Give Yourself Over To Cunt

Dani Brown on the upcoming premier of THE PRESSING

Words By Cathy Bijur
Photos By Shanélle de Melo

We’ve all done it – giving yourself over to a fantasy, a need, or an idea and letting that thing take over completely, if only for a moment. But while everyone has lost themselves in a desire-filled daydream, nobody’s done it like performance artist Dani Brown. In her solo performance, THE PRESSING, premiering at Radialsystem in July, Dani isn’t just giving herself over to a whim, she’s giving herself over to CUNT.

We all have a body that we inhabit – one that dictates how we’re perceived, how we perceive ourselves, what we can and can’t do. And within the world of contemporary dance and performance art, the body that artists inhabit play an enormous role in all of these things, creating limits and boundaries that are used, explored, and oftentimes surpassed. But what if dance could also become a medium for honing in on one part of the body? And what if that part of the body were the most anatomically and socially complex organ there is: the vulva? In Dani Brown’s upcoming premier of THE PRESSING, she does just that, giving herself over to what she calls a CUNT entity, embodying female identity through channelling different facets of the cunt.

Building from her work in 2012 called How Do You Imagine The Devil?, where Dani gave herself over to a fantasy of the devil, she moved towards a perhaps more familiar, if not more controversial entity, the vulva. From the taboo surrounding the female sexual organ to the nature of desire and mystery around it, channeling CUNT is actually an act of channelling multiple cunts through movement, dance, dialogue, and monologue. In an act that both surpasses the single self and calls attention to locating selfhood, THE PRESSING moves beyond the socially constructed and taboo-riden space of femininity towards a decentralized and empowering take on gender, queerness, feminity, and being. We spoke to Dani about the evolution of her practice, what becoming CUNT actually means, and entering the complex world of NFTs.

Body and Practice

When talking to Dani about her practice, it’s impossible to overlook her breadth of experience, both as a performer and in more behind-the-scenes roles. Not only has she worked as a choreographer and artistic director, she also teaches and has performed in countless works by other artists. Being involved in so many facets of performance has shaped the way her practice has evolved and become what it is today.

Dani’s work as a teacher and performer has given her a unique perspective on dance and the communication needed to put on a successful performance. She’s found that honing the ability to communicate abstract concepts and then translate them into physical principles has allowed her to be precise with words and ideas. Similarly, taking direction from other artists has given her the unique ability to understand what’s needed and what the stakes are when communicating complex ideas. She describes her experience as a performer in other productions as a starting point for honing that skill. “The artist gives you some kind of idea or imagery and then you have to translate that into something physical. I’m very certain that my experience as teacher and director supports my ability to do this for other artists, and vise-versa. Being in that situation and having to translate – I don’t take for granted what that kind of communication could mean in my own studio space directing others, or in a teaching situation.” Verbal communication certainly isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of dance, but this practice of turning the abstract into something nameable, and eventually visual, is something Dani has become expert at.

In a work as complex as THE PRESSING, being able to translate the abstract into concrete physicality  is essential, specifically because the subject material deals with both physicality and the abstract simultaneously. Dani describes a past experience of performing for director Ligia Lewis, in her 2018 work, Water Will, which invoked a similar duality. “She wanted a kind of body with will but without agency and evoked images of a cadaver. You hear that and you can go into so many directions with your brain and body. Interpreting and working through it to find that you’re a dead body, and what that means.” Towing the line between being concise and fluid, communicating a specific quality while still giving agency to the body, and eventually finding the overall quality of whatever she is portraying on stage plays an important role in Dani’s practice. And this is perhaps how she has been able to create a work that revolves around the vulva, between its knowable characteristics and qualities, mixed with more abstract notions of taboo and socio-historical complexity.

It’s so fascinating for me how charged the word ‘cunt’ is and it’s a very simple desire to reclaim that word from its relegation of vulgarity.

Dani’s own physicality plays an important role in her works – both through acknowledging her own body and playing with its boundaries, both socio-cultural and physical. “Maybe I would want to be x, y,or z on stage, but I have this materiality and I’m going on stage with this figure. I can fuck with that as much as I can – and I’m actually very interested in that, there’s a notion of morphing in my practice. Conceptually, in many of my works, there has been this undertone involving the representation of the female body because that is, in the end, what I’m working with.” So something as simple as walking on stage is already the conceptual starting point for Dani, and she morphs and shifts from there, which is part of why she’s able to make work about such controversial material. Her body is what she’s starting with, and so the form both follows and shifts with her own physicality.

