Blowing Up The System
They say progress isn't built in a straight line. Juliana Huxtable knows this better than anyone. Growing up in a Baptist family in Texas Juliana experienced bullying and racism daily.
But now this philosopher, runway model, academic, artist, DJ and activist is at the forefront of a new movement, one that gives a voice to the largely concealed transgender population. Appearing in various forms throughout history, this community is now finally starting to be accepted in the mainstream of our society, thanks to artists like Juliana Huxtable.
Rising swiftly through the ranks of New York’s ‘cool’ elite, Huxtable now has the ear of influencers across a range of industries, and rightly so. Huxtable makes subversive and confronting art that questions and interrogates the history, and the appropriation of race and gender.
In 2015 at the New Museum Triennial, artist Frank Benson created a 3D-scanned plastic sculpture of Juliana Huxtable’s naked body which set the art world alight. Huxtable would say the Trans movement was having a “moment”, but it seemed more than that. It was a startling battle cry for the persecuted, misunderstood and minorities of this world.
In the last year the Western world has seen a frightening swing in a very different direction, with anger that has manifested itself in a reaction against liberal progress. At a time when so many minorities face oppression, someone like Huxtable, who continues to find a voice and challenge the system through art, is more important than ever.
Untitled (Casual Power)
A lot of your work deals with the experiences that you’ve had in your life, with topics like appropriation, institutionalisation, the establishment. Would that be accurate to say?
Yeah I guess in a lot of ways things are grounded in my experiences because that’s kind of the source material I have used for a lot of my work. I think the difference between me and what a lot of artists do is, whatever the initial desire, instead of just jumping to do that, I ask myself where that desire comes from. That’s kind of how I start the process of making anything. Then sometimes I end up with something that doesn’t resemble that original desire, maybe the product itself doesn’t have anything to do with it.
How do you feel about being labelled as transgender? Does that term affect you?
I am trans, as much as I am black, and I am from New York, and I am a millennial, as much as I am a lot of things. And there are times when that label is appropriate. What I don’t like is when. . . sometimes I’ll be giving a talk, or a poetry reading, and there’s this desire for people to place that work as ‘transgender’.
"I grew up with people calling me nigger every day."
On her hostile upbringing in Texas
You did this interesting panel discussion called ‘Transgender in the Mainstream.’ There was a statement one of the other panelists made that was really interesting. She said, “When you’re born you submit yourself to all kinds of platforms and institutions, by agreeing with that you become a platform yourself.” Do you ever think that you’ve become institutionalised by the academic world?
Well I think that can be true sometimes when it comes to language, but I think the desire to think critically began before I ever even encountered academia. I’ve always been a critical thinker. In some ways my cerebral theoretically interrogative nature is one product of that but I also think another product of that is humour. I think another product of that is styling and aesthetics, particularly a sense of personal aesthetics like fashion. I think all of those are ways of navigating a relationship with the world with continual questioning. So I don’t see academia as separate from all of those other things.
When I graduated college I did think my language only spoke to a certain academic context and that I was trapped in a kind of echo-chamber, but I don’t think that’s so true anymore. Some of it is there but I also think I also use a lot of kind of internet language. I try to be conscious of it and keep questioning. I think it’s important to navigate all of those spaces simultaneously.
Juliana Huxtable: Untitled (Psychosocial Stuntin’) (left), 2015 and Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm) (right), 2015. All photos by the author.
Have you been surprised that the art world and the nightlife world have embraced you so strongly? I can’t help feeling that a couple of years ago it might not have been the case, but now the system is giving you a green light to express yourself in all these brilliant ways.
I don’t think that there’s a monolithic “system” or “art world” and to the degree of what that signifies financially I definitely am not being green-lighted or embraced as a part of that. In terms of institutions, so thinking about MoMA, MOCA, ICA, there are a lot of artists that get visibility in those spaces because of a specific set of curators that have made it their goal to support a certain marginal perspective.
But I, for example, I might have a show at the MoMA and do performances at larger institutions, but I’m also a performance artist and a lot of the places where I do show performance work ends up being. . . I get paid less, and I don’t get the recognition from the art world.
So I don’t think it’s a question of the art world as a general cohesive body of interest green-lighting me, because I still have to navigate an entirely separate world like the financial side. I think my position is largely fuelled by the fact that I’m an outsider.
Most of my money comes from public speaking, and sometimes also performances, but that money is minuscule compared to what people sell paintings for. I think that situation will change in the future, but for right now I think the visibility I’ve gotten is actually because of my outsider status.
"I create spaces where there’s a real appreciation for and celebration of diversity."
On acceptance and diversity
Where are you trying to get to with your work? What is the goal? Do you have a goal?
My goal as an artist is to interrogate the structures around me, but do so with the sense of play, and create a world that I think is interesting, and critical, and doesn’t replicate a lot of the problematic things around me. And also to do so in a way where other people can see what I’m doing and can be open to asking similar questions about the wold around them.
I think a lot of people want to generate a sense of how they understand themselves in a larger historical narrative of the world and feel left out of that. White men don’t have that. I think questioning the way in which technology is introducing ways of navigating and ways of creating history is something that in 50 years from now people may be able to look back, and continue what I’m doing in a way that continues that model of how to navigate and interrogate, and create a sense of play.
So that’s one aspect of what you do, but you also DJ. You did this Boiler Room set and I couldn’t help thinking, just looking at all of the people that were around you, that if a 55-year-old male wanted to come to that show he would feel totally vilified by the group around him.
