This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 20th of June 2018. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
Justin Shoulder is a performance-based artist, whose work cuts across performance, sculpture, dance and video. His performance work was born in the queer club scene, and has found a home in theatres and gallery spaces. Justin cites his experiences at Club Kooky and Club 77 as incredibly influential. The clubs became an escape from his job at the time, which involved editing photos, essentially removing 'blemishes'. His entrance in to performance was working with Dallas Dellaforce, where he would use a “leaf blower to blow her hair at particular moments in her show.”
Transcripts are a new initiative of Delving into Dance to make the rich archive avalaible to deaf audiances. These transcripts are paid for through the support of audiences and supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. It would be wonderful to have your contribute to this initative, You can contribure here. This interview was supported by Jo Thomas, Artistic Director of Metro Arts.
The interview started by asking Justin about the first performance he remember?
Justin Shoulder: I think, for me one of the most formative kind of performances was actually in my childhood was watching Chinese dragons dance at primary school. And in many ways I talk about that as, as what inspired me to do and work with the form of mythical creatures and costuming and spectacle, especially within a cultural framework.
I just remember the fear, the incredible fear I had of these figure that seem so alive. And I guess I always think about how those things form you. And fears then become desires in many ways.
And so I think black from when I started about 12 years ago, making these kind of full body costumes that I would animate. In many ways, it was to kind of like, give the audience and myself that same energy of something beyond the human. So I think that was probably the most formative and inspiring, probably moving experience in a way. Yeah. And say it performance. [2:29]
Andrew: Was that experience, something that you then wanted to do? Was it something that you saw, I thought, Oh, I'd like to try that.
Justin Shoulder: I think it was, it was very much like trying to understand how there was a human behind this, this figure that, that, that it also made me really understand the power of masks.
There was definitely a desire to be because I'd go home and, and make these very handmade costumes and masks as a kid and trying to animate them. But yeah, so I guess it's like that desire to be as well as to understand.
I think that experience also made me really consider the kind of communal spectacle, probably not theorizing as a child. But the spectacle is something I've always been drawn to as well.
Andrew: So when you're talking community spectacle, what were you talking?
Justin Shoulder: I guess as a form of storytelling, so using costumes and masks and not something that's not necessarily just to reference something that could be mysterious or other as a way to communicate to a group of people often in a kind of public, not necessarily a theater based situation. So, you know, party atmosphere, in a kind of school hall in a pageant, all those kinds of spaces, I think I've always been drawn to them as much as I am to like a formal performance space. And so I always kind of concurrently I'm working in all these spaces. [4:17]
Andrew: It’s interesting how some performance spaces are considered like a place for performance to exist, and then others are unconventional, or outside of the normal performance cannon. But historically, those spaces would have always been spaces of performance and celebration or pageantry.
Justin Shoulder: No, definitely. Maybe it's, it's, it's thinking about the spaces that are messy as well. And that's what I'm drawn to, I guess, they all kind of like, have a formality in some ways. But, um, yeah.
Andrew: Are there spaces outside of those conventional theatre settings, to do things that would otherwise not be possible?
Justin Shoulder: I mean, for me, club work which is such a big stream of my practice, I feel like, although there is something very specific to those spaces and those atmospheres and the kind of experience of the audience that make them so completely different to a theater to work in terms of the way you can guide an audience through kind of different sensory malleability that kind of communal experience. Which I feel like they are much more active but also kind of distracted. It’s a bit of both. [5:42]
Andrew: Do you have to work harder and spaces to engage people I because of the distractions?
Justin Shoulder: Definitely, I mean, I think over time I have a kind of formula that I'm trying to break. But I also like, subscribe to in some ways is often like the seven to 15-minute spot number where I use particular sounds or images to draw at first join audience in and then I kind of twist the spectacle, I guess I've learned that from watching a lot of cabaret and clowning but then trying to subvert that language as well as kind of participating in within like commercial spaces. And like advertising and using that language as well.
Loud sounds like loud, bright, shiny things, and then doing something quiet. I don't know.
I sometimes I play with primal sounds and sounds that kind of affect people's bodies in different ways, some frequencies, stillness can hold people in different ways actually find less is more the more I do club work. I find it's more powerful to hold people with stillness and then give them moments of violence or movement.
Andrew: Stillness can always be such a powerful moment because I mean, obviously the world is so busy and then be forced to watch something that is either slow or static or still. Particularly within a body can be so profound.
