Cassils, Tiresias (2010). Performance, sculpture and video, L.A.C.E. Los Angeles, 2010

Cassils, Tiresias (2010). Performance, sculpture and video, L.A.C.E. Los Angeles, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

Shaun Dacey



CASSILS IS A MYTHICAL FIGURE. You may have heard about their infiltration and subversion of a Vanessa Beecroft performance as part of Toxic Titties, or noticed them as a muscular inmate in Lady Gaga’s Telephone (Jonas Åkerlund, 2010) music video, or seen images of their 23 week transformative performance to gain 23 pounds of muscle. Cassils’s practice intersects trans/queer activism, physical performance and the gendered aesthetics of current popular culture. Queering the objectified masculine aesthetics of Hollywood and classical antiquity and appropriating conceptual, minimalist and feminist practices of the 1960s and 1970s, Cassils succinctly makes visible the complexities of trans subjectivity. Their work is a celebration of existing beyond the purported safety of heteronormativity while simultaneously interrogating the media manufacture of glossy, consumable images of Trans/queer bodies. This presentation is defiant, in opposition to a culture of fear and repression that sears with transphobic rhetoric and heightened surveillance that belittles and demeans gender non-conforming people. At this moment, the current fight for trans rights is centered on the use of public restrooms. Lawmakers and religious leaders engage in tactics of fear mongering to perpetuate the presumption of gender binaries. Institutional entities are enforcing trans people to publicly present themselves. Cassils’s practice is an integral subversion of current gender and queer subjectivity in popular consciousness.

Speaking with fellow queer artist Zac Blas for Little Joe Magazine, Cassils outlines a modus to question the visibility of queer bodies. Referencing Jack Halberstam’s concept of queer darkness, Cassils seeks to abstract queer identity and trauma. They state, “Queer darkness is the refusal to cohere, to become legible, to see like a state.”1 In this suspension of ambiguity Cassils envisions “…an opportunity for resistance, protest, and struggle.”2 Their body of work is both overt in its visibility yet calculating in its purposeful abstracting or concealing of trans bodies/traumas countering and controlling the voyeuristic gaze. This interest in anti-representational tactics is both aesthetic and activist. They propose “…a queer refusal of being identified by a subcategory as it gives us recognition by a state that will collect and use our data to identify, categorise and control us.”3 Scholar and former Toxic Titties collaborator Julia Steinmetz asks, “What if rather than being called on to represent a pre-existing group or minoritarian position, artists called together new social and political formations through transformational artistic experiences?”4 Key to this is a conceptualization of how Cassils’s performances and images circulate in digital and print media. They utilize media forms as a means to empower subjective control over their transgender visibility. To be honest, I have never actually experienced a Cassils performance in the flesh. As much as that is an integral element of the work, so is the fact that I accessed said work through YouTube, or in a fashion magazine, or heard about it from a friend.

With the general acceptance of gay/queer/trans subjectivities in the western world now enters the capitalist appropriation of our cultures. We are consumer targets with disposable incomes and marketable wants and desires. In response, Cassils sees a potential in playing with “…the obtuse and unrecognizable,”5 proposing abstraction as a political position. Their work is both stark in its use of nudity yet purposeful and controlled in how their body is presented. With brazen theatrics the performances and sculpture they produce counter hegemonic and static gender positions, laying bare subjective and objective bodily aesthetics that instill want and desire.

Following are a series of short responses to individual works by Cassils, each is provisional and considered in our currently political/cultural frame. As time passes and general perceptions on gender shift these works will also contort and shift.

TIRESIAS (2010–2013)

In Greek mythology, Tiresias came upon a pair of copulating snakes, and he hit the pair with his stick. Displeased by this act, Hera, the goddess of women, punished him, transforming him into a woman. Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, a blind prophet and a married women who had children. After seven years as a woman, Tiresias again found herself confronted by a pair of mating snakes. Depending on the myth one reads, either she made sure to leave the snakes alone, or trampled on them. Regardless, Tiresias was transformed back to their male form.

Cassils’s Tiresias engages the act of existing within transition. It is a five hour act of endurance in which the artist presses their body up against the back of a neoclassical Greek male torso carved out of ice. The artist’s bodily contact with the frozen classical male form physically and visually fuses the two bodies together, as the ice slowly melts away. Through the translucent melting ice is a convergence of bodies. The artist’s transitional body insists on an instability of the physical and cultural norms of beauty coupled with the extreme desire to attain a certain physique. Cassils is “…recasting the myth of Tiresias as a story of endurance and transformation, Cassils performs the resolve required to persist at the point of contact between masculine and feminine.”6 This act highlights the mind and body’s physical endurance to persist in pursuit of culturally prescribed desires, conflating the spectacle of a naked trans body, alongside masculine body dysmorphia,7 and timeless historic narratives of gender fluidity.8 The piece enacts a recasting of Cassils’s trans form as the ultimate male body making the transitional simultaneously visible and invisible, a moment of passibility and an abstraction of their subjectivity.


