Trans Artists in Conversation …

… with Charlie Craggs and Travis Alabanza

About this event

This is a live online event hosted by The Research Forum at The Courtauld and organised by the LGBTQIA+ Society.

The incredible Charlie Craggs (she/her) and the illustrious Travis Alabanza (they/them) will be joining the President of the Courtauld’s LGBTQIA+ Society to discuss their work as transgender activist artists. We’ll be exploring topics like transphobia in the media, strategies for activist performance art, and the differences in approaches between large-scale shows and small-scale interactive happenings. After our conversation, we will end the event by answering questions from the audience. 

Charlie is an award-winning author and presenter who recently made a documentary for the BBC called Transitioning Teens. It follows Charlie across the country to meet young trans people and consider the impact of NHS waiting lists on them (often being left for years before getting their first gender identity clinic appointment). https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p093wyx7/transitioning-teens

Travis is also an award-winning author and performer. After being the youngest recipient of the Tate Galleries artist in residency programme, their debut show Burgerz toured and sold out shows from the Southbank to Sao Paulo and many places in between. https://www.hackneyshowroom.com/burgerz/

Find out more about their pioneering work on Charlie’s Instagram (http://instagram.com/charlie_craggs) and Travis’s website (travisalabanza.co.uk

Organised by Cas Bradbeer (they/them, President of the Courtauld Institute of Art’s LGBTQIA+ Society) and Leyla Bumbra (she/her, Research Forum Programme Manager). 

This event is part of the Open Courtauld programme organised by The Research Forum. 

From the Eventbrite blurb

Setting the scene

Travis looked resplendent with a bright yellow (that’s a non-binary colour, you know) beret atop his head, hair tousled to the sides, with red-checked shirt. He looked nothing like Where’s Wally? – nothing at all. Nails fake and aquamarine blue. Travis is going through a phase of affecting some sort of jive talking.

Charlie, however, appeared to have forgotten to button up his blouse and we were treated to too frequent glimpses of his ample prosthetic breasts, a fact he alternatively seemed pleased with or mortified by. The official blurb misses that he is the brains behind Nail Transphobia.

The topic of the discussion about the intersection of trans art and activism, with the questions were asked by Cas, a man who had been a Gendered Intelligence service user from the age of 12.

Does the art come first?

Travis whined that he was always described as a trans activist artist, even though that’s not him, nope. It’s not him what wrote a play all about how women’s toilets needed to be access-to-all during the middle of the pandemic when people couldn’t even go out. And he didn’t make the Bush theatre (he did) change all their loos to gender neutral before allowing his nauseating play Overflow, be staged at their theatre.

‘Cisgender’ people use the word ‘activist’ to ‘discredit the natural relationship’ between art and activism.

Charlie opined that he had a similar but opposite problem, people saw him as a (nail) artist but not as an activist (has anyone really said this?). Charlie pointed out that during the time he has been painting nails, he has had hundreds of one-to-one conversations with people. I’m sure he’s been extremely effective.

Travis said there was a conspiracy to stop trans-identified people from being viewed as ‘intellectual beings’. Charlie said that there was also a tendency to over-intellectualise them. I wish they could make their minds up.

What did they think of reality TV?

Cas told us that the first trans person he had seen and be inspired by was Nadia from Big Brother. I’ve heard this a lot and so I re-watched some clips of Nadia and all I can say it that I’m embarrassed at having ever believed that anything on Big Brother was actually entertaining.

Charlie told us that he had recently read a book, Shon Faye’s as it turns out, and guess what, Faye has correctly identified that some quarters of the media, refer to the groups who do trans activism as the ‘trans lobby’. Charlie thought this alone was evidence of media bias which has ‘scared’ the public. Trans people had been ‘jeered’ in the past (Jerry Springer, etc), but now they were ‘feared’. All ‘cos of the media.

Travis said that he had been reflecting on the recent work of Morgan Page (of the Cotton Ceiling workshop fame) who is executive producer behind Harsh Reality: The Miriam Rivera Story based on the reality TV show There’s Something about Miriam. Page says in the tweet below that the straight men weren’t aware that Miriam was a man. However, I’m listening to the podcast (which I’ll write about another time) and in the first episode we learn that the first contestant to met Miriam close up clocked he was a man immediately and told everyone else.

Travis moaned that all trans people were labelled as sexual predators. Travis also said that just because something has an impact, it doesn’t mean it’s activism (a Zen koan if ever there was one).

