FlucT performer speaks on dystopia, what it’s like to rub elbows with Miley, and why the new Yeezy line looks a lot like some of her work
If you frequent any of the bars and venues in Bushwick, Brooklyn, it’s likely you’ve run into Monica Mirabile. But unless you know her, you probably would not guess that she’s one of the core actors behind the venues and shows that has made that Myrtle stretch of Bushwick what it is – a hub for queer, feminist, radical leisure, art, and community-building.
As the co-founder of Otion Front Studio, a collective performance and rehearsal space, she has introduced many people to experimental dance and performance through workshops and performances, and provided a rehearsal space for independent performers and artist. As one half of the performance duo FlucT, she has captivated audiences with her thought-provoking and transformative choreographies in art museums, on massive tour stages, in night clubs and radical spaces. Many who have followed her closely claim that her and FlucT-partner Sigrid Lauren inspired the clothes in Kanye’s Yeezy collection, the movement and aesthetic in Sia’s Chandelier video, and the choreography in Rick Owen’s SS16 Women’s Cyclops collection. She’s also on the board of Stream Gallery, which puts on multimedia shows by rising artists.
This fall, Monica premiered A Ghost Story, a performance choreographed by Monica in collaboration with her cast that explores the many ways past experiences and unconscious trauma shape us and what happens when they come to the surface. I sat down with Monica at Otion Front Studio earlier this month to talk about how she found her way from Florida to New York, and how she ended up performing during Miley Cyrus show in New York.
You recently performed during one of Miley’s shows in New York. What was that like?
It was interesting. I performed during Dan Deacon’s set, who was opening for her. Me and a friend danced on stage initiating a “follow the leader” game.
What was it like to meet Miley?
The whole tour is somewhat D.I.Y. Miley has a confidence that I admire. I get why young people obsess over her, that kind of confidence is so incredible to watch. And the fact is, she’s only 22. She’s young and exploring herself but gets to do it publicly – discover what it means to be real and be down to earth while still being a weirdo.
Are you happy you did it?
One of the reasons I agreed to perform was because I was afraid and confused by my own feelings of commercialization and specifically Miley as a commodity. And I kept telling myself on the train ride there, “Just let go, just let go,” as a mantra. Let the fear and confusion that you have teach you something new. And it did. After the show, I went to the afterparty and it was just a normal night out in New York, it was very disenchanting. I kicked myself in the ass because I should’ve been working. I felt like an idiot. That disenchantment is a form of hope. and it’s also revealing of my own practice. I woke up this morning and I thought, I love what I do. It’s not that. I feel no way inducted into that world, and that’s a good affirmation.
Your practice is very fluid and mutative and open-minded. On one hand you play with the body as machine a lot, but you also play with very fleshy, natural things like feelings, ruptures, human limitations. It seems to me that there is one type of movement that is foundational to all of your work, and that’s this sort of glitchy movement that seems to be where the cyborg-like body or the bleeding machine become one. I’m curious about the origins of this glitchy aesthetic.
I started using the technique of glitching in my dances at first because glitching as a physical movement was something I was very apt to do, it just came really naturally. And I think it came so naturally because of how technology had taken hold of me as a young person. Like, scrolling back and forth on the timeline in iMovie. Those movements are so interesting to me.
In your interview with The Front you mentioned that a core idea in your practice with FlucT is the triad Gaping, Glitching, Gushing. Can you explain what these concepts mean to you?
Gaping, Gushing, and Glitching speaks to how we absorb information – mainly without knowing it. At this point in the information age, rarely do we learn how to process information well. Processing information is really hard when it comes to this body that we have and this brain that we know so little about. So when we absorb information, it comes out in strange ways, and gaping, gushing, and glitching are ways of describing those different ways.
Gaping is when you feel empty inside. We all know that feeling. You wake up in the morning, or maybe something happens to you, and you just feel unsatisfied. You’re not fulfilled, it feels like there’s nothing and it sucks.
Gushing happens when you start to fill that hole. This is when capitalism comes in, because it provides us with all these tricks to fill in that hole that can’t be satisfied. We buy the tricks thinking it’ll help, but it leads to an overload, because you fill it with all this bullshit that’s not going to help. Although, sometimes it does but not for long. With gushing, it all comes out. It’s mania, you feel crazy. You’re like, I have to do this, I need coffee, I need to go eat something, and I need to go to the gym, no I’m not going to go to the gym, I’m going to go hang out with my friends, and oh look at that one, that one is hot, I’m gonna fuck that one. This kind of mania, I really feel like we all understand those feelings.
