Archer asks: SJ Norman
By: Maddee Clark
SJ (Sarah-Jane) Norman (b. 1984) is a cross-disciplinary artist and writer. Their career has so far spanned 15 years and has embraced a diversity of disciplines and formal outcomes, including solo and ensemble performance, installation, sculpture, text, video and sound. They are a non-binary transmasculine person and a diasporic Koori, born on Gadigal land.
I’ll start with the basics. Where are you? What have you been up to lately? What are you working on?
At the moment, on the road. I have been for the last four months or so. Like every other performing arts professional I know, I spend a good chunk of my life stressing out in hotel rooms, and that’s what I’m doing now. At least this time it’s a pretty flash hotel, so I’m hardly complaining.
I was invited here by Maria Firmino-Castillo, a wonderful scholar, agitator and conjurer who I connected with in Lenapehoking/New York City earlier this year. Maria and her partner, Tohil, who is a wonderful artist and medicine person, are both Indigenous Guatemalan (Tohil is Ixil Maya, Maria is Mestizx).
They are two bodies in a greater constellation of Indigenous collaborators and co-conspirators that I’m very fortunate to be working and connecting with over here. That includes Diné, Cherokee, Apache, Inuit, Yup’ik, Zapotec and Maori people, mostly other trans, queer and two-spirit mob.
The currents of creative labour and kinship seem to be carrying me to the so-called Americas a lot at the moment. It’s my fourth trip so far this year to what a lot of Native folks refer to as Turtle Island, and I have two more coming up before the year is out.
The next big thing in my calendar is a program called Knowledge of Wounds at Performance Space New York [PSNY].
PSNY hit me up to curate a program for them in January 2020, and I saw that as a wonderful opportunity to ignite a collaboration with Joseph Pierce, a Cherokee scholar based in New York City. Joseph and I met through a mutual friend at a dinner party, immediately kicked off a massive IndigeQueer vibe, stalked each other on Instagram for a while, and now we’re birthing our first love child. It will be a very gentle and beautiful gathering of bodies and minds from throughout the Americas and Asia-Pacific.
The forces that are carrying me around the world at the moment are currents of deep collaboration with other Indigenous people across multiple contexts. I’m receiving that for the huge privilege and joy that it is, knowing that whatever I gather I bring back with me, and that maybe the movement of this body can, in its small way, serve a greater weave of solidarity and the strengthening of all our knowledges.
When I’m not on the road, I’m in one of my other two camps, those being Narrm/Birrarunga/Melbourne and Berlin, where I’ve had a base for the last nine years. Berlin is the fucking hellmouth but it won’t let me go, I have a decade’s worth of love and community there and an old-school flat that I rent for an old-school price.
Back home, I made camp in Melbourne about two years ago, and I am still finding my place there, slowly and gently. Figuring out what I can respectfully bring to that place and the communities and histories that are there.
I have amazing Blak and trans sibs and collaborators there – Naretha Williams, Carly Sheppard, Joel Bray, Mykaela Saunders – who I hold very close, and those relationships keep me alive. I’m getting used to Kulin country – the slowness and subtlety of this land compared to what my body knows from growing up in and around Sydney.
It’s tough to stay grounded in community and land when you’re in my line of work. When you’re away a lot and limited in your capacity to engage on the ground in community struggle, it’s hard. Keeping grounded and connected is often a challenge for diasporic mob at the best of times, so I am always trying to carve out time for rest and reconnection.
I’m a sky pirate, I am at home on the road. But I also get sick when I’m away for too long. I’ll be back in Melbourne for a bit at the end of the year, and after that I’m going to go and spend some time on my great granny’s country.
My Wiradjuri line comes through my mum’s grandfather, but my matrilineal line links me to Wonnaruah country – that’s where she was born. That was the language that my mum grew up hearing her speak at home. Her presence has always been really strong around me. She shows up in my dreams all the time and she’s been kicking me for a while to go spend some time with her river.
