Since arriving in New York City nearly a decade ago, Juliana Huxtable has become a central node for the city’s creative network. Immersed in underground nightlife and LGBTQI activism, the Texas-born artist – who has also garnered a significant following as a DJ, poet, and performer – bridges an emergent generation of writers, fashion designers, and musicians with the Downtown visual artworld. After receiving broad visibility in the 2015 editions of the New Museum Triennial and Performa, her work has been included in a slew of prestigious group shows hosted by institutions such as MoMA PS1, the ICA in London, and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Huxtable will stage a series of performances at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis later this year.
Huxtable’s practice engages deeply with questions of identity and self-presentation. Significantly, it has spanned a period in which the very notion of ‘identity’ and the online discourse around it has shifted dramatically. It went, at least in an artistic context, from being malleable and anarchic (Tumblr, Occupy-era 4chan) to something much more rigid, wherein one’s activity online or in the club is now expected to correlate faithfully with one’s IRL self. Caroline Busta and @LILINTERNET, co-founders of the culture/tech-critical platform newmodels.io, met up with Huxtable in Berlin to discuss her most recent body of work. Presented by London’s Project Native Informant in Art Basel Hong Kong’s Discoveries sector, the multifarious project finds recourse in wry protest language and the deconstructed, pluralistic identities of furry and futa (intersex) cultures.
Caroline Busta: Your installation for Art Basel, ZOOSEXUALITY, 2019, centers around large posters of futa furries, framed and emblazoned with droll slogans. From the sketches we’ve seen on screen, this already looks very good. But there will also be a physical, be-here-now quality to the installation – a sound component coming in through speakers, gelled lights, and you’ll be wallpapering the room. So the framed prints will not be floating in some non-space, they’ll be set against decor.
Juliana Huxtable: I didn’t start with decor. I wanted to think about psychedelic and stoner imagery and how certain cultural traits or motifs are being undone. So you get the poster of a human’s face on an animal body melting into the sacred geometry motif covering the walls.
CB: A motif that at first signals boutique-hotel aesthetics but, viewed up close, reveals an inter-gender network of reproductive systems – fallopian tubes and other organic parts strung together.
JH: Yes, and also digestive tracts and octopus tentacles. I wanted to collapse what we conventionally think of as sexual organs and what we assume can arouse – I wanted a kind of psychedelic expansion of sexual desire.
@LILINTERNET: Your work reminds me of how images operated on the internet in the 2000s, when the doors of online semiotics were being burst wide open, which is also when identity seemed more fluid, or at least not so consolidated around politicized definitions. Do you see your art relating to that long-tail legacy? Or, if not, why this work now?
JH: I find a lot of the questions around representation and identity to be really literal, discussed in terms that can only operate under set, didactic rubrics. And I feel like if you’re going to talk about gender or the intersection of gender, race, and representation – at least insofar as art, or my art, has to answer this – it’s more interesting to just go trans-species.
LI: About your use of furries and references to the online world of fur culture and otherkin, can you say what this community represents for you? Is there a trans-humanist element to it?
JH: In a lot of ways, anarchy of identity is something I do believe in. Like when [conservatives] say, ‘If we allow men to become women, then they might as well just be a bunny…’, well, my mentality is, ‘OK, bunny. Go.’ Because if you fight back directly you only reproduce the same essentializing forms they are enforcing.
CB: Like, indulge their logic, then push it ’til you blow their mind, yes. There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you since at least the early 2010s, when you moved to New York City and started throwing parties. You’ve always been able to maintain a very intimate register with your work, speaking directly to a community of maybe 50 or 500 people while simultaneously sustaining the interest of many more, and much of what you do is distinctly not contingent on traditional channels of artworld validation. I’m wondering why, for you, this artworld remains an interesting context for your practice.
JH: I think it’s less about my investment or non-investment in what the ‘big A’ artworld is or isn’t. I spend a lot of my time in nightclubs. I spend a lot of my time writing. And I like making shows, I like thinking through the textures and limits of staging art. Often, the people who are coming to see my show are also gonna come see me doing whatever I’m gonna do. But I find that the art context allows me to pull people into a more focused world.
CB: True, nightlife is great precisely because it doesn’t demand clarity. But with our daily communication so overwhelmed with noise, we also need to be able to extract ideas from the flow, distill them creatively...
LI: How do you deal with the fact that taboos around symbols and language have grown more and more present in art recently?
JH: I’m generally very aggressively in favor of free speech and freedom of expression. I also think that there’s selective outrage when it comes to the artworld. There are artists who are making really buck wild – maybe even low-key – actual white-supremacist work, who are getting away with it because it’s coded differently, wrapped in some pseudo-conceptual lens or shown at a gallery that’s considered cool. And this doesn’t get policed.
Meanwhile, the things that people do express outrage over seem like totally low-hanging fruit, like someone putting a Nazi furry as their Twitter profile. I’m just like, ‘You are not a real white supremacist, sit down. Back to point A – do any of the rest of you even have black people or anyone who’s non-white in your galleries, in your shows?’ To me, it seems like crisis, panic, and outrage are being fetishized in art right now. In effect, MeToo is being conflated with anything related to calling out white supremacy, which is related to mis-gendering, and all of these things are being grouped together under ‘social justice’ or ‘cancel culture’.
LI: Making them all look the same online…
JH: Yes, and it’s so lazy, especially in an art context.
CB: Perhaps what we’re learning here is that it’s not even about the racism or gender discrimination, or whatever form of persecution, but above all, a kind of digital brain fog, an inability to differentiate subjects from ideas about subjects. In this light, your practice being grounded in nightlife seems all the more important, the club being a place where real people have to figure stuff out in real time with their bodies present.
LI: What do you want people to take away from your work?
JH: I hope that they think about desire, the way that desire works, when it’s taboo, when it isn’t. And different ways of understanding, even if not explicitly, contemporary questions around sexuality, gender, and online culture. And for these things to be presented in a way that’s not a Ted Talk, or a bunch of documentary photos where it’s like, ‘Here’s non-binary people being affirmed.’ I’d rather my work be intelligent and funny, and for it to hinge on empathy as a political paradigm. I’d rather see people engaging with ideas, not just freaking out and trying to get each others’ accounts shut down.
Obviously, though, conversations about my work, if they occur and how, are always outside my control. To me, the piece I’m showing at Art Basel is playful and funny, but who’s to say how it will be read in Hong Kong? And that’s the thing that’s cool about art – you really can’t prescribe anything.
Discover more artists featured in Art Basel Hong Kong’s Discoveries sector here.
Juliana Huxtable is a New York-based artist, poet, performer, and musician. Her work has been exhibited, most recently, at the Walker Museum of Art, Minneapolis, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and GBE, New York, among other institutions and galleries. In 2017, her book Life, co-written with Hannah Black, was published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König. She is represented by Project Native Informant, London, and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York.
A co-founder of New Models, Caroline Busta is a writer and critic based in Berlin. From 2014-2017, she served as the editor-in-chief of Texte zur Kunst and, prior to that, as an associate editor of Artforum in New York.
@LILINTERNET is a director, cultural critic, and a co-founder of New Models. His video clients include Beyoncé, Nike, and Vogue, and his writing has been published in publications such as Texte zur Kunst and Metahaven’s 2018 catalog Psyop.
Top image: Juliana Huxtable. Image by Matt Lambert for Art Basel.