Glitching is the primary movement. It’s what happens when all that information explodes, the system is losing control and your body freaks out.
Like, when your body has a breakdown?
I think of it more as a positive thing, because it’s the point where your body tells you that something is wrong. It’s a pretty medicinal movement.
Some of your performances are pretty dark or scary in terms of how you play with and portray technology. SubDerivatives was like a real-life enactment of The Sims. Or the somewhat uncanny repetitiveness or programmability of bodies in B.A.S.I.C. Would you say that you’re very critical of technology?
No I love it. I definitely feel like I’m a cyborg enthusiast. Technology has all kinds of ways of helping out physically and socially. I believe in it, and I would definitely be a person who gets some weird chip put in them, except I would fear it because I’m scared of being tracked and stuff like that. I ride the line between understanding it and wanting it and also being deeply afraid of it.
You came up in anarchist and punk circles – how did that happen?
I moved to Baltimore for college, and I became very politicized during that time; I read a lot of books and zines and got into anarchist circles. I’ve always been both very group-oriented and pretty socially aware, because of the information I absorbed from books, social media, and family situations, so I was very apt to go that way.
At one point I dropped out of school because I felt like they were teaching us the wrong things. I was more radical in my dogmatism then. So, instead of going to school I travelled. I was an activist engaged in a few different protests I’d rather not mention. One in particular was really hard on a lot of people that I was close to, and it made me wanna do things differently. I was young, around 19 or so. I continued travelling for a whole year. I did different kinds of seasonal labor, like picking beets and trimming weed, and met even more people that way. I decided I was gonna go back to Baltimore to start my own radical theater dedicated to helping people with mental madness or people who had been affected by mental madness. I took my sister to Baltimore to do it, because she was addicted to particular devices.
Was there something you encountered while traveling that inspired you to start the theater?
I’d been exposed to people who were doing things in a different way. It knocked down the veil of mainstream culture. It showed me that it was possible to live in a way that could be beneficial to you and not necessarily beneficial to an overarching system of control. I wanted to do it through performance because, during that year of traveling, I’d realized that the body was the power. It didn’t end up working the way that I thought. It was a big idea. Again, I was 19, 20 years old I had these big ideas, I was gonna change the world.
Sometimes you need to fail a couple of times before you know how to do it. Maybe Otion Front Studio is a continuation of what you started in Baltimore?
It definitely is. Like I said, I’ve continued since then. That first project was called the Wolf Pack, which then evolved into the Copy Cat Theater – a theater collective that existed in Baltimore for five to six years. We did workshops, put on shows together and worked with a lot of different people. Otion Front Studio is definitely a continuation of these projects.
Did you cross paths with Red Emma’s and other anarchist projects in Baltimore?
Red Emma’s was a big source of support and information. They play a part in a lot of incredible movement-oriented organizing. There was always crossover in theory if not directly. In part because in Baltimore, reality is slapping everyone in the face, some are hit harder. There is struggle, and it’s very visible. There is solidarity in that fight.
How did you Otion Front Studio, how did it start, materially, how did you make it happen.
It was very serendipitous. After I moved to New York, I was working as a bartender at an underground club called Steel Drums. I befriended one of the guys that ran that club and we started doing a lot of art experiments together. Then Steel Drums got shut down. I’d been talking about wanting to start a new space for performance and dance, a collective hub. This place was open after a previous project was evicted so Michael and Joey – who were the Steel Drums dudes – took over the lease and asked me if I wanted to start a space here.
Was it hard to get started?
Yes. It’s expensive. Initially I wanted it to be just a rehearsal space. But that was not financially stable. So I started thinking of ways the space could make money while still being a part of the mission. I would subsidize the rehearsal space with any workshops that we did. We used to have classes five times a day, which is crazy. It was not sustainable. It’s been difficult to figure out what the space should be, but a year and a half later, it’s finally coming together.
