“We Deserve to Feel Good all the Time”

An interview with artist, filmmaker, and activist Tourmaline

Tourmaline is an NYC-based artist, filmmaker, cultural producer, writer, and activist whose practice highlights the experiences of Black, queer, and trans communities and their capacity to impact the world. 

Tourmaline’s work has been presented across the world (scroll to the bottom of this piece for a full list of exhibits) and her work is included in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and the Tate, London.

Tourmaline and I spoke over Zoom for this interview, and as a film lover and fan of her films specifically, I was very eagerly awaiting our interview! Tourmaline is a fountain of inspiration — she does so much, and yet makes the time for herself to enjoy quieter moments too. We discussed a lot in this interview, and while we cover a lot of difficult subjects, I was moved by Tourmaline’s reminders to emphasize feeling good, which is something we all deserve.

ZL: In your own words, please introduce yourself and tell us what your passions are in life.

TM: My name is Tourmaline. I am an artist and a person who enjoys just hanging out. This past year, I’ve really put an emphasis on going slow and leisuring. So, like reclaiming the term of leisure. I think for a lot of us who are Black people— I am a descendant of Black people who were slaves, so my great grandparents were the children of slaves, and things like leisure and laziness and not working were really instrumentalized to keep my ancestors in really violent relationships around labor extraction, not having autonomy or self-actualization or being able to say— My great grandparents were sharecroppers. It’s just the sense of autonomy. Ancestors are saying do more pleasurable things. Do more things that feel good. Do more things that reclaim the idea that pleasure is a good thing. Going slow, laziness is a good thing. Getting more rest is a good thing. And there’s a reason we might not know that. Those things have been instrumentalized against us.

Do more things that feel good. Do more things that reclaim the idea that pleasure is a good thing.

ZL: And especially where we live in a world where productivity equals money, equals success, and that is no yardstick for success in reality. How have you been enjoying your leisure time lately?

TM: This past year, every day I would take a bath, like a really big bath. I’m a Cancer, and it really kind of changed my life. You know, at first, it just felt good. It felt pleasurable to soak in a bath. I would do 15 minutes and I would be like, how few thoughts can I think? Let me turn off my brain. Let me do a thing that other people might not have been able to do, and just feel how good it is to relax. That actually changed my life in a profound way. It really shifted my capacity to show up for myself and other people. I realize when I get more rest, there’s more of me that’s available in crisis, in community, in forks in the road when decisions are needed to be made. I have more clarity. And even if I didn’t, I think it’s a really important thing, but I realized through that process, Oh, I have more to give when I am more rested.

ZL: Absolutely. That sounds like a much better version of meditation than what I try to do. I think that a bath is the place for that for sure.

TM: Yeah. So, it’s like bath. It’s like flirty DMs with friends. Lots of masturbation and sex with myself. FaceTime has been a really wonderful thing this year.

ZL: If we didn’t have FaceTime, this pandemic would be such a different situation.

TM: Yeah, exactly.

Oh, I have more to give when I am more rested.

ZL: What’s your artistic practice been like? Have you had more a year of cooking and marinating on ideas, waiting for the world to open back up, or have you been working a lot in isolation?

TM: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the ways that I do ground is by work. So, it’s really important for me to be kind of always checking in. Is this grounding or is this depleting? I’m a Libra rising which means I have a Cancer midheaven. So, my place of prominence or most visibility to the whole world is around Cancer stuff. I’m a Cancer Sun too, so it’s around caring, and lineage, and emotions, and intuition, and that kind of receptivity. Some people feel like it’s the archetype of the mother. It’s like parenting in a particular kind of way and at the root, my IC the root of my chart is Capricorn. 

Things that help me ground that is very private is a kind of work. I have been working a lot during this pandemic. Part of it is because I couldn’t figure out how to get unemployment, and I never got a stimulus or any of those things. All my work was getting canceled. It was just very inaccessible. I grew in poverty, and so I went into a, let me get my hustle and try to figure out how this is going to work out. I just started working a lot and it was nice to have the bath every day where it was a real moment of checking in. 

