Susanne oberbeck : no bra
Words and Interview by Liucija Adomaite
Meet Susanne Oberbeck. But you probably already know her. It’s hard not to notice her candid presence. Lean legs, two naked breasts leaning on her petite torso, never-ending chestnut hair. she could be Rapunzel’s bad cousin. A kid, a performer, a Londoner, a poet, a musician, an ambiguous creature, a postmodern amphibian, a rebel, a Joan of Arc of underground culture. A living headline too. It is incredibly easy to get sucked into the void of twenty-five million internet suggestions when typing in those innocent looking words “no” and “bra”. From the “international no bra day”, “seven reasons you’re better off with no bra according to doctors” to “sexy no bra HD pics”, anything goes. Yet, in this bottomless online adventure, No Bra is shatterproof. “Really? Well, I was once involved in a plane crash but David Hasselhof saved me from the ashes”, she sings in her song “Munchausen,”as if approving my description. A monolith in the current dystopian and drastically changing global political climate, Susanne appears as relevant as ever.
Hello, Susanne. Who is Susanne Oberbeck and what does she do?
Hi, I'm a musician called No Bra.
Since anthropocentric minds possess an obsession with labelling things and measuring their identities, it may be quite a challenge to describe you in clear fashion. Where do you see yourself in such society where ambiguity is still considered to be a form of resistance? Do you even feel that you belong to it [society]?
It's a privilege that artists have more freedom with regards to living somewhat outside of society and get still paid hopefully. It seems that in order to do most regular jobs one has to try and "fit in" more, but that is true for parts of the art world or music world as well. I don't know if it's to do with being anthropocentric, but maybe rather capitalism and the hierarchies and institutions that go with it: marriage, church, taxes, prison industrial complex etc. To an extent artists are allowed to be a counter point to these norms, but it's not always clear if this brings about or precludes change.
Have you ever felt that your art provides the opportunity to gaze into aesthetics of “the Other”, to watch the obscene spectacle where you play the role of an “outcast”?
Someone once said to me they thought No Bra could be perceived as a freak-show act, allowing people to experience a freakishness they are afraid to express themselves. That wasn't a conscious decision though. I think it's a bit problematic to define someone who has white privilege and other privileges as "other". Nonetheless even within that world a lot of norms exist, and I have been made to feel that I didn't fit in more often than not, most of it probably to do with gender norms. I was beaten up once by a guy who said he couldn't tell if I was male or female and have experienced all kinds of low-key and medium-key abuse because of this issue. People question me about my gender all the time but I always take it as a compliment. So I don't mind throwing it back at people, that I think it's ok to be ambiguous. From my point of view, what I do is about broadening and redefining ideas about gender and morality and objectifying and judging the female body which is kind of inherent in our culture, rather than trying to appear freakish. But I don't mind appearing freakish if it reminds someone how constructed their own supposed normality might be.
"I think it's ok to be ambiguous. From my point of view, what I do is about broadening and redefining ideas about gender and morality and objectifying and judging the female body which is kind of inherent in our culture"
Your long lean legs combined with moustache, nude breasts and short miniskirt create a contrast with capital C. Are you the lover of provocation? Or maybe there’s no such word in your vocabulary?
It's a representation of my gender identity, and it's what I actually look like. Wearing a moustache is also supposed to take the piss out of male "authority" but it's not quite as literal as that, I mean it's a performance. Hopefully it allows for different layers of meaning and experience. I also think it looks good.
It’s not a surprise to anyone that you cannot help but draw people’s attention. Do you enjoy it in any way? Do you remember the most priceless reaction you’ve ever got?
Yeah a group of guys getting out of a car on Bethnal Green Road apparently trying to hit on me, then as I turn around screaming "it's a geezer!!" in horror. Also one time I opened for "the Gossip" in Preston, and one guy in the front row covered his eyes for the entirety of the show. Except by the end everybody was kind of laughing at him. Not sure what he thought he was hoping to protect himself from.
You previously said that the name of your band “No Bra” arrived from a trashy magazine headline. Can you tell us the full story of its origins?
I had bought a copy of the "Daily Sport" with a headline saying "Rachel Stevens with no bra" with a picture of Rachel Stevens in bikini bottoms and her tits covered by a white bar. I had it lying around the flat for a while, friends would come round, and after a while somehow everybody was saying "no bra!!' in a horror movie voice. So my friend Fanny and I decided it would be a good name for our new band we had been working on.
Do you ever wear a bra when no one is watching? That’d be a great headline “no bra secretly wears a bra at home”.
No never. I once bought a couple as a joke but found them too uncomfortable to wear. it kind of makes breathing difficult.
