Best of 2015

Best of 2015 – Interview with Johanna Hedva

For today’s installment of our Best of 2015 series, Art Practical editor Jen Stager writes, “Stills from Johanna Hedva’s Medea offer up intimate views so at odds from sitting with other audience members in an outer ring of the Theater of Dionysos in Athens. I am always drawn to adaptations of Greek plays for what they choose to change. Medea is often described as a proto-feminist. Hevda collaborated with performer Nickels Sunshine to rework Medea’s resistance to patriarchy by subverting tyrannical gender binaries.” This article was originally published on October 5, 2015.


Johanna Hedva. She Work, 2015 (performance still of Nickels Sunshine); live performance; 1:5. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Emily Lacy.

Johanna Hedva is a Los Angeles-based artist and writer whose recent piece She Work was performed at d e e p s l e e e p, a private apartment in Los Angeles, from July 11­–26, 2015. She Work is a queer adaptation of Euripides’ play Medea, in which Jason abandons Medea and their children, marrying a Greek princess to advance his political position. Medea decides to cause Jason the most amount of pain by killing his new wife and taking the lives of her own two children. Hedva’s retelling—littered with Tumblr memes, hashtags, and quotes from Girl, Interrupted—considers exile, courage, motherhood, and tragedy in the contemporary neoliberal landscape.

Vivian Sming: Your latest performance is the fourth and final installment in The Greek Cycle series. Could you talk about the three other plays that led up to She Work? At what point did it become clear to you that Medea was to be the included as the final piece of the cycle?

Johanna Hedva: The Greek Cycle was born in 2011 in the wake of a miscarriage I had at age 27, which instigated an involuntary hospitalization, my first year of real madness, a divorce, and therefore Greek tragedies seemed the closest to home. Medea was the first play I wanted to do, to deal with all that shit, but I was so stunned, without power or comprehension of my situation, that I ended up doing Hecuba instead because I needed a bath of silence. Hecuba is the story of an old queen whose fifty children are all killed in the Trojan War. In Euripides’ play, she’s made inhuman by her grief, begging the men around her for an explanation or a little mercy, but nothing comes. At the end, a seer tells her she’ll end her life as a dog. I fully related to that, so I adapted the play into Motherload (2012), a 30-hour, five-day dream play that took place in the hallway of a school. It was somnambulistic, mostly silent, a bunch of sleepwalkers reciting lines from a script that was over 160 pages. Hecuba’s incomprehensible grief—so laboring but utterly non-redemptive—was a better fit at the time.

Odyssey Odyssey (2013) is adapted from the fifth episode of Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Hermes is dispatched to rescue Odysseus, who’s been kept as a sex slave for seven years by the sorceress Kalypso. OO was performed in a Honda Odyssey, driven around the freeways of LA for two audience members at a time. It was the opposite of Motherload, and my way of barreling through masculinity. It was a wild, drug-addled, 20-minute-long ride, with the most reckless driving; full of queer boys, drag queens, and a bro in a muscle T (ultra-sweat-scented) in a minivan strewn with porn and pizza boxes—all to a soundtrack that included We Butter the Bread and Justin Timberlake.

There’s Time (2014), adapted from Euripides’ Alcestis, was rewritten with two young queer women, The Queen and Death. It’s a monologue delivered by The Queen as she prepares to die for her lover, while Death waits for her at the side of the stage. It takes place—that is, The Queen speaks to it—right after Chelsea Manning’s incarceration and trial, and is dedicated to her.


Johanna Hedva. She Work, 2015 (performance still of Nickels Sunshine); live performance; 1:5. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Emily Lacy.

VS: What drew you to Medea’s character? In what ways did her situation and her actions resonate with you?

JH: Medea is the first anti-hero, millennia before Don Draper and Walter White and Tony Soprano were invented. She’s the first lead character we have in Western civilization who doesn’t change by the end of her plot, doesn’t go from bad to good, whose back story is shady and unknown, who confounds the morality of the time, and who gets away with murder. All of the anti-heroes and villains in our TV shows and films today come from her. She’s also an outsider—labeled by the Greeks as less than human—in a marriage based on sex and lust (as opposed to family contracts and money), and a witch who is righteously angry and very clever—all while inveighing against the conditions of being a woman. How rad is that?


Johanna Hedva. She Work, 2015 (performance still of Nickels Sunshine); live performance; 1:5. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Emily Lacy.

VS: In your adaptation, Medea’s character was rewritten specifically for its performer, Nickels Sunshine. Tell us about your collaboration and how the two of you developed this character in relation to ideas and concerns around the gendered body.

JH: She Work could not have happened without Nickels. We worked together for a year, many hours a day, up to five days a week. Nickels came out to me as a genderfluid person at our first rehearsal, and so we necessarily incorporated that process into the work and the development of our Medea. Mostly this meant that we reckoned with Medea as the embodiment of “female” rage. We tried to see her as not gendered, not an other, not unknowable; in other words, we tried to make her a subject. Nickels can better speak to her specific position and thoughts around her gender. From my perspective, I’ve been deeply edified by the teenage geniuses on Tumblr who insist that women can have penises and men can have vaginas, and what we should all be working for is the abolishment of gender altogether. The idea that “man” and “woman” are fixed and the only options for the entirety of one’s experience is tedious at best and violently oppressive and injurious at worst. I am in solidarity with those for whom the term “trans” is the best we can do, but I hope for a time when the cis/trans binary is seen as regressive, still joined to a hetero/cisnormative conception of gender, which is, in a word, tyrannical.


Johanna Hedva. She Work, 2015 (performance still of Nickels Sunshine); live performance; 1:5. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Emily Lacy.

VS: In your Sick Woman Theory, you discuss the potentiality of “in-valid” or “un-abled” bodies as a living form of protest against capitalism. For you, what was important about She Work in relation to your ideas around “un-abled” bodies?

JH: I don’t use the term “un-abled,” but instead talk about a body that isn’t “abled” in the sense of being able to be sold for its labor, because it experiences a spectrum of illness from terminal and chronic to existential and alienated. Sick Woman Theory is a project trying to redefine “sickness” and its perceived binary opposite “wellness.” Our concept of being sick comes from capitalism: A sick body is one that cannot work, cannot participate in society in terms of the capitalist notions of labor, value, and product. To “get better” is to be able to go back to work—but what if that condition is never true? What if working is what is making us sick? In SWT, I start from Judith Butler’s new premise that the definition of a body is its vulnerability and reliance on infrastructures of support. In other words, to require care, to be sick, to be vulnerable, is not an aberration, but the norm. To be “well” is the oddity.

VS: At the end of She Work, Medea flies off on a chariot, leaving the apartment. What’s left for her?

JH: There’s a bar in the desert where you can always find her. She’s been there for a hundred years, always with the same drink, a Sazerac, telling fantastic tales to anyone who’ll listen, going home with the young boys and girls she can mesmerize. And she’s dressed in purple and red, with lots of gold jewelry from her father’s father, the Sun.