Juliana Huxtable cannot be boxed in. Daughter of Chaos Mother of Dread is her current Twitter name. It’s a sample from the 1990s punk band Pain Teen, which she played while DJing at Hör Berlin. Daughter of Chaos outlines Juliana’s interest in identity anarchy, which she defines as both semantic and bodily freedom – and the truth in assigned identity.
Queen of nightlife’ and ‘Darling of the art world’ are among her ever-growing army of avatars and selves. She has released a remix with Björk and performed poetry art at the MoMA in New York. Her work is truly multidisciplinary. The lady’s not for settling. Juliana produces and remixes politically and culturally defiant music, poetry, photography, installation art, performance art, painting – and she even published a book, Mucus in My Penal Gland.
Juliana offers a key critical voice on identity, as well as, specifically, her own identity as a black trans woman. Her work comments on different forms of reality through the lens of her personal structural experience. Inseparable from the political, the personal is our opportunity for disobedience, and Juliana plays with this concept through her ever- evolving portrait of selfhood. Ahead of her Boiler Room set in Berlin, Juliana speaks about truth, liberation, fantasy, play and identity.
“The metric for realness is moving” identifies Juliana in conversation with Flaunt magazine. But where to? Reality, or truth, and how we can or should represent it, has been grappled with since ancient times. Plato calls theatre “A bad lie”, and Horace finds truth is in “Nature”. Western academia’s idea of what truth, or reality, is has ricocheted between religious truth to scientific truth and then to personal truth in existentialism. Following this idea, art has the capacity to take on new importance in understanding what truth is, since it displays personal truth.
Juliana’s art leads us away from existentialism and into the 21st century’s hyper- reality: the idea that we cannot distinguish between the real and the simulated. Whilst her art retains some threads of self-given truth, Juliana’s practice mainly reflects on the complex web of political, digital, fantastical and bodily references in which her truth functions. Juliana’s art (her fake newspaper editing in particular) is actually a very good lie, rather than the false representation, or ‘bad lie’, as Plato would have it. She is witty, intelligent and critical of sensationalism. She proposes to play with the truth- giving structures, which fail her, in order to defy them. Juliana disputes the function of truth: how it is built, by whom and why.
As a multidisciplinary artist, ‘plural’ and ‘intersectional’ are terms that come to mind when attempting to express your extensive work. Was there ever a singular medium you preferred, when you were younger?
I don’t think there has ever been a single medium. When I was younger, I wanted to be a painter and a poet but even as a child I generally wanted to be an artist, so I always just defined with being an artist. I liked drawing, I liked painting, I liked writing. I would wear a beret all of the time. And so, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of being an artist, generally speaking.
You say that, growing up, you found a sense of familiarity in New York’s nightlife, where the sociality and the ‘dressing up’ reminded you of attending church. Which made me think, if a club can be church-like, are DJs its preachers?
I’m sure that possibility exists. I think that there are certain similar aspects. What I got out of church was the social function, and also the music that reached towards very lofty heights. The church, especially the one I grew up in, can aspire to and reach towards the sublime and it is a place for self- expression through mutual recognition with other people. It’s a self-selecting community, which means it is open to everyone, but you are there by choice. You recognise something in each other and you choose to participate. These collective rituals allow you to work through all the difficulties of life, but also to celebrate the beauty of life. I think that, particularly, for black people – I grew up in the South, so I grew up in a Southern Black Baptist Church – you deal with a lot. There is a lot of bullshit you have to deal with every day; there is a lot of financial stress, family stress, inherited trauma, inherited mental ailments and spiritual ailments. This creates a lot of cycles that are hard to break, and I think that church is, or can be, an opportunity to break those and use the really aspirational art form of music, dance and language play to do that.
I don’t know if there’s necessarily such a direct transfer as “This is the preacher, this is the choir”. For me, this transfer between the church and the club is not through equivalence, but a through a larger function. So, maybe a DJ could be a form of preacher, depending on the way you approach it. Some music avoids lyrics and avoids language and there are a lot of genres of music and a lot of ways of DJing that work through the extralinguistic, outside of language. So, sure, it could be.
