Ita Segev’s work tackles notions of migrancy, trauma, and healing from the many perspectives of trans-womanhood, serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, and being an anti-Zionist Israeli. Her debut work, Knot In My Name, created in collaboration with director Tristan Powell, is a blend of storytelling, comic characters, wry humour, and embodied practice. The world premiere opens at Gibney next month, curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa. I interviewed Ita after seeing a work-in-progress at BAX.
George Kan [Rail]: Your show has that ironic quote: “What’s being trans without a photo shoot?” Yet we’re photographing you today... Have we done the wrong thing?
Ita Segev: [Laughter] I don’t think so. That’s funny. [In the show] we call the persona that’s saying this “trans-salesman.” He sort-of represents the sleazy, neoliberal identity politics —like a trauma-porn-hungry monger. And, joking aside, [the photoshoot] also taps into a deep trans desire—growing up concealing these parts of yourself, hiding them—then suddenly they get seen, not only seen, but celebrated. It’s cathartic. The photoshoot becomes this phenomenon—especially with trans-femininity and trans-womanhood. There’s such a pressure to perform high-femme flawlessness. You either need to be the fishiest passing fish in the pond, or a complete rejection of any idea of womanhood you grew up with. And both have a level of performativity: either “Wow! How did that bitch do that?” or “Wow! They’re so brave!”
Rail: Yes, yes! There’s this theme of self-branding in the show, involving the expectations imposed on performing trans trauma. So, I was wondering—is that something you can escape?
Ita: It’s something I’m deeply trying to figure out constantly. I’m very unsure… My spidey sense of how much to share is a little skewed-up. Even right now, me saying this, I’m like, “Is that too much to share? What do I leave to myself? / What don’t I?” I started making this show pretty close to when I publicly proclaimed my transness. Before that, I had some very significant intense years of deep consumption of other trans narratives. I was trying to use other trans narratives to figure something out about myself because I wasn’t yet in community with trans people.
Rail: That makes total sense.
Ita: Anohni (former lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons) went through so much for her songs to be on the army radio station that I listened to in my dad’s car in Jerusalem when I was 16. She really saved me at the time. Because that’s when I was most isolated. How that message disseminated and got all the way across the world is incredible and complicated. So… there was a desire in beginning this show to be like, “I want to do that for someone.” I want to provide the narrative. I want to complete the gap of the narrative that I feel like I didn’t get to have. Tell me if I’m talking too much.
Rail: Not at all.
Ita: Almost every trans narrative I came across before I transitioned, and met actual trans people, had an intense level of certainty. All these girls, since they were four years old, knew this thing about themselves… I believe everyone but, also, how the fuck? If you live in a world where trans people don’t exist, how are you supposed to know that’s even a possibility when you’re like four or five or six or whatever? I had a legway in proclaiming my identity because I lacked that certainty in the beginning. I thought, “if everyone’s so sure, and I’m not sure, then maybe… I don’t have the same experience.” From the outside, I was like: “Okay, when I get a chance to do this, I’m going to show the messiness and the complicatedness and the confusion and the erasure, etc.” But once you’re inside and doing it, there’s such a deep desire to consume your trauma as some educational, entertainment, or healing tool for the person who isn’t trans…
Rail: In a way, it’s a script: of trans being one gender inside another gender.
Rail: It seems there are other scripts too. That once you proclaim transness, people assume these scripts of trauma. There’s an imposition of a plethora of scripts!
Ita: Yes! So many scripts! That’s a big part of what the show deals with. You get abducted a lot in the show; there’s finally a moment of arrival, then immediately it’s manipulated or abducted. That’s part of the dance—what I wanted to make visible—how hard it is to, sort-of, just exist for a moment when there are these constant expectations to perform something.
Rail: I saw the show being about boundaries, or borders, and who polices them. The two big borders are: Israel/Palestine and male/female—both controlled by governing forces.
Ita: That’s interesting. I would say the show deals with the connection between the body we are born into and the place we are born into—the narratives we are taught about that body or that place—and what happens when those narratives exist in a vast growing gap or contradiction with reality, until the embodiment of the body or place almost becomes the gap. We call this process the necessary heartbreak of coming to terms with this gap.
Rail: “Coming to terms with the gap”—that’s the necessary heartbreak?
Ita: Yes, well that’s one of the necessary heartbreaks. What makes both Zionism and gender-essentialism seductive is the fantasy of origin. We are born, we receive it as ours, we never have to doubt gender or think about it, the doctor says it, we get spanked in the ass and it’s ours forever. How amazing would that be? For Zionism: there’s this book saying this land is yours no matter how many years you’ve been gone. And still, somehow, there is some emotional or spiritual connection to this place that is more important than those 2,000 years. One could claim that the violence both indigenous people in Palestine and trans people experience is a violence from people who don’t want to face that gap. They want the fantasy of origin. And that’s literally killing everyone.
