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How Harvey Bigman's Experience as a Trans Woman Informs Her Art


  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Harvey Bigman

Eclectic Burlington artist Harvey Bigman launched Harvey.World (pronounced "Harvey dot World"), the newest project to enter her constellation of music, video art and performance art, in December. She presented two new pieces as part of Pushing a Brain Uphill II, an experimental music showcase at the BCA Center organized by local not-for-profit group Burlington Gull.

The first was a multiscreen VHS video art project. As it played, Bigman held vigil at a nearby folding table, keeping an eye on both the video and her audience.

"When I start a performance, there's an emotional arc that I like to try to explore that I've usually envisioned beforehand," explains Bigman, 26, in a recent interview with Seven Days. "There's a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, raw emotion."

There also are sometimes snacks.

The second piece in that BCA performance was a multimedia, multisensory experience centered on a dramatic reading of the closing scene from "The Host," an episode of the TV series "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Before it started, she distributed a bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips to her audience — her favorite snack to eat while watching "Star Trek." Meanwhile, a video of herself eating the same chips played directly behind her on a screen, her digital face washed out in the glow of what we can assume was the episode playing on her laptop.

The episode introduces the Trill, a race of parasitic aliens who move from body to body when their hosts can no longer sustain them. USS Enterprise crew member Dr. Beverly Crusher begins a love affair with Odan, a Trill inhabiting a male body. By the end of the episode, Odan has moved into a female host, which confuses the heterosexual Crusher.

"Perhaps it is a human failing, but we are not accustomed to these kinds of changes," says Crusher, before ultimately rejecting Odan in his new, female body. "Perhaps, someday, our ability to love won't be so limited."

Bigman declared the episode a missed opportunity to tell a compelling transgender story, calling Crusher's opinion of humankind's limited ability to love "bullshit."

A trans woman herself, Bigman largely fuels her art by the "emotional sludge" that she says has accumulated inside her, based on her own experiences with gender nonconformity and gender-based violence.

"[I'm] navigating how I can, as a queer person, present myself the way that I want to and dealing with the pushback that comes with that," she says.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Harvey Bigman

Born in West Hartford, Conn., Bigman began toying with synthesizers while studying at the University of Vermont between 2009 and 2013. Before moving into solo work, she played with bands such as the indie-pop outfits Toy Boat, Fridge and the Spin$, and Dungeon Jungle (FKA Ronin Shogunate). The last is an experimental noise outfit through which she began to develop her own abstract music.

The distinction between Harvey Bigman and Harvey.World is murky and nuanced. But in both projects, her music is miles away from pop — it's more like sound collage. She's drawn to granular feedback sounds, pitch-bent vocals and cascades of noise.

Her latest release as Harvey Bigman, Glassy Vision, is both a video project and a cassette recording released through Como Tapes, another not-for-profit entity associated with Burlington Gull. It's a response to an incident that occurred in summer 2016. Bigman was verbally assaulted in broad daylight on Burlington's Church Street, right in front of her workplace, Uncommon Grounds Coffee and Tea.

"This person came up and just spewed the most disgusting, horrible things. I've never felt such a level of fear," she recalls. "This person was just looking at me in this way that they meant to do me harm."

The incident inspired a realization.

"I had this conception that [being trans and gender-nonconforming] would be hard for a while, but I would find these tools that would allow me to kind of process and deal with it," Bigman explains, referring to the "emotional trash fire" that ignites when she experiences discrimination.

She describes Glassy Vision as "kind of mourning the idea [that] I can live lightly and happily, and accepting this darker reality that things don't get easier." She notes that she frequently experiences the threat of violence through verbal language, body language and tone of voice.

No track on the new album sums up this dark epiphany as succinctly as "It Doesn't Get Easier." An old-school, eight-bit beat ticks by as Bigman's voice tweaks and bends low and high, repeating the title phrase. Similar in subject matter, "Rising Out of Bed to Get Knocked on My Ass" pits her voice against a gradually ascending and descending grouping of synth tones.

The album cover directly ties into Bigman's assault. On Church Street, a camera located at its Cherry Street intersection constantly streams live footage to YouTube. Bigman planted herself in the camera's field of vision, mere steps from where she was assaulted, screen-capturing the footage on her laptop. It's a confrontational image that plays on the scrutiny she says she's experienced. It is also a personal reclamation of the space in which Bigman was violated.

The video version of Glassy Vision is presented as a continuous 16-minute, abstract short film. In the piece, Bigman never fully reveals herself. Instead, she is obscured with colorful, test-pattern-style analog visuals.

"I appreciate the ephemeral quality of VHS," says Bigman, referring to her preferred medium and its finite shelf life. "I love the mechanical aspect, the tactile experience of using a VCR. Conceptualizing something on a tape rather than a computer is easier for me. I'm at a point right now where I appreciate the technology, but I'm looking for ways to embrace certain aspects of digital technology that are useful."

Bigman doesn't like to dwell on her pieces for too long.

"It's really hard for me to work on something more than a day or two," she says. "Most of the stuff I've produced, including Glassy Vision, was made in less than a week. After that point, I can't touch it anymore. Otherwise, I start to think about it too much and question it," she continues. "I think I'm most satisfied with what I've produced when I'm thinking about it the least."

Bigman notes that her work isn't exclusively dour and dire.

"I don't want my art to be informed solely by this experience of violence and gender identity. I want it to also include goofiness and weirdness and softness," she says.

Pieces such as "Kittyface" do just that. The composition sounds like the opening theme music to a Commodore 64 computer game. And then there's "Hot Dog Eating Contest," which is literally a live recording of a hot-dog-eating contest for which Bigman served as MC. But the heart of her work is her identity and the mess of questions and emotions that come with it.

"Something I struggle with sometimes in performing is [the question]: How am I performing queerness in this moment?" she says. "Are these people viewing me as an other? Are these non-queer people who are viewing me as this thing? Or are these other queer people who will be able to understand the subtleties of the experience I may be expressing?"

The original print version of this article was headlined "Harvey's World"