So I’ll do that and get my heart and spirit set right before I head off on the road again to keep doing the work I gotta do.
How are you? What’s been on your mind lately?
Well I got out of hospital a couple of weeks ago after a major surgery, one of a number that I have for an ongoing medical condition.
I’m trying to balance a heavy work and travel schedule while tending to my physical healing. That is obviously inextricable from my spiritual healing. When I was sitting alone and doped up in a weird German hospital, my phone was going off with messages and big love-ups from siblings from all over the joint, and that was a beautiful and overwhelming experience of kinship in a very hard and lonely moment.
Thinking and moving and breathing through kin-making as an active practice is something that is occupying me a lot lately. I’ve realised that this is a thing that I’ve always done, but right now I think I am letting that bleed more into my work and research in a more enunciated way.
A week or so ago I was awake and in total fucking agony, post-surgery, and I got a voice message on my phone from Joseph, who read me a passage from a book called As We Have Always Done by Leanne Simpson, an Anishinaabe scholar. There is this one line in particular I remember: “Everything we need to know, about everything in the world, is contained within Indigenous bodies”. And I was hearing those words spoken aloud by another Indigenous body, as an offering of solace to my own Indigenous body, which at that point was in a state of great physical pain. So I have been thinking a lot about the medicine we bring to each other and into the world just by being in loving co-presence and co-corporeality with each other.
Without wanting to sound grandiose, I’m thinking a lot about how Indigenous love, and especially queer Indigenous love, can transform the world. I’m thinking about the queerness that is inherent in our processes of kin-making, and the ways in which joy and humour and eroticism and cheekiness co-occupy space with extraordinary pain and extraordinary strength.
Sometimes we are exhausted and all we can do is hold each other. And we know how to do that. And we produce brilliance in that.
Indigenous bodies know how to hold each other in ways that offer a profound alternative to the narratives of dominant settler culture.
I understand that your work is often performance-based and meant to be experienced and participated in, not viewed from a distance. I’m fascinated by how you pull the audience into an intimacy with you as a performer. How does this feel for you? What kinds of audience responses do you get?
I’m really interested in power. I’m interested in how it works, how it is exchanged, how it slips and morphs.
I am also interested in the space that exists between two bodies, and the potentials that animate that space. So that exploration is central to my work.
As a Blak and trans artist, the idea of being consumed as a spectacle or as a product makes me feel fucking gross. The audience need to have some skin in the game, too.
How it feels for me really depends on the work. It also depends on the audience and the context, so it’s hard to give a single answer to that question. I feel my work is very tender and generous, but apparently a lot of audiences don’t feel that way. I make things that really, really, really upset some white people without necessarily setting out to do that.
Some audiences drain you, others energise you. Some are actively disruptive. Others are incredibly beautiful. I aim to create an architecture within a performance work where greater societal, historical and embodied power relations are brought into tangibility, and sometimes audiences don’t like what they find themselves feeling.
Sometimes they don’t like the feeling, but they are still prepared to feel it and to sit with it. That’s when I feel like I’ve done my job right.
So much of your work involves the body, and often your own body. Some of it involves pain, endurance and scarring or tattooing. How do you come down after an intense performance?
I was having this conversation recently with a friend and colleague of mine, Cassils, who is a Canadian performance artist working in similar zones of intensity to me.
Our practices are very different but we circle around a lot of the same ideas. We are both concerned with limits and processes of physical transformation, with the body as material.
We were drinking and yarning recently and we were both saying how one of the questions we’re most frequently asked is “Why do you do that to yourself? What is wrong with you?” and we both had the same answer: we do it because we are trying not to die.
If we didn’t do this, we would find another way to annihilate ourselves.
Living as a targeted body is the hard part. Cutting yourself on stage is fucking easy. The performance isn’t the wound, it’s the medicine.
