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Travis Alabanza is bringing LGBTQI+ art centre stage

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Travis Alabanza is hoping the art guarantees the black LGBTQI+ community can take centre stage (photos: Faith Aylward and Poppy Marriott)

EXCITEMENT IS coursing through every vein in Travis Alabanza’s body ahead of the award-winning performance artist’s latest work at the Trans Pride Season at the Marlborough in Brighton.

Looking at the ways in which intimacy has been left out of our political discourse, I Tried To F*** Up The System But None Of My Friends Texted Back gives the audience insight into Alabanza’s internal dialogue and explores loneliness, intimacy, and the secrets you didn’t think you would say out loud.

“I’m so excited to be bringing I Tried To F*** Up The System But None Of My Friends Texted Back to the Spire,” Travis told Life & Style.

“Apart from the long title, what draws me to this work is it feels like a push away from the grand, the show, the bold aesthetic that follows a lot of my work into something more intimate.”

Travis added: “It’s a piece completely made on headsets that I first developed at Wellcome Collection, and is talking about loneliness and intimacy.

“I think so many of us are exhausted by the state of politics, but what we often don’t reflect on is how this affects our relations to others around us.

This show is asking, ‘Can we really start talking about everything wrong with the world, if we aren’t also talking about the ways we interact daily with others?’ “This show is really fresh! It is still in development, so to do this alongside my touring of Burgerz is both daunting and exciting. As Burgerz prepares for the Edinburgh Fringe, and later tour the UK ending at the Southbank in November, this show feels like a quiet recluse away from that.”

With that said, we asked Alabanza a few questions...

Life & Style: Travis, I feel like the voice of the LGBTQI+ community is increasing in volume and, more importantly, those voices, their stories and experiences are being heard. There is still a long way to go, but how do you see things from your perspective?

Travis Alabanza: I think what is changing is that our voice is growing. We’ve always been here, we’ve always been shouting and there’s so much history of LGBTQI+ folk resisting – yet right now we are in a moment where more people are paying attention to us.

I think it’s really positive that we are seeing more representations – I can’t imagine what it would be like to be growing up right now and seeing these different conversations, faces and people on screens, films, magazines – it must be really heartwarming.

But I think we are in a dangerous place where we are placing all our energy on that, when underneath, violence is increasing, hate crimes are up, and there is still, as you said, so much more to do. Sometimes visibility can act as a distractions to substantial structural change.

L&S: One of the things I wanted to look at approaching Trans Pride Performance Season is the way black people from the LGBTQI+ and wider community could foster greater communication in order to break down some of the remaining misconceptions that hinder bringing about a greater sense of togetherness?

TA: I think one thing that I try and do with my art, with my platform, when I’m invited to talks in my theory, is to really try and work against the idea that transness, queerness, is an antitheses to blackness.

This idea that blackness is at odds with transness is completely off the point, as well as historically inaccurate. I think to centre and begin to foster a greater sense of communication, we have to look at our history, pre-colonisation, and realise that blackness has always been queer, has always had gender non-conformity within it, has always held us in the community.

This is not new, this is part, and always has been, of black community. When we realise how connected our struggles are, in that blackness won’t be free until black transness is too, then I believe we can start to foster healthier and more moving conversations.

L&S: You obviously use your art, poetry, soundscape, projection and theatrics to express the varying facets of the experience of being black and trans. How is the experience in 2019 as opposed to when you first started?

TA: I think, compared to when I first started, so much has changed. When I first started making work I thought I knew all the answers, I thought I had everything, and that my art was to tell these answers. How wrong I was!

I’m now so sat in questions, in knowing that I do not, and will not, have the answers, and want my work to bring us together in the questions. Even five years ago when I first came on the scene, there were fewer initiatives, artists, programmes being given funding specifically for being black and queer – and it’s so exciting now to see the change against this. I’m surrounded by so many incredible black queer artists that inspire and motivate me: Malik Nashad Sharpe, Rachael Young, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, to name a few. The scene is vibrant, bursting with artists creating vital work.

L&S: How have audiences changed?

TA: I mean, in short, they’ve grown. When I first started making work, I very much played in bars to queer crowds.

