It came out of being so utterly despondent, as were so many of us, after the election. I became sort of two-dimensional, so I just casually put out the call to all ‘Nasty Women and Bad Hombres’ to stage their own form of artistic dissent. And these smaller events would be magnified by the fact that they would all be held on President’s Day.
Far from a stranger to moments of activism within the art world, performance artist Holly Hughes proves herself to be timeless agent for political dissent. Most recently having founded Bad and Nasty, a coalition of artists, media makers, and performers, the nearly 62-year-old former member of the NEA Four has amassed a band of intergenerational recusant artists, all of whom find themselves grappling with how to continue to create amidst total socio-political bedlam.
On Monday, February 20, cities in red states, blue states, and even cities across the pond, will stage their own Not My President’s Day series of DIY performance events, aiming to mobilize ongoing resistance and channel anger into artistic activism. Paste spoke with Bad and Nasty founder and Ann Arbor based performance artist, Holly Hughes, about her recent return to the main stage of right-brained resistance.
I can’t help but notice the breadth of participants in Bad and Nasty—people we read like Eileen Myles and people we read about frequently like Lois Weaver and Karen Finley—who were some of the original players. How did this idea first come to fruition?
Holly Hughes: Well, I sort of casually posted on my Facebook page, issuing a call to all “bad hombres and nasty women” who felt down and ready to perform their art in the name of resistance after the election. And within just a couple of hours, I received positive responses from a couple thousand people saying they wanted to be a part of this potential project, so I thought “Oh my, what’s happened here?” Fortunately, Lois Weaver, a London and New York based artist with a long history of political organizing and with whom I’ve done a lot of work, immediately jumped on board as well as social media guru Mary Jo Watts, and before you know it, we had people contacting us saying, “I’m gonna do one in New York,” “I’m gonna do one in LA,” “I’m gonna do one in London.” More surprising to me, though, were the folks who began to organize things outside of these larger cities—places like Charleston, South Carolina, far upstate New York. From smaller cities to rural towns and places in primarily red states, it was so heartening to see people just go for it.
Do you feel that as an artist who’s been thrown into the fires of social activism before that this time it’s different or that there’s a greater sense of urgency?
Hughes: In a way, I’m in the process of rediscovering myself as an activist. I’ve been in discussion with Lois [Weaver], who’s also of my generation, about what this landscape might look like or what I might have to offer. At first I felt like maybe it was a moment for me as a 62-year-old (almost), white lesbian to take a step back, but then I sort of realized, no actually, I do have something to say to the moment and, partially, it’s just the memory of living through other really difficult moments. I have to say, though, I think this dwarfs anything in my adult experience, just the thought that maybe we could get blown up because the president tweets something crazy. I mean that would’ve been hyperbolic, you know, ten years ago, and now it feels like it’s a real possibility.
I’m old enough to remember Nixon getting elected, Nixon getting impeached, and the election of Ronald Reagan, who I was against at the time, but being as young as I was, I don’t think understood how bad it was. Now, as a professor at the University of Michigan, I look at my students and I think that although they really have a hard time with what’s going on, they have a certain natural optimism that comes with being a younger person. They think, “it’s going to get better, it’s got to get better, my generation is more progressive.”
And I don’t want to burst their bubbles, but I think for me, how bad this is and how bad it could be for so many people, hits me hard from the perspective of being older, if that makes any sense. It obviously doesn’t mean the same thing to say that you’re gay or lesbian or queer, especially in a blue state or a blue city, then it did 30 years ago. But also, being a feminist seems in some ways like a lateral change. It’s bad and it’s not any better—the only thing that’s changed is the year. I think awareness of your own mortality makes you more aware of the fragility and the mortality around you—and I think that includes the fragility of democracy.
Having seen so much in the way of social movements within and around the art world, was there any one specific model you had in mind for Not My President’s Day?
Hughes: Well, the performances really do vary—from readings to performance cabarets to dance-based performance. Some may be highly curated whereas some may be open mic-style. So when considering a visual model, we immediately thought of a smaller scaled demonstration done in the same fashion as World AIDS Day. When the group Visual AIDS organized the first Day Without Art in 1989, it was really put out there for arts organizations and artists to interpret however they pleased. Yes, it was one singular day of mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis, but the response could look like so many different things—maybe you had a speaker, maybe you draped paintings with black material, maybe you did special programming, maybe you canceled programming. This loose rubric made it very easy for people to buy in, so we wanted to make something that was as grassroots and as simple as possible.
How do these performances, readings, and other art activations vary across the board? To what extent will we see political resistance played out in these performances?
Hughes: Well, this all started when I basically said I’m going to do this thing at a dive bar here in the Mitten State and, you know, everybody’s going to be in drag and we’ll all yell for a couple of hours and feel better and that’ll be that. But then, as you know, it really built from there. Some groups are doing readings, like Tammy Faye Starlite and Penny Arcade are doing a reading of David Mamet’s “The Anarchist.” David Schein is doing a stage reading at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont. Some artists responded by asking themselves “What’s my piece about Trump going to be?” Some are revisiting and repurposing older work to align more closely with this anti-Trump sentiment.
Erin Markey, for instance, is going to do a set; she just performed her show, “Boner Killer” at Joe’s Pub in New York City. She is a real force among a younger generation of performance artists, as her repurposed cabaret-style performances are very deeply rooted in a political, queer, feminist perspective. In the same vein, there’s Leslie Rogers, a performance artist whose practice really comes out of a visual art perspective. She has this naked man costume and often she’ll perform as a naked police officer, donning a police hate and aviator glasses. The character sings that old classic rock song “I’m sorry, so sorry,” so there’s something really poignant about this totally naked cop just apologizing.
Even within the performance of Trump, there’s something fascinating. Although Saturday Night Live has this brilliant way of depicting him, I’m excited to see how other artists, who might not be constrained by television, start taking him apart. Back in the day, there was some brilliant parsing of Ronald Reagan, and the same can easily be done with Trump. He’s really built an audience for this stuff—the people who think that’s what a man is, he’s aggrieved, he’s gross and that’s just part of the total package of masculinity that they continue to celebrate, support, and at times, even find sexy.
It’s going to be a long haul with an uncertain outcome, and I think we can take it seriously while allowing ourselves to laugh, just like we can mourn and be depressed and still organize. But we have to laugh, it will only help to feed our resistance.
Leah Rosenzweig is an Arts & Culture writer with a degree in Existential Philosophy. She writes for Art+Auction and Modern Painters magazines in New York and exercises her right to supercommute from sunny Philadelphia.