Interview by Göksu Kunak // Apr. 27, 2016
I have been stalking Mad Kate since I watched the documentary Sisterhood by the director Marit Östberg, on how to make queer porn. Besides her collaborations with Östberg and other influential artists such as the Tide, Mad Kate writes and performs her texts for HYENAZ, a “Techno shamanistic electro performance duo” that she founded with producer and performer TUSK.
Despite the hegemony of the nuclear family in our society, Mad Kate has a family that consists of three parents, three homes and a child. The performance ‘WOMB mamapapadada HOME’, which looks at alternative possibilities for building a family, took place at nGbK on April 24th. We met at Mad Kate’s studio-living space EXIT to talk about her perception of the body as a queer performance artist, activist and sex worker.
Göksu Kunak: “Is our hand not so different from our cock? Is our cock not so different from our cunt?…there is no body that cannot or should not be excluded. We all have queer bodies.” You wrote this in your book ALIVEness. How do you interpret a queer body?
Mad Kate: When I said the cock is not so different from the elbow, in a way I was also being metaphorical. If we think of the individual body as the body of the earth—for example, this toe is a jihadi and the eye is my mom—one has to understand that it’s still part of the same body, even if we think that the jihadi is far away from the mom that I love. That the cunt, the cock are super sexualized, “should be” covered and the elbow is not, needn’t be; that we criminalize one or shame one and not the other; such discriminations are very arbitrary. Ultimately, they are still part of the same fabric.
There is such diversity among our bodies. This is a cliché, but we tend to find categories nevertheless. A classic example: “does this person fit into a male body or female body?” There are also micro-divisions between different kinds of people. We are all completely singular genders. We can’t have enough words in our languages to encompass this infinitude of names for our individual gender. Nowadays we try, almost like using an algorithm. We’re trying to get more particular, which is good. I hold a kind of paradox in my hand: on the one hand we’re uniquely different, on the other hand, we’re more similar to each other than different, because the shades of difference are so tiny. Imagine a line and an infinite number of points along the line; the space between these points is infinitely small and yet still there is an infinite amount of points in-between. At least for me, this is an important way of thinking about each other. We can find unity and alliance with each other, rather than differentiating ourselves.
I‘m a sex worker. Recently, I had a conversation with another sex worker, who started on the streets. She pointed out the fact that I studied at a university, I came as an artist. Even though my life as an artist is not glamorous, I was still privileged with regard to this choice that I made. This is true. After university, I could have done something to make more money, which I didn’t want to. I could have chosen not to go into performance or sex work. But I did out of curiosity, following my life questions. That’s valid.
GK: But in the end, you’re in the same community.
MK: It was really interesting to be reminded of this. Even inside the most taboo, most hated profession people are trying to distance themselves from each other. Of course, we’re different in the sense that we can’t speak for each other’s bodies, but I also do believe in alliance with each other and the earth.
To some degree, with an expanded expression of queerness, every body is a queer body. The word queer grew out of LGBT. It referred to new definitions of gender and sex beyond the binary systems. We started to acknowledge that only mentioning “homosexual sex” is not enough. There are other possibilities from a gender queer perspective. Because each of our bodies and representations are different, all of us have a unique gender. Therefore any kind of sex we’re having with any kind of gender can be neither homosexual nor heterosexual. It is queer. Although there are repeatable patterns that we can talk about, there is always uniqueness in any combination of people. Of course I can’t speak for another body, but at least for myself, I find it helpful to view all bodies as queer. Meaning that I can’t define their gender for them. I can’t think of it in any specific terms. Even though you and I might have the same hair cut, the same make-up or the same high heels, our genders are still so different. I just leave that open. I would like you to tell me about it, rather than me trying to define you.
GK: Recently, in Rome, you gave a workshop called ‘What does the Body Know?’ Could you tell us more about it?
MK: The workshop was about creating performance. I didn’t know what kind of experience the participants would have. It was really experimental for me as well. I wanted to just think about the fact that we can create art out of the things we have around us. So, we can first begin with our bodies. No clothing, just with the naked body as it is. Of course, even the naked body is interpreted in terms of gender or race, or even class. But we can at least begin to just think about what we know about our own bodies. What question inspires us? I think that’s where the most interesting art is created: tying to figure out what those questions are for ourselves. What makes us feel that kind of urgency?
We were trying to occupy a no-mind space and allow the body to just do what it wants in that moment: improvisational motion. For example, when I think of the question that interests me the most, what does my body do in response? If I give my body an impulse of a thought or a physical impulse, what happens next? Just working with the basics: the first breath. Then we started to add the voice and texts. There was also a lot of nurturing each other and creating a safe space.
I guess, asking the questions that are urgent to us has a lot to do with empowerment. I think empowerment is a process of finding power and agency by having the ability to follow the questions that you’re interested in. People who are not allowed or don’t have the opportunity to follow those life questions, may feel powerless in so many ways in their lives.
GK: You said that you started with the naked body. I was also thinking that in your performances, there are so many objects that we encounter. Merleau Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception gives the example of a musician: if a violinist practices 10 hours a day, the instrument becomes like an extra limb. Do you have a specific object that became a part of your body, as a result of using it so often?
MK: Whatever we have on our bodies can say a lot. If we come on stage to perform, then we have to think about what we’re carrying with us. We have to think about the origins of it, which is a good exercise anyway. For instance, which hands made this pair of leggings? Why did I come into contact with them and what does it have to do with the concept that I’m trying to talk about? I always give importance to that and I never just grab something because it looks good or whatever. There is at least some kind of proximity as far as the concept and the thing that’s worn on the body.
GK: Activism, the state of the political body, is an important aspect of your work. Do you believe that using public space for demonstrations is enough nowadays? How about using micro/multiple temporalities instead of space? With regard to Erdem Gündüz’s (a.k.a Standing Man from Gezi) protests: by doing nothing and just standing for hours looking at a historical building, he had such a strong impact. And, of course, police were impotent to his passive resistance.
MK: That’s so impressive. I loved this tension that he created. Nevertheless, even though it’s traditional, I still have a lot of positivity about activism and demonstrations in the streets. Maybe at the moment it doesn’t feel like it, but actually it has worked so many times in history. This slow resistance, being on the street among each other has created change. I also believe that if the police, the media and governments completely ignored it, then we might be in trouble, then I would have less hope. In such a scenario, they would not believe that there is any kind of power in people voicing their opinions. But the truth is, they’re still afraid of us, otherwise they wouldn’t come out and try to block us from demonstrating.
I guess, I’ve always thought there is power and activism in performance and music. I see a terrain of activism online to some degree, because we’re so digitally connected. There is power in that. Yet, it also feels quite removed. To me it is more removed, when someone just presses “Like,” or signs the petition. But again, as cliché as it is, we do find networks and communities online to form unity.
What’s the next terrain? What do we need to do? Even people, who show up at the protests, at the end of the day they still sign on for the nation state, which is a military instrument. It’s the security state. Somehow, if we refuse to sign on to the nation state, become stateless persons — everybody throws away their passports, stops needing the support of the state, form our own communities outside the system of money and find new forms. To me the only answer is radical non-violence: that would be really shocking to the whole system. Not easy though.
There is something so pioneering about irregular migrants, refugees, and stateless persons, about their strength and resilience against the force of the nation state. It really forces us to think about new modes of survival and struggle. It is so ridiculous that there is an airplane that goes twenty times a day between two major cities and all these thousands of people are finding other ways to do it just because nation-states want to keep them out.
GK: In your texts, voice and body are crucial elements. In your opinion, how can we use this abject voice coming from the body for good? Also I recall another text of yours linking sex and migration.
MK: We were speaking earlier about imagining our bodies as an extension of the whole world. What kind of an action will that imagination require of us? We don’t want to cut our hand off. We generally try to make the body survive as a whole. To some extent that starts by just being able to touch other people.
One thing that I’ve been exploring a little bit is how the power of touch makes a difference in a performative space. Beginning with ourselves; first, finding the no-mind space and understanding some of our impulses. Intuition is being taken out from our bodies. It’s weird: we use touch-technology to track ourselves. Objects tell us when to exercise, how to get around, remembering everything for us; it is a cloud of shared information. I don’t need to really understand my surroundings or remember data or even my own birthdate. But, if we could have a different perspective on that, technology could lift us into a new space instead of being just a crutch of “measurement”. If we imagine this cloud as our memory, as our knowledge, there is a possibility to think that we are one body, a shared memory of all the things that have happened to us. We can share different kinds of identities, be in alliance with the people that are different from us. And yet, simultaneously, I have this feeling that we have to continue to be inside of ourselves, our bodies. Scoop out the guts.
