'struggle is what creates beauty' — a conversation with juliana huxtable
Brooke Powers and Juliana Huxtable talk being trans, tumblr, DJing, and practical humanism.
This article was originally published by i-D Australia.
All writing about Juliana Huxtable, whether it comes from Wikipedia or the Guggenheim, goes to great lengths to stress how interdisciplinary her practice is. She's the artist who does it all: performances at institutions like MoMA, The Whitney, and The New Museum; writing (her first book, Mucus In My Pineal Glands, a collection of essays, poems and performance scripts was published earlier this year), and music — as both the creator of New York club night SHOCK VALUE and an accomplished DJ in her own right.
Here, in conversation with the Australian DJ Brooke Powers, Juliana delineates these various mediums: DJing as more fun and more public than performance, which, in a gallery setting, is more loaded. Both artists were in Hobart last month, to perform at Red Bull Music Academy's Transliminal — an industrial-scale rave which we heard people had quite a bit of fun at. Read on for Juliana's reflections on Tumblr, journaling, and humanism.
One thing that's very clear about you Juliana is your incredible track record. You're a very hard worker. I want to start by talking about Mucus In My Pineal Glands. Can you tell us a little about what drives your writing practice?
I think at this point I've accepted that I don't necessarily know, but it's just something that I need, because I've always been a writer. I've kept a journal since I was really little — eight or nine — and my journals have always kind of forayed into things that are not always so literal. For whatever reason, it felt like something that was good and necessary for me to do. It's always been a way for me to get things out.
To what extent do all the mediums you practice influence each other?
I think it's a blessing that I abandoned studying art formally, because I feel like if I had, then I'd be working with one specific medium. But I came back to music, art, and writing intuitively after graduating and working a job that had nothing to do with those things. So I feel a freedom to express things in the form that's most immediate to the ideas. For a while I did performance just because that was free and when I had to buy supplies, it was cheap — but when I do performance now, it's because I like the immediacy of it. There are other times where I've decided to do self-portraits or make a video or whatever, because it's just what feels appropriate to the idea. That's why I bounce around a lot.
Do you have a favorite medium?
No, not really. It's always changing, but there are things like DJing that I do on a regular basis. At this point, I'm thinking about my work as something that exists independently of me. Before it was all about me being present. It's kind of exciting to be in a place where I can think about how to express a set of ideas without my presence being necessary to their manifestation.
I'm excited to pick your brain about your creative approach to DJing. Hearing your mixes, hearing your set tonight, and knowing you as an artist, I feel safe to say there's a hell of a lot more that goes into your DJ sets than playing bangers. Can you tell me a little about how you construct a set?
I think what I like about DJing is that it's immediate in a way that's different to performance art. DJing is immediate in the sense that people expect it to be a form of entertainment. Of course, there are people who expect art to be entertainment too, but still there's this idea that 'art is supposed to stimulate me or challenge me.' There's a long history there that in some ways is kind of classist and elitist. With art, people have a heightened inclination to analyze. With DJing, people don't necessarily do that.
The audiences you play to as a DJ are also much wider than when you're doing a performance. There, the audience is a self-selecting audience: the people are there because they want to be for a very specific reason. DJing is by default more public, so I like that. Tonight, most of the people are coming to be entertained by the music festival. That space is productive and fun for me because it's a bit less didactic or direct.
If I'm going to play a voice, it's going to be a female voice for the most part. That's something to experiment with: having a room full of 'bros' listen to women's voices for two hours. To me that means something, and I don't necessarily have to analyze it that much, but that means something.
When I first started identifying as trans about five years ago, I remember coming across your Tumblr. It was one of the first examples I had seen of a young trans girl living her life out, proud, and thriving. I wonder how much that kind of open vulnerability and constant content creation plays into your art practice today?
I think at that point, that was how I found a sense of community in a lot of ways. When I started transitioning it was really somatically. I think everyone's always in transition, but in terms of what people might identify — especially visually and physically — I changed how I presented myself. And that was a time where I felt really isolated. I loved living in New York, but there were no young trans people that I knew. If you were trans, it was in a very specific way. I knew a few older trans women, but they had a much different experience; at the time they came up, it was really difficult. They have a bit of a chip on their shoulder, so it was hard.
I had no resources, so self-documentation became a way for me to express who I was and what I was dealing with, and have an immediate conversation with other people who, even if they weren't trans, were at least queer. It was so new, finding other trans people through Tumblr. People like Nina Arsenal, Zackary Drucker, and then all these other people. It was much more disparate then. The idea of trans artists — Zackary was the only one I knew. I couldn't tell you a single other trans artist, so Tumblr was how I found myself and how I found my voice.
That's how everything I did developed. At a certain point, my practice evolved to where I didn't need a Tumblr as my primary way of having an audience and a critical voice. A lot of people I was Tumblr friends with, I'm now real friends with. It doesn't have to be about producing it for that audience anymore. Now I can just be producing it in the long-term context.
Recently, I've been having conversations with my friends about queer spirituality and what that can mean to each of us. Do you have a spiritual practice, and do you think the there's a kind of spirituality that comes along with being queer or trans?
I guess I'm what I would describe as an aggressive atheist, in the sense that I grew up really religious, and now don't believe in God. I also don't believe in astrology, I only indulge it for the purpose of entertainment. I don't believe in most things that approximate spirituality.
I guess on some level, there is a part of me that believes I'm a humanist. Maybe not in the sort of canonical way, but in some ways, I believe that there is something that prevents most people from stabbing another person. I don't know what that is, but I think that queer people go through a lot of shit and I think that trauma is a source of inspiration and to me that's more structural than it is spiritual. I think people who go through more, have to navigate more. Struggle is what creates beauty. This doesn't justify imposing that on someone, but that's why I think black people make the best music. Queer people, to me, are some of the people who create much of the best culture. But, I don't know if I would describe it as spiritual for me.
Interview Brooke Powers
Photo courtesy Red Bull Music Academy