Witness Hari Nef in Common Visions –a live performance taped by Tony Lowe and edited by Drew Bolton –wearing sweats and a jumper, while stalking the catwalk of New York’s Ace Hotel, miming to the sobering monologue of serial killer Aileen Wuornos before her execution in 2002. It’s a furious invective against an unjust world that never gave her a chance. “A raped woman got executed,” she bitterly applauds, before cursing the society that screwed her with an unsettlingly exact prediction on its universal demise: “You’re an inhumane bunch of fuckin’ livin’ bastards and bitches, and you’re gonna get your asses nuked in the end, and pretty soon, it’s comin’! 2019.”
This is not your usual drag. At least, not the kind of hyper-feminine performance one might associate with what Nef characterises as “the mainstream drag surge in the 90s” or “Drag Race and RuPaul all over again” –being too young and too old to appreciate either.
Instead, Nef’s one of what fellow member and ringleader Alexis Penney calls a troupe of “super futuristic androgynous performers” known as Chez Deep. Born from a misreading of friend and Penney collaborator Jamie Crewe (aka Poisonous Relationship’s) old twitter handle @twobitchesdeep, the group spans ages, backgrounds and star signs, including Olympia-educated performer of a punk pedigree Colin Self, Californian dancer Sam Banks and transwoman Bailey Stiles from a small town on the Bible belt. They each have their own personalities and influences; with an individual style constructed from thrift store finds and high-end fashion given life and expressed through their performances.
Banks’ beaming and effusive dance routine is off-set by Nef’s downcast disposition in a rendition of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Ride’. Self’s glam-punk interpretation of Planningtorock’s ‘Living It Out’ features the composer, choreographer, and curator in majestic wings made from garbage bags. Penney, the Aquarian writer and self-proclaimed “control freak” obscures a performance with text. That’s a section featuring the biggest clot of words and mantras that scatter Common Visions, illustrating Chez Deep’s collective “pursuit of a global establishment of physical and spiritual freedom that honors and nourishes life”. It’s a wholly positive message in the face of such a seemingly bleak present and, if Wuornos is to be believed, future.
“A coven, a sisterhood and a family” devoted to exploring Alan Moore’s ideas on the creative pursuit as an act of magic in itself, the transcendental nature of art is expressed in the songs of Kate Bush, Imogen Heap and Christina Aguilera, as channelled through the mouths and bodies of their Chez Deep ciphers. “I am inside a world where I have to hide who I am”, sings Aguilera, via Stiles, tattooed, in a thong and releasing a bunch of helium balloons into the air, while drawing out the dark but hopeful, fun and radically political nature of Common Visions. Presenting the hivemind human of the “Chez Deep Megatron”, all members at one point bow ceremoniously to an iPhone, recalling Self’s email declaration: “we are all people who are cyborgs, aliens, witches, transmutants, and hybrid-creatures.”
Watch the Common Visions film above and read on for Chez Deep’s influences.
“I would say one of my first major influences was Wynne Greenwood, former front woman of Tracy + The Plastics. Her work existed as this radical riot grrl, queer woman identity, creating media and multiple identities. I identified with her and her DIY, anti-capitalist roots in gender theory.”
“Susan Ploetz, who formerly performed under the moniker Pashly, was a sort of drag mother for me. She would conduct this energy with just her body and voice, and created some powerful movement with just those tools. She had specific ways of infiltrating any moment with who she was as a person, and changing those around her.”
“Nina Hagen was a huge life-changer for me. She was this extremely skilled, brilliant, psychotic woman with an incredible voice, image and presence. I was so moved to see someone take opera and punk music and crazy facial expressions and live it out, on and off-stage.”
“Caroline Contillo blurs the formality and seriousness of buddhist techniques and helps introduce meditation and mindfulness as realistic, productive spaces to exist in and operate from. She has definitely shaped my interest in why I make the work I create.”
“One of my leading inspirations is Mark Aguhar, a brilliant artist and incredible friend who passed away in 2012. She was a gorgeous character of queer resistance and continues to energetically surround me like an angel. She was trans, queer, fat, brown, and very out-spoken about her beliefs. She used her work to demonstrate how beautiful and important she was, as a powerful force against normalized men and the oppression in physical and digital space.”
“I grew up on Jeffree Star and Amanda Lepore, neither of whom are drag queens. I encountered them on MySpace. Though they’re extremely different entities, Jeffree and Amanda assumed some idea of “constructed” femininity –decadent, glossy, ravenous, dark femininity –and refused to wipe their faces clean at the end of the night.”
“They lived by it and manifested some great and terrible life force, beyond mere female impersonation. They operate within it on the level of subculture, yet also lie totally outside of it. These binaries at play aren’t at all useful.”
“The drag community in San Francisco. There is no canon for a successful or talented queen. The elder performers incubate, support and encourage experimentation with all facets of drag practice. Without the drag community of San Francisco at my infancy, I would have never felt comfortable exploring my interests and strengths as a performer.”
“RuPaul. Not in technique or taste, but in philosophy. Without her, so much of what drag is supposed to be would be lost on audiences. She crusades all things positive about drag. Whether people realize it or not, she’s like the mother nature of drag, not the goddess.”
“One of my best friends, Antonio Blair, aka La’Femme Ladosha. She has really instilled in me what it means to be cunt; really, really fucking selfish and confident and sexy. I was recently adopted into the House Of Ladosha, which is a huge deal for me because I’ve always looked to her for just absolute DGAF attitude.”
“The queens performing in my hometown of Kansas City were huge influences on me, there was a really vibrant cool edgy and weird scene there when I was coming up. There was a theater company called Late Night Theater who would write and perform all drag versions of popular movies like the Birds, 9 to 5, super funny dark irreverent stuff. The director Ron Megee had this huge amazing loft in the warehouse district where he had huge parties with a fully staged floor shows they had lights and a swing and all this crazy shit. This was kind of my first exposure to drag live because I was too young to go to bars but he didn’t care if I was at parties at his house.”
“Seeing my sort of Midwest mother, DeDe Deville (who features in some SSION videos), perform Garbage’s ‘#1 Crush’ while draped in a plastic tarp, soaking wet as Laura Palmer at a David Lynch-themed party at Ron’s loft totally blew my mind. I kind of trace my initial experiments in drag back to that moment.”
“La Monistat, who is my actual drag mother from San Francisco is an incredibly vital performer and also the first person to verbalize to me that drag is a form of witchcraft, a form of energy manipulation. Also, Linda Simpson [who hosts Common Visions], whose sense of humour, documentation and understanding of so many diverse strains of drag culture and culture in general really resonates with me.”
“I’ve also always been super inspired by the Warhol-era queens, especially Jackie Curtis. She was so talented and interesting and had such an incredible look. Like, we always think of modern starlets as reinterpreting old Hollywood glamour and archetypes but I swear Madonna was reinterpreting that idea, as reinterpreted by Jackie Curtis, and that crowd you know? You see veins of her look in a lot of current drag and the way she also played with male drag, as a James Dean character, I think was also really forward-thinking.”
“Divas and Bombshells are my muse for drag. That could be from the beauty of a woman I walk by today, to icons and household names we all swoon over.
I’ve been influenced by small town drag, even from the Bible belt of America, where I come from. The first time I ever got to do a drag show, that was not for my imaginary friends or ‘Mammaw’, was for my high school Big Man On Campus pageant. Then the amazing full-on shows I’ve seen at local gay bars, put on for the community to bring people together in areas where it is still hard to be able to be whoever they are.” **