Leading on from that, would you say this sort of cultural production is a truth-building practice? If music offers tools to maybe not heal but treat inherited trauma, is it a place you can build a new truth?
Well, what do you mean by truth?
(Laughs) that’s a good question. I guess what I was starting to think of when listening to, particularly, your poetry, actually, is that you reference a more existentialist form of truth. That it is personally given and personally created, and that it underlines the flimsiness of reality. For example, in Train you move the image of your neck from being insecure to being sexually powerful. Here, the idea of existentialist truth seems to have an influence. Is that correct?
Yeah, I would say that there are definitely existentialist threads in my thinking. Although, I don’t think that is where I rest my general approach. But, I do think there are definitely threads of that. Maybe, more than identifying an existentialist view of truth or reality, I think that I inhabit a space where my body, my experience and my structural position in the world influence and build what I understand to be truth and reality as much as the structures that I am given. So, especially in my writing, I attempt to approach the overarching narratives, canons and historical structures that we are given, and feel outside of that, wanting and knowing that participation within [these structures] both should be and is universal.
So, The Are Certain Facts that Cannot Be Disputed was about working through that and thinking about the structures that give us and perform the idea of information. Growing up through the encyclopaedia era – when I was a very young child you would turn to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Wilbook Encyclopaedia, you have children’s encyclopedias – the idea back then was that there was a certain set of publishers, with a certain set of information that was tied on some level onto knowledge-producing institutions. Then, entering into a period where the Internet both reveals the shortcomings of those presumed structures and offers something else. But that something else – the Internet – is also very ephemeral. So, what do you do when data and servers are not really sustainable? They’re not archival and they won’t necessarily last. We have certain forms of Internet archives, but they aren’t the same. A lot of what I’m dealing with is less trying to find a set idea about truth and fact-hood or what reality is, but navigating the structures that mediate that.
An example of a reference to these fact-making structures could be your comment on media sensationalism in the posters exhibited at Infertility Industrial Complex: Snatch the Calf Back. Would you say that was a lamentation of lost reality in consumerist news?
I think for me, for that show, I was thinking through the performance of visibility economies and less about questions of truth. There Are Certain Facts that Cannot Be Disputed was about fact-hood, knowledge production, history – what is a historical fact and who can lay claim to that and how does that affect fundamental feelings of humanness and the pageantry of history and antiquity. Snatch the Calf Back, for me, was a lot of things. I try not to over- prescribe how my work should be read, but it is kind of about visibility economy and identity politics and being in an era in which so many things are being read through the context of visibility; and ‘liberations’ of certain groups, like non-binary people or indigenous people, would come through giving them a sort of visibility campaign. Like, if Laverne Cox in a H&M campaign implies “that’s a win for all trans people”, it is assumed visibility is the same as the shifting of political, economic and cultural resources.
But also, to me, it is about over-performing humanness to a limit. I am interested less in a conservative idea of proscribing the binary that re-inscribes ideas of the binary in transness. Western/Non-Western binary is etched into these new kinds of political economies that are limiting identity. I have been interested in the contact between human and animal, that I think historically, politically and culturally appears in discourse countering same-sex rights – as if same-sex marriage would lead to bestiality. Or, if you let men identify as women, or women identify as men, then you might as well let anyone identify as an animal, as a dolphin or a tarantula. So, I asked myself, what is at work in the anxiety surrounding that? Also, activist resistance to conservative ways of thinking for the inclusion of identity rights inspired me.
