Canadian-American Performance Artist
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Progression of Art
In this performance, Cassils wears a prosthetic mask that gives them the appearance of having had their eyes ripped out of their sockets (and also renders the artist unable to see), as well as a blonde wig, pink body thong, and a dark tan. During the performance Cassils stands on a wooden platform held seven feet off the ground by construction scaffolding and performs a bodybuilding routine of flexing poses, designed to show off muscle definition and body shape in slow motion for six minutes, holding the deep muscular contractions for such long periods of time that their limbs begin to shake. The performance is made cinematic not only by the use of special effects makeup, but also by the presence of film-set lighting, a special effects crew, and ambient soundtrack. The original performance was funded by the Franklin Furnace Performance Art Fund, and the resulting film went on to be screened at the Asian Experimental Video Festival in Hong Kong, Festival Ciné à Dos in Koulikoro (Mali), at Art Cinema Zawya in Cairo (Egypt) and Cultureel tetras de Kaaij, Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Hard Times was conceived in order to call attention to the high level of effort and exertion that goes into creating and maintaining one's physical image, and links this to the notion of consumer culture and film production. By performing a bodybuilding routine in slow motion and presenting viewers with muscles that tremble as they strain to maintain the poses, Hard Times not only emphasizes the physical demands of altering one's appearance, but also alludes to the psychological and emotional strain involved in such transformation. The figure that Cassils becomes for the performance is inspired by Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes who was transformed from male to female form for seven years.
Performance and film
As in Hard Times, the central figure that Cassils references in this four to five hour performance is Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes who was transformed from male to female for seven years. Tiresias was clairvoyant and interpreted bird songs to predict the future. In the performance, Cassils presses their nude body against the back of a block of ice carved into the form of a neoclassical Greek male torso while lit by a single beam of white light from above. As the performance progresses, Cassils' body heat melts the block. Visitors are welcome to walk around the plexiglass platform on which Cassils and the ice sculpture stand, and to take in the performance from all angles.
Tiresias was also captured as a single channel video installation that condenses the performance into a fifteen-minute loop, shown in two different shots: one which shows Cassils from the waist up, and the other showing close-ups of the subtle transformations taking place, such as the formation of water droplets, and the reddening of Cassils' skin. This video is rear-projected onto floating plexiglass, and accompanied by an ambient soundtrack which combines bird songs, the sound of melting ice, and a vocal performance of Fran Schubert's Winterreise (Winter Journey). This vocal was performed by Cassils' brother Matthew Cassils, a classically-trained opera singer who collaborated on the sound design for Tiresias with designer Kadet Khuhne. As theatre professor Maurya Wickstrom notes, "The Shubert [sic] songs of the score tune broken-hearted human suffering to the cruel, icy elements of winter, the world of ice and human feeling bound together. But these are joined by the sounds of birds and melting ice, which cannot help but sound like spring, the moment of creation."
By melting the sculpture with their body heat, Cassils calls attention to the instability of the body, and in particular, the impermanence of the desirable human physique. As performance researcher Megan Hoetger writes, "As with most of Cassils's performances, Tiresias is about endurance and transformation, but it is also about physical process's intersection with the disjunctures from the visual and vision itself". Moreover, unlike Tiresias' transformation, Cassils offers the audience a trans body that is not, as they explain, "about a crossing from one sex to another, but [...] a continual becoming, a process-oriented way of being that works in a space of indeterminacy, spasm, and slipperiness." This demonstrates to the audience "the resolve required to persist at the point of contact between masculine and feminine".
Wickstrom asserts that the piece, like much of the recent work in queer studies, deals with the notion of temporality. As she writes about the performance, "time in this room was marked by the primordial substance - water - dripping, each drop by slow drop magnified as if by the echo chamber of a cave, although actually by electronic amplification [...] I felt the desire to stay with Cassils, or simply to stay with. This was, I think, a response to an extraordinary innovation in time that Cassils created, and my desire to stay with that time. This particular kind of time, and the desire to stay with, has to do with what we may desire without perhaps knowing that we do: a temporality dislodged from those temporalities that bind people within the various apparatuses of hypertrophic capitalism. The piece created a temporal sanctuary from those times variously described as 'chrononormative time', 'homogeneous, empty time', 'chronological duration', or 'the pure and simple repetition of the worst', all of which construct time without the possibility of innovation, revolt, or the illuminated present."
Performance, Sculpture, and Video
Becoming An Image
This performance was originally presented at the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, the oldest active LGBTQIA+ archive in the United States, and was subsequently re-enacted at various other venues. In it, a 2000-lb block of clay sat in the center of a pitch-black room. Cassils, wearing only a pair of skin-tone underwear, then proceeded to physically modify the block using the force of their own body, kicking and punching the clay in order to alter its form. Sporadic camera flashes from a photographer illuminated this process for only a moment at a time, providing viewers with mere glimpses of the transformation, and burning these momentary images onto the viewers' retinas. The images were therefore able to be seen by the audience between the flashes on the camera, diminishing as their eyes readjusted to the dark.