In an empty parking lot lit by car headlights, Cassils’s naked body grapples with an invisible presence. A group of onlookers surround the transgression, witnessing the body as it is thrown across the ground, slammed against concrete columns and smashed into a car hood. Their body is enraptured in a tortuous battle. Cassils releases guttural screams signalling both pain and overt aggression.

Still images of Cassils performing Powers That Be at the Broad Museum, Los Angeles, April 2, 2016.

Still images of Cassils performing Powers That Be at the Broad Museum, Los Angeles, April 2, 2016.

Still images of Cassils performing Powers That Be at the Broad Museum, Los Angeles, April 2, 2016.

Still images of Cassils performing Powers That Be at the Broad Museum, Los Angeles, April 2, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

The Powers That Be is a spectacle of brute force, both a visual representation of physical abuse and a visual metaphor for unrepresentable trauma to trans bodies. The scene is captured on audience smartphones, projected on live feeds and posts across social media platforms. It is a live performance designed to be consumed, digitally captured by spectators and disseminated online, dirtying the grey area between witness and aggressor. Now viewable on YouTube the documentation utilizes footage shot professionally and intercut with the amateur video footage. The performance envisions a perpetual feedback loop of fantasy violence consumed as entertainment, presenting a live act that will then circulate on the web detached from its art world context, the viewer/poster a complicit bystander.

To produce the piece, Cassils collaborated with Hollywood fight choreographer Mark Steger to stage a two-person fight performed by the artist sparring with themself. Cassils’s muscular body enacts a duality of its own among victim and aggressor. Through the fight, Cassils shifts from being beaten to taking control and pummelling the invisible aggressor. First presented by the Broad Museum in Los Angeles it is a choreographed assemblage of visceral re-enactment and hammed-up hollywood stunt work. It is a hair-raising spectacle for the viewer, witnessing violence unfold in front of them. Cassils presents a full sensory experience. Their enactment is vivid in its intense anger and physical commitment to deliver

Cassils, Becoming An Image (ONE National Archives, Transactivations, Los Angeles) (2012). C-print face mounted to Plexiglas

Cassils, Becoming An Image (ONE National Archives, Transactivations, Los Angeles) (2012). C-print face mounted to Plexiglas, 114.3 x 76.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

Cassils, Resilience of the 20 percent (2016). Bronze cast of clay from Becoming an Image performance.

Cassils, Resilience of the 20 percent (2016). Bronze cast of clay from Becoming an Image performance. Photo by Vince Ruvolo, courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

authentic brutality. Beyond the guttural shrieks emitting from their own body which easily provoke the audience, the radios of the surrounding muscle cars broadcast a multi-channel score of static noise and radio samples designed by artist Kadet Kuhne. This element amplifies the socio-political tensions at each performance location. The radio signals are a transmission of site-specific issues, both proximate and distant. As stated on Cassils’s website:

In Los Angeles, Cassils and Kuhne simulated a local radio dial to illuminate oppressive and oppressed forces in contemporary US culture. Transmissions about #BlackLivesMatter, a woman’s right to choose, and violence against the LGBTQ community mixed with hacked sections of The Broad’s audio guides and random radio samples. This sonic backdrop informed and contextualized Cassils’s performance movement, highlighting the cyclical forces that govern and regulate the bodies of “others.”9

Powers that Be utilizes the Hollywood spectacle of violence harnessed to question our complicity within its cyclical loop between dramatization and real life acts, the line between the two seems to be becoming more and more blurred.

Cassils, Monument Push (2017). Performance Document, Omaha, Nebraska, 2017.

Cassils, Monument Push (2017). Performance Document, Omaha, Nebraska, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery.


In a darkened room the audience senses movement. Without warning a body slams itself against another. A fight has ensued. A flash of light exposes the scene, a muscular body propelling itself with full force against a clay monolith. The artist pounds the solid form, blistering its surface with punch holes, elbow marks and imprints of kicks. The flash from a camera exposes the mayhem for those watching.

