The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Chloe O’Neill: Do web-based projects like How To Survive Winter in New York and #COLINSLIST relate to your interest in community structures and creating space for people? Do you think that projects like yours work to queer the internet?
Colin Self: HTSWINY was a project built to prevent friends from committing self-harm, especially queer and trans friends who felt like they couldn’t handle the austerity of New York. It can be a treacherous place to live in the winter and after having lost friends to suicide while other masses of friends moved away, I had to think how I could use the internet to help give people resources. The document spread pretty quickly into communities I had never been a part of and took shape in so many different forms: mental health resources, cheap ways to enjoy the city, recipes, links to a variety of toolkits to take care of people. I was interested in fostering a community that could ultimately become decentralized in its care. We all have different wants and needs and ideas of what kind of "space" is helpful, so trying to build a free, plural document felt necessary.
In the art world there is something so uncool about caring and it feels like a very queer space to me in the present day, whether that be in a room or a website. It's largely an unprofitable and unquantifiable thing to do, and I think this is one of the reasons I want to invest time and projects into exploring this space.
#COLINSLIST came out of necessity more than anything else. As a working artist who travels often, I found myself needing to find someone to either sublet my room or a place to stay for a month while traveling. As time went on, #COLINSLIST began to serve a variety of functions, even locally, for people to find kin to live with. For a lot of us artists, our home is also our studio, or at least a space to incubate projects, so this network of people sort of built itself.
I'm still largely against having these projects hosted and shared through Facebook and Google, and I’m working on figuring out the best way to self-host these systems of caring. I'm not a programmer, but if anyone reading this wants to collaborate in getting these resources onto self-hosted platforms, get at me!
Colin Self by Yunique Palmer
CO: Your art practice is very interdisciplinary, often working around the connections among many mediums. I can imagine that to some people this makes your art hard to define. How do you describe your work to people that you don’t know? How do you use the word “drag” to describe your work?
CS: I usually tell people I’m a composer and choreographer, but these terminologies change with time. I think over the course of several years of doing drag I adapted the drag politic of “becoming” to the other identifiers of my work. I want to demonstrate to people that identification or disidentification should always be in the hands of the individual. If the whole “you're born naked and the rest is drag” politic becomes a rudimentary way to look gender performance, then the same politic could be applied to a profession or occupation. Just like gender, these are learned/constructed/codified identifiers. We should have agency over determining and defining ourselves.
Recently I’ve been looking at archetypal narratives and ways to hybridize or break them down to get away from the polarity of villainy and heroics. In performing music I try to present myself as a sort of conflicted entity, being both and many. I’m part goblin, part superhero, part evil, part angel. I try to drag my own media, while thinking less about being an “other” and more about opportunities to demonstrate a “being many,” refusing identification.
I never understood why I was supposed to settle into a formality of a medium or practice, or how doing so would officialize me or make me who I am. It always felt more useful for me to occupy whatever medium made the most sense for what I wanted to communicate. I remember in 2012 I made a video for a Kickstarter where I called myself an artist, activist, writer, dancer, composer, choreographer, vocalist, and entrepreneuress. I was interested in the space of those words and a lot of the work I was making at the time came from trying to play with the relationships of those identifiers and the people involved in legitimizing or questioning them. I have always been interested in the language space that is assigned to us versus the language space we create ourselves.
CO: Can you talk about your current project, The Elation Series?
CS: The Elation Series started in 2011 for a group show in Philadelphia. At the time I was thinking a lot about doomsday politics and the way that fatalist politics were preventing people from trying to work towards imagining a positive future. Hell had become so cool in the context of art and underground, and it felt so uncool to “care” and want to make a difference. I’m just not an aloof nor apathetic person, so in those negative environments I usually just feel awkward. I wanted to remind people that not only do we not have a logistical understanding of how and when our existence as humans will end, but that we also still have a great amount of agency in changing the world. I started to make sculptures that encapsulate these narratives and created a solo “opera” for this huge weird warehouse. I went into The Elation Series thinking about how the Anthropocene is a slow burn that will require a lot of refuge and taking care of each other. As much as we love to see mediated versions of disaster painted into epic cinematic scenes with Dolby surround sound, the edge of extinction, or global shifts in resources, is not an epic thriller.
Colin Self, excerpt from Elation III (2013)
In the years ahead we are going to need to create tools to take care of each other. It’s also a question of how we can shift our practices towards taking care of people beyond the confines of social and political borders. I don’t have the answers but I am invested in breaking down the superior/inferior binary of humans, hopefully encouraging interdependence through making/becoming.
CO: Your performance work, like your role in the post-drag collective Chez Deep, references family unity and the different ideas of the queer family. Can you explain your thoughts on the queer family and how you have engaged with it in your larger project?
CS: As a teenager I was raised by women, particularly queer women, and I idolized the structure of Riot Grrl and the collectivity they had, how they combined a refusal of misogyny with a “let’s work on this together” mentality. It seemed way more important and fun to me than any other movement I was discovering as a young queer. So from an early age I was always looking to align with other queers and feminists, mobilizing together to make some shit happen. So Chez Deep came out of recognizing that as much as we loved RuPaul’s Drag Race, we didn’t identify with those representations of competition and commercially driven drag. We were curious what it would mean to demonstrate interdependence and sisterhood and the less marketable side of drag history. I am always trying to remind people that as queer people we don’t all want the same thing. RuPaul is not our self-appointed drag monarch, she is the pinnacle professional goddess of commercial drag success and an example of how to build a money-making empire. Years deep I’ve watched this all change though, as I see so many radical friends developing a secondary economy from Drag Race; queens throwing screening parties and shows, developing queer spaces, and making looks for the queens, etc. This is true radical change happening as a result of mainstream drag media. But trickle-down economics for queer worlds isn’t enough. The wealth gap and scarcity politic is still too deep. We need a political action system as thorough as drag race memes and Tumblr feeds. I don’t want to sit in a queer utopia and never leave it. I want to stay with the trouble and keep pushing towards finding sustainable relationships outside the grips of capitalism.
