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“It’s about making the invisible visible”

A talk with the American performance artist Katrina Bugaj about her theater event »Hormondagbogen«

Screenshot from the online performance ”Los Juntos” that included artists from nine different countries. Katrina Bugaj is seen at the center (photo: Juan Ayala).
Forfatter(e)

Af Christian Graugaard, chefredaktør, Bibliotek for Læger

Katrina Bugaj, let’s talk about your performance, “Hormondagbogen” (“The hormone diary”), that was scheduled to premiere at the Royal Danish Theater on the 23rd of March. Obviously, COVID-19 makes things very uncertain right now, but I am still curious to know your reflections on this “celebration of the hormones and their diversity” …    

                      Well, Hormondagbogen” is about making the invisible visible: this applies just as much to the ways in which hormones influence our feelings, attitudes and behaviors as it does to the female composers we’re engaging with and whose many contributions to music have often been overlooked. The work is also about our invisible, internal voices. In particular, the voice of a middle-aged cis woman reflecting on her identity and value as she transitions towards menopause.

                      Using the idea of a diary as a type of framework, we circle around conventions of beauty, questioning traditional esthetic values (which have long been debated without women’s voices). It’s ultimately about balance and imbalance, trying to be in control and feeling out of control – something that resonates with everyone in the project, particularly in the wake of the current pandemic. In that way, we think that “Hormondagbogen” can resonate with all of us. We can all feel out of balance or control. And we all have hormones.

                      Our initial inspiration, besides our theme of hormones, has been the compositions of ten female composers (three newly composed works by Danish composers and seven works that span centuries). Our other main source of inspiration is the Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s book “Mit smykkeskrin” from 2020. And ultimately, we’re working to create a hybrid, fragmented collage form that is driven by music, poetry and movement and reflects the internal and physical processes that constitute shifting hormones and female aging.

 

The performance will be a synergy of music, poetry, movement, science, and personal experiences. Could you tell me if and how you plan to integrate “the medical gaze” on hormones? After all, “hormones” were first coined by a doctor in 1905 …

                      The creative process will be shaped by the source material, collaborators, and circumstances of the work. The scientific and medical literature comes into play as a secondary, but crucial, source of much needed context regarding how our hormones shape the way we humans feel, love, function and behave. It has been hugely important for me to dig into this material and I’ve actually been surprised by how little I know about my own body and biology.       

                      So, it goes without saying that our individual, personal engagement with these medical texts and materials will influence our thinking around the work, our process and what we ultimately create. These texts have also heightened my awareness of certain things, such as cultural depictions of middle-aged women as crazy and irrational, and grown my fascination and horror of medical practices and research into hormones and biology. Not to say I wasn’t aware of this before, but now I see it almost everywhere: female friends having physical symptoms brushed off because nothing has been found to be wrong through medical testing has started to make so much more sense – especially considering how the medical profession has historically used the male as the “default” sex.

                      Professor Martie Haselton’s “Hormonal: The Hidden Intelligence of Hormones” has become an important reference for me in trying to understand the hidden forces of hormones. She beautifully exposes the unrecognized and powerful influence hormones play in our lives. She combines hard science, fact-based analysis and personal commentary in a way that has widened my thinking. And she is very good at discussing the effects of hormones without making women victims of them. 

                      In addition, we also intend to take some of the scientific and medical text into our improvisations. We want to juxtapose the medical and scientific language with the more intimate and personal and to see what movement and images might arise from them and how they might be woven into our performance.

Rehearsing “Hormondagbogen” involves improvisations based on a multitude of different sources, including medical texts. These photos are from a workshop held in the Summer of 2020 (photos: Katrina Bugaj).   Rehearsing “Hormondagbogen” involves improvisations based on a multitude of different sources, including medical texts. These photos are from a workshop held in the Summer of 2020 (photos: Katrina Bugaj).

So, should “Hormondagbogen” even be considered a feministic statement?

                      I think our point of departure has more been one of curiosity – about how hormones work and impact our lives. I think the term “feminist art” can be very fraught, especially since the feminist agenda is broad and diverse and includes a range of voices and interests.

                      That said – yes, I think you can see Hormondagbogen” as a feminist work in that it makes visible some of the attitudes towards mental and physical health of women, particularly middle-aged women. It also aims to make female voices, artworks and private experience more visible, thus building on second-wave feminist performances that revealed the otherwise invisible lives of women and involved the collapsing of the binary between life and art, between private and public.

