Canadian-American Performance Artist
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Summary of Cassils
Cassils' work uses the sculpting, training and transformation of their body to define their own parameters of identity and self-expression. Whether drawing on their experience as a personal trainer to gain pounds of muscle over an intensely short period, or on their stunt training to set themselves alight, Cassils has literally built their body into a vital and primary site of artistic inquiry. By pushing themselves to extremes of physical experience, and rendering the process or output in vivid performance, film and visual art, they illustrate the risks to, and subversive potential of, those who step outside established norms of gender and sexuality.
Based in LA, their practice draws on the rich history of body-based Performance Art whilst making significant inroads into the gallery, the academy and even mainstream popular culture. Their success in doing so reflects changing 21st century debates around self-definition, expression and identity.
- Cassils' work is heavily invested in the visibility and centrality of the transgender body, and in highlighting prejudice, marginalization, and abuse. Their work challenges established narratives about what it means to be of one gender or sexuality or another, and what kinds of bodies might be representative of that identity.
- Cassils' work highlights the potential of the body to be transformed through physical activity, over both short and long periods of time. Whether by engaging in extensive weight training or bodybuilding or engaging in performative actions that radically change the framing of their body, highlighting the way that identity is constructed and projected onto different bodies is key.
- Their work maintains real and material connections to the communities the artist highlights, both through direct participation (through initiatives like making body training available for free), and through presentation in collaboration with relevant institutions like the ONE archive of LGTBQIA+ history in Los Angeles.
- Much of their early work was created in collaboration with others (most notably in the group Toxic Titties). Collaborative work reflected their dissatisfaction with the established marketized models of the art world and art education, and often explicitly challenged instances where performers and artworkers were being exploited. This process of collaboration continues, including with emerging artists.
Progression of Art
In this performance, Cassils wears a prosthetic mask that gives them the appearance of having had their eyes ripped out of their sockets (and also renders the artist unable to see), as well as a blonde wig, pink body thong, and a dark tan. During the performance Cassils stands on a wooden platform held seven feet off the ground by construction scaffolding and performs a bodybuilding routine of flexing poses, designed to show off muscle definition and body shape in slow motion for six minutes, holding the deep muscular contractions for such long periods of time that their limbs begin to shake. The performance is made cinematic not only by the use of special effects makeup, but also by the presence of film-set lighting, a special effects crew, and ambient soundtrack. The original performance was funded by the Franklin Furnace Performance Art Fund, and the resulting film went on to be screened at the Asian Experimental Video Festival in Hong Kong, Festival Ciné à Dos in Koulikoro (Mali), at Art Cinema Zawya in Cairo (Egypt) and Cultureel tetras de Kaaij, Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Hard Times was conceived in order to call attention to the high level of effort and exertion that goes into creating and maintaining one's physical image, and links this to the notion of consumer culture and film production. By performing a bodybuilding routine in slow motion and presenting viewers with muscles that tremble as they strain to maintain the poses, Hard Times not only emphasizes the physical demands of altering one's appearance, but also alludes to the psychological and emotional strain involved in such transformation. The figure that Cassils becomes for the performance is inspired by Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes who was transformed from male to female form for seven years.
Performance and film
As in Hard Times, the central figure that Cassils references in this four to five hour performance is Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes who was transformed from male to female for seven years. Tiresias was clairvoyant and interpreted bird songs to predict the future. In the performance, Cassils presses their nude body against the back of a block of ice carved into the form of a neoclassical Greek male torso while lit by a single beam of white light from above. As the performance progresses, Cassils' body heat melts the block. Visitors are welcome to walk around the plexiglass platform on which Cassils and the ice sculpture stand, and to take in the performance from all angles.