The show is an invitation to an alternative seduction: that by letting go of the thing that never belonged to you, you have an opportunity to reclaim something that does. It doesn’t make your life easier. No trans woman chooses the path because of ease. But there is an energetic sensation that makes life worth living. And I wanted to offer that to people in different processes of letting go.
Rail: I’m thinking about borders and, now, this “gap” between gender and national identities, yes—but in the show, there’s this third border between your present self and past trauma. You call it an “electric fence”—this imagery of a border you must cross to tell the story. It’s almost like we come to your show to experience you bridge the gap?
Ita: Right. I guess in some way that is… Yeah.
Rail: There’s that line—you’re talking about facing trauma—it’s something like “you’ve paid to see me do this, so I have to.”
Ita: No. I’m saying there’s this fence inside my body and, if I get too close to it, I will electrocute myself. It’s a reference to this trauma and process, which I don’t know why I did that to myself. Going back to the army for me is going back to the time when masculinity was sort of imposed onto me in the most aggressive and violent way. So, there’s this fence. Through this process I’m constantly in danger of going too far, of triggering, we’re moving that close to the thing. And the question is: why do that to myself? And the payment is about doing this in the US to an American audience. That audience didn’t pay for me to perform… they paid for the trauma, for the fence—both literal and metaphorical.
Rail: I see!
Ita: The mission is to describe that fence, to help take it apart. Part of the twisted reality of Israel-Palestine is how Israel is an American funded project. But no one here knows. People put their taxes and support into this thing on the other side of the world that is creating aggressive trauma. But there’s something about me, an Israeli, sitting in front of American Jews and saying: “you think you are defending me by being Zionist, but you are actually traumatizing me.”
Rail: One of the fascinating parts of the show is this tension between an Israeli identity and a Jewish diaspora.
Ita: Yeah, it’s a peculiar one. When I’m in proximity to a lot of American Jews, I don’t feel like “oh I’m home.” I know how to make them laugh, though it’s not the same thing. I’m still discovering what it means A) to have an Israeli identity in a world when Zionism collapses; B) to be an immigrant Jew; and C) to be Israeli in the US Because the way people talk about identity here is so… bizarre. I feel like American imperialism makes most Americans unable to translate anything into a context that isn’t theirs. Often, I’m met with this gaze that tries to place me as a white trans girl in the same way a Christian white trans girl from Vermont is a white trans girl… And I’m like yeah, on some “privilege” level we may operate similarly when walking down the street. But also, what do we have in common at all…? That’s a lesson of improvement for the show; the stakes are so high, there’s a lack of nuance, which I understand because of the extent of suffering.
Rail: The stakes are high in the show. Yet I was amazed at how hilarious it was.
Ita: Yeah that’s good to publish! [Laughs] When we write about the show, people always expect it to be so heavy…
Rail: It was so sharp. I’m interested in why you choose comedy for making work.
Ita: I feel like it’s my go-to.
Ita: [Laughs] I think I experience the level of absurdity of the situations I find myself in so intensely that if I wouldn’t laugh, I would cry. It’s not an easy laughter. Turning things into stories and jokes is something I did since a very young age. When things got really scary, I would imagine how I would tell them happening. I think that was me being like, “oh I’ll be alive to tell this.” There’s something in Israeli culture, trans culture, Jewish culture, where humour has a specific irreverence. It’s a coping mechanism, a defense mechanism, a processing mechanism. But I’m also asking: when is it not funny?
Rail: In the show there’s this feeling like we can’t laugh, yet… the joke was always nuanced enough in itself.
Ita: Yeah humor is also—
Rail: It’s disarming.
Ita: It’s disarming! It creates this environment of great femme-aesthetics. It alleviates you enough from the situation to be able to see it better.
Rail: I love that—humor being femme-aesthetics. Because so often it gets swept into masculine aesthetics…
Ita: Totally. I think we deal with that in the show—when humor is used to punch up and when it’s used to punch down. Trans women are so often the butt of the joke. But that’s not humor, really. It’s dominance and humiliation. Like that soldier character in the show telling the joke about how he accidentally bombarded the wrong building in Gaza. It was actually told to me by the soldier who did it as a joke. And that’s where it’s psychotic and not funny anymore: where you remove human life as a core value in order to deliver a punchline. [Laughs]
Rail: [Laughs] Why are we laughing now?