During this pandemic, I made several films. I made one called Joy Run. It was with Chromat and Reebok for Chromat’s fashion week, but it’s about the regulation of trans people in sport. It’s a really important and necessary issue for us as a community to show up on. On the local level, many states are trying to implement this kind of eugenicist policy about who gets to compete and who gets to be in sports. The film is about these two brilliant track stars from Connecticut -Terry-Ann Miller and Andraya Yearwood- who competed at a high school level. It’s about their power and the pleasure that they got for track and also about their power of self-actualization. They showed up in the face of lots of people telling them that they didn’t belong, and they kept going. And even if they had stopped, that would have been okay and powerful, you know? But they kept going. They kept competing and they were really good. It’s called Joy Run. Then I made another film called Nothing More Beautiful, and it was right after thousands and thousands of people showed up at the Brooklyn Museum for Black trans lives. I’ve been an organizer for a lot longer than I’ve been seen as an artist. One of the things that we used to talk a lot about is that every year basically, in the past 15 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the murder rate against trans-people of color, particularly Black trans women.

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, every year, documents this increased level of violence. I can remember a decade ago when it was like every month a person in my life wasn’t alive anymore. We’re in the midst of grappling with this and part of it is naming how intense it is and how it affects so many communities and how it’s so important to name what’s going on. And then another part is, what solutions are we generating? And part of the solutions, I think, don’t look anything like the problem. 

I can remember a decade ago when it was like every month a person in my life wasn’t alive anymore.

It’s about reminding each other that it’s so good to take a nap. You know, like Nap Ministries project. Or reminding each other that it’s so good right now to dream. Or reminding each other that it’s so good to stay home and have sex with yourself all day. Or hop in the DMs with someone who wants to be in the DMs with you. Those kinds of things that don’t look like the violence that we’re facing. Or donating to an incarcerated person’s Commissary. 

I grew up with a parent incarcerated. It’s the power of having those kinds of pen pal relationships with people who are incarcerated. Part of it also, when we do that, is pushing back around the level of respectability of who gets to be the face of a movement. I remember a while ago, there was this push of cleaning up trans representation. It was particularly painful for those of us who were current or former sex workers, so it was like, No, we can’t talk about sex work because people will only see us as sex workers. If we do that, we’re contributing to the stereotype. Some people were kind of well-meaning, but what they didn’t realize was that there was this push to make us the kind of puzzle piece that would fit in someone else’s puzzle and not be the fullest version of ourselves and see how it was such a powerful thing.

ZL: I was just going to say, I think that’s all really evident in your film that I’ve seen how you’re melding these narratives based on real-life stories but showing those moments of getting ready and luxuriating in the apartment, all those minor moments that get left out from what history is going to write down, whoever is writing “history”, you know what I mean. I love the lens you’re able to put on these very real-life narratives, but you give it this added touch of bringing it to life in an artistic beautiful way.

TM: Thank you. 

ZL: That’s really wonderful that you’ve been able to continue to make work amidst all of this. I’m excited about the new releases. You’ve been really busy it sounds like!

TM: Totally. I think that it is a way that I’ve found to be grounding and stabilizing in moments of big change. 

ZL: Yeah. I found you online after watching Happy Birthday, Marsha! It’s an older one, but of course iconic one, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about what the process must have been like looking through all the archival footage and selecting what you wanted to use. I would love to know what that process was like writing your own narrative, but also incorporating this very important historical footage that also must have been so difficult to sort through.

We need our basic needs to be met. We need to stop being criminalized for sex work. We need access to healthcare and housing.
Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, Happy Birthday, Marsha! (video still), 2018

TM: I started working on Happy Birthday Marsha! maybe nine years before it was released to the world, and that’s part of my processes. I go really slow and then put out maybe just a piece of what the overall project is. I started the work because in 2005, New York City had its first Trans Day of Action March, and I went and it really changed my life. It was so powerful to be with a group of other trans and gender non-conforming, non-binary people. The march was about access to welfare and healthcare. It was not about respectability. Everyone was like, we need our basic needs to be met. We need to stop being criminalized for sex work. We need access to healthcare and housing. We had really powerful demands and it was about us being able to show up in our fullest version of ourselves. 

I went and it was so beautiful. We went from 8th Avenue to Union Square and it was terrifying. It feels like a lifetime ago because there’s just been such a dramatic shift around trans liberation in those sixteen years. But I was a baby organizer, and I was like, this is really wonderful, what was happening before this? Where are our elders? And part of it is, we are a community that doesn’t necessarily get to live very long lives in just a real way. It was really important for me to start making relationships with people who held the lineage of a community and the story of our beauty.

