British trans performance artist takes trauma from burger assault and turns it into a call to action with ‘Burgerz’
Burgerz is a must-see—a timely, important and immeasurably generous work of art.
by Josh Rivers
Travis Alabanza is an electrifying talent, but that’s obvious. One need only glance in their direction to see pulsing from them the potential and possibility of art manifesting in its purest, most acute form. To sit in their glow is to be enthralled, enchanted, mesmerised.
Travis is a performance artist, poet and writer par excellence: a savage talent who leaves us breathless and aching (a ransom paid gladly to watch), as they hold us quivering in rapture. But as we watch, Travis’ electric talent exposes the ineffectual voyeurs we have become: their body of work continues to illuminate the inadequacy of our present moment, the shallowness of our activism, the absence of our humanity.
Burgerz, their newest and perhaps most devastating performance, is borne of Travis’ trauma-fuelled obsession with burgers, after one was hurled at them in broad daylight on a bustling bridge in London. It’s a performance that forces us to reflect upon our collective inaction, the insufficiency of our wokeness.
Here, in majesty and in pain, Travis stands before us asking us to not only imagine the attendant ignominy of standing alone wiping mayonnaise from our faces, but to ask ourselves why no one helped, why no one stopped, why no one was suitably outraged. Of course none of us were there, but here we are now sitting in front of Travis, mouths agape, drool pooling in our laps, limp and gutless consumers of their pain and humiliation.
Burgerz is potent and painful and beautiful and raucous. Travis weaves through pain, humiliation, laughter, and hope seamlessly, perhaps because they know each so intimately. Their experience, as presented in Burgerz, is one of searching and probing, of deconstructing and dismantling the suffocating strictures of the binary, while poking fun at the precarity and flimsiness of the structures that render so many of us useless in the face of transphobia and, indeed, the quotidian violences big and small that we allow in public and in private.
The addition of a cis white man to the stage and performance—a shadow of impotence, inaction, and helplessness—was a stroke of particular genius in a performance dripping with it. Even those designed to survive and thrive within these structures are manacled and mangled by the violence perpetrated against our trans siblings.
Of course, everyone in the room (it’s assumed) is an oat milk-drinking hipster, prone to pound relentlessly on their keyboard about this or that trans injustice, this or that socialist dream, this or that manifestation of the obtuse “ism”s that so blight our lives. But Burgerz is two-fingers up to our tepid and ineffective social justice warrior posturing and is a devastating, jarring reflection of just how inane our “activism” must sound ringing in the ears of trans folks who bear the full brunt of the injustice.
But, if we allow it, Burgerz is also hopeful. Travis has turned moments of trauma into art and entertainment for us as a favour. Perhaps with insight, guidance and a swift smack in the proverbial mouth, we might begin to actually do something.
As Travis sauntered towards me after the show, I felt like an idiot. Helpless. Wordless. Inadequate. Why wasn’t I on the bridge? Will anything I do or say ever be enough to make up for someone else’s rank insecurity, for someone else’s unbridled and unchecked violence? Of course, someone else’s violence is actually mine and my wishing I could defend Travis—my guilt—is self-indulgent.
The challenge, then, is to drag ourselves out of our own self-involvement, to learn to act reflexively and without trepidation and to realise that whatever we’re doing, whatever mantles we’ve taken up, are not enough if the people whom we love and revere, whose ears we fill with thundering applause and gushing praise, cannot walk down the street unharmed.
Burgerz is a must-see—a timely, important and immeasurably generous work of art. This show, for Travis, might be a catharsis, their way of processing their pain and turning it into something beautiful and healing. It might be a way of speaking of their experiences in the only way they know how.
I can’t speak for Travis. For us, though, Burgerz is instructive, an opportunity for reflection and, ultimately, action. It begs us to ask, Why don’t we defend the humanity of our trans siblings? Why don’t we speak up in the face of such vitriolic behaviour? Why have we been so unable to behave as the people we hope might come to our own rescue? Why do they stand alone when it really matters? What will I do when I hear someone snickering at someone else on the tube? Will I be brave enough to act?
Unfortunately, I trust we’ll be here again, rapturous and fulsome, palms red from pounding our hands together. Travis will continue, either for relief or in generosity, to forge art out of the violence we allow and we will continue to praise them for it. Our job, our most urgent work, is to ensure they no longer have to.
Josh Rivers is a writer and host of Busy Being Black, a podcast exploring how we live in the fullness of our queer Black lives.