that’s now saving our communities, I’m questioning what exactly is this hegemony and structure that we’re trusting in. We need to have more of these conversations and create dialogues; it’s about advocating for understanding what the drug is.

Image via Kris Graves.

Access to PrEP is an issue that makes the relationship between culture/identity and the body/health very clear. Your dance and movement work also plays with this relationship. Can you talk about how you see dance and choreography in relation to gender roles, identity, and physicality?

I talk a lot about “ballet bodies.” In ballet, the body is constructed; it has to be a certain way. And if you don’t conform to that specific body type, you can’t participate. As a young dancer, I struggled with being too small and the dance folk didn’t like my feet because I didn’t have arches. So I question what it means to be a different type of body from within the system. For example, in some of my calls for dancers, I don’t ask for body type. I say that I’m looking for strong and otherwise authoritative types of bodies, and if you can self identify in those words, you’re in.

I also think about the narrative within dance—which is very heteronormative and colonial. Ballet is a dance form stemming from Western hegemony—it was in the court of King Louis XIV of France, and other European courts adopted those gestures to dance for the king. So ballet speaks of power dynamics and I want to break and challenge those narratives. Dancers of color have been a part of the history of ballet, but those histories have been erased, we don’t hear about them. Misty Copeland, who’s done so much for ballet, is being seen as the first principal dancer of color in the history of American Ballet Theatre. I’m trying to bring awareness to gender and race within this heteronormative space; I want to draw out these political questions through my work. Also, I’m trying to emphasize the mastery, the labor, and the athleticism of dance. Dance is just sort of seen as this romanticized, beautiful, ephemeral endeavor, but it’s about athleticism and labor.

Let’s talk about your work in the Whitney Biennial, The Master and Form. Can you describe this installation/performance and its relationship to S&M culture?

The Master and Form at the Whitney, which was originally commissioned by the Graham Foundation here in Chicago, is a sculptural installation that has a choreography activated by dancers. The dancers come into the space, and there is an hour-long set score that they perform. For part of it, they go into these BDSM-like turnkey devices that put them into perfect dance form. There are five different positions, and they hold them for as long as they can. The device is a supporter, but also a burden because endurance and labor gets challenged. When they fall out, they stretch and then go back into position.

Then there’s this daunting, obscure wicked cage that they go into for periods of time. They stretch, release, and improvise—which is difficult for a ballet dancer to do. So I call it a BDSM playground that dancers can experiment in, work in, support each other in, feel burdened and labored in, exhausted in—but it’s this space that is challenging the dancers to be in perfect form. Because in ballet, there’s only one way to dance perfectly, and it has to be done that specific way. Dancers do this thing where they’ll perform a piece over and over again, and you’ll feel like they did it amazingly, but they believe they could do it better. That’s the kind of strange masochism of dancers—like it will never be perfect to them.

Not only are ballet dancers masochists, but also we have certain fetishes. For example, I look at feet when I watch ballet because I think that dancers’ feet are so interesting. So we have a fetishized world, it’s different than a leather kink world, but we still have the same dynamics. Another similarity is the way we talk about our hierarchies, our teachers and masters—"ballet master" is a term—so I’m showing the link between the famous ballet rigor and BDSM, between dominant/submissive relationships.

Brendan Fernandes, The Master and Form, The 2019 Whitney Biennial, New York, 2019. Performance / Installation: scaffolding, carpets, ropes, and teak wood and leather sculptures all in collaboration with Norman Kelley, Architects; choreography for 5 dancers; costuming and audio. Originally commissioned by the Graham Foundation, Chicago. Image courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photography: Matthew Carasella.

In April you signed an open letter, along with nearly 50 other Whitney Biennial artists, calling for the resignation of the Whitney board’s vice chair, Warren B. Kanders, due to his involvement in producing the tear gas canisters used against immigrants at the U.S.-Mexican border. I read in ArtNews that you were considering pulling your work from the show, but then decided that doing so would be a form of inaction. How did you come to this decision? How do you navigate this tricky road of critiquing politics through art in a way that is constructive and can actually make a difference?

