Cassils - Biography and Legacy
Canadian-American Performance Artist
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Biography of Cassils
N.B. Cassils uses the plural pronouns "they", "them", and "their", as, in their own words, "this plurality reflects, through language, the position Cassils occupies as an artist".
Cassils was born in Toronto (Canada) and moved with their middle-class family to Montreal in Quebec when they were four years old. Cassils has three brothers (one older, and two younger). One of Cassils' grandmothers was a painter, and although their parents were, as they put it, "artistically inclined", they didn't take up any serious artistic pursuits. As a child Cassils had to seek out art on their own, and from a young age would draw obsessively for several hours a day. Cassils' best friend during childhood was Brendan Healy, who would go on to become the director of Canadian Stage, a not-for-profit contemporary theatre company in Toronto.
As a child, after suffering from an unknown ailment between the ages of nine to thirteen, Cassils was finally diagnosed with gallbladder disease. As they recall, "I almost died during that period - the doctors opened me up and found out that my organs were rotting. It made me interested in understanding my own body and my mortality. I began to go to the YMCA and weight train at 15 because I was so tiny and weak." This interest in their own body and in the power of bodybuilding to sculpt the human form would go on to become a central aspect of their future artistic practice.
Education and Early Training
Cassils received a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax in 1997. This was the first time that they were exposed to contemporary art, particularly art that was informed by Marxist theory and feminist discourse, as well as work involving the use of the artist's body. The curriculum at NSCAD was often distinct from the teaching techniques favoured by more conventional art colleges. Figure drawing classes, for example, involved models jumping on trampolines rather than standing still. Cassils recalls that "[m]ajor experimentation was happening. Everything was played with. That notion of working within a system but working against a system still resonates with me." Instructors Jan Peacock and Garry Neil Kennedy were particularly influential as Cassils was developing their early political and identity-focused video and performance work. Cassils notes however that the climate at NSCAD was at the time still heavily dominated by white men, and that the students were not exposed to the work of many artists of color or female artists.
Upon graduating from NSCAD, Cassils moved to New York City, where they interned at Franklin Furnace from 1997 to 2000. This position involved assisting Martha Wilson (who had formed Franklin Furnace in 1976 as part of her own reaction against the male-dominated atmosphere at NSCAD) with the digitization of the expansive archive of performance. Wilson and Cassils remain close friends to this day. During this time, Cassils also staged exhibitions and performances at the Holland Tunnel Gallery, the Limelight, and PS122.
In 2000, Cassils relocated to California to attend the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), after securing a merit scholarship. They graduated from this program with an MFA in 2002. As Cassils notes, CalArts has a strong connection to NSCAD and its alumni, but, unlike the Canadian institution, CalArts is also an important site in the history of feminist artistic practice. One important course that Cassils participated during her time at the Institute was Michael Asher's "Post-Studio Critique" class, which would often run from ten in the morning to ten at night on Fridays. In this class Cassils was introduced to the experimental principles of duration and endurance, as well as different forms of Institutional Critique. Cassils recalls Asher as being "someone who was living their practice" and says that the class was a "deeply rigorous experience".
While undertaking these studies at CalArts, Cassils (along with photographer Clover Leary and performance artist Julia Steinmetz) co-founded a performance collective Toxic Titties. Cassils explains that, although they had hoped graduate school would be a space for experimentation and collaboration, it in fact carried an air of pretention, with well-off students setting up small galleries in their studios and aiming to sell art from early on. Toxic Titties was started as a way to counter this atmosphere. The group focused on creating multidisciplinary, process-oriented, and event-based conceptual performances, many of which dealt with issues of identity. For nearly a decade, Toxic Titties performed and exhibited at venues across the US. One of the most famous of their interventions was at Vanessa Beecroft's VB46 at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, for which Cassils had been invited to work as a performer. The Toxic Titties instead critiqued power relations (relating to gender identity and class) by engaging Beecroft's female performers in a critical dialogue. As Cassils explains, "There were masochistic rules for the models [...] We all had to wear the same size shoe, so feet were compressed in small, tight heels. Her team did not tell us they would be removing all our pubic hair so when we sat down we were spread-eagle to the art world. I learned you can't use a body of a person as a formal brushstroke. You can't separate someone's identity and just say that it's form." The end result of this intervention was the unionization of the performers' group and an increase in their pay. It was through interventions like this that art historians and scholars like Amelia Jones, Jennifer Doyle, Christine Ross, and José Esteban Muñoz first became acquainted with Cassils.
After graduating from CalArts in 2002, Cassils remained in Los Angeles until 2005. They say of living in the city that "[t]o inhabit Los Angeles is to live on a film set - indeed, to inhabit any city whose culture is defined by mass culture of consumption is to find oneself defined by the images we consume. Of course, Los Angeles looks different when you pull back the frame of the camera and see the poverty and dashed dreams. It's a strange city that I love for its extremity. As a Canadian, I have a sort of anthropological take on it; I see LA as America with the volume turned up. There is nothing to hide, the tits are falling out of the bra, the lipstick is smeared. It's a beautiful mess, here in the city of angels".
In 2005 Cassils moved to London for two years, partly due to discontent with the American political climate at the time. In London they worked as an assistant and personal trainer to German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Cassils returned to Los Angeles in 2007, where they continue to live. Cassils claims to not have much of a social life, but does enjoy hanging out at "queer leather bars", attending community events, watching obscure Japanese New Wave cinema, and attending art events at alternative venues like the Underground Museum. One of Cassils' closest friends and mentors is American performance artist Ron Athey, who also returned to Los Angeles after time living in London. Athey, like Cassils, creates work in which the body is pushed to extremes, and the two have collaborated together in the past.
