Yapping Out Loud for Animals and Prostitutes!
An Interview with performance artist and animal rights activist Mirha-Soleil
The following is the edited transcript of an interview conducted
by Nadja Lubiw for ANIMAL VOICES Radio on CIUT 89.5 FM. It aired on
April 26th, 2002.
Nadja Lubiw: Welcome to ANIMAL VOICES. I’m sitting here with
Mirha-Soleil Ross and we’re going to be talking about her new performance
piece, “Yapping Out Loud”. Mirha-Soleil, as many of our listeners probably
know, was a past host of ANIMAL VOICES and she’s also very active in the Toronto
animal rights community. I’m going to read just a little blurb
about the piece to give our listeners an idea of what it’s about: “Yapping
Out Loud: Contagious Thoughts from an Unrepentant Whore. Transsexual
sex worker and performer Mirha-Soleil Ross delivers a series of blows, in
monologue form, at anti-prostitution discourses and campaigns, detailing the
way they impact, often tragically on prostitutes’ working conditions and
lives.” I guess the first question is what does this show have to do
Mirha-Soleil: I started to work on this performance piece two
years ago. I got a grant from the Inter-Arts program of the Canada Council
for the Arts which means that I have to do something that’s “Inter-Arts” which
means that I integrate video and music, etc. And I wanted to do something
that was going to address anti-prostitution discourses and campaigns and
attitudes and the way they impact negatively, often tragically, on the working
conditions and lives of prostitutes. After a year of working on it,
I scrapped everything I had done because I felt it was too giggly, too much
just entertaining and even though it was inherently political, I was not
talking about the harsh and difficult issues...
Nadja: Too superficial?
Mirha-Soleil: Not that much superficial but just the wrong
tone. And I didn’t address the animal issue. So a year ago I just scrapped
everything and started all over again. And I went back to the beginning
of the contemporary prostitutes’ rights movement in North America.
One of the first and most prominent prostitutes’ rights organizations in
the United States was called COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and
it was founded in 1973 by a prostitutes’ rights activist named Margo St-James.
This organization still exists now with chapters all over the United States.
There are several stories about why the name COYOTE was chosen but the most
popular one is that there was a parallel to be drawn between how coyotes
are used as “scapegoats” by ranchers and others – and nowadays even in cities
like Toronto and Vancouver - for everything that’s going wrong and also how
prostitutes are blamed for everything that’s going wrong in our neighborhoods.
So a year ago I just felt this coyote presence crawling into my life and
I decided that I had to explore that metaphor more profoundly. I think
there is a link between how coyotes are treated and how prostitutes are treated
and perceived. But I have an issue when people appropriate another group’s
oppression to make a statement about their own if they’re not going to also
speak about that other group’s oppression. So I decided that I would
speak about that in the show and that’s why there’s this “Yapping Out Loud”
animal connection in the title. It’s a show that’s divided into 7 monologues
and each monologue addresses one specific anti-prostitution discourse.
And I have two monologues where I bring together both anti-coyote and anti-prostitution
Nadja: The other thing you do in the show is present visual imagery
of coyotes. Do you want to give people an overview of what that’s going to
Mirha-Soleil: Yes, there are two ways in which I bring the coyotes’
presence into the show. One is in two of the monologues. I didn’t do
that through all of them even though there are little bits of stuff that are
clearly animal rights in various monologues. But there are two monologues
that are clearly more animal rights- oriented. And I also do it through
a visual video landscape that’s edited by Mark Karbusicky. Coyotes are very
powerful animals, beautiful animals. And they can also be intimidating
animals. You cannot help but feel something when you’re in the presence
of a coyote either on video or in real life. Just like prostitutes
also. When people are in our presence, we can come across as powerful people.
So I wanted to have this very beautiful and strong and grounded coyote presence.
So throughout the show, on the left side of the stage we have a continuous
video projection of very powerful images of coyotes. They are images
of coyotes running in fields, images of coyotes with their pups, images of
coyotes mating as well as images of coyotes stuck in traps and being shot
from the ground and from airplanes. And I have one monologue that is
a critique of the coyote hunter discourse. It’s my whore hunter character
and during that specific monologue, we have a second video montage showing
images of a bunch of coyote hunters after a coyote-hunting contest. The video
shows them piling up all the corpses of coyotes that they have killed during
the weekend. And that is being projected on me while I’m playing this
whore hunter character. So that’s how visually we integrate the coyote
presence and the coyote issue in the show.
