I always wanted to be onstage but I hated performing male roles. I started doing drag in 2009, because it was the only performance form that didn’t require having a gender that makes sense.
There is a binary and very rigid functioning of gender in almost all performance forms. In drag that wasn’t the case, here you play with gender and alternative or experimental drag was a form where gender really didn’t have to make sense and could be weird. But it’s very limiting in terms of location as well as of the institutional support. I wasn’t able to find support or space to really find out what my practice was capable of.
Very few people who make decisions about money think that drag performers are artists. That is changing slightly because we are becoming trendy. But there is a very widely held opinion that we are particularly kooky or interesting entertainers.
So I applied for the SODA Master at the HZT to try to get around this. I chose to do this because dance also has a focus on movement and is freer from narrative constraints than theatre. There was an openness in the SODA program which allowed me to do sophisticated work. So I took that chance and used the support and resources that were made available to me to explore the potentials of the practice that I had already developed through the lens of dance. Focusing on movement and using somatic technics helped me to sort of pull apart what I already had built on club stages and bars.
What is your personal (and maybe daily) practice?
Theory is a big part of my work, so I read it almost every day. To accompany that I have to do something physical like running or yoga in order to stay in my body. I try to keep a journal. In normal times I perform very often on drag stages and I try to use that as a way to maintain an ongoing experimental practice where I learn by doing.
How do you generate material?
I work a lot with objects, especially everyday objects like from the hardware store. The gender of those materials is so interesting.
Listening to music helps me a lot as well. I use music as a cultural artifact in my work, meaning that it has both a formal and a representational aspect. For example pop music is fun while also offering a great insight into prevailing social and political currents in a given time. How I move in relationship to the music and the objects can initiate a sort of discourse with the context that has created them.
What is an audience for you?
It is very important for me to see performance as a relationship. You don’t have the possibility of forgetting the audience in drag and entertainment. If you lose them you have failed. Losing the audience is more possible in more established or recognized performance environments, where there is more room to allow an audience to become bored, which I think is actually something that is really nice to work with. In dance there is a wider range of emotions you can try to bring an audience through. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to them and still see them as an entertainer does. I really want to take care of them.
I think a lot about audience composition. Since I perform in so many different contexts, I am aware of the various limitations and possibilities that these places bring with them. I am very interested in how this displacement of locations and formats can produce different effects for both audience and performers.
Can you remember the first piece of art that really mattered to you?
When I was little my mother had a print of Picasso’s Guernica on the wall. I loved it – even though I didn’t know anything about it – because it was possible to project so many things into the painting with all its fantastic creatures. Obviously as I got older I found out that it was an important piece of antifascist art.
Elements of drag are quite often used in contemporary dance and performance. You are a well known and established drag queen in Berlin. In what way can the drag scene benefit from dance – and the other way around – how can dance benefit from drag?
It comes down to a politics of appropriation, which in my opinion is not necessarily bad, but raises ethical questions. The fundamental problem is disparity and access to resources. Drag is not funded and it’s very dangerous for drag performers to go to work in a way that it’s not for other performers because of our gender-non-conformity. On the other hand drag is very democratic, everyone can do it and it is a way of dealing with the impossible problem of being assigned to a restrictive gender and then being tied to that for your entire life. In that case drag is relevant for everyone and has a whole bunch of techniques that are very useful.
I am really interested in cross-pollination of different forms. Of course it becomes a problem when drag aesthetics and techniques are being appropriated without any recognition or reward to the people who original created them. This also happens internally in drag. A lot of American drag culture comes from Black and Latina queer communities.
What drag could really gain from dance is attention to movement. For instance lip syncing is just dancing with the face. Somatic techniques and being present to sensations that happen inside your body can be super useful for drag performances. A lot of entertainers think that they have to project outwards and only direct the focus out and towards the audience. While I was doing SODA I almost stopped moving on stage and retreated more and more. Turning inside and focusing more on the sensations in my body is something that I gained from my exposure to dance. And I think it works really well in drag performance – this is rather surprising, since drag performances take place in such chaotic environments. The development of different techniques and traditions in dance have so much to offer to drag, because drag doesn’t have such a well documented history because of the stigma and oppression that have almost always tried to stifle it.
Your personal utopia would look like… ?
No rent. Housing not being a commodity. The absence of the daily threat of poverty.
When the Berliner Senat announced the 5000 Euro Corona support for artists, so many people told me that this was a financial stability that they never had before. If we want better art – including art for working class people – removing this ever-present threat of poverty and disgrace from artists would make so much more possible – and it would be such an easy policy decision.
Olympia Bukkakis is a drag and dance artist. She started to perform in 2009, while completing a BA in social theory in Melbourne, Australia. Since moving to Berlin in 2012, she has organized various queer performance nights in Berlin, including Get Fucked, Apocalypse Tonight and Queens Against Borders. In 2019 she completed her Masters in Solo Dance Authorship at the Inter-University Centre for Dance (HZT) in Berlin. She was invited to presented her work at the Sophiensæle Berlin, HAU, Gessneralle, Zurich, Balance Club / Culture Festival and Abbotsford Convent.