Art Beat: Dia Dear on Performing Queerness and Sincere Vulnerability
When Dia Dear takes the stage, things are about to become brutally uncomfortable and strangely beautiful. Her shaved head is typically plastered in white makeup and perhaps some sparse lipstick or some dark rings penciled around her eyes. Although she's often found performing at drag shows, it would be a stretch to define her performances as traditional drag -- some elements of her work, such as her lip-synching and her occasional high-heel wearing, are similar, but beyond those characteristics, she assumes her own style. Instead of dancing along to a Mariah Carey tune, you're much more likely to see her enacting something quieter by Radiohead or Antony and the Johnsons. Don't expect her to bust out a cancan, either. Her movements are slow, with Kabuki-like precision.
But there's no denying it -- her particular performance style is engrossing. Whether she's on stage at a performance art showcase or in a club, her audiences tend to shut the fuck up while she's working. Part of her effect is her haunting material -- at her recent Tiara Sensation Pageant, she performed with her lips sewn shut -- but part of it just comes down to craft. She knows how to captivate an audience, how to tell a story, and how to tap into our macabre side.
In our ongoing interview series with local artists, SF Weekly spoke with her about the drag scene, the queens of San Francisco, and the definition of the word "queer."
How would you define your art? Is it drag, performance, or something else entirely?
I'm asked this question often. Defining the work I do is something that people who view it get wrapped up in. The performance I do is compared to "legitimate" forms of performance art no matter the venue. Depending on the circumstance or my mood, I will say it is drag, or it is performance art. But really, it is both of those things and its own thing entirely. I'm at a new stage with my art, and don't wish to define it in more static terms. My work is strongly based in visual aesthetic and conveying emotion. And, although it has moved into traditional theater spaces, my work came out of the homo club life of San Francisco.
What do you mean when you say "legitimate" forms of performance art?
Legitimate performance art has access to money, press, academics who are interested in its history and trajectory, and the viewing of that art has cache. Drag is not legitimate performance. That's not an original idea. There are moments where drag is spotlighted in legitimate venues, but it's a token moment.
Does this illegitimacy protect drag from assimilation?
I don't know what it would mean for drag to be an assimilated art form. Drag is about the context. It does seem like an inherently queer art -- female "impersonators" getting treated momentarily as goddesses for becoming something onstage that they would be reviled for offstage among the gay and straight mainstream. Looking like a man in a dress is not something that you will be celebrated for outside of performance. I don't know. It seems for drag to be assimilated it would have to be so far removed from its origins. It wouldn't be drag anymore.
How did you start performing?
I started performing in the nightclubs I would go to in February of 2011. I was inspired by the queens I saw there. I have no technical training in performance or art making.
Who is Dia Dear, and who is DIAmanda Kallas? Are they different personas, or are they just different names you've used over the years?
Personas are very interesting to me. I don't understand performance as something that is easy to compartmentalize and separate from the self. In that way, Dia Dear is private and public. I think of my performance as embodying the hyper-real. Dia Dear onstage is at an energetic volume that is much louder than Dia Dear offstage, but they are very intimately related. DIAmanda Kallas was a name I performed under and now it is not.
Your performances (that I've seen) tend to have a very dark mood and deal with queerness in one way or another. What attracts you to queer narratives? Is there a particular story you want to convey?
I think your assessment of my performance as investigating queer narratives is astute but I want to talk linguistics first so I can be certain we're on the same page. I'm starting to cringe at the term "queer" because it's been co-opted into an umbrella term and it has no business being used as such. The term queer communicates an idea of complete otherness. First off, it is un-assimilatable and, importantly, has no desire to be assimilated, invited, accepted, or understood. I think of queerness as a system of values and way of life more than as a collection of sexualities or genders. That said, queerness as an extreme otherness is a part of the value system I bring to performance. I think queerness exists in all of my performances for that reason. Queerness is not typically the material of my performances and they are inherently queer because it is the foundation upon which I am performing. I don't have an overarching message that I wish to verbally articulate right now. A lot of my performance is concerned with communicating a beauty that is deeper than what can be seen.
Does San Francisco play into your work in any way? Is this a good setting for it?
San Francisco is where I was born as an artist. San Francisco will always be a part of my work for that reason. The queens of San Francisco -- art queens, fashion queens, glamour queens -- have collectively raised me in this way and that. They are who inspired me to begin performing. I'd seen drag before San Francisco, but there is something about the quality of the queens out here that is truly extraordinary. The queens of San Francisco took me in and have been so generous and sweet to me. They have made it a good setting for me to become and explore.
What inspires you? And do you ever struggle for inspiration?
I'm inspired by the absurdity of the world and creating a moment that is a reflection of that absurdity and a respite from it. That often gets manifested in my performance as a heaviness, but for me beauty is an important component that always exists alongside that heaviness. It is a component and a window outside of it.
I began performing almost entirely inspired by the moment of the performance. It's the ability to stop with a group of people, small or large, and create a place where time and space didn't matter or exist anymore. Time/space has and is continuing to collapse so rapidly because of the way in which we are becoming technologically integrated. And that is a condition that just is. It was important to me when I started performing to create breaks from that experience of consumption. How I created that came intuitively, and it was through a sincere vulnerability. If you give to people in a performance in a very honest way, people pick up on that instantly, and that vulnerability radiates. People want to experience that, and I think that interest speaks to the importance of the experience.
I'm at a point right now inspiration-wise where I'm interested in returning to this original motivation and delving deeper into it. Much of my focus as a performer over the last year has been learning a craft, which I don't imagine I will ever be done with. There's been an essence that is singularly mine that I've brought to all of my performances, and at the same time, they have been very varied in method. I'd been focused on understanding how things are done. When I started performing, I had some intuitive understanding about how to affect people, and I've spent the last year very concerned with the mechanics of that. And now I want to get back to the essence of what brought me to performance. I think this is going to look like simplifying in a lot of ways, with the intention of stripping away the excess to get deeper into an essence.
Inspiration is always there. Communicating that inspiration is the key. Not a struggle, but a process.
You lip-synch in most of your performances. How do you choose songs? And is there something more to your use of lip-synching, other than it being a drag tradition?
I do most often lip-synch in performance, but not always. Some of my most favorite performances have not used lip-synch -- most recently, the Tiara Sensation Pageant performance: I had my mouth pierced shut. Lip-synching started off as a part of the tradition of drag. Now it seems like an important and chosen method. Well done lip-synch can unite the person on stage and the voice on the track. I'm interested in using lip-synch now as a way to assume multiple identities simultaneously.