Travis Alabanza is a black, transfemme performance artist and writer based in London. They use live performance and combine poetry, soundscape, projection and theatrics to create confrontational art focussed on their experiences of being black and trans.
One of three artists-in-residence at Tate Britain, they are currently preparing their new show Burgerz, which debuts later this month. We met in the Tate Modern to chat about their art, the London queer scene and post-Trump activism.
How did you get into performance art?
I was involved in a lot of youth theatre as a kid and did a lot of community theatre. When I was 16, I was cast in a semi-professional show and did a lot of scripted work, but I always felt like I wanted to make my own work, something beyond the scripts. I always felt like I was hiding lots of parts of myself in order to be someone else, which I guess you do a lot in acting but it didn’t feel right. I guess my way into it was poetry and writing. When I moved to London from Bristol, I saw that there was this huge performance scene happening that I could be a part of.
For you, is it about the performance itself?
Live recording doesn’t really capture a lot of what’s happening or the mood in the room. I’m still waiting to find ways that live recording can capture everything that’s happening in my work. My work is really varied – sometimes I’ll sit on stage and read poetry, and other days I’ll use projection and soundscapes and a big intro.
How text-based is your performance?
It starts in text. My recent work is a lot of soundscapes and inaudible clips of people, but it all started with prose and with poetry. I write everyday, often long pieces of prose, then I take out phrases from it and create the sound from those phrases.
Your performances also have a very physical element to them…
That started in the past year, really, since getting the job at the Tate. It’s felt really weird doing the crossover between performing in clubs and queer cabaret shows, and doing lots of installations and exhibitions. It feels way out of my comfort zone because I didn’t go to art school – I never tried to be this bougie artist that creates this kind of work. But I’ve got my first solo show exhibition coming up in Glasgow in a couple of months. It’s been really cool thinking, “How does performance fit into the space, how do I fit into the space?” It’s really interesting to bring performance into these galleries because performance is amazing and more accessible, but also has this downside of being disposable – once I’ve done a performance, it’s done. I feel like this is a cool way to archive a performance into the art world.
I’ve been trying to find more queer performers and artists but it’s so hard, even on the London scene, because there’s this lack of an archive.
It’s so hard! I guess because of social media I’m archived quite well, and there’s a lot of articles referencing me. But there’s not an actual archive of ‘Travis did this show, this show, this show’, whereas if you do an exhibition, you get all of that. Someone asked me the other day, “How many shows have you done?” and I think in 2016, I did 150 shows, which is nearly a show every other day. There’s no recording of that, I don’t wanna be recording that and writing it all down in my notes, but it made me think, “Why is it not being archived?” Is it something to do with how we view queer art? Is it something to do with how we view cabaret? Because there’s so many cool queer performers of colour bossing it in London, like FKA, the Pheonix, Victoria Sin, Sadie Sinner, Karnage – the list is endless. We’re really carving a space for ourselves.
Do you feel activism is important to your work?
At university I was involved in a lot of student activism. I was the LGBT president and got us gender-neutral toilets at King’s College London, and I got us a full-time trans officer. Activism was always part of what I was doing and always part of what I was going to do. When I think about activism I think about how my art is inherently political. Existing in these spaces, especially as a black body that is outside of gender binaries in spaces that are historically white, I’m taking up space in a political way. My role in art and my role as I gain more social capital in these places is to then redistribute who is being seen, and that’s still a form of activism. I never kid myself and think that art is going to be the leading force of a movement but I do think art has a really important place in it.
Do you think in the current climate – Trump/Brexit/etc – it’s more important to be active?
It’s really important to challenge it, but also to be safe. I think there’s a lot of pressure at the moment to consistently keep on shouting out. I’m more interested in communal activism, rather than outward activism, so I’m focussing more of my time on organising dinners for friends, for queer and trans people of colour in London, just to keep healing. Maybe my activism doesn’t look like putting all this energy into protest but it looks like making sure I cook for one person a week who needs it. Post-Brexit, post-Trump, we should be more focussed on love and working on our interpersonal relationships. If I try and think too outwardly I get overwhelmed by how bad everything is.