It has become a really beautiful thing. Sometimes I’ve been like, oh my god, we should shut this place down, what am I doing? And then something happens and I realize why it’s so valuable. Whenever we have an event with experimental performance, I get emotional. Like whenever I create a piece and rehearse in here. There’s always ten people or more in my work so we’re all in here together, and then the studio it’s this really incredible space in which we’re all talking about the things we care about. My favorite way to interact with people is in rehearsal. It’s really amazing. Now there’s a big community around the space, it’s very satisfying.
Who else is part of the studio?
Aside from Sigrid [Lauren] and I, the three others that are part of running Otion Front Studio came into this atmosphere through showing a lot of interest in it, having similar practices, being artists like us who use their bodies. Gina [Chiappetta] was our first intern. Sarah Kinlaw stopped me in a coffee shop because she recognized me as the person who runs the space, and then I asked her to be a part of some choreography. And Kathleen [Dycaico] and I met up after she had been trying to come to a bunch of workshops that were all canceled.
I never want to make people feel alienated, because it’s such a small space that it can easily seem tight-knit. I notice this when we’re having workshops – strangers come in and I can see they’re uncomfortable because it’s a small space and we’re all so vulnerable with each other, you could easily feel like you don’t belong. But the whole technique of workshopping choreography is about letting go of that, it’s about making yourself vulnerable and being yourself and believing in yourself. That’s how people start to come in, that’s why it’s as solid as it is it is now. I think it’s accepting.
You’re also on the board of Stream Gallery next door. What’s the philosophy behind the gallery?
Stream is run very autonomously, everyone who’s a part of it can propose a show and run with it. It is very much about accessibility. We’ve all been like, we want this thing to happen, so we’re gonna make it happen. And then we do. We want people to become confident in what they’re doing and have the means to find out how that can actualize for them. These spaces are incubators for that. A lot of it is very politicized because it’s about giving space and visibility. We all care a lot about that.
Otion has a similar ethos. As part of the residency program, we have meetings and midterm critiques that push the artist to think about where they are in culture right now, what matters and what they care about and how they’re going to say that in their artistic practice. I think it’s an important aspect of what we do, because there’s not a lot of permission to do things like that when you’re not in school anymore and when you’re trying to make it as an artist. You really have to fight for that to happen.
Ironically, part of your success in the past year or two seems to have been that your audience and the media has recognized your influence on both Kanye’s Yeezy line, Sia’s Chandelier music video and Rick Owens show this fall. Do you think about this at all, does it feel obvious to you as well?
It feels very confusing. I hate it, spiritually. On one hand, we’re all idea makers and we’re all picking from the same basket of culture, so I understand why it happens. But I also feel like there’s a huge issue with artists being exploited or taken from. But that’s not what upsets me the most or what I care about. What I do care about is that what Sigrid and I do with the aesthetics and the fashion that we wear is telling a story and making a point, and I don’t feel like Rick Owens or Kanye West are doing that at all. It’s kind of fucked up. Rick Owens was like, “This is women supporting women,” when it’s definitely women being burdened by women, it doesn’t make any sense. Kanye’s show is just a show, nothing is happening.
What I get upset about is that what we’ve been doing seems to make them rather than the other way around, and so it creates this whole other story of what it is we’re doing. But I’m also excited to play with that. I guess culture evolves in a way where it throws fire at you and then you have to deal with it. When those things happened, I was like, fuck, now I have to change everything. But then I realized that that’s actually good.
I was so upset about the Rick Owens thing, mostly because I didn’t know what to do about it. It felt spiritually wrong to say that he stole something that can’t be stolen. We found out about it because a bunch of people started tagging us in his photos – we didn’t even know about it until then – and then I posted a thing about it. We did the same thing for the Kanye show, like “Kanye is wearing FlucT!” That time, nobody really noticed, and I thought it would be the same this time. But then it just blew up. Lots of people started writing about it, and I started getting all this hate mail, because people hate seeing their heroes in flaw. That kind of energy coming into your life when you’re already a vulnerable-ass person who’s got issues, that just sucks. It doesn’t feel good. All I was trying to say is that we’re right here. We are artists who are making work that is pretty extreme, we hurt ourselves and we work really hard at it and you’re giving all of this attention to this asshole, but we’re here. But also, there’s enough room for all of us, so hire people that you’re inspired by rather than just taking their shit. There’s a lot there. It’s hard to stay strong.
