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Empress Stah talks to Run Riot about her latest show in outer space as part of SPILL 2012

'Empress Stah in Space is part of an ongoing project with a long-term ambition; to create a performance in outer space.' Yes, you read that right. Outer space. When we heard underground cabaret sensation Empress Stah was on a journey not just from the late night performance scene (we say erotic, she says comic) to the theatre stage (think performance art), but into outer space via the SPILL Festival with her collaborative team of Ron Athey, Peaches and Lydia Lunch - our attention was seriously grabbed! And it felt good. As part of her research, she has floated in ‘Zero Gravity’ and made a film as ‘The Stah Ship Trooper’, strutting her stuff in the red light district of Amsterdam - among other wild antics. Run Riot caught up with Stah to ask about the origins of the project and her journey so far. We also got to hear about the Golden Flying Penis, the Vagina Oracle, her campaigning for Free Pussy Riot, Mother Earth, and moving from Australia to London with just £50 in her pocket. Ziggy may as well be doing the count down. We're strapped in and ready. Empress Stah in Space at SPILL Festival, 2-3 Nov.

RR: Wow! OK, so, how did this idea and level of ambition come about?
Empress Stah:
I have always quipped that one day I will go to outer space. I don’t recall there being a precise moment when I tuned in to this idea, and I never conceived that it could be a part of my reality. Then one day, around 2006, I happened across an article in the library at The Circus Space, about the pioneering 'Gravity Zero' work by the dancer Kitsou Du Bios in collaboration with The Arts Catalyst. This was the first time I'd heard about such a possibility and it literally set into motion a chain of self-orchestrated events, which has bought me to this present moment.  

An important first contact for me was Frank Pietronigro, who runs the Zero Gravity Artists Consortium in San Francisco. Frank alerted me to an event Less Remote: The Future of Space Exploration – An Arts & Humanities Symposiumthat was taking place as a part of the ‘59th International Aeronautical Congress’ in Glasgow. At this conference I also attended a lecture by the president of Virgin Galactic on the future of affordable public access to space, I gave him my card and enquired about use of their spacecraft for a show, but didn’t manage to seal the deal. In fact, they still have not managed a successful launch, so perhaps next year.

Around this time I was approached by photographer Manuel Vason and the SPILL Festival of Performance to create the Star Card for their Tarot Deck Project. I took this as an affirmation that I was on the right path, set my eye on the distant future and proceeded to take steps to manifest the vision.

My ambition to create a performance in outer space is not impossible, though highly improbable, especially given my current economic status and public profile as a provocative and controversial performing artist. I do believe, however, in the ability to consciously bring forth your dreams in the physical world, and I don’t mean by sitting around meditating and visualizing, though this is a part of it. It takes self belief, determination, personal sacrifice and a lot of work. Happily enough I love the ‘work’, it brings me joy and fulfillment and this is why I do it. I am playing a little game with myself really, seeing how far I can push it (insert evil childlike giggle). So far so good, lets see where I end up!

RR: Tell us about your experience of Zero Gravity.
In 2011 I had my first experience of weightlessness ‘Zero Gravity’ aboard a parabolic flight in the USA. Zero G inside a space ship is hardly the over arching grace of deep space, more like bouncing around inside a tin can. It was like chaos in motion, with the outcome of your trajectory being totally unpredictable as you are deflected off wall, floor and ceiling, until the craft pulls out of the dive, Double G kicks in, and you are very firmly stuck to the floor. It was Fun : ))

I made a video, with my friend Shae Vulgaris, from the available documentation.

RR: You're working with an amazing collaborative team of creatives. We're particularly interested in three of them - so, please can you tell us why and how you came to work together? Let's start with your director, the highly acclaimed American performance artist Ron Athey?
I first saw Ron Athey perform at an event called ‘Body Probe’ that was curated by Torture Garden in 2000. I also performed at this event, presenting one of my earliest TG performances, a body piercing installation named the ‘The Xmas Angel’.

My connection to Ron developed socially through mutual friends, such as Marisa Carnesky, and in conversation he invited me to stay with him should I find myself in LA. In 2008 I was in the states performing at ‘The Box’ NYC, so I contacted him to find out his whereabouts around that time. It just so happened he was organising ‘Praxis Mohave’ a 10-day performance art ‘boot camp’ at Desert Hot Springs in the Mohave Desert. So I signed up and attended this extraordinary event, which included field trips to ‘The Integratron’ in Joshua Tree National Park and a video shoot in ‘Death Valley’, at which point our transport broke down and we had to be rescued by a state patrol helicopter! I am saving the details for my autobiography.