Cas said that the BBC will only have transgender people on if they also include a ‘transphobe’. Only just this week, however, the BBC has published an article about Rosie Kay, the choreographer pushed out of her own company for comments she made about biological sex at her own dinner party. The article pays only lip service to impartiality and suggests at the end that Kay’s persecution may be a ‘sign of progress’. Yeah, let’s just go over that one more time: it may be a ‘sign of progress’ that people are penalised at work for talking about biological sex at their own dinner parties.

Charlie said he was prepared to do TV again, but not around his own trauma next time, and then suddenly screamed that he wanted to do Big Brother, but was sure a ‘transphobe’ would be put in, and then imagined what that might be like. He had asked Keira Bell to take part in his documentary on teenagers who ‘transition’ but she had refused, another ‘detransitioner’ was included instead.

Following on from watching the webinar I felt duty bound to watch the documentary ‘Transitioning Teens’, which I reviewed here, which not only features Jolyon the Fox Killer but also suspended Gender GP Dr Helen Webberley. Another flagrant example of blatant BBC bias.

How do you feel about terfy feminism? And, what about it’s incoherency and where does it come from?

Travis said he didn’t know, but that it had always been around. Travis wasn’t able to produce statistics like Stonewall could, nor was he an amazing non-fiction writer, like Shon. People were scared of facing up to themselves, which was why people were adverse to looking at binaries. Trans people disrupt was it means for ‘cis white women to get power’, and it was about how gender worked in tandem with white supremacy. Travis was more interested in stopping terfy feminism, than understanding it. Travis wanted to ‘stamp’ out transphobia, explaining that transgender people were blocked from public life, experiencing extreme amounts of poverty and job scarcity.

Cas quoted from Burgers much to Travis’s delight – ‘That’s 2017, come through!’ squealed Travis in his ersatz jive voice.

I don’t care anymore if cisgender people understand my gender as a non-conforming person, I just want them to get out of my way. Do you know what I mean? I just want them to hand me the keys, give us some money, handover the spots and I don’t want that to be conditional on whether they think my gender’s acceptable.

Travis Havaburga explaining that he wants special treatment

Travis went onto explain that the women’s movement in the 70s had put white middle class women in public life, but not black and brown women, and that had we ever noticed when trans people get called out in public life old photos emerge of them in BDSM wear (?). This moral purity, Travis argued, was dangerous to all people in the UK.

Charlie, fresh from reading Shon Faye’s book, argued that if trans liberation was achieved, then it would liberate everybody and complained that there had been a far right Christian conference which had planned to fracture the LGB from the T, and now it is actually happening. Not only that, the BBC article about the cotton ceiling, had included a quote from the porn actress who had coined the term, Drew DeVeaux, who had been a sexual predator herself. Charlie warned that ‘they’ would be coming for LGB people next, so we had better all stand-up for the T.

How have interactive performances affected you?

Charlie says the stuff he does isn’t that deep and that he has approached his activism more from a branding perspective. The new wave of activism facilitated by social media is much more informal and that nail art was low culture. One of his first gigs, however, was the V&A. Charlie has done the nails of all ages, cultures and creeds, mainly women, but also the boyfriends of.

Travis said that he didn’t have a formal training in art (interesting fact, he appears to have studied Theology at King College), but now found himself in artistic spaces where no one gets quickly to the point, whereas Nail Transphobia cut through all that bullshit. Now, however, Travis was part of the ‘circle jerk of the art world’, he had found ‘many things to jerk off to’. He then revealed that he was only using sexual references to outrage any lingering terfs. He wanted to confirm their suspicions that he can’t go a sentence without mentioning sex. He also told us to ‘fuck off’. I hereby confirm that Travis using these words elicited nothing more than a series of giggles from me.

Travis told us he was inspired by Nina Arsenault, a ‘trans woman artist’, for the scene in Overflow where the protagonist turned himself into a monster (this must have been the toilet paper throwing scene).

Nina Arsenault ladies and gentleman.

The essay from Genevieve Gluck is well worth a read but not for the faint hearted

David Hoyle had influenced the audience participation section of Burgers. Travis liked to make the man he chose to ‘sweat’. In particular, it had been helpful for women in testing out whether their new boyfriends were the right sort of material.

And this other girl sends me a message, and she goes ‘thank you so much for picking my husband for being the volunteer in Burgers, because I realised he had a lot of work to do, and it started this whole journey where he needed to be a better man’. Gag! When can I ever do that on the tube!? When can I ever do this down the street? None of these men will talk to me. But their liberal wives come and then bring them on the dates -And then bam! they’re in the hot seat for an hour.

Travis, providing a public service since 2018

Do you react differently around men?

Cas (a man) asked two other men. A real tumbleweed moment.

Craggs was clearly a bit embarrassed by the question and answered instead that you had to ask yourself what you can do for the cause.  Charlie had been bullied for being feminine and grew up on a council estate.  Doing nails had allowed him to have access to men via their girlfriends.

