THE FILE: Interview with Jeffrey Augustine Songco
Daniel Samaniego's recent interview with former Bay Area-artist Jeffrey Augustine Songco. In March Songco, now based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, exhibited at SPRING/BREAK Art Show (NY) with The Society of 23’s Locker Room, a multi-media installation that has been featured across media platforms including: Huffpost, Hyperallergic, Art News and W.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
How has your studio practice evolved having relocated from San Francisco to Grand Rapids, Michigan? As an artist engaging issues of identity politics and sexuality, does your work depend on place?
The daily performance of my studio practice hasn’t changed. I’m still glued to television, my laptop, and my iPhone, consuming pop culture, current events, and social media. I still appropriate stories from real life and use them when constructing the grand narrative of my artwork. On the flip side, the external factors around me have changed in a lot of ways. My “studio” has always been a dedicated area of my home, so I went from a 300 sq. ft., third floor walk up apartment in the Mission District to a 1,200 sq. ft. 2 bedroom 2 bath home with a basement, fenced backyard, and detached garage in Heritage Hill for the same price. It’s been glorious to put my sewing machine on an 8-foot dining table and spread yards of fabric out, or store small components of a large-scale installation in my basement awaiting show time, and still have a functioning home. I also met my boyfriend here in Grand Rapids, so having another person living with my extremely private and manic practice has been an important shift for the better. My practice is ‘passionate,’ or easily swayed by external factors, so it’s not necessarily dependent on place so much as affected by it. I went from living in an American gay mecca with a racially diverse, urban population of conspicuous consumers to a sprawling Midwestern region with a gay bar and a gay nightclub powered by the Christian Reformed Church. This cultural landscape is new to me and oozing into my practice in a variety of ways — the work I’ve made since moving here is a clear effect of my relocation.
You connected with the Grand Rapids art community before your move as an exhibiting artist with ArtPrize. For those unfamiliar, what is ArtPrize and how did you become involved?
ArtPrize is an international art competition in Grand Rapids with an open call to any artist. The competition awards $200,000 to the winner of a public vote, and $200,000 to the winner of a juried vote. There are also public and juried category award winners. After graduating from grad school in May 2011, I was applying to shows and competitions around the country. I read about ArtPrize in the blogosphere and applied to it with a sculpture titled “GayGayGay robe” which I had created for my graduate thesis exhibition. My proposal was accepted by the Westminster Presbyterian Church. I felt something special was happening by the mere fact that a church in West Michigan wanted to show my controversial gay-themed artwork. After working with the venue organizer, Reverend Anne Weirich, she determined that my artwork needed a panel discussion to address its themes, so she flew me out to be part of their adult education programming. I had planned to ship my artwork out for the competition, but I never imagined visiting the city to give a talk. The visit and competition experience were so meaningful that I decided to participate again and again and again, making these really ambitious, site-specific installations that I could only dream about making because of the limited opportunities coming my way. I obviously met some great people during my visits who became friends and colleagues that I felt extremely comfortable moving my life from San Francisco to Grand Rapids in 2016.
You were awarded a juried award at ArtPrize Nine in 2017. Can we talk about this? I know you to be a shrewd observer of both the aesthetics and ritualistic excesses of award shows and pageants…
I love a good competition. “Best in Show” is one of my favorite movies — bitches and competition, y’all! Last year for ArtPrize Nine, I created a site-specific installation titled “Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room” at a vacant water facility building organized by my friend, Richard App. This was the fifth year I had entered ArtPrize, so it was about time I got some recognition! For so many reasons, the idea of ‘competition’ for me is best exemplified by beauty pageants. After reading and watching so much analysis of the Miss Universe 2015 debacle (when Miss Colombia was incorrectly announced as the winner instead of Miss Philippines), I realized a lot about myself and my desire to win things. There are these qualities we project onto winners and champions, that they perform these specific rituals in order to win. We mimic winners hoping that we’ll win, too. You can’t imagine the cognitive dissonance going through my brain in the four minutes Miss Colombia was crowned Miss Universe. In those few minutes, I’m wondering what Miss Philippines did wrong, what Miss Colombia did right, and ultimately, if the competition is rigged. That then opens the door to the fairness of competitions, and if participants are just pawns in a bigger political game. We learned last year that the Miss Universe 2013 pageant held in Moscow was a theatrical facade for mega powerful people to conduct business. But it was still a real and actual competition for the contestants. The “Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room” kind of brought all of this stuff together: the private and public sides of competition (collegiate athletes in a locker room and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” drag queens in a dressing room), homogeneity in its contestants (the brothers as pageant contestants, or bitches vying for Best in Breed), and the mystery and glamour of power. There must be some incredible psychological damage I’ve done to myself to have made some of my most interesting work to date specifically for an extremely controversial art competition. I’ve got a lot of therapy work to do.
