Documenting beautiful images created with a balance of both fascinating photographic works and as a record of a contemporary subculture currently existing in New York – Bound by Night was recently created by Elegance Bratton and published through Wild Life press.
Twenty three years on from Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary Paris is Burning which followed young LGBT African American and Hispanic individuals recreate spaces to feel at home within outside of their biological families and through the space of the ballroom; Bratton shows the rest of the world that this culture hasn’t disappeared but simply adapted to our current time.
Unfortunately homophobia, racism and transphobia haven’t been eradicated in the last two decades and what is possibly more upsetting is in Bratton’s introduction where he explains to the reader that since the late 80s the AIDS epidemic has never really slowed down for this community and is still spreading to the most vulnerable at a ferocious rate.
Many of the individuals shot in this book fall in to the subcategories of the ballroom competitions of Femme Queen, Butch Queen, Sex Sirens, Thugs, Voguers, Pretty Boys and so on which are all perfectly explained to us in the introduction.
However much hardship the individuals in this book have experienced, the elements of transformation that fashion and dance offer these young people creates a space of celebration and empowerment. Bratton also presents us with a space which is actually very private and its in own way quite exclusive, many of our own experiences of this culture exist through spectating its re-appropriation through pop culture.
It is so rare to see images where notions of fashion are explored without a barrier of unattainability or exclusivity manifesting themselves, rather Bratton’s images show us an area of hope and individuals creating their own homes and families in the face of adversity. Its the very bottom of the working class yearning for something better, an escapism through the utter harshness of their lives lived. With the vast majority of these young people living on the streets or working in sex work this book does nothing but uplift and show us an area of the human spirit should do nothing but excite and inspire us.
The fashion-ability of this subculture has been re-appropriated in so many different ways of recent whether though major celebrities incorporating aspects into their performance or right down to seeing a white middle class gay boy re-naming himself ‘Pepper Labeija‘ and attempting a half angular dance in the name of Voguing at an East London club.
Throughout major cities outside of New York there has been a resurgence in various gay clubs inspired by Voguing and quotes being thrown all over the place from Paris is Burning (notably Brooke Candy’s hugely irresponsible references to OPULENCE) so its refreshing and simultaneously massively important to see the very essence of this cultures authenticity through these photographs.
To celebrate the great achievement of this book we have spoken to Elegance about the creation of the book and his own personal involvement within this culture.
How did you personally become involved with the ballroom scene?
I came to the Ballroom when I began making Pier Kids: The Life (PKTL). PKTL is a non fiction film that tells the stories of Desean, Casper, Krystal and myself four black folks who were forced to be homeless because of their sexuality, and found a spiritual home on Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village. Krystal, a woman of trans experience, found a new family on Christopher Street through the House Ballroom scene as the overall Mother of the New York City chapter of the house of Paciotti and a child of the House of Labeija. To tell Krystal’s story in the most honest way required that I ensconce myself in the Ballroom scene. I have been profoundly inspired by what I’ve found, and am grateful to Krystal for the introduction.
How do you feel the scene has adapted and changed in the last twenty years?
There are three areas of adaptation I think are significant over the past twenty years of Houseballroom: the evolution of vogue, the emergence of the kiki scene, and the invention of House ballroom Music as a stand alone new genre of black American music. In the arena of Vogue dancing, Vogue Femme has taken the form popularized in Paris Is Burning and Madonna’s eponymous video to new death defying levels. While Old Way Vogue was firmly rooted to the dance floor, Vogue femme literally takes flight. The dips and spins reach acrobatic levels. I would not be surprised to see in the near future vogue dance battles come to join boxing, or the X games as a favored combative viewing past time. Contemporary legends like Cassandra Ebony, Leyomi Prodigy, and Boots Mizrahi with the help of Internet phenomenon Ballroom Throwbacks introduced millions to the art form. Further, vogue femme has been advanced by the musical contribution of DJs Mike Q, and Vjuan Allure and lyrical chants of Kevin JZ Prodigy, Leggo Labeija, and Divoli S’ncere. Together they’ve crafted the signature Kunty bounce sound that is currently in the midst of sweeping dance floors across the world irrespective of Vogue. Mike Q’s Qween Beat record label is proof that this new genre of music has staying power, because of its widely expanding audience.
