Film Still »Seek Bromance«
Film Still »Seek Bromance« | © Samira Elagoz

On the occasion of the German premiere of Seek Bromance, dramaturg Sara Abbasi talks with film and performance artist Samira Elagoz about sexual identity, images of masculinity, and about the question what it feels like to look back on one's own femme past as a transmasculine artist and to reencounter it on stage.

Sara Abbasi: In September you will perform Cock, Cock... Who’s There? (CCWT) again after a break of more than one and a half years. Back in 2016, you identified as a femme, as of now you identify as transmasculine which is the subject of your new work Seek Bromance. You will be performing both works on two following nights. How does it feel about meeting your past self?

Samira Elagoz: Cock, Cock... Who’s There? functions very much like an ode to being a woman, or a celebration of being one. That show represents the fact I would not have changed anything about my time being a woman. A lot of people think I transitioned because I was not happy as one, but that’s not true. I had a long and complex, dedicated relationship with womanhood, I explored it fully, but it’s just not something I am any more. And in that sense Cock, Cock... Who’s There? is a swan song to being a woman, and I cherish it a lot.
There is a growing logic in me, though, that doesn’t know if I ever was, that recognises I was just occupied with performing the role well, wanting to master it. A logic that distinguishes womanhood as an experience but not as an identity. And when I strip away the artifice, it feels almost like a system programmed to perform femininity, operating within the parameters, the boundaries, the requisites, where my actions turn out to be reactionary, or even lifeless. A role not so much adopted, as simply glued on. But the fact remains that my womanhood shaped who I am today, so while it is not something I want to be anymore, it remains a part of my CV.
I performed Cock, Cock... Who’s There? only once after I started transitioning, and I had a strong feeling there were two of us on stage. And for the first time in four years of touring, I cried after the show. Not out of sadness, but in admiration of what I had done, who I had been. I still find Cock, Cock... Who’s There? pretty epic, historical really. And it shows a kind of fierceness that no male entity can ever have, it’s something only a femme would be able to do. And the optimism I saw in Cock, Cock... Who’s There?, that will to still try, the refusal of defeat, was a sign of hope. It made me feel quite proud of the femme image I created.

SA: In Seek Bromance, we see the moment of your first testosterone injection and get the impression of joining the start of a very biographical story, but of course this scene was not the beginning of your transition process. Would you say this process started already when you worked on CCWT? From today's perspective, where do you see the connecting lines between CCWT and Seek Bromance?

SE: Transitioning is like editing: you don’t immediately know what you are building. It’s not until you look back with a gained perspective that the pattern of taste appears, that you can see how the steps were made. The »why« of it is a luxury of hindsight and not a prerequisite for the decision People are very storybased beings. The narrative of any trial or tribulation is: »It made me who I am today«. But a lot of our intentions might be undetectable outside of our little covens of care. We make up stories or images or gestures that elude the limits of what we were handed. Making it up as we go, becoming an artist of life itself.

TRANSITIONING IS LIKE EDITING: YOU DON’T IMMEDIATELY KNOW WHAT YOU ARE BUILDING. Samira Elagoz

»One is not born, but rather becomes a woman«, wrote Simone de Beauvoir. »It is civilisation as a whole that produces such a creature«. I conclude that men are as much imprisoned by gender norms, and are themselves victims of the doomed quest for mythical masculine certainties. Lately, I’ve been considering if I’d ever make an ode to masculinity. But where Cock, Cock... Who’s There? celebrated womanhood and insisted on making no excuses for it, such an approach is unconscionable with masculinity, as it is rife with toxic traps. No matter how hopeful you are about being a better man, you are bound to fall into some. And while Seek Bromance is in part an exploration of the kind of man each of us wanted to be, in the end, we realise the inherent failure in the pursuit of manliness.Not only because »traditional« masculine traits are linked to aggression, misogyny, etc. or because masculinity is missing a good role model. But because society shows me that masculinity is an unfulfillable ideal, a hallucination of command and control, and an illusion of mastery. I realised this experience, the absurd but crippling fear that one has not been man enough, or femme enough, or queer enough, that uncertain vulnerability, is something all people share. And the idea of masculine power will remain elusive for all men, whether you were assigned at birth or not.

SA: In Seek Bromance, we follow the story about a relationship between you and your filmpartner and collaborator Cade Moga. They are a brasilian artist who have been identifying as transmasculine at the beginning of the shooting and now identify as nonbinary, using they/them pronouns. »How do you experience men?«, is a question you’re asking Cade at one point. How would you answer this question?

SE: I’m sceptical of the idea of character types. But there is definitely a self-defeating model for being a man, a seemingly unresolvable crisis of masculinity. I did spend 10 years of my life filming men, on and off. And there is a soft place in my heart for them, hopeful and amused. I have often felt like a confidant to men.
Cause when a woman shares something very personal, you know she has probably shared it with other friends too, but when a man confides in you he is often hearing him self saying these things for the first time. That was always something very precious to me, to be that witness to things that come to the world for the first time. It made me see men have neither the space nor the language for these things.
When I first spoke with my friend about my transition, she said, »Isn’t it a bit fucked up to become a man now? Isn’t it revolutionary?« I replied, »Because you can become the man you wish existed.« To which she said, »Yeah, but you don’t want to live your life as an example. Don’t dedicate your existence to being a role model.«
I see myself more as a transmasculine entity than as a man, though. And even stepping into that form of masculinity carries a lot of responsibility. Cis men are usually bad examples of masculinity, they’ll appear a bit hopeless or ridiculous and unwilling to progress, so as a transmasculine I feel the burden is on me to be better while their crisis awaits its revolution.Like, what even is credible masculinity in 2022? I do think of men as being at a crossroads, there is certainly no good role model of masculinity. Still, everything I kind of believed about men I don’t believe any more. I definitely started understanding them more while doing testosterone.
As I’ve found transmasculines are not immune to toxic masculinity, it’s actually easy, dare I say tempting, to adopt that role, which can feel almost like a caricature when you do. I should clarify testosterone does not make one toxic, but the pressure to perform stereotypical masculinity might. When they are expected to »pass«, the most direct route is to perform cliched tropes, which are mostly pathetic and embarrassing displays of faux dominance.
At its best, trans masculinity can envision the future of masculinity. And at its worst, it mimics the failings of it, repeating harmful patterns, in a misguided need for legitimacy.