Tiresias was also captured as a single channel video installation that condenses the performance into a fifteen-minute loop, shown in two different shots: one which shows Cassils from the waist up, and the other showing close-ups of the subtle transformations taking place, such as the formation of water droplets, and the reddening of Cassils' skin. This video is rear-projected onto floating plexiglass, and accompanied by an ambient soundtrack which combines bird songs, the sound of melting ice, and a vocal performance of Fran Schubert's Winterreise (Winter Journey). This vocal was performed by Cassils' brother Matthew Cassils, a classically-trained opera singer who collaborated on the sound design for Tiresias with designer Kadet Khuhne. As theatre professor Maurya Wickstrom notes, "The Shubert [sic] songs of the score tune broken-hearted human suffering to the cruel, icy elements of winter, the world of ice and human feeling bound together. But these are joined by the sounds of birds and melting ice, which cannot help but sound like spring, the moment of creation."
By melting the sculpture with their body heat, Cassils calls attention to the instability of the body, and in particular, the impermanence of the desirable human physique. As performance researcher Megan Hoetger writes, "As with most of Cassils's performances, Tiresias is about endurance and transformation, but it is also about physical process's intersection with the disjunctures from the visual and vision itself". Moreover, unlike Tiresias' transformation, Cassils offers the audience a trans body that is not, as they explain, "about a crossing from one sex to another, but [...] a continual becoming, a process-oriented way of being that works in a space of indeterminacy, spasm, and slipperiness." This demonstrates to the audience "the resolve required to persist at the point of contact between masculine and feminine".
Wickstrom asserts that the piece, like much of the recent work in queer studies, deals with the notion of temporality. As she writes about the performance, "time in this room was marked by the primordial substance - water - dripping, each drop by slow drop magnified as if by the echo chamber of a cave, although actually by electronic amplification [...] I felt the desire to stay with Cassils, or simply to stay with. This was, I think, a response to an extraordinary innovation in time that Cassils created, and my desire to stay with that time. This particular kind of time, and the desire to stay with, has to do with what we may desire without perhaps knowing that we do: a temporality dislodged from those temporalities that bind people within the various apparatuses of hypertrophic capitalism. The piece created a temporal sanctuary from those times variously described as 'chrononormative time', 'homogeneous, empty time', 'chronological duration', or 'the pure and simple repetition of the worst', all of which construct time without the possibility of innovation, revolt, or the illuminated present."
Performance, Sculpture, and Video
Becoming An Image
This performance was originally presented at the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, the oldest active LGBTQIA+ archive in the United States, and was subsequently re-enacted at various other venues. In it, a 2000-lb block of clay sat in the center of a pitch-black room. Cassils, wearing only a pair of skin-tone underwear, then proceeded to physically modify the block using the force of their own body, kicking and punching the clay in order to alter its form. Sporadic camera flashes from a photographer illuminated this process for only a moment at a time, providing viewers with mere glimpses of the transformation, and burning these momentary images onto the viewers' retinas. The images were therefore able to be seen by the audience between the flashes on the camera, diminishing as their eyes readjusted to the dark.
The captured images, which went on to be shown at other exhibitions of Cassils' work (alongside the modified blocks of clay), present the artist in the throes of this strenuous activity, grimacing and dripping sweat. Audio of the performance was also recorded and presented at subsequent exhibitions, as the sound of Cassils' physical exertion was an integral part of the work. The performance lasted 24 minutes. In 2015, Cassils was awarded a Creative Capital Grant to cast the remnants of the clay blocks in bronze. The resulting bronze sculptures were called The Resilience of the 20% or The Monument Project.
