On the brink of becoming an adult, the quest of finding yourself and your place and space in society is a process you might at first need to figure out on your own, but equally in relation to others, people you are confronted with on a day to day basis – be it through media or in your immediate environment. Looking to others to recognize and identify bits of yourself, searching for role models and like-minded people that have paved the way or curved out the path you envision for yourself can often make or break the period of adolescence. Primarily using the internet to find exactly these role models truly matching her own sense of herself whilst growing up in Pennsylvania, Lyra Pramuk has looked for and to fitting role models all her life – and soon made it her mission to be exactly that pioneering person she herself has searched for in her teens.
Now based in Berlin, Lyra works as a performance artist and musician using the vibrant energy of the city to create equally pulsing live performances. She is aiming to provide a platform dedicated to fully embracing her true self, proving this honesty as a benefit not only for herself, but also for others. As a modern-day role model, Lyra Pramuk is set to infuse Social Media with her message, attracting like-minded followers and collaborators alike – recently, that approach even led to the multidisciplinary artist working on a video series devoted to strong women with Nike and Vogue, on the occasion of the Nike Cortez’s 45th birthday this year and in line with her own quest of advocating a new sense of inclusivity.
Titled “Gender Revolution: Beautiful x Powerful,” the videos see Lyra alongside non-binary editor Hengameh Yaghoobifarah and founder of art collective Curated by Girls Laetitia Duveau, set to represent a new generation of boundary pushing role models promoting equality. With her art as a way of initiating a sense of connection, Lyra is using this approach of working with words and especially feelings to reach her audiences as a tool to create a language for everybody to understand. With such a quickly rising reputation under her belt, we decided it was more than time to ask Lyra all about the art of self-expression, gender as energy, and being a role model ourselves – diving right into her flowing and glowing world where a performance is equally as raw as reality.
What does “being an artist” mean to you? What impact does it have on your life?
It’s hard to say what impact art has on my life, since I think “being an artist” is more of a way of life, or rather a way of dealing with life. I have been in a relationship with art since I was a kid. It has always sustained me, provided for me. Art and music allow me to explore questions about life and reality that I am not able to answer without writing songs, without “doing art.” I can’t image my life without art being a part of it, I’m not sure I would have much of a life actually.
Art is a constant process, progress, a development. How do you avoid standing still?
It really is, isn’t it? Any sense of “progress” I might feel in work that I am doing comes from two things – reaching out to and collaborating with friends, other artists whose work I relate to and who inspire me. Sharing our experiences, our dreams, work that inspires us. Secondly, it’s also really important for me to take all these ideas into my own space, to write and reflect, to synthesize material out of ideas that I am taking in. It’s necessary to research, to connect with like minds, to keep pushing yourself and each other. I love to socialize and see my friends, but as I get older I also realize how important solitary time is for me. I have to reflect a lot, and I need a lot of quiet for that.
Your work is a melting point that combines different forms of expression – we can find traces of various music genres, theatre, literature. Can you tell us more about that?
There is obviously the initial process of writing songs, building material. I wish I had more time to read, but I try to read as much as I can! I’m interested in books and articles that speak to me and my experiences, whether that’s philosophy, queer issues, environmental issues, sci-fi. That material then needs to be presented in the performance, and the performance can dictate how that material is received in so many ways. It’s about communication primarily – communicating ideas that many people in a room can hopefully relate to, even if it may be specific to one person’s experience or ideas.
I was doing musical theater throughout my childhood and adolescence, performed in many orchestras and choirs, studied classical music and sang in operas in college, got into clubbing, drag and underground queer performance art, editorial fashion modeling, and performance art. That’s a pretty broad spectrum. All of these experiences have shaped how my solo performances are built – and I’m always learning and taking in information from every performance collaboration I’m a part of. I always want to try new things.
That’s a really interesting thing about performance – and I do consider what I am doing to be primarily about performance. Live performance is embodied, it can involve fashion, aesthetics, theater, different styles of music or different methods of presentation, lighting, different kinds of sound, different ways of moving, speaking, singing – the possibilities are really only limited by your imagination.