Work in progress for Authority Figure at the Knockdown Center (2016)
CO: Have there been any roadblocks as you have worked towards working with others this way?
CS: For sure, there is always negotiation. Authority has to ebb and flow and become a part of the dialogue. There is no perfect environment when it comes to making a family. But creating environments that are non-utilitarian and more about experimenting can help start conversations when things don’t work. Instead of “All right, we are going to shut it down, this isn’t working,” it can be, “we have to work through this and know that we are all ultimately all on the same team.”
As much as Chez Deep has been about writing and performing, it has also been about us sitting around a table and talking about life and occasionally getting into really intense disagreements. But that’s an important part of the process. To pretend that conflicts don’t exist would be to neglect the benefits of working with others. The discourse is a chance to learn from each other and realize that co-existence isn’t contingent upon unanimous agreement.
CO: Outside of performance, pieces like #COLINSLIST also seem to function in a collaborative way. Do you think there is a relationship between the togetherness that you talk about and your non-performance work?
CS: #COLINSLIST came out of necessity, where myself and others are all kind of working within this economy of transient artists who really can’t make work from one place or a single community. I hate that it’s currently hosted by Facebook and that there are algorithms to direct our attention one way or another, but it’s still is a way to hone some collective resource from the five thousand mostly strangers I’m connected to on Facebook. I know Angieslist was sort of birthed out of something similar, but I am hoping in the near future to find a way to get #COLINSLIST off Facebook and to make it a better resource for more than just housing.
How To Survive Winter In New York is a shared Google Doc that I made with some friends a few winters ago after multiple friends had committed suicide. A bunch of other folks were leaving the city because the quality of life here had gotten so grim for so many people, so I wanted to find a way to pool resources for information on mental health and ways for people to have a less shitty New York winter. The project kind of moved out of my hands and into the hands of hundreds of others who have since contributed.
These projects all sort of stem from the question of how to re-gain the agency lost in having all of our media hosted and owned by major corporation platforms like Google and Facebook. I am curious how we can use the internet to take care of each other, which means a lot of things.
A huge step in digital agency is a project called SAGA, created by my bandmate and collaborator Mat Dryhurst. SAGA lets you self-host and modify all your media as an artist depending on the context in which it is shared. For example, if someone posts your work next to something you don’t like, you can obscure it with a slogan or graphic. If someone is hosting advertising alongside you work, you can even charge them to keep hosting it.
I’m always trying to educate people that once you post something to Google, Facebook, Instagram, whatever-- these corporations are immediately are given ownership and the rights to your creative material to be used for advertising or marketing. I think that getting people to self-host is a way to take care of people, to grant agency that has been taken away from them, and to encourage people to develop systems to share work online that can’t be co-opted and sold.
When I lived in Chicago there was a very influential party/collective there called Chances Dances. That was the first time that I had the experience of being in a queer space founded on a sense of taking care of people. I felt like I was a part of a family.
Colin Self, still from ClumpTV (2013)
When I moved to New York I felt the need to create that kind of space: a party that wasn’t so strongly about proving yourself or impressing others, but about building a family. It always felt like in New York you had to peacock to people and show off your feathers, and so I started this party Clump in 2010. Clump became the incubator and container for several things and was very much the product of a ton of people working together. Emma Olson of DISCWOMAN was a huge part of this, Sam Kline, Bradley Callahan, Anthony Dicapua, Matty Beats (Horrorchata), so many people went into making it what it was.
screenshot from #COLINSLIST (2016)
CO: Your work with drag straddles two very different worlds: the daytime art world and New York’s nightlife scene. It seems like an accomplishment to even find where those places meet. Were you initially resistant to the labelling of your performance work as drag, or did you embrace it?
I don’t see them as two separate spaces when I look at queer art history. You have decades of people like Jack Smith, the Warhol stars like Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, Vaginal Davis, Michael Clark, Ryan Trecartin, Leigh Bowery, etc. There’s no doubt that queer performance is legitimized by a different kind of language when performed in a gallery instead of a nightclub, but it’s still there.
When I started performing I didn’t think of it as drag. I just happened to be femme and wore wigs and painted my face all yellow or gold. Once I met my collaborator Alexis Penney, she introduced me to some deeper threads of traditional drag history. Meeting older generations of queens and feeling so moved by their performances changed the context of performance for me. It was something I felt spiritual allegiance with and an understanding of how important it was, both to me and the world.
Location: Brooklyn, New York
How and when did you start working creatively with technology?: It probably began with my Livejournal. Other than this, making music in my bedroom in Olympia, Washington.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?: I am currently working on my MFA at Bard in Music/Sound. I went to The Evergreen State College for Puppetry and Experimental Writing, then The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for Performance and Video.
What does your desktop look like?:
Top image: Colin Self by Walter Wlodarczyk (2016)