- Courtesy Photo
- Princess: Alexis Gideon (left) and Michael O'Neill
The science fiction genre lends itself to examining societal flaws and social issues — and how we might go about changing them if we only had the means. By viewing the world through a fantastical lens, certain truths can often be sifted out of the din of contemporary life.
Princess, the Brooklyn-based avant-garde electro-rap duo of Alexis Gideon and Michael O'Neill, explore some heady concepts in their audiovisual performance-art piece Out There. The sci-fi, feminist rock opera comprises an hourlong animated video paired with simultaneous live musical performance. It examines the mystical notion of the Divine Feminine, the intersections of masculinity and femininity, and the role that men ought to play in the current cultural reckoning.
Princess collaborated on the rock opera with Brooklyn indie band TEEN and visual artist Jennifer Meridian, as well as JD Samson of Le Tigre and MEN. (O'Neill is also a member of MEN.) Through these partnerships, Gideon and O'Neill expanded the project's narrative and execution far beyond what they had originally intended.
Confused? That's OK. Seven Days recently caught up with O'Neill by phone to find out more. Princess perform Out There on Saturday, March 23, at the BCA Center in Burlington.
SEVEN DAYS: In your press release you write, "Princess embodies the fluidity and coherence between the seemingly contradictory." Could you unpack that a little bit?
MICHAEL O'NEILL: I think we can apply that to different things, [such as] music. Is this hip-hop or is this rock? Is this pop or avant-garde? In terms of our gender expression, why are [we] wearing women's clothes? What's that all about? Or even just this piece, in general. Is this a music project? Is this a video project? Is this an art project? Things that don't feel like they can go together are the places in which we try to make something new.
SD: You also hint that you seek to occupy gay, straight, queer, masculine and feminine spaces. How do you do that effectively and sensitively?
MO: I think just through our lives. I identify as queer because I think it's the broadest and most encompassing of all the concepts or versions of sexuality. I also use [the term queer] because I don't think it applies merely to sexuality. In my personal life, I've just been open to experiencing everything that is possible, whether that's a specific relationship or being open to — or taking interest in — people of all walks of life. I think it's just about being open.
SD: Does that come through in the performance?
MO: I think so. I think people will have a hard time pinpointing are [we] this or are [we] that. Is this this? Is this that? I think that question mark is what I am most interested in. To be comfortable not knowing is the key to acceptance. I think when people get fixated on pigeonholing or identifying or narrowing in on something just so they can understand it is sometimes where the problems can occur.
SD: Talk a little bit about the contributions from your musical collaborators, TEEN and JD Samson.
MO: When we were trying to find a female vocal representation for what we call the Divine Feminine in this piece, TEEN kind of stood out to us. Their harmonies are amazing. [Our] vision of the songs completely changed when they entered the studio. [TEEN and JD Samson] just brought whole new ideas or whole new vocal melodies that we hadn't thought of.
I tell that story because it exemplifies the process of making Out There, in the sense that the whole thing is about men learning to step aside in natural positions of power to allow women's voices to emerge, and to make space for women to share that power. In the process itself, we've seen that by virtue of their voices and ideas taking the place of the ones we originally [had].
SD: Can you define the Divine Feminine as you see it?
MO: In a nutshell, I think it's feminine energy, or the feeling associated with feminine energy. That can mean a lot of different things. And I don't necessarily think to be feminine is one thing or to be female is one thing, or that men can't also possess feminine energy. I think that's what we're trying to get to here, for men to really embrace femininity and the energy that we associate to be feminine because they've been so separated within the patriarchal society we live in. But if we think of them grander and more as bigger, energetic entities, masculine and feminine are two worlds in which any person of any gender or body can possess.
SD: OK. Author Suzanne Kingsbury, who is a major name in the study of the Divine Feminine, defines it using qualities like creation, intuition and community. How is it not reductive to view things through this sort of traditional binary?
MO: We live within the confines of the reality that has been bestowed upon us.
SD: Yes, I 100 percent agree with you there.
MO: This is how we understand it at this point. But I agree with you. Breaking free from all of that would probably be the ultimate end goal. But to make sense of it, we have to look at the cards in front of us and kind of sort them out.
SD: I don't want you to spoil the whole performance, but can you give an example of how that is visualized or expressed?
MO: The whole thing is kind of a farce, in which the heroes — which are fictitious versions of ourselves — proclaim Earth to be this misogynistic dystopia. We think we're gonna get on a rocket ship and find a better world and bring it back to Earth. We're gonna be the ones to save the day.
But in the end, what happens to Princess is that they realize the change they're trying to bring forth isn't something that they can actively bestow upon everybody else. It's something that they have to find within themselves. By letting go of their own egos, they create this space for the Divine Feminine to take more of a powerful role on Earth.
SD: But isn't there a paradox when two men set out to create art that, on the one hand, is about examining masculinity and misogyny, but also is about stepping back and being supportive of women? Because it's still you on the stage. Or is the paradox the point?
MO: I think that is the point. There are these title cards that come in at each of the four chapters. The very first title card says, "Proclaiming Earth to be a misogynistic dystopia, Princess build a rocket ship to find a better world — as only two white men could." We are two white men who don't always say the right thing. It's a process of learning and listening that this piece is really about.
SD: So it's all very self-aware.