Juliana Huxtable is bored. Well, she’s not bored exactly. She never gets truly bored. It seems like she doesn’t even really believe in the word. It’s more that she is impatient; breathless for the kind of intensity that comes with seeing an art project through from start to finish, meeting deadlines, or rehearsing for a poetry performance. The pandemic has slowed everything down and Juliana has, like everyone, felt the weight of mundanity creeping in.
Thinking back on the past several months, Juliana, lying on her stomach on a sofa in a darkened living room, heaves a big sigh. “I found myself really frustrated by the nature of the work I was doing when we were in lockdown,” she says, rubbing her eyes. “It was basically like: I’d make some music and a video for a streaming thing, then I’d write a piece for this publication, then, oh, I’ll do another stream. There was no budget, no real vision… I’m so inclined towards really wanting to create immersive spaces and conceptual worlds and experiences that this has been almost depressing for me, not getting to do that. I can’t just do nothing! That’s just not how I work. I will always find a way to express myself.”
She adjusts the screen and our Zoom call fills with the purple-red-blue lighting of her Kreuzberg flat; a hazy, almost licentious glow. It suits her somehow. Everything she touches is very her, overflowing with a Juliana-ness that is enchanting rather than overwhelming, so that you wade right in, immersed in a universe of her construction. Take her most recent project: two shows arranged by Juliana and her friends, Theresa Baumgartner and Ziur, that form part of their event series, simply called ‘Off’. The entire thing was put together in a whirlwind three weeks – just how Juliana likes it. “There was really no stepping back from the process of making it,” she explains. “We just continued basically right up until it happened. But that felt really good.”
This iteration of ‘Off’, originally called ‘Off-License’, took place at Trauma Bar und Kino, a relatively new venue located in a nondescript courtyard close to Berlin’s central train station. The mask-mandatory event was a mix of concert, light show, and poetry reading; a melting pot of creative vision. And while the event was a collaborative effort between the three artists, Juliana’s aura was central, radiating outwards and into everything around her.
The stage was mostly dark, dotted with a few lava lamps. A single slash of white light pulsed behind Juliana. Clad in a leather jacket and a sheer mini dress, she spoke directly into the microphone, her voice calm, almost lazy: “The streets are generally empty…” Ziur’s music began to swell but Juliana’s voice remained calm, collected; the atmosphere was dystopian. “It’s funny you say that because when we first sat down to talk about this project in the midst of the pandemic, we were thinking about, okay, well, how are we? How are we processing things? What’s on our minds? How are we feeling? Just the different headspaces we’ve been in,” she says when I ask if the performance was meant to be a nod to the end of the world. “But we were also thinking about the physical spaces we were in and, for me, in lockdown, since there were no clubs or events, I spent a lot of time in off-license parties or gatherings and things like that.”
Reflecting on the show, Juliana sees her role as being a meta voice for the audience’s journey – a voice removed from the intensity of the music, somehow disjointed from the rest of the performance, yet fitting perfectly in all its dissonance. “When I first started doing these things, it was in a performance art context,” she says. “I remember my first one in 2015, there was a lot of screaming, crying… Sort of like desperate pleas. Other times there would be a pulled back, kind of coy vibe, but usually it would escalate to something really intense or even sad. But it changes each time…”
Those past performances are part of a web of different personas that Juliana has embodied over the years. Although she would probably never call herself one, she’s what people describe as a creative polymath. She’s a poet, DJ, performer, writer, illustrator, and artist, all at once. When she graduated from Bard College, she moved to Bushwick, where she spent a decade falling in love with New York. Eventually, she started going out to parties (she was a regular at Ghetto Gothic and HAM) and eventually throwing her own. Shock Value, a trans-inclusive club-night-meets-performance-art event series, was founded by Juliana and became a home and a safe space for her many creative and artistic expressions. Having already made a name for herself as a poet and an artist on Tumblr, she added DJ to her repertoire around 2011, incorporating her spoken word seamlessly into her sets. She played nights at Shock Value and eventually got involved with the likes of Discwoman and WESTGAY.
