"What's the point of being queer, or an artist, or a radical, if you don't veer?"
Morgan Bassichis is a comedic storyteller and songstress. I met Morgan through my friend Jibz Cameron (aka Dynasty Handbag), and then again at a protest or a party. The first time I saw Morgan perform I remember laughing so hard my cheeks hurt. I leaned against the brick wall of the Creative Time tenement space, thinking I'd finally found pleasure. Morgan's performances are conversational fairytales that take the audience into the steamy underbelly bathhouses of the self-help and tincture-obsessed mind. Over the past three years, I've become a diehard Bassichian, studying the political activism and irreverence of Morgan's work with care. Yet when I find myself explaining it to my students or friends, my voice tends to trail off, not wanting to fix something that feels ethereal, resistant, and alive. Instead of saying much, I send people Instagram links to Morgan's songs on the longue durée of resistance. Or I tell them to watch a Lily Tomlin movie from the '80s.
Katherine Brewer Ball This week you performed three times. And you performed for the first time with a band.
Morgan Bassichis Yeah, I've been making music. Last year I had this homework assignment for myself, to put a song in every performance. And that was good, and juicy, because I love music. I find that it's like a lever you pull, and you go to a different floor. Then this past year I started accompanying myself on the piano, which I've been playing since I was a kid. More recently, I pulled together this band, and it was really wild to have other people on stage with me. I never really have that. I'm like, "What are you guys doing here?" But they were so easy to cohabitate with.
KBB When was the first time you performed a song in a piece?
MB In the series I did at MoMA PS1 for Greater New York, each performance had a song. You know, I always think of these things as spells. I love what Suzan-Lori Parks says, "Words are spells," and I love repetition. And I like to get people to sing together, because it's just this thing that we all remember how to do. So, I started doing it in the PS1 series and was like, "Oh, I should bring the piano in here." And then when I was on Fire Island last summer at the BOFFO residency, I wrote a bunch of songs about Fire Island and accompanied myself.
KBB Yeah, I saw a picture of you performing with a keyboard to men in a pool, floating on noodles.
MB Yes, that was my musical debut, for naked dudes in a pool! And there was a tornado or something. It was really stormy weather. I thought god was making a joke on me. It was pretty far from my usual environment. I made some joke, like, "You're supposed to imagine the audience naked, but you guys are naked, so I'm imagining you in the pool having diarrhea." It did not go over well. They were all, "You're disgusting." But that worked for me.
KBB What were the Fire Island songs like?
MB They were all just about men… well, patricide, really.
KBB Killing their fathers, wanting their fathers?
MB Pools full of fathers, I don't know. But also about ghosts. There are so many ghosts over there. I've been thinking a lot about our queer ancestors. You know, how we're enabled by each other, whether we like to accept that or not. I have a lot of respect for that process of being constituted by those who came before us, even if we diverge. I felt that on Fire Island. I could feel this sense of what's passed, that ancestry.
KBB Yeah, there's a lot of that feeling on Fire Island.
MB One of the songs I wrote there—"We have always been on fire"—has become a central piece in this series of weird protest songs that I've been working on. It was right before the election, and I was just thinking of the abysmal political present, about liberal optimism and liberal outrage. And I just kept thinking about this idea of the long histories of burning that we come from, that it didn't start now. It was a very generative time out there.
KBB All those knotty little fingery trees on Fire Island make me think of Shakespeare's The Tempest. There's something witchy about that place, and the creepy deer trying to kill you with their ticks.
MB Exactly! It's like a folktale. There's the sunken forest, there are phantom dicks hanging around. It's a real magical place.
KBB And you did a poster campaign while you were there?
MB Yeah, a bunch of people got together and made these cardboard posters about imagining a world without police and prisons for a Black Lives Matter national day of action. Most of them were removed immediately, so we did a second batch, plastered the main drag. Fire Island has this vexed relationship with politics. I guess around the time of the Stonewall Riots there was an effort to get people on Fire Island to take a stand, like "Stonewall is happening. You should care about police repression!" But there was this tension between the renters and the owners, which I think we can see in queer politics more generally, between assimilation and rebellion.
KBB I've been thinking about that essay you co-wrote with Alexander Lee and Dean Spade for Captive Genders, called "Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement with Everything We've Got." You write, "Our ways of living and expressing ourselves break such fundamental rules that systems crash at our feet, close their doors to us, and attempt to wipe us out." I'm curious about the relationship between your writing, activism, and performance, especially in relation to the piece you recently performed at The Duplex, Protest Songs at the Gay Bar.