Robert Pacitti, who has commissioned this new performance ‘Empress Stah in Space’, suggested Ron Athey as a director for the piece and it resonated so profoundly that I immediately agreed. It was a great idea. Ron and I appreciate a mutual aesthetic, occasional taste in music, interest in philosophy and use of the body in performance. Ron has an encyclopedic knowledge of the arts, whereas I have none, so he has been able to guide me to selected reading to evolve my thinking, and is lubricating (physically and metaphysically) my transition from cabaret performer to theater practitioner.

RR: For the music, you have the infamous Berlin based, Canadian electronic musician and performance artist Peaches. Tell us about your working relationship.
Peaches is my favourite recording artist of all time. I have consistently used her music in the soundtracks for my cabaret acts and we have met on several occasions over the years - agreeing that one day we should collaborate on a project. As I was sitting around considering my performance in Outer Space, and thinking about what track I would set the performance to, it hit me like a no brainer, I would ask Peaches to write something for me, so I did and she agreed.

So Peaches is in it for the long haul, I am bringing her along for the ride. We have a Zero Gravity flight together, scheduled for the spring of 2013, when we will be creating a new song and music video.

In the meantime we collaborated on a track for this performance. I went through her back catalogue, gave examples of the kind of sound I was after, told her what action I would be performing to it, what mood I was after etc. We meet in person and chatted over Skype, finally I gave her the words ‘Iconoclasm Stargasm’ and she went away and nailed it!

RR: This performance includes text and narration by the notorious and iconic New Yorker Lydia Lunch. She's renowned for her candid self exposure through her literature and music - sharing her experiences of sexual history, substance abuse and mental health problems. What can we expect from her contribution and how have you worked together?
Lydia Lunch is Ron’s friend since way back in the day, and she was staying at his place recently while she was in town. During the same time Ron and I were devising at Queen Mary University, and I came in one morning with my latest idea, The Vagina Oracle!

The idea for the Vagina Oracle is that I am channeling Mother Earth and she is totally misanthropic and thinks people are cunts. It struck Ron that Lydia would be the perfect voice for the oracle and he asked her that evening. Apparently she immediately went off on one and delivered what could have been the perfect manuscript.

So, Ron introduced us virtually, we had a Skype chat, I outlined the ideas for the show and the next day she sent me a recording. It was so articulate and fierce it literally blew me away and has really set the tone for the performance.

RR: You've been awarded the Golden Flying Penis Statue. Can you tell us what this means to you?
The Golden Flying Penis Statue is an Erotic Award’ .The awards are presented to people whose work touches on Erotica, and are presented at The Night of the Senses, which is a fundraising event for Dr Tuppy Owens charity, Outsiders: for people with disabilities seeking new friends and partners - which was set up in 1979.

This year I was presented with a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’! I am honoured to be a part of this mythology, and even though I consider my work to be more in the realm of comedy then erotica, I can’t deny other peoples interpretation, and let’s face it, it is for the most part sexually explicit ; )

Free Pussy Riot! #freepussyriot from Peaches on Vimeo.

RR: How did you get to be in Peaches 'Free Pussy Riot' video [fleeting appearance at 1.50]?
Peaches put a call out on her personal Facebook page for people around the world to submit material for the video, so I made a quick iPhone video back stage at The Box with Matt ‘Seal Boy’ Fraser, and she uses a flash of it in the edit. ‘Free Pussy Riot’. Simple!

RR: You've had to be creative for the fundraising for this project - can you tell us more about this?
I did an online crowd funding campaign in 2011 to raise the money for my Zero Gravity flight. In order to get peoples attention I took it to the streets of Bricklane, London and the Red Light district of Amsterdam, and made a couple of videos dressed as The Stah ship Trooper. One of these video’s  ‘A Platform for Change’ was recently screened in The Tate Modern Tanks.

Currently I have no official fundraising on the go, though we are always on the look out for philanthropists, sugar daddies, corporate sponsors… Anyone that wants to support the project with cold hard cash really.

RR: What do you want your audience to walk away with after seeing 'Empress Stah in Space'?
Merchandise ; )

RR: Could you treat us to an Empress Stah London anecdote?
I first arrived in London in 1999 with my Wonder Twin, Commander Star. We had come from Australia via Amsterdam, where we were squatting for 6 months before catching the bus to London. We had £50 between us when we landed but discovered that we were able to get by temporarily, by jumping public transport and hanging out around Leicester Square and charging tourists that wanted to take pictures of us.

Empress Stah

Friday 2 and Saturday 3 November 2012
SPILL Festival 2012 presents
Empress Stah in Space
at the Jerwood DanceHouse
Foundry Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 1DW  
For more info and to book tickets: spillfestival.com

Read the Run Riot interview with SPILL artistic director, Robert Pacitti here.