Juliana Huxtable’s Conspiracy Logic
The Writer, Artist, and Performer Talks Fashion Ideology as a Way of Unpacking Political and Symbolic History
- Interview: Solomon Chase
- Photography: Kevin Amato
Juliana Huxtable is a spry demigoddess who writes (and thinks) in ALL CAPS. A New York–based artist, writer, performer, DJ, and founder of the party Shock Value, Huxtable’s writing and artwork is laden with complex signifiers and cultural symbolism. The notion of reading figures into everything, generating formats with which to decipher the world around us through her glittering perspective. This process of excavation probes everything from her personal life to the politics of dress and counter-cultural aesthetics. Mucus in My Pineal Gland, the first collection of Huxtable’s poems essays and performance scripts was published earlier this year, in addition to an apocalyptic novella, LIFE, in collaboration with artist Hannah Black, marking a critical momentum in her hurricane of a career. The year has also seen major new bodies of work with A Split During Laughter at the Rally at the New York gallery Reena Spaulings and a self-titled show at London’s Project Native Informant.
Here she proposes the generative potential of conspiracy theories, historicizes the rhythmic properties of protest chants, and maps the outer realms of skinhead culture to the point where racism and anti-racism become intertwined in an aesthetic and ideological brawl. For Huxtable, each endeavor spills into the other, twisting disparate histories with a sharp tongue and a wide blue smile.
Can we start by talking about that iconic blue lip? It was an important feature at your Reena Spaulings exhibition, giant on-screen and turned into magnets. I loved Brian Droitcour’s description of your inviting smile with clenched, weaponized teeth.
I like that reading. For the show, I used the lips because I was tired of using myself, having myself be the center of everything, and so for the first show I was like, "I don’t want to trap myself in a situation where it continues to be about fetishizing me and my body."
I love the idea that you think in all caps, write in all caps. There is more of a exaggerated-ness to it than the confrontational “YELLING” people think of with caps. I imagine the caps as part of your look. Maybe they’re the weaponized teeth? What is the sensation of thinking in caps? Do you write all emails in all caps as well?
No, I think that would be too much. [Laughs] That’s kind of psychotic. All caps look really beautiful because it’s even. And when I think of a letterpress or a letterpress system, that to me is the most beautiful when it’s all caps. It looks so clean and balanced. Anytime something has a heightened sense of importance, it is all caps, but not necessarily heightened sense of emphasis or aggression. When I’m really pissed at someone, it’s all lowercase, no caps at all. If you’re just getting all lowercase period, it’s shade. [Laughs]
You just had two really amazing shows—A Split During Laughter at the Rally at Reena Spaulings in New York, and a show at Project Native Informant in London. The charting and mapping of cultural signifiers, specifically with the work around skinheads, punks, and Nazis, seems like components of one ongoing body of work.
They’re definitely connected. The Reena Spaulings show established a lot of the conceptual context in a more ambiguous visual space, and with Project Native Informant in London, I felt like I could be more playful with the visual metaphors. I was like, "Well, it’s kind of perfect that it’s in London because of the loaded history." The skinhead flow-chart at Reena Spaulings was informed by history that was actually happening in London. And every month since the Reena Spaulings show the “Nazi, Nazi, skinhead, skinhead…” is even more heightened.
“When I’m really pissed at someone, it’s all lowercase, no caps at all. If you’re just getting all lowercase period, it’s shade.”
Yeah, because that show opened pre-Charlottesville. Shit hadn’t hit the fan yet…
All the concepts for it started even before Trump popped off. But it’s because it’s been recurring, and now each wave is just more and more crass, and blunt. In the context and history of London, and thinking about me in that space, it felt important to establish my relationship with [skinhead] culture without trying to be appropriative. Skinheads, and so much of the intra-punk and its derivative movements, are about fashion and the continual chasing of the visual signifier that one can identify as a static position. I was revisiting fashion as a way of thinking about political and symbolic history. I was thinking about fashion and the collapse of conventional politics or conventional means of expressing political aims, protests, and how the debates surrounding fashion and appropriation are maybe more developed examples of what’s happening politically. Because we don’t have the language to talk about fashion in that way. There’s this cyclical or apathetic removal that comes with conversations around what the politics of Nazism or Neo-Nazism or white supremacy are. They’ve all been conversations about fashion from the outside, so thinking about the history of punk and its relationship to mod culture or rude boys, and ska, and the fact that there were literally black skinheads. A lot of the symbolism that’s now white nationalism was actually being worn by young black Jamaican immigrants in London early on. And then the punk position, which was not necessarily left in its political aims but generally kind of anti-, getting co-opted. The prevalence of this cultural movement was because it was an overidentification with fashion, and maybe fashion is symbolic of the emptiness of politics. You also get these masculinist ideals that were started by black men but co-opted by white men and now being co-opted by white nationalists. So now, the leftist skinheads instead of wearing our jackets red side out are going to wear the orange side out, and that’s going to be the sign that we are now anti-white supremacist, anti-fascist.