What does the gut tell me to do? We should challenge ourselves to touch each other, to look into each others’ eyes. It doesn’t need to be that we’re all in polyamorous situations. But in whatever the situation, with our partner(s), there are ways to use that intimacy, where you’ve gone beyond your own body, where we imagine the lines between bodies being blurred. Borders being blurred. These small imaginative games can begin to make that transformation. I know it sounds very idealistic, but I think it begins there. That effects how we think about people in a room or in an assemblage (the kind of entitlement we feel or don’t feel, in relation to them). Sex is such a great place to think about the body being shared. You can think about where the locus of your actual orgasm is. Is it really located in the genitalia? It is actually in the brain. In fact, sex is not only about the body, it is about imagination. There are a lot of interesting possibilities.
GK: On the 24th you performed ‘WOMB mamapapadada HOME’ in NGBK as a part of the exhibition Father Figures Are Hard To Find. It is about your family and your child, who are in a situation very different from usual notions of the nuclear family and the economy of reproduction. Could you tell us more about it?
MK: As a kid, I always wanted to have children, because I love the playfulness of children. They are very close to having an unfiltered view. Coming into contact with kids gives us an amazing ability to see the world with fresh eyes. Then I thought, why should it be the terrain of the heteronormative family? Why should queers not have kids too? Why should feminists not raise boys? I was also fascinated with the idea of giving birth, the ability of a body. I’m a very physical person, and it is pretty amazing what our bodies can do. But what I didn’t want was to have a child in a context where the trust and safety for the kid would be lost or put under some kind of duress if I didn’t have sex with my partner anymore or if we weren’t in love with each other anymore or if I wanted to have sex with lot of other people. I didn’t want to feel that my child was limiting my life, or having it in a prescribed way in a nuclear family.
What really concerns me about the nuclear family is the consumerism around it. When we choose to be happy consumers, we buy a system of violence that feeds the military state, the prison state, the corporate state. It is interesting to me that once you change some of the dynamics of the nuclear family, you can change a lot of things as well. The grounds for having a family of multiple parents in a more shared community has to do with the economies of being outside of consumer society. For example, our kid has three parents. Each of us lives in a different place, so she gets three different environments. She is very adaptable. In each of these three homes, she also has another set of people. I live with my husband and with my lover/art partner. With her papa, she lives with him and his roommate. Mama also lives with another roommate and the roommate has a kid as well. There are also other friends, lovers. There are a lot of people looking after her. She has so many grandmas! Besides that, none of us earn that much money, all three of us are artists and sex workers. That helps us to support each other, do the art we love, travel and be parents at the same time. None of us have extremely extravagant lifestyles or anything but even just providing child care is work we can do by working less at traditional jobs.
From the very beginning we had to advocate for our family. We were thinking about a home-birth, however mama was in labour for a long time and she had to be taken to the hospital. As soon as we entered the hospital we had to deal with certain regulations. And when we had to have a Cesarean section, they said only two people were allowed to enter. So, we had to say that we are three parents and we all want to be there. Already we were fighting through the labour itself. At least, they let all three of us in, in the end.
GK: What about when she starts going to school? This kind of socialization you’re avoiding might prevail.
MK: It is challenging to some degree. Even just this routine. She is going to a kita and she has to be there at 9 o’clock. You are controlled by the clock. Why does it have to be like that? Kita imposes a system even though we have a relaxed sense of how things should be. It’s always hard to say. There are also kids that do better in a regulated environment. But I don’t know. It is a really diverse kita. There are a lot of other migrant families as well. We feel pretty strongly that it is good for the kid to be in a diverse environment as much as possible and to not try to shelter our kid, especially in a queer-only environment.
Before they were really verbal, kids weren’t talking about their parents. Now new questions start to come up. In our family there is mama, papa and dada – and I’m dada. A lot of kids struggle when they see me because I present as female, they think I’m mama. So she’s starting to get this thing that mama is a gendered thing. But, we also don’t talk about gender so much. We just try to be quite gender-neutral or gender-multiple. We talk about genitalia, but she doesn’t think that men have penises and women have vulvas. She sees different bodies with vulvas, dick-clits, penises… Even though it is “confusing” when presented in relation to a gender-binary society, it is good to introduce her to this. This is how the world is. She is going to be pioneering to some degree.
GK: How do you turn this life into a performance?
MK: Well, by bringing the private into the public. So, we involve texts and videos that we all wrote. We set up spaces that symbolize our homes; we show the ways we interact with our kid through actions. We try to show how the nuances of being queer sex workers and pro-sex feminists bleed into the way that we parent. How does our language differ? Sometimes you don’t even realize. You just think that’s how it is, your life is normal. It was the first time that we performed together.
Göksu Kunak is a freelance writer based in Berlin. Besides being one of the editors of mono.kultur, she contributes to Ibraaz as an Editorial Correspondent. Soon, she will be writing her PhD on queer chronopolitics and performance art/contemporary dance.