Cassils trained with a professional Muy Thai boxer to prepare for the performance in which they physically attacked the block of clay. Through the strenuous effort it required to physically re-shape the clay, Cassils offered a commentary on the amount of work it takes to develop and maintain one's body, and simultaneously, one's identity. The violence of their activity also alludes to the violence experienced by trans individuals around the world, and Cassils understands the modified block of clay as a monument to trans people's perseverance and fortitude. The performance was also carefully constructed as to implicate the witness (here, the viewer who glimpsed the performance through the camera flashes) into this dialogue. In this way, Cassils sought to make visible the historically invisible histories of trans individuals. As curator Jeanne Vaccaro writes, "[t]he opponent Cassils constructed is meant to symbolize overwhelm, inescape, and being stuck [sic], feelings incited by transphobia, racism, and sexual violence." Vaccaro continues, "The image is always a flicker, and the performance feels like a composite of physiological and emotional reactions. Cassils incites a productive disorientation in us, slowing down the sensory perceptive and cognitive reflexives of sight and sound we rely on. Becoming an Image undoes, in order to reassemble, how we make sense of and experience our environment [...] Cassils constructs an opportunity for the audience to form a collective body, pushing us out of a state of passive witnessing and into an ethical encounter."
Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture
Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture emerged from Cassils' Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions Artist Research Grant. This was offered to the artist in order to create a performance for Pacific Standard Time, an initiative launched by the Getty in conjunction with various arts institutions in Southern California. The project began with a six month durational performance, inspired by Eleanor Antin's 1972 durational performance Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, in which Antin undertook an extremely strict diet (aimed at weight loss) for forty-five days, documenting her body's transformation daily by taking photographs of her naked body from four different angles. Similarly, Cassils adopted a strict regimen of diet and bodybuilding exercises. This time however the objective was to gain twenty-three pounds of muscle over twenty-three weeks. They documented their progress through the use of photography, resulting in a grid of images reminiscent of Victorian-era British-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, as well as video installations, watercolors, and a magazine, all of which have gone on to be exhibited at venues worldwide.
Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture both references and subverts Antin's earlier work. While Antin's performance enacted what is traditionally seen as a feminine activity (weight loss), Cassils' reinterpretation involved the transformation of their body into a muscular form that is generally coded as masculine (certainly in the West). As scholar E. Hella Tscaconas writes, "the bounded, durational process of building a body destabilizes the hegemony of normative gender by producing the remarkable copresence of a virtuosic masculine musculature manifest on a putatively female body." The use of the term "cuts" in the title of the work highlights the way that Cassils uses exercise to emphasize the "cut" of their musculature, rather than being "cut" by a surgeon's knife. Indeed, in both their artistic and physical training careers, Cassils seeks to demonstrate that being trans does not necessarily have to involve transforming one's body through the use of hormones or surgery, and that nutrition and exercise can also be used to alter one's physical appearance.
Durational Performance (documented in photography and video)
For Inextinguishable Fire, Cassils stood upon a sound stage with their arms outstretched whilst wearing a white, flame-retardant suit in front of a backdrop painted with a sunset. For fourteen seconds, Cassils held this pose whilst set alight, until two silhouetted men emerge from either side to extinguish the fire. This performance was filmed at 1000 frames per second using a high-speed Phantom camera, and was then turned into a fourteen-minute video showing the scene in slow-motion. The video begins with an extreme close-up of the centre of Cassils' chest, and then zooms out to reveal the full scene, before re-winding and repeating. The film, which was made first, is also shown immediately following the live version of Inextinguishable Fire that they have performed. This included a live burn on the stage of the National Theatre in London in 2015, for SPILL Festival of Performance. Just as Cassils underwent intensive physical training to prepare for their other work, as in Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture and Becoming an Image, the preparation for this piece included extensive stunt training in order to learn how to perform a full body burn. A professional stunt crew was hired to assist in the performance.
Cassils' Inextinguishable Fire was inspired by Harun Farocki's 1969 film of the same name, which began with a narration regarding the challenge of presenting the effects of napalm on the human body. The narration states "[w]hen we show you pictures of napalm victims, you'll shut your eyes. You'll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you'll close them to the memory. And then you'll close your eyes to the facts." Farocki then shows himself extinguishing a lit cigarette on his arm, offering viewers a more tolerable representation of the pain and trauma of being burnt. Cassils explains that "I see the fire stunt functioning in a similar way. My act of self-immolation gestures toward the desire to know and understand this horror, as well as the impossibility of doing so. How can I enact empathy when my own situation is so removed from the immediacy of torture and war?"
