"What does it mean to be human, in an era when our destructive influence over the planet is rapidly redefining the laws of nature?"
Justin Shoulder's Carrion performance poses this question to its viewers with a combination of queer and bicultural mythologies, found materials, and invented technologies. Since its premiere as a feature length theater work in Sydney in 2017, Carrion has been performed internationally, and is just the most recent creature invention in a body of work that aims to forge connections between queer, migrant, spiritual and intercultural experiences. Shoulder performed Carrion: Episode 1 at the Fusebox Festival Hub in April 2018. The Neon Queen Collective (Jessi DiTillio, Kaila Schedeen, and Phillip Townsend) sat down with him beforehand in the Fusebox trailer to discuss his practice, identity, queer politics, collaboration, and the possibilities afforded by performance.
Jessi DiTillio: Could you tell us how you describe the art that you make?
Justin Shoulder: I see myself in multiple roles as an artist, both as a performer, sculptor, but also an events maker. So much of my work comes from the community/club spaces that I create, or co-create. I always describe myself in those multiple roles. I do work also making videos, theater, club-based stuff, so I guess I’m a multi-disciplinary artist.
Kaila Schedeen: How did you get into performance in particular? I was really interested in something you said during a Fusebox Waffle Chats panel about how you used to be really shy — I was wondering if there was some sort of connection there?
JS: For sure. It was a very natural progression from my studies at University in visual language stuff and art theory, but it mostly came from just entering queer nightclub spaces in Sydney and meeting a whole community of artists. At that time, there was a lot of cabaret kind of club work happening. I mean, it’s changed a lot since then, but my partner, who I met also at that time, was doing a lot of these big group spectacle-based shows. Lots of clowning. There are a lot of artists, sex workers, and activists in this scene, and I think naturally I started engaging in those spaces from observing, and then having a desire to tell stories, mostly as a group, and then I started to do my own stuff. I guess it also came as a reaction to being in a professional space where I was always on the computer, and thinking that I couldn’t be an artist, that I had to do this really boring, 9-to-5 trajectory. In these club spaces I realized there’s other ways.
Phillip Townsend: Looking at your work, I noticed many mythical creatures that seem drawn from pre-Hispanic images in the Philippines...why did you decide to use mythical creatures as vessels for self-expression and for addressing contemporary issues like ecology and excessive consumption?
JS: Initially, it wasn’t driven by a cultural framework within my Filipino identity, I think it was much more through an ecological narrative. I’m such a visual person, so the mask and these costumes offered such a vivid and visceral way for me to tell stories. I was drawn to working in this way very instinctually. Also seeing other artists working with spectacle and costumes, I asked myself how I could take it further and have a complete investment in creating an entire story. I’ve always been interested in fantasy, and I often think back to being in primary school and seeing Chinese dragons at Chinese New Year. That feeling of total fear, but excitement at the same time ... there was just something so sublime about that mode of expression.
Over time, I found ways to develop my foundational narrative, to make sure that it’s authentic, coming from me, but also that there’s potential to use it as a subversive tool. With Bhenji, one of my key collaborators, we have a collective called Club Ate, and in the last five years we’ve been going back to the Philippines and looking at these stories, these pre-colonial myths. We’re just kind of at the beginning of our investigation. Mostly folkloric myths, and some pop-culture ones, but there are also a lot of queens there who work with these figures already — it’s so interesting how people subvert them already. We definitely talk about how they’re re-imagining their stories as a mode of decolonization. It’s been a long time for us to research, and it’s been very organic so far. I just think that they’re also so universal as a figure, mythic creatures, and they can induce both wonder and fear, and they can be so cross-cultural in terms of communicating to people of diverse ages ... like I could be doing it at a children’s festival and at a nightclub.
KS: I'm interested in talking a bit about collective work, which we're obviously all invested in. I know that you're in several collectives, could you talk a little about how you got involved with them and the kind of work that you do?
JS: So, when I first met my partner, Matthew Stegh twelve years ago, we created this collective called Glitter Militia which came out of doing a float at Mardi Gras, which was a really messy group of activists and artists and sex workers, and we had all these glittered weapons. Our friend had a military jeep that ran off fish and chip oil, so it was sustainable. It encompassed so many ideas and we were kind of just shouting at people with megaphones. It won best float in the parade, I think because our friend was judging it, even though it was probably the most messy float in the parade but also probably the most politically engaged, hah, if people could understand what we were saying.
Then we started collectively putting on nights at a club, a night called "You Lil Stripper" which was all about diverse bodies stripping. And then, there was an event I called "Clown Cult" a social event about clowning. Then we started doing Monsta Gras, which is an annual costume ball- it will be our 10 year anniversary next year. It is an alternative to Mardi Gras. It’s always housed at a particular venue called the Red Rattler, which is probably the only queer-owned space in Australia actually. As a response to the gentrification of the city, a group of queer women came together and bought the space. It is totally run by volunteers and is a complete gift to the city, but that's so integral to what they do.
Then Club Ate, I formed with Bhenji Ra, and that just came out of our desire to see more QTIPOC spaces in Sydney. That project is not just political, but it was very much focused on performance. She's a dancer and she's very much connected to the greater suburbs of Sydney and the Pacific Islander Trans Community, and they’re deeply into vogue as well, so they formed their own vogue collective called Slé- they are a big part of this night we organize called Club Ate, which we’ve done about five or six times. We use this night as a framework to make films as well. The first one we did was a fundraiser for victims of the typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban, the Philippines. All our moms made food and and it was super earnest but over time it's become more focused on peformance as a club event. The next one we’re going to do is going to be a fundraiser for Bhenji’s surgery. So the nights I organize with Bhenji serve this really beautiful function in addition to being about performance.