Nadja: Do you want to talk a little bit more about how you researched
and looked at the lives of coyotes and how they’re mistreated and blamed for
so many problems? How do you see these things connecting, the way society
looks at prostitutes and the way society looks at coyotes, and how did you
integrate these ideas?
Mirha-Soleil: There are two things going on. The first
one is when you look at the way residents’ groups talk about prostitutes,
when you look at how serial killers speak about prostitutes, and when you
look at how the police speak about prostitutes, it becomes very, very clear
that there are links to be made. The language that is used is stunningly
similar; it’s striking. There’s a strong parallel between that and the
language used by cattle, sheep, and lamb ranchers living in the country.
I’m talking about the language that they use when they talk about how the
coyotes are supposedly creating all kinds of trouble. So there’s that
parallel that exists in the language but the difference is I think in the
intensity of the oppression. We do not have almost a hundred thousand
prostitutes “officially reported” as murdered every year. Yet this is
what’s going on with coyotes in the United States for example. So I
don’t have a problem with making links but if we’re going to compare our oppression
with somebody else’s oppression, it is important to keep things in perspective.
Nadja: When looking at your press releases, I read quite a lengthy
one and there was no mention of the animal rights message nor the coyote metaphor.
Was that intentional and if so, can you tell us about that?
Mirha-Soleil: Yes, when you write a press release, it’s really
hard to figure out what you want to say and press releases are kind of flaky
often saying just a few words so I decided to leave that part out. And
I haven’t focused on that in the publicity either. My strategy as an
animal rights activist is not to advertise in advance that I’m going to talk
to you about animal rights because then a lot of people will not show up.
So what I do is I invite you to come and see something that I’m doing that’s
about something else and once you’re there then you have no choice.
You’re sitting on your seat and you’re going to have to listen to the other
things I want to talk to you about. What I do is I bring people in
a space and I try to make sure that they don’t already have solid assumptions
about what they’ll see in advance. Well, I know they’ll have some assumptions
about what they’re going to see and hear but I know what these assumptions
are in advance and I will throw them off their chairs so that they are destabilized,
so that I can hit them more strongly with issues and with what I have to
say. So that’s partly why in the press release, I thought it was not
worth it to try to integrate the coyote connection and the animal rights
connection. And also because it’s a little bit complicated to explain.
One thing that’s great about this coyote connection is that it also allows
me to ground the show historically and politically in the prostitutes’ rights
movement by making a conceptual link to one of the first prostitutes’ rights
organizations that was founded in the US. So my show is a political
and activist oriented show and the coyote aspect is a way to ground it politically
and historically and it would be hard to work that in a press release without
having to explain in more details how coyotes are treated so I just left
it out to surprise people.
Nadja: The other thing I wanted to talk about a little bit was the
idea of metaphor, and using animals as a metaphor for human oppression.
Before the show I was mentioning a piece that Alice Walker had done called
“Am I Blue?” For people that haven’t read it, it’s a very powerful piece.
Alice Walker comments on a horse that she meets and the life of the horse
and what happens when the horse’s mate is taken away. She makes a comparison
to the way humans were treated in slavery in the US. I read this review
of “Am I Blue?” and the person reviewing it, this guy, said “Well it’s not
really about animals and it’s not about vegetarianism, it’s really about
slavery. It’s got nothing to do with animals, it’s just a metaphor.”
How do you think people will interpret your work? How do you think an audience
that is expecting a piece about sex-work will react to the animal message?
Do you think they’ll see it as just a metaphor or do you think they will
take away the literal message about the lives of coyotes and their oppression?
