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ASTRIT ISMAILI

Photos By Nikola Lamburov

In their vivid colours, transformative potentials and erotic significations, flowers have long been significant within queer nomenclature – think the green carnations of Oscar Wilde, or Sappho's violet wreaths wrapped around “slender necks”. Even when used in a pejorative sense – the terms “pansy” and “fruit” come to mind – the flower stands as a testament to beauty that seemingly emerges from nothing, the rebellion of petals in a world of dull green. Existing within a stratifying heteronormativity, in which only the most rigid expressions of sexuality are permitted, queerness performs similar miracles. For Kosovo-born, Amsterdam-based performance artist and musician Astrit Ismaili, the intertwining of floriculture and queerness forms the bedrock of their remarkable new album The First Flower. Only seven tracks long, the album traverses a dizzying array of styles, from the operatic 11-minute title track to Mykki Blanco-collaboration ‘Miss Kosovo’, a critique of right-wing expansionism that doubles as a thumping house anthem. Never overstating its central metaphor, The First Flower is at its heart a reflection on beauty, as a coping mechanism, a means of resistance and a kind of reward. Flowers, after all, must root through the dirt before they can bloom.

TANK In their expression of sexual difference, flowers have historically been a queer symbol, from Genet to Derek Jarman’s garden. What drew you towards flowers as a concept?
ASTRIT ISMAILI My research on flowering plants started back in 2019 when I found out that plants do not always have flowers. They had to evolve into flowering plants to overcome the environmental limitations that made their reproduction processes insufficient and slow. The transformation of a plant into the first flower on earth, which is believed to have happened hundreds of thousands of years ago, revolutionised the entire ecosystem since a lot of organisms on Earth depend on flowering plants. In my research, I came up with a notion that serves as an umbrella term in my practice: ‘Creative under Limitation’. Through this notion, I look for personal, historical, scientific or fictional figures that had to deal with some sort of environmental, socio-political or physical limitation and use creativity to overcome, confront, or deal with them. Talking about flowers, one cannot ignore the extraction of natural resources that has brought us to a climate emergency. The songs speak about the industrialisation of flowers and climate change but also about queer phenomena that, within the botanical world, happen naturally and undisturbed. The story of the first flower is a metaphor to talk about my experience as a queer person navigating environments that work against queerness. Some songs on the album are also quite political and personal and speak about the struggle of identities fighting for their political existence in society.

TANK The First Flower is a project of transmutation – a channelling of performance art into the musical sphere. How was the experience of distilling an immaterial concept into the “solidity” of an album? How did its production and creation differ from a performance or a sculpture?
AI I compose music for all my performances; it comes very naturally in my practice. The music is produced to be performed live. The most common question that viewers ask is “Where can we listen to your music?” The First Flower is the music I composed for my performance ‘Miss’ and it is the first time that it has been available outside the realm of live performance. The process of recording this album professionally was a long and challenging journey. The most difficult part was finding the right team. It was produced independently under the executive production of The Performance Agency. This was our first time working within the music industry; coming from the fine art world made us realise how separated all the scenes are. We learned a lot along the way and we made some decisions that turned out fruitful, so I am very happy about it. I guess the creative process is the same but the industries are very different and that makes it a new experience for us.

TANK Your work incorporates the voice, which in queer life can be both a marker of otherness – “gay voice” – and means of liberation. What is your relationship to voice?
AI I believe that music, especially the singing voice, has transformational properties. The voice, produced from within, can often be transcendental. Words that are sung add an emotionality that somehow makes them surpass the meaning of the actual words, becoming more universal. For me, the music I make must be catchy so that the public leave the performance with a piece of music in their head and heart!

TANK Queerness and sexual difference can be observed within both botany and the animal kingdom, yet so much of the history of queer performance is about disrupting the idea of the “natural”. How do you navigate these frameworks?
AI In the song ‘Queer Garden,’ the lyrics talk about, among other things, the sexual fluidity of plants. For example, avocado trees seamlessly transition between male and female reproductive phases within 36 hours. During the day, they unfurl pollen-producing flowers, while by night, they bloom with pollen-receiving buds. Similar examples exist in nature, developing over hundreds and thousands of years, while in our societies, anything that doesn't fit the patriarchal system is oppressed. I, like most queer people, have to navigate societies that cater to heteronormativity, and metaphorically speaking, “blooming" unapologetically in these environments feels like an image of a flower growing out of concrete. Through alter-egos, body extensions, and wearable musical instruments, I try to expand the human body beyond its norms. These tools allow me to somehow move further from the bodies and identity questions that we are dealing with today. I question distinctions between natural and artificial, real and fictional, body and machine. I want to understand where our bodies start and end and how this extension relates to current socio-political contexts in relation to gender and identity. To be honest, identity politics bores the hell out of me; I wish we did not have to deal with it at all. However, the environment is pressing us to deal with urgent concrete matters because they affect my life and my work. So I find myself in between telling stories that seem urgent and using my voice politically, but more importantly, contemplating future bodies, new bodies, and other possibilities of becoming, referencing material from academia, biology, and science fiction.

TANK How did your collaborations with Lotic, Mykki Blanco and Colin Self come about?
AI For every project, I do my best to prioritise working with queer people and women. This project is a dream project since these collaborations are artists I always dreamt of working together. Lotic produced ‘Fear of Death’, an epic symphonic, cinematic explosion, a song that speaks about the temporality of the lives of flowers. It's been a total honour to work with Mykki Blanco in ‘Miss Kosovo’; they are someone I looked up to for many years, who has inspired me and an entire generation with their courageous presence and their cutting-edge work. Colin Self is a friend: they produced ‘Voices’, one of my favourites on the album, a very personal song which speaks about my experience of the Kosovo War. Working with them has been so inspiring and safe; it's always beautiful working with queer peers and supporting each other. I love our beautiful connection and friendship and appreciate Colin's work as an artist, I am blessed to have a song with this great artist and friend.

TANK The First Flower is a pop album at its core. So much of pop music is about joy, a quality that is sometimes excluded from activist modalities. Why was it important to work within this idiom?
AI From a very young age, I've been surrounded by women musicians, and singing as a child with my sister left a mark on my artistic journey. My grandmother had a great voice and was always singing and telling stories around the house. My mother, Selvete Krasniqi, is a composer, and she introduced us to music and art. As a teenager, I worked at a radio station and had the chance to listen to and select new music for my show. While doing so, I loved guessing who would be a star. I was right a few times; for example, I guessed that Gaga, Amy Winehouse, and Adele would be big stars when they just came out, and they were. I loved playing that game! Later on, but when I was still quite young, I directed a music video for ‘E dehun’ by Era Istrefi, one of the biggest pop stars in Kosovo. Naturally, pop music became my main field of research, always seeking new sounds, aesthetics, and live pop performances interested in the use of fashion, and art. At first, I was fascinated by the impact of pop music on society. I adopted pop music songwriting and pop performativity in my practice, but my approach was more spatial, experimental, with a goal to explore the transformational potential of bodies and spaces. The performance art scene allowed me to take a more conceptual approach and also freed me from the weight of being an entertainer, which is something I am not so interested in. Making this album now has made it very clear that I will continue recording my music in the future. Reaching the public through recorded music is another outlet that creates more accessibility in my work, and I am definitely interested in that! ◉

The First Flower is out now.

Photo by Nicola Lamburov. Hair by Tomislav Feller.