KS: I am interested in something you’ve alluded to before, to this practice of object making and sculpture that I see in some of your characters and the costuming that you're building for those characters- their homes in a sense. Could you talk a little bit about how you think about performance in line with your object making? And I'm also curious how the objects live outside of the performances?
JS: Really the beginning of my practice was much more about a formalist expression and repetition and creating these kind of skins. I used found materials, like different kinds of plastics, balloons, and other ephemeral stuff.
Over time, like in the most recent work, Carrion, the provocation is much more about finding the ultimate transformation I could do with the most minimal amount of covering. I can do these masked body epic things, but then if I can animate like a sheet or...like I have this one costume called the tardigrade that becomes a bird, but it's also an organ. I ask myself, how can I find the most uses out of something? That’s becoming my new provocation.
So much comes from working with my partner Matt. He's taught me so many things, and the kind of collective studio situation I'm in, where we all skill share, is really crucial to my practice. Like tonight, I’m working with an inflatable costume, which wouldn't have been possible without all the people I work in proximity to. After I perform, the costumes mostly all live on little shelves. But actually for the first time, I'm exhibiting a costume in a gallery in Australia, the National Gallery. So that’s kind of wild.
JD: That’s exciting!
JS: Yeah, it's exciting to see that people value the costumes now in this other way, but it's difficult to give them life on a mannequin like the life they have in a performance.
KS: So how did Carrion come to life?
Justin S: We have an event called Pink Bubble, which is mostly focused on techno, but we always have one performance art work. I had made this costume, this mask, for one of our Monsta Gras balls- it's the form of my face, so it's kind of like a death mask. I found all these iPhone cables in the rubbish, and then I stuck them on—it looked like a Medusa, very weird. And I thought, this has so much potential because I can basically become like a marionette, you know, if I can hit the drag perfectly as this robot. It's so uncanny. That was really exciting.
For a while I've been interested in this human/machine/animal intersection, and Carrion became a kind of continuing investigation. I've been playing with this figure for a couple years and usually I just create new creatures, but with this one, I wanted to know how far, how much deeper I could go. Especially with my body, because I wasn't a trained dancer. I've just been doing a little training in the last few years to see how I can build my practice to make it more particular.
Another part of the provocation for Carrion was a lot of fear and anxiety to do with the current political and environmental climate. Carrion kind of became this figure that's a vessel for the horror becoming it. There's a particular speech in the piece that's very much about white supremacy, but it's very ambiguous...if it's like a salesman, or politician, and then there's another figure that’s like a weather reporter. So I just kinda liked that these voices come out through the figure as I mime it. But in the theater work there's no text. It's much more about how can I do it through gesture.
I practiced it today and someone had to leave the room because they were so scared.
PT: I watched the video of the theater version at 2:00 in the morning. It's terrifying, but it's also aesthetically beautiful. Considering your movements, I didn't know that you weren't a trained dancer. It's quite moving and there's a moment initially where you're terrified because this thing is moving strangely, and then this other part of the mask slowly emerges and it's hard to comprehend, but it becomes a very deliberate gesture. By the end of the work, I felt represented, I could totally see myself and my politics wrapped up in the performance. So it really touched me.
JS: Cool. That's amazing. Because I think people initially see this kind of Halloween thing. Really, it was just a copy of my face, but also replicated, like a surface that I saw a lot of potential in. I began to wonder, what does it mean that it's white?
PT: I think it being completely white is one of the things that's so terrifying about it, because it's so, so white. It's like absent of something that is familiar, which makes it kinda terrifying.
JS: I think that too and it needed to be. It can be like Apple, really corporate. I definitely treat masking as a sacred exercise because it is also that engagement with the audience and an investment in this being as something other, you have to really invest in the power of the object. I mean, it is a sacred thing for so many people, but some people are like "can I put it on?" and I'm like c'mon, but ok, let's see how you engage with this. I talk about it in a metaphysical way because the more you invest energy into something, it can be so transformative. I can totally see how masking can be embedded in someone's life experience and how it can be so truthful for them, like shape them, because it becomes a new lens for looking outwards and at people.
JD: The term post-humanism figures frequently in descriptions of your work. Could you talk a little bit about how you became interested in this concept, and perhaps how it relates to a queering of the politics of identity?
JS: For sure. I definitely haven't approached it from a theoretical space but it's very much connected to something that I think about and feel —probably to do with anxiety, to do with a kind of embedding in social media and the way it affects my mental health, or just observations as I travel. The way people interact with each other and with technology, but also the potential to become. I often just think about what we will become. And maybe Carrion is a sort of representation of that, whether it's a horrible or exciting thing.
It's funny, people always say post-human with me because it has very clear pop-cultural icons, like the Cyborg. But I like thinking about the potentiality of the body within the creatures I work with as a kind of queering, because it’s often beyond gender, but beyond humanity as well. They could be an animal or something completely fantastical, but still it's rooted in a cultural narrative, or an extension of my interest in biology or something like that. So I’m interested in queering in terms of queer potentiality ... that connection to the future beyond the human is exciting.
Photo Credit: Christopher Shea