Mirha-Soleil: I think there will always be some people who will choose
to either consciously or unconsciously do that, to treat it just as a metaphor
and evade the responsibility of having to really look at the animal issue
that I am addressing in there. But I think that the majority of the
people who are coming -usually my audience is made of people who know they’re
coming to learn something so they’re quite open - I think that the majority
of them will be getting something in terms of an animal rights message, analysis,
something about animal liberation. But there will always be a small group
of people who just don’t want to go there and I think that with these people,
they’re not necessarily the people that I’m trying to touch anyways.
It’s like when, for example, I talk about vegetarianism. I’m not interested
in talking about it with people who are completely blocked and closed to it.
Why lose time with them when there’s a whole whack of people out there who
are ready to sit down and are interested in the subject. So in terms
of my current show and the animal rights component of it, some people can
just go home with the prostitutes’ rights aspect and leave the animal part
on the side even though it’s kind of a little bit difficult because I think
I’m very well known as doing some animal rights-oriented work. And
I think with the images that we’re going to present, it will be a bit difficult
to just see it as a metaphor for the treatment of prostitutes.
Nadja: So who do you want your target audience to be and who do you
think it will be?
Mirha-Soleil: The people who usually come to see my stuff are
people who are activist-oriented and I chose to present this show for the
first time as part of the MAYWORKS Festival because it’s a labor festival
and for many years now they have a track record of including prostitutes and
sex workers and of recognizing sex work and prostitution as labour.
So I chose to do the show as part of it for that reason but also because it’s
a labour festival and my work in terms of addressing prostitution issues is
very much from a labour perspective. So a lot of the people coming to
that festival are activists, people whom I think are really coming into that
space to learn something and to grow and to expand their understanding of
issues. My audience is not a theatre or an art audience even though
with this show there’s a tiny bit more of a crossover ‘cause I’m working with
different people like Nicole Stamp who’s my Associate Director. She
comes from the theatre world so I think she’ll bring some theatre people in
the audience. But these are not the people I’m used to have as part
of my audience so I think mainly it’s going to be activist people, queer people,
trans people, and sex workers.
Nadja: Sounds great! One thing I wanted to talk about is
putting together a piece like this. As a performance artist, how do you develop
the concept and incorporate the music, the dialogue and the video imagery?
How does it come into your head?
Mirha-Soleil: Oh, it’s awful! You have to ask my boyfriend,
it’s been hell in the house for the last year. It’s just awful because it’s
just very difficult to try to puzzle something together that’s well integrated
and that works together. You just go piece by piece. I had an idea of what
politically I wanted to do but then it’s how do I do it? Ok I decided
I wanted to work with monologues so are they going to be character based monologues?
Autobiographical monologues? Do I just talk about my life to the audience?
Then if they’re character-based monologues: who are the characters?
I have seven monologues and there are links from one to the other, the show
progresses in terms of addressing anti-prostitution discourses and campaigns
so how do I make this whole thing work? How do I incorporate the video
and the music in there? I use quotes so how and where do these fit?
It’s just hell and a nightmare and it’s a lot of sleepless nights and it’s
a lot of Jolt and coffee. It’s just a lot of anxiety and it’s just
terrible but the result I think is going to be really good. It’s just
not fun and not pleasant and I don’t think there’s this one way to go about
it. I think every person goes about it differently. And with
me I get the idea that I’d like to use video, that I’d like to use music,
that I’d like to use monologues so then it’s a matter of just building a
little bit at a time and eventually after a year you end up getting something.
Nadja: It just sounds so creative and great. You’re making it sound
so negative but you must love doing it. There must be something that feels
good about doing it?
Mirha-Soleil: I hate the process of developing it but I’m very happy
now. I’m very self-confident about the text, about the whole concept,
about how the whole thing holds together. My big fear right now is that
I don’t have 20 years of performance experience under my belt. So the
biggest challenge is for me to be able not to forget my lines the way I do
right now in rehearsals. It’s also to be able to speak them. I’m
not an anglophone – that was already a challenge for me to write an hour of
material, I’ve never taken English courses and I’ve only been speaking English
for ten years - so the big challenge now that all of the writing and conceptual
development is done is to be able to carry the whole thing through energetically
and with my mouth and with the words and with the characters and just be
able to carry it through with my body. And if there’s anything that’s
gonna flop, it’s gonna be that ‘cause the rest in terms of the music, in
terms of the text, in terms of the conception, it’s all there. It’s
just a matter of hoping I’m not gonna collapse and fuck up. (both laugh)
Nadja: You’re gonna do great! In terms of performance art,
do you have future projects planned? Are you planning to do one based on
animal rights specifically?
