A sneak peek at Vector 292, the contemporary art issue. Juliana Huxtable’s groundbreaking postdisciplinary artistic practice encompasses cyberculture, portraiture, performance, poetry, transmedia storytelling, critical making, fashion, happenings, and myriad other modes and magics. In September 2020 Vector took the opportunity to chat with Juliana about her work, especially the role played by science fiction …
What were your early encounters with science fiction like?
My father, in particular, was obsessed with science fiction, and so we had a lot of science fiction lying around the house, games, films, magazines. He was really into Heavy Metal magazine, which featured this sci-fi soft-core pornography. For my dad, who was not a religious person, it was as close to a religious practice as we came.
My mom on the other hand was highly religious. But both of my parents really saw technology almost as this necessary gateway to liberation, to cultural and social advancement. There was a strong racial aspect to that. So that was the context in which I grew up, and what’s funny is that when I went to university, I almost had this kind of adolescent “I need to define myself!” moment. I pulled away from science fiction, and would feign disinterest.
How long did that last, that feigned disinterest?
It really was when I moved to New York that I started to develop my own interest in science fiction. Possibilities related especially to gender are so interesting to me. So I found myself naturally drawn to subjects that heavily relied on science fiction, or that were actually a form of science fiction … even if they might not be formally classified as part of that cultural sphere.
For instance, there was my interest in the Nuwaubian Nation. The merger of Ufology and Egyptology, and the literature and contemporary almost pseudo-science which that produces, is essentially a form of science fiction. That reanimated my interest in science fiction more generally. I started engaging with it again almost as a form of art research.
This morning I saw this tweet where somebody was like, “Describe your gender in five words or less or more, and you can’t use words like masc, fem, androgynous.” People were replying with song lyrics and so on. I guess my question is, Juliana, what is gender?
For me, the struggle for gender that I’m interested in, and the work for gender that I’m interested in, is about expanding beyond inherited gender structures. That means expanding the signifying space that floats right above the concrete materiality of sex. So if ‘sex’ is this literal form of inherited embodiment, whose essence supposedly can’t be modified, then ‘gender’ is the directly corresponding world of cultural, religious, linguistic, and social meanings. Meanings that are, it’s assumed, birthed from that materiality.
The struggle for gender and the work for gender that I’m interested in is de-linking those two, and then expanding that field, ideally to a point where maybe it doesn’t have any meaning any more. Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering, both of the two parts of a binary to each other, and to the idea of gender as it’s tethered to sex.
And until gender does evaporate, it’s exciting what its transformation might concretely encompass next. At least, in queer studies, queer theory, and queer activism, and probably more broadly too, the questioning of norms around sexual desire can expand into the questioning of all norms. I could be wrong, but it feels a very distinct logic and temporality from, in particular, anti-racist theory and activism?
Gender operates on the fantasy of being more universal. People make these statements all the time: “Well, the original form of oppression was men against women, and the original act was the reproductive act.” So I think even if it’s not necessarily true, there is a pretty widespread belief in the transhistoricity of gender, as opposed to race. Even people who believe in race, and believe in cohesive races organised in a hierarchy, ultimately they still think that there was a point at which the races were separated. The claim is that contemporary racial conflicts are birthed from interacting with each other and throwing ourselves against each other for years. You know what I mean?
Definitely! I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Even among the white supremacist separatists, there’s some understanding that it’s contextual. Race, and the problems of race, are understood as socially and culturally contingent. I think gender, for me, has been the most generative and the most interesting, because it doesn’t have that kind of widespread perception. It’s quite fun to play with, because it always does something. At least, this is why I’m interested in gender.
I wanted to ask you about the novel you’re working on. It’s pretty science-fictional, right? What’s the premise?
It’s not fully science fiction, but it contains a lot of elements of science fiction. I haven’t decided how far in the future it is. It’s not so far where it’s like technology is completely unrecognizable. I didn’t want to go too far that way, writing this first novel, because anything I do is going to have some elements of science fiction anyway. It’s about a character who is really, really obsessed with body modification. I was thinking of the archetype of the body-mod goth. She takes a lot of colloidal silver. She’s obsessed with consuming colloidal silver, because it turns your skin blue if you consume too much of it.
She’s also always been obsessed with bats. Also they’ve now developed this surgery where they can essentially use your own cells, and then merge them with an animal’s, so you can develop body parts, essentially, that can be then attached to your own. We’re still at the point where these surgeries are presumably cosmetic. It’s not like they’ve merged human beings and other animals, they’ve just been able to affect the way that bones and skin can grow. So they can develop wings and attach them to you, but those wings aren’t fully functional.
I’ve also been really fascinated by genetic engineering, epigenetics, and food modification. The way a corporation like Monsanto might think about genetics, if a roach has a capability to fight off a certain type of pest that’s attacking their fruit crops, they will essentially extract whatever gene is responsible for that, and insert that into the fruit, so that the fruit then has this naturally occurring pesticide that repels this type of predatory insect.
Essentially the starting point is that she comes from a family of orange farmers. I also got really fascinated with orange juice! Brazil and the United States produce the most orange juice globally, and Brazil basically outpaced the United States at some point in the mid-2000s. The Brazilian crop is now the global standard, partly because it grows the fastest and it’s the most pest-resistant. The theory that the novel proposes is that these orange trees have been engineered using genetic material from this insect that fruit bats consume, and my character’s family has been consuming this for at least twenty years. So there’s a tentative relationship between essentially these bat genes that she’s been consuming and the large amounts of micro-RNA slowly altering her genes and slowly influencing the way that her body is producing itself.
That sounds amazing.
So it’s about orange juice, and bats, and genes, and also dreams, because it also starts to influence her dreams. She has these terrifying dreams, that essentially take her to Brazil, and take her through space and through time. She has these dreams where she’ll be on an orange plantation where they’re effectively using bonded labor. She doesn’t recognize it as Brazil, because she’s not aware of this connection. She’s trying to understand what the relationship between all of this is, because she’s also obsessed with bats, and has been identifying herself as kind of a midnight-blue bat-like person.
It sounds like it might have evolved a bit out of your exhibition that was part of Transformer, the recent show at The Store X in London?
The show at 180 The Strand was just a stripped-back version of a part of my solo show, my second solo show at Reena. That’s where I first developed these characters. I think I’m interested in the human-animal encounter because, at least in this popular imagination, that’s the limit of so many forms of identity politics, especially as they relate to gender and sexuality. For example, the expansion of sexual rights, overturning sodomy laws, overturning persecution surrounding certain types of non-marital sex. The conservative argument is oftentimes, ‘Well, if we keep allowing and expanding the category of what a legitimate form of sexual interaction is, we’re going to end up fucking animals.’
Sure, and you can understand why you might want to reject that argument really forcefully. But at the same time, and this is a tricky point, when you do confront those reactionary politics, you run the risk of colluding with a whole set of oppressive and violent assumptions about the human, about the non-human, about gender, which deserve to be challenged. Can we unpick that a bit more?
For example, maybe the argument goes, for example, ‘Well, if we let human identity expand, and start including all these things as legitimately human, well then, I might as well just end up as a fish!’ So it’s the kind of … either the nonsensical point, where it’s just the horizon of meaning, or it’s the absolute taboo. And that’s what interested me first. ‘Okay, well, why don’t we take that and run with it, instead of trying to find ways of separating ourselves from animality?’
It really opened up quite an interesting new direction for my work. I love Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance. The way Sheldrake imagines natural forms and systems as inherited memory and repeating themselves through morphogenetic fields just became a really fruitful way of reading genetic science, medical science, reproductive science. I almost see morphic resonance as somewhat akin to epigenetics.
Definitely! I’m fascinated by thinking around extended or distributed phenotypes, and the way genes never just express themselves in a void, but always in a context that is itself characterised by all these complex patterns, and path-dependencies, and inheritances. Epigenetics, for any readers who aren’t familiar, is all about heritable traits involving how a gene is expressed, rather than differences in actual DNA sequences …
Or at least, epigenetics would be compatible with that way of thinking about systems, and information, and genetic inheritance, and species or whatever? But I think that the Sheldrake was much more science fiction-adjacent to me. It’s been so fascinating to me, to think about forms resonating through time in conjunction with technologies literally implicated in the production and reproduction of forms, especially biotechnologies and the reproductive technologies surrounding industrial farming. So, I developed these characters. One is this cow, this bovine persona or avatar. And then there was the bat. And then I did a reptile character. And then a pig. That’s all of them.
I feel like they should all get a whole cinematic universe.
The bat is getting a novel. I don’t know if all of them will, but the bat character is at least getting one.
I want to ask more about pseudo-science. It has such an interesting relationship with science fiction. You’ve got the kind of Star Trek style technobabble, where the deus ex machina is a type Q phase discriminating amplifier or whatever, where we’re not really supposed to take it seriously. And then you’ve got hard science fiction that aims for credibility, but is always necessarily somewhat pseudo-scientific insofar as it pushes toward speculative implementations, even if it does its best to maintain a credible technoscientific idiom. And then there’s all that pseudo-science whose status is contested, and often politically fraught. I’m interested in how pseudo-science relates to conspiracy theory, which is another big theme of some of your work. I don’t know, would you describe conspiracy theory as a kind of science fiction?
