Embodying a performance art born in Sydney’s queer club scene, Justin Shoulder’s latest solo show, Carrion, stakes out post-human, apocalyptic terrain, drawing our attention to the present age of excess and environmental misuse. Steve Dow met Shoulder in his art studio in inner-west Marrickville, surrounded by the sewing machines used to run up the fabulous costumes for his various personae, ahead of the premiere of Carrion at Carriageworks as part of Liveworks 2017, an 11-day festival of experimental art from across Australia and the Asia-Pacific.
Steve Dow: Your new show is named for a figure that can change form and speak several languages. What inspired this creature?
Justin Shoulder: Carrion, like a lot of my works, had its seed in nightclub stuff. I put on parties with my partner, Matt Stegh, and we have an event, Pink Bubble, a semi-regular party focused on electronic music. I created a figure called Carrion which is a cyborg that plays on the pop cultural tropes of the Terminator, but is also a liminal clown figure. There was a science fiction text for the first club event, and I talked about all these men in control. I performed a weather report that was a sales pitch. There were drag elements.
In the past, my work has centred on costumes, and very visual, lustrous work, from the language of the clubs. The provocation for Carrion was to seek to transform through gesture, and not rely primarily on spectacle.
Carrion was born to echo the horror of our times. It’s the first time I’ve worked on speech, to reflect on the fury I was feeling. It had just come after the election of Trump, and I was reflecting on white supremacy.
SD: How does the notion of white supremacy relate to you?
JS: More recently I’ve been asserting my identity as a Filipino artist, and looking at ideas and stories that are not the dominant narrative.
Seeing the way the world is going, and the lack of action on climate change, that was also a key motivation in this work. To become a figure that was a commentator, but also an embodiment: embodying the white horror, but also critiquing it.
I set up this simulation of nature, of light and shadows and sound. I then break it apart, to show it’s all a construction.
SD: Does Carrion’s quest carry a message about conspicuous consumption?
JS: The work is a lament. I introduce these fake, electronic toy birds, trying to mimic the real, which is a comment on consumption, because you can never simulate nature. A big focus is environmental degradation. I’m looking into the future, and this figure is surviving on the remains.
SD: What freedom does adopting personae such as Carrion give you as an artist?
JS: I’ve always been interested in mythical creatures. You’re embodying something, but it’s still an allegory. It’s not directly representational, and in that sense you can suggest ideas, but it’s not so didactic. I’m so drawn to shape-shift my form because it can communicate such a diverse range of ideas, connecting my experience to very diverse audiences. Working with masks and costumes is ancient and universal.
SD: Your persona for The River Eats in 2012 was Pinky, this pink-skinned, human-like creature that transforms into an insect-like entity. Do you have vivid dreams?
JS: My subconscious, my psyche, is definitely part of the inspiration for my work. But so much comes from the everyday and reflections of what it means to be human in this world, or my relationship to nature or to other people.
SD: There’s a whole history of queer performance that evolved in Sydney’s club scene in the 1970s. You were born in 1985, and have been working in this field for a decade. Where were you first exposed to queer performance art?
JS: I always say my education happened in the club, watching queer performances at places such as Club Kooky and Club 77. I also lived with a drag queen, Dallas Dellaforce, in the mid 2000s. I started to participate in those spaces. I met my partner in 2007, and that was an introduction into the cabaret spaces such as 34B. He was part of a collective that put on events, and they did a lot of big group spectacles. From there, we started working as the Glitter Militia.
SD: How does Glitter Militia work?
JS: A group of us created a float at Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, called the Glitter Militia, an amorphous group of artists, activists and performers. We followed a friend’s jeep and ganged around it. We just shouted at everyone [laughs].
One of the main events we started was Monster Gras, held on the same night as Mardi Gras at the Red Rattler in Marrickville. Next year is the 10th anniversary of this performance party, which is a reaction to what some members of the [queer] community are looking for, as an alternative space. A more politicised event than Mardi Gras, in some ways.
SD: Do you make all your own costumes, or does the collective? Do you aim for difficulty and discomfort?
JS: They’re definitely a collective collaboration, with my partner Matt Stegh, as well as other people I share the studio with. We all share skills. The Carrion costume has inflatable elements, so my partner and my friend help me with the inflatables, and another friend helped with the electronics. It’s always a collective showing of skills. A lot of the materials come from found stuff; we are in proximity to Reverse Garbage [a recycling depot].
SD: Do you mind if audience members enjoy the character and costume experience without attaching meaning to what you do?
JS: In the past, it was a much more formalist exercise, which had a politic. More recently, it’s become more focused on gesture and the choreographic as a mode of communication. I never want to whack someone over the head with an idea. If it elicits a feeling, that’s really great, and I think that’s the importance of live performance, that kind of sensual engagement.
SD: Is it important for you to think like a child, as an artist?
JS: For sure. I co-parent a nine year-old boy with Matt and with the boy’s mum Emma, and there’s definitely a growing community of queer families that I’m part of. The work can be very accessible for kids as well, so that’s an exciting part.
SD: Given your futuristic preoccupations, are you optimistic about the planet’s future?
JS: While I have hope, I think there’s a lot of work to do. I know that hope is the kernel that keeps you going, but it’s actually a pretty dark time [laughs], to be realistic. Where I live, I’m super privileged. Thinking of the future for kids, it’s scary.