Mirha-Soleil: I’m very slow as a person so it takes me a long
time to do something. I cannot just put something together quickly and
have it be fantastic. I’m not a genius so it takes me a lot of work
and labour to produce something that is good. So two years ago I left
a full time job in order to be able to concentrate on doing performances and
videos and no longer botch them nor do them at the last minute like I had
in the past. I wanted to do my first one-hour show, with video, something
very substantial and something that would impress me a little. I wanted
to do something good enough that I could say “Wow I can’t believe I did that.”
And I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it until a month ago when
I thought “Yes, I think it’s getting there!” So that’s my first full-length
show and that’s what I want to continue doing, these kinds of really substantial
performance art shows that incorporate music and video, etc. And of
course one day I’d like to do one that’s just about animals. There
are a lot of themes that I feel drawn to, that affect me in my life and the
exploitation and mass murdering of animals is one of them.
Nadja: I’m wondering if we can broaden what we’re talking about,
not just focus on the show but talk a little bit about the animal rights community
and especially the feminist animal rights community and their discourse around
prostitution and pornography. I know that you have a lot of concerns
and a lot of issues with some of the theories that are out there. A
lot of the theory that’s out there in terms of the animal rights community
is very strongly anti-pornography and anti-prostitution. The theories are
based on ideas of women as commodities and animals as commodities, animal
being consumed literally as meat and women being consumed figuratively as
sex objects. Tell me a little bit about how you feel about those theories
and what you see as some of the problems with those theories, especially coming
from your perspective as someone in the sex trade.
Mirha-Soleil: Just to start, I have to say that the biggest
problem politically right now in terms of the feminist representation in the
animal rights movement is that there’s only really one group of feminists
that is represented. And they come from a brand of feminism we call
“Radical Feminism.” So traditionally, that brand of feminism has been
theoretically and politically anti-prostitution as well as anti-pornography
as well as anti-transsexual. There’s a whole whack of shit that comes
with that brand of feminism. And of course there are many more feminisms
than radical feminism in the feminist world but in the animal rights movement,
the only feminism that seems visible and vocal in discussing issues of sexual
representation and sex work is radical feminism. There are many, many
more feminists in the animal rights movement besides those who dictate the
analysis and campaigns of Feminists for Animal Rights. But they are
just doing work that’s animal rights oriented or they are silent and don’t
challenge Feminists for Animal Rights and writers like Carol Adams on their
anti-sex, anti-porn, anti-prostitution, and anti-transsexual biases and prejudice.
I know tons of feminists who are involved in the animal rights movement who
do not share these views but they are not starting a new feminist wave of
feminist animal rights theory and politics. So that’s one of the biggest
political problems right now. Then there’s a shit load of problems with
the kind of feminism promoted by Carol Adams, Marti Kheel, Batya Bauman and
their acolytes who are currently dominating the discourse on feminism and
animal rights. I think that one of the biggest problems coming from
them is that they compare the treatment of women to the treatment of animals
and one of the main places where they’ve tried to illustrate that comparison
is through women in pornography and women in prostitution and women in the
sex trade. So my first reaction, what I first have to say is that you
have to get the voices of the women who work in pornography and prostitution
involved. I’m talking about the women who are currently working in
the sex trade. For the last two decades we have had women working in
the sex trade – most of whom also identify as feminists – articulate exactly
what our political needs are. And we have an analysis of prostitution
of course that is very different from these feminists in groups like Feminists
for Animal Rights so it’s very threatening for them to consider including
our voices in these discussions and discourses because we do not agree.
