An interview with Heather Cassils

Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s “Telephone” music video — epic for both its overabundance of pop culture reference as well as its 9 minute running time — has officially reached 1 billion internet viewings. Many of those eyes were focused on the very queer intro, featuring genderqueer stripping, kissing and dubious acting in the County Jail, Prison for Bitches.

The most interesting interaction during this extended intro comes from relative unknown bodybuilder and performance artist Heather Cassils, who has no qualms about sitting herself next to Gaga and capturing her in a naughty embrace.

But Cassils is better at more than just making out. The Los Angeles-based personal trainer and performance artist is fascinating for her ideas on art, gender, popular culture. Here are some of her answers to the most pressing questions of her wide-eyed watchers including upcoming projects, perspective her own personal gender identity, and presentation, and even a glance into her love life.

AfterEllen.com: Is it still radical for two women to be kissing in a music video? On television? Why was your kiss a bigger deal than the lady cop in “Lovegame?” Is it because of your gender ambiguity? Or because the other kiss was so fleeting?

Heather Cassils: I think my kiss was a bigger deal because most “girl on girl” action in mainstream media is created for a male audience and represented in a chaste and sweet, unthreatening way.

People tell me they thought my kiss with Gaga was really hot — more similar to how gay men are shown making out — because it contains a raw sexuality that goes beyond me being a man or a woman. It just gets to people’s groins and that is powerful. I didn’t necessarily intend it to be that way. It just happened.

P.S. I don’t consider myself a woman, but more on that later.

AE: Talk about the video as a vehicle for your work.

HC:

In my artwork, I use my body as my medium and I address many subjects — gender representation being one of them. 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.

Visual impressions have a lot of power, more power than language. I see my inclusion in the Gaga video as a sort of infiltration. If my job as artist is to think about how various symbols combine to make meaning, than I could say that being in the Gaga video, and all the dialogue that has come out of being included in the video, is an extension of my art practice not just a vehicle.

I see my body as a conceptual sculpture, a critique of the social pressure we feel to make our bodies conform to an aesthetic and cultural ideal.

AE: What projects do you have in the works right now?

HC:

I am currently prepping for a New York City performance of Hard Times, which I debuted in LA in 2009 at IT’S (A)LIVE: BRAVE LIVE ART FROM LOS ANGELES, Gallery 114. It will be included in Movement Research’s Spring 2010 Festival entitled “Hardcorps,” curated by A.L. Steiner, Aki Sasamoto, Melanie Maar and Walter Dundervill.

I perform this piece blind, wearing a prosthetic mask that makes my eyes appear to have been removed from their sockets. I wear a frosted blond wig and the deep tan of a bodybuilding lady. Clad in a coral body thong, I teeter seven feet in the air on plank of slippery wood upheld by construction scaffolding. For six minutes, I perform a body building routine in slow motion. I manipulate my body into the poses with a very controlled, methodical and deliberate slowness borrowed from butoh dance. Holding such deep muscular contractions for extended periods causes an overload of the central nervous system — all my limbs convulse and shake uncontrollably.

Hard Times responds to the culture of consumption and denial with an image of a body that sputters and twitches with exertion to maintain its manicured surface. For this performance, I must pack on an additional ten pounds of muscle.

I am also developing two new works for an exhibition called Los Angeles Goes Live, opening in 2011, which will be a survey show featuring performance art made in Southern California from 1970-1983. I have been commissioned to create a work that speaks directly to the history of artists working in this period from this region.

AE: What’s your workout routine?

HC:

I run my own small training business out of a gym in Silver Lake called “Body Builders Gym.” I see around seven clients a day in addition to maintaining my own art practice. Although I’m not working myself when I’m with my clients, I am moving around a ton and this builds strength and muscle. On my own, I work out around one hour 3 to 4 days a week with weights. In addition I run, box, hike, and jump rope around five hours a week. I also take at least one yoga class a week to keep me limber and injury free.

AE: In the Out interview, you touched briefly on trans issues, saying that you don’t identify as trans, but that you sort of do. Can you expand on that a bit? Does your gender presentation in real life and your work differ?

HC:

It’s a difficult question to answer because even my own feelings about it aren’t entirely clear. Although I feel male inside and I have a masculine physique, I have never taken hormones so my voice is female and I still have breasts. T–s and voice are female signifiers, so if people notice those parts of me, they read me as female. Plenty of times people think I’m a guy and I much prefer that.

In fact, the other day I was in a Korean Spa and a bunch of old ladies came running at me angrily shaking their fists saying “No no no get out!!!” I started laughing and pointed at my breasts saying “It’s OK, it’s OK, I’m a girl,” to which they started giggling and mentioning “Oh sorry sorry.”

One thing for certain is that I am not a lesbian. Not that there is anything wrong with lesbians, lots of my friends are lesbians, but I never have felt like a lesbian. Thinking back on it, I used to only date straight women and my friends would roll their eyes and tell me I had made enough converts already. But, for me, dating straight women was not about having the power to “turn them,” I dated them because, unlike lesbians, they treated me like a boyfriend. For them, being with a man was the only experience they knew. I really liked being on the other end of that. I did not like it when they broke up with me once they figured out I was not a guy.

I see diet and exercise as a way to manipulate what I’ve got. My art plays fluidly with gender, I wear wigs and thongs, as well as facial hair and a bulge in my pants.

AE: Something that all the ladies are dying to know: Are you single?

HC: No, I am not. I am happily under the spell on my love Cristy Michel, who is a fierce sexy woman with many talents. We have been together for almost two years and no, she is not straight! She’s queer and sees me for exactly who I am and supports all my crazy art making antics. She is a pro dominatrix and a hottie musician. She plays both her bass and me extremely well.

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