Ita: No! Because, yes! That’s the craziest thing! It’s not funny but it almost works in the show. Some people laugh and then catch themselves. Because if you remove human life, it structures functionally as a joke. That’s how cruelty works.
Rail: This reminds me of your re-doing of the Notting Hill (1999) scene: “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” I had never thought about the politics in that scene—the femme-aesthetics!
Ita: We call that character “Michelle Williams.” She originated from a deep jealousy of these dainty cis white women who can cut their hair short and still read utterly girly. It’s this fantasizing about America and the simplicity of a girl meeting a boy at the mall. But these traumas keep hiccupping their way into the scene; the guy she’s imagining responds to everything with just “Cool.” At the end-all she’s left with is feeling like she’s in Notting Hill. And now the audience is aware of how big the gap is.
Rail: Yes—the gap.
Ita: That movie is about an American who has one problem. And they get to unpack their ONE problem over an extensive period. And, in this case, it’s that she’s too famous. [laughing] That’s the problem Julia Roberts has in Notting Hill and I was sitting in Jerusalem obsessed with that movie!
Rail: Yes, but, despite all of that, I suddenly had this pang of empathy for your character and for Julia Roberts—being subjected to gender.
Ita: Oh interesting! In an earlier version of the show, the character was escaping Israel to be a star—because that violence wasn’t for her—this violent distancing from oppression that white cis women do a lot, “I could never be violent.” In that version, she’s chill about gender: “I’m just a girl standing in front of a gender-ambiguous character because I’m open like that.” But the real pain in that scene is about trans women not being able to be loved publicly and simply. That’s the fantasy … I’m glad you felt empathy because it’s really sad! And, for the record, I feel like that a lot of the time, in my relationships with men, “I’m just a girl and you’re just a guy, what’s the problem?”
Rail: There’s something you once wrote: “What is a bigger femme mistake in this world than putting your desire for a man before your definition of self?”
Ita: You’re just quoting all my most…
Rail: Oh no, no!
Ita: [Laughs] I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I was processing: how come my desire for guys was clearer to me at a young age than the fact I was a girl?
Rail: I found the idea of a “femme-mistake” interesting.
Ita: Oof. I’ve made some of those! [Laughter] That’s in the show too; the desire for both the state and men to validate you. The experience of being a trans woman that’s attracted to men is completely… it’s so crazy. You keep coming back to this thing that largely hurts you.
Rail: Characters, scenes, humor, storytelling , yet your work is operating as “dance.” How come?
Ita: I mean, there’s sort of the practical…
Rail: Do the practical. I love the practical.
Ita: Well I think I’m a little afraid to call my work dance because of the financial reality of being a dance artist! [Laughs] So wherever the money is, call it that! I studied acting first, where I was made to play these neurotic Jewish guy characters. So, dance and embodiment were a big release from performing a singular gender and narrative. I think of my work as embodied—the sections are created through movement improvisations. It just always ended up in these characters, avoidance tactics…
Rail: Ways to get closer to the electric fence without touching it.
Ita: Exactly. I borrow a lot of what I’ve learned from movement and dance artists. It’s about the body searching for something. I find performance and dance curators are sometimes more eager to understand what the work is trying to do, while theater people are more eager to know what it is. So dance felt like a space where anything is possible.
Rail: I felt very aware of myself as an audience, paying—in many ways—to experience your performance, meanwhile you were talking about the inevitability of performing trauma. It almost seemed nihilistic, but now I think I was wrong.
Ita: I don’t think about it as nihilistic. I do think that it’s reckoning with several layers of complicated reality [laughs] I thought, if I’m transitioning, I must make a show about my transness. I couldn’t articulate myself as a transwoman and make something abstract—it’s not a possibility anymore. Dealing with this is a means to survive. To perform as a trans person—it’s like: why be stared at by a group of people after experiencing that all day in the street? But there’s a deep desire to be seen—which is different from a desire to be watched. For you to see us on our terms, I have to make you aware of your position as an audience, and zoom out and zoom back in and break it and make it uncomfortable and go through all that process so, by the end, when I talk to you very simply, without a character, you can perhaps actually hear me—and listen. I think that’s kinda the opposite of nihilism. It comes from a deep belief.
Rail: Being seen versus being watched—surveillance is a theme in your work, and it seems linked to technology.
Ita: Social media is both a form of communication and surveillance at the same time. Having a photo taken is a process of documentation and a process of invasion at the same time. I think the discourse of “is technology good or bad?” is over. It just is.
Rail: You’ve circled back to the first question of the photoshoot—a perfect end.
Knot In My Name is at Gibney Dance, October 3rd – 5th.