The Kiki Ballroom scene is a complex innovation. On the one hand the Kiki Scene can be scene as a sort of minor league circuit that teens can use to prepare for entry into the official House Ballroom scene as young adults. However, the Kiki scene has produced its own legends, stars, and statements. The “effects” required for competition are not label conscious. This means that at the level of accessibility the Kiki scene offers young people a pathway to community that is not so clearly predicated on a multi-national corporate definition of beauty, status, and ultimately power. Nonetheless, the Kiki Scene is not an entirely community determined response. The Kiki Scene is funded by and large through the auspices of the HIV/AIDS nonprofit industrial complex. This innovation in many ways represents the arrival of Black queer identity issues as the newly established focal point of the contemporary Gay rights movement.
How do you feel about the re-appropriation of the ballroom scene in wider culture?
Ultimately, this question is a historical one. The undisputed reality is that black Americans have been consigned to a captive position within the consciousness United States’ society. Further this positionality of black life has served to subordinate black American cultural producers to the economic power of the white consumer. Thus, the mainstream consumption HouseBallroom culture falls in line with the appropriation of Blues, Jazz, Soul, and Hip-hop culture by those outside of the black community in the United States and across the Western Hemisphere. In truth, what makes black American art so compelling and such wellspring is that it comes from the American black ghetto. HouseBallroom culture is no different. When we marvel at the beauty of Vogue Femme or duck walk to the Beats of Mike Q we must not forget that these movements are constructed within a competitive atmosphere located in the post-industrial American city. I cannot look past the fact that these young Black and Latino folks have invented a rich culture to break free from the constraints of homophobia/transphobia in the poverty-stricken ghetto. This element of the art form never seems to translate when those outside of the community appropriate HouseBallroom Culture. In its stead, we are offered narratives of the fabulous, fierce, and Kunty. While the progenitors of the scene are as fab, fierce, and cunty as the world outside of the Ballroom thinks, I feel it is of the utmost importance that appropriators are aware of the root dynamics, which informs the art of the Ballroom Scene. It matters because the mere consumption of the art does not solve the real problems experienced by the community that makes the art. It is my singular hope that through my insistence upon always linking the real life condition to the beauty of my aesthetic production that I can help to not only advance the HouseBallroom scene but also garner support to concretely improve the life condition of those within the scene. Houseballroom acknowledges that in our Western World we are all in competition with one another for precious resources. In the Ballroom that resource is validation but the class condition of the performers makes it so that vogue can be seen to symbolize a radical break from the limitations of poverty. A dancer may not be able to guarantee their next meal, house, or even their own freedom, but for the space of a few minutes these competitors can get their tens. They literally take flight. The significance of the art of vogue is directly linked to the subordinated reality of being black, Latino, poor, gay, or trans.
I am torn on this issue. On the one hand for visual artists like myself, musicians like Mike Q, and the competitors themselves the outside interest in the scene is vital to our continued survival and creative development. Artists need audiences who are passionately involved with the work they create. Further, I believe that the HouseBallroom Scene is the most vital and innovative site from which contemporary black American performance culture emanates. The increased visibility or scrutiny helps to drive the art forms contained within the HouseBallroom Scene forward, and forces us to constantly push ourselves to create more compelling work. On the other hand, it is becoming hard to ignore the profound lack of presence of black and Latino voices and bodies who are trusted to lead this outsider interest. Often what we find is members of the scene being used as ornaments in the case of Brooke Candy, Lady Gaga, or Beyoncé. Beyoncé and Gaga are interesting examples. Gaga refers to her pop machine as the “Hauss of Gaga.” Her biggest tour was titled the “Monster Ball Tour.” Beyoncé has an alter ego called Sasha Fierce. Further her dance moves are eerily reminiscent of the Leyomi Prodigy’s moves. Even further it could be argued that Beyoncé is in essence in perpetual Butch Queen drag. Every hair on her head, brush of make-up on her cheek, and each move she executes have been designed by black gay men from the Ballroom scene. Mega-stars like Beyoncé and Gaga have clearly appropriated the structure and terminology of the gay Houses of the Ballroom to construct a mythology that imbue their aesthetic with all of the crackling energy of black gay New York City street life. Yet neither has gone through any significant pains to acknowledge where they get their styles. Members of the House Ballroom scene are legends stars and statements within their own right. When you watch Cassandra Ebony, Boots Mizrahi, or Leyomi Prodigy on YouTube you need to know that you are watching the best Vogue dancers in the world. They are the contemporary equivalents of Martha Graham, Nureyev, and Bob Fosse. They are not simply just guides/instructors to the swaths of middleclass Europeans who want to learn how to vogue. One cannot ignore the strange power dialectic at play in this aspect of appropriation. Poor blacks and Latinos drive the art of the Ballroom scene forward and set the standard. In the realm of the cross over many of these artists become service providers.