Part of that was just asking questions about who was here before and no one was talking about Marsha in the way that we talk about Marsha now. That was a really beautiful unfolding of holding up a person who faced a tremendous amount of historical erasure. The process was asking my friends who were a little bit older. It was befriending people like Miss Major Griffin-Gracie, who’s in her 70s, who just had a baby, who is a Black trans elder who was at Stonewall, who was at Attica right after the Attica Riots, which were a really powerful uprising in prisons in New York State. 

Then I moved to the bay and was doing work with our incarcerated community members in the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So, it really came from that. It’s just being a question-asker to hold the lineage that faced a lot of erasure and it was personal to me. I wanted to be able to imagine a past at a time when it wasn’t there, and it felt like setting roots. When we name our past and honor it, it’s like putting in roots that allow a stable, slow growth of a really powerful tree and I think that, to me, is like tending to the roots is what part of my art is about. I just had a show called Pleasure Garden.

ZL: I love that name.

TM: It was all self-portraits, and it was the first time I had worked in that way because what I had started to notice was, I was doing a similar thing on an unconscious level of what my art was supposed to be transforming — which was like, everyone but me, you know? It was really important to me to flip that and say, no actually, when we say all of us, it really means all of us. We all get to revel in our beauty and in our power and feel the tremendous possibility of just that. Or not just that. Of that changing the world. 

It came from the seeds of that — asking questions in our community and seeing how powerful people showing up in all their glory were. I remember part of it too was like… you know at the very first trans march? There are just levels of respectability that move through the community and it makes a lot of sense sometimes, right? Because we’re a community that faces a tremendous amount of violence and sometimes, we think, well, if we just stand on our head just a little bit, we won’t have to deal with the X, Y, or Z thing you know? And it’s not true, but it makes sense why we gravitate towards those messages.

We all get to revel in our beauty and in our power and feel the tremendous possibility of just that. Or not just that. Of that changing the world. 
Morning Cloak, 2020

Anyway, long story short, people were coming out— I remember there are all these hot trans people in bikinis not talking and it was the height of the summer. It was like people were losing their minds. Do you know what I mean? There were trans women not talking in bikinis and it was so powerful, such a powerful message that actually if it is making me feel more powerful to talk, that’s great and important. If it feels like I’m taking on the role of the violent person on the street or the cop and pushing myself back into myself, actually I’m going to show up this way. And so the photos were really about that, about what it means to show up as all of us and the history of pleasure. 

In 1830s New York during the Cholera epidemic, there were these places called pleasure gardens. And they were regulated, so often only wealthy people could go to them. Then there were other ones that were Black-owned and that a greater number of people could go to, so it was really engaging, that history and the history of Central Park. I made a film about the history of Central Park because it used to be a Black community called Seneca Village.

ZL: Yes! Is that Salacia?

TM: Yeah, Salacia. And so, Salacia, it’s basically Central Park. Seneca Village was turned into a park that was for white, wealthy people to go and show their wealth through carriages and a kind of curated life. It’s about the history of public space. Pleasure gardens were these often-contested spaces that were vital and necessary. This past year, we’ve really seen how it feels to be isolated and not be able to come together and what it feels like when we are able to come together under a banner of pleasure. You know?

ZL: Absolutely, and it’s not just New York. The same thing happened in Detroit in the late 1950s. The neighborhood of Black Bottom was demolished for a freeway and “redevelopment”, so it happens in every city and now we know that’s gentrification but it looks very different throughout the centuries.

TM: Yeah, absolutely.

Salacia (installation view), 2019

ZL: What was it like creating Salacia and the work you’ve been doing more recently vs. your very first film? How has the process changed for you?

TM: The very first film that I made was Happy Birthday, Marsha! and that was also the very first time I was ever on a film set. So, it was really strange. I had never been on a real film set before, so I didn’t really know what I was doing. And part of the reason why I hadn’t been on a film set is that the film world wasn’t trying to have Black trans people on film sets, so I literally had to make my own. I guess, the first time that I was on a film set, I was like, wow this is the only thing I ever want to do! It was with Sasha Wortzel. Sasha Wortzel is the other director of Happy Birthday, Marsha! We created a world through the costuming and the sets and the wardrobe. Just the way that we filmed it, it was just world-making. I think it’s really powerful to world-make in all the different ways that we’re able to.