The captured images, which went on to be shown at other exhibitions of Cassils' work (alongside the modified blocks of clay), present the artist in the throes of this strenuous activity, grimacing and dripping sweat. Audio of the performance was also recorded and presented at subsequent exhibitions, as the sound of Cassils' physical exertion was an integral part of the work. The performance lasted 24 minutes. In 2015, Cassils was awarded a Creative Capital Grant to cast the remnants of the clay blocks in bronze. The resulting bronze sculptures were called The Resilience of the 20% or The Monument Project.
Cassils trained with a professional Muy Thai boxer to prepare for the performance in which they physically attacked the block of clay. Through the strenuous effort it required to physically re-shape the clay, Cassils offered a commentary on the amount of work it takes to develop and maintain one's body, and simultaneously, one's identity. The violence of their activity also alludes to the violence experienced by trans individuals around the world, and Cassils understands the modified block of clay as a monument to trans people's perseverance and fortitude. The performance was also carefully constructed as to implicate the witness (here, the viewer who glimpsed the performance through the camera flashes) into this dialogue. In this way, Cassils sought to make visible the historically invisible histories of trans individuals. As curator Jeanne Vaccaro writes, "[t]he opponent Cassils constructed is meant to symbolize overwhelm, inescape, and being stuck [sic], feelings incited by transphobia, racism, and sexual violence." Vaccaro continues, "The image is always a flicker, and the performance feels like a composite of physiological and emotional reactions. Cassils incites a productive disorientation in us, slowing down the sensory perceptive and cognitive reflexives of sight and sound we rely on. Becoming an Image undoes, in order to reassemble, how we make sense of and experience our environment [...] Cassils constructs an opportunity for the audience to form a collective body, pushing us out of a state of passive witnessing and into an ethical encounter."
Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture
Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture emerged from Cassils' Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions Artist Research Grant. This was offered to the artist in order to create a performance for Pacific Standard Time, an initiative launched by the Getty in conjunction with various arts institutions in Southern California. The project began with a six month durational performance, inspired by Eleanor Antin's 1972 durational performance Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, in which Antin undertook an extremely strict diet (aimed at weight loss) for forty-five days, documenting her body's transformation daily by taking photographs of her naked body from four different angles. Similarly, Cassils adopted a strict regimen of diet and bodybuilding exercises. This time however the objective was to gain twenty-three pounds of muscle over twenty-three weeks. They documented their progress through the use of photography, resulting in a grid of images reminiscent of Victorian-era British-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, as well as video installations, watercolors, and a magazine, all of which have gone on to be exhibited at venues worldwide.
Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture both references and subverts Antin's earlier work. While Antin's performance enacted what is traditionally seen as a feminine activity (weight loss), Cassils' reinterpretation involved the transformation of their body into a muscular form that is generally coded as masculine (certainly in the West). As scholar E. Hella Tscaconas writes, "the bounded, durational process of building a body destabilizes the hegemony of normative gender by producing the remarkable copresence of a virtuosic masculine musculature manifest on a putatively female body." The use of the term "cuts" in the title of the work highlights the way that Cassils uses exercise to emphasize the "cut" of their musculature, rather than being "cut" by a surgeon's knife. Indeed, in both their artistic and physical training careers, Cassils seeks to demonstrate that being trans does not necessarily have to involve transforming one's body through the use of hormones or surgery, and that nutrition and exercise can also be used to alter one's physical appearance.
Durational Performance (documented in photography and video)
For Inextinguishable Fire, Cassils stood upon a sound stage with their arms outstretched whilst wearing a white, flame-retardant suit in front of a backdrop painted with a sunset. For fourteen seconds, Cassils held this pose whilst set alight, until two silhouetted men emerge from either side to extinguish the fire. This performance was filmed at 1000 frames per second using a high-speed Phantom camera, and was then turned into a fourteen-minute video showing the scene in slow-motion. The video begins with an extreme close-up of the centre of Cassils' chest, and then zooms out to reveal the full scene, before re-winding and repeating. The film, which was made first, is also shown immediately following the live version of Inextinguishable Fire that they have performed. This included a live burn on the stage of the National Theatre in London in 2015, for SPILL Festival of Performance. Just as Cassils underwent intensive physical training to prepare for their other work, as in Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture and Becoming an Image, the preparation for this piece included extensive stunt training in order to learn how to perform a full body burn. A professional stunt crew was hired to assist in the performance.