Are there any role models that influence your way, your work, your creativity, your decisions?
My biggest role models? Björk has consistently motivated me to challenge myself, leap out of my comfort zone, and stay honest. To combine folk, pop, experimental and electronic music into your own kind of songs. One of my favorite composers, Béla Bartók, was a Hungarian ethnomusicologist who recorded folk song all over Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria but then converted it into his own non-conventional musical language. He really spiked my interest in writing a kind of new folk music that is also experimental. Another important one is Anaïs Nin, her diaries inspire me so much. She writes with such a brilliant clarity and sensitivity. I could name so many more people. Erykah Badu, Italo Calvino, Marlene Dietrich, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, David Bowie, Brecht, Rumi, Sarah Vaughan, so many of my peers, visual artists, internet artists, drag performers, my trans femme sisters online. The inspiration is everywhere!
Do you have other role models today than you used to have when you were a teenager? How did the importance of role models develop, change throughout your life?
I guess when I was a kid, because I grew up in a really small town in Pennsylvania in the US, I was looking for role models all over the internet. I was a huge nerd in high school, I read a lot, saved quotes of twentieth century artists/intellectuals all over my devices. I am still really into quotes by talented genius artist people. They are like little motivators I keep in my back pocket.
I guess my idea of a role model has gotten less formal now. There’s so much more information online and access to so many more artists, it’s hard to keep up actually. As I go on in life, my morals and sense of how I want to treat people and be treated gets more and more important. So I look for people who are amazing lights, people who shine and challenge the status quo and try to create positive change in their little circles. And that can mean so many different things. My artistic family in Berlin gives me so, so much – I couldn’t exist without these people.
Would you say that you are a role model to others? How does it feel? What defines a role model?
I guess I’m as much a role model to some people as so many people are role models to me. Collective support is super important. When we support each other and set positive examples for each other we literally build each other up. It feels really good to build collectives, to support alternative family structures. If there’s a way forward, I think that’s the only way. But it’s complicated, because the economy and Instagram generation is sort of made for building up the “self” and the “ego.” It’s a balance game at best.
The most desirable goal in life might be to become your own role model, do you think you have reached that point? Are you your own role model?
I mean, I’m a human. On good days I push myself and flourish. On bad days I cry and listen to music that I love and pick up the pieces. But yes every day, every week I try to be my own challenge, my own support, my own best friend.
It has a lot to do with coming to terms with yourself, probably a never ending journey… What did you learn on this journey so far? Where and when do you think might this journey end?
Yeah, I don’t think the journey ever ends. I am definitely still coming to terms with myself, and that takes patience. I hope I never stop learning or thinking critically about the world we live in, how it changes, how we can improve it. I am only a small part of this ongoing journey and the work goes as long as human society goes on, which considering climate change estimates is not super clear to me.
In some of your songs (eg “Forgive” and “Sinking In”) you tell stories without actually using words, the energy of your voice speaks to the audience, creates a spherical, spiritual almost sacred space. You reach a new dimension that common words couldn’t invent. Correct me if I’m wrong: all your work seems to be about and live through energy. Do you believe in something “higher”? Or in other words: what do you believe in?
That’s sort of spot on. So much of my understanding of the world is based on energy. I think every multi-cellular organism is linked to every other in its consciousness. I believe life carries energy. I believe consciousness and energy are more important than physical matter and this physical world we live in. Products, profits, buildings, bodies only reach so far, and only last so long. If we were to focus as a society more on connectivity and energy transfer rather than our egos and our private property and making sure our bodies and clothes look like the adverts tell us they should, we would all be in a better place, and our environment would be too.