The encounter between human and animal became an interesting way for me to think about the limit of the representational matrix. What are the contours and hard boundaries of what we think of as physical and worthy of visibility? That’s what I’ve been working through – thinking of transness, the explosion of transness into interspecies and the role of body modification in between all of these boundaries. To me it is more interesting to go there than to try and avoid them. I guess it’s an initiation, for me, of a form of identity anarchy. Maybe that’s what I’m actually trying to push for or think through, advocating for a form of anarchy – both semantic anarchy and anarchy in terms of what you are allowed to do with your body, where you are allowed to push your body. Everyone should have free hormones. You know, in a certain way, I am all for genetic modification! Of course, based on consent, and thinking of a world where that’s possible.
I have a question that is based on how you treat language, going back to your poetry and also your prints Casual Power and Destroying Flesh. I often find that your intonation is kind of counter-sensual, and it’s reflected as well in the all-caps, sparsely punctuated writing of the prints. Your portrayal of language reminds me of Saussure’s idea of arbitrariness of the sign* – I am mentioning this theory because I heard you are also interested in theory. So, I thought you might have read a post-structuralist idea of language – that it’s culturally constructed and is failing those outside of patriarchal cultural entities that construct the English language (Blau DuPlessis, 1986). Would you say you were a critic of the failings of language?
Fundamentally, I love language and all variations of it. An interesting part of my relationship with language is I was born and raised in United States and therefore raised into the English language. I am a product of slavery, so there is no real origin point I can return to. I think there are a lot of people who can trace a clear lineage to something else, even if it is a sister language like Gaelic, or something, which is arguably adjacent to English. But, I was raised in the context of English. So, I have no linguistic identity to turn to outside of American English, but I also feel highly fraught about my relationship with English because it’s a language that was, obviously, imposed on me to a certain degree, which is reflective of the condition of a black dysphoric existence. So, I have a fraught relationship with language because I am operating in arguably the most hegemonic language in the world, but simultaneously coming from a place where I want to articulate specificity. One thing I find so beautiful in black Americans in particular is language. I think it comes from this very complicated place where you don’t have something to return to that’s not English, but, you have a radical desire to express this insane specificity that comes from a dysphoric position. Compound that with someone like me who is curious about language, just generally speaking. I ask, how do we liberate language in terms of gender? How do we collapse hierarchies within language like the academic and the colloquial? So, for me, my use of language is coming from a place of play, a place of humour. But, I think language for me is a way to aspire towards the sublime, in the sense that I’m confronting a terrifying situation but it is also wildly beautiful. So, instead of trying to confine myself to a dogmatic or overly institutionalised way of critiquing language, I just want to create my own. I am from a very, very long lineage of black dysphoric experience in a position of doing that. I’ve been thinking about that lately because Toni Morrison talks about that a lot, that black people have so much love of language. I think hip-hop is related to that, as well as long traditions of spoken word poetry and preaching. You can see so much is created this way. I think the merging of queer language play and black language play is also beautiful. If there is anything that I think is influencing language, in a larger English context but also spilling out, it is black and queer language. It really has so much influence right now. With my language, I want to liberate language with play as criticism and play as eulogy and play as all of the things that language can do.
You shape different signifiers by putting them in different unexpected contexts, whether that’s placing academic language alongside colloquial language in your poetry or mixing the signs of what’s human and what’s non-human with your portraiture. I wonder whether you see this as a sort of fantasy that shines a light on the unreal or post-truth society that we’re in?
I think that my first solo show at Reena Spaulings [in New York], A Split During Laughter at the Rally, was about laughter and the truth or ‘factness’ that informs the possibility of a political reality or a political orientation – and sort of lack thereof. In certain ways, I am always operating from a post-truth position.
Does this fantasy you artistically perform underline the post-truth society we live in, or our current societal experience?
