By: Riley Davidson
All photos by: Max Eicke
In the pursuit of artistic expression, visibility, and the reclamation of agency, Riley Davidson, a performance artist and dancer, unveils a powerful narrative that resonates with creatives worldwide. After an unsettling experience of having their image featured without being asked, Riley takes on the role of a journalist, crafting an article that empowers artists to tell their own stories.
This transformative feature by Riley Davidson in collaboration with photographer Max Eicke showcases four talented artists, including Riley themselves, each directing their portrayal in a raw and authentic manner, shedding light on the imperative of honouring consent and context in the world of art and media.
On February 3rd I woke up at 6am, jet lagged and disoriented. I had just arrived for a trip to visit my queer family in the states. I opened Instagram hoping a boost of dopamine would help me to orient myself. I checked my notifications and saw that I had been tagged in a comment. I quickly discovered that photos of me had been published in a reputable magazine doing a feature on a photographer based in Berlin. At no point did this photographer contact me to ask for consent about this publication. I rapidly cycled through a kaleidoscope of emotions: confusion, shock, bewilderment and anger.
I have been a performance artist and dancer in Berlin for four and a half years now. I arrived in Berlin in the fall of 2018 with two suitcases, an acceptance letter to a dance program, two friends who live in this city and no clue about where to buy duct tape let alone how to establish myself as an artist. Over the course of the last four and a half years I have built a community, a career and a sense of self that I cherish deeply. I still don’t know where to buy duct tape.
The years spent dedicated to my artistry, the difficulty of establishing myself in a new country, all of this labor of love filled me with a sense of injustice. That a brief moment in which my image was taken while working could be used to promote someone else's career.
I was not alone in this breach of consent. Having contacted the other artists in the feature directly it turned out that out of 8 artists , only one had been asked for consent to be in this article.
After attempting to resolve this situation directly with the photographer and being unsuccessful, I wanted to find a way to highlight this issue as it happens again and again: artists, creatives, models have their image taken and sold in galleries, published in magazines without their consent. Their image, that is an amalgamation of years and years of dedication to their craft and artistry, is monetized and do they ever see a single cent of the money made? Very often, no. All of this under the guise of “exposure” and “visibility”. The identity that we have worked hard to cultivate is used to line someone else's pockets and boost someone else’s career. Yet we are expected to be grateful that an image of us can hang on a wall in some gallery we would never be invited to showcase our own work in.
The double standard is enough to bring me to a rage again but for the sake of this article and my keyboard staying intact, I’ll take a few deep breaths.
So what is “visibility” really? It began as a cry for representation, to see something other than a homogenous stream of white, cisgendered, heteronormative, able bodied people in the media we consume. Deeper than that it was a hunger for the wide spectrum of human existence to be reflected back to us. It is crucial to see someone like us in the media we are surrounded with so that we feel a sense of belonging within our particular context.
I believe the story does not end there. It is a success that in the last five years we are seeing a wider spectrum of people in all forms of media. However, if those people who are being made visible do not have agency in how they are being portrayed then we are missing the point. Because if visibility is reduced down to an image of a person without context, is that person truly visible? The story, the context from which that person emerges is vital.
Flash forward: the rage that I felt from being taken advantage of has crystalized. Riley, the performance artist and dancer, puts on the hat of journalist. I decided to create my own article in which the artists from the original publication are given back the agency that was taken from them, all around the topic of what parts of them they want to be made visible.
So, without further ado, I present to you a feature of four talented artists (myself included). Every aspect of how they are featured was directed by the artist themself. From the theme of the interview, the interview questions and how and where they were photographed. The polaroids included in the series were manipulated by the artist to capture a sense of how they were feeling that particular day.
Here’s to trying something new, I hope it helps.
Evilyn Frantic (she/they)
Can you tell us a bit about why you've chosen to be portrayed the way you have for this article?
Because this is my narrative. This is how I express myself - a bit kink, a bit trash , always antifascist.
I thrive in my art and sometimes it comes out of a place of trash - what's been seen on the stage is the final product of something that's often created in chaos. And by chaos I mean my surroundings being a full blown mess.
I don't have time to clean.
Or my head being a full blown mess. That's how I clean my head - by creating art.
How do you want to be represented?
Free. Autonomous. Strong.
Someone who's very powerful but wouldn't be anything without my community of punx and queers.
As a prominent figure in the underground fetish revolution how do you find bodily autonomy?
I find it through art and expression.