Travis didn’t answer the question.

Dealing with negative reactions to your art

Travis said you have control of your art, and then when it is released you lose control.  Blocking off SM was a good idea.  The play Overflow needed protection because terfs flooded into the theatre to demonstrate against it. 

Travis is now writing roles specifically for trans-identified people (we suspect just the male sort).  You learn eventually how to cope with your detractors (i.e. just me constantly blogging about him, must be very difficult).  Overflow had had its first audience in front of a Gendered Intelligence service users.  Travis ultimately wants to go mainstream and get into TV and film.  I have no doubt it’ll happen.

Charlie said the pros outweighed the cons and that the work was for the ‘greater good’. 

Who were their favourite collectives to work with?

Not the BBC, said Charlie, he earns more from an Instagram post than he had from doing the documentary. 

Travis had demanded the Bush theatre change the theatre toilets for Overflow, got a trans-themed exhibition installed, and a similarly themed play to be shown in the smaller theatre. He had also asked for a bursary so that an assistant director, who was TPOC, could gain work experience (jobs for mates in other words).  There was also a discount code for trans people buying tickets. If you want something, ask for it, said Travis (‘there are other bitches … who always ask for what they need’ and some ‘posh fish’ got her own changing room because she asked).

In another example of Travis’ urge for despotic control, he had stipulated that the discussion tonight be recorded, but he didn’t want it put on YouTube.  You needed to realise that the people need you, he said.  He’d also had a herbal tea earlier, which may have explained the jive talking.  

Cas was amazed by it all and told Travis is was ‘really really brilliant advice’.  Yeah, I would love to hear the feedback from the students on how that works for them, I really would.

What trans artists do they recommend?

Charlie is friends with Mister Samo, who has had a recent exhibition about trans bodies. It’s called ‘I Exist’ – see here.

Travis recommended that people visit the Arebyte Gallery to see the work of Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley – She Keeps Me Damn Alive – which runs until February 2022. The exhibition is based on a computer game, and the characters who populate the game range from Travis himself (no wonder he is a big fan), lazer [hair] removal angels, white supremacy workers, and business people – see the exhibition leaflet.

‘Shoot to protect black trans people’

Basically it’s a ‘shoot ’em up’, and trans people get to come and you get to shot the GIC clinic and shoot up all the doctors, just basically like fuck them up. If you’re cis, you do another route, and you have to do all this other stuff.

Travis Havaburga

Q&A from floor

How can we produce projects which are attractive to trans people as participants, especially trans elders?

Money, laughed Charlie.

Travis agreed. He reminded the young budding artists on the call, that trans elders may have had the request a million times before. He and Charlie laughed over the times they were asked to talk about their trauma, whilst putting on blusher. If you’re cis and you’re thinking about making such a request, remember that there is a strong natural distrust at the moment because of the rampant transphobia and you should be mentioning in your email what you are currently doing for the trans community.

Charlie said that he always pays trans people for their involvement.  Cas said that it should be expected (thereby making clear both participants had received a fee).  Cas will only do a panel if it is inclusive (no one had a problem with this panel all being male – funny that). 

1980s compared to today – do we see it?

Charlie says that the headlines are being literally being recycled word for word – Shon Faye’s book has covered it all.

Yes, said Travis.

None of them were even alive in the 80s, so they can’t make a comparison. They have no idea what it was like to live in a world where there were only four TV channels and a handful of daily newspapers. Such a stupid thing to claim.

How did you find your trans identity?

Cas told us that he and his friends came to understand gender via the help of Gendered Intelligence.

Charlie told us he used Gendered Intelligence’s services aged 20, and said that his first trans role model (as Cas had said earlier) was Nadia from Big Brother, who won in 2004 (meaning he must have been a viewer under 10 at the time).

Travis revealed that he first met a non-binary person in the US during an LGBT summer camp his mum had sent him on.  It was 2011 and during a pronoun circle Travis scoffed and said ‘What the fuck is ‘they’?’ and the non-binary person told him off and it blew his mind. 

Charlie joked that he thought Travis invented it. 

What stuff do you have coming up?

Charlie is doing the second version of his book To My Trans Sisters as it is now the five year anniversary.

Travis has a new book coming out in August 2022 called – None of the Above: Reflections on Life Beyond the Binary. He is also writing loads of plays which loads of trans people will perform in. He invited the audience to contact him if they wanted to perform. Travis is also awaiting ‘a new face’. Should be interesting.

The Tate has also recently published a book with Travis called Gender, which I suspect heavily leans on the work of Judith Butler (I guess Travis was a little cheaper).


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