How long did this project take to create and how did you meet Steve Terry of Wild Life Press?
Bound By Night is the result of a question I formed when filming Pier Kids The Life. What binds Krystal to her new gay House family? Her blood family chose to discard her for being what they thought was a black gay man. When she began her transition, her isolation from them was intensified. When I began following her to Balls, I was taken aback by the genuine love that radiated throughout the space. More so I was touched by the way Krystal came to life in her new role as a gay mother to the children in her House. I filmed most of PKTL on SLR cameras. This meant that I had the ability to switch between photo & video mode at will. One night I followed Krystal to Vogue Knights at Escuelitas in Times Square. I made a picture of Yzier’s silhouette as he initiated a pirouette. I was crouched on the ground looking at my LCD screen to evaluate the photograph. Next I felt a tap on the shoulder. I looked up and it was Steve Terry. He said “Ey that’s a cool photo.” He asks, ‘You got any more?” The next day Steve, Ebru Ercon (his wife), and I had lunch. He liked my images and we agreed to work together. I returned to Vogue Knights every week, and eventually began travelling the North Eastern Seaboard to trace the connections of the gay families of the House Ballroom Scene. It became evident that Krystal, her new family, and the gay house families in general were Bound By Night. That was two years ago. Today Steve Terry is a partner in crime as I continue to develop my photographic voice, and I have made new friends within the scene. The image on the cover of the book is that first image that Steve spotted when we met each other for the first time.
Could you explain more about the HIV problems currently happening within this culture? – How is this being tackled and is awareness an issue? Do you see this rise as a form of regression or has it never disappeared?
Let’s be clear the problem of HIV/Aids has remained a serious one for the entire planet. However, the situation of black queer Aids has its own peculiarities. With HBO’s film adaptation of The Normal Heart, Jared Leto’s Oscar winning role in The Dallas Buyer’s Club, and the documentary How to Fight A Plague we are witnessing the commemoration of the 1980s generation of white gay men and trans women who were integral in forcing the U.S. government to develop treatment for the virus. With their heroic efforts HIV/Aids has become a chronic illness and not the death sentence it was in the 80s. However, the rate of attrition due to HIV/Aids in the black community has remained alarmingly high since 1981. This is just it. The virus was concocted in the public imagination as a disease that afflicted white gay men exclusively. Hell, until the virus was identified in 1984 HIV/Aids was called Gay Related Imuno-deficiency disease (Grid). This plus the lack of meaningful effort to consider the lives of queers of color within the Mainstream gay rights movement (Gay Marriage, Don’t ask Don’t Tell etc.) have created a perfect storm of plausible deniability within both the black community and the mainstream society. For thirty years blacks who die as a result of complications from AIDS have filled the obituaries across the United States as deaths resulting from an assortment of “long illnesses.” To quote the great queer activist group Act up, “silence equals death.” There has been a intersecting series of silences that have served to make this virus the #1 priority in maintaining the quality of life of African descendant people across the globe.
