"Autobiography is always fiction and fiction is always autobiographic"
La JohnJoseph is one of those queer performance creatures who defies definition and elusively shapeshifts between artistic mediums and personae entrancing all in their wake. Autobiographic theatre, an award winning novel, opera, electropop: everything that they do reeks of queer art genius and subversive beauty. With a new show, ‘GEIST’, at the Arcola next month, Loverboy’s Corinna Tomrley attempted to pin down La JJ in a discussion about gender slippage, queer and class, and being the fictional un/dead.
Use five words to describe Alexander Geist.
Lugubrious, terpsichorean, valetudinarian, ineluctable, diaphanous.
Where did your concept for Alexander Geist come from?
Alexander Geist is a composite of a figure I saw in an Otto Dix painting, soldered onto Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night”. He’s part classic movie star, part archetypal rock star, and shot through with some modernist literary musings on time. I’m trying to draw a character who is highly stylised, whose behavioral and gestural codes we recognise, but one who is clearly using them to mislead or at least beguile.
One of my favourite lines is ‘You ask me what my gender is and I say, “Katharine Hepburn”’. So much of Alexander Geist is exploring the slippages of genders, isn’t it?
Yes, everything I’ve ever done has been about exploring my own gender dysphoria, and with Geist I’ve fictionalised that so I can comment on it, shall we say, more objectively.
The Hepburn ref also evokes the playing with gender that goes right back to old Hollywood – Dietrich, Hepburn, Garbo et al. Artists since have drawn from their queer glamour. Is Alexander Geist an embodiment of this aesthetic?
Totally, Alexander Geist definitely comes from that lineage of queer glamour. Justin Vivian Bond wrote V’s MA thesis on radical glamour and it’s always been a theme very important to me. Glamour is linguistically born from the same route as “magic”, which is crucial in understanding how queer people use glamour to transform and protect themselves, as well as to subdue would be aggressors. Hepburn is very important to me; I model my own gender on her.
The others in your Alexander Geist videos are incredible creatures. You all evoke the most gloriously specific dream feeling of a world; where do you find them all?
Well lover, to quote Janet Jackson: “I’ve seen the world, been to many places, had lots of friends, many different races.” All of my co-stars are friends, people I’ve met in clubs or at performances. One of the most beautiful things about being Alexander Geist has been how easy it is to make friends as him, how naturally people are drawn to him.
There’s a reference to vampirism (a coffin full of dirt); Is Alexander Geist the undead?
The premise of the new show ‘GEIST’ imagines that Alexander is dead and lets the audience try to unravel how it happened. So yes, he’s undead, although he was never really alive! It’s funny, I referred to him as my fictional alter-ego recently and the person I was speaking to said, “he’s only fictitious to you. To a lot of people, he’s real.” That was strange.
Can we expect more novels?
Jeez, I am desperate to write another book. I’ve sketched out two but setting aside the space to do it is another matter entirely…
I have to say, I adore the creativity of your single releases – the poster, the love letter with a download code – this is not only a beautiful thing but even your single releases are pieces of art.
The music industry is in a state of flux and everything becomes about digital downloads and streaming. But there’s no romance to those things, lover, there’s no tactile engagement, no real artwork, which for me was always a part of the theatrics if pop. I wanted to release music in a way that was a bit more thoughtful and invent new formats which carry over the concerns of the music into the physical release.
Your work is multifaceted and – as you say on your Website – interdisciplinary. Are you a renaissance pervert, an art slut, or is it just that you are compelled to explore every medium for your message?
Art slut, maybe. I’m just a naturally inquisitive person and I don’t want to be defined by any one style of work at this point in my life. It’s exciting to be so free, though I recognise the drawbacks. People have asked why once I’ve started to build a reputation as a writer I would start to make music and then hop off again to something new. I guess I work in the medium of self-sabotage!
You discuss class a lot in your work. I’d say that class is something that’s under-explored in queer culture. Would you agree?
Class operates in a strange way in the queer world because that world is not exactly classless, but allows for greater fluidity between class boundaries than in the straight world. I’ve met billionaires and street hustlers in the same night at gay parties and that doesn’t seem to happen to my straight friends who generally socialise within their tax bracket for the most part. However, I think it’s extremely important to recognise that impoverished queers face much greater challenges than their more affluent siblings, and can often be marginalised by the insatiable gay commodity fetish.
You’ve explored your biography in your work and also work in fiction. Is there a necessary overlap? Is your oeuvre all La JohnJoseph in different guises?
Autobiography is always fiction and fiction is always autobiographic. The only difference is the sales pitch. I’d say La JohnJoseph is a guise even, the curated camera ready version of me, not the one in the Kermit the frog pjs.
What’s next for you?
After ‘GEIST’ in July I’m going back to Berlin for an opera role. I’m playing one of the leads in ‘Gianni’ at Deutsche Oper. It’s a new piece, the music’s great and the musicians are a scream.
What’s your favourite Mariah Carey song?
That’s tough! I’m split between “My All” and “Obsessed”, though “Shake it Off” is pretty fab – and “Heartbreaker” too. Oh and “Touch My Body” – there are too many! Can I just make a playlist?
Top image of Alexander Geist by Amnon Friedman, second image of Alexander Geist by Alexa Vachon