There is also an important element of critique in both Farocki's original film and Cassil's reimagining of it. As they continue, '[m]any of us are so saturated with brutalized imagery that a distance is created. Likewise so many images are fed to us at such rapid succession that the ability to analyze and think critically about these images is reduced. People 'like' articles on FaceBook and Twitter based on the fleeting headlines. People don't even read the articles anymore. My hope is that by creating a film where at first you think you are looking at a traumatized body, but at the end of the film you realize you are looking at an image constructed to manipulate you into thinking you are looking at a traumatized body, that people will think more critically about the construction of such imagery and pay closer attention. I was inspired by Farocki's concept of using images to critique images."
By juxtaposing the film against the live performance, Cassils pushes the audience one step further, forcing them to bear witness to the sight, sounds, and smells of a real traumatic event, rather than viewing it in a purely mediated form. The artist explains, "[s]omething I'm very interested in is implicating the viewer in the act of watching. They're not just passive people that walk up -- they're part of the piece." The white suit and Christ-like pose that Cassils' dons in the performance can be read as embodying two otherwise opposing ideas, recalling both the divine (Jesus, and even Joan of Arc), as well as the malicious (the KKK). Moreover, by looping the performance on film, Cassils highlights the cyclical nature of violence.
This work represents a turning point in Cassils career, marking the point at which they take a step back from creating work that deals explicitly with trans experiences, and instead towards a broader project that addresses the violence and trauma experienced by a wide variety of marginalised groups of people. Inextinguishable Fire also alludes to the use of burning throughout history as a reaction against sexual deviancy, heresy, and witchcraft, for example, as well as more contemporary examples, such as the burning videos produced by ISIS, and the fires that burn at protests against police brutality. Cassils explains, "I continue to make work that addresses trans representation. However I feel frustrated at the limits by which my work is perceived in a way which rests solely on my body and identity. Specifically a fetishized muscular body. That being said, it was important for me to make self-empowered, self-transforming pieces such as; Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, Tiresias and Hard Times, but I now trust that the trans content is inherently 'in' the work [...] I want to play with formal possibilities which embrace the obtuse and the unrecognizable. I am curious as to what ideas and questions can come from continual transformation."
Live performance and film
Pissed is a sculpture comprised of a minimalist plexiglass cube filled with two hundred gallons of the artist's urine. It was collected over the course of two hundred days and preserved with boric acid. The cube is displayed alongside a grid of 255 disinfected orange urine containers, used by the artist to collect their urine, each marked with the date of urine collection. For the final two hours of the 4800 hour collection period, in a performance titled Fountain, Cassils stood on stage in front of an audience, drank a jug of water, urinated into a funnel while covering their genitals with a tank top, and deposited the urine into the plexiglass cube.
Like many of Cassils' other performances, Pissed was accompanied by an audio track. The audio track featured two hours of oral arguments from the 2018 Supreme Court case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender male teen in Virginia who fought for the right to use the boys' bathroom at his school. These oral arguments alternate between adults who quoted the bible in order to oppose Grimm, and fourteen-year-old Grimm's direct responses to these bullies. Cassils explains that the audio "is a way of re-contextualizing the piece as a real-world issue. It places the problem on a real body. Since it's just audio, you don't know what this boy looks like. This body could belong to anybody. This body could be yours."
The piece was conceived in response to the Trump administration's discriminatory reversal of the Obama administration's executive order that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of their choosing. Cassils explained, "the sculpture was to showcase to people just how much fluid one body needs to contend with as the result of a government ordinance." They continue by saying that it "seems insane that I have to make a cube of piss for people to get this idea. I shouldn't have to make this. I shouldn't have to hold my own urine. It's crazy that we have to go to these extremes but this is the culture that we're living in." As art historian David J. Getsy asserts, Pissed "offered a defiant material presence that resists the ways in which 'privacy' has been weaponized against transgender lives [and] makes the case that bodily processes are already public and political." Indeed, Cassils' urine collection was made public, not only during the two-hour performance Fountain, which implicated a live audience in a performance of witnessing (thereby evoking empathy, a common goal of many of their performances), but throughout the entire two hundred days, as they carried around the large urine collection containers at all times. The artist's friends were also involved in the process, as Cassils was unable to carry the urine collection containers when travelling by air, and thus they recruited friends to collect their own urine during these periods.