Cassils' Inextinguishable Fire was inspired by Harun Farocki's 1969 film of the same name, which began with a narration regarding the challenge of presenting the effects of napalm on the human body. The narration states "[w]hen we show you pictures of napalm victims, you'll shut your eyes. You'll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you'll close them to the memory. And then you'll close your eyes to the facts." Farocki then shows himself extinguishing a lit cigarette on his arm, offering viewers a more tolerable representation of the pain and trauma of being burnt. Cassils explains that "I see the fire stunt functioning in a similar way. My act of self-immolation gestures toward the desire to know and understand this horror, as well as the impossibility of doing so. How can I enact empathy when my own situation is so removed from the immediacy of torture and war?"
There is also an important element of critique in both Farocki's original film and Cassil's reimagining of it. As they continue, '[m]any of us are so saturated with brutalized imagery that a distance is created. Likewise so many images are fed to us at such rapid succession that the ability to analyze and think critically about these images is reduced. People 'like' articles on FaceBook and Twitter based on the fleeting headlines. People don't even read the articles anymore. My hope is that by creating a film where at first you think you are looking at a traumatized body, but at the end of the film you realize you are looking at an image constructed to manipulate you into thinking you are looking at a traumatized body, that people will think more critically about the construction of such imagery and pay closer attention. I was inspired by Farocki's concept of using images to critique images."
By juxtaposing the film against the live performance, Cassils pushes the audience one step further, forcing them to bear witness to the sight, sounds, and smells of a real traumatic event, rather than viewing it in a purely mediated form. The artist explains, "[s]omething I'm very interested in is implicating the viewer in the act of watching. They're not just passive people that walk up -- they're part of the piece." The white suit and Christ-like pose that Cassils' dons in the performance can be read as embodying two otherwise opposing ideas, recalling both the divine (Jesus, and even Joan of Arc), as well as the malicious (the KKK). Moreover, by looping the performance on film, Cassils highlights the cyclical nature of violence.
This work represents a turning point in Cassils career, marking the point at which they take a step back from creating work that deals explicitly with trans experiences, and instead towards a broader project that addresses the violence and trauma experienced by a wide variety of marginalised groups of people. Inextinguishable Fire also alludes to the use of burning throughout history as a reaction against sexual deviancy, heresy, and witchcraft, for example, as well as more contemporary examples, such as the burning videos produced by ISIS, and the fires that burn at protests against police brutality. Cassils explains, "I continue to make work that addresses trans representation. However I feel frustrated at the limits by which my work is perceived in a way which rests solely on my body and identity. Specifically a fetishized muscular body. That being said, it was important for me to make self-empowered, self-transforming pieces such as; Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, Tiresias and Hard Times, but I now trust that the trans content is inherently 'in' the work [...] I want to play with formal possibilities which embrace the obtuse and the unrecognizable. I am curious as to what ideas and questions can come from continual transformation."
Live performance and film
Pissed is a sculpture comprised of a minimalist plexiglass cube filled with two hundred gallons of the artist's urine. It was collected over the course of two hundred days and preserved with boric acid. The cube is displayed alongside a grid of 255 disinfected orange urine containers, used by the artist to collect their urine, each marked with the date of urine collection. For the final two hours of the 4800 hour collection period, in a performance titled Fountain, Cassils stood on stage in front of an audience, drank a jug of water, urinated into a funnel while covering their genitals with a tank top, and deposited the urine into the plexiglass cube.
Like many of Cassils' other performances, Pissed was accompanied by an audio track. The audio track featured two hours of oral arguments from the 2018 Supreme Court case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender male teen in Virginia who fought for the right to use the boys' bathroom at his school. These oral arguments alternate between adults who quoted the bible in order to oppose Grimm, and fourteen-year-old Grimm's direct responses to these bullies. Cassils explains that the audio "is a way of re-contextualizing the piece as a real-world issue. It places the problem on a real body. Since it's just audio, you don't know what this boy looks like. This body could belong to anybody. This body could be yours."
The piece was conceived in response to the Trump administration's discriminatory reversal of the Obama administration's executive order that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of their choosing. Cassils explained, "the sculpture was to showcase to people just how much fluid one body needs to contend with as the result of a government ordinance." They continue by saying that it "seems insane that I have to make a cube of piss for people to get this idea. I shouldn't have to make this. I shouldn't have to hold my own urine. It's crazy that we have to go to these extremes but this is the culture that we're living in." As art historian David J. Getsy asserts, Pissed "offered a defiant material presence that resists the ways in which 'privacy' has been weaponized against transgender lives [and] makes the case that bodily processes are already public and political." Indeed, Cassils' urine collection was made public, not only during the two-hour performance Fountain, which implicated a live audience in a performance of witnessing (thereby evoking empathy, a common goal of many of their performances), but throughout the entire two hundred days, as they carried around the large urine collection containers at all times. The artist's friends were also involved in the process, as Cassils was unable to carry the urine collection containers when travelling by air, and thus they recruited friends to collect their own urine during these periods.
Durational sculpture (200 gallons of urine, 18,000 grams of boric acid, and acrylic)