I met up with so many people. It was a city where I could show up with one bag and no plans and be totally fine.
Her love of nightlife and club culture eventually sparked the idea to move to Berlin. People would often tell Juliana she should visit the city. Finally, in 2013, she bought a ticket to come to Berlin for six weeks. “I moved over here in, like, a typical, chaotic, totally unorganised style.” She packed one big suitcase, and with no plans for gigs, meet-ups, or even accommodation, she arrived in Berlin, settled herself in one of the city’s many parks, and texted her local friends. “I met up with so many people. It was a city where I could show up with one bag and no plans and be totally fine. I was never super stressed out, and I think for me it was almost the perfect energy,” she goes on, sitting up on the sofa and talking at warp speed. After so many years spent overworked in New York, Berlin felt like a place where she could slow down. She came back once, twice, and then every summer until taking the plunge and moving to Berlin in the winter of 2018.
Over the past couple of years, Berlin has given Juliana an invaluable resource: space. Room to grow, sure, but also literal space and freedom of movement. New York’s density and intense energy was unknowingly confining for her, so moving to Berlin (a city whose only pace seems to be leisurely) has imparted a new sense of distance and even tranquility. She’s spent endless days during the pandemic at off-license parties, heading out to raves in the middle of the forest, to a random bar, or to a secret space just outside the city, dancing while the sun came up – complete bliss. “I could have done that for the rest of my life,” she winks. She’s also spent countless hours in the parks and green spaces dotted around Kreuzberg. Even the streets feel less packed and less hectic. “It’s also been less claustrophobic socially,” she continues. “In New York, I would run into people constantly, and there’s this sort of slippage between micro-celebrity and real celebrity. People in New York treat micro-celebrity as if it’s full-blown, especially in the art and nightlife community. It’s more anonymous here. I definitely feel a lot more chill.”
I wonder if that means she’s the most herself version of herself here, hoping for one of those answers that is extremely quotable. It’s a bit more complicated than that: “If there was any place where I was just like, ‘Okay, I’m the most fully realised version of myself here,’ I definitely feel that possibility exists in New York,” Juliana begins, somewhat cautiously. “But at the same time, Berlin allows different facets of that to come out, different aspects of my personality are allowed to develop and evolve themselves here. They’re different things for me. New York is a city for fashion. There’s such a culture around the way people dress and it’s really a mecca of style experimentation in that way.” Berlin is often labeled in a similar way, especially thanks to its “anything goes” attitude towards self-expression and sexuality, but the atmosphere here doesn’t always live up to the labels. “I dress differently in Berlin than I do in New York. In New York, I would wear, like, a bra and a mini skirt with a kitten heel, no big deal. I could take the train and no one is looking at you in any sort of way. Whereas here, it attracts a lot of attention, so I feel like I’ve almost come to understand that certain expressions of femininity can be marginalised in some way, like the act is imbued with a sense of defiance or something.”
Berlin is a city of paradoxes. It might be radical in its access to sex parties, sex shops, sex clubs, or freedom to engage in sex work but even wearing a revealing outfit on public transport is still sometimes considered taboo. There is, for all intents and purposes, a time and a place. “There’s a sense that, like, on the train in public, we all adhere to protocols. I just don’t really understand it. I find it hard to do that,” she continues. “It just seems like the discourse surrounding sexual representation in Berlin is oriented towards the idea of a male consumer. Men here will assume that because I dress a certain way, I’m a sex worker. The presumption that I’m always for sale by virtue of how I dress or my identity is really strange to me, and so I developed this highly politicized relationship to my sexuality. I have a more critical lens here in Berlin. It’s definitely changed my views on the value of how I express myself.”
