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Gender, Disability, Transmedia, and Balkan Folklore

What if we only had body language as a tool for communication? What can Balkan folklore tell us about gender? About disability? And how can we carefully engage with augmented realities so that it in turn teaches us more about what it means to be a conscious and kind human in 2024?  

NYC-based multidisciplinary artist Kat Mustatea is a self-proclaimed transmedia playwright.” She often interrogates language in her performance work by enlisting absurdity, the hybridity of form, and the computational uncanny to dig deeply into what it means to be human. 

In the early summer of 2023, Mustatea presented a work in progress of her show ielele (pronounced yeh-leh-leh) at the Onassis ONX Studio June Showcase. The future-thinking series was presented in tandem with the Tribeca Film Festival, a choice worth noting for Tribeca, as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and mixed reality (XR) in screenwriting and filmmaking is a widely and hotly discussed topic today. ielele was one of three live performances amongst the many other art pieces celebrating the intersection of immersive AI and XR exploration, many through politically-charged virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) stations.

The actors perform in a brightly lit purple space.

Kaylin Maggard, Carl Ponce Cubero and Kat Mustatea, ielele/BodyMouth (work-in-progress showcase) by Kat Mustatea. Directed by Kat Mustatea with creative technology by Yonatan Rozin. Performed June 2023 at Onassis ONX, New York. Still from video by Tanya Stolpovskaya.

In chatting with Mustatea, she shared that ielele is traditionally understood as a female forest creature in Balkan folklore whose eerie voices led men astray. This immediately made me think of my closeted high school obsession with ancient Greek mythology and, specifically, the siren—similarly understood as a female” deceptive demon lurer of men. Both Balkan and Greek hypertextual mythology's portrayal of this character dubbed female” lends itself to the power dynamics of gender. Traditionally thought of to be female and, therefore, negative, ielele shines light onto a contemporary culture where patriarchy and the violence of the gender binary thrives, where female is object, the other, and male is subject, the I” voice. This is especially important to note in looking at the ielele in a modern context, in which the fluidity of gender is often discussed in mainstream culture, both celebratorily and resentfully. 

Mustateas ielele is a series of live sound and movement narrative portraits that incorporate both human and computational vocalizations to sound out lost” histories and voices. This is explored technically through the BodyMouth, a unique instrument Mustatea developed that synthesizes speech in real-time from the movements of performers. Her work focuses on mythical female East European figures. As stated previously, in Balkan folklore, forest creatures are presented as female.” However, ielele is not a name of any sort; linguistically, it can be best interpreted as a they/them pronoun. Similar to many non-English languages, in Balkan, the they” is feminine. In fact, Balkan forest creatures have no discernible gender. I would go as far to say that many creatures and monsters who are portrayed as villains in art are genderless, if not queer-coded—a reason many overlapping queer and transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) people, like myself, feel seen and understood by them. A few examples of this include Dracula and Frankenstein—bodies that are grotesque and othered; bodies that are monstrosities and alienated.  

Despite the genderless-ness of the ielele, because they appear to be strange, weird, and unappetizing, they have been contextualized and named women”—women who have been exiled to forests and rivers. The lesbian commune dream! The origin of the siren is not the adorable mermaid girlies that I had a crush on from watching Disneys 1953 Peter Pan. Instead, sirens were more astutely creature-like—having the body of a bird or fish and often a beard. To some, having a beard might read not female.” But to me, it reads like a bearded queen, similar to Blackberri in the underground series Dragula, a fear-factor meets spooky queen” competition show that uplifts the infinity of gender drag can embody. (And no, it is not a coincidence that naming a half-fish creature as female and calling someone high-femme in drag fish” are similar.) To me, femme with a beard reads: Bearded Lady—Freaks! A freak in the circus—a place to flaunt the queer-dos, the disabled, the crips, the weirds, the undesirables, the creatures. 

In the extended queer and TGNC community, the infinite, ever-flowing journey of gender exploration, and not being able to be pinpointed as “man” or woman”…is freeing, sought after, and often life-saving.

As ielele expands and focuses on character development, Mustatea is specifically interested in the genderless-ness of the creatures. Mustatea explicitly explores this in a contemporary context where the fluidity of gender is often feared and discriminated against, similar to how the voices of the ielele are often not meant for a civilized society. Sonically, the sounds being explored in ielele emulate sounds that are harmonically Eastern European, scales the Western ear might not be familiar with. In the full piece, Mustatea explores a character who represents Fog.” Traditionally, fog is viewed as problematic, something you cannot pinpoint or capture. Kat fights against this problematization. In the extended queer and TGNC community, the infinite, ever-flowing journey of gender exploration, and not being able to be pinpointed as man” or woman” (i.e. not adhering to the gender binary) is freeing, sought after, and often life-saving.

Two actors in wearing black perform in front of a black backround.

Kaylin Maggard and Carl Ponce Cubero, in the development process for ielele/BodyMouth by Kat Mustatea. Directed by Kat Mustatea with creative technology by Yonatan Rozin. Still from video by Nate Dorr. Recorded Jan 2024 at Onassis ONX, New York.