ZL: Yeah. You’re clearly following that inner drive, and that’s also so clear with how you make positive space, not just by creating film but in real life too! You’ve done work in prisons to provide education and arts resources. I have loved ones who are still suffering from having been in prison and how much that limits life — how you can have everything change simply because you can’t pay a bill. It’s something that could happen to any of us, but clearly happens more often to marginalized people. I would love to hear about what it was like educating around creative writing in the carceral world. 

Prisons aren’t here to punish the people who are doing the most harm. If they were, the people who are running pharmaceutical companies, the government, and the military, they would all be operating from prison.

TM: I think part of that was just growing up with a parent who was incarcerated for most of my life. I joined a group called Critical Resistance. This is back around the time of the first trans march. It was a really powerful moment in my life because it was kind of a realization of structures and systems that make up what we call the Prison Industrial Complex or the carceral state or whatever. I have so much shame about being a kid whose parent was in prison, I was totally just walking around with a lot of shame and I was so embarrassed. It was a really beautiful moment of being like, having a realization that these are structural. Punishment and police and prisons have nothing to do with the person who is in prison, right? Prisons aren’t here to punish the people who are doing the most harm. If they were, the people who are running pharmaceutical companies, the government, and the military, they would all be operating from prison.

ZL: Yes.

TM: It’s not about what it’s saying it’s about. It has literally nothing to do with that. And the punishment has nothing to do with generating solutions to harm that has happened. This is about population control. This is about an extension of slavery. Have you seen the Matrix? 

ZL: Of course, yes!

TM: I just had such a paradigm shift about what these systems were, and what they were doing, and why they were here, and the underpinning reasons. Writing has always been something that has been important to me and a way that I get to be in touch with my power and remember who I am. So, I was doing these creative writing classes and part of it was the other people who were teaching them were poets. It was just really powerful. There were a lot of poets who were students. It was also really intense because it was at Riker’s and at Island Academy. If you’re undocumented or if you don’t have ID, it’s like, Riker’s is not actually asking, are you too young to be in a prison? The age gaps were just— It was really intense on all different kinds of levels. The amount of brilliance that is currently caged is so blunt and inescapable. 

It was overwhelming. It was really powerful. It was less me being a teacher and more me being co-creator of something. It was really terrifying to the level of the problem of the prison industrial complex or the carceral state. It was generating at that moment a huge solution around what we need, which is abolition. An end to the idea that we can cage our problems away. Like an understanding that it actually has nothing to do with transforming violence and has everything to do with being an extension of population control and slavery, of child slavery, of anti-blackness at its roots, and unescapable. And also, it’s weird to say, but we also had a lot of fun in those moments. There was just a lot of laughter. We made something really special, and I was honored and blessed to be brought into that space.

ZL: Yeah, I mean, how can we make changes as individuals since this is a systemic issue? While we can’t snap our fingers and change anything, even just being a pen pal is something that gives people access to the outside world and it can really bring a lot of joy. Is there anything else that you think we as individuals can do to really make a change?

TM: Yeah, I think we can support bail funds. There are so many campaigns on local levels, like the decriminalization of sex work, that we can get involved in. There are so many commissaries that would love to have five dollars, ten dollars, fifty dollars. There are so many support groups for people who are coming out of prison. One of the big things if you’re a trans woman and you’re in prison, generally, you are in a quote-unquote men’s prison. 

During the time of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, and throughout the US, there were anti-cross-dressing laws. So, if you aren’t wearing 3 outer clothes of quote-unquote male clothing and you were a trans woman, you could be arrested and put in jail. I made a film about it with Miss Major called The Personal Things. Anti-cross-dressing laws in that kind of logic, while not on the books for the public at large, are still incredibly enforced in prisons and jails and detention centers and hospitals today. That’s a one hundred percent real thing. So, if you’re a trans woman and you’re in prison, you’re often in a men’s prison. You often have to fight to have any kind of gender-affirming clothing. You don’t leave prison with the kind of clothing that you want to wear. People need clothes, right? So, often at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the first stop for someone coming out of prison was to come to the office. You can donate clothing. 

Yes. The problem’s incredibly overwhelming. You don’t have to figure it out all right now, but there are ways that we can show up for one another.