Becoming an Image is an ongoing multi part project that encompasses process, performance, community action and dialogue. It began with a singular act, Cassils’s attack on a 2000 pound clay block. The artist describes the scene; “You feel the air cut across you as I slice through it, you can also smell sweat and wet clay, and hear what sounds like a mix between fucking and someone having the shit beat out of them. It is both destructive and generative.”10

What is left is a material register of the action. The once flat smooth wet clay is now warped. An abstract sculpture, a monument, a response, Cassils asserts that it “… speak[s] to a transgender experience that imagines a body that is un-foreclosed.”11 Also remaining are a series of photographic images depicting Cassils sweating, grimacing, and flying through the in air in a frenzied state. The trans body as a primal force, pounding flesh into a block of earth. A site-specific piece for the ONEArchives in Los Angeles, the oldest active LGBTQ2S archive in the United States, Becoming an Image memorializes the innumerable LGBTQ2S lives lost in a culture of violence, discrimination and forced erasure of queer bodies.

The monumental sculpture left from the performance is a record of physical struggle and ongoing frustration. Since the original clay work was created, Cassils has used it as a mold to develop other sculptures in concrete, bronze and gold. This series, titled The Resilience of the 20% further explores the act of memorialization. It responds to a startling statistic: in 2012, murders of trans men and women around the world increased by 20 percent.12 The sculptures are a direct response this shocking statistic. Zac Blas highlights this; “I’m struck thinking about your sculptures as fragments of bodily imprints that add up, so they read as a multiplicity, a collective struggle.”13 He purports that this act of abstraction is a queer process of critical distancing, separated from trans identification and expanded into a broader dialogue of trauma and its representation.14

As the series has grown, Cassils has considered their role within collective struggle for trans people through group discussion and collaborative performance. In the fall of 2016, Cassils held a fellowship teaching position at Syracuse University (SU). While there, they produced a bronze cast of The Resilience of the 20% assisted by students. During their time at SU, Sarah Kench, a transgender woman of colour and former student committed suicide. Artist and SU professor Emily Vey Duke wrote about Cassils’s fellowship and the tragic loss of Sarah for the online publication Momus. Vey Duke vividly describes the struggles Sarah endured in her daily life. Whether navigating bureaucracy at school, working shifts at a restaurant, or renewing government documentation, at each step Sarah encountered bigotry, discrimination and violent acts that blocked or slowed her passage. Cassils attending her funeral with a few other professors who knew Sarah. There was no mention of her death on campus, no newsletter or obituary. It was as if she had never existed at SU. Later that year Cassils was invited to deliver a convocation speech. They took the opportunity to share Sarah’s story. Cassils states, “Not being seen, acknowledged or celebrated or remembered works as a slow subtle form of erosion, not to just Sarah, but to people like Sarah. Complacency is a form of violence.”15 In the aftermath, Cassils with a group of SU students produced a memorial to Sarah, pounding her name into a brass ingot and installing it within a mossy outcrop on Green Lakes where she died. Vey Duke was struck by Cassils’s presence and its intersection with their work. She states, “Cassils’ conspicuous and subversive hero- play strains to restore agency to a subject frequently denied a voice.”16 Speaking with Cassils regarding this experience at SU via email Cassils responded “I’m no hero but I believe in leveraging our privilege when we can. I believe in speaking truth to power. I’m also acutely aware that as a trans artists it is important for me to consider the massive chasm between my lived experience and the experience of violence subjected on trans women of colour. I won’t say I haven’t had my brushes with violence and transphobia, but I don’t think it’s fair to stand in for all trans experience and so often I am put in the position of doing so.”17

Cassils has continued these interactions as the production of the series continues. On a cold and wet April day in 2017, Cassils and a group of queer community members and activists pushed one of the 2,000 pound monuments on wheels along a four hour, 1.5 mile route through Omaha, Nebraska. Monumental Push (2017) was organized with the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and took weeks of research, conversations and consultation with queer BIPOC and white community members in Omaha. Cassils selected key sites to stop at along the route, including the location of a 2013 gay-related hate crime; the Douglas County Correctional Center, where incarcerated queer youth are often placed in solitary confinement ; and the route of the first Omaha Gay Pride Parade of 1985.18 A documentary style video piece was created connecting footage of the conversations held in planning the event alongside the actual Monument Push. Local Omahian’s shared their stories of queer trauma and community resilience. The collaborative energy expended pushing the piece of bronze makes apparent the specifics of a resistance.


