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Subverting the Erect Penis: How Trans Artist niv Acosta Challenges Masculinity

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niv Acosta in DISCOTROPIC. Photo by Dajana Lothert.

Look up trailblazer in the dictionary and right next to it you’ll find an animated GIF of New York-based performance artist niv Acosta twerking for all eternity.

Acosta, a transgender dance artist and activist who studied at CalArts and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, creates work that fuses politics, bodies, and black queerness.

“As a trans queer black person,” Acosta says, “I am seeking an opportunity to uplift my own community.”

This past summer Acosta unveiled his stunning DISCOTROPIC series in Berlin as part of the Tanz im August International Festival of Dance. Based on Star Wars and complete with twerking, spoken word, a hologram of the opulent and everlasting Diahann Carroll, and a booming soundtrack courtesy of New York-based producer TYGAPAW, DISCOTROPIC is a piece that engages queer politics and Afrofuturism and puts science fiction and disco in touch with the black American experience.

Out caught up with Acosta and talked about twerking, queer nightlife, and how art can revolutionize the penis.

Out: I was struck this summer by your DISCOTROPIC performance piece that was featured in the Tanz im August International Dance Festival in Berlin. What was your goal behind that piece?

niv Acosta: I have several agendas in my work and in my activism, and the central most prominent agenda is to center the voices and experiences of African diasporic people. I am only a facilitator of the space whereas other people would be directors of the space. I identify more as a facilitator. I’m creating a space where we can all be relaxed and find joy and laughter and happiness and play. That’s when I do my best work, and that feels a very important aspect of being black: finding ways to unwind in space that would otherwise be a trigger.

Niv Acosta Discotropic 095

What was so compelling to me was the works’ strong connection to club culture and nightlife. But gay bars and clubs are closing all over the world. Do you find there’s still value in queer nightlife?

I’ve been in some very transformative queer club spaces. It’s been amazing to go to parties like Papi Juice or Fake Accent.

When did you first start going clubbing?

Pretty young, like 16. Which is awesome because being in New York and clubbing as a teenager was a lot of fun. Club spaces for me are extremely transformative, just like a church space or a protest. Spaces where people gather together are spaces that are extremely energizing and are sites for a lot of change and transformation. I love a club situation because I love the energy that can happen in those spaces and the way that movement is such an ancestral way of connecting with other people. I love to move with other people. A club space can equalize a room in a really intense way because nothing can really do that, ever. A dark room with blinding sound—

And poppin' beats.

Yeah! You are literally a vibrating sack of water.

Speaking of vibrating, there was a lot of twerking going on in DISCOTROPIC and I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the labor and muscles it takes to move your ass that way.

That aspect of your body is an aspect that’s hyper feminized and therefore wants to be locked away by society. To twerk is a direct resistance to that action because it’s either hyper sexualized or it’s boxed away. There’s no spectrum in between. There’s nothing else for the ass to do. When you twerk for 20 minutes people can literally lock in and watch that happen like you’re watching the ocean.

Do you mean like zoning out and feeling removed from the experience even as you’re watching it happen?

When you’re watching someone move their ass in a skilled way for an extended amount of time you’re going to be entrapped. And there’s a reason for that. Like water, or like watching a body of water, the ass has energy. It has a knowledge, something we are not used to seeing. The twerking aspect of this performance is very much meditative. We’re doing it for 10, 12 minutes, and it’s meditative as fuck.

If you know how to practice twerking in a sustainable way for your body and you know how to manage your body and hold your form in a way that is least impactful, it can be very energizing. Twerking is like doing a fucking yoga class! You got that Kundalini energy all up in there—it’s like khuntdalini energy. That’s that khuntdalini energy.

Yes, I love it!

Twerking is a direct subversion of the perversity of phallic culture and the toxicity of masculinity.

Among your other ongoing projects are the Limp Phalluses and the Dickscape: Denim Couches series. Do you also see these as a subversion of dick culture?

Let’s talk about the subversion of the dick form. Let’s talk how the predominant image of a penis is an erect penis. A limp penis is very much one that carries a lot of femininity and is therefore tied to shame and pain. When I built those I was in a moment when I was thinking about packing because I thought maybe it would affirm my gender in a way that I hadn’t felt that I had present in my life yet, so I started looking into how to pack. What was available were these packers that were “skin tone.” I was like, what?! And then the ones that were “darker skin tone” were so shit as well. There’s no personality to these at all! Penises are meant to have personality, and so the Dickscapes are meant to be subverting the conversation on how obtrusive penises can be. It’s meant to be sculptural and practical. You can put it in your pants. I’ve been making them by hand which means they’re each individual. Each of them has their own personality. And they’re fun colors, not these boring ass “skin tones.” I want a purple penis! I want a penis with patterns!

Acosta Penis

Photos by Justin Fulton.

You’ve got me thinking about that aisle in the sex shop with all the dildos in different shapes. The ones that offend me are the “skin tone” ones that are black, but of course they’re like 12-inches long. I see them and I’m all, oh.

I know! What the fuck is up with that shit? There’s literally nowhere to go to get exactly what I want so I just had to make it. I started with found fabrics at first and then from that I expanded and now there’s full sized couches on tour. The denim couches are another way to subvert the erect penis. They’re low to the ground, very cuddly, super soft and really comfortable to sit on. What’s nice is sitting on a structure that’s intentionally phallic that’s also creating a very comfortable experience for you is a super revolutionary thing. No one realizes how painful sex with penis is for most people. To reason myself to say, Hey niv, it’s okay to have a penis because your penis will not be violent and it will not be oppressive. That’s a very intense thing to have to tell yourself and even to have to teach other people.

niv Acosta will perform CLAPBACK on December 1 at the IMT Gallery in London. Watch a trailer below:

Madison Moore is a London-based pop culture critic. Follow him on Instagram @madisonmooreonline

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