Non-Binary Coding: Juliana Huxtable On Taking Apart Our Notions of Identity

Juliana Huxtable’s music, art and literature is relentlessly taking apart preconceived notions concerning identity, culture and politics one perplexing project after another.

“I’m generally very distrustful of success but not in a bad way,” writer, visual artist, performer, model and DJ Juliana Huxtable tells SLEEK. Huxtable is in Berlin for her Berghain set, where, as part of the PAN records night, she played along with Pan Daijing and Bill Kouligas. “It was really cute,” the 29 year old grins. Her whirlwind of a year has so far included two solo exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic, both informed by the intersection of fashion and politics as well as her fascination with conspiracy theories. She’s also found the time to publish her first book of poetry, alongside a post-apocalyptic novella co-written with Hannah Black.

With her trademark blue-lipstick grin and all-caps style of writing, Juliana Huxtable had her big art world break in 2015. She was dubbed the star of the New Museum Triennial, where she was both muse and creator, showing a series of self portraits and poetry, and having her naked body 3D-scanned by Frank Benson. Born in Texas, she moved to upstate New York for a B.A. at Bard College. After graduating in 2010 she moved to NYC where she joined the queer arts collective House of Ladosha. Soon after she became an internet it-girl sensation, and started the party Shock Value as a safe space for gender fluidity. As a self-confessed “cyborg, witch and Nuwaubian princess”, she often goes by the name of “doll” on social media, where’s she’s gathered a cult following for being an outspoken LGBTQ rights advocate – and for her unique sense of style. Tall, with thigh-length braids and a penchant for brightly-coloured two-piece outfits, Juliana’s look and personality have seduced an array of fashion labels including DKNY, Eckhaus Latta and Hood By Air, for which she’s modelled. Yet despite her fluid relationship with many industries, she navigates their cultural markers with penetrating analysis, making sense of it all through her non-binary readings.

Nowhere is this complexity of vision better exemplified than in her debut book, “Mucus in My Pineal Gland”, a collection of her early poems, essays and thoughts spanning a period of five years. When I tell her I had to read it in a gallery because it was sold out everywhere we both laugh. It is no surprise. The book is an assault to the senses; a journey through her universe of symbolisms that mine every corner of our inexplicable world. It’s written as a mixture of prose and poetry, with an unrelenting eruption of ideas, similar to the way she talks. It follows her self-discovery in New York: from her MTF transition, to being accosted on buses, to probing her interest in sexual race play. “TO DIFFERENT EYES I’M AT ONCE BANJEE GIRL, THEN WITCH, PICK POCKET THIEF, SECRET DESIRE, MISSED CONNECTION, STYLE ICON, YOUTH EMBODIED” reads one line about her bus ride through Manhattan. “A lot of it was blog, Facebook and Twitter posts,” she explains during a photoshoot, while lying on the hotel bed in a pink strapless top. “I wasn’t really thinking of it as ‘writing’, it was more so other people seeing what I was doing as a legitimate form of writing.” Being involved in so many scenes, Juliana has an intersection that reaches far and wide. However, she notes, “I don’t believe that anything can translate universally.”

That certainly applies to her performative piece, “There Are Certain Facts that Cannot Be Disputed”, which premiered at MoMA in 2015 and later performed at the 9th Berlin Biennale. Produced in collaboration with an ensemble of fashion designers, music, sound, video, and lighting artist friends, the three vignettes explore the drive for historical documentation in cyberspace. Here, Juliana explores the motivations for finding alternative versions of oneself in history and how that desire is mediated through changes in technology. As always with Juliana Huxtable the work references a plethora of topics such as black samurai, trans healers in South Africa, pre-colonial globalism, and human evolution. “There’s some references in that piece that even people in the US don’t understand,” she says in relation to how the piece could translate in other parts of the world. “But a lot of it relates to the idea of the West.”

Some of the references is her work might not be accessible even to those who regularly fall into Wikipedia holes all night long. But that’s exactly the point she wants to make. “My favourite poetry is overloaded with references, and really good writing makes me look up new words or historical details,” she explains. “Both my writing and visual work do provoke people to look things up.”