In 2017 the Trump administration rescinded an “… Obama era executive order that endorsed the rights of transgendered students to use the bathroom of they know themselves to be.”19 Since this change in policy, Cassils has not used a public bathroom, instead they carry with them a bottle to collect their urine. Months later, at their solo exhibition at Ronald Feldman Gallery in NYC, the artist stands before a crowd of onlookers from a high pedestal. Surrounding Cassils is their installation Pissed, a minimalist glass cube containing 200 gallons of the artist’s urine and a wall installation consisting hundreds of identical clinical plastic bottles each containing their urine. The installation evokes overt masculinist strategies such as minimalist sculptural traditions of Donald Judd and the provocative and grotesque gestures reminiscent of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Cassils collides these art lineages with the current political, judicial and daily battles for transgendered people across America and beyond. At the opening reception, glaring confidently out at the audience from atop their pedestal, Cassils drank water, onlookers caught in anticipation. It was a performance of pure display where the crowd awaited the artist to urinate. Accompanying the installation, audio gathered from the testimony of the Virginia school board at the Fourth US Circuit Court of appeals proceedings involving transgendered student Gavin Grimm suing his school for the right to use the appropriate bathroom.20 This performance and the electricity of the room is described by critic and queer art historian David J. Getsy: “It was a sympathetic crowd, but there was still an anxious buzz in the room when it appeared that the urination was about to happen.” He continues, “Cassils capitalized on the fascination with the vulnerable act of urinating (and, by extension, with the transgendered body) to compel the audience to stare at the artist.”21

For Getsy, Cassils captures the audience’s gaze, holding them in an intensive moment of both witnessing and solidarity. This work is confrontational in its artist’s stance. Surrounding Cassils is the physical material that represents every moment that they have had to consider where they are, who is watching them, what potential confrontation is ahead. It provokes the universal experience of having to hold one’s pee, coupled with the sinister reality of the trans experience. Cassils’s work incites voyeurism in order to subvert. They solicit the viewers gaze confronting our culture’s ease at objectifying bodies. The piece flips the politics of surveillance, control and policing of transgender bodies. Getsy describes the installation and performance as providing a “defiant material presence that resists the ways in which privacy has been weaponized against trans lives.”22 Cassils stands defiantly, on display, presenting their body. In this situation the trans person is the one harnessing control as an active protest and confrontation.

Cassils, Fountain (2017). Performance still from Cassils’s closing action of 200 day durational performance PISSED

Cassils, Fountain (2017). Performance still from Cassils’s closing action of 200 day durational performance PISSED. Photo by Vince Ruvolo, courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

Cassils’s work on the surface can feel provocatively literal. With its appropriation of tried and true performance art strategies coupled with the its impassioned body politics the work has a far reaching accessible allure. Yet what at first may seem vulgar theatrics is a layered strategic act to assert control of subjectivity. They accentuate the potential found within Trans experience. Cassils proposes “… the body as a mutable living organism we can manipulate and ‘hack’ alongside the development of new technologies created to identify and control.”23 They offer an experience of being in transition, not foreclosed or static. Cassils’s performances and sculptural works are open and generative to larger collective struggles. They encite shared witnessing as a strategy to shake the viewer out of their complacent state.


  1. Zach Blas and Cassils, “Queer Darkness,” Little Joe 5 (2016): 191.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 194.
  4. Ibid., 192.
  5. Ibid., 194.
  6. Cassils, “Tiresias,” Cassils’s website, (accessed 4 July 2019).
  7. Jessie Gill, “‘Bigorexia’ Is Plaguing the Bodybuilding Community,” Vice, April 28, 2017,
  8. For more on ancient greek gender politics see: Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World by David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, Froma I. Zeitlin; The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece by John J. Winkler; One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and Other Essays on Greek Love by David M. Halperin.
  9. Cassils, “The Powers That Be,” Cassils’s website (accessed 4 July 2019
  10. Ibid.
  11. David Getsy, “Cassils,” Artforum, February 2018,
  12. Zach Blas and Cassils, “Queer Darkness,” Little Joe 5 (2016): 194.
  13. Ibid., 192.
  14. Email correspondence with Cassils April, 2019.
  15. Emily Vey Duke, “Cassils and the Complicated Rhetoric of the Hero,” Momus, February 9, 2017. (accessed July 4, 2019).
  16. Email correspondence with Cassils April, 2019.
  17. Karen Emenhiser-Harris, “A 1,900-Pound Sculpture Pushed Through the Streets of Omaha, in Tribute to Its LGBTQ History,” Hyperallergic, May 5, 2017,
  18. David Getsy, “Cassils,” Artforum, February 2018,
  19. Matt Steven, “Transgender Student in Bathroom Dispute Wins Court Ruling,” New York Times, May 22, 2018,
  20. David Getsy, “Cassils,” Artforum, February 2018,
  21. Ibid.
  22. Zach Blas and Cassils, “Queer Darkness,” Little Joe 5 (2016): 200
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