Im a she/her turned she/they turned they/them turned today my pronouns are” turned please don't perceive me.” Im a straight person turned pan turned asexual turned straight turned pan again. Im a girl turned a girl turned a girl turned non-binary turned transmasc turned I dont feel transmasc at all” turned but everyone needs me to be transmasc” turned girl turned “can I have giant boobs and be a boy” turned a boy inside a girl inside a boy turned a walrus in the body of a crocodile” turned a twink inside a girl turned disabled punk freak. All this to say is that in a world in which we see a creature, an other, and decide what gender it is—this is a wonderful absurdity! To be tapped into the infinity of gender and sexuality is to know that things change daily and function outside our cultural norm—a culture obsessed with definition, black and white thinking and the man-made clock. Instead, we live in trans time if you will! (Inspired by crip time, of course.)

During ielele, two dancers wore sensors on their bodies i.e. the BodyMouth instrument. The performers sounded out words by enacting specific gestures in a choreographed sequence—literally turning the body into a mouth. In Mustateas words, the body narratives and glossolalia conjure an alternate, modern feminist mythmaking that transcends traditional male-centered heroics.” Five base stations placed in four corners of the room captured data from sensors worn on the dancers bodies. To find accuracy of matching body with sound, the dancers had to be highly coordinated, finding exact placement of limbs in space and position on the floor. The dancers needed to move in precise configurations so that the sensors could translate that data to exactly the position needed to pronounce an A, or an M, or an E, to sound out language. Most recently, the projects underlying instrument, BodyMouth, was a finalist for the Guthman Prize for New Musical Instruments. As part of the competition, Kat and her company performed this five minute showcase at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. This is an example of what would be one song” in the full-length ielele piece. 

Two figures in abstract red and black costumes dance on stage.

Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Dee Elhassan in prototype costumes for ielele/BodyMouth by Kat Mustatea. Directed by Kat Mustatea with creative technology by Yonatan Rozin. Costumes by Camelia Skikos. Photo by Bogdan Pastor.

The way XR has been handled in modern society has been almost as a commodity—from AR video games, such as Pokemon, to VR, such as the Oculus, XR stands for the next cool thing that anyone and everyone should get their hands on. In contrast, Mustateas expertly and purposefully created instrument isnt something you can just give out or sell in mass (sorry capitalism!). Through the thoughtful and intentional creation of this tool, the body ultimately becomes political through the lens of identifying the specific needs of one's body, and therefore, a person's accessibility. 

Although ielele is not necessarily a disabled piece of art, it is a piece that shines a light on access needs as it relates to the BodyMouth instrument. Where and how the BodyMouth sensors are placed on a performers body is a highly intimate and personal experience. How this specific person, this specific body can use the instrument becomes paramount—similar to the way a disabled body might be fitted for a mobility device such as a prosthetic or a cane. Another way to look at this is to think about the necessary adjustments non-disabled people make in order to expand access. Not dissimilar to the spectrum of gender, there is a spectrum of disability. Disability is often discussed in an us versus them” mentality, the nondisabled versus the disabled. This way of thinking becomes dangerous, especially in the context of the often and many fluctuating symptoms disabled bodies face on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis (i.e. crip time). I live in a world in which disability is inevitable. Anyone can become disabled at any time, due to age or otherwise. And as weve seen with long COVID, new diseases mean new disabilities. The future, for all, is very much disabled. And we should always be planning as such. I want people to be excited about being disabled, to love their disabled bodies, and to know that being disabled and having an access need is not the worst thing that can happen to someone. Being an ableist asshole is. 

With an instrument of communication with a title such as BodyMouth,” Im reminded of the many times I and other disabled comrades have had to use words, the mouth, as our sole communication tool to articulate to doctors, teachers, coworkers, family members, what we experience as it relates to the body. Similarly, to receive gender-affirming care, words are all we have to go on the lengthy journey of convincing others of the need for hormones and/or surgery. Its not a surprise to me that the intersection of gender and disability comes up here. Disability and gender are intrinsic to each other, both with a hyper-focus on the human body, both navigating a culture in which if you are different, you are othered, based on the way you look and/or move on a specific day, context, or even moment.

Can XR function while connected to our nerves? Our bones? Our heartbeats?

As Kat continues to work on ielele, she hopes to dive further into the continued exploration of folk stories that carry with them voices that are not traditionally shared or written about. As ielele grows and morphs, Im sure it will open up discussion for the creation of alternate modes of speaking through art, ones that arent necessarily civilized—something possibly akin to adult vocal stimming often displayed by those who are autistic. 

New media can be off-putting to some, almost frightening. Others consider it iconic. However it is being used, at this point, it is human bodies creating it, moving it forward, and making decisions about how it will be used. Can XR function while connected to our nerves? Our bones? Our heartbeats? If it can assist in understanding humans better, particularly humans that we fear because they are different—maybe it is necessary to engage with.   

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