Cassils Takes On Fire and Ice

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This weekend, Cassils embarks on a tour Europe of performances and exhibitions, starting with a solo show at the Museum of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. We caught up with our 2015 awardee to find out how they use their body to combat fire (literally) and stereotypes.
Alex Teplitzky: In a 2012 artist statement you describe yourself as an “artist and a bodybuilder.” I love the juxtaposition of the two, forcing us to really reconsider what we already think we know about body art. Can you tell me about your artistic background, and when you started realizing you could blend the two practices together?
Cassils: I have changed my statement from “artist and body builder” to say: “Implementing rigorous physical training practices and queering their knowledge of kinesiology and sports science, they formally manipulate the body into shapes that defy expectations.” Because people do not understand that bodybuilding, in and of itself is a gendered practice. When you walk into a gym often a trainer will create a different kind of program for a woman then for a man. This is based on social expectations of what these bodies are supposed to look like but physiologically if you train for strength and size there is no way in which the training differs. So it is about queering sports science and adapting these methods of bodybuilding towards my own end of self transformation.
As for my background I have always been an artist. When I was eleven years old I had undiagnosed gallbladder disease which reeked havoc on my body as I went untreated for three years. I got to the point where my bile ducts ruptured and I was hospitalized for some time. I was very ill and at one point almost bled out due to a bleeding ulcer. I came face to face with my mortality at age 14. This got me interested in advocating for my own body and this is how I started learning about the body which in turn led me to a career as a personal trainer. I help people learn about their bodies and be present, healthy and connected in a society that insists upon slumping over your computer, eating fast food and charges you when you get sick. Being an artist, I have always supported myself with my work as a personal trainer. I have run my own business now for 17 years. As I do a lot of both practices and so the two have informed each other over the years.


Cassils // Inextinguishable Fire – Trailer
Heather Cassils, MU, Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Heather Cassils, MU, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, photo credit: Hanneke Wetzer


Alex: In your Creative Capital project, you refer to “senseless acts of violence against trans and queer bodies beyond the historical lens.” Are you referring to any specific instance–personal or otherwise?
Cassils: I am referring to a epidemic that has always been present. People of color, transgender people, and gender nonconforming people continued to experience higher rates of homicide. LGBT people of color represented 73.1% of homicide victims. Black and African-American people were particularly overrepresented in the homicide rates: over half of reported hate murders had Black or African-American victims, even though Black and African American people made up only 15% of total survivors and victims of hate crime
This process commences with children. Children ages k through 12 experience bullying and harassment in school. The system in place to make trans people of color disappear. This is inherently part of that is criminal justice system.
Heather Cassils, MU, Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Heather Cassils, MU, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, photo credit: Hanneke Wetzer


Alex: What can we expect to see at your European solo show?
Cassils: Incendiary showcases my live durational works and the resulting performative objects, which melt, vibrate, flash and burn with visceral intensity. MU is one of four spaces in the Netherlands to show international work. The space is something to behold: A gutted industrial factory. A raw sea of cement with vaulted ceilings.
Here I am premiering my latest work, Inextinguishable Fire, a film I made in dialogue with Harun Farocki’s film of the same name, made in 1969. Both works are all about the impossibility of imagining certain forms of trauma and violence. In it I perform a fire stunt known as a “full body burn” where I am engulfed in flames. The score works in tandem with a slow motion zoom that opens up over the course of the 14-minute film, revealing new information, which constantly shifts the context and meaning of the image as a whole. Inextinguishable Fire is projected floor to ceiling with an amazing soundtrack that will highlight the labor of my talented sound designer Kadet Kuhne who has created with me a score completely out of folly sound.  The way in which sound operates is that you will identify at first with the burning victim; the flames licking in your ear, the material singeing as if it was your own. However, as the camera moves away, you hear the burning body across from you with ever increasing distance. I wanted to speak to the constant stream of mediated images in our Facebook feeds and play with how identification, alienation and mediation play into the way we experience violent images.
Across from this projection is Farock’s original film. In addition to Inextinguishable Fire there will also be a live performance of Becoming An Image, the bashed sculpture left for the remainder of the exhibition with a flashing strobe going off at random to simulate the conditions of the original performance but with the absence of the body of the performer and the photographer.
There will be a sound installation in a separate blackout chamber, Ghost, accessible with a small flashlight you wind your way through light proof corridors to discover this four channel piece, which traces my body as I dart around you, delivering wet punches and breathing sharply. Here you follow my heart rate as it rises from 112 beats per minute to 220 beats, bringing you both inside and outside my performing body.
You then make your way into yet another light locked chamber which has a rear projection of floating plexi of the performance Tiresias. Tiresias is a four to five hour performance in which I pressed myself up against a neo classical Greek male sculpture carved from ice to fit my body with precision. Throughout the piece I melt the masculine physique with the warmth from my body. Finally there are a series of large scale images from all of these performances, drawing out the various processes involved behind the end image. There will also be a publication with brilliant essays by art historian David Getsy and former Toxic Titty and smartypants Julia Steinmentz. All in all this is a big moment for me, where I have been provided with a wonderful team of people to work with. I am so grateful to MU for the Arts for this opportunity.

Heather Cassils, MU, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, photo credit: Hanneke Wetzer


Alex: In an interview with Carlos Motta, I referred to a criticism he had of Creative Capital where the org had labeled bathrooms as “male” and “female.” As our organization has been supporting more trans and gender neutral artist projects, we’ve had to take the initiative to educate our staff on dealing with these issues, which may not be obvious to everyone. When I mentioned that we were evolving, Carlos said that organizations like ours could lead the way into a more progressive notion of gender. Have you had any similar experiences with institutions, organizations, or even publications similar to this?
Cassils: People think bathroom issues are fairly benign but they are not. Even when I was on the Creative Capital introductory session last month I caught uncomfortable side long glances when I entered the men’s restroom. This is partially due to the fact that I do not pass as male. I do not choose to fully conform to either end of a binary, nor do I insist on male pronouns, I do insist that I should be able to use any restroom I please. I do agree that Creative Capital should spearhead these issues and set an example. Of course this issue goes way beyond bathrooms. I encounter this experience of having to explain my self and educate others about  gender non conforming subjects, almost on a daily basis and especially when I am speaking about my work. Though there is a trend right now to talk about trans politics, most people do not have much of a grasp on it. This can be frustrating at times but it is where we are at as a society. I would rather educate folks then preach to the choir.
Alex: You have two shows/performances in Europe. Have you noticed any differences between Europe and the US so far regarding these gender issues? I wonder, for instance, what their experience with using pronouns and ambiguous identities is.
Cassils: I have had probably more like 15 + performance events in Europe actually, Alex. I prefer not to make sweeping statements about cultures that can have nuanced relationships to such issues depending on where you are and who you are speaking to. I can not speak to whole nations let alone a continent. Much like how one might have a positive experience in a large city like NYC and a negative one in rural Louisiana, the same is true of everywhere. Though I will say I feel that the old world is more entrenched in tradition, there is a different set of entitlement with old world values and colonial histories that make the conversation different. Not that that is not present in North america to a equal degree but it is different.
Cassils’ solo exhibition, Incendiary, is now on display at the Museum of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. Click here to find out more about her Creative Capital project, The Resilience of the 20%: The Monument Project.


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