Khiasma is supported by:

La Région Île-de-France
Le Département de la
La DRAC Île-de-France
La Ville des Lilas
La Ville de Paris
La Mairie du 20è
Paris Habitat
La Fondation de France

Khiasma est membre du réseau TRAM et partenaire de Paris-Art.

avril 2015

In addition to his Phantom Monday presentation, Frédéric Nauczyciel speaks of his specific approach to the voguing scene and how he plays with its codes by bringing them to the art scene. Transgression and reversal of stereotypes, reflections on the image and flamboyantly danced narratives. He also reveals the challenges of his more recent work on the tattooed body.

In addition to his Phantom Monday presentation, Frédéric Nauczyciel speaks of his specific approach to the voguing scene and how he plays with its codes by bringing them to the art scene. Transgression and reversal of stereotypes, reflections on the image and flamboyantly danced narratives. He also reveals the challenges of his more recent work on the tattooed body.

How and when did you come into contact with the voguing scene in Baltimore? Could you tell us something about this scene and it origins?

I went to Baltimore to follow the traces of Omar, the character from the cult television series “The Wire”, a man from the Black ghetto who steals drugs from dealers. Omar defines his own justice in accord with his personal code of honor; by refusing the codes of society or gangs, he acquires a sort of invincibility. This character really existed in Baltimore, down to the detail of David Simons and Ed Burns, who wrote the series, making him a homosexual. He thus redefines symbolic conventions and frontiers. He creates his own geography in the city, be it physical, urban or mental; his own geography of behavior.

He’s never there where he’s expected to be and no one ever knows by which street he’ll arrive. By refusing assignations, Omar no longer melts into the established norm, which is meant to protect and, at the same time, control. In my view, its a political posturing, in answer to new urban realities; a new form of active dissimulation, in rupture with the diktat of visibility, which evokes for me the fact that in both the United States and Europe, there must be people trying to redefine themselves and redefine the territories they inhabit. A posturing close to what is called Banjee Realness: the tradition certain Black and Latino American homosexuals who refuse restrained visibility have developed of performing ghetto attitude. It’s a double movement, both a dissimulation and an affirmation of the culture they belong to. I recognize in the character of Omar a reinvented, popularized Banjee Realness, emerging from the underground. In 2011, I had just received a Programme Hors les Murs grant and had the intention of travelling to New York, Chicago, and Atlanta to develop a project on the subject of banjee attitude. I had the idea of finding the keys to a Parisian suburb, rid of certain clichés that insist the periphery generates no center, no form of creation, no future. When I discovered “The Wire”, I decided on impulse to go to Baltimore, to understand the origins of the Omar character; by accident I met the city’s voguers.

Voguing is a performative dance of Black American homosexual and transgender ghetto communities, born in Harlem in the 1960s and 70s, at the time of the creation of the modern form of Vogue Magazine. It’s a performative dance in the sense that men assume the poses of white women from the covers of Vogue. The question of origins is surrounded by myths constructed by the community itself or by its biographers, because it conveys a very powerful imaginary image. This is the United States, a young country that cultivates its storytelling. It’s said that certain gay or transvestite prisoners performed these poses in New York prisons, to reclaim a sort of fierceness.

Voguing reached its first climax in the 80s and obtained its first massive public visibility in the 90s, with Jennie Livingstone’s film “Paris is Burning” and Madonna’s hit clip “Vogue”. It spread up and down the East coast, then the West coast, appearing in Black cities such as Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore, Atlanta, in North and South Carolina, then in California… Then it returned to the underground before coming to a second climax with the advent of the Internet, which facilitated its diffusion all across the US and in Europe, Japan, Russia…and, in particular, Paris.

When I arrived in Baltimore I discovered that the city had a very important and active Ballroom scene (a term used to describe the voguing community), which was completely different from the highly publicized New York scene. In Baltimore, a ghetto city which has hardly experienced gentrification, voguing remains real and, as the photographer Chantal Regnault remarked to me, it brings to mind the New York scene of the 90s, by the social, urban and economic context in which it continues to develop.

When they aren’t flamboyantly performing in costume, the Baltimore voguers are Omar. More exactly, it is the sum, the union of each one of them together, which composes the figure of Omar, a symbolic, emblematic, iconic and modern figure of masculinity in an urban milieu. And I understand that Banshee Realness participated in the ramifications and evolution of voguing, under the influence of new urban cultures, of Hip Hop and RnB…

Later, you discovered the Parisian voguing scene. What are the influences and specificities of the American scene, its relation to dance—contemporary, urban—and to the questions of identity that are formulated differently in Paris and its suburbs than in the US ?