The same applies to her first solo show, which opened this year at New York’s Reena Spaulings gallery. Entitled “A Split During Laughter at the Rally” and created with a digital info-shop aesthetic, the exhibition looked into the fascination of conspiracy theories, trolling and the growth of intersectionality. Featuring a series of poster-sized prints mounted on sheet metal with DIY fridge magnets, along with a video and a wall diagram, it delved into transsexual and postgender activism, non-binary identification, YT skinhead culture and witchcraft, as well as how warring narratives contribute to establishing a new “fiction world”. “I’m generally drawn to conspiracy theory and I often get called a conspiracy theorist,” she says on questioning the world beyond official narratives. “What excites me is to make work that is informed from a genuine place of interest. And that is an opportunity to process, learn more and understand more about the world.” The show’s video recreates a march by kombucha-drinking non-gender-specific protesters chanting anti-Trump slogans, while a close up of Huxtable’s blue-lipped mouth narrates theories about the legacy of rhythm as revolutionary communication within black activism, and how that’s been co-opted by superficial leftist activism. “People are relying on really outdated models of political opposition … processing information … and that’s obviously failing,” she says speaking over herself, rushing to update her own sentence with a more accurate statement. “You have a culture where someone can simultaneously be queer and white and resent the fact that they see emphasis on race in discussions and so they become conservative in a specific string because they find this YouTube world of twinks for Trump or whatever.”

If it all sounds a little too manic and daunting that’s because it is. Indeed, Juliana’s voice and vision are directly inspired by the notion of schizoanalysis. For her, the “schizophrenic voice” may contradict itself,just like the information we source from the internet. And likewise, this is also a reflection of what’s happening in the West right now. “I’m a paranoid person and we’re also reaching a point at which paranoia is a much more natural state of being,” she says. “Paranoia is also the motivation behind a lot that’s happening politically: feelings of extreme disenfranchisement and extreme distrust across the political spectrum. It all blends together and collapses on each other.”

While some artists shy away from politics during times of crisis, Juliana’s analysis of the world is extremely politicised. But she refuses to rely on binaries or simple readings, instead, she tries to identify how political affiliation is represented in today’s society, be it through memes or fashion. “At one point you could look at someone wearing a beret and bomber jacket in a certain way and it signified a specific thing,” she explains. “Now not even fashion announces it. You could look at someone and assume they are a young leftist-centre adult and they might be a neocon making racist comments online.”

One of the main questions she posed in the New York show was if whether it was even possible to have a stable aesthetic representation of a political ideology today. To tackle that she made a diagram where she traced the aesthetics of skinheads, including the swastika, back to Jamaica, hence challenging established epistemological conditions. This question also permeated her self-titled (like an album) solo show in London, which opened at Project Native Informant in September 2017. The exhibition drew on her analysis of the skinhead culture she experienced while living in the UK. Featuring a combination of prints on canvas, T-shirts and photography, the works reflect on the inception of that scene and the role fashion signifiers play in its volatile history that oscillates between left- and right-leaning.

“Fashion opens up space for the illusion of political efficacy which is actually just fetishisation of whiteness itself,” she says about US Americans who would rather identify with the European brand of “Antifa” instead of supporting POC movements. “But because fashion is all about arbitrary play of signs and visual signifiers it might be the most relevant way to think of what’s happening politically now. Fashion’s shallowness, consumerism and cyclical self reiteration seems to me to be a structural counterpoint to what’s happening politically.”

Music also plays a big role in Huxtable’s art, whether on the decks or when she uses it more conceptually. “The ideas in the show also go in hand with music in the sense that you could just replace an anti-fascist button with a band name,” she says. “And so bands and music and fashion and what they signified carried the weight of what previously a particular form of activism would signify. That’s why I also made up these bands’ names in one of the jackets.” But when it comes to music it doesn’t end there. Juliana Huxtable has had a relentless schedule DJing around the globe in 2017, and there are plans for an album in 2018. In addition she has a New York exhibition scheduled for May with Carolyn Lazar.

The deeper you dig into Juliana Huxtable’s glam and complex world of alternative histories and possibilities the more perplexing it gets. Yet, whether through music, fashion or something else newly found on the internet, her curiosity and sharp tongue have undoubtedly made n impact on the way we relate to cultures we create and consume.

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