My instinct is to say that not all conspiracy theory is necessarily a form of science fiction, or even adjacent to science fiction. But I do think that most science fiction is conspiratorial in some sense. So yes, oftentimes there’s overlap between the two. Something like the Five-Percenter Movement can be seen as an almost science fictional response to the pseudoscience of scientific racism, for instance.
How does that play out in your work? For instance, can you talk about A Split During Laughter at the Rally?
That was my first solo show. Actually, that’s an example of where not all conspiracy — or at least what I was engaging with as conspiracy — necessarily is science fiction. But also, I was really interested in new forms of paranoia, and new speculative imaginations that arise in response to technological transformation. We’re in an era when many new forms of political and economic exploitation are paranoia-inducing because they’re so difficult to quantify.
Absolutely. Sometimes the best you can do, epistemologically speaking, is to be paranoid, or to be speculative.
Data systems, hormonal systems, financial systems. These are all forms of capital, units of political control. Information and power is being distributed worldwide, but often in ways that are imperceptible to us. Or at least they’re not so tactile. So there’s this wave both of base cultural paranoia, but also I think of speculative writing and thinking, that comes from that place. It’s interesting to me to think about how emerging technology has that direct influence on how we deal with our ideas of the future.
That’s so interesting. It’s tempting to think of new technology solely as a potential harbinger of the future that features that technology more widely. Which it can be. But technological transformation is also constantly re-calibrating culture in other ways as well, surfacing certain things and endowing them with certain saliences, while making other things more invisible, more silent.
And that idea was very central to that show: the imperceptible. Things moving into the imperceptible, the untouchable. You can’t feel it. At most, it’s a vibration, and a sort of paranoia emerges from that vibration.
The logic of paranoia might obfuscate the world, but it’s also sometimes what we need to know the world around us. That logic might even be reparative, sometimes. Because what is important to know is so often imperceptible. So deep in the vibration.
Right. One book that’s not all science fiction, but has influenced the way that I read science fiction and other things, is Testo Junkie by Paul Preciado. It lays out these theories relating networking systems to endocrinology to developments in wireless technology. It’s really been illuminating to read the world through that new perspective.
OK, I think I’ve come across that. I need to check it out properly. When you think ‘What is capital?’ you might think about finance and land and machinery and so on … but you might not necessarily think of the biochemistry in our bloodstreams, because it’s harder to clearly point to who owns and controls that. Or when you think ‘What is technology?’ you might think about AI and automation and so on … but you might not necessarily think of pornography as a kind of technology that shapes desire and identity. A gender technology, maybe.
This has affected a lot of my thinking on conspiracy too. We’re at a point at which the distinction between how you navigate the world as a rights-bearing citizen, and how you navigate the world as a consumer, is increasingly collapsing. If something is now a source of capital, it is also, in a certain way, a space in which new rights and affordances can be granted or negotiated.
Hormones are not only a source of capital, but also have literally expanded the possibilities for ways of embodiment. So what’s been happening is that new potential has opened up for somatic modification, while that potential itself is also opening to new forms of transaction, of enclosure, of contestation. It’s radically changing what embodiment means, and how much sway and influence one can have over that. Imagining where that could go is really interesting to me. That’s partly what the novel is, thinking through embodiment from those inter-species, trans-species angles.
Can we talk a bit about humour? That show at The Store X was really unsettling. You see the images, and they’re tragic, they’re angering, they’re funny, they’re beautiful, they’re horny. They’re kind of cartoonish and they’re also kind of visceral. Art gets described as ‘provocative’ way too often — but I felt like it was provocative in the sense that it offers me these responses, and which response I go for is going to say something about me? I feel like when people talk about your work — from what I’ve seen so far — they don’t talk about the humour enough?
If I have a gripe with the kind of art-critical-industrial complex, it’s that. I think that writing about cultural production, especially cultural production that doesn’t present itself as immediately trying to be super-wide-appeal, often really doesn’t know how to process humor. Humor is so important for me, just in my life generally, and it animates my work. I’m always like, ‘I hope it’s coming across. Are people just taking this all seriously?’
It’s getting better and better gradually. I think sometimes you just have to establish enough work for people to see it in conversation not just with itself. Especially when you are offered the very easy and seductive lens of identity, I think that people generally want to jump to a kind of literal interpretation, because the literal animates whatever kind of ethical posturing that comes along with that.
I saw you talking somewhere about how sometimes the attribution of the theme of identity can actually be a way of limiting what the art is doing. Not that it’s necessarily not about identity. But to the extent that it is, that doesn’t mean it’s inviting me to sort of ritually recapitulate ideas I’m already familiar with.