Durational sculpture (200 gallons of urine, 18,000 grams of boric acid, and acrylic)
Biography of Cassils
N.B. Cassils uses the plural pronouns "they", "them", and "their", as, in their own words, "this plurality reflects, through language, the position Cassils occupies as an artist".
Cassils was born in Toronto (Canada) and moved with their middle-class family to Montreal in Quebec when they were four years old. Cassils has three brothers (one older, and two younger). One of Cassils' grandmothers was a painter, and although their parents were, as they put it, "artistically inclined", they didn't take up any serious artistic pursuits. As a child Cassils had to seek out art on their own, and from a young age would draw obsessively for several hours a day. Cassils' best friend during childhood was Brendan Healy, who would go on to become the director of Canadian Stage, a not-for-profit contemporary theatre company in Toronto.
As a child, after suffering from an unknown ailment between the ages of nine to thirteen, Cassils was finally diagnosed with gallbladder disease. As they recall, "I almost died during that period - the doctors opened me up and found out that my organs were rotting. It made me interested in understanding my own body and my mortality. I began to go to the YMCA and weight train at 15 because I was so tiny and weak." This interest in their own body and in the power of bodybuilding to sculpt the human form would go on to become a central aspect of their future artistic practice.
Education and Early Training
Cassils received a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax in 1997. This was the first time that they were exposed to contemporary art, particularly art that was informed by Marxist theory and feminist discourse, as well as work involving the use of the artist's body. The curriculum at NSCAD was often distinct from the teaching techniques favoured by more conventional art colleges. Figure drawing classes, for example, involved models jumping on trampolines rather than standing still. Cassils recalls that "[m]ajor experimentation was happening. Everything was played with. That notion of working within a system but working against a system still resonates with me." Instructors Jan Peacock and Garry Neil Kennedy were particularly influential as Cassils was developing their early political and identity-focused video and performance work. Cassils notes however that the climate at NSCAD was at the time still heavily dominated by white men, and that the students were not exposed to the work of many artists of color or female artists.
Upon graduating from NSCAD, Cassils moved to New York City, where they interned at Franklin Furnace from 1997 to 2000. This position involved assisting Martha Wilson (who had formed Franklin Furnace in 1976 as part of her own reaction against the male-dominated atmosphere at NSCAD) with the digitization of the expansive archive of performance. Wilson and Cassils remain close friends to this day. During this time, Cassils also staged exhibitions and performances at the Holland Tunnel Gallery, the Limelight, and PS122.
In 2000, Cassils relocated to California to attend the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), after securing a merit scholarship. They graduated from this program with an MFA in 2002. As Cassils notes, CalArts has a strong connection to NSCAD and its alumni, but, unlike the Canadian institution, CalArts is also an important site in the history of feminist artistic practice. One important course that Cassils participated during her time at the Institute was Michael Asher's "Post-Studio Critique" class, which would often run from ten in the morning to ten at night on Fridays. In this class Cassils was introduced to the experimental principles of duration and endurance, as well as different forms of Institutional Critique. Cassils recalls Asher as being "someone who was living their practice" and says that the class was a "deeply rigorous experience".