First, ArtNews misquoted me a bit, because I was never going to pull out of the show. I always felt that it was important to stay in the Biennial. The work and labor that went into the piece came from so many advocates, and if I pulled out, that would have been erased. Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta created such an important Biennial group of artists that gave a platform to so many voices. So I believed that Kanders needed to resign, but I wanted to stay in the Biennial and be critical from within the system. The same way that I’m being critical of ballet, it’s from within the institution. Pulling out is an action that leaves things unresolved in a certain way. We need to find a different method to inform, challenge, and ask questions so it's heard internally. Having my work in the show, having me as an artist in the space is creating critique and disseminating ideas. Often institutions are being supported by awful money; I work at a university and there are probably some board members who haven’t been great. It’s a larger issue and I feel like I’m still making a political resonance from within. Even the words I use sometimes—movements, gestures, moving forward, inaction, and action—they’re all political words that I work with in my dances as well.

How does your personal narrative—being multicultural and having lived in many different places—influence your work?

It’s all about lived experiences. I’m a Kenyan, Indian, who grew up in Toronto, who lives in the U.S. now, and I’ve lived in other places, like the Caribbean. Moving into new spaces affect me, whether it’s just the daily life experience of being challenged because I’m queer, understanding traditions and relations with my family, or just being in a foreign place and trying to figure out if this place is a home for me. I will say, my cultural identity is one thing but my countercultural identities are also important. So growing up as a young boy in Toronto, punk rock was a big part of my life. Hardcore, which is specifically the kind of punk rock that I listened to—being a vegan and being straightedge—influenced the way that I think about my work. Even the dance form in punk rock clubs, or being in New York and finding my social freedoms on the dance floor at clubs, impacted other bodies of my work. Like Free Fall (2016) and Free Fall 49 (2017), works that responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and reclaimed the dance floor as a place of resistance and openness. It’s a hybridization of different experiences that make me who I am.

And that continues to happen. Identity is something that’s constantly in flux, being challenged and changed in so many ways. I even initially questioned my move to Chicago from New York, and I can already see changes in my art practice because of the BDSM community in Chicago and the history of the Leather Archives and Museum here. Because I’ve moved so much, I have the ability to make places home quite easily. I feel like I have so many homes—I still feel akin to Toronto and New York, and Chicago is a new home. I’m a restless creature (I’m a dancer) and I like to experience different spaces. Being able to have many homes means that we’re part of many communities, and that’s important for solidarity.

I think something scary that’s happening right now is that we’re becoming more nationalistic, and that creates fractures. We’re building more fears about bodies; we’re getting more afraid of our differences when we shouldn’t be thinking about these differences, but the solidarities. I say that word solidarity over and over, but I believe that it breaks down the binaries. These are pretty anxious political times. In Detroit last week, Nazi’s broke into the Pride parade. I’m happy it’s Pride month and that we’re all partying, but within us gathering and celebrating, we also need to be conscious of the work that continues. As an artist, I feel it’s my responsibility to make work that questions freedoms and civil rights to create social solidarities. 

Brendan Fernandes, Free Fall 49, The Getty, Los Angeles, 2017. Live performance, dance platforms, event lighting, DJ and original score. Image courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

This September, you’re staging a performance at the Noguchi Museum in Queens. What can we expect? 

The Noguchi Museum will open the second chapter of The Master and Form, which will look at my dance background through the Graham technique. After ballet, I started dancing the Martha Graham technique and I actually got injured and stopped dancing. Martha Graham was always seen as that other form—ballet was the concept of body, and Graham was the hair-down, barefoot notion. Graham is super technical and also has it’s own mastery and form, so I’m looking at the collaborations between architect Isamu Noguchi and Martha Graham. Currently, a number of sets that Noguchi designed for Graham are on view at the museum. I’m going to come in and intervene with a new sculptural installation. I’ve taken one of the chairs that he made, a rocking chair created for Martha Graham’s dance performance Appalachian Spring (1944), and I’ve been working with Norman Kelly Architecture to create a version of this chair that feels like a BDSM rocking chair. So the chair is now utilitarian, and one of the main tasks of the choreography that starts the piece is that the dancers have to sit in this chair and use their core to not let it rock. The position that they use to do it is called contraction, which is the core of the Martha Graham technique. That’s a little hint of what will happen at the The Noguchi Museum. 

 

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