By getting naked. By shocking myself. By getting out of my own comfort zone. By doing sexy and weird photoshoots. By reclaiming my image from the male gaze. By not giving a fuck. Own it, flaunt it, embrace it.
I also believe it's important to participate in other artists' work. Like the book ''It's Just Sex'' by Claudel Kent and ''Berlin Reflections'' by Heike Schneider Matzigheit. To name a few.
I've also been a queer punk in the movie ''Desire Will Set You Free'' by Yony Leyser and played a Finnish Witch in ''The Thinner The Air'' by Alice Evermore, check them out! Very cool movies that both represent Berlin, the queer community and give a good look into what alternative movie making in Berlin looks like.
The more visibility and representation, the better.
What has it been like for you to establish yourself as an artist coming from a working class family?
Growing up in Northern Finland, on a small farm in the middle of nowhere surely gave me a lot of time to exercise my creativity. We moved into the city when I was about five years old, my mum started working at a stocking factory and we kind of just lived day to day. Everything was very monitored, the food, that is.
To make sure we'd have enough for the week. I remember that. So as I got older, after we'd moved to -the then more “progressive”- country of Sweden, I'd begin to steal nice meat from the store, just so that we could have something more fancy than hot dogs and instant noodles.
My mum was always very supportive of my art, she was the one who showed me all the old movie stars from that golden era of Hollywood. Told me about all of the fierce femme fatales like Elizabeth Taylor and the tormented and misunderstood - made to be - sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
For me they represented women who owned their own sexuality and made that into their super power.
But it's all so contradictory somehow - because all of that comes from the male gaze and monetizing that is still living inside of it. Representing it. See how it all comes back to body image and bodily representation? As a performance artist, I am happy to break those ''norms'' and ''dare to be ugly''.
But to answer your question!
Being from a working class background taught me about community and how to put in the work.
Nothing comes by itself - you've got to work for it. And I have. Relentlessly. It taught me to set goals, visualize and work damn hard to get there.
But always tasteful - like me - trashchique!
It's called a trashCAN and not a trashCANNOT!
I live by that - wherever you come from , you can do it. Doesn't matter if you're born poor or out on a small farm in the middle of nowhere - there's ways to get there. You just need that one person who'll always cheer you on - and for me that was my mum. Because without that one person, who are we going to be? Community is key.
I wouldn't have come to where I am today had people not believed in what I do. I have gone from this one cheerleader to being surrounded by a HUGE community. It shows that this work is important and I don't want to let them down. You inspire others when you live an authentic life.
Jesse Strikwerda (he/they)
Can you tell us a bit about why you chose to be represented the way you were in the portrait session?
I wanted to portray emotional vulnerability in a visual way. When we can be vulnerable and allow our authentic selves to break through the walls we put up, is when we show ourselves at our most beautiful. This is what the rhinestones cracking through my skin represent. Apart from that I just like the aesthetic of a bit of horror and gore.
What does visibility mean to you? Visibility to me means to be seen in my authenticity. To be seen in all aspects of myself without constraints, put on by myself or others, due to outside influences or social pressures. To be seen for every part of my identity - such as my queerness, artistry, personality, my strengths, but also my insecurities and flaws and all.
When do you feel most seen?
I think I feel the most seen in moments where I am able to let go of those external influences and pressures. When I can let down my walls and be myself. When I can expose both my insecurities and grandeur without worry. When I can be vulnerable. For me, this is among my chosen family and closest friends.
What is it about emotional vulnerability that makes you feel seen?
Being emotionally vulnerable and exposing myself to others in that way, I think is when I allow most of myself to be seen by others. I think sometimes we have to ‘allow’ ourselves to be seen, because it’s often safer and simply easier to put up walls and project out a certain image to the world. Vulnerability is scary, but it is only in that rawness of showing myself the way I am that I feel truly seen.
The art I make is a reflection of my internal workings and who I am - and I choose to put that out into a visual medium. It’s still new to me, so to put my work out there for the judgement of others can feel very vulnerable, and is at times difficult to not take on as a judgement of myself. But I think it is exactly this constant self-examination of my art and through it myself that has taught me so much over the last year. And in the end this is the only way we can truly connect with one another - by allowing others to really see us.
Varusa Misidjan (She/ Her)
Can you tell us a bit about why you chose to be portrayed the way you were in the shoot?
I have chosen to be photographed in my apartment, which is my safe space. I chose to wear one of my own designs, which is quite transparent, “naked” but still covered. It creates a sense of vulnerability but also empowerment to own every bit of the body as it comes in the moment.