I’m a spiritual person and I don’t take that lightly. I don’t ascribe to any particular religion or teaching, it’s more just a sense of nature, connection with other life, and appreciation for what my senses offer me. I am so grateful for what I am able to sense and experience. Musical space, or the organizing of sound into space, is its own spiritual realm for me. There is so much beauty in sound, in nature, even in the sounds that might be considered “ugly” which are actually beautiful. Nature doesn’t have such strict rules after all.
What do you want your audience to realize?
If people see me perform I want them to realize that they are more similar to me, and to everyone in the room, than they thought when they walked in. That the structures of money and power that attempt to divide us every single minute do not actually exist. I hope that they come away feeling more connected to themselves, to each other, to their emotions, to their sensual bodies, and to the universe. And I hope they feel love.
In your interview with Vogue for the Nike video series “Gender Revolution: Beautiful x Powerful” you said that “gender is energy” – could you explain what you mean by that? Energy is a beautiful word.
In chemistry or in physics energy is something that is necessary for a process or for a certain job to be done. So in that sense, I do see gender expression as having a sort of utility or use in our social worlds. There can be gendered expressions that require a lot of energy or strength, and there can be gendered expressions that use up less of you, that conserve more of yourself and others. So there is that sense, but also the idea that gender is a spectrum and offers different styles of energy that can take over us at different times. Different symbols. And let’s be honest, gender expression is different in different cultures and times – it is always shifting. I see so many people on the street whose struggles clearly result from holding on so firmly to the identity they think they need to embody in order to exist, to try so hard to be Western society’s definition of a “man” or a “woman,” you can even see this struggle in their faces. I believe gender is actually an invisible and mysterious thing, not something that is set into our bodies, but an energy that works through our bodies.
Through your art you make yourself vulnerable, you show what’s inside. Is that something that frightens you sometimes? Is it something you struggle with? Especially when you’re on stage?
Performing is actually my favorite thing to do in the world, I’ve been doing it my whole life. Sure vulnerability can be frightening, but I guess honesty is the only way to go, right? I often feel like I have no choice. I sometimes wonder if I’m being too serious or too this or too that, but who am I to say. The American choreographer Martha Graham addressed this idea with what is one of my favorite quotes:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
Probably it’s a process as well, to get used to the situation of telling the audience the story of your life, of your emotions in some kind of a monologue, without an interaction…
Sure. It’s always a story that comes from a specific place, that you try to make relatable to more people. There’s a tradition of singing, storytelling poets throughout all of recording human history, and I feel like I’m a part of that lineage in some small way.
The Berlin night life tends to bring people down – or to help them freeing their minds and getting closer to their true self. What impact did the scene have on you, on your work, on your mental health?
The scene brought me down, and also helped me get closer to my true self. I don’t think it’s so easy to splice it like this. In the club scene everyone melts into each other, which is as beautiful as it is scary – there is no precedent for this in mainstream culture so it’s easy to get lost in it, too. It’s a gorgeous mess. I’ve had some difficult moments with social anxiety, sexual anxiety, and drug use, like so many young people in Berlin. But ultimately I think the club scene empowered me more than harmed me, I’ve just had to distance myself a bit from certain aspects of club culture.
Were mental health issues ever a topic that was relevant, acute to you?
I’m very conscious of mental health. My own experiences with anxiety and gender dysphoria have stunted my social, personal, and professional development at some points along my path. I’ve been in some extremely debilitating states of mind. Because I have struggled in these specific ways, I know when I am struggling and what course my life has to be on in order for me to not be struggling. That means investing in patterns of self-care. As I’ve learned to care for myself as an out trans person, my outlook has gotten so, so much better.
What’s the best part of being you?
Loving life, loving nature, loving people, being around music and friends. Like a lot of people I’ve had points where I didn’t know how to continue on with my life, and I still do. But I don’t let that paralyze me anymore. I’ve been challenged enough by life that I feel pretty confident in general, even if I have bad days every now and then (everybody does). I am grateful I have a great family, amazing friends, and love the work that I get to do.
Interview MARIEKE FISCHER, Words TRISHA BALSTER
Header Image taken by Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert