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Tenebris Suspiria Naturae & The Way We Are

Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler

A double-bill with two performance artists who, together with associate artist ANOHNI, started an art project called Future Feminism. They will present dance and music originating from the ground-breaking New York performance scene.

Kembra Pfahler (the driving force behind the band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black) and Johanna Constantine were from the very beginning involved with the project Future Feminism that associate artist ANOHNI and CocoRosie are also part of. Future Feminism calls for a feminine collective consciousness to emerge in order to save what remains of our world.

In 2014, they made thirteen marble works presenting tenets, such as: ‘The subjugation of women and the earth is one in the same’, and ‘Relieve men of their roles as protectors and predators’. Since the project began in 2014, the tenets of the Future Feminism Manifesto have been widely recognised and appropriated in popular culture, most notably tenet 13: ‘The future is female’.

The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black presents The Way We Are. A fearlessly activistic concert with fantastic props and costumes designed by lead singer Kembra Pfahler herself. The song lyrics are inspired by Future Feminism’s thirteen tenets.

Performance artist and DJ Johanna Constantine will present her longest work ever: Tenebris Suspiria Naturae (‘The Dark Sigh of Nature’). This work with several dancers has the struggle for survival in an unpredictable environment as its theme.

‘We now have a term called "interdisciplinary” (...) but for decades our perspectives on performance, feminism, all the things that seem to be the zeitgeist today, were met with bottles being thrown at you, and being chased down the street. It’s a new beginning. Maybe this new popularity will guide us into a gentler female hour...'
- Kembra Pfahler, from: A Letter to the People of Utrecht and Europe at Large (2018)


Fri June 23 2023 8:30 PM


  • default including drink from € 27
  • CJP/student/scholar € 12

language & duration

  • English

  • 1 hour 30 minutes (met 1 pauze)

Click read more and scroll down to read an additional interview with Kembra Pfahler as well.

‘I choose to believe in the struggle of humanity’

Interview with Johanna Constantine
Johanna Constantine is one of the oldest friends and collaborative partners of associate artist ANOHNI. She is one of the founders of Future Feminism, and she will perform her new piece Tenebris Suspiria Naturae (‘The Dark Sigh of Nature’). A conversation about her work and feminism.

by Evelien Lindeboom
Click read more and scroll down to read an additional interview with Kembra Pfahler as well.

‘I choose to believe in the struggle of humanity’

Interview with Johanna Constantine
Johanna Constantine is one of the oldest friends and collaborative partners of associate artist ANOHNI. She is one of the founders of Future Feminism, and she will perform her new piece Tenebris Suspiria Naturae (‘The Dark Sigh of Nature’). A conversation about her work and feminism.

by Evelien Lindeboom
ANOHNI and you both started your careers in the 1980’s death rock and punk scene in California. How did you first meet?
‘We met in California when we were around seventeen and we were both very much in the counterculture queer scene. I saw her on a bus. We were both quite extreme in our appearance. I was so intrigued by her presence that I followed her off the bus and up a hill. When she asked me "Why are you following me?" I answered: “We are going to be best friends!” We started doing things together as teenagers and continued to do so when we both moved to New York.’ 

In what ways were you so extreme?
‘I was a very political punk, and my looks were very off-putting: aggressive, unpalatable. I would wear leather and metal, and wire things I found on to my body. Her looks were as extreme, but in the opposite way. She had a very soft look with pastels, mohair and long flowing hair. When we met, she was already making music and I was collecting music and DJ-ing. We would argue about emotional states: I would rather control and suppress my feelings. She would tell me it’s okay to have them. Her softness brought out emotion in me, and I think my aggression was equally liberating for her. Though I will say, we were equally “hard boiled”.’

Can you describe your early work together?
‘She started writing and organizing plays, first in California, in Santa Cruz, later in New York with a group we began to build, called Blacklips. These were massive plays and musicals lasting up to two hours. As teens, we had watched John Waters movies – we thought, "we have lots of weird friends, we could do that too!" This turned out to be our testing area, our experimental groundwork for later was fashioned here. I didn’t go to theatre school and I was not very popular amongst the teachers of the free dance classes I took – they thought I was not taking it seriously because of my appearance. Performing at the Pyramid club in New York is how I started developing my style.’

What themes were those plays and performances about?
‘The themes that were most important to us at that time, were directly related to the oppression we were under in the 80’s. Anyone outside of “traditional family values” was an outcast. Queer kids were literally being electrocuted: they were being “treated” with electrotherapy for being gay. Not only were we freaked out about the government, there was also the nuclear terror, and Aids was unfolding. At college we took a class led by the activist Vito Russo, and we learned about the real situation our community was in with HIV and Aids. It felt like a war for survival, just being who we were at that time.’
How did your feminism emerge?
‘I remember looking at images of women in the 80’s, not wanting to be like any of them. I couldn’t see a future I could aspire to, until I found Grace Jones. She was the role model I latched onto. She was an unassailable pillar of strength. I started lifting weights immediately, which was very useful in the unforgiving climate of my very conservative town. I got in to the Californian Punk scene at the age of twelve. This was a very feminist group. The punks I knew wouldn’t ever date each other, as we didn’t want to sexualize each other. I did not expect to be seen, or listened to by the powers that were, but at the same time I felt that what we did was important. We were pushed out of society when I felt we should be at the heart of it. 
That’s why I was so driven. My feminist anger flowed into my work. By the time I was performing at the Pyramid club, it felt like a very big accomplishment.’

Would you say that your attitude towards feminism has changed much?
‘A lot of feminism starts from anger, but I have found the way it is manifested changes over the years. I had a conversation about this with Inna Shevchenko (from feminist group Femen, ed.), I said: “Isn’t it strange how I started out spray-painting police stations, and you started out chain sawing orthodox crosses, and now we sit in circles and hold hands, for the exact same reasons?” She replied: “But it still burns the same, doesn’t it?” Essentially our work hasn’t changed.
My attitude certainly has changed. After many years I got to a place where I can look at the world for what it is, and let more of it in. Within feminism there are many different levels of need, coming from different people, different areas of societies, different situations in every country... Now I talk to anyone and look at where they are at; I believe we are all one force. We are fighting on different fronts of the same war. With Future Feminism we wanted to create the broadest possible statement. A place where any person, on any part of the human spectrum can have a conversation. We are particularly linking feminism and environmentalism, because they are both beset by the same poisonous systems of subjugation and aggression.’

This is not a vision shared by everyone...
‘There is a lot of pain in doing feminist work. So many people are affected on different levels and there is so much history. Many people feel silenced. When we started Future Feminism as a small group of friends, we even felt awkward talking about it amongst ourselves. We got a lot of grief speaking up in the first show in New York. People asked us what gave us, in particular, the right to talk about it. I say: it’s not just a subject for historians and scientists, we should all be talking about it. You don’t have to know everything that’s wrong, to know what’s right.
Everyone should be able to talk about feminism and how it’s affecting them, including men. I see often how hard it is for feminist men to participate. They get slammed for expressing an opinion, even when it’s supportive. And they get hurt because there is a lot of critique towards “male” systems. The word “male” is used so much in negative context. Some very feminist men feel that they are being handed a giant shit sandwich every time you try to talk about it just because of the necessary language. I have talked to groups of just men about how this feeling can be mitigated. With Future Feminism we strive to be universally inclusive; this of course includes men!’

What do the 13 Tenets of Future Feminism mean to you?
‘The tenets themselves are an art piece. They create the space for the conversations where Future Feminism is like a moderator. People of all ages and backgrounds can speak their full thought cycle, instead of defending or fighting for space. I am very thankful to be able to do another Future Feminism project now that we are at that point in time where the wrecking ball is swinging back through all of the work that has been done in this recent and very active period in Feminism. I am talking about attacks on women’s rights. And from the same aggressors, trans and gay rights are also under severe attack again. It doesn’t mean that everyone's earlier work was for nothing. It just means it is time to fight again. The hate is not new. There will always be people that want to hold down women. There will always be people wanting to eradicate and erase others. There is a hard approach to this: we need to claw our rights and safety back. And at the same time there is a soft approach that asks for us to talk to these people and be visible as human beings.’

Can you tell about the ceremony for the stones, with the 13 tenets carved in them, that you will perform together with Sierra Casady (from CocoRosie)?
‘When we did a benefit for the Future Feminism program in New York, I performed with CocoRosie: I danced while Sierra sang God has a voice, she speaks through me. We wanted to perform again together with the stones. We think a ceremony is a nice way to welcome people into the area where the stones are exhibited.’

What can you tell about the choreography that you’re making, Tenebris Suspiria Naturae?
‘It’s about the fight to survive in an uncertain environment. Central in all of my dance pieces is an anamorphic or human entity that pushes against environmental oppression. I use a lot of make-up and body transformation. My dance is often compared to the Butoh style. When I was in Japan, Yoshito Ohno (a son of founder Kazuo Ohno and the current head of the school, ed.) told me he sees my dance as Butoh. Though it is traditionally Japanese, he said he wanted the style to mutate and spread around the world. I feel honored to step into that history and litany of this style of dance. 
This is the first time I’ve composed a piece involving other dancers. Two of my favorite artists from London will be joining me on stage: Parma Ham and Leo Monira, both non-binary. This is so exciting to me. It will be beautiful.’

What can you say about the music?
‘I often create my music myself, or I choreograph to specific songs, such as the ambient electronic music of William Basinski. I also leave a lot of room for silence in my work. One of the main music pieces for Tenebris Suspiria Naturae is rhythmic noise by a band called S.K.E.T.. I find a lot of noise music is very orchestral and emotional. Combining it with the vulnerability of live dance really brings out those qualities to me.’

What would you like for your audience to experience?
‘My work may be perceived as dark, I use a lot of images that some people find violent and disturbing, but I see it as transformative and hopeful. It’s not a naïve “everything will be ok” type of hope; more the idea that even if everything comes to nothing, some part of us will survive. A lot of my friends think humankind should just dissolve to dust: that there is no use for us anymore. But I still see beauty and value in humanity. I choose to believe in the struggle instead of giving up. I would like to think that the audience will come to their own thoughts. I want to leave enough stillness for the audience to have their own emotions. I hope it can be enjoyed and felt by anyone, whether they are eight or eighty, male, female or non-binary, each in their own way.’

'It's my intention to spread both horror and joy'

Interview with Kembra Pfahler

Kembra Pfahler is all about the joy of horror. Her work is feminist and provocative, but never harmful. Together with associate artist ANOHNI, CocoRosie and Johanna Constantine she founded the Future Feminism art project. With her band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black she will perform her theatrical music performance The way we are. A conversation about her work and feminism.

by Evelien Lindeboom

How did you start making art?
‘What I always wanted to do, was to create a different beauty aesthetic. In Los Angeles where I grew up, I was told to dye my hair blond, lose twenty pounds and get plastic surgery - then I could be on tv. It was all very hateful, misogynous. They didn’t tell a girl to be a surfer or a scientist. But luckily I was good at drawing, so I got into arts school and left LA to go to New York.’

What happened in New York?
‘I first came to New York in 1979, at 17 years old. People often come to New York to change the world through art. For me it was about creating a new identity and creating a new vocabulary of beauty that was misunderstood in other places. When I arrived, I learned about silent Super8 films through Jack Smith, an extreme filmmaker that lived a few blocks away from me. I had a part in his film Shadows in the City. I decided to take film classes myself at the Millennium Film Archives, and that’s where I had my first show: Films by Kembra Pfahler. Filmmaker Mike Kuchar, who taught the course, described my film as ‘voluptuously horrific’. I loved that. The Kuchar brothers inspired John Waters, who was also a big source of inspiration to me. So, in the 80’s I made many films.’

And this description inspired your band name The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, a band that is often described as ‘shock rock’.
‘I would not call it shock rock myself. If I had to name what we do I would go with theatrical music project. The films were silent, so we decided to make soundtracks for them. Around 1990 I started the band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black together with my husband at that time, Samoa Moriki. We booked our first show at the Pyramid Club - we started playing rock music, combined with art performance on stage. More than anything I wanted to contribute with work that had never been seen before. Now that we are no longer married, we still play together, and some of the band members have been with us for a long time. We will come to the Netherlands with Gyda Gash and Michael Wildwood, with whom we have been playing together for a very long time. We all have other projects, other bands and art projects. We’ve had a very adventurous band career. Not only do we perform at rock clubs around the country, but we also do academic things like performing at the Whitney Museum. What we all have in common is that we intend to change the world, one performance at a time.’