I don’t think that person would feel vilified. I think that’s the perception that comes from an anxiety surrounding a moment culturally where we’re revisiting the idea surrounding issues of representation. I think that is maybe a sign of what is happening culturally right now. The idea that 55-year-old white men who want to come and sit in the corner of my Boiler Room set would be vilified comes from a place of anxiety. I don’t think that is actually the case at all.
I create spaces where there’s a real appreciation for and celebration of diversity. What was radical about that Boiler Room set was that it was put on by Discwoman which is a collective that is primarily oriented around women in techno.
Techno is one of the most white male universes, and so what’s interesting is that they create these spaces where there’s an all-black women line-up during black history month. And actually there were random white dudes in that room, just as there were a lot of black women who are never ever there. Everything at Boiler Room is for white people. When it comes to music culture, and especially production, it’s just white dudes.
It’s funny because when I play shows, the range of people that turn up is insane. I’ve had a lot of white guys come to see my shows and I think that the culture I’m trying to create is one where nobody feels vilified. That kind of thing happens on Twitter, where someone says something ignorant and then 50,000 people attack him, but nightlife is different. I find that it is very inclusive. The music I play also tries to reflect that and engage in different genres and a desire for experimentation.
Frank Benson sculpture
Do you think it’s a more hostile environment in America now to be doing what you’re doing?
I grew up in Texas, and my family is from Alabama, and Kentucky, and Georgia, so I am southern. I grew up with people calling me nigger every day. I grew up with people calling me all kinds of terrible things. I grew up with black people being attacked and consistently discriminated against. I grew up with people making fun of immigrants and wanting to build a wall. So to me what’s happening now is what has always been happening in America.
I think that there are some Americans who have chosen to ignore their own complicity in structures of racism, but it’s not anything new. I think what’s new right now is the global anxiety. Now we have all this cell phone footage of police brutality, and attacks in Western cities by people who are, or are thought to be, foreign. I think that has created a sense of global anxiety and an awareness which maybe leads to a downwards spiral. It has awoken an instinct to demonise. People have always thought that white people are better than others but now they are publicly saying it.
You wrote this line which I really liked, “Chun-Li’s absurd curves and the cunt’s meow screeching from every turn of her hyper-pornographic body fuelled my rage against boyhood.” That line is very bold, very descriptive, and I think it says a lot about how you felt growing up, especially in the very antagonistic south.
Yeah, I’m glad you liked that. That was first time that I felt I had really found my voice as a writer.
You’ve said that the Black Lives Matter movement is gendered and predominantly male. Can you elaborate?
I don’t remember where I said that but I think it was probably taken out of context. Black Lives Matter as a movement is actually led by black women. What I was trying to express was that a lot of the visibility surrounding Black Lives Matter focuses on black males.
I do think that black men are one of the most vulnerable groups in America, but it’s interesting how we’ve gendered the idea of the movement as a black boy in a hoody and we don’t think what that victim may look like as a black woman. The message becomes – we’re losing our black boys. That’s true, but we’re also losing black women, and black gay men and women.
From top left to right:
Juliana Huxtable, Eckhaus Latta, autumn/winter 15.
DJ’ing at Alexander Wang afterparty
Juliana Huxtable by Petra Collins
Walking for label Chromat at NY fashion week 2016
The system has become so appropriated and there’s a history of so much bullshit. Would you blow the system up and start again?
That’s kind of what I’m trying to deal with in the work that I’m doing right now. The question of, what do you do when you’re facing, as a generation and as an individual who has experienced marginality, a majority that does not think the same way as you? Where do you find political agency in a world where voting doesn’t work?
The latest election revealed that voting doesn’t work. My grandparents fought for the right to vote as the ultimate expression of democracy, but voting is a failure! It does not have the ability to enact the level of change on the world that is needed. So where can you seek out agency? That’s what I’ve been thinking about in my work, how to create a utopia. I’m thinking through what an alternative way of community making might look like.
For a while for me cyberspace was a place of community making, a radical space of shared knowledge, but the internet now resembles more of an oligarchy. So where do you go? I don’t really have an answer to that question.
At one point in my life, I considered myself an activist. An activist in the more literal sense of what that signifies – picketing, fighting for legislation, fighting for specific rights. That was what I saw myself doing.
As an activist there’s this relationship between what you think and what you do. The organisations that I now support, the protests that I go to, are directly informed by what I read and how I have learned to interrogate the world. I don’t see those things as separated.
I think the political apathy that a lot of us feel, a lot of my generation feels, is because both the systems of thought that allow radical possibility, and the systems themselves, have been unsuccessful. For my part, what I can offer the world is to begin the process of interrogation, and I think that my work confers that purpose.
I think she’s brilliant. She is a beacon of light that speaks to the systems of knowledge, thought and information and how they directly impact on material conditions of the world. I think that the work she’s done as an academic is so necessary, and that she has done work that no one before her has done. She’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known.
I love his work and the way that he is able to navigate really charged issues surrounding immigration in an imaginative, and beautiful, but really pressing way. I think his work is so important right now, especially in the context of what it means to be in a world where immigration and citizenship are being talked about more than ever.
- He had a very explicit agenda with what he wanted to do with his music. He is a minimalist classical composer. His music itself is so beautiful, and terrifying, and daunting, and suggestive in a way that people aren’t prepared for it. He’s encoded a lot of messages and intentions into his music.