Now, with my work and shows like Burgerz touring to venues like Southbank Centre, or Traverse, for example, I’m no longer just performing or watched by only queer audiences.

And I like this! I’m not interested in only playing and sharing views to those in my community, I make art because I think it’s the way I can foster different conversations and views, and I want my audience to be as broad as possible to have those conversations. I never thought when I started out that I would have the chance to take my work to such different venues, and countries, and places and spaces – and I think naturally with that my audience develops and changes.

'I want my audience to be as broad as possible,' says Travis

L&S: How has the way you and the message you deliver changed?

TA: I mean I’m super young! But I was even younger then... I mean, even in the last interview we did in 2016 before Scottee’s show Putting Words In Your Mouth – looking at how I spoke and talked, so much has changed. I’m taking my time more.

I feel more intentional about how I use space. I’m making bolder choices. As you grow up, I feel it’s natural for your art too. What excites me about I Tried To... at the Spire, is it’s a show in which I don’t speak live in, and two years ago I would have never thought to have played with perception like that. It’s exciting.

L&S: Last time we spoke to you in 2016 you said: ‘I think I “questioned” my gender from the moment I was conscious of myself.’ On the issue of when or even if schools should teach primary school kids about those who identify as non-binary, what are your thoughts?

TA: I don’t think it’s as simple as “teaching about us” – it’s more switching the framework, and understanding that people in the class will/could/already are non-binary! It’s about reframing the way we teach to think about when gender is necessary and when it is not, and to realise that we shouldn’t have a reactive response to education, meaning we change once someone presents themselves as needing the change – rather I believe, create an education system that cares for people on the presumption that they are already in the room.

We should be letting kids and young people know that they have choice and agency over themselves, their identities, and how and who they are – and this includes, but is not limited to, gender.

L&S: I ask the last question because my experience of hearing anyone talk about this comes from people who don’t identify as non-binary. I can’t help feel like fear dominates the discussion, this fear comes from not knowing enough. How does this dynamic change?

TA: You’re so right! So much of what is surrounding the anti-trans narrative at the moment is misplaced fear.

It’s not knowing the unknown. It’s a tactical cultural media moment that is insisting on spreading harmful lies.

I think this dynamic changes through listening to each other, hearing where these fears are coming from, and then finding the root, which I can know is not actually the existence of trans people.

So much of this fear is coming from patriarchy, violence, lack of resources and access to space – and so often in history we place the blame on those already most vulnerable – we scapegoat away from the issue.

I think people think ‘non-binary’ is something new, but actually, what is happening is an evolution of language. People who are not male or female has existed ever since male or female was there, too.

L&S: Do enough people from the black community even understand what identifying as non-binary is, in your experience? I’m still hit with the response, ‘What’s that?’ when it comes up in conversation.

TA: I can’t speak for the black community, you know? I think it is not a homogenous thing.

I believe we have to remember there’s a huge trans and queer black community that is part of that wider community – and they are aware and here.

I think it is just about re-shifting our focus, realising that black liberation cannot and will not happen until all of us are free.

Black trans women are being murdered, yet black queer and trans people continue to show up for our black straight siblings when they are harmed or hurt – we need to make sure there’s mutual solidarity.

We need to realise we have to be one. Blackness is already defying gender, defying boundaries, outside of lines, due to white supremacy – this makes our solidarity a natural fit.

L&S: What will you be up to during Trans Pride Performance Season in Brighton?

TA: I am working for so much of it, which is such a shame, as it’s such a good programme. But apart from my show, I’d be running to Krishna Istha’s comedy BEAST, because we need more trans comedy in the world.

L&S: Right, you’ve got one chance to put a magic spell on the world, Travis – paint a picture of your utopia for me…

TA: It would be a world where everyone would also have access to housing, jobs, safety, security, obviously.

But also where even after you broke up with your ex, you could still use their Netflix account and they would never know, and the shop would always stock different kinds of M&Ms...

I Tried To F*** Up The System But None Of My Friends Texted Back – Travis Alabanza is part of the Marlborough’s Trans Pride season. For more info go to Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz is touring:

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