Growing up, self-expression didn’t always come easily for Juliana. Born and raised in Bryan College Station, Texas, she describes her childhood as cloaked in a sense of isolation. “I grew up in an extremely radically conservative right-wing place in terms of social and cultural contexts,” she says, her voice low. “So I was quite depressed as a child. I spent a lot of time alone, isolated from other kids. I began to feel very aware that the ways in which I was different were seen as a potential contamination of values or of accepted protocols.”
One place where she did find solace, though, was at church. Although she is from an artistic family – her dad was a jazz musician and her parents always encouraged her creatively – it was the Baptist church she grew up with that had the biggest impact. Her mother had a similar experience at church in her native Alabama. “There can be so much radical political ideology embedded into the church experience, but the cool thing about black churches is there’s the sense that their church experience is also liberating them from conservative ideologies that have been placed on them,” she explains. “In my church, music was the primary cultural interface. The actual spirit of the church was so groovy and fun; we had saxophone players and trumpet players, we sang in the choir, I played piano. There’s a humor and wit and a kind of coolness that comes with black American cultural production, and a lot of that came out of the church.” Even her pastor at the time was a leftist, a feminist, and an LGBT supporter (the church even had a rainbow flag out front). He and Juliana are still friends to this day.
In many ways, the church gave her a voice that continues to permeate her work. “Every kid is in the choir, even if you can’t sing… There’s this idea that everyone participates even if they’re not viewed with musical potential.” Juliana continues, “Music is at its most sublime, its most excited state when it’s a collective experience.” On some level, that sentiment has instilled itself into her DJing, her parties, and her love of a club culture, which depends on the collective experience of everyone involved.
It was really out of isolation that I started to write poetry and create and draw. It was just me in my room for hours.
Isolation played its role, too. A self-described loner, Juliana was an obsessive reader and writer, rarely seen without a sketchbook or notebook. One of her first notebooks was a gift when she was nine from her father – or maybe her grandmother, she can’t remember which. Since then, she has obsessively written in notebooks (and kept every single one from childhood), jotting down anything from thoughts to stories to poems to letters to her mother. “I wrote from a place of sadness, and my poetry and writing was a way for me to create a world I could engage with, characters that I could see,” she says. “It was really out of isolation that I started to write poetry and create and draw. It was just me in my room for hours.” It’s been almost a funny coincidence that during the lockdown in Berlin, she reverted back to her old ways of solitary writing in her bedroom, hidden from the world with her notebooks for company.
These days, her notebooks are part diary, part sketchbook for ideas. They are filled with poems and letters for her boyfriend, ideas for future projects, designs for fake tattoos, dream sequences, recounted emotions, and notes from her day, but also lyrics and poetry that end up nearly word-for-word in her performances. She recently lost a notebook for the first time in her life and is still grieving the loss. Her notebooks have become a lifeline, a whole universe of Juliana Huxtable trapped in the pages. Although her creative pursuits encompass illustration, photography, performance, and even collage, writing has become the central hub of her artistic world.
2020 has found Juliana looking outwards – so far out of this world that some of her latest ideas take place in sci-fi-tinged parallel universes. She is thinking about aliens, mythical creatures, and furries. She’s thinking about time warps, mutations of reality, and the future of scientific and medical technology. She’s fascinated by body and genetic modification, and she is obsessed with interspecies discourse and trans-species identity. Her 2019 show ‘Interfertility Industrial Complex: Snatch the Calf Back’, pegged as “not for the faint-hearted” and previously on display at Reena Spaulings in New York, was a cyclonic blend of protest posters and inkjet portraits. The portraits feature Juliana as model – a bizarre animal hybrid creature, blind, with wings sprouting from her back or with horns and a snout, tied up and milked against her will. It’s a bleak and sometimes grotesque commentary on the agriculture industry, the decline of environmentalism, and the politics of the body, human or otherwise. In one particularly jarring portrait, Juliana is pink-faced with her hair curling into sinister horns on top of her head, her fuchsia body morphing into a cow’s engorged form, a pile of faeces building up under her tail.