We speak at the first person about our own real experiences in the sex trade
and about our own real day-to-day working needs. So while they are theorizing
about the so-called use and objectification and commodification of our bodies,
we ARE those bodies. And we have a very different perception than theirs
of what’s happening to us and what’s going on in the sex trade. So
we have groups like Feminists for Animal Rights and their members getting
away with speaking on our behalf, giving lectures, presenting slide shows,
and leading campaigns that hurt us and getting away with excluding us from
their discussions. And I was always offended that women who are prostitutes
or who work in pornography could be compared to animals in factory farms and
slaughterhouses. Frankly we are talking about two different things.
Yes there’s this image that appeared in a magazine a decade or two ago of
a woman’s body going through a meat grinder but that was an image, big deal!
There are real animals going through that grinder! What animals are
enduring on factory farms, during transportation to the slaughterhouse, and
during the slaughtering process is absolutely incomparable to our experiences
as women consenting to being paid – and quite well thank you – for providing
sexual services. Women who work in the sex industry do not think of
themselves as pieces of meat and frankly if one did, she’d need a serious
reality check. She would need to be dragged to a shed where hundreds
of thousands of hens are piled up and rotting in battery cages. She
would need to smell and hear and feel the blood and the fear and the agony
that goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 12 months a year for billions
of animals in thousands of slaughterhouses across this continent. So
I always found that the comparison was offensive and really minimizing what
the animals are actually going through. And so much of their theorizing
revolved around that comparison that it should come as no surprise to anyone
that we are kept outside of the discussion because if we were to come in,
a huge chunk of the animal rights feminist theorizing that’s been developed
over the last decade and a half would collapse and have to be recognized as
having contributed to making it impossible for sex trade workers to gain basic
Nadja: We’re talking about the problems feminism has brought to the
animal rights movement and your concerns with Feminists for Animal Rights.
In terms of the show Yapping Out Loud, I know that there’s a lot of dialogue
that you put in there that is critical of the feminist movement. What do you
think feminism can bring to the animal rights movement and how do you see
the oppression of animals and the oppression of women connecting?
Mirha-Soleil: I’m not sure. I’m not someone who really
tries to force connections. I’m somebody who says: “This is what I’m going
through. What are you going through? Let’s see how we can help
each other. And ok yes, if there are some connections we realize are going
on along the way, then let’s recognize them.” One of the things I’m
doing with my show is make a point that yes somehow prostitutes are treated
like animals, like coyotes. But this treatment is not inherent in prostitution
and does not come from the clients of prostitutes. It comes from residents’
groups, from cops, from social workers and it comes from feminists.
I find it is feminists who are objectifying us. I represent the treatment
of prostitutes at the hands of feminists in my show by using three inflatable
dolls. When a man is fucking an inflatable doll, he knows he’s not fucking
a real woman. When these feminists talk about us, they really see and
perceive us as these inflatable dolls. I find that they, the feminists,
are the ones who are objectifying us. If I was not Mirha-Soleil with
my personality and face and charm and wit and everything that makes me Mirha-Soleil,
my clients wouldn’t see me. They see me because there’s a certain personality
and a particular sex appeal that’s part of my whole package. They’re
not coming to see a pair of tits or a nipple or a butt cheek for Christ sake.
It’s the feminists who are anti-prostitution who objectify us and reduce
us to tits and asses by perceiving us that way and by propagating the myth
that in prostitution this is all we are as prostitutes: vulgar orifices,
and that this is all we are really worth. So what I do is turn the
tables around and say “You think that our clients or men who watch porn are
treating us like animals and pieces of meat? Then if that’s what you
think, YOU are the ones who can’t see further than tits and asses and fuck
holes. You are the ones treating us like animals and pieces of meat
and your discourses, your campaigns, your theorizing are hurting us and helping
create a context where prostitution is seen as a social evil to be eliminated,
a context that makes it possible for people to kill prostitutes and think
they are doing a service to the community.
Nadja: It seems like you’ve put that together in a very powerful
way and sort of turned the tables on that theory. It sounds great in
terms of the performance piece. I’m really excited about it.
Mirha-Soleil: A lot of people will not be pleased. (both laugh)
I don’t think I’ll get great reviews in the Feminists for Animal Rights’ newsletter.
Nadja: Lauren and I talk about this all the time, about
listening to other people and hearing other ideas. You have to have
dialogue, you have to open yourself up and say “Oh I never thought about that.