There’s just a lot that of ways to plug-in. I think sometimes there are so many ways to plug-in, it can be a little overwhelming because the problem is overwhelming. I do think that when we pivot just a little bit to the solution side of the stick, it’s like, Oh, okay! Yes. The problem’s incredibly overwhelming. You don’t have to figure it out all right now, but there are ways that we can show up for one another. Not everyone can be at a mass mobilization, but some people can donate to a commissary. Some people love writing, can have a pen pal relationship. Some people can get loved ones to donate. There are just so many different ways to show up.

ZL: Absolutely. There’s such a misconception about what decriminalization really means. In our culture, there is a belief that criminalization equals “keeping people safe” when in reality, it’s putting people in harm’s way. I would love to hear your thoughts about decriminalization as opposed to criminalization, and how that leads to liberation.

TM: Yeah. So, I think what you’re asking at the heart is, how can we have a greater sense of freedom?

ZL: Yeah!

TM: There are so many ways that the regulation of Black trans life, Black life, trans life people who are doing sex work, the life of people who are living in public happens. Just as an example, New York City had this thing called stop-and-frisk. It made national news. The NYPD could stop you if they thought you were a suspicious person, and frisk you. You know, search your clothing for weapons or drugs. There was a really big successful push to eliminate that. 

At the same time that was happening, for people in my community, trans and non-binary people of color, it was stop-and-strip-search. If you were a trans woman of color or a trans person of color, you could be stopped, and frequently you were strip-searched by the NYPD. It’s really invasive. So, to me it’s not about necessarily the legalization of transness, right? It’s about decriminalizing, pushing back the relationship between the state and trans people’s bodies, or Black trans people’s bodies, or Black trans people who are doing sex work’s bodies, right? So, decriminalization at its core is about abolishing this idea that to keep us safe, there’s a certain group of people that need to be criminalized and regulated and have a really intimate relationship with the police and the prison in order for society at large to be okay. So, when we release that logic, that really false belief, it gives us more power and more freedom to move around and a greater sense of ease.

ZL: Beautifully said. Despite all the terrible, invasive shit going on in the world, we can unlearn that logic and change. I mean, I don’t want to make any assumptions that you do feel this way, but what things in your world right now are giving you hope for that change?

TM: I can remember moments when really big problems would happen, and it would feel like no one was talking about them, and it would feel incredibly isolating. I think it’s a big shift that more and more people are coming together to say, this is not okay. And every week, it’s like having to be restated what’s not okay, right? I think it’s a really powerful thing when we come together and say, this is not okay, and then we support each other to things that help hold us in moments of incredible violence. And then support each other to remember, Oh! We deserve to feel good. We deserve to feel good whether it’s while we’re working, whether it’s while we’re going to the park, whether it’s while we’re at home in our beds. We deserve to feel good all the time. 

If we take that just as a basic premise and organize our lives really simply around that, it’s powerful. I’m seeing more people riding that wave, and that gives me so much hope. I think that we’re really in the midst of a sea change and it’s so clear that the ways that the world was moving before just simply don’t work. I see more and more people eager and excited to release things that were really limiting and not contributing to our full aliveness and gravitate more towards our full aliveness which includes all the things like decriminalization or access to a living wage or access to housing. When we shift our ideology just a little bit, and our grounding belief of what we want just a little bit, then the sea change happens even more, so that gives me a lot of hope. 

We deserve to feel good. We deserve to feel good whether it’s while we’re working, whether it’s while we’re going to the park, whether it’s while we’re at home in our beds. We deserve to feel good all the time. 

ZL: And puts a smile on my face to hear you say it as well. Besides baths and creating art, how have you been focusing on your joy, your dreams, all that stuff to keep you feeling good?

TM: Yeah. So it’s like – baths, having sex with myself, flirting with friends, just finding more and more creative ways to have pleasure with myself.

ZL: Yeah, even while our worlds have shrunken (due to COVID) and yet expanded (because of the internet) it’s really wonderful that you’re creating the space and you get to have that special time. That’s what I’m all about!!!

TM: [motions with a chef’s kiss]

ZL: Yeah, chef’s kiss! What’s coming up for you next? I know you have a lot of work that’s coming out soon, but what can we look out for you from you in the next year?

TM: So, in the next year, I have a bunch of stuff, but I’m not totally sure which one to name right now… Maybe just, like, catch me hanging out, cruising in the park. Look out for me!

ZL: Yes! Yes, with the sunroof open!

TM: Yes, exactly!

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