For my part, I had the intuition when I watched “The Wire” that Baltimore acted as a metaphor for Parisian enclaves of the periphery or beltways. When I went to Baltimore, I set myself a challenge; to represent the possibilities of the French “suburb”, entangled in the complicated and as yet ignored twists of its recent post-colonial history; to create images that would trouble our European vision of the urban by a sort of torque generated from the interior. This political posturing of anti-visibility and the organic manner in perpetual movement of inhabiting the world interest me artistically.

I returned from Baltimore with a video installation that was presented at the Mac/Val modern art museum in Vitry in 2012, an installation that immersed the spectator in the very specific world of Baltimore voguing. And it was at that moment in Paris that a completely new Ballroom scene was being developed, unified by the desire and obstinacy of it titular figure, Lasseindra Ninja.

The Parisian ballroom scene is for the most part Caribbean, perhaps because the Antillais experience has parallels with the Afro-American experience—in contrast with the Afro-European experience in France. A community which has found in voguing a possible representation of itself, largely neglected by French society. In my opinion, this explains why the Parisian voguing scene is the only one in Europe to be in majority Black.

Being Black and gay in Paris is very different than it is in the United States: French society is less liberal, yet nevertheless permits access to education, to public transportation, however complicated it is, to hospitals. People are less exposed to hard drugs and violence. On the other hand, the Republic tends to recognize communities less and allows them less collective visibility, with the absence of a politics of positive action. For example, there is no relation between the Ballroom and Parisian LGBT associations—whereas in the United States, the big balls are frequently supported, organized or financed by all sorts of LGBT organizations, which offer them the opportunity to develop campaigns for prevention and information or to bring their support to fragile populations. In contrast, Parisian balls are more open to audiences outside the community.

Since the first Parisian balls, the scene has become more organized and appearances more sophisticated, with a greater sense of performance and costumes, a greater respect for both oneself and others: one of the challenges of voguing, in this respect, is to offer the community a space for recognition, outside and beyond mainstream spaces for representation. There is a sense of the community taking charge of a form of representation, without waiting for recognition from the majority.

When we invited (with Mac/Val) Marquis Revlon, Kory Revlon and Dale Blackheart, three of the Baltimore voguers with whom I work very closely, the burgeoning Parisian scene was ready. It was all a question of timing, which I had by no means anticipated. Lasseindra Ninja had been building up the scene for several years and my video installation, as well as the workshop, suddenly offered the community a visibility—and a space—at the precise moment when it was truly becoming a community. The Paris voguers took over the space of the installation, confirming (or announcing) as they did so a radical change in the empowerment of representations of minorities.

Despite their differences, I see points in common between the Baltimore and the Paris voguers, in their way of inhabiting or circulating in the city. The Americans loved Paris immediately—its urbanity, its peripheries. These analogies certainly explain why I felt at home in Baltimore from the beginning, and why the work which emerged from this city of few qualities returned to Paris and Seine-Saint-Denis naturally, with no effort.

We have the feeling that with this practice a new form of exhibition and affirmation of minority sexual identities is being created, based on a system of codification inherited from the world of theater, of spectacle. A form of repossession by the underground of mass production in a sort of movement of inversed pillaging.

The ballroom scene is a microcosm of young people who don’t perform for an audience, but for themselves and their peers. The objective of the challenges they set themselves is to learn to be the best. The act of defying the other is a way of surpassing oneself. It’s an initiation apprenticeship which allows the participants to stand upright in American society. An initiation apprenticeship that pushes them to be more and more themselves, to banish their uncertainties, yet at the same time never become mired in their certainties. This necessitates going beyond one’s limits, to get as close as possible to oneself. If being as close as possible to oneself means to be a woman, then that means considering the consequences such an act would entail. You can’t hesitate at the threshold of trans-sexuality.

By its capacity for invention within the boundaries of frontiers and constraints, of strong limits, its ability to renew and reinvent itself, voguing is a performative language which continually creates meaning. The rules of voguing are extraordinarily codified because they must take into account an infinite variation of situations and expressions of genre, from the extremely feminine to the extremely masculine. Each new situation, each fresh expression of self, enriches and renders the rules and categories of the community more complex. The challenge is to displace these rules and frontiers. And even to break them: transgressing the rules in order to make possible the emergence of something no one ever thought of—via a voguer’s character, or his alter ego, or in his performance, his bravura, in what is characterized as his fierceness—he may become legendary. Because what he does allows the entire community to advance. Being legendary means existing both in the eyes of the community and in one’s own eyes. By existing in his own eyes, marvelous paradox, the voguer has nothing left to prove and he can become what he wants, where he wants, when he wants. He can move beyond the limits of the community, go out into the world. Another great thing about being legendary, is that the voguer alone knows it. One of the attitudes of being legendary is to never speak of it, never brag, because, in any case, he’s legendary. In my view, this is the ultimate degree of performativity and it can become art.