SA: One thing we did not speak about yet and which interests me very much is the aspect of self-inventing, body modification through technological progress, bioengineering. Cade calls it at one point a game of becoming one's own avatar. Can you say more about this?

SE: I like to approach this notion of self-design like scriptwriting, cause you are in control of what you want your »authentic« self to be. But while I very much believe biology is not destiny, we can’t escape the fact we are essentially a chemical concoction. Our bodies, thoughts and selves are almost entirely slave to the balance we strike. And if you change the chemistry, you change the person. Society created the idea of a non-intoxicated body, but that is fiction, it is always imbalanced, we are never neutral.
That’s why I started lowering my dose after the first year, to know how much of this change in mind and character is due to the substance, and how much of it is my environment and my new place in it. Because a big part of transitioning is social transitioning. And if you are alone in lockdown, taking hormones in your sweatpants, how much can actually change? The reflection of ourselves we see in others informs our sense of self to a much higher degree than people realise.
A term I’ve been drawn to is psychologically androgynous – I like it much. It pulls the notion out of the physical world of »presenting«, and into the meta world of »being«. I believe that term is the most accurate way to view myself. Or »custom gender«, which I find much more appropriate than non-binary. It gives creative power to the person: instead of saying »this is just who I am«. you’re saying »this is who I’m designing myself to be«. I often wonder if the term nonbinary will seem archaic at some point. Like, as soon as we recognised there are more than just the two, it meant nobody is binary, but just one of the many options available. And it’s completely appropriate you would assign your own labels. The experiences couldn’t be more subjective.Seeing representational systems collapse is very satisfying, as if, on a grander scale, these are growing pains of societal dissonance. Individuals wake to the notion that we can be more than the system has allowed, that our consciousness allows for evolutions far beyond what we are born into. The act of self-destruction is inexorably tied to the idea of becoming something new. It is a very universal metaphor, the idea that human beings are engaged in a constant process of destroying their old selves and creating new iterations and possibilities.

PERFORMING YOURSELF IS EASIER THAN BEING YOURSELF. Samira Elagoz

Personally, I don’t think anyone needs hormones to be trans, but one of the most interesting things about taking testosterone for a transmasculine is that we have another experience to compare it to. In my utopia, I think it would be very enlightening and do so much good if everyone tried out the non-dominant hormone in their body.

SA: As personal, intimate, tender and unscripted Seek Bromance seems, of course it is a piece of art, a work made by an artist. So there is also a brutal, well calculated, staged and public aspect, represented in form of the third protagonist: the camera. Is this also a dystopian layer – the entanglement of private and public or the Instagram influence on the way we experience intimacy?

SE: Performing yourself is easier than being yourself. And while this distinction is narrow, especially in this age, it is still there. The camera allows us to be less than the sum of our parts: we can focus on an angle, edit out the superfluous, create a moment that is separate from, and not tainted by, the whole. Seek Bromance is a perfect example of this, despite the frustrations and arguments, each scene we made provided a new moment to get something right. Like I mentioned before, I think a huge part of how we see ourselves is through the reflections we see in others, and the camera represents the hypothetical other. It sounds manipulative, but we get edited all the time. »The activist edit«. »The sexy edit«. »The I’m happy edit«. And while we do that to others automatically, it is hard to be the editor of yourself.
Both Cade and I have filmed ourselves a lot, and to an extent we live life as if it were a film. I tend to look at us as our own case study. Kind of like a painting commenting on itself.
In regards to the time we spent together, I think to this day neither of us is quite sure how much of our encounter was real and how much was performed. I think we were constantly doubting each other, tempering our emotions and expectations while simultaneously aggrandising our actions to say »yes, and« to the improvisational quality that every moment had.
At times it felt like we were characters from different movies. Each of us trying to pull the other into their frame.

SA: Virus and infection are also two themes of Seek Bromance. Not only because you captured the last two human beings in a deserted, post apocalyptic world, but also in the relationship between you and Cade, there is this infectious love or this will to become the beloved – some sort of love virus. Cade says at one point: “Most people want to fuck the thing they desire; I want to become the thing I desire.” How strong is this form of transformation to one another during Seek Bromance?

SE: It’s hard to say: I know there are things we each reluctantly adopted from the other, and things we wanted to aspire to but perhaps couldn’t pull off. But at the end of it all, I think there are more things we clashed over than things we could connect through. After I came back I really had to make sense of who I was without Cade’s presence. There was no going back to being who I was before Covid. But it is hard to figure out who you are in the isolation of a miserable lonely quarantine.
A lot about the work is about isolation and loneliness, and the loss of community, but there are many versions of me and Cade. There is a feeling that we were near the end of the world. As if we were the only two people on a planet, where everything else went extinct, the population wiped out by some plague... In this space we could not be infected by the world, only by each other. The desert really is one of the main protag-onists in the work. While I was editing, a friend told me: it’s almost a trans allegory, desert being the beginning of imagination.
Even though we were so close together, near 24/7, for three months, only by being separate could we come to understand each other.