You really have to understand this complicated history to be able to identify these subtle codes that seem to be always shifting—how they can represent one ideology and then suddenly its opposite.
Yeah! The swiping of political buttons! For the Reena Spaulings show I was making faux-protest or campaign buttons, but was thinking about them as political buttons co-opted as band pins or patches, like a band adopting whatever these visual symbols at one point signified. A lot of political movements right now are consciously making the choice to use fashion and ornamentation as a way of inserting themselves into cultural wars but we’re not talking about it. People who deal with fashion are written-off as shallow.
There’s kind of a lifespan to aesthetic ideology, a length of time something can cling to an identity or mean a particular thing before they…
They become fetish objects. Like in skinhead history, where do you draw the line? Who is a white supremacist and who is not? Because at one point, it was like, "Oh, we’re just going to incorporate the swastika for shock value," with shock value being a response to a failure of moral and ethical dichotomies. But then you have the Rock Against Racism concerts in London in the 70s, which started off with a lot of seminal, early post-punk rock bands. It was a moment where white skinheads, and whatever the modification of the black skinhead was at that point, were coming together. But it’s also a moment where a lot of bands who had been socialist anti-racists drifted off into crazy white supremacist territory. That’s why I wrote about the band Death in June, it broke from being explicitly leftist, and they’re now literal white supremacists, European nationalists, anti-Muslim, etc. There’s so many cases of this. So, I’m thinking about fetish objects and what’s going on in the psychology of a leftist skinhead even.
There’s a fine line between reclaiming symbols and fetishizing them.
Or like do they have a fetish even if the fetish is formed against it. A few years ago there was a brawl between Antifa leftist skinheads and Nazi skinheads outside of a Fred Perry sample sale in Paris. They were all going to the same sample sale! I was like, "This isn’t real, and it’s totally real." Literally, they had the same style. I don’t know, but I think this connects to the hysteria we’re dealing with right now.
“I get called a conspiracy theorist a lot, but the more I delve into it, I find a lot of conspiracy theorists are feeling disenfranchised in one way or another…”
Speaking of hysteria, I’m wondering how these mapped cultural histories, and documented accounts intertwine with your use of fiction and conspiracy. It feels like conspiracy theories become a critical method for revising the narrative.
What’s happening right now in terms of American political discourse is fringe rhetoric and cultures are gaining ground. Like that InfoWars dude is legitimate. [Alex Jones] could probably run for office and get elected. So much of what’s happening is people pointing at people and saying, "This is an illegitimate form of knowledge, the way you’re relating to the world is irrational." Whether it’s the crazy working class white person in Texas who is flipping out because they’re totally paranoid over the leftist government taking away all their rights and lands or the "chemtrail" people on the other end of the spectrum who believe that the government is flying planes spreading biological agents on us. What I like about conspiracy is that instead of pointing at someone and calling them crazy, we can engage their logic. If we engaged everyone in a conspiracy it would all devolve into a base nothingness and I think that nothingness would be more of a unifying point than trying to navigate the political reality that currently exists. The logic of conspiracy is all-consuming, and so in the questioning of everything there’s a sense of shared community. I believe that conspiracy could be a way of engaging, as an over-identification strategy. All of the men in my family have this sort of Hotep strain of thought which identifies radio frequency ID chips and the U.S. government emasculating black men. But the problem is that people find arbitrary points to set up walls in the logic. I’m going to believe that black men are being emasculated and these certain things about relationships between white culture and black culture to the degree that it allows me to validate my ideas of misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and the world. When I talk to my uncle, I don’t say, "I’m a conspiracy theorist and so are you," but I genuinely engage him on his mode of logic, where the absence of proof is proof that there’s an ulterior motive. Paranoia is much more rational than anything else at this point.
It seems like it would become a very abstract and philosophical debate at that point, when proof and facts lose all of their value.
I get called a conspiracy theorist a lot, but the more I delve into it, I find a lot of conspiracy theorists are feeling disenfranchised in one way or another, even if it’s feeling psycho or paranoid, like a machismo dude who thinks that the government is putting estrogen in chemtrails because they’ve seen Caitlyn Jenner five too many times on TV so they’re convinced the government is trying to make everyone trans. All of these people are coming from a place of feeling disenfranchised, whether or not that feeling is valid or grounded in reality is maybe less important than the ability to just have some sort of basic dialogue.
The fringe narrative makes me think about a move away from top-down history. How do you feel history is flowing right now—is technology aiding in the kind of history and narrative-telling you want to see? Like how a loss of “fact” comes with a rise of personal narrative, stories coming out of the woodwork. You can be heard even if you’re not factual. This seems to have both positive and negative side effects.