I feel like whenever I talk to people who don’t follow how culture evolves as closely and bring up similar examples, people look at me like I’m a conspiracy theorist. People want to think that whoever is on the top really deserves to be there and really made themselves, that if you as consumer feel like what they’re doing is new and original, it really has to be new and original and could not be stolen from somewhere, because then you’d be dumb for not knowing about it before as well. But when you study this stuff it becomes very obvious that people at the top generally just recycle or pick and choose from whatever is produced at the bottom.
The people who worked on the Rick Owens creative teams as well as the Kanye team are our friends. They’ve been to many of our shows, we know those people. I heard of this Q&A where someone asked, “Have you ever heard of FlucT?” and he was like, “No it’s incredible that they would even think I’ve ever heard of them.” Maybe it’s true that you don’t know about us but your team knows about us, your team has been there, your friends support us, financially. It’s a fashion world thing.
Do you think it’s possible to stay real and still be successful?
I don’t know, I think you have to believe in yourself. I think you have to have confidence in that what you know is right, and you have to be responsible for the consequences, even if it does make you vulnerable. I still struggle with when to fight and when to let go, every day, trying to weigh what’s best. I don’t think it’s clear, because we’re living in such a consumer culture. It’s all very much a survival of the fittest, but enmeshed in this matrix of death and blood.
I do believe that authenticity and being genuine comes across. You have to trust yourself to know the character that you’re interacting with. It can be confusing to believe in yourself but I think that psychic ability is very effective. It always wins.
I don’t really think that I’m in the same world as these people – Kanye, Rick Owens, Miley Cyrus – and I don’t think I need to be. I feel successful even though I don’t gain the same winnings as people who are deemed successful. But I do feel that I gain more satisfaction. Like, A Ghost Story was my favorite thing to do, because it was about directly believing in myself enough to not give a shit. But also getting to work with all these incredible people, working with them really, not just telling them what to do. It’s so much more valuable than anything I could gain from doing a Steven Klein shoot or dancing on the same stage as Miley Cyrus or any of those things. I didn’t make any money from it, there are not a bunch of things written about it, I’m not getting any opportunities from it ... But it’s the best thing I’ve done all year, and it’s what makes me feel that I can do it. I can continue to do that my entire life and I’ll be happy.
You described A Ghost Story as a story about family. Is that something you wish to explore more?
It’s a bit of a theme in my work – family is a smaller version of society. I also have an intense relationship with my family so it was very much about how I absorb that information and how I deal with it.
Intense in what way?
I constantly wonder why people want to escape, and why people turn to drugs to do that, and I think it has everything to do with the system, the way that we live, and what we’re permitted to do. The economy has everything to do with it, what we have access to, and what institutions teach you about how to exist.
You’ve said that you’re inspired by using drugs to detach, to step out of the body and the every-day. Do you feel like you have more of an understanding of this need because of your family?
There’s understanding and non-understanding. In one way, I understand why they’re like that and I can’t blame them. The justification is that life sucks. But also on a spiritual level, I feel disconnected all the time. Maybe it’s a beautiful, poetic thing, to leave, to allow yourself to do that. But I’m more drawn to coming back down to earth. I’m an earthy person, I exist here heavily, being here is important to me. I want to activate the material world and I want to exist in it, and I feel that when you are placed in situations where you are with people who don’t think of it that way who aren’t as enmeshed in material culture, you are often faced with their irresponsibility and how it affects you. I struggled because of that. That struggle has made me stronger and has given me a lot, so there’s this constant loop.
I don’t demonize it and I don’t praise it, it’s just where I am. Because there are things outside of it that are very important to think about. Like love. My family is very loving. They would do anything for anybody, and they’re the most non-judgmental people. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, they would take you in their house in a heartbeat and feed you and help you out. But they have this major priority that goes before everything else.
Would you say that your work is idealistic or utopian?
I would say it’s currently the opposite. It’s dystopian and fucked up. I don’t think performance is always nice. Sometimes, it’s hard to be here, and there’s a lot going on that’s fucked up. I’m not interested in seeing beauty all the time. I think both exist heavily. I’m personally not trying to make something pretty. I like seeing pretty things, I like poetry. But I want people to feel the intensity that they don’t always get to experience. Especially the world that I’m in, the art world, is full of privilege. There are all of these things happening right next to you that are hard to watch because they hurt. I really feel that performance should tap into something that creates empathy rather than the opposite.