Cassils | Wanted: Clean Urine Free of Toxicity, Heartlessness, or Prejudice
In 2010, gender-noncomforming visual artist Cassils directed a self-promotional YouTube video in which they proudly proclaim a list of labels that define them. “I am a personal trainer, a stuntwoman, a bodybuilder, an ex semi-pro boxer, and a visual artist,” Cassils affirms into the lens as clips of them demonstrating each label appear on the screen. Today, nearly eight years later, I speak with Guggenheim award-winning artist Cassils, (who asked to be referred to as “they” throughout the course of our interview), over the phone, and I ask: “If you were to remake that same video today, how would you identify?”
“I don’t know actually. I think there’s so much pressure for people to contain themselves and I think everything is shifting right now,” Cassils tells me as they sit inside their Los Angeles apartment. “What we thought was in place and firm is now moving under our feet, literally. The fucking city is on fire because of the effects of climate change, and at this moment there is a man in the oval office who is a climate change denier, so we’re sitting here knowing none of this is going to get any better.”
Since the making of that video, Cassils has been named “one of ten transgender artists who is changing the landscape of contemporary art” and is celebrated internationally for their physically demanding performances that often use the body as a vehicle to steer audience’s attention towards relevant social issues. “I think where I fit in or how I articulate what my space is in the world right now can’t be answered just yet,” Cassils continues, “I need the dust to settle a bit before I can answer that question truthfully. So I’m going to resist it for now.”
Cassils’ artwork revolves around the themes of gender identity, offering a shared experience for contemplating histories of violence, representation, struggle, and survival. They use their body as a living-breathing canvas. Recently, Cassils closed their solo show MONUMENTAL at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. The show focused on Cassils’ durational performance piece “PISSED”.
Displayed inside of a glass cube, the piece contains an accumulation of 200 days worth of piss—every drop of urine that Cassils has passed since the Trump administration’s reversal of President Obama’s protections for transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their preferred gender identities. “‘PISSED’ serves as a visual representation of how much fluid one person has to litigate as a result of a repressive government,” Cassils tells me.
“PISSED” also contains a two-hour long audio track following Gavin Grimm’s quest from his local PTA to the U.S. court of appeals to be allowed access to use the restroom he feels most comfortable in. The audio is filled with trans-phobic arguments from “concerned” parents, teachers, members of the Gloucester Virginia school board, and Supreme Court judges directed towards Grimm’s 15-year-old body. “The audio is a way of re-contextualizing the piece as a real-world issue. It places the problem on a real body. Since it’s just audio, you don’t know what this boy looks like. This body could belong to anybody. This body could be yours.”
It’s clear to me that Cassils is attracted by art that speaks to the political, but while Cassils aims to create pieces that emotionally impact the viewer, they don’t think all art needs or should aim to do this.
“I don’t think all artists have to be activists. I wouldn’t even say that I’m an activist,” Cassils tells me. “I’d say that for me, the job of an artist is to reflect the era in which they work. To communicate about the times in a way that offers insight. For me, the role of art is to offer a visual tool of self-awareness. You don’t just make stuff to cover the world with more shit. Ideally, the goal is that your art brings someone somewhere new.”
Cassils hopes their upcoming works with the COLA Fellowship and their curated performance artist series with Stanford University, titled “Vital Signs,” will be able to take viewers somewhere they’ve never been before. “I’ll be teaching with younger and older artists, and the overarching message of the series will be to teach students ways in which we can use identities as a form of resistance,” they say. Cassils tells me that they have a couple of tricks up their sleeves moving forward, but regardless of what direction their career takes them, creating art has never been an option for them. It’s a necessity.
“I think if you’re an artist you don’t really have a choice. Being successful, whatever—all of that is arbitrary,” they explain. “If you’re an artist, making art is a survival mechanism. It’s a way of being able to handle everything that’s happening in the world and transmitting it in a way that allows you to comprehend it. For me, it’s something that I’ve done to survive mentally, physically, in a way that makes me feel like I have purpose in the world. If I ever try to stop creating, I start to feel very unwell.”
Written by Eva Barragan
Photos by Megan Paetzhold