Shifting in THE PRESSING isn’t just about the physical embodiment and movements of the vulva, but also about its larger socio-cultural positioning. One of her hopes in putting out this work is to be able to shift the current dialogue around femininity, gender, and the vulva towards a more empowering narrative. “There’s so much taboo around some identified folks and their sexuality, whether it’s body parts, expression, or practice. It’s so fascinating for me how charged the word ‘cunt’ is and it’s a very simple desire to reclaim that word from its relegation of vulgarity. And there’s power in being able to reclaim it as something empowering.” Shock value doesn’t enter the equation for Dani’s decision to perform CUNT; it’s an act of subversion, a way of reclaiming the way the term is used, and an attempt to change power structures.

The idea of circlusion – a term first coined by Bini Adamczaks describing an act of active taking during penetration – also plays a part in her work. “I also work with the circlusion from beneath, this sort of term which is related to the active. We always talk about being penetrated, but how can we talk about an active taking, about an active circluding.” By actively taking while being penetrated, the idea of the vagina as a passive organ gets shifted into one that combines, coalesces, and moves in and of its own right and agency. Reframing the act of penetration into one of mutual activeness means that the vulva is no longer an object, rather an equal subject. This is a huge part of the conceptual backing that brought Dani to her current work on THE PRESSING.

Arriving at THE PRESSING

Dani’s arrival at THE PRESSING started with a piece she performed in 2012. Although the subject material is very different from THE PRESSING, the process of giving herself over to an abstract entity served as the basis for her current work. “I had a work that premiered in 2012 called How Do You Imagine The Devil? and that was sort of the beginning of this operation where I would give myself over to some other entity, and in that case it was this fantasy around a devil… This sort of play, this giving myself over to this other entity, guided my process.” Rather than just performing a role on stage, Dani made the leap of giving herself over fully to the concept she was working with, imagining what the devil would do, want, desire, need, and move like.

Moving from embodying the devil to the vulva is a giant conceptual leap, and one that came about in a surprising way. Dani traces back the origin of the idea for THE PRESSING to a particularly difficult breakup she went through a few years after How Do You Imagine The Devil? premiered. “I had a breakup around 2015, and the person was very, what’s the word? Entitled? And in that moment I became a kind of lens, where everywhere I looked I saw male-identifying folk being very entitled. I mean, so many different situations – I just saw it everywhere. I guess it’s not so difficult to see that, because it kind of flavours toxic masculinity in and of itself.” From this all-encompassing lens Dani saw life through post-breakup, an intense frustration with the gender binary arose.

Not only did she see her space as a female as limited, the power dynamics and inequalities inherent in the gender binary left her with a sense of entrapment. From there, Dani started to imagine a world beyond our normative conception of gender. “I would spend hours and hours imagining a magical gender. Of course we can think about non-binary and all of the other genders there are, but in that moment I was imagining another gender – like a gender beyond genders.” From there, her fascination with playing with gender roles became the basis for her research for THE PRESSING.

The breakup also resulted in Dani starting to practice yin yoga, a style that involves holding each pose for an extended period of time. The strength and energy inherent in its practice also deeply influenced Dani. “I was doing a lot of yin yoga towards the end of that crazy period in my life… With yin yoga you have these poses that you hold for a really long time, minimum six minutes, and you do it in a really passive way. I got so immensely fascinated with the strength that comes from this sort of active passivity, or observing without reaction. I just connected to femme energy, or yin energy in a way I hadn’t before. I found it so rich and so strong and so powerful and so missing in our society, this particular observation without reaction.” The inherent strength in stillness is, for Dani, part of femininity and also meshes well with the act of circlusion. The stillness, strength, playfulness, and active passivity of yin yoga became part of THE PRESSING.

For this work, I am giving myself over to what I am fantasising as a vulva entity.

Performing CUNT

Understanding what brought Dani to the concept behind THE PRESSING doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to imagine what will be happening on stage. Between embodying the vulva in a playful, queered way and using ideas like circlusion and the active passivity inherent in yin yoga, Dani will be channelling what she calls a CUNT entity.

CUNT isn’t one specific thing, rather a series of cunts that portray the many different facets of the vulva in a self-affirming, empowering way. As she describes it, “for this work, I am giving myself over to what I am fantasising as a vulva entity. Sometimes I have this relationship with the idea that it’s my vulva, but I think essentially it’s the bigger vulva – the spirit of vulva.” Through a cunt monologue, personal memory, and the movements of her naked female body, Dani will be performing an act that surpasses the self and moves towards, “a world of speculation, belief, and queer narrative.”

