Tobaron Waxman on Migration, Music, and Mutual Aid

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Tobaron Waxman on Migration, Music, and Mutual Aid

Tobaron Waxman (all images courtesy the artist)

This article is part of HyperallergicPride Month series, featuring an interview with a different transgender or nonbinary emerging or mid-career artist every weekday throughout the month of June.

Spread between Brooklyn, Toronto, and Warsaw, transgender visual artist, curator, and singer Tobaron Waxman (they/them) nurtures a multidisciplinary practice that bridges performance with mutual aid and activism. Through documented vocal and corporeal works and site-specific installations, Waxman, who was trained in Jewish liturgical music, unpacks the abstract laws and regulations imposed on the body by citizenship and residence. “My live art practice explores concepts of language, gender, nation, and embodiment, contextualizing physical experiences of time as systems of inscription,” the artist says of their work. Waxman draws connections between the absurdity of residential legality restrictions and that of the gender binary, both of which are relevant to those of us who drift in the in-between.

Hyperallergic: What is the current focus of your artistic practice?

Tobaron Waxman: For “Gender Diasporist” (2019–present), I’m awaiting the decision this week of the Polish government to decide if/how they will give me a passport. It’s documentation of my process of applying for Polish citizenship as an out trans person of Polish Jewish heritage. The story exposes ways the state determines the parameters of our bodies. I just presented some of the songs, video stills, monologues, and libretto of “Gender Diasporist” at Disruption Network/Kunsthalle Bethanien in Berlin, in a symposium about data, sousveillance, and artivists who confront systems of dominance. It was fantastic to watch non-trans audiences connecting the dots, finding coalition, and learning strategies together.

I’m currently working on my first album. It’s a concept album of songs, liturgy, poems set to music, short monologues, and field recordings; all about a formative period of years when I lived deep stealth and undocumented while I was a seminary student in Chassidic New York. Singing in Yiddish is a decolonial esthetic strategy, i.e., as in “Gender Diasporist,” a refusal of nation-states, choosing to thrive between existing categories, in a queer trans present.

Since 2013, I’ve made the Intergenerational LGBT Artist Residency (ILGBTAR), as a combined curatorial, relational/live art, and sociopolitical praxis. ILGBTAR has curated five interdisciplinary artists from across Canada to make site-specific sound portraits of locations of Queer history. In one’s mind, a listener could be transported to each site, regardless of mobility issues, or low vision, or living somewhere where Queer information is forbidden. The recordings will live permanently on the server at The ArQuives, and a limited edition vinyl album will be released in 2024.

Tobaron Waxman, “Livush Project” (2006–ongoing), talit katan (tunic from a series of garments made of medical packaging and syringes from all the testosterone used by the artist over seven years), dimensions variable

H: In what ways — if any — does your gender identity play a role in your experience as an artist?

TW: I’m a lot more interested in nonbinary thought, and what we learn from transsexual knowledge about power, liberation, and the sublime. That’s inevitably what my current project “Gender Diasporist” points out in creating new opportunities for coalition. 

The role that gender has played in my experience as an artist has changed over time. Professionally it’s often been a tokenized experience, in which I’m asked to be proof of a cisgender curator’s premise — a chimera. When I started responding to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and enacting Palestine solidarity in artworks informed by trans experience, curators were pissed off, saying, “But you’re supposed to be making portraits, and porn …!” So … I will say this question spotlights the development of discourse, and when I’ve been in or out of sync with trends. 

I write this as someone who chants psalms for the sick and the dying, sang lullabies to the houseless, talked more than one trans person out of suicide, mourned the death of my closest friends, and survived violences, death threats, and houselessness myself. I’m answering this in 2023 as someone who has been all the letters of the rainbow, has lived longer than was expected, and became what I was told is impossible for someone of my alleged gender, multiple times. Gender has informed my political consciousness in various ways, and to ever-changing degrees impacts degrees of safety and access I can have. This is reflected in multiple projects, and my approach to curation as well as collaboration.

H: Which artists inspire your work today? What are your other sources of inspiration?

TW: Tania Bruguera; Shannon Bell; Barbara DeGenevieve; Grada Kilomba; Flo McGarrell; Rachel Rafe Neis; Galit Eilat; Kira O’Reilly; Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung; Leslie Freeman Taub; Dr. Dori Tunstall; Mirha-Soleil Ross; Julie Tolentino; Carmen Papalia; Hélène Hazera. So many more. James Baldwin. These are just a few of the artist thinkers whose creative work and labour remind me not to succumb to scarcity mode, to stay connected, and to ask better questions. Other constant sources of inspiration include mutual aid networks and urban farming projects.

Curators who genuinely embrace the intersections in my work in a dimensional way have my unending and loyal solidarity. They include Juana Awad; Tatiana Bazzichelli; Travis Chamberlain; Stamatina Gregory; Ariel Goldberg; Tim Stüttgen; and Hans Tammen.

Tobaron Waxman, performance documentation of “The 71st Face” (2012), translation, vocal performance, bowl of artist’s own hair

H: What are your hopes for the LGBTQIA+ community at the current moment?

TW: I think queer and trans futurity could be scaffolded by more intergenerational dialogue. In other words, someone younger in lived years goes out to meet trans elders in person, sends them a bag of groceries or invites them for coffee rather than expecting them to make contact online. In turn, the trans elder has to be open and have the capacity to enjoy a correspondence with a younger person — the grammar and vocabulary is different, both parties have to commit to patience, forgiveness, and keeping things roomy. From Keith Hennessy, I learned it behooves me to learn from a new generation of artists and stay au courant of what is happening for them. Not allowing ego to get in the way of that is a worthwhile, ongoing exercise. Let’s meet while we’re still alive. I need our people to know each other and revere each other. 

I feel it’s important both for coalition movement and an individual trans person’s mental health to get to know about what trans people have been doing in liberation struggles outside of the US. For those of us who are first or second generation, what is trans liberation in the countries our parents came from? Don’t wait for someone to tell you: Rather, find each other; past, present, and future. If this is intimidating, write to me and I will help you to start your research or grant application.

I continue to relearn from bell hooks, from Audre Lorde, to achieve some power in order to share it while endeavoring to dismantle it. The world is becoming more and more transphobic from Uganda to Poland to Texas. It’s a tried-and-true method to separate and control — to limit the imagination and all the possibilities that variation represents. Those of the LGBTQ+ communities who have the privilege of calm and stability are behooved to step up. I want trans people to not only live, but to live longer.

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