The first thing Antony Hegarty does when I meet him in the lobby of Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel is offer me the toast he’s just received along with the rest of his brunch order. It’s good toast, too, though I’m trying to chew quickly lest I be forced to mumble a question through a full mouth. But it’s a nonchalantly generous moment to open our interview, and Hegarty, as fiercely intelligent and idiosyncratic of an artist as one ever encounters, quickly reveals himself as a gregarious personality willing and able to expound on any number of subjects.
I’m here to discuss Turning, the documentary he made with director Charles Atlas (who is also present for the interview) chronicling a 2006 European tour in which Antony and the Johnsons took the stage alongside 13 women, who also give intimate interviews regarding their gender and their struggles. The music, composed of cuts across Hegarty’s canon from the Mercury Prize-winning I Am A Bird Now to The Crying Light, is expectedly affecting. But it becomes even more powerful when juxtaposed against the interviews, which give a personable dimension to the emotional ineffability that Hegarty has become so renowned for evoking. It’s well worth seeing when it opens up at the IFC Center on November 16, even for those who haven’t become inducted into his cult of personality.
So you guys had a screening of the movie last night, right? How did it go?
CHARLES: It went well.
At this point in both your careers, do you still have the same nervousness when a new project premieres?
CHARLES: We were both nervous.
ANTONY: Well, you know, we’re showing it to our community, our friends, so there are some nerves there.
CHARLES: And it’s been a long time coming this project, we’ve been working on it for many years already. Six years since its inception, to now, its delivery.
Why six years?
ANTONY: It took a long time to find the right circumstances to produce it in the way that we wanted to.
CHARLES: Yeah, and also, having to do with money as well.
ANTONY: But even that, having to find the money that would allow us to make it.
I know it was all filmed in Europe. Did you do this tour in America?
ANTONY: We did it once in 2004 at Saint Anne’s Warehouse as a part of the Whitney Biennial. That was when we performed Turning. Then in 2006 we had the opportunity to present it in Europe, so we toured it in 4 or 5 cities in Europe. So the film is a document, and an exploration of material that we collected and filmed during that tour.
I watched the documentary last night and one of the parts that stuck in my head was when you mention how you’ve been thinking about America throughout the performance, and it got me thinking about, you know, here’s this performance being staged in Europe, but with this very American theme. I know you grew up here, but do you primarily reside in Europe?
ANTONY: No, I live here, in New York City. I’ve lived here for twenty years. Also that was during the Bush administration, wasn’t it? 2006, who was the president then?
ANTONY: So it really was the end of these dark times.
CHARLES: Well that’s right you said, you know, the spirit of what America really is—
ANTONY: Yeah, it was definitely in counterpoint to what was going on with our popular government at that time.
Speaking of the Bush administration, were you invigorated by the election last week?
ANTONY: I wouldn’t say I was invigorated by it. But it was refreshing to see Karl Rove get so upset, and to see that little pig wrestling so much with the threshold of, with the limit of his power. It was exciting to see them feel so frustrated that they could invest so many millions, and still not feel that they could buy those votes. It was really wonderful, wasn’t it, they thought, how could we spend so much money and not get our needs met, get those seats filled? And it’s like they really realized for the first time in a democracy, you get elected by voting, not by paying. And they actually didn’t manage to convince people to vote for him.
The Republican agenda, the fake moral agenda that the Republicans use to connive the working class to vote for them, and have for the last 25 years, is finally just collapsing. People will no longer elect Republicans on the basis of gay marriage, or even now women’s rights. No longer elect Republicans to protect pro-life needs, or whatever. It’s just exciting because those are the tools that Republicans have used to destroy not just our country but the world. Corporate power has counted on being able to manipulate the working class with these fake moral issues, and now it’s wearing thin. It’s really exciting, don’t you think it’s exciting?
And there’s Karl Rove, and then there’s even Bill O’Reilly, screaming, you know, “the end of a traditional America,” “the end of white America,” to see that wonderful racism just emerge, and to see that idea, his root base idea that traditional America was a white America, which is just such an unbelievable concept in a country that was created as a melting pot, it was so incredible to get that moment of revelation where you really saw his essence, where you saw Karl Rove as a red-faced pig who should be in prison a hundred times over, who should have been arraigned for war crimes, is still up there leading that super PAC, and convincing casino owners to try to re-elect Republicans, you know? It was literally that casino guy who put like, how much was it, 45 million, or something?
Overall they spent like $350 million, with Karl Rove’s PAC.
ANTONY: Yeah, Republicans are being elected by the dirtiest money.
Well, it was amazing to me to see how deeply sincere they were about this bubble. It was like everyone working for Fox News, they all had really convinced themselves of this.
ANTONY: It was just wonderful to see the edges, it was like the Nazis in their bunker, you know what I mean? The final moments of the Nazis in their little bunker, struggling with the reality that they were gonna have to, you know, reconcile. But you can be sure that they’re going to come back with that super PAC six times stronger, but the great thing is, that we’ve got Hillary [Clinton] in the wings now, I think Hillary will get elected! They don’t have any other candidate and Hillary’s already got so much credibility.
But having said that, Obama… it’s like, do we elect Hitler, or the alternative? Obama, to me, is the alternative to Hitler. But Obama hasn’t made good on his promises to shut Guantanamo Bay, he’s shot all those drones, he’s committing all sorts of international crimes, I mean he’s doing his bits and pieces but he’s far from fulfilled his campaign promises from the last term, and it scares me a little bit. And plus, the lack of attention to climate change is terrifying, when that’s the only issue that’s going to matter in 50 years. The only thing anybody will be asking their grandparents is, what were you doing in 2012, when the waters were starting to rise—did you see those pictures of Venice in the Guardian?
NEARBY STRANGER: It’s completely underwater, this is the worst flood that they’ve ever had.
ANTONY: Wow, so it really happened. Was there a storm?
CHARLES: There was a storm surge and a little rain.
Obviously, it’s been an issue for years, but with the hurricane a few weeks ago, it seems to be pushing more toward the forefront.
ANTONY: That was exciting, you know. I’ve basically spent my entire adult life ranting and railing about the environment. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a drag queen on the Lower East Side making shows at the Pyramid, reading apocalyptic texts from the New York Times. Like Kabuki and Amanda Lepore reading like, nuclear waste reportage.
Are you concerned with the apocalypse?
ANTONY: Not the apocalypse, just being concerned with like realigning…I don’t believe in the apocalypse anymore.