Your performances are filled with motifs of sex, gender(less), intimacy. It almost becomes a form of manifestation. Why are these particular narratives important to you? What role do sex and sexuality, porn and the love industry play in your work?
It's important because even though these issues are covered a lot in music, I feel it's often with a kind of same-y narrative related to gender clichés. A lot of it is a repetition of stories about domination and pain etc, often it feels like propaganda for maintaining a certain status quo. So I am trying to provide an alternative view. Because I don't think it's useful to assume that because a person is male or female, or gay or straight they experience these things in the same way. Art should be able to inspire and show that things don't have to be the way mainstream media dictates.
Can, in some alternative way, it also be educational? It explains to society that not everything they think they know is how it actually is.
I hope so! Obviously the power in a lot of mainstream music lies in the fact that supposedly everybody can relate to it, but maybe that's just the cultural point we are at, kind of a hangover from the 20th century. Melody in itself evokes certain emotions that don't have to relate to a specific narrative. It seems that certain types of harmonies are associated with certain emotions, but this doesn't mean they have to be related to these power hierarchies. I think it's interesting to invent alternative popular-type scenarios that maybe could become more of a reality in the future.
One of your recent works is a collaboration with radical Russian artist Slava Mogutin. The air in the video “I’m your Man” which borrowed the name from Leonard Cohen’s song, seems almost electric. You are also both part of Hood by Air’s cast of brand characters, and alongside Wolfgang Tillmans walked for HBA S/S 17 show. It feels that somehow you were meant to work together. Do you feel more comfortable, more powerful, more free when you’re surrounded by like-minded people? Do you feel that it influences your own creativity? Tell us the concept and idea behind “I’m Your Man”? How one has to “read”, to “listen” this piece?
It's actually a cover, we didn't just borrow the title. The Leonard Cohen song I thought is supposed to be a comment on expectations towards men in relationships. So with Slava and I being in the video, there is the obvious issue of me being female yet both of us cruising the gay cruising ground. Which on one hand could be seen as really reactionary and I know a lot of gay clubs for example don't allow women in and I'm sure they have valid reasons for that. On the other hand I play a very butch character so I don't think it reads as Slava cruising a female, and it didn't feel that way when we shot it, it felt like I was a male or androgynous character. I have often been booted out of straight scenarios for being "too masculine" apparently, so where else is there to go? Hampstead Heath! And I also think it's a taboo that not many people talk about and that is worth examining. Maybe this taboo is why you get the "electricity" you're describing. Slava calls it "post-gay", personally I would be a bit afraid to use this term. But it makes sense. If in the future there are going to be more transgender people, the concepts of what is gay and straight will have to be redefined. As an alleged female I welcome the idea that this could allow women to finally break out of the apparent need to be "passive" or to not cross certain lines in the way they interact with men.
"I support the idea of intersectionality, i.e. that feminism and racism and classism, trans rights and disabled rights all need to be tackled in order to bring about meaningful change. It's important for possibly more privileged "white feminists" to give space to those with less access if they can.
In 2014 you took part in “Future Feminism” along with major players in this field, including Laurie Anderson, Lydia Lunch, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramović at The Hole exhibition in New York. Do you see yourself as part of a feminist movement? Do you feel like you’re equally responsible for setting up the future of feminist practices? Regardless whether you want it or not.
For sure if I can have any kind of positive impact or provide inspiration that would be great! Personally I support the idea of intersectionality, i.e. that feminism and racism and classism, trans rights and disabled rights all need to be tackled in order to bring about meaningful change. It's important for possibly more privileged "white feminists" to give space to those with less access if they can.
It’s impossible to miss your sarcastically humorous side. For e.g. the song “Munchausen” provides quite a lesson on still better impression making that escalates to the level of cinematographic absurdity. Where did it all come from? London, New York, television, glossy magazines, parties to morning light, shit-chats..?
These were mostly things people said to me or Dale, who co-wrote this song, or based on things people said. Some of the lines are made up. The thing about the uncle comes from when I was a child and boys I knew used to show off about their dads doing various unrealistic "masculine" things, like build a tank in their garden from parts they had been sent by the German army. It's more about people pretending to have these international connections rather than actually having them. The song is about showing off and lying basically. It's very much about East London at the time.
What do you think about when you look at the crowd [when you sing]?
Largely the same kind of things I think about when I'm in a crowd anywhere.
What are you obsessed about at the moment? A book, artist, brand of milk, person or whatever…
The philosopher Fred Moten. Esther the Wonder Pig.
What are we going to hear about Susanne Oberbeck next?
There's a new no bra album coming out later this year.
Choose one – chaos or order?
Artistically chaos but order for day to day operations.