There was one write-up that basically suggested the whole show was just about my tragic life as a trans woman, and I’m like, ‘What? There’s a cow being forcefully milked, with Playboy aesthetics. What is going on?’
Clearly this is straight-up sincere, confessional life writing.
It surprises me, but I think it’s like what you were saying. That says more about other people than it does about than what I’m putting into the work. This is one reason why also I really love being able to have a show up where I can be there. Because when people are in the show, there’s a lot of humor. I remember A Split During Laughter at the Rally, people were just … I loved hearing laughter, or seeing people laugh, or even seeing smiles on people’s faces. It’s almost a more vulnerable way of engaging what I’m doing, I think.
Just to finish, can we talk a little bit about parties? I guess it’s a similar question to the earlier one about gender. What is a party? I feel I have been where there’s people, there’s music, and there’s drinks, there’s fun, and no shade but it’s not a party. It’s ontologically a different thing.
I love to go to parties, I love to throw parties of all varieties. For me, the difference between a party and a gathering is that there’s almost a vibrational threshold that the collective energy has to surpass. And whether that threshold is passed by virtue of the number of people there, or that the threshold is passed by virtue of the music escalating a certain energy, or by some other dynamic, I do feel like a party has a sense of heightened energy that engenders a different way of being social, and a different way of engaging with people, and a different sense of possibility.
One of the first nights that pubs were opened up here, I did a little drive around, partly because I was just curious what the atmosphere would be like. It was small groups only, so mostly people who were out that night weren’t supposed to meet anyone new.
I don’t think you necessarily have to have new people, for me. I think most of my friends, one of the things I like about them is that there could be a party even with just five of us. It could fully be there.
I was just like, okay, is there going to be that sense of danger that creates a really unhinged, voluptuous atmosphere? Or is the risk in this case actually an uncomfortable subtext, that renders everything flat and try-hard? I suppose I’m interested in the role of risk.
So I don’t know if it has to be risk. A sense of risk is part of the appeal of a certain type of nightlife. I think of the Berghain: that’s an almost, at this point, globally-recognizable branded clubbing experience. Berghain I do think is about performing risk, or giving the markers or ornaments of a kind of risk. But I also love a forest rave! I love to just be in the middle of the woods, or in the mountains, dancing, and I don’t feel risk associated with that, just a really dynamic sense of possibility.
I guess I should say for any readers who are new to your work, I’m not just asking randomly about parties! Your artistic practice has encompassed nightlife in various ways, in connection with music, fashion, and performance. And as I understand it there was an important phase in your career, in coming to understand and present yourself as an artist, that was about going out?
Yeah. It’s an opportunity to be a contextually specific entity. I at the time felt really disconnected from art-making. I had a very normal day job, working with lawyers, so it was just like … in terms of an artistic sensibility, something completely unrelated. I really felt that nightlife offered the possibility for me to be something that only existed in that moment. I wasn’t the person tethered to my job. I wasn’t the person that was walking down the street. I wasn’t the person that was in the cab on the way to the party.
When I entered that space, something about that radical shift in energy and the sense of possibility that comes with being essentially untethered from so many aspects of my life really became a space to think through concepts, and to deploy those concepts in all the different forms of enacting sociality, so dancing, talking, playing music. Even just my relationship with the lights, or something like that. In that environment, everything can become a sort of art form. There’s an art about the way that you carry yourself in a party. There’s an art about the way that you establish conversation, how you move through ideas, how you navigate what type of things to address with what type of person, and what type of atmosphere you engender through the music that you’re playing. It enabled and lubricated my imagination, in ways that would also then come out as writing, or videos, or other things. But the genesis of them, or at least the setting free of them, happened in the context of parties.
Part of the artistry of parties and nightlife is to do with agency. You talked about becoming perhaps a version of yourself that is untethered from the kinds of systems that you have to participate in on an everyday basis. I’m wondering if that’s also something that, in a little way, comes out in performance generally?
Well, I’ve always been a performer. As someone that has generally felt slighted or shortchanged by the behavioral expectations that I grew up in, I think I naturally was attracted to performance. I was attracted to it less as something that I understood as such or by name, than as a space to create a degree of intentionality, to distinguish myself from normal behavioral modes, and to enter this space where I could then play. I was a policy debater in high school, which was probably my first encounter with that space. But then it was at the encouragement of my friend Patty in New York, who had seen me doing poetry readings. She’s a curator, and she organized a performance showcase and asked me to be a part of that. It just kind of just grew from there. It’s funny. Even though I am a performance artist in practice, I’ve never sought that out. It’s because there is some sense of necessity.
Juliana it has been such an honour and a delight. And I can’t wait for the novel.