Well, it’s as much a fantasy as it is not. Maybe I am not using fantasy as a way to highlight something I don’t think is there, but, I use fantasy as a way to make a metaphor of something that is already there, like in certain poems I wrote and in There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed. Some people will see that everything is about transness, as if that’s going to be the be-all and end-all. Since, to them, the literal overdetermines everything, and, to me, transness is not just a category about gender and it is not the only thing I am navigating, there are a lot of things coming through. History is in the flesh; it’s in the body. Fantasy is in the flesh; it’s in the body. Identification with the non-human and with the spiritual realm is in the flesh and in the body. It’s being performed in movement. It’s being enacted in language and on the dance floor. It’s all a complex matrix, to me, that makes it impossible to separate what the real and the fantastical are. I also feel that way. Maybe you can reduce it to a base starting point. For me, yes, a person is their gender identity before they start taking hormones, so hormones are just making a metaphor by taking flesh and pushing it towards a metaphor. Every movement, every gesture, every intonation of your voice, every turn of your head is an opportunity to define and radically shape or shift the presumed relationship between your body, your flesh and what others presume it should be or could be. So, there is not really a distinction between those two for me. When I say I write from my body, it does not mean I use my body as something isolated and separate from the larger questions of fantasy, history and performance, it’s that the body is the avatar, and the avatar is as much in the data fields as the system it has come to represent.
When you talk about avatar, it makes me think of the sculpture Juliana created in collaboration with Frank Benson. Do you feel comfortable to develop on the relationship you have with this sculpture? You previously described it as complicated.
When I say complicated, I am being coy and generous. The conditions under which it was built deserve critique. It was, for me, a lesson in exploitation. That sculpture made the career of a white man who I hardly know, who paid me little to no money, and it will be tied to my career until the day I die. I fought for certain protections that were denied to me. It exemplifies a misreading of a body. That is not my body. That is one point in the always-changing story of my flesh and my body. It is an exaggeration and a fantasy of a black trans body that is on display so people can feel they are encountering the real of transness, and there is no real of transness – that doesn’t exist any more than a real of cisness does.
That makes your conversation with Office magazine come to mind. You discuss representation and on-the-ground rebellion as being more important than a copy or facsimile of a body that has experienced so much oppression in Western society. Seemingly, you advocate physical actions, creating communities, putting on nights, rather than literal representation. Do you continue to believe on-the-ground rebellion is more important than representation?
I think isolating either one or separating those is the issue. They are already linked. Visibility is not activism – it is not shifting resources.
Putting a load of trans people in campaigns and forcing them down the throats of the population puts a lot of other trans people further at risk. It’s great that some people get a cute bag, or a come up. But that is not doing the work needed to complexify language, nor does it create solidarity between the people on that ad and the people seeing it in a magazine, in the subway or on television. So, I feel like the passing out of visibility as an end in itself is a problem. Most forms of activism have included visibility at some point. However, the place we are at now culturally – this weird stage of the merging of identity politics and ostensibly well-meaning neoliberal capitalism – is presenting representation as an end in and of itself, and a virtue almost.
Speaking to Art Basel you said the take-away statement of your art is looking at the function of desire. Is there anything else that you think is overlooked by a mass audience in your work?
It varies so much. But that’s kind of the beauty of making artwork: that people will see it how they choose to see it, and it will exist in multiple ways. But, generally, I find the risk of maybe being let down by the readings of my work comes when I, myself, am represented in the work. This way, I understand why trans artists and trans musicians really go out of their way to hide themselves from their own work, and there is no artist bio and there is nothing about their own life. I get why people would do that – it’s like a risk of contamination. If a black artist and a white artist are both making super abstract minimalist sculpture, the white artist will always be seen as more liberated than the black artist. The black artist will always be tied to their blackness, whatever they do: they are either running away from it or overdetermined by it. Transness functions in a very similar way. The second a trans person comes into conversation, the whole conversation gets taken over by it. It’s like a drug. People cannot avoid overdetermining the value of work. So, I do feel like, when I use myself in my work, that comes at a lot higher risk that things are going to be read in an annoying way. And that doesn’t mean I’m not going to use myself in my work. I guess I hope that, over time, this conversation complexifies – and I think that, over time, it has. I am thankful to writers and people who are able to engage with what I’m doing and are able to see or glance complexity.