In addition to their ongoing artistic career, Cassils works as a bodybuilder and personal trainer in Hollywood (often training actors who need to get into peak physical condition for movie roles), and as a trained stuntperson. This interest in the human physique carries over to many of their artworks, such as Cuts: A Tradition Sculpture (2011-2013), and Tiresias (2011). Cassils explains, "I love the metaphor that is bodybuilding. In order to build power, size and strength you have to literally break down your muscle mass. This in turn switches on the body's survival mechanism and makes the body build back faster and stronger. This reveals a law of nature that can be applied across the board: Sometimes life falls apart to come back together. You need to break things down, to build things up. This also applies to the principles of sculpture. As an artist, I see the construction of my physique as a performance which purposely toys with the traditional process of Greek sculptors, who were said to find their ideal form by chipping away at a block of marble and discarding any unnecessary material." This sentiment is one shared by many artists who use their body as a primary tool of artistic expression, and has a long history within Performance Art.
In 2007, Cassils received a merit scholarship to participate in a residency program at the Banff Centre for the Arts, as well as a Creation Grant from the Canada Council of the Arts Intra Arts department, which funded the creation of an experimental documentary and performance titled Simulation In Training, which investigated linkages between the military-industrial complex and the Hollywood film industry.
In 2007 Cassils met Cristy Michel, who they then married four years later. Michel holds an MA in philosophy and works as a registered nurse. She is also a talented bass player and ex-dominatrix. Cassils considers Michel to be one of their most important sources of inspiration.
In 2012 Cassils started a group in Los Angeles called Bootcamp for Freaks (BCFF), in order to give back to the community and share their passion for and knowledge of fitness with community members who can't afford gym memberships or personal trainers. As Cassils explains "[h]ere in the US, the economy is bad, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Centre lost most of its funding for its AIDS centre, and health-care costs continues to rise. Many of my community of queers are artists and without health-care, so I see fitness as ground-zero for boosting the immune system and a form of preventative medicine [...] BCFF is a safe and supportive environment for trans bodies, big bodies, small bodies, strong bodies, weak bodies, men, women and everything in-between. Class is in a local park. As an extension of my art practice, BCFF was designed to be its own spectacle. People were encouraged to wear an array of outrageous outfits. Lots of people showed up, people who don't feel comfortable in straight gyms. It's a cross-over of an aerobics class and disco club - really fun." They continue, adding that "BCFF was also conceived to further my exploration of gender representation via manipulating the body. In gyms women are taught to lift light and men are taught to lift hard. Not all 'women' want to pump pastel-pink mini-weights and some 'men' would rather a thin thigh than a bulky muscular one. A main principle of this class was to queer my knowledge of sports and science."
While most of Cassils' earlier work focuses on the trans experience, from 2015 their work is broader in its address towards other marginalized groups as well. In recent years, Cassils has been doing more artistic collaborations, with artists including Rafa Esparza, Keijaun Thomas, and Arshia Fatima Haq.
The Legacy of Cassils
Cassils belongs to a lineage of durational/endurance performance art, following in the footsteps of artists like Eleanor Antin, Chris Burden, and Tehching Hsieh, who undertake high-intensity and even dangerous activities, such as living in challenging conditions for extended periods of time and/or undergoing drastic weight changes in order to highlight and comment upon violence, trauma, and empathy in society.
The trans experience is also a key factor in their art, as well as in their career as a physical trainer. Cassils strives to demonstrate that being trans does not necessarily have to mean undergoing surgeries or taking hormones in order to enact a unidirectional change from one sex to the other. Their work instead demonstrates that gender is fluid and performative, and that exercise and diet can also serve as important tools for altering the form and composition of one's body. Moreover, in their art, they work not only to create a visual language to talk about trans experience, but also to expand and create new visual vernaculars to speak to/about queer/trans identity, violence, empathy, apathy, and the importance of "liveness" in a world so heavily mediated by technology.
Cassils is also heavily influenced by the current political situation, and what they describe as "the burning question of how can artists 'inspire a culture of change'", as well as asking [w]hat can we do to support each other and reach beyond our own lived experiences and subjectivities? How can live art enhance qualities of empathy and shared present moment [sic] in a world fractured and numbed by technology. How can live work against technologies and hyperperform their otherwise neutral role in the creating of a document or a moment of truth. In oppressive times can art be a ritual and reprive? A space for healing, witnessing and empowerment. Can we use the visual to manifest a vision of futurity? Can I create the visual language I wish I had had access to as a young person - and through this new vernacular can artists save a young person's life by offering a reflection of an alternate existence?" Cassils believes strongly in leading by example and making use of one's privilege to try to include others, working closely with communities in order to expand networks to allow people to support each other. They also believe that a percentage of art sales should always go to a grassroots organization that does important work related to the theme or issue that the artwork deals with.
Their practice also has an important function of visibility, not least because their work has demonstrated significant potential to crossover into more mainstream spheres of culture (such as film, television or music), both in the person of the artist and through their training and stunt work. Cassils says that, since appearing in the Lady Gaga music video Telephone in 2009, "I've had over 15,000 people look at my artist website in one day and I now receive fan mail. Some of these letters are from very young queer people, who live in smaller cities with no support. Teens have written me from Germany, France and Scotland, telling me of their feelings of alienation and that by being the artist that I am, and by being outspoken about my beliefs, I have helped them alleviate their own personal feelings of shame around gender identity and sexuality. To me, this is truly an honour and the ultimate service I can provide as an artist."