Can you explain your public installation for ArtPrize Seven titled “Revelry”. What was your intention in engaging the public and what was the outcome?
The opportunity to apply to the competition presented itself, as it does every year, and I decided to apply with a proposal of a large-scale, site-specific, outdoor installation. “Revelry” was another effect of the ideas and materials floating around my brain and studio aligning with a due date for a competition application deadline. My first proposal was rejected, so I came back with a second proposal: a 6’ high x 200’ long temporary metal chain-link fence that stood on Calder Plaza between City Hall and the Kent County Building. The fence was knotted with about 27,000 plastic bead necklaces. It was like a queer “Tilted Arc” by Richard Serra. I wanted visitors to physically experience the questions and debates that emerged because of the competition itself — this fascinating Autumn ritual of conversation that appeared in their culture because of ArtPrize. The fence was meant to represent the line between “good and bad art” and “public vote and jury vote”. I was manning the installation for the first few days of competition and passing out beads to the public so that they could attach additional beads to the fence themselves. But on the morning of the first Saturday of ArtPrize, the public said “no, we will not add — we will subtract!” and within eight hours, all 1-ton of beads were removed. It was like a Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy installation on steroids. Consequently, the local news outlets covered the incident, and I was able to ask the public to return the beads, and boy did they ever. The public returned with bags of beads, and decorated the fence with their own mark making. I had several bags of unused beads that I was saving, so I continued my original instruction to hand out beads to the public so they could add their mark to the artwork. It turns out they didn’t like my rigid instructions, so they made their own. The installation’s time-based existence perfectly exemplified some prominent themes in my work: comedy, drama, suffering, and celebration. The installation was also created three months after the Pulse shooting, so the final iteration of the piece had an aesthetic of a memorial: a bare steel fence with an organized chaos of colorful objects attached to it, and a story of grief and sadness surrounding it. It’s strange to think about how many mass shootings have occurred since then, and the effect of ‘a mourning ritual on the perimeter at the site of the event’ as a new normal in American culture. I didn’t plan on making a piece that aesthetically resembled a memorial to a mass shooting, but it doesn’t surprise me that the artwork ended up becoming that representation. As an artist, I’ve placed myself in a position to resonate with American culture in a really intense way.
Society of 23
The Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room is part of an ongoing multimedia and performance project called the Society of 23. Will you please share the origins of the brotherhood with our readers?
I launched the brotherhood in 2008. Before I was an artist, I was a child performer — ballet, tap, jazz, and musical theater. The language of dance informed my creative process. So what happens to an Asian-American child performer who goes to art school, joins a white fraternity, stays closeted until graduation, and decides to pursue a life as an artist? He makes a secret brotherhood of 23 mysterious men, all played by himself, obviously. These worlds I’ve personally experienced — the Catholic Church, New York theater, college fraternities, and San Francisco’s tech scene, among many — have all mashed up into this complicated idea of identity and power. The Society of 23 has a non-linear narrative, so the first piece I made that hinted at the brotherhood was actually in 2005 in which I performed a spy character and documented his antics through digital photographs printed on paper. I needed character development and history for the spy, so I created a background story where the spy was actually a brother of a secret fraternal group, much like the CIA is supposedly born from the brothers of Yale’s Skull and Bones. Since then, the stories I create mimic a very real process of constructing an American identity, filled with the protagonists being broken and struggling to make sense of themselves.
What is next for the Brothers?
The brothers are always up to something, so your question is the primary question that I think about all the time. “Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room” is a site where their ritual robes are stored, and where the brothers get dressed and prepared to do something. In the original iteration of the installation, there was also a locked door in the room with a sign that read, “BROTHERS ONLY”. I’ve been wondering for so long: what do the brothers do when they wear their robes, and what is on the other side of that door?
In 2008, I created five sketches of the brotherhood’s secret ritual meeting with digital photography. Now that I’ve created the ritual robe in 2011 and the Locker Dressing Room in 2017, it makes temporal sense to make the actual ritual meeting. I’m currently researching Busby Berkeley’s films and choreography to help me create a visual language of symbols that I can use to create pencil and pastel drawings of the choreography of the ritual meeting. I love the idea of a choreographer’s notebook and the mark marking they use to notate movement, all to create a legible language that is translated into dance.