That said, endurance and pain is not my main focus. That’s something that I think a lot of people misapprehend about my work, when they have only heard about it but not actually seen it. I’m not interested in the spectacle of pain. I’m especially not interested in the spectacle of Indigenous pain or trans pain, and I am not interested in embodying that for any audience.
What I am interested in is how pain can be healed through community ritual. This has looked like a lot of different things for me. I’ve been in 48-hour raves that involved greater feats of physical endurance than anything I’ve ever done for a paying audience in an art context. I’ve been in and witnessed BDSM scenes that were more challenging physically than the work I do as a public entity called SJ Norman.
But my performance work provides a container for me to do very specific work. I use it to reclaim healing and ritual technologies which belong to my blood but which colonialism has divested me of. I use performance as a space of excavation, a way to pull knowledge out of my flesh.
I’m interested in the process of mark-making within greater art history and how our cultures have deep histories of mark-making which centralise the body.
I’m interested in the skin as a threshold and the wound as an opening into knowledge.
Scarification is a beautiful and poetic ritual. So is tattooing, so is piercing. And all of those practices belong to some part of my various ancestral lineages. I’m not trying to shock anyone with my blood, because I don’t think my blood is shocking. I think it’s beautiful.
Art-making is spiritual work and I take that responsibility seriously. I train seriously to hold those spaces for myself, for my collaborators, for the audience and for the discarnate energies that enter the room.
On a more practical level, I try not to overbook myself because I know that after a show, I might have to go to bed for two weeks to recoup my energy. So I really only ever do three or four shows in a year.
I’m getting better at knowing my limits and also allowing them to shift, as I get older and as I also live with a body that is quite afflicted by illness.
Now that I am working in an ensemble, with a cast of performers and collaborators, my work has become much more about holding the ensemble together and taking care of the group. I get to be Daddy now. That’s quite nice.
I remember this amazing thing you wrote: “Speaking to my queer and trans artistic peers, lemme say this, as an Aboriginal person: without your Elders and your Ancestors, you have less than nothing. You will not survive.”
I’ve noticed such a disconnect between the older and younger generations of queer and trans people, in white culture especially. Where do you see this in action? What are the effects?
I feel the Mob are generally socialised to understand ourselves as part of a lineage and in intergenerational relationship. Not in some dynastic way! I know that I am the futuredream of my ancestors, that in fact they are dreaming me right now, and I find tremendous strength in that.
White folks like to think they are always the first to do something, though, and that erasure is one of the more toxic hang-ups of settler colonialism and of capitalism.
People suffer because of it, communities suffer because of it.
If some of the younger white queer and trans artists that I know had half a clue of the rich, powerful artistic and cultural lineages they belong to, and were prepared to embrace the Elders that are available to them in their immediate communities, maybe they would not feel as alone as a lot of them appear to. Maybe they wouldn’t be reproducing violence and exclusion to such an extent.
This is a syndrome that Melbourne in particular really suffers from.
Sydney is a very different context where people are held in a strong weave of intergenerational support and accountability.
We suffer enough as people and as communities without contributing to our own erasure. This makes us lonely, it makes us sick, and it un-grounds us from the root of our knowledges and robs us of so much joy. I take so much joy in the many people, Blak and otherwise, whom I regard as my Elders.
I was on tour in Italy recently, and a young queer Maori artist was at the same festival, and we were yarning one night and they said to me, “You are part of my lineage.” And it was so beautiful for me to hear that from someone who is probably 15 years younger than me, and for that to be said and received in mutual love and respect.
I draw my strength to go on doing what I do and being who I am in the world from those relationships, to my Elders and my ancestors, and knowing that I am accountable to them as well as to the ones coming up. The only way you can continue in a healthy way in this field is to work from a basis of service, accountability and love. Mob understand that. A lot of white queers still have some learning to do in this regard.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #13, the FIRST NATIONS issue. SUBSCRIBE TO ARCHER MAGAZINE