The multidisciplinary performance artist / exotic dancer sits down with LAiCREATIVES to discuss what it means to be an emotional voyeur and why the human condition only wants one thing . . . connection.
Kayla Tange defies the antiquated stereotypes of a stripper. Long gone are the days where exotic dancers and fetish models are shunned by mainstream media - Tange is part of a new movement of female empowerment which focuses on those who embrace their hyper-sexuality and curiosity for authentic human experiences. Kayla, sometimes known as Coco Ono, defines a new age of a multidimensional, multidisciplinary and multimedia artist. Her performance art is vulnerable and raw, a vast difference compared to the feminist artist sexual movements from the 70s and 80s a la Annie Sprinkle. She is a self proclaimed emotional voyeur who oozes and uses her sexuality while exuding a unique brand of relatability, never straying too far from the idea of humanity's innate longing for authentic connection.
Tange has been working at Jumbo's Clown Room, one of Hollywood's most famed strip clubs that once gave the same stage to bad ass women like Courtney Love and Diablo Cody. Her energy allows those around her to easily connect and confide in her, giving way for years of "in the field research" surrounding the human psyche. She is naturally empathic and compassionate which led her to create performance pieces while incorporating narrative that later became an interactive experience for uncensored participants.
In both Confessions and Boundaries, we see a dichotomy that bleeds from the stage into the everyday - knowledge is power but to what detriment? Keeping secrets is an exhausting requirement of the job, one must acquire the proper skill-set, replete with armoring for their heart to deal with so much information. Tange is sensitive, considerate, intelligent and wise in her choices - not the hard kind of wisdom that one would immediately assume you possess to live the life of a dancer, but that of an ethereal being, of an old soul. Her emphasis on the human condition as the (focal point for) (medium in) her performances is carefully crafted with respect to those whose tales she has collected over the years.
I've been familiar and intrigued with Kayla's work for quite some time. We didn't meet until a few months ago during one of my random quarterly visits to Jumbo's. Instantly, we hit it off. So by the time I interviewed her for our feature on LAiCREATIVES and recorded our interview for the first episode of the new podcast: Sex, Magick and Dessert - we were already knee deep in dick jokes. Enjoy.
What do you feel is the main quality that separates Kayla Tange from your altar ego, Coco Ono? Is she an alter ego?
I think the main quality that separates me and Coco Ono is that I tend to use a lot less humor in my personal performance art as opposed to my burlesque persona where I often use dark comedy and innuendos. I like
burlesque because I use it to tell stories about difficult subjects, but in a lighthearted way.
Why did you feel you needed her? How did you invent Coco Ono?
I suppose I’ve always hidden behind an alter ego. I first discovered this way of navigating through life when I was in high school. It was the first way I’ve felt comfortable coming out of my shell. There’s something powerful in adopting these characters to hide behind your pain. I know eventually I’ll abandon these personas, but for now I feed and embrace them. I’ve had many stage names, but my longest one has been Akira,
which is the one I use for “stripping” or working at Jumbo’s Clown Room. I mostly use Coco Ono for burlesque and some performance art and of course my name Kayla is what I prefer people call me.
How did Coco's sexy yet funny impersonation of absurd celebrity and pop culture come about?
It mostly started as a joke with my friend Gregory and I. It then evolved into what I think has become a very fitting merging of two iconic females I admire, Coco Chanel and Yoko Ono. I very much respect the dedication to their respective practices, and appreciate their processes, not to forget the longevity and evolution of their careers.
Specifically your Andy Warhol persona – but Andy in the film Basquiat played by David Bowie? Prince? Hunter S Thompson?
I first did David Bowie’s version of Andy Warhol from Basquiat, as a tribute to Bowie who has definitely been an inspiration. That act has taken on many forms and I like that I have been able to perform it in settings from art galleries to Jumbo’s. It’s one of my favorite pieces to do. Hunter S. Thompson came about because our troop Bootleg Bombshells was doing a movie themed burlesque show where we do our weekly show at the Townhouse in Venice. One of our original members Mystic O’Reily insisted I do Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the rest is pretty much history. Its another one of my favorite performances to do as it evolves into pure chaos on stage.
Why did you gravitate towards these iconic men to impersonate?
I really only do those 2 male characters… I’m actually looking to expand.
In your performance art piece “Confessions” (Coagula 2016, Art Basel Miami Beach) You have said in the past that Connection was the thread that laid the foundation for this series, the emotion that ties all of the human condition together and inspired by the amount of time you’ve spent as an exotic dancer / burlesque performer / stripper (whichever term you feel most comfortable with)
I am comfortable with all of these terms. I have played all of these roles.
You’ve traded in lap dances to become somewhat of a therapist?
I would like to believe that this is my path, yes. I have always been on a life mission to better understand human motivation and condition. This comes through in unconventional forms of therapy, often in these highly charged sexual environments. I believe the desire to seek this type of depth has always been present, however it’s here where a lot of my inspiration has manifested. “I’ll confess I am an emotional voyeur. I enjoy being confided in. It makes me feel less alone in the world knowing that others house similar demons that I do. It doesn’t happen every night, but I have found freedom and connection in this place where sexual desires and intoxication are the norm.”
How and in what ways do you use your “emotional voyeurism” in your writing?
Aside from poetry, most of the writing I’ve been doing lately is grant and proposal style discussing past works. I would say the emotional voyeurism is definitely a portion of my inspiration for my performance art though. I draw off others stories to create the backbone for my work and I am always so honored when people are open and honest with me.