While undertaking these studies at CalArts, Cassils (along with photographer Clover Leary and performance artist Julia Steinmetz) co-founded a performance collective Toxic Titties. Cassils explains that, although they had hoped graduate school would be a space for experimentation and collaboration, it in fact carried an air of pretention, with well-off students setting up small galleries in their studios and aiming to sell art from early on. Toxic Titties was started as a way to counter this atmosphere. The group focused on creating multidisciplinary, process-oriented, and event-based conceptual performances, many of which dealt with issues of identity. For nearly a decade, Toxic Titties performed and exhibited at venues across the US. One of the most famous of their interventions was at Vanessa Beecroft's VB46 at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, for which Cassils had been invited to work as a performer. The Toxic Titties instead critiqued power relations (relating to gender identity and class) by engaging Beecroft's female performers in a critical dialogue. As Cassils explains, "There were masochistic rules for the models [...] We all had to wear the same size shoe, so feet were compressed in small, tight heels. Her team did not tell us they would be removing all our pubic hair so when we sat down we were spread-eagle to the art world. I learned you can't use a body of a person as a formal brushstroke. You can't separate someone's identity and just say that it's form." The end result of this intervention was the unionization of the performers' group and an increase in their pay. It was through interventions like this that art historians and scholars like Amelia Jones, Jennifer Doyle, Christine Ross, and José Esteban Muñoz first became acquainted with Cassils.
After graduating from CalArts in 2002, Cassils remained in Los Angeles until 2005. They say of living in the city that "[t]o inhabit Los Angeles is to live on a film set - indeed, to inhabit any city whose culture is defined by mass culture of consumption is to find oneself defined by the images we consume. Of course, Los Angeles looks different when you pull back the frame of the camera and see the poverty and dashed dreams. It's a strange city that I love for its extremity. As a Canadian, I have a sort of anthropological take on it; I see LA as America with the volume turned up. There is nothing to hide, the tits are falling out of the bra, the lipstick is smeared. It's a beautiful mess, here in the city of angels".
In 2005 Cassils moved to London for two years, partly due to discontent with the American political climate at the time. In London they worked as an assistant and personal trainer to German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Cassils returned to Los Angeles in 2007, where they continue to live. Cassils claims to not have much of a social life, but does enjoy hanging out at "queer leather bars", attending community events, watching obscure Japanese New Wave cinema, and attending art events at alternative venues like the Underground Museum. One of Cassils' closest friends and mentors is American performance artist Ron Athey, who also returned to Los Angeles after time living in London. Athey, like Cassils, creates work in which the body is pushed to extremes, and the two have collaborated together in the past.
In addition to their ongoing artistic career, Cassils works as a bodybuilder and personal trainer in Hollywood (often training actors who need to get into peak physical condition for movie roles), and as a trained stuntperson. This interest in the human physique carries over to many of their artworks, such as Cuts: A Tradition Sculpture (2011-2013), and Tiresias (2011). Cassils explains, "I love the metaphor that is bodybuilding. In order to build power, size and strength you have to literally break down your muscle mass. This in turn switches on the body's survival mechanism and makes the body build back faster and stronger. This reveals a law of nature that can be applied across the board: Sometimes life falls apart to come back together. You need to break things down, to build things up. This also applies to the principles of sculpture. As an artist, I see the construction of my physique as a performance which purposely toys with the traditional process of Greek sculptors, who were said to find their ideal form by chipping away at a block of marble and discarding any unnecessary material." This sentiment is one shared by many artists who use their body as a primary tool of artistic expression, and has a long history within Performance Art.
In 2007, Cassils received a merit scholarship to participate in a residency program at the Banff Centre for the Arts, as well as a Creation Grant from the Canada Council of the Arts Intra Arts department, which funded the creation of an experimental documentary and performance titled Simulation In Training, which investigated linkages between the military-industrial complex and the Hollywood film industry.
In 2007 Cassils met Cristy Michel, who they then married four years later. Michel holds an MA in philosophy and works as a registered nurse. She is also a talented bass player and ex-dominatrix. Cassils considers Michel to be one of their most important sources of inspiration.