I read this book and I agreed with it but never thought about that until
you brought it up.” I’m sure there are lots of people who have read
different feminist theories and agree with them because they’re concerned
about pornography and they ‘re concerned about, for example - let’s focus
on animal rights - crush videos or bestiality in pornography. They’re
concerned about it so what we need to do is find some place to meet in the
middle and talk about these things that are problems in pornography, instead
of having a pro-pornography and anti-pornography table. There’s no in
Mirha-Soleil: What’s happening in the case of pornography and in
the case of prostitution is that we as women who are supposedly being oppressed
in these industries, we are there and we have voices and we can speak for
ourselves. The women are there. We have sex workers rights organizations
all throughout the world and we have been speaking on our own behalf for two
decades now. We have been saying how you can help us politically.
We have told the feminist movement how they can help us and the feminist movement
has refused to because they are sticking to a specific analysis and political
agenda they have around prostitution and pornography. And their ultimate
goal is not to improve the working conditions and lives of women who work
in the sex trade. Their problem is with prostitution and sexual representation
and sexual services. Their problem is really with sex, that’s what
it comes down to. When we’re saying ”Ok, we’ll tell you what you can
do to help us in not being oppressed as workers and not being treated badly
in porn or prostitution,” they don’t want to hear that ‘cause what they want
is the elimination of prostitution and pornography.
Nadja: And I think what people really need to understand
is that people have to speak for animals because at this point we can’t understand
everything that animals are saying to us. But people don’t have to be the
voices for sex workers, they have their own voices and we can hear them.
Mirha-Soleil: And in the case for example
of crush videos or porn films with animals in them, there are already laws
that exist for that. It’s not an issue of pornography, it’s an issue
of an animal being abused and killed and that’s illegal and if it isn’t then
it should be and that’s where the energy needs to be put. What happens
with a lot of feminist discourse around pornography is that they’ll use a
few examples of something abusive being perpetrated against a woman in a porn
film and consider all pornography based on that. There are thousands
and thousands and thousands of porn films out there and women are not killed
in these films, they’re getting paid to be in these films. So if something
illegal is happening in some video then that is what the problem is.
If a woman in a video gets beaten up and she’s not consenting to that then
that’s what the problem is and there are already laws to address that.
Nadja: I want to talk a bit about the Whore Hunter segment,
which is one of 7 segments in your show. Can you give us an overview
of what you’re doing with that part of the piece?
Mirha-Soleil: What I did is just read lots of books written
by coyote hunters, watched videos and do research on the internet. I
picked up a lot of sentences and lines that coyote hunters say and I got a
hold of how they speak and the kind of expressions they use. And I
mix that language and discourse with the language and discourse used by residents’
groups against prostitutes. I mixed all of that together to create
a character that speaks like a hunter. He uses the words and the phrases
and the figures and the tone of coyote hunters but he’s speaking about prostitutes
and what I’m doing of course is a critique of the coyote hunter discourse
while at the same time doing a critique of the discourse used by residents
groups against prostitutes. It’s a sickening and scary monologue and
it’s one place in the show where I really put it out there on the table:
Is there really a comparison? This is how these hunters are speaking
about animals. Is there really a comparison to be drawn between the
way prostitutes and coyotes are treated?
Nadja: We’ve talked a lot about the lives of coyotes,
about what happens to them in terms of being persecuted and hunted and again
how prostitutes and sex workers are discriminated against. Can you talk
about parallels that you see in a positive light in terms of the lives of
coyotes and the lives of prostitutes?
Mirha-Soleil: Despite decades or rather centuries of
actual attempts at eliminating coyotes all over the United States and Canada
– ‘cause at some point they expanded their territories and crossed to Canada
- coyotes have survived. They have all kinds of biological mechanisms
helping them when their population is under attack, when they are being killed
in large numbers. They start having more pups per litters, they start
having litters more often, and they start mating at an earlier age.