Dani’s own physicality as a female plays a large role in the performance, but it also has to take a backseat, since she’s also performing an act that goes beyond the single self. In order to achieve this, Dani will perform a section of the work with hair over her face, in order to remove some of  her own subjectivity as Dani Brown, the performance artist, instead moving towards a broader conception of global femininity. “We can talk about my imagined CUNT entity or my fantasy of this entity through how I position my ego in this operation. There is an aspect of channelling that goes beyond myself. It’s very trippy to put me, the artist, in the backseat and give my material over to this entity.” Aside from actually removing her physical appearance from the forefront of what’s going on on stage, Dani completely gives herself over to her imagined CUNT entity, much like she did with the devil. Through removing her own ego from the act of performing, Dani is working to decentralise notions of the self, gender, and the body’s movements.

Part of Dani’s act of channelling CUNT involves both dialogue and improvisation. The playfulness and spontaneity of both are integral to her performance. Not only will she be having a dialogue with her vulva, but there will be large sections of her performance that are improvised. Dani finds this element important because of “the risk of improvisation – this sort of playfulness, this exploration, and the curiosity of it,” which allows for movement and reimagining.

I got very fascinated with light and dark and its representation of beginning and ending, life and death, and how these notions are related to the vulva.

Dialogue and improvisation also play a large role in the performance’s musical accompaniment. “There’s also improvisation with the sound, so during improvised sections, JFK, the artist I’m working with, and I are establishing archives of sound. Sound, field recordings, and music – like music from classical to pop, hip-hop, techno, Gregorian chant, political speeches, and certain speeches from feminist figures like Audre Lorde. With an established archive of researched sound, JFK will be choosing live in combination with compositions and pre-recordings, so there’s an aspect of dialogue between the sound and me as it unfolds.”

Music nerds should take note too; JFK’s conceptual approach to soundtracking Dani’s performance is on point too. The sonic archive has been curated to include a range of proto-feminists in music, spanning electronic music to afro-harpist impressarios such as Eliane Radigue, Alice Coltrane, and Ahya Simone. Above all, the sonic component lays a clear feminist foundation for THE PRESSING. Intersectional, improvised, playful, and in constant dialogue, all of the elements of Dani’s performance are fluid and in constant motion.

The stage setup will also involve queering ideas of boundaries, specifically between light and darkness, life and death. “Dramaturgically, I got very fascinated with light and dark and its representation of beginning and ending, life and death, and how these notions are related to the vulva – for me, but also in historical texts around the vulva, myths and legends around the vulva.” The vulva as representative of life-giving exists in stark contrast to the mysticism surrounding it, as well as to the taboo around female sexuality, and Dani’s set design seeks to reflect that complexity. “The foreground will be quite lit, and we’ve tried to make it so that as you get further away it gets darker and darker–so we’ve tried to achieve this light and dark space.”

In addition, Dani was inspired by the Vanitas paintings of the 18th century. “This notion of darkness brought me to the Vanitas paintings of the 18th century. You often have bouquets of flowers, half fresh, half wilting. There are other symbolic figures and symbols like fruit, or maybe a skull and some bones.” Using many of these elements common to the Vanitas paintings, including floral bouquets positioned on top of pillars, Dani will be invoking how these paintings “relate to light and dark, life and death, beginnings and endings,” and all of the complexity that those ideas entail.

Bringing CUNT to web3

THE PRESSING doesn’t stop with Dani’s actual performance. After the premier, she will be creating an original digital series that will become her first ever NFT series. The decision to move into the hyper-charged world of NFTs is a rare one for performance artists, but Dani sees it as a necessary next step for both the web3 space and her own practice. “The interest to move into that space has been sort of a nagging question for many years regarding other modes and spaces of production,” she says. Not only does creating a digital form of her works allow for her movements in time and space to live on, and potentially create new options for both her work and career long-term, it also represents a move into another realm of possibility.

As the web3 space is developing, Dani finds it important to help shape the types of works and communities that exist in that digital space. THE PRESSING, made into a digital series called CUNTED, circulating in the world of NFTs will not only represent a move for performance art, but also for feminist and queer art. “Of course I get very excited about the potentiality of this particular work in that space. Many NFT artworks are not video or performance, so I get excited about that. I feel a bit like pushing, pressing into that space.” Both moving into a new digital space and actively shaping that space as it emerges are both necessary next steps to Dani’s already boundary-bending practice.

THE PRESSING will premiere at Radialsystem Berlin on July 29-31. For more information about Dani Brown, THE PRESSING, or the upcoming release of CUNTED, visit Dani’s linktree.