“ASSEMBLAGE“ is an inquiry into the different ways artists utilize performance and technology to explore and express different notions of identity. An effort to push forward marginalized artists with a focus on people of color, non-western nationalities and those along the queer/trans spectrum, “ASSEMBLAGE” provides a platform for analysis of how art and performance intersect with the lives of these individuals who are visibly and openly existing in the digital age. This is the seventh installment.
Charlene is a trans artist, performer and drag queen living and working in New York City. Hailing from the south -- more specifically, Alabama -- Charlene is an artist whose identity and performance aesthetic complicates traditional notions of drag, queer and trans experience.
For Charlene, navigating and performing in the nightlife community of New York City provided a point of entry for her to not only explore her own notions of identity, but the ability to engage in a dialogue about living as her authentic self. However, it wasn't until she finished her undergraduate degree at New York University that Charlene initially came out and engaged in a queer reframing of her life.
"When I came out as gay, my life completely rearranged and I lost all connection to the person I believed myself to be within about six months, and that duration of time that gave me a lot of perspective," Charlene told The Huffington Post. "I began to equate self-identity with ego nonspecific to gender or sexuality. I found that whenever someone found a way to say 'I’m this type of person,' I found it almost always not to be the case, or at least a somewhat forced quality. Not wanting to be put in a box has become a new box," she said.
"When I began cross-dressing, I likened identity to trying on clothing when shopping, seeing what styles create different proportions on the canvas of my body, and enjoying the malleability of self. You see something you like in the mirror, but stepping outside the dressing room presents you with different results, and that's where the performance begins. Identity is in conversation with the outside, and all the parts of that conversation is a performance."
The drag community of New York City has proven to be fundamental to Charlene's ongoing exploration of her sense of self. While drag culture serves a different function for every artist, being involved in a massive, performance-based community allows for a larger, cultural dialogue that tends to complicate binary notions of identity. As a trans-identifying individual, drag has allowed Charlene to engage in this ongoing dialogue not only with her peers, but also with herself.
"Drag, as art form, reflects my relationship to identity in that it holds irreverence and fluidity chief among its values," Charlene elaborated. "Queer people are not allowed their identities, and drag turns that tragedy into a comedy by saying that identity is fantasy. Who do you want to be today? What color hair do you have? Where did you come from? Drag gives you endless options."
"I believe that a queer person most gracefully navigates her life with resistance to maintaining a fixed shape," Charlene added. "She constantly reminds her that there’s still soil to unearth, that there’s more to be revealed, to where identity becomes a conversation between the self and the world rather than a flag in the soil. It’s also important to turn your convictions inside out. I started saying I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body, something usually said to unintentionally marginalize trans men, but by applying those words to myself I get someone thinking about the word trapped, man, woman, and body. It’s also a funny joke. That’s the magic of drag."
In an age where notions of queer community are ever-shifting -- and in many ways seem to be moving online -- the process of self-actualization as a queer or trans person seems to also have changed. Beyond just the drag community, the queer mecca that is New York City played a pivotal role in Charlene's ongoing journey to living as her authentic self. In the eyes of Charlene, few things can shape and inform the nuances of queerness as heavily as lived experience among other queer people.
"I’m thankful that my initiation into queerness was in a large community rather than in books or via the Internet alone, as I fear we’re in an age of over-read or queers who delve deep into academia and whose dialogue is only political," Charlene explained. "I’m glad that queer theory and notions of self-identification came to me hanging out (or partying, rather) with friends. Much in the same way that you get better at drag by having a few queens in your apartment after hours who give you tips while they smoke your pot than you do watching YouTube tutorials, participating in community is the only fruitful way to self-actualize. Books are black and white, but dialogue has proven to challenge my convictions."
However, the implications of technology on living visibly and openly as a performer in the digital age isn't something that can be ignored. As other individuals featured in "ASSEMBLAGE" have noted, social media and the Internet allow the user the craft the framework through which the larger, less localized world experiences and understands their work. In the eyes of Charlene, the ability to connect with and build a global queer community has, in many ways, allowed the Internet to function as a form of queer utopia.
"Social media, to me, is just a different incarnation of drag," Charlene continued. "You can manipulate the way you’re perceived with precision. You can't hear the deep voice of a trans woman, and you only see freshly dyed manic panic. In that sense the internet is a queer utopia, which is where the outrage comes from when it’s threatened by entities like Facebook with their ‘real-names’ policy. It's one thing to see that there are others like you, but amazing to be able to interact with them, and that’s what the Internet is for gender deviants of a very young age. So while it is fun to balk at the pettiness of social media, its a breeding ground of very important dialogue."
Charlene is, as all of us are who identify along the queer or trans spectrum, on a continual journey to self-actualization and living as her authentic self. As she navigates the nuances of her identity as both a drag queen and a trans girl, performance will likely continue to play a pivotal role in the further exploration of what it means to live openly within the context of the digital age.
In the words of Charlene, "Oftentimes, a queer identity has little to do with gender or sex, but your creative purpose in your life, finding your personal deux ex machina and making your mark."
Want to see more from Charlene? Head here to visit the artist's Instagram. Missed the previous installments in ASSEMBLAGE? Check out the slideshow below.
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