In the same manner, a Ball is a device, a creation. Each Ball is different, each utilizes the same creative device. Being unique in the community, constantly having to invent, every voguer is alone, solitary, but he is also part of the whole. In this way, voguing or Balls don’t borrow from the codes of theater, but from those of art performance.

Voguers are inspired by everything, by all forms of dance, performance, musical comedies, references to art—often in the same way that musical artists, from Beyoncé to Rihanna, appropriate other artistic territories: we’re reminded of Lady Gaga updating Leigh Bowery via the creations of Alexander MacQueen. The theme of the first ball I attended was Darren Arnofski’s film “Black Swan”, the ball was in honor of Natalie Portman.

Your work proceeds from a displacement from a community dance space toward the field of visual arts, art centers and museums. Could you specify the challenges and modalities of this displacement?

That’s exactly what happened at Mac/Val. I presented a film which was a video installation, a projection on three walls in a closed room reminiscent of a ballroom. On the last day of the exhibition, within the video installation space, Paris voguers began to perform in front of the museum audience, asking them to judge their battles. In one stroke, from Baltimore to Vitry a mise en abîme, or reflexive mirroring, took form, addressed not between the voguers themselves, but to the Mac/Val public who had come to see a modern art exhibition in a modern art space. The voguers’ presence transformed the installation, the exhibition space, turning it into not a place of demonstration, but rather one of shared experience.

It was a manifesto for me. The performativiy itself was inscribed in the manner of staging images. It functioned at the level of the unconscious, provoking in the spectator emotional states that existed not only in the mise en scène contained in the image, but also in the way in which the image was rendered.

The idea that struck me then and which today is much more clearly affirmed in my work, was to propose to voguers the production of non-documentary images, so as to avoid any sort of repossession or exoticism. Times have changed and communities are more and more in charge of their own documentation, in particular via social networks (Facebook, Youtube…).

For me it was a question of inviting voguers into an art space, a space for creation, such as a film or dance studio, because an art space is free of all attribution. The artist has the privilege of crossing dividing lines. For example, before photographing Baltimore voguers in the backyards so characteristic to the city, I invited them to a photography studio. It’s this back and forth that permits the introduction of a greater reflexiveness in the production of images.

After the Mac/Val, I needed to go further and for a while I voluntarily abandoned the photographic medium in order to question the performance form and to produce images that could be pertinent for everyone. At this point in the work, I needed to explore a form that affords a greater place to video and dance; to find, with performance, an extension of my visual work. This meant breaking with the documentary paradigm inherent to photo shoots.

This is how I came to create a virtual, conceptual house, like a house of voguing, regrouping members of a household united by an affinity, in this case artistic, with Paris and Baltimore voguers. At the heart of this experience, conducted by a photographer from outside the community, lay the powerful and critical question of the “regard émerveillant” or “amazed regard” (Translators note: the term “amazed regard” would describe a look of “disapproval, disgust, emotion and amazement shown toward transgender people”: as translated from a Nacira Guénif-Souilamas interview with F. Nauczyciel, titled “Hard Skin”). For more than a year, I renounced recording and documentary work. I wanted two things: to evacuate the act of distancing imposed by the camera and to break with the photographer/subject relationship.

The house, nicknamed House of HMU, was in residence at the Pompidou Center’s Studio 13/16, destined for adolescents and young adults. It federated a segment of the Parisian scene, about twenty people, and Dale Blackheart from Baltimore. Our contract was quite particular: the workshops, open three days a week to the Pompidou Center’s public, would also be open to the people who were going to run it. Once the doors of the studio were closed to the public, we worked on rehearsals of performances and prepared two films, which will be presented here tonight. The ballroom scene is a world unto itself, with an amazing capacity for self-transformation and regeneration, for appropriating all sorts of exterior cultural production. It’s a world that goes beyond the Black or LGBT community sub-cultures, a culture within itself, hybrid, organic, always in movement. In fifty years, this culture has become sophisticated, strange, savant and, in this sense: baroque.

That is precisely the subject of the film “A Baroque Ball”, which reunites 14 performers. We discover the rules of voguing in two-person battles, performed to a baroque interpretation of a Bach concerto. I introduce the notion of the court, of politics and the restrained liberty of the baroque. Expressly, the costumes and make-up are unfinished. Two versions are presented, one after the other; one is sophisticated, with the voguers responding to the installation, the second is conceived of as a joke, purity is lost but energy is gained, the energy of shade, that particular way of reprimanding the other while establishing complicity with the rest of the audience, one’s peers. The first version is savant, the second, shade.