Drag and Songco’s GayGayGay robe
As an artist who identifies as both queer and biracial, I experience anxiety and to a lesser extent, pleasure in seeing the ‘GayGayGay robe’, which has been a pictorial, performative and sculptural element of your work since 2011. On the one hand, I view your robe as an appropriation of the terrorist KKK robe – coloring the fright white with the LGBTQ+ rainbow, which is quite spectacular. However, the reclamation of this garment compared to say a homophobic slur, is more sticky: the rainbow does not mask the KKK robe completely, and so as a queer viewer, I find myself ‘wearing’ hypocrisy in the form of the robe, as well as the residues of the Jim Crow era, which continue to plague us in the present.
It's an arresting image. What is your intention with’GayGayGay robe’?
I love your readings and I think they’re all wonderful and correct. The intention in 2011 was that I needed a special robe for this brotherhood that I created. The brotherhood needed a fabulous costume that went beyond my normal streetwear that was in my closet. In the few months before the “GayGayGay robe” came to fruition, I was doing a lot of research on brotherhoods. The image of the conical hat (or the “capriote”), mask, and robe came up in relation to Catholic brotherhoods in Spain. The capriote dates back centuries to the Inquisition, but it evolved into fabulous garments that are still used in public processions during Holy Week for Easter festivities. These processions are popular events in Spain and local vendors sell capriote figurines — I’ve seen online images of handwritten signs under these figurines that say “No KKK”. The capriote is worn by the brothers who are performing the Catholic act of penance. I resonated with this history of the conical hat, but as an American kid who also watched a lot of KKK documentaries on the Discovery Channel, I was fully aware of the symbol’s obvious relationship to the KKK. My deeper intention then, beyond simply making a costume, was to appropriate the symbol’s long history of meanings and to continue to evolve it, hopefully out of its current painful significance in America. I don’t want to forget the symbol’s history, but rather, like the lipstick mirror quote says, I want to face a flaw and correct it.
I was both fascinated and transfixed watching The Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room video in which you appropriated the ‘elimination’ sequence seen in RuPaul’s Drag Race: the departing queen leaves a farewell message written in lipstick on the dressing room’s vanity mirror. In place of sisterly love (or a bitchy barb), you wrote a quote from George W. Bush:
“A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them. -Prez George W. Bush”
What does it mean for you to enter the dressing room in homage to Drag Race? Is it a reclamation of space?
The moment I decided to include a vanity mirror in the Locker Dressing Room, I knew the surface would include lipstick mark making on it. I grew up doing theater and I spent a lot of time in dressing rooms. I loved observing the way other performers’ personalized their dressing stations. There’s this amazing process that goes into feeling comfort and security backstage, into creating a safe space to contain yourself stuck between an actual reality and the fictional reality created on stage. I think the mirror itself acts as the physical representation of that portal between realities. In the theater, you might find lipstick smiley faces or affirmative greetings between castmates during the run of the show, a kind of relational grooming. On “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the queen writing the farewell message is leaving the competition and heading back to the real world, so this mark making has a different significance — it’s the final moment of communication before death. I wanted to play with these two interpretations of the mark on the mirror, and so I’m just thrilled that I arrived at such a perfect text to write on the mirror. The quote I chose came from a transcription of a speech New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave at a special address on May 19, 2017 at Gallier Hall before a fourth Confederate monument was dismantled in his city. He quoted George W. Bush’s remarks from the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016. It was a perfect, poetic way of addressing ideas of ownership and reclamation, which were two big concepts clearly being discussed in my installation. I felt like writing that quote in lipstick on the mirror was an important moment that had to be documented with video as both a nod to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and as a way of publicizing this private, backstage act. I’m proud that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has claimed lipstick-on-a-mirror, but the show doesn’t own that object any more than the KKK owns the image of a conical hat and mask.
There is an interesting slippage or cross pollination between visual art and drag. Sasha Velour was captured quoting Judith Butler on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Phi Phi O’Hara created a durational performance in which she created and documented a new look every day throughout an entire year, which in essence is a queering of On Kawara, or many of the ‘painting a day’ practices that have been influenced by On Kawara. What are your thoughts in regards to appropriating reality TV in general?
