In 2008 revered photographer Austin Young held his first "Tranimal" event at Machine Project, exposing a more art-minded and relentlessly subversive form of drag in L.A. and thereby changing the face of cross-dressing and wild costuming for years to come. Inspired by subjects and friends Squeaky Blonde and Fade-dra Phey, two figures from the local gay, art and music scenes, Young sought to subvert traditional ideas of beauty and gender, wherein everyone is welcome regardless of age, sex, or body type. But he also wanted to provide a fun experience, a twisted take on the makeover model that shocked and awed all who viewed it and, even more so, those who participated in it.
“I thought of the idea to create a interactive gallery piece with Squeaky and Fade-dra based on the way they looked,” Young says. “The first time we did it it was messy, fabulous and naive. It was a so inspiring, that the three of us formed a loose artist collective afterward called “Tranimal Workshop,” and each iteration, we have invited artists working with a similar mindset to join us."
Ten years after that wild first night, Young and his cohorts decided to bring the concept back in a big way. On Friday, July 27, it was arguably one of the most exciting installations at Sleepless: The Music Center After Hours — "Free Radicals," the recurring late-night arts event at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The event transformed the opulent environs into a lively after-dark happening with DJ sets, dancing, large-scale projections, performance art, VR experiences and more.
Young’s original idea — to create “a social practice project that would work in galleries and museums but more in the realm of queer space and gender identity that involves the public” — was fully realized on Friday night, with Sleepless attendees giddily plowing through tables piled with props, wigs, makeup, fabrics and junk that Blonde and Phey fashioned into otherworldly, often sculptural and wearable creations.
“Life, expression, passion, creativity, madness, fashion and beauty," Squeaky Blonde mused as he attached a stalk of weeds to the head of a willing participant Friday night. “We create anything we feel in the moment. We are taking a risk by pushing the envelope — and we do it in front of people. It’s not a tutorial. We are not instructing people. We are co-creating in the moment. Tranimal is a visual and performative artwork.“
“Tranimal does not have a set look,” added Young, who shoots every transformation after it’s complete, though as various subjects tell me, it's never really done. Young often adjusts the headpieces, wigs and props mid-shoot to get the perfect shot(s). “It’s how we feel in the moment. It's always a risk. We are open to the cosmic possibilities, to unknown chaos and beauty. What makes the project is a desire to create. We are artists and we live to make art, and Tranimal is chaotic freedom of expression. Traminal an adjective that describes an energy of the people who are there and the way we come together.”
“I feel like the love child of Divine and Noel Fielding,” Dakota the Bearded Lady tells me after her makeover and shoot at the Pavilion. Working as a circus-style performer, hosting shows at venues like Hollywood’s Beetlehouse, Dakota's whiskers are already a sight to behold for a woman, but the Tranimal crew took her look to a freaky femme extreme Friday, and having Young capture it was a big deal for her. “I’ve been a fan of Austin’s forever.”
“We work as a team,” Young said. “I don’t define myself as a photographer. I’m an artist. This is a collaborative art piece and we create magic together. Squeaky, Fade-dra and I will spend a few weeks before a Tranimal event thinking about what our current aesthetic is. Ultimately it’s a participatory social performative artwork, and we need to mention our collaborators with whom this installment would not exist: Vander Von Odd, Ridge Gallagher, Lady Forbidden, Fasique, Fab Hatters, Christian Warren London, Patricia Wang and Dorthea Winnet. They are so important.”
“I love their vision,” says singer Leopold Nunan, wearing a shawl full of phallic protrusions (nylons filled with cotton) and matching headpiece. “As a former club kid, I thought I had seen it all. But their ideas take drag to a new level.”
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Tammie Brown, a popular queen best known for her appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race, said she’s glad to see Young and co. continue the concept they created so many years ago, which is still surprising a new generation; she's glad they kept the Tranimal project name, too. “People are so easily offended these days,” she says. “But this is all about having fun… being a monster in drag.”
Squeeky agreed. “I think it's absolutely incredible that drag has finally become so widely accepted and appreciated by mainstream culture,” he said. “It’s utterly fascinating to see such love and admiration for the art of drag and all that it encompasses. Popular television shows provide a glimpse into a once secret and private world. But we never saw makeup tutorials. We didn’t have internet. We were part of a true subculture that can no longer exist. We have been holding this torch and keeping the fire lit.”