You often use your own body as a part of your artwork.
‘When I started making art, I was often asked what kind of art I was making. I came up with the term ‘availablism’: making the best use of what was available, so my own body and ideas, and whatever materials I had around me. It was a way to break away from needing art supplies. That’s how I come up with my acts, for example: cracking colored eggs on my vagina while standing on my head. I had an egg available in the fridge, and I can stand on my head. I love the Oscar Wilde quote: “an egg is always an adventure.”
The nudity and desire to show my body, started out from feeling ugly and ashamed. Instead of waiting for some man to say he wanted me to be his model, I decided to be my own muse. I learned to love my body, and to use it – not in an adult sexual way - but to show a different kind of beauty. I’ve never wanted to do anything with my body unless it was extremely performative.’

Talking about extremes, there was a time when you sewed your vagina shut as an art project. Why did you do that?
‘I did it because I was very angry at the majority of men ruling the world. And it was a very powerful image I wanted to make. I only did it once and it had nothing to do with fetish. The women that helped me do it, were nurses, so it was done very carefully. The photo appeared in Penthouse magazine. I still think that was the best “fuck you” I ever said in my life. It was published because it was art; it was shocking and beautiful at the same time. It was meaningful because it grossed out people that were expecting something else. The men that saw me, told me they were very intrigued and didn’t know whether to throw up, or hang it on the wall. I created a conversation.’

Do you often intend to shock or scare people with your work?
‘I do think horror is an artform that can be prophetic. It can clue you in to conversations on topics that need to be spoken about, such as misogyny and repression. Maybe I look hard sometimes, but my desire is to spread both horror and joy through music and imagery. To be able to perform is a luxury, and creativity is a gift, so to share that, is fun! I may wear black make-up and I may be standing on my head cracking eggs on my vagina, but I still consider my show appropriate for all ages, as long as the parents take responsibility. They will need to explain: “This woman is an artist and she is using her body in a way that is not hurting her or anyone else, but it’s not a good idea to try it at home.” Kids love our shows because of the colors and costumes. They can sense that we are not out to harm anyone. They feel the joy.’

Together with ANOHNI, Johanna Constantine and CocoRosie you created the Future Feminist’s art program that will be shown here in June, including an exhibition of the 13 tenets you created together. Has this process influenced the way you see feminism?
‘I am very happy the stones will be exhibited in Amsterdam; they are very beautiful and the thirteen tenets written on them are very powerful. Feminism is in our bones and what is needed or possible changes with time. Sometimes our bones are broken and we need to heal them, and sometimes they are strong and healthy and we can jump and run. There is a vast degression of women’s rights in the United States right now, and it’s shocking. It feels like the wild west, where women are once again reduced to child bearers or whores. The misogyny is rampant. At the same time there is a strong push-back from a young generation trying to eradicate misogyny, and for us all to learn how to exist together. ‘

What can we expect from your show The way we are?
‘It’s called The way we are, referencing the title of a movie by Barbara Streisand The way we were. I prefer to live in the now. I made up the word ‘yesterbating’ to illustrate the tendency we have to obsessively cling to the past. I try not to be romantically nostalgic. But I still do some of my older performances as well. In Amsterdam we are going to do a beautiful show in a beautiful space. I make all the props and costumes myself. One of my first costumes was a big flowerhead that my mother made me for a spring pageant. I’ve been doing that performance since 1981. I might do a very colorful egg ceremony, but I have not decided yet. Let’s keep it a surprise: “will they do their greatest hits?”’

You also teach art to young people, and will be organizing a workshop here in Amsterdam.
‘Performance 101 is a class that gives young artists tools to work on their own projects. I started it because a lot of young creative people get blocked. This workshop gives you tools to unblock and to be happy and productive. Amongst the tools I share is stream of consciousness writing. We talk about communication skills, and we draw our ideas - I love seeing people’s penmanship and we do drawing. Everybody can draw. Ultimately we do performances for each other, or for an audience, if the group chooses so. I am strongly against artistic competition. Most of all everybody should feel free to do what they want, and use whatever it is that is available to them. Availablism is about what is available in your surroundings as well as in your head. This is what I teach. Do you know the word liminality? It is a wonderful word to know. It means we can create the right temperature to make that ritual happen.’
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  • Johanna Constantine, artist

    © Johanna Constantine

  • Kembra Pfahler (The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black)

    © Jean Toir

  • © Johanna Constantine