In the Ballroom Scene we find a group of young people who exist in the statistical bull’s eye of the virus. Black men who have sex with other men, who are between 13 years -24 years of age, account for the vast majority of new infections across the U.S. The statistics for trans women of color are even direr. Some studies suggest that women of trans experience who are non-white are at least ten times as likely to contract HIV. Deaths from AIDS are now viewed as an anomaly, this same population of black homosexual men and women of trans experience account for eighty percent of AIDS deaths nationwide. Awareness of how to not contract or spread HIV is not necessarily the issue. The founders of the HIV/AIDS non-profit industrial complex have left behind an intricate infrastructure to fight the virus. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Harlem United, and the Hedrick Martin Institute are non-profits that focus on fighting the virus within the black community. Their efforts include testing, linking people to medical treatment, and prevention work. It is in the area of prevention that these organizations have continued to fail. Interestingly, enough we find a similar disjuncture between the client pool and the caregivers that we find in the appropriation of Houseballroom culture by more mainstream audiences. Principally, at the executive level of the non-profit industry there are very few black voices that direct the strategies enacted to prevent contraction within and treatment of the predominantly black client pool. Further, their efforts have focused on condom distribution and as a result many of these programs have ignored the more complicated aspects that cause a young person to have unsafe sex. Chiefly, these are questions of value and self worth. Lack of competitive education, economic opportunity, and housing are key factors, which drive transmission of the virus within black communities. When I say education I do not mean HIV/Aids education. I am talking about primary education that leads to meaningful lifelong career employment. When I say “economic opportunity” I am referring to access to jobs, so as to maintain and improve one’s station in life. When I refer to a” lack of housing,” it is important to note that forty percent of homeless people in the United States are LGBT youth. Of this group anywhere from forty-sixty percent are of color. There are numerous studies that show individuals who lack these critical resources are more susceptible to the virus. So in the area of awareness, it is not just that young queers of color are not knowledgeable about how to treat and prevent the spread of the virus within their communities. There appears to be a profound lack of awareness/interests at the very top of the HIV/AIDS non-profit industrial complex as to the necessity of a prevention strategy that extends beyond the bedroom and into the institutions and infrastructures of civil society. After all if a young person is on the streets the likely hood that the sexual activity they engage in would even take place in a bedroom is low. If you are not working, have no place to live, and can’t find viable employment then what do you have to live a long life for? Being HIV positive at the very least can provide a pathway for individuals who live in poverty to some form of stability. There are numerous housing services to help those whose immune systems are compromised by the virus. There are not any that help a young black queer person who is HIV- do the same.
The House Ballroom scene has taken matters into their own hands. I have witnessed Gay Mothers and Fathers mentoring the newly positive, and counseling the negative to prevent transmission. Further the Ballroom scene provides a critical outlet through which young people who suffer through homophobia, transphobia, racism, and myriad class oppression can earn praise and love. This praise and love is a necessary component towards engendering self worth in folks who’ve been discarded by American society at large, and very often exiled from their blood families. There’s even been a stemming of the tide. 2012 marks the first time that new infections of black queers have dropped. Nonetheless, the rate of infection within the scene is very high, and until all parties invested in reversing this reality address the full societal process of infection, it will not abate.
Who do you want to read this book?
I make my work because I am determined to depict the type of world I want to live in. Everything I do is meditation on this mortal coil. Life feels long as we live it but too short whenever it ends. The folks in Bound By Night, like all human beings have a desire to leave a positive imprint on the world that they will eventually leave behind.
I want the entire planet to enjoy Bound By Night, however there are only 500 copies and they ain’t cheap! My goal is to sell this work out this summer and seek a larger deal to distribute it. Moreover, I would like to do a Ballroom tour featuring the music of Mike Q and Vjuan Allure for Bound By Night and PKTL. With this tour I will establish a circuit of Balls within which the nation (world?) could find a way to interact with the universe that inspired the book.
How do you think we can collectively challenge current ignorant ideals that effect members of this community?
We simply have to be willing to put our money where our mouths are. I believe in the good of every human being. We all want to live in a world where our lives are valued and respected. Moreover, we all want to be accepted. However we resist accepting one another in favor of tolerance. So to challenge the current ignorant gaze that is applied to the lives featured in Bound By Night I hope to challenge the viewer to accept The House Ballroom’s scene’s definition of family and consequently, accept the people they encounter everyday who resemble the ones in the photos I’ve made. I want the viewer to place themselves in the shoes of the participants in my book (and film) and ask themselves, “What would I do if I required the night to be myself?” The Butch Queens, and Femme Queens in Bound By Night live in amongst us, and are subject to untold amounts of violence from above below and within. The nighttime gives safe shelter to these young people. Since they live with us and we claim to care about living in a safe, sane, and just world it is our responsibility to honor what they’ve built for themselves in the House Ballroom Scene, by doing our part to make the daytime more hospitable.
You can purchase one of the 500 copies of Bound By Night through Wild Life Press here