What has your experience been growing up on two different continents?
Being able to grow up and live on two different continents is a privilege for which I am very grateful. I don’t fit into either country because I have become a stranger to my own and will always be a stranger to the other. Home has become wherever I go, and I try to be as comfortable as possible with the self, because to be willing to be recognised by either of them causes unhappiness. In Surinam I’m too “western” . In the Netherlands I’ll always be a Surinamese who speaks Dutch very well. I never lived up to expectations and I’ve made peace with that.
What do you feel are the unspoken expectations of you as a black woman business owner?
How do you choose to interact with those expectations?
Dealing with unspoken expectations as a female-identifying person who happens to be happily black and a business owner is sometimes very paradoxical. I’m a female who identifies as heterosexual, which some might find boring, at a time when everyone feels the need to explore all the different parts of themselves. I’m learning how to gain the confidence of white men, which is especially important as a business owner, to relearn that I have to work twice as hard to achieve anything. I’m not going to hang out with someone just because they’re black or fall in love with someone just because they’re white, it just happens that you end up with people who are completely different to you, but you still find the connection in the differences and that’s one of the most beautiful things.
Why do you choose to act as a living bridge between the different communities you engage
At this point I’m not sure it was ever a choice. It is who I am. I see people without any judgment of appearance. That is the way I want people to see me. When you look at people in this way, you don’t really choose which group you want to belong to. You belong to all of them and none of them at the same time. What I’ve learned from all these different environments and people in these spaces is that people are willing to listen more often than you might think. Having open, honest and vulnerable conversations more often than we think leads to connections and understanding.
Riley Davidson (they/them)
Can you tell us a bit about why you chose to be portrayed the way you were in the shoot?
I wanted to be seen where I am most vulnerable and for me that is definitely in the bath. It’s the place where I feel the safest to let my walls down and go into my emotional body. I’ll draw a hot bath and put on some soft music and let the water soften all of my edges. Often I’ll spend an hour or more processing, crying and allowing myself to feel all the feelings that feel too big and scary to feel when I’m being “functional/masked” Riley.
I wanted to be in the bath fully clothed because I am learning how to allow myself to be soft in a public setting as well. The makeup is a reflection of how exhausting and draining it is to maintain a static image of functionality to the outside world, especially when my internal experience is so tumultuous and multifaceted.
What is masking? What has been your relationship to it?
Masking is what neurodivergent people do to fit into a neurotypical world. Everyone adjusts their behavior to fit into the social circumstance to some degree however masking is when I suppress my authentic response to an environment to avoid social discrimination in a way that takes up an inordinate amount of energy and leads to extreme burnout.
Over the last three years I have been coming to terms with my diagnosis of CPTSD and ADHD. This has been a rewarding and simultaneously frightening process. Because I was undiagnosed for the majority of my life I have unconsciously cut myself off from my genuine self as I learned at a young age through socialization that my way of being in the world was “incorrect” and that I needed to adapt to be accepted by my peers. This has led to extreme internal dysregulation and a loss of knowing my true self.
How has your process of “unmasking” been?
Being a performer means that a lot of how people perceive me is in an overtly social and highly stimulating environment. Often it’s difficult for me to turn off my performer mode after I’ve finished my piece. I generally need to go backstage and stare at a wall for twenty to thirty minutes before I am able to go out into the crowd and say hello to people. It’s important to me to be approachable and friendly to people post performance even when I feel drained and like I need to shut down. Because of this I have forced myself to engage socially even when it goes against what I truly need at that moment.
Unmasking has forced me to slow down and humble myself to what my body needs rather than what my mind expects of me. I have discovered a self that has been largely unknown to me (because I have been trained to suppress it) and meeting this new version of myself has meant that how I engage with the external world has needed to shift greatly. It has been deeply humbling and rewarding. Through the framework of unmasking I have been able to re-inherit my bodily sensations and internal experience and learn that this is my version of “normal” and that is ok.
How has this process impacted you as an artist?
I’ve noticed that the work I have been creating since beginning to unmask feels more deeply aligned with who I truly am. As well, the experience of performing the work has been much more pleasurable for me and more impactful to the audience. Many things that I previously believed were core parts of my identity have fallen away but the joy I experience in creating and performing has doubled. I am excited to see how my work continues to unfold as my process of unmasking continues.
Important disclaimer: The artists featured in this article self selected to be involved in this project from the original group that were published without consent. The range of artists' voices amplified in this article are not representative of the beautiful spectrum of humans this world has to offer.