In 2012 Cassils started a group in Los Angeles called Bootcamp for Freaks (BCFF), in order to give back to the community and share their passion for and knowledge of fitness with community members who can't afford gym memberships or personal trainers. As Cassils explains "[h]ere in the US, the economy is bad, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Centre lost most of its funding for its AIDS centre, and health-care costs continues to rise. Many of my community of queers are artists and without health-care, so I see fitness as ground-zero for boosting the immune system and a form of preventative medicine [...] BCFF is a safe and supportive environment for trans bodies, big bodies, small bodies, strong bodies, weak bodies, men, women and everything in-between. Class is in a local park. As an extension of my art practice, BCFF was designed to be its own spectacle. People were encouraged to wear an array of outrageous outfits. Lots of people showed up, people who don't feel comfortable in straight gyms. It's a cross-over of an aerobics class and disco club - really fun." They continue, adding that "BCFF was also conceived to further my exploration of gender representation via manipulating the body. In gyms women are taught to lift light and men are taught to lift hard. Not all 'women' want to pump pastel-pink mini-weights and some 'men' would rather a thin thigh than a bulky muscular one. A main principle of this class was to queer my knowledge of sports and science."
While most of Cassils' earlier work focuses on the trans experience, from 2015 their work is broader in its address towards other marginalized groups as well. In recent years, Cassils has been doing more artistic collaborations, with artists including Rafa Esparza, Keijaun Thomas, and Arshia Fatima Haq.
The Legacy of Cassils
Cassils belongs to a lineage of durational/endurance performance art, following in the footsteps of artists like Eleanor Antin, Chris Burden, and Tehching Hsieh, who undertake high-intensity and even dangerous activities, such as living in challenging conditions for extended periods of time and/or undergoing drastic weight changes in order to highlight and comment upon violence, trauma, and empathy in society.
The trans experience is also a key factor in their art, as well as in their career as a physical trainer. Cassils strives to demonstrate that being trans does not necessarily have to mean undergoing surgeries or taking hormones in order to enact a unidirectional change from one sex to the other. Their work instead demonstrates that gender is fluid and performative, and that exercise and diet can also serve as important tools for altering the form and composition of one's body. Moreover, in their art, they work not only to create a visual language to talk about trans experience, but also to expand and create new visual vernaculars to speak to/about queer/trans identity, violence, empathy, apathy, and the importance of "liveness" in a world so heavily mediated by technology.
Cassils is also heavily influenced by the current political situation, and what they describe as "the burning question of how can artists 'inspire a culture of change'", as well as asking [w]hat can we do to support each other and reach beyond our own lived experiences and subjectivities? How can live art enhance qualities of empathy and shared present moment [sic] in a world fractured and numbed by technology. How can live work against technologies and hyperperform their otherwise neutral role in the creating of a document or a moment of truth. In oppressive times can art be a ritual and reprive? A space for healing, witnessing and empowerment. Can we use the visual to manifest a vision of futurity? Can I create the visual language I wish I had had access to as a young person - and through this new vernacular can artists save a young person's life by offering a reflection of an alternate existence?" Cassils believes strongly in leading by example and making use of one's privilege to try to include others, working closely with communities in order to expand networks to allow people to support each other. They also believe that a percentage of art sales should always go to a grassroots organization that does important work related to the theme or issue that the artwork deals with.
Their practice also has an important function of visibility, not least because their work has demonstrated significant potential to crossover into more mainstream spheres of culture (such as film, television or music), both in the person of the artist and through their training and stunt work. Cassils says that, since appearing in the Lady Gaga music video Telephone in 2009, "I've had over 15,000 people look at my artist website in one day and I now receive fan mail. Some of these letters are from very young queer people, who live in smaller cities with no support. Teens have written me from Germany, France and Scotland, telling me of their feelings of alienation and that by being the artist that I am, and by being outspoken about my beliefs, I have helped them alleviate their own personal feelings of shame around gender identity and sexuality. To me, this is truly an honour and the ultimate service I can provide as an artist."