MTV’s “The Real World” debuted in 1992, and in the 32 seasons that have aired since then, there has yet to be an Asian-American male cast member. I share this statistic to complicate the notion of reality TV, the notion of identity, and the notion of surveillance and documentation. I’m doing something quite strange and queer in American culture: performing a role as an Asian-American, documenting it, and publicly exhibiting that documentation. I love and consume pop culture, but I only started investing in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” during its 2016 (season 8) when it was aired on Logo TV, a premium cable network for LGBT audiences. This year, the show made the switch to VH1, a mainstream cable network. I like to appropriate big, common things in American culture because it’s an attempt to connect with the masses, but I know it’s wishful thinking to think so large. It’s exciting to bring new ideas to a conversation, but it’s also satisfying to simply be part of the conversation at all, and that usually means repeating things other people are already talking about. Reality television is something familiar and popular in our culture, so it’s fun for me to share my interest and analysis in the genre through my artwork. But I’m not as early an adopter as I could or should be — I a very late bloomer when it comes to pop culture tempo. When I watch Drag Race with my boyfriend, I still catch myself being surprised that I’m watching this art form of drag on a major television network, and I literally say out loud, “I can’t believe this is on television’. It’s really exciting, and I’m glad I’m alive for it — thank you, RuPaul!
Do you consider the performance of the Brothers in the Society of 23 a form of drag? For you personally, does drag depend on female impersonation?
I’m a staunch supporter of RuPaul’s famous quote: “We’re all born naked; the rest is drag”. For me, drag is definitely linked to female impersonation, but as I continue to educate myself, I’m always expanding that definition of drag. There’s a lot of similarities with the bodies in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the bodies of the Society of 23, but I haven’t defined the brotherhood as a form of drag. One grand similarity I do see between drag and the brotherhood is a weapon for social change. The power and agency drag queens possess is the kind of power and agency I want to give the brotherhood. I had a great conversation with Elaine Frantz Parson, the author of “Ku Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction,” and she mentioned that the members of the first iteration of the Klan would dress in women’s clothes when intimidating their victims. Beyond pop culture ideas of entertainment, there’s something deeply powerful with the performance of drag.
I’m reminded of the ‘realness’ categories in the New York Drag Balls, famously captured in the Film Paris is Burning (1990, Dir. Jenny Livingston). Do you feel a connection with the queens who undertook ‘passing’ as a mode of performance?
My life is the realness category! I feel like I’m trying to pass for something everyday. I was a child actor — legitimately performing on a professional stage, having rehearsals in NYC, leaving school early for matinees, and getting paid. At a young age, performance was my reality. Add that to all the normal bullshit young people of color, who are also gay, have to face and my immediate survival technique was to pass. I couldn’t change my skin color, but I could perform signifiers of heterosexuality. I dressed the part, I spoke the part, I even joined a fraternity in college. I didn’t come out of the closet until after college — I even started my job at a gay club in the closet. I hated myself and the mainstream representation of LGBT identity, so I forced myself to pass as someone with power and agency, which is why I gravitated to the concepts of fraternities and the straight white American male. Consequently, I gravitated towards ideas of pain and suffering. I’m such a Libra.
I'm betting on a Society of 23 installation in Venice come 2023. Thoughts?
I’m betting on it, too! Whenever I make an installation, I have a fantasy that a gallery or museum will see it and send me an email asking if they can show it in their space. Back in October, I posted a photo of the Locker Dressing Room being deinstalled on Instagram and I captioned it “What goes up must come down. And then maybe travel to another city”. Little did I know that my friend Marly Hammer was following the Locker Dressing Room journey on social media, and shortly after ArtPrize ended, she asked if she and her colleague, John Richey, could bring the installation to SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Their proposal was accepted and we exhibited the installation in March. I got an incredible amount of exposure during the run of the show. One day I was scrolling through Instagram and I screamed: Klaus Biesenbach instagrammed a photo of the “GayGayGay robe”. I ran to my boyfriend to tell him the news and we started jumping up and down and crying all because of an Instagram post! It doesn’t mean anything, but at the same time, it does, right? It was a very 2018 moment. I’m excited to see where the brothers go in the next few years, and I really hope they get the opportunity to spend a hot romantic summer in Venice.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco is a multi-media artist based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By casting himself as the subject of his artwork, a gay American man of Filipino ethnicity becomes the protagonist of a postcolonial queer narrative. Songco transforms both controversial images and pop culture headlines into theatrical self-portraits through the combined disciplines of photography, video, performance, and installation.
Daniel Samaniego’s hyper-detailed drawing installations are a meditation on queer persona. He received his BFA in Painting and Drawing in 2007 from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and an MFA in Painting in 2011 from the San Francisco Art Institute. Samaniego has been an Artist in Residence at the Vermont Studio Center (2014).
The file is open: studio visits, conversations and issues in new painting and drawing
Curated by San Francisco based artist Daniel Samaniego.
All images courtesy the artist.