I ask Juliana how she reconciles modelling for her own work with her interest in detaching from autobiography – surely those are contrasting ideas? “Well, there’s an aspect that is just so fun about dressing up, and I want to be the person to do that. But it’s also just what is most immediate. I’m interested in these concepts and I do this research and…” she answers thoughtfully, “I guess the answer is that I can dress up and document it, because that’s the most convenient thing, in the same way that a pen and paper is convenient and minimal. It’s easy because I’m here, and with self-portraits, I can just do it all myself.” There’s a pause while she contemplates before half-laughing through a follow-up: “Plus, like, how do you explain to the model that it’s like furry art, but it’s also about animal subjugation linked with S&M, but it’s also kind of a PETA advertisement about animals being sexually exploited?” We both laugh. Fair point.
The fantasy present in her work, especially in the case of ‘Snatch the Calf Back’, is her own version of fucking with the empathy model. The technicolor palettes and mythological elements were the result of her thinking about how to expand people’s sense of empathy. “One way to do that is to invoke pity. It’s important in certain ways. But it’s also really dangerous because it creates a power structure in which you’re appealing to someone’s sense of superiority, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m in such a position above this person or object or being, I have to give to them.’ That’s a power dynamic I don’t really like,” she explains. Instead of showcasing documentary-style photographs of animals in horrible conditions, for example, her work explores a different means of getting people to look and really understand. “I’ve always hated the idea that the only way to get people to address, for instance, racism and the horrible economic and social effects of racism is to show pictures of starving black kids that look really sad,” she continues. “I think that’s one angle, and it’s not that I think that there’s not a place for that. But I think if that’s the only thing, it also reinforces power structures that don’t give agency to the people that you’re claiming to be an advocate for.”
Whatever her work accomplishes, Juliana would never claim to be an activist simply by the act of making it. She’s grown wary of the conflation of visibility as a form of activism. She prefers the term ‘advocate’. Visibility is good and has its place, but it isn’t enough. “I think there’s this idea that, ‘Just by my mere presence visibly in whatever campaign, I’m undoing the years of erasure or injustice and things like that.’ But I don’t really fuck with it. I just don’t think that’s true, and ultimately it may be diminishing the real work that activists are doing on the ground,” she says. “But then it’s like, people also feel really disenfranchised from the ability to make a direct impact on the political systems around them, so what do we do besides [have] complete unrest? You have these ruptures, like Black Lives Matter, Occupy, even the yellow jackets in France. These are people getting in touch with a sense of direct political urgency. The total chaotic nature of all of that is because the organised structures for political engagement really have failed.” She heaves another sigh, but this one comes out more like a groan. And she’s right: it’s no wonder people feel like the only space they can influence is the realm of culture. Juliana, for her part, hopes her contribution of work plays within that realm but that it has enough self-awareness to realise that it is not the same thing. “A lot of my work is thinking about: in this psychotic media mess that we’re in, what are the ways in which we can build factions or build new ways for empathy or connection? It’s not like it’s a global conversation or anything like that, but even just being able to provide a space in which people feel like they can engage with the questions of the time without feeling they have to manically hold up a sign at a protest, which maybe feels ineffectual.”
The past couple of months of the pandemic in Berlin have had Juliana thinking about other ways to invite people into her world, to engage their critical thinking, to ask questions and build those connections. “Lately I’ve been thinking about the discourse around sexual visibility, sort of what we talked about earlier in terms of what is permitted and acceptable and what isn’t,” she explains. “How do I deal with that paradox? But also how can I be critical of what I see as people’s relationship to that? It’s a difficult thing to think about. There are a lot of questions! I don’t know how or when that’s going to come up… I just hope that when it does, it’s weirder, more colorful. I hope it continues to move in that direction.”
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