MB I'm interested in where politics "belong." And of unleashing the political potential of nonpolitical spaces, and the erotic potential of nonpolitical spaces: the gay bar, the gay beach. Gay bars have always been sites of organizing, kinship, and affiliation—and hospitality. Music to me is so hospitable. Maybe not as a rule, but it feels like an invitation into a shared experience, in the way that comedy is too. They are both an invitation to share something. I try not to do a performance where you just sit there and watch me. I'm not really interested in that kind of dynamic. We already know how to do that. I want people to collaborate and conspire with me, to be implicated, which feels political. I want people to go through an embodied experience in my shows, of going somewhere, risking something, moving through a journey together.
KBB Your performances do feel risky. And they feel genuine and open, even as you're turning the lens on yourself. For me, it's like my insane fear of ticks, or the ridiculousness with which I think of things like almond butter or therapy. You're talking about yourself, but it feels like this risky opening outward. But, your newer stuff is sexier…
MB Oh, what do you mean?
KBB The piano stuff. There's a seduction happening.
MB Tell me!
KBB There's this seductive invitation, like, let's all do something together. You're Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus, beckoning the audience to cast these counter-spells with you.
MB "Come little children, I'll take you away…" What's sexier than a piano? There's something much more vulnerable and laid bare with music. I don't know anything more vulnerable. You can kind of hide behind a joke. A song is harder to hide behind.
KBB I can see that.
MB I'm also playing with earnestness and directness as an affect. If they weren't already, the people I perform for are terrified. What does it mean to acknowledge that the people you're in the room with are scared, and to be scared together? I have a song, "I know you're scared, I'm scared too," over and over. It's a permission to feel. I'm interested in intimacy; the music feels more intimate somehow.
KBB In your performance for Zoe Leonard's I Want a President on the High Line, in October, you didn't give a political speech. Instead, you had everyone sing Natalie Cole's 1991 duet with her dead father, "Unforgettable… With Love." There was a kind of veering off. You don't do the liberal progressive strategy of, "Okay, If we're just out in the streets everyday…"
MB Yeah, "If we just stick together…"
KBB "…we'll effect change."
MB Yeah, "If we just keep using our voices…"
KBB "…confessing and talking louder about being homosexuals will cure all the ailments of the world."
MB Yeah, this kind of call to unity and visibility as the prescription for all of our problems. What's the point of being queer, or an artist, or a radical, if you don't veer? What's the point?! How do we keep stretching our radical imagination, the sense of the impossible, and really claim the impossible as our domain? I'm really scared of—and interested in—the unknown. That's my whole interest in stories of the Baba Yaga and folktales.
KBB Who is the Baba Yaga?
MB She's this Slavic witch who lives in the middle of the forest, who you go to when you want something. Needless to say, you may not get what you want, but you're gonna get what you need! She's a figure of initiation. She's initiating young people. She says, "You're not so special, I could eat you if I wanted to." I did a performance in which Miss Israel loses her brooch and falls down a hole, then Miss Poland goes down to save her, and they end up in Baba Yaga's fireplace. Drama! Of course they're like, "This is a mistake." Nobody ends up at her dinner table and thinks, "Oh, I should be here."
I thought she was a figure that could be helpful in our conversations about Polish nationalism and Israeli nationalism and American exceptionalism. Nobody is special, basically. Everybody's special, but nobody's special. Nobody is better than anybody else. The task is to learn from her. That's what liberalism is to me: a refusal to really engage with the fundamental forms of violence that created these countries and their living histories. And we need to really turn to it and face it. I think comedy can help us do that. I think music does that.
KBB I'm also thinking about your to-do lists, and how in one you say: "Ask my hairdresser if she thinks I'm more of a man or a woman, and just stick with that." It feels like you're trying to find both pleasure and reverence in such moments of anxiety or ambivalence.
MB I have this idea for a Sisyphus kind of thing, where everyone just goes around and around, saying their name and pronouns forever. I have to find levity in myself. I hope that it becomes an invitation for others.
KBB What is gender if it's not fun and pleasure too? Having to assert yourself against a power structure doesn't feel good.
MB Yeah, I totally agree. It's so simple to say, but performance is important because it reminds us of instability, and gets us comfortable with instability. So much of my musical interests come from my mother, it's in dialogue with her. Writing songs and making music feels, again, like this thing of reverence for those who came before, and then hospitality for those who are here. I'm really interested in that, you know? I'm interested in trouble and trespassing and discomfort, but also a deep form of respect.
Katherine Brewer Ball is a writer based in Brooklyn. She teaches Performance Studies at Wesleyan University and is currently at work on a book project that traces contemporary black, latinx, and queer performances that break from the language of freedom to theorize escape. Brewer Ball curates performance and art events, including the New York City performance salon Adult Contemporary.