The internet doesn’t provide a model for real fact-checking in a full way. Conspiracy developed hand-in-hand with the internet, so technology has created space for anyone to revise their idea of history even the immediate past. Like literally the election just brought so much of that, and the amount of people I saw being like, "No, look, we have pictures from Obama’s elections, we have pictures from the Women’s March, it’s way more than Trump’s." Just the amount of time spent on that, it’s never going to go anywhere, so who cares? Yes, clearly Trump was spiraling, but to someone who he appeals to, appealing to their sense of pain, or disenfranchisement, or whatever, it just doesn’t work. Could you ever prove it? Slash, you could just photoshop the photo, slash, it’s a government conspiracy, slash…
Reminds me of this line you wrote: IF HISTORY WAS ROBBED, WE TAKE IT BACK BY PEELING AWAY AT LAYERS OF WIKIPEDIA DEBATES (SUBJECT LINE) RE: AUTHENTICITY.
That’s from a performance. It was about me and my first feeling of loss over the internet as an archive, because I’m like, "Oh, maybe it’s not an archive, maybe it’s totally manipulated and this is a product of an oligarchy." This started with Wikipedia. When I was in South Africa, doing a study abroad, we went to see this exhibit at the Apartheid museum, and it was in the middle of an amusement park casino and I just thought that was really weird. It just didn’t make sense to me, and I was already a Wikipedia editor, and on Wikipedia you can go to the edit history and there was someone who was consistently editing a series of articles out about how the Apartheid museum was owned by a very wealthy Africano white nationalist family. I think it was a mining family, who during the fight to end Apartheid, or for some people the fight to save the Apartheid, they purchased the rights to the Apartheid Museum assuming their side would prevail. But after they lost, there was a nonprofit that opened, which started the process of opening the actual Apartheid Museum because it makes sense that it would be called the Apartheid Museum for the purposes of showing the dark and painful parts of the Apartheid after it was over. The white nationalist family was like, "We already own the copyright to this," sued them, took them to court, won, and opened up the museum as part of a casino theme park. The museum passes as a totally legitimate enterprise. I went to this page a month ago and they were still editing it back and forth. This is how quickly something as monumental as a white supremacist family exploiting an anti-Apartheid history is literally just a Wikipedia edit.
So crazy, and it’s a fight over history that’s at this moment being fought by interns with Wikipedia knowledge. You do have a very hyperlinked, post-Wiki method of connecting things, like the various threads in “A Split During Laughter at the Rally” film, combining activism with the music theory analysis of protest chants, and reality TV-style confessionals. How do the different spheres of your work, like music, writing, performance, and visual, interact for you?
I feel like they exist separately and I enjoy having moments where they converge, and then sort of allowing them also to exist separately again. Writing and all of my art practices are linked together. Music and performance are linked together, but DJing is not necessarily linked to either of those, unless it gets into the production territory, which is kind of what I’m doing right now. I’m doing a self-imposed production boot camp early next year in L.A. I’ve worked with other producers who are like, "Let’s collaborate together," but I have my own idea of what I want to do with my voice and texts, and even just making sounds or samples. I’d rather someone be working with me then have it the other way around. I’m kind of over being on someone’s track. It’s time to just do the rage.
I saw you’re DJing the main floor of Berghain for the first time on Octoboer 20th. Do you feel connected to the energy there? Like from the perspective of someone who also organizes party spaces that generate particular forms of communal energy, like with Shock Value. What do you think about the emphasis on privacy and anonymity?
It’s one of those things that I’m already inclined to hate just by virtue of the hype around it. The first time I went was cute, but I didn’t have the connection and then the second time I went I was like, "Oh my God, this is the most iconic place on the face of the earth, I’m obsessed." I played there before, but I played the baby room. The main floor is like a whole other world. I’m freaking out, I’m so excited. I’ve had such radically different experiences. Either I go and it’s just me and one friend walking around and I end up making out with some German dude and it’s dark and maybe I’m doing some drugs that I don’t know what they are. Either that or it’s like, literally every black girl that I know in Berlin are all at Berghain. We’re all at the bar together having this conversation like, “I don’t think they ever turn away black girls at Berghain.” I really don’t think that happens!
What are you going to play?
Playing in New York is so different from playing in Europe. My sets have generally gotten more ambient and then just really hard aggro, noisey, industrial. The way I describe it to people, it’s like, "If there was a XXX film set in Russia or some sort of Soviet satellite country, the scene in the nightclub where there’s smoke coming out of the fog and Russian models with blue glitter highlights and some industrial techno is playing…That’s the energy I’m playing for."
Solomon Chase is an artist, editor, co-founder of DIS and one half of TORSO.
- Interview: Solomon Chase
- Photography: Kevin Amato
- Styling: Kevin Amato
- Makeup: Fatimot Isadare