Diane Torr 1948-2017
Giles Bailey offers a personal tribute to interdisciplinary artist, inspirational teacher and drag king, Diane Torr
In early June came the news that the artist Diane Torr had died from a brain tumour at the age of 68. Her work in performance was extraordinarily invested, alive with the promise of transgressive risk taking and a sexy playfulness. Her move back to Scotland, her place of birth, from New York in 2002, brought her into a contact with a number of us at the Glasgow School of Art where she taught as a visiting lecturer.
As a student in the Environmental Art department at GSA, with a growling inclination that performance might be something I would like to pursue, Diane’s Friday Event artist talk tested and challenged what I had imagined such a practice could constitute. Following study at Dartington College of Arts, in the late 1970s she relocated to New York and became involved in the city's experimental downtown performance community. From early works such as ‘Go-Go Girls Seize Control’ that sought to challenge the prescribed objecthood she felt in her job as a strip club podium dancer, to later projects that brought her deserved notoriety exploring the identity of the drag king, she married a fierce antipathy to the strictures of perceived gender binaries with an earnest warmth for her audience and a deep-rooted impulse to entertain.
Leading workshops was central to her practice and her competence in these scenarios is brilliantly documented in Katarina Peters’ film about her participatory drag exercises with groups of women, Man For a Day. The sessions she ran at Glasgow School of Art over several weeks as introductions to performance practice (which I attended in 2003) were noteworthy for a number of reasons. Firstly, they achieved that rare feat of bringing together students across departments and from both undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes. This forged a number of friendships that I still value hugely, bringing me into contact for the first time with Ciara Phillips, t s Beall, Aileen Campbell and Tris Vonna-Michell. Facilitating exercises from which we developed live works of our own, she revelled mischievously in each demanding situation she concocted for us. She delighted in the work of others, sharing documentation of strange, compelling pieces that caught her eye over the years and guiding us through the mass of practice on offer at National Review of Live art, then held at Glasgow’s The Arches. Generously, she cheered us on as we shared half-baked ideas with audiences at the events she organised to conclude the workshop seasons.
The experience of participating wasn’t without its complex and uneasy aspects. Sessions would occasionally drift away from the proposed subject and we would, for instance, find ourselves seated in a circle watching Diane hurl herself bodily to the floor again and again only to roll skilfully to her knees in demonstration of her dancer’s prowess. I wince recalling the evening she hosted in her flat when we were instructed to blindfold and feed each other a selection of exotic dishes. The activity appeared for her to have a gently erotic frisson but tested the steely British (or indeed Canadian) reserve in many of us. There were also accounts from friends studying on the Contemporary Performance Practice programme at the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama of her lecture theatre session there, which consisted of her reading aloud Roselee Goldberg’s book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present in its entirety over the course of two long days.
Her conduct was occasionally provocatively mystifying, yet I was wholly beguiled. Her magnetic character held me in thrall for the duration of my time in her workshops. The experience still persists in my thoughts, shaping my own approach to teaching performance now.
The work she made and the ideas arising from her practice are well-documented, but as a teacher I hope she is remembered for her singular, lawless contribution. Its humane, formative character and idiosyncratic challenges had a huge impact.
Giles Bailey is an artist based in London. He also publishes TALKER, an interview zine about performance