Lizzi Bougatsos in Conversation

There are few people for whom it is safe to employ the cliché, “She needs no introduction.” Lizzi Bougatsos—visual artist, Gang Gang Dance frontwoman, I.U.D. drummer and charmingly gentle weirdo—is one of them. Back in 2008, when Aaron Bondaroff’s show My Life in T-Shirts opened at Terrence Koh’s now defunct Asia Song Society, she was the most soft-spoken guest, but still the one I was drawn to most. Gang Gang Dance have always employed the most viscerous content of traditional music from India, West Africa and the Middle East in their own tracks, which lends their live, inevitably danceable shows a complexity that is at first impressive, then bewitching. And Lizzi, bashful and unassuming in person, still manages to stand out, as if she were elevated by her own psychic prowess. Like the textured layers of G.G.D.’s soundscapes, her visual art and movable, present persona are both real mosaics of color and aural magic.

Over e-mail, she was smart and the best kind of rambling—her willingness to share was open and earnest and completely humble. The ways in which the realities of her life seem imbued with ritualistic enchantment was the thread of our discussion; it led us to topics like stage makeup and EEGs and laced joints.

All photos by Tony Cox

Monica Uszerowicz: You attended classes at FIT in New York City, so you were exploring creative endeavors as a young adult. But I like to ask people about their earlier moments making art—can you tell me about when you started doing that kind of work in general, even as a child?

Lizzi Bougatsos: I don’t have much recollection from when I was a child, but when I was 15 I made a drawing of a plant that I turned very psychedelic. I got an award for that drawing and my dad posed with me for the picture. That was a big moment. I was a professional dancer from a very young age and joined the cheerleading squad because they needed a choreographer for the dance routines at half-time, but after I made that plant drawing, even dance couldn’t hold me back. It was much more appealing to hang with the skaters, dirtbags and do pottery than to soak my feet every night in Epsom salts [after] being on pointe shoes.

Another epic moment was when I got this long rubber tube out of the garbage. My friends and I went dumpster-diving after seeing a punk show, probably Fugazi. I would bring this rubber tube everywhere, and I made earth installations with it. That was sort of my venture into installation art, or the moment I realized art was everything to me.

Yet another big moment, this time in performance art, was when I got an EEG exam. They glue wires to your head to measure your heartbeat. My mom took me to the doctor after I passed out smoking a laced joint at Notel Motel on Avenue A. She thought I had a heart disorder; I told her she should smoke some marijuana. That’s when I realized my mom was pretty cool, but she didn’t want me to go on the train back to the city with those wires on my head. She said I looked like a terrorist with a bomb glued to my hip. So, I took out my Super 8 camera and made a movie of me spinning. The heartbeat really went up then, and the doctor’s making sense of me smoking joints kinda, well, you know… That was that.

Monica: It is probably difficult to pinpoint, but when did you recognize the fact that being able to create an imaginative world of your own was important to you? Did it happen before you started making installations with the rubber tube?

Lizzi: I was Clara in the Nutcracker one year, maybe two—the lead role in the ballet. I was more at home there on the stage, ironically, than anywhere I had been in my whole life. That imaginary world treated me very well—dreaming into the lights, caked with makeup, smelling the burning nylon and body odor of other dancers. Sometimes I would get lost in the stage lights and my makeup would melt. I think that’s where I got the name “Dizzy Lizzi.” Being on that stage had a profound effect on me. The other experience that did that for me was playing doctor, but pre-pubescence, and that game always got a little complicated.

Monica: I read somewhere that you actually don’t always feel comfortable drawing people into your own world, or that it trips you out. How do you feel about the process of making and then sharing something, allowing it to be interpreted or understood by others?

Lizzi: I love sharing. Maybe in the past, I was a little too punk to want to be put into a box. The flow of interpretation can be very interesting, although it can also be pigeon-holey. Being categorized and compared to other singers is always kind of a mind fuck, I guess. I always got the the weird ones, too, but back in the day they weren’t always female singers. Usually it’d be Bjork; then in 2005, Kate Bush. I wondered why I never got Cindy Lauper. She wasn’t alternative, I guess. Now, I’m more open to interpretation. I guess that is the language of society. Caring about all that stuff sort of takes too much creative energy. I’d rather put it into my art or my meals.

Monica: My introduction to your work was a tent you made for the James Fuentes Gallery in 2007. In an interview about the piece, you said you used the tent to house images of people you didn’t like, like Jessica Alba. It also contained found objects from your walks and the rest of your life—a concept similar to the rubber tube you found in the dumpster, or the EEG you made the subject of a short film. It seems like what you find, the environment you’re in, all of it is incorporated into your work, and much of it is random: events and objects that just happen. How much is randomness or chaos a part of your work?