 

I know that you have a keen interest in the relationship between hormones and identity. This obviously makes me think about transpersons, who have first-hand knowledge on the transformative potentials of sex hormones – related to bodily changes and transformations of sexuality and personality. Will this theme be included in “Hormondagbogen”?

                      Transgender experience is, of course, a subject that has come up in our research, but it is not the focus of this project. I think it’s important for art to give insights into transgender experiences and bodies that escape and defy categories and norms and that aren’t reductive. However, when thinking about it in relation to our project, I keep coming back to questions of presentation and representation: who speaks and for whom? I also keep coming back to the primary inspiration for Hormondagbogen”, which has been the music of our female composers and our female poet reflecting on aging and loss and cycles and menopause. That is the territory we’re most engaged with, and what feels most faithful to our initial artistic vision. 

                      Having said that, engaging with the overarching themes of the project has definitely widened my knowledge of art projects exploring topics related to hormones and those who do not fit into the binary male-female system. Trans artists and activists Fox Fisher & Owl, who often work in film, and South Asian transgender poets in DarkMatter come to mind. Their work is inspiring and maybe our project meets their work in the pursuit of wanting, above all else, to be and feel seen for who we are.

 

“COVID-19 is on my scene”, says Iggy Pop in his recent song “Dirty Little Virus” that can be heard on Youtube. I’m reluctant to ask you, but how did the coronavirus affect your artistic work? Could there even be things in this dreadful pandemic that might inspire an artist, like yourself, with a special sensibility for human complexity?

                      Well, there have definitely been a number of disruptions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic this past year. As many of my colleagues working in the performing arts, I’ve lost work and had to deal with canceled performances, rescheduling projects, navigating the new safety measures and having a young child at home much of the time. There have been long tech days where a phone call has brought everything suddenly to a halt and all of us out to get tested.

                      I’m used to a certain amount of uncertainty in my work, but with the pandemic that uncertainty has spread to so many aspects of my life, both personal and professional, that my cortisol levels have been amped up and mundane tasks that I used to enjoy, like buying groceries, all of a sudden became fraught with stress. This led to an initial period of overwhelm and inability to work or create. Much of my energy was going into trying to understand what was happening, navigate feelings and responsibilities, and into making the day as normal as possible for my son.

                      Fairly quickly many of my colleagues, here and abroad, began putting work online. I realized that I didn’t want to post old work, as it seemed like a disservice to the work, the collaborators, and the potential online audiences. And since my work is very connected to the theatre’s unique “here and nowness”, to the live interaction between a work and the audience and to the visible presence of the performing subjects and bodies – I didn’t know what to do.

                      Things had been so much “go go go”, and suddenly everything stopped. And there was that feeling of being out of balance and out of control and uncomfortable and afraid. So, I decided to take a moment to stop, since I was fortunate to be able to do so without worrying about paying our bills or feeding our family, at least in the beginning. To perhaps even find a beauty in being out of balance and control. Again, that was possible because I am incredibly privileged to live in the country that I do and have the support network I have. Actually, it resonated with the thoughts and questions of “Hormondagbogen” in some ways.

                      And while “this is not a substitute for real theatre” has been in the fine print of a lot of the online activity, the sheer amount of digital theatre and performing arts that was suddenly available felt overwhelming and it was actually quite difficult to process. But it has also been inspiring to see how people in the field are adapting and innovating as a result of the lockdowns and restrictions.

                      As time passed, however, I found myself talking with some friends and collaborators abroad about trying to continue our international practices despite the distance. We were missing one another. We were a group of performing artists who work very physically, devising our work in the room with collaborators through improvisations, and there seemed to be a common interest in pushing ourselves to challenge our collective reservations about creating online theatre or performance.

                      So, in the fall and winter of 2020, my company, Out of Balanz, made an online performance, “Los Justos”, with artists in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, Greece, Spain, Japan, England, USA, and Denmark. The process was a big challenge, but it was also really rewarding. The work was inspired by Camus’ play “Les Justes” and it was an experiment in turning isolation into collective and creative action. It attracted audience from 36 countries and helped open up my thinking regarding the possibilities of online performance.

                      I’m still processing my experience and what I might do from here. But I definitely miss gathering to make and see theatre, and I look forward to sharing those spaces and experiences again. Hopefully soon with Hormondagbogen”.

Katrina Bugaj (b. 1979) is from New York, and she is a performance artist, actor, director, and playwright. She is co-artistic director of Out of Balanz, an award-winning, international ensemble based in Copenhagen. “Hormondagbogen” is scheduled to premiere on Tuesday March 23, 2021 at The Royal Opera House in Copenhagen.

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