When you’ve showcased the interactive performance, you sport a nun’s habit - A Tongue and Cheek ode to the title of the work. Do you feel that the sex industry has become its own religion or has replaced religion in anyway?
I think a little of both actually. I think some might view it as a religion considering the definition in the dictionary: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power.” Haha. If you consider sex and desire a superhuman controlling power. Which Oscar Wilde might have been referring to in his quote “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” In terms of it being more of “ a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance” This might be a better way to relate it to religion. I’ve heard of people referring to it as an institution.
Your latest, Boundaries, showcases the audience’s true anonymous stories and are then collected as they are told. The life of each audience member becomes a vital element in an immersive narrative – combining movement, constraint, live music and multi-media elements – where art and life no longer imitate each other, but instead are unified. Is Boundaries an extension of Confessions?
Yes, Boundaries takes a similar format to Confessions. It has a lot of similarities.
Why do you feel the urge to expose the voyeuristic aspect of the human psyche?
It’s been a fascinating subject to me for over half of my life now. I find these primal interactions to be important topics of discussion and should no longer be seen as taboo. Talking about them is healing.
You also incorporated multimedia (live music, dance, constraint ) Why did you want to get more interactive with these specific mediums?
I wanted to get more interactive with these mediums because I felt like what needed to be said in the installation Confession Room at Coagula or Boundaries at Highways was something much bigger than me. I wanted to tell a powerful story in a true collaborative fashion where we each took turns communicating the narrative. There is so much magic that happens when each artist is heard and can contribute to the performance in their respective mediums.
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What is your relationship with constraint? Rope? Shibari?
I was first introduced to Shibari/Kinbaku by my friend Argent. I like the trust that it represents especially when being suspended. I also like doing ties on myself. I find it aesthetically beautiful, but also I think it represents something deeper for me when I do the untying in performances. I am Korean born and adopted and raised by a Japanese American family and I like to use it to represent the cross cultural conflicts I’ve internalized as well as the fetishization of the Asian woman. This is a fascinating medium to me as it has evolved from a torture and restraint method to a highly eroticized form of communication and trust.
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What was your intention behind choosing the cello?
I actually didn’t actually choose the cello at first, it was suggested by Caroline, our American Sign Language interpreter and I am so glad it worked!!! The level of depth and respect that Ro had with the Boundaries piece was beyond my greatest expectation. I actually cried when I heard the first composition. I tend to work in a very intuitive way and often other types of artists and I find each other in every type of setting imaginable. I am eternally grateful that these experiences lead me to these beautiful souls.
You’ve been dancing at the legendary jumbos for a decade – presently you might be one of the most celebrated performers there – exhibiting your artistry, class and grace. As you become more and more well known as an LA artist, do you find it enhances your appearance at the club?
I’m not sure. Some might think is does. I just try and do my best wherever I am performing. I like the challenge that performing at different places brings.
In anyway do you think it takes away from the Jumbo’s / Strip Club Vibe? I cant imagine it does.
I think my performance art has been fun to experiment with at Jumbo’s. I’m happy that it seems to be embraced and encouraged there.
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You are also part of another burlesque act that performs at the townhouse in Venice “Bootleg Bombshells” which is quite popular.
We just did our 250th show in four and a half years. I’m constantly grateful.
Can you describe the difference in your performance art, dancing at Jumbo’s and dancing in a burlesque troupe? Emotionally, physically as a dancer?
My performance art is often about extremely personal subjects and that takes an incredible amount of focus and dedication to process these experiences and emotions into a fully actualized piece. Sometimes these projects take months or years to produce. I enjoy the process and growth behind this, but I also enjoy the spontaneity that working at Jumbo’s provides in terms of being able to dance as a form of communication and demon exorcising. Burlesque has been an incredible performance medium for me as I can spend as much time on an act or come up with one that day and test it out that evening. I like the creative freedom this provides. Our Bootleg Bombshells producer has been an incredible force behind this freedom as well as the Townhouse in Venice. It’s been a blessing to be able to have this incubator where we are supported in creating new performances or perfect existing ones.
Your next stop is the poetry brothel with dancing, poetry, tarot and music. Can you give a nice juicy explanation about this event (i.e.: the participants, your inspiration behind it, incorporating occult methods like tarot) and what the audience should expect?
My friend Whitney had originally told me about The Poetry Brothel. She had assisted at one of the shows in San Francisco and said that I would love it. So I assisted at the last show here in Los Angeles and then submitted to be a poet or performer. It’s one of the most uniquely creative events I’ve been to. This is an excerpt from the site which is the best explanation: Based in concept on the fin-de-siecle bordellos in New Orleans and Paris, many of which functioned as safe havens for fledgling, avant-garde artists, The Poetry Brothel's "Madame" presents a rotating cast of poets as "whores," each operating within a carefully constructed character, who impart their work in public readings, spontaneous eruptions of poetry, and most distinctly, as purveyors of private, one-on-one poetry readings in back rooms. For a small fee, all of the "poetry whores" are available for these sequestered readings at any time during the event. I have been writing poetry since I was in junior high, but mostly don’t show it out of fear. So, I’m really excited to be a part of this event, as it challenges me to face one of those fears of sharing vulnerable writing.
Kayla performs as every Wednesday night at the Del Monte in Venice with The Bootleg Bombshells burlesque group in addition to other venues around Los Angeles. The venue is in an old speakeasy with an intimate atmosphere where the dancers are free to interact with the audience making them part of their art. She uses food, paint and balloons in her often messy performances expressing themes of love, longing, societal taboos, cultural stereotyping, fetish and death. Bootleg Bombshells 52 Windward Ave. Venice, California