Alessandro Cassin in conversation with Katharina Bosse:
Do you feel that the present reincarnation or revival of Burlesque has brought it's irony and transgressive elements to new hights?
Absolutely. In the New Burlesque of today there is a very strong element of irony and humor which actually defines it and sets it apart very strongly from commercial strip tease.
What are the other important differences with strip tease?
In the Burlesque shows there is really not that much nudity, sometimes not at all and in any case that is never the main attraction. Also, and importantly, the women are the authors of their own performance, there is never a stage manager or anyone telling them what to do to earn their money.
So it is a spontaneous, self taught form of expression?
It is the performer's own creation all the way around: the choreography, the costumes, the narrative. Basically they create a stage persona with no restrictions.
Andy Warhol spoke about everyone's desire for 15 minutes of fame, do you think part of this stems from that desire?
These performers are not professional actors. They are just people that at some point said: ok I have these ideas of what I could be, certain parts of myself that are not really lived out during the day. And they develop those ideas into a stage persona. I very much admire that! I think all of us have ideas of what we could be besides what we are, and the Burlesque performers live it out for us.
Do you feel like as a series, the photographs in the book compose a sort of portrait of a very specific slice of contemporary America?
In a sense yes, for me they do, although I do not want to make it bigger than it is. It derives from a personal feeling that does not necessarily translate in to generalities.
Your photographs reveal a specific fascination with the subject matter...
I have a personal attachment to American spaces, fantasies, and performers both the ones in the old movies that I mentioned, and the ones today performing in the New Burlesque shows.
By bringing the performers out doors, in bright daylight and in specific sites, not only you decontextualize their performance but you create something totally new. What are these backdrops for you?
They are like landscapes of dreams. The performers become in a sense like apparitions against the back drop of american cities, deserts, streets and homes. Those backdrops in themselves would not be particularly noticeable, but through the presence of the performers they become transformed into something theatrical.
So the photographs become the arena for multiple transformations?
The transformative power of the performers is so strong, that they can take a piece of desert and transform into a redly made stage. Just like they transform themselves from ordinary women into stage characters.
The book is the result of your traveling for a year across the US watching and photographing Burlesque in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlantic City etc.. Do you think that Burlesque has regional styles?
There are slight differences. What varies is how the troupes or individual performers came to be influenced by the Burlesque scene. Also the audience varies: in New York you feel the influence of the whole down town theater and performance art movement which is not a reality in Las Vegas. Or in Los Angeles there is a very strong Retro movement that is drowned to the Burlesque, and Hollywood glamour.
I realize it is hard to generalize, but how would you describe the audience for these shows?
There are all kinds of people, basically people with irony, out to have a good time. I would say that it is roughly 50% male and 50% female. Definitely not women on the stage and men in the audience.
How do you feel, as a woman, watching these shows?
It does not take anything away from me, but rather it gives me something. You don't feel like the women on stage are your competitors, they are more like an example of a very comfortable, liberated eroticism. Their body's are not perfect, but human and in their show they live out shareable fantasies.
There is a certain ambiguity in their show, a tension between exhibition and revelation...
There is an interesting point when showing yourself can be making yourself both vulnerable and self assured.
Can you tell me something about your relationship with the women?
They were available and easy to work with, despite the demands that I made on their time. The had to get dressed and put the stage make up during the day, which is not usual for them...
Do you feel they understood your intention, your process?
I showed them other work that I had done, and I feel they understood my enthusiasm and fascination for what they do. They got that this was an art project and they appreciate becoming part of a book. It was a great experience.
In your images we are presented with something which is neither the "real" person, nor the stage persona, who are we seeing?
For me they are apparitions. Photography in itself is such a strange medium because you can see so much and yet you can never go beyond the surface of things. There is a tension in there: the spectator tries to interpret the image. In the case of these photographs I step away even further than I would do for a regular portrait. Actually I leave a lot of space around the performers, which is letting the spectator now that he or she is looking at an image. Whatever they read into it, it's going to be their fantasy about the performer. The performers utilize a number of sexual and cultural stereotypes with somewhat of a kitsch aesthetic, (yet there is nothing kitsch about the images).
We know from movies and popular culture all the elements involved and yet when we look at these photographs it feels like seeing these things for the first time: how did you achieve this?
I trust the performers and their great power, and I also trust photography. It is a question of taking seriously all the elements that form the picture, and going for it! When the photograph works for me it achieves a strange balance in its compositional elements. Photography is so much about what is not there, about the frame...
We have talked about the humor and irony, don't you think that there is also some sadness that transpires?
Yes! It has to do with how one lives in the world. You try to make something out of yourself you try to feel alive, live your life to the fullest... yet it is always a fleeting moment. Performance is a fleeting moment...
Like a photograph?
Pictures in themselves are a melancholic thing because every single picture is always in the past.
What are your goals in photographing?
To find a balance between my desire to use the power of photography to transport the viewer into a different world, and to reveal something about the role of the viewer in the creation of the image.
I am beginning to work with film. I am curious to see what can happen in filming Burlesque with a steady frame. The camera does not move but the performers do, with no sound...
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