Lizzi: That show was called “Street Feather.” You are referring to the “Birdhouse for Humans,” which is sort of a constant theme in my work. It’s not really about not liking Jessica Alba; it’s just the packaged person. For me, she is sort of a little too perfect; I guess I like to see some flaws. I mean, she can’t help it that she is so pretty. I also put David Copperfield in there because I had a bad feeling about him, channeling my psychic abilities. It turned out that he actually committed a very serious crime involving the rape of an intern he kept captive on an island a week later. No one hears about that shit because he has good lawyers. But yes, it’s this freedom I like to use in my work—working with feelings and general intuition. My environment is always in my work. I have installations all over my apartment, from color rainbows in nail polish to urns of ashes from burnt equipment to my goddaughter’s [Marika Ackerman] work. She and her mother, Rita Ackerman, are probably the most showcased artists in my apartment. She is a great painter. She will probably be the most celebrated woman painter of our time.

Monica: And all of these contents seem really surreal, even the nail polish. “Art” is often the placement of something ordinary in a new context, but when you do it, it’s very dreamlike. I’m bringing this up because the media has so often described you as weird and psychedelic—but is there a kind of “everyday ritual” at play in your work? The elevation of the ordinary into something magical, perhaps…

Lizzi: That would be my dream, for sure. I have explored this everyday ritual in several performances. Two come to mind, both with Rita Ackerman. One was in Paris, where we put all our belongings on motorcycles (her perfume, my clothes). Everything got stolen. Harmony Korine was in the audience and was heckling me, throwing chips or stones at me. It was very primal. Rita was pissed about her Coco Chanel but Parisians are sort of that way, especially the punks.

One time in New York, we hired a Hungarian violin player Rita found in the subway to play in a show we curated in the Meatpacking District. We made a diagram of rose petals on the floor, with a golden staircase leading to a toilet bowl. To me, it represented the staircase to Heaven. I rode out on a motorcycle and Rita bandaged me to a chair for a while. Then she led me to the staircase. With the best silver, I took out chunks of meat and pearls and offered them to the “Heaven.” I was also blindfolded, and the silver was sort of retarded. So over all, it was an act of futility. I like to play with that, too. To this day, this performance was my greatest magic. We have photos, but it was never documented on video.

Monica: I also want you to talk about your music. Can you tell me about I.U.D.? Did you start that project to create an outlet that would allow you to express a different part of your imagination—as opposed to what you were doing in Gang Gang Dance?

Lizzi: I.U.D. was formed when I was coming home from a tour from Japan. I was very inspired by the drummers there; all the females had these intense drum projects, circles, bands. I just wanted to drum and I realized on the plane that I wanted to drum with Sadie [Laska, the other half of I.U.D.]. I heard she was back in town and she was playing drums in D.C. At the time, it did embrace my imagination, because I didn’t have to answer to four men to express myself with my body. I just got to be sexy and play drums in very high heels. It was something I needed to do for myself.

I.U.D. is planning on doing a project with Danny Perez on my birthday this year, but it is kind of hush-hush because it is a big deal. I really want to change the name of the band, too. So, I.U.D. will be retiring to something much more powerful. There will still be a lot of drums; I can guarantee that.

Monica: When did Gang Gang Dance form? If you were to look back on Gang Gang Dance and the way you’ve all progressed, what has changed? Has your process and connection to each other stayed the same?

Lizzi: Gang Gang happened in 2002 when the gallerist and performance artist Pat Hearn passed away. I was asked by Colin DeLand to sing her songs. I asked the boys in Gang Gang to play the music. I became their singer after that.

Gang Gang has always been very survivalist. I mean, we do what we have to do to keep it moving. That hasn’t changed. The process and connection is very natural. People change and get married, form lives. Brian [DeGraw] and me, we just keep making art. Brian is really a musical genius. He is in that studio, making beats 24-7. He can play the piano like no other in this world. I think we all just have a general distaste for the industry of music. The survivalist thing is about not wanting to be controlled and staying true to our roots. I think this is a constant struggle for us. Sometimes, I feel like I have to carry my whole clan or gang on my shoulders. I can say that Brian probably feels this way, too.

I think my strength to stay in the game is weakening on that level, but I will never leave the stage. I do see my influence in others. I am quite charmed by that now. Maybe people see their influence in me. It’s very important to make your own situation out of anything. Never rip, y’all! That’s a whole punk and situationist idea in its own. You know, search and rise from within. I don’t remember the actual quote; it has been 11 years going on 12 now since I been readin’ those books…

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