The video “M against the world”, by using a regime that is both poetic and explicit, presents the body as sexual object. I feel that we enter an ambivalent territory here and I’d like you to address that: overtaking the representation of the Black body uniquely as sexual object by reassuming a vocabulary of exhibition in order to distribute it differently. A movement of struggle that assumes and even consumes the stereotype.

M. Against the World” offers resistance to, or disrupts, the question of the “regard émerveillant” or amazed regard mentioned earlier and narcissism, in a three-way game of observation. The commentators at the microphone watch and support the performer, while the performer addresses the public via the camera. It is as much a matter of deconstructing the narcissism of the performer as questioning the position of the observer, who is faced with a dance whose origins come from striptease clubs. The constraints are considerable: the camera’s views, the framing of shots, and the imposed figures all serve to give structure to the improvisation.

The camera, aligned with the performer (whose image appears on the same level as the two close-up shots of the commentators), introduces in this way a distancing of regard, by means of repetitive visual motifs created by the 90 degree angle, and a sexualized and narcissistic stylization of the performance. The cliches related to femininity and sexuality are exacerbated by the songs of the two commentators. One is Amercian (Dale Blackheart from Baltimore) and employs the usual scenic motifs and the frequently very sexual lyrics of the songs, meant to support the performer. The other is Antillais (Diva Ivy from Paris) and sometimes uses Creole references, which speak to the performer (Honeysha Khan, Paris).

With this accompanied solo there is a question of containing the sexual and narcissistic charge within a three-way movement of observation, reflexive and non-objectifying. The title “M. Against the World” is in reference to the title of the musical piece we used during rehearsals, “Me Against the World”, which itself hails from the sound library that Archie Burnett, master of American House Dance, uses in his workshops. The narcissistic and reflexive “Me” becomes “M.” in reference to Mary Magdalene, the woman sinner who anointed the body of Christ with perfume. Yet another reversal of situations that amused us and served as an inspiration to construct other images, such as the “M” made by the bent legs of the performer in certain figures on the floor, or the inverted Christ on the cross of the performer recovering his strength.

And so many strata of meaning are superimposed on each other, as is often the case with my images, as a way to open up meaning: “créolité”, sexuality, minimalist American dance, the history of pictorial and religious art, voguing, the baroque, regard, femininity…are all possible options that try not to take the Black body and the sexual body too literally. The film, composed of three sequences which are presented here in the same simultaneous shot, can be fragmented into several projections (screens or small monitors), presented either in simultaneous sequences, or one after the other, in proximity or separated into different spaces—each of the sequences proposes a range (or champ) and an out of range (or hors champ‘) to the other sequences. And as you said: a ‘champ’ and an ‘hors champ’ of desire.

With “Skin”, you open up an entirely different direction. Dance is no longer the only element in the story; skin and tattoos take over the narration. In addition, your protagonists progressively begin to film themselves, as if you were trying to construct a system by which they self-produce their own definitions of themselves, a political challenge if ever there was one.

The vogue scene has been invited to the Carreau du Temple now and will soon be at the Palais de Tokyo. The community has taken responsibility for its visibility. As for me, I hope to open other spaces for image production.


“Skin” is a piece at the crossroads of film and dance. I invite the protagonists, voguers and American and French performers, to film themselves to describe their tattoos. This living poem of images emerges from the movement we rehearse together facing the camera, so they can master the choreography. The finished film, which will be stretched out and long, will have the same fluidity necessary for crossing over dividing lines and will evoke the constant changing of the persona. It will play on a transcended narcissism, deprogrammed by the choreographic work. Each film carries within it a solo, danced by another, in which the performer puts on, takes on the skin of the other, possibly managing to evoke otherness. The device also allows for live developments, where the work process is revealed to the audience, even as a film is produced from the interior—a version currently in rehearsal unites the French artist Jean-Luc Verna and Dale Blackheart. And so, from tattoos and skin, a film and a dance are born. It’s a form of composition in parallel with the sample in music, functioning like a skin sample—and an intimate story.

I try to activate what I call a transgender space, in the sense that gender is something that is performed, always moving, always in movement itself. A space that invents its geography, a space for invention of the self, at the crossroads of the image and the body, performative and visual languages. A space for sharing an experience, a presence.

When I went to Baltimore in 2011, I brought a book by Georges Didi-Huberman with me, “Survivance des Lucioles” (“Survival of Lightning Bugs”), on Pasolini and popular cultures. A few lines, which I always come back to, strongly resonated with my experience: “Experience has fallen, but it is up to us, in each specific situation, to raise this fall to dignity, to the ‘new beauty’ of a choreography, an invention of forms.”