So despite incredible attempts at killing them by the millions, they have
expanded in range and they have expanded in numbers. It’s really the
same thing with prostitutes. Despite incredible attempts at controlling
prostitution and at eliminating prostitutes, we are still here and there and
we will continue to be around and everywhere so you might as well just work
with us so that we can work safely and without that terrible stigma that’s
attached to us. That’s what I end the show with, this thing about being
a survivor. Coyotes are very tough survivors. But so are prostitutes.
We are not survivors of “the sex trade” but survivors of a social and political
context in which everyone devalues prostitutes’ work and lives and in which
everyone is joining hands to try to control and eradicate us. A lot
of us have fallen in the process of trying to survive that context – and
I also talk about that at the end of the show - a lot of us die in the process,
a lot of us kill ourselves in many different ways. But there will continue
to be prostitutes I can assure you of that just like there will continue
to be coyotes and people should work with us as opposed to against us.
Nadja: Can you talk a little bit about who inspires you
both in terms of animal rights and in terms of performance art and where
some of your ideas come from?
Mirha-Soleil: When I was younger sometimes in the late 80’s,
I read about a performance artist called Rachel Rosenthal in an animal rights
magazine. And I was studying theatre at the time. I was taking
a lot of theatre workshops and that’s just before I actually enrolled in an
acting program from which I ended up dropping out to become a street transsexual
prostitute but that’s another story... So I read about this performance
artist who came from the theater world and who was also addressing animal
rights issues in her work. And I got all excited about this person,
also ‘cause she looked stunning... She had a shaved head and she just
had such a presence. There was something about this woman that was just
very impressive so she happened the same year to come and present one of
her work called Rachel’s Brain at the Festival de Théâtre des
Amériques in Montréal in 1987. And I was able to go and
see her performed and talk to her briefly as my little intimidated self after
the show. I also sent her a little childish fan letter saying “That’s
so great what you’re doing and I’d also like to do something for animals
with theatre, etc., etc., etc.” I couldn’t really speak English at the time
but her first language was also French so we were communicating and she sent
me a very sweet letter, encouraging me to start writing and do art.
She said that she was always really moved to see that there were people who
wanted to address animal issues through art so that’s the first person who
actually made me realize that you could do performance art and art that had
significance not just in terms of being political work but also in terms
of specifically talking about animals and not being scared of putting it
out there and maybe perhaps having to bear the brunt of being ridiculed.
My life has gone in all directions since then but I think that even now to
this day, she’s still a big inspiration and her work has had a major impact
on me. We do very different kind of stuff, we’re not the same people,
we come from different places and we’re talking about different things even
though we’re both talking about animals but there’s still something about
how she integrates various medium together that I really picked up from.
I also really learnt a lot from reading her scripts and seeing her perform.
It gave me a lot of ideas of how you can put things together. When
I read her scripts or go see her perform, for me it’s studying. I would
say that in terms of performance art, that where I learnt the most is from
Rachel Rosenthal and from seeing how she’s doing it and then try to figure
out “Ok now how can I – Mirha-Soleil - do it?” In the animal rights
movement there are lots of people whom I find inspiring, usually women more
than men. They are just women who are very grounded and very strong
and powerful and outspoken and again women who are not scared to be ridiculed
by some people who want to ridicule them for being pro-animal rights.
And in our neighborhood, there’s an old and poor lady who feeds the dozens
of sick, hungry and homeless cats. She’s just doing that really grunt
work on a daily basis and her consistency and her dedication is something
that’s really inspiring and that gives me strength.
Nadja: May be we can talk about art and animals because
of what’s happening in Toronto with the Jesse Powers cat torture case1.
It’s so great to hear about your performance, which integrates animals in
a positive light and delivers an animal rights message. Similarly, we
have artists like Sue Coe, who creates very graphic work but also delivers
a strong animal rights message. And then on the other hand, we have
this terrible video, which is being presented as art, and as a commentary
on eating animals. I’m wondering if you can as an artist talk about
your feelings around that.
