You were awarded a fellowship to travel to the United States. Instead of New York or Los Angeles, you chose to go to Baltimore. Why?
I was granted by the likes of Institut Français, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a Program Hors les Murs Fellowship (formerly called Villa Medici), a research grant for a French artist in a foreign country.
I chose to go to the United States for various reasons. First of all, because France, when I was a child, was all about soul music, malls and America. Because, also, my mentor is an important American choreographer, Andy Degroat – who settled in France in the mid 80’s. And because I had to acknowledge the fact that American thinkers had taken over French philosophers considering gender and race. And I had the intuition that a city like Baltimore would be a metaphor of Paris’ urban reality and its periphery.
I arrived in Baltimore in May 2011. I formerly planned to stay 2 months, in order to understand Omar’s character from [the television show] The Wire, his ability to define his own urban geography, be it physical or mental. I was very eager to understand Omar’s character for it gives an alternative and a possible posture to inhabit the city. Omar teaches us how to be an urban man in the 21rst century. A post gender, post colonial or post racial man. I met Baltimore Voguers, instead, and stayed 5 months and started coming back and forth for the last 3 years.
How did you first encounter the group of vogue dancers in Baltimore and what was the process of developing a relationship with them like?
I first saw a Ball in parking lot during the gay pride, organized, as it is often the case, by the Health department of the University of Maryland. I was very intrigued because it was nothing like I thought I knew about Voguing, which I thought had became mainstream in New York. I saw a total different reality on this parking lot and recognized Omar in each of the performers. Or rather, I felt that Omar was lying somewhere in each of them. I started going to the Club they perform each Tuesday night and proposed some of the Voguers to work with me.
The Eubie Blake Centre had opened me up their work spaces – something that no one else in the City ever did during those three years of work. I threw an open call for a shooting at Eubie. That is where and when I met Dale Blackheart and Marquis Revlon, with whom I still work very closely.
During this first shooting, we deconstructed the vogue poses to go back to the origins, the covers of Vogue Magazine. These photographs are studies, for the shootings we would soon stage outdoor, in their backyard or neighborhoods. Baltimore raw houses are very particular of the city, and I insisted on the idea that I was working with Voguers from Baltimore – from the ghettos of a city with no subway, no museum, no real fashion. I wanted to show their reality, which makes Voguing still relevant in 2014.
Voguing is vivid, contemporary, it morphs from influences, hybridizes itself, brings new possible behaviors to a mainstream culture that experiences difficulties to reinvent itself – especially in Europe. It is flamboyant, savant, baroque. I wanted to gather all those layers in photographs that would look like academic portraits.
This project incorporates vogue dancers from both Baltimore and Paris. Can you speak on your experience with both groups, both similar and different?
The first difference is that the Paris scene is very young. It is a few years old when the American scene exists since the ‘50s or the ’60s. I am trying to understand what the French culture could bring to Voguing, because Voguing has this quality of taking influences. Since France is so much about the court and the Louis XIV, so much about center and periphery that I had this idea about dealing with Baroque music and French Baroque dance – which is an expression of the power. Historically speaking, Baroque dance was a popular dance that became later more minimal, more savant when the King brought it to the court. Though, even at the Court, anyone who knew how to dance could attend a ball.
I think that Voguing since the ’60s is codifying, getting more and more savant, and there is something very Baroque in it: the outfits, the gender fluidity, the fact that femininity is endorsed by men. And through Baroque, I also can work with the Paris Voguers on the idea that they are not American, but that they are French. Not only French but they are also French from the Caribbean. Very few of them are French- African, most of them are French-Caribbean. This means a story that is very parallel to the African-American in the United States because they are actually all French for a long time ago but still Black and still not considered fully part of the politics and society of France.
The project includes videos, performances, and soundtracks. How vital is this for the overall project?
Working with Voguers organically brought film and dance into my practice. I was doing movies with my iPhone, and designed a video installation on 3 walls, thus recreating a ballroom space in order to engage the audience in a more active way. The Paris’ vVguers, during the exhibition, took over the space and performed inside the installation, asking the audience of the museum to be judges. Their presence changed everything to the meaning of the work. It also changed the perception of the work. In mixing photography, films and performances, that is to say, still, moving and living images all together, the art space becomes a possible area of experience both for the Voguers and the audience. Something is shared that is beyond voyeurism and exotism: we face the presence, our presence.
What’s next for you?
I am in residency in Baltimore the next weeks to go on building a creative relationship with my friends and doing scouting for further projects. This residency will prepare a two years residency in the Departement of Seine Saint Denis, just outside Paris, an area that we call 9-3, where the cars where burning in 2005. Yes, Paris is still burning and I want to bring again my friends from Baltimore to Paris and together create an original visual work that will cross French baroque, thus politics and aesthetics, and the idea of Carnival, thus fashion and transgression.
Frédéric Nauczyciel is a French artist who works between Paris and the US with photography, video, and performance.