Mirha-Soleil: When I look at people like Jesse Powers or a lot of
little bratty artist like that, I just think they’re a bunch of little privileged
brats who had little sheltered lives and have nothing to talk about in life
and this is why they need to shock. They need to do things that are
over the top. They need to torture a cat in order to do something that
people will give them attention for. They’re not people who are struggling
with issues. They’re not people who have been beaten up for being queer
in elementary school or high school like me because that’s what they would
be talking about in their art. If they had been, then they wouldn’t
torture a cat in order to make a point about whatever fucked up confused ideas
they have stuck in their heads. They’re just little privileged brats with
nothing to say and they need to do extreme acts in order to attract some
attention. And also when you look at what they’re doing, frankly I’m
shocked. There were letters from teachers, including one from the Ontario
College of Arts and Design, supporting his “talent” as an artist. He
was depicted as somebody with strong “morals” and a strong “social conscience,”
etc. Well when you really look at what he was doing with that cat torturing
“art” video, I’m sorry it’s bad! If he was gonna pass that as art, even
besides the cat being tortured, it’s bad art. Somebody just grabbed
a video camera without any attention given to anything. Might as well
just open your fucking fridge and videotape your celery, at least nobody would
die for it and the only one who’d end up suffering would be the audience.
It’s just so bad. It’s not well thought out and his whole defense revolved
around how this was an art project gone wrong, that things didn’t turn out
the way he wanted. Well I’m sorry, if Jesse Powers’ project went so
wrong that he ended up in court for hanging a live and conscious cat, slowly
slitting his throat, pulling one of his eye balls out with a dental tool,
and skinning him while the cat is screaming and struggling the whole time,
then he’s a bad artist. He hasn’t thought well in advance about the
moral implications of what he was doing and about how this was going to be
perceived by people – the audience - for whom he is doing his “art”.
So he’s a bad artist and if he’s going back to school instead of jail, then
it needs to be for 20 fucking years to do a lot of thinking and hopefully
under the supervision of more responsible teachers ‘cause right now, he doesn’t
have a fuck of an idea of what he’s doing.
Nadja: The thing that frustrates me so much is that there’s
even a debate about whether this is art or not. And for people who are
not involved in the arts community, it’s like “Well you don’t know what art
is and you’re not part of the arts community!” It’s taking away people’s common
sense and people’s ability to analyze. The same thing happens in terms
of medical things like vivisection. The people in power say “Well you don’t
know about science and you don’t understand it, so you can’t criticize it.”
I find this so frustrating.
Mirha-Soleil: There’s a contradiction there also ‘cause you
have all these artists who tell people like you “You don’t know what art is!”
and the point is we’re not just doing art in a vacuum. We’re doing art
for people out there otherwise then I say just look at your own belly button
at home, call it art, and leave us alone. So there’s a kind of contradiction
in telling people in society that they don’t matter, especially if you’re
doing work like this that’s supposed to provoke people. The audience
out there, people in society are the receiving end of the art products.
They are the people that we rely on in terms of evaluating the quality, impact,
and significance of our projects so if we just say “You just don’t know what
art is” when we disagree with our audience, then it’s just really evading
our responsibilities as artists. That’s one thing. Now second,
I haven’t been interested in the whole debate over whether this was art or
not because I find that some artists will call anything art. Anything
nowadays can be called art, especially in performance art, so for me that’s
an irrelevant question. What’s a relevant question is that you should
not be torturing a cat. That if for whatever purposes including art,
you torture a cat, it is unacceptable, it is illegal and you should be prosecuted
for that. So that’s what I focus on because otherwise you’re gonna have
all these artsy-fartsy artist farts who are gonna go on and on and on ad
nauseam into discussions as deep as my fucking whore ass over what art is.
And they’re boring discussions. They’re discussions that don’t interest
me; and they’re discussions that lose the majority of the people out there.
They’re elitist discussions and I’m not interested in wasting my time participating
in them and this is why I’ve avoided framing my discussions over this case
around the question “Is torturing a cat like Jesse Powers did art or not?”
For me that’s an irrelevant question. What we know is that a cat was
tortured and that’s unacceptable and what is even further more unacceptable
is that there are many artists, specifically performance artists, who have
come out in support of that guy doing something so horrendous and trying
to legitimize it in all kinds of really moronic ways.
Nadja: Those are fighting words girl! (Big laugh)
Thanks so much for talking with us today Mirha-Soleil.
Mirha-Soleil: It’s a pleasure