Justin Shoulder: Totally. And I think already because within the club space, there's a different sense of time. So you can very much extend time or shorten time or kind of you know this all these ideas of queer time and people existing outside very kind of nine to five existences and be having more nocturnal existences yeah. [8:03]
Andrew: What do you think about when you think of queer time as an idea? Like, how would you explain to somebody who is outside not wearing pink and blue nail polish.
Justin Shoulder: I mean, I think everyone probably it's different conceptions of queer time.
For me, it's like thinking about it beyond a western frame. So I often think about I kind of metaphysical framework, or I've been kind of building a kind of mythic framework that stems from my own cultural lineage in the Philippines. I think it's, it's like subverting capitalist’s mode of time or like a feeling of productivity or, I think it's often nocturnal but not exclusively. Queer Time has a focus on the communal experience. I don't know there's definitely ideas I have to do with Queer time.
Andrew: In regards to like, performance as a modality, within a theater or in a club. What is it that can be said, through body speech sound, those moments, those communal moments that I guess can’t be said in other modes? Or what do you want to say through those modes?
Justin Shoulder: I am so drawn to the performance and working with my body because of that kind of visceral connection I can have with an audience member that I don’t have with images or objects. I think it's, it's something very cellular that has a kind of different sense of empathy.
That I mean, a lot of my work is about effect. So it's, it's more about feeling and sensation and something too didactic. So I think I'm very drawn to bodies and the potential of the body can as a kind of form that people can relate to.
In many ways I started doing performance as a kind of reaction to having a very digital based practice working with images. And I wanted to physically feel more alive in this reality as opposed to a simulation. [10:56]
Andrew: So what was that kind of image work?
Justin Shoulder: I used to work full time doing retouching like beauty retouching, so I'm good with Photoshop, but I was I used to work at a photo studio almost completely away from daylight.
So I'd be inside a dark room retouching people's pores and like, removing, you know ideas of blemish and it totally killed my subconscious. Like, I literally stopped dreaming like that part of my brain shut off. But it was like, concurrently during that time that I was starting to go to nightclubs. And it was like the kind of mid 2000s so there was a lot more cabaret and theater stuff going on in my Club Kooky and all those kind of spaces. And they formed a kind of like alternate reality that was much more visceral and body based quite sexual Clowney. [12:00]
Andrew: Yeah, how did you enter that world obviously it was existing and you were visiting clubs. But it's one thing from being a spectator to being a participant.
Justin Shoulder: I mean, I was living with a drag performer Dallas Dellaforce at the time. And I started to go out with her. I was also her leaf blower. So I had worked with a leaf blow to blow her hair at a particular moment in her shows. And then I graduated from that role.
And I made a whole I mean, I wouldn't say she was the only reason I met people. But like, that was an entry point to some of a community and some relationships. So including my partner who I've been working with ever since he was part of a whole collective of artists doing cabaret, collective cabaret work at 34B, and stuff like that.
It's a very much kind of like, natural progression through friendship and intimacy and that kind of thing that then led to collaboration and putting on our own nights, which then led to creating like entire kind of ecologies, both of performance and like generating this space as well. And that's something I've been doing for the last 12 years. [13:23]
Andrew: You probably never expected that when you went on stage with a leaf blower.
Justin Shoulder: No, I wasn't on stage as I was like literally in front, like hiding. I was really good at it actually because I know how to hit the right angle with the hair.
Andrew: So working in those spaces. What was that freedom? Or what was that exploration? I guess? What did you start thinking about as opposed to that part of the mind that was shut off dreaming.
Justin Shoulder: I think a lot of the early works are very like visual gag comedy based when I was working within a group and I was very excited about the kind of clowning and more that kind of language, visual gags lot of drag but not necessarily like this kind of like more monstrous drag. I was very into kind of stripping and, and narrative based work. So like, kind of short, comedic narratives, group spectacle, talking about often kind of, like political ideas, but I think now they would be quite problematic. And the way we dealt with them in terms of, I just think politics change, and also your kind of understanding of your place within the world, which is good.
And then soon after, like a year of doing that, I started to work with masks and costumes, and got very excited about a much more formless reconfiguration of my body. So myself and my partner would collaborate to make these costumes that became the starting point for the work. So how to see how, how the right could become investing in these beings.
So there's like, there was like, a family of five creatures that I'd create these kind of dances or narratives for that often came after building the figure.
So it's kind of like they had stories, but they were much more like a figure in space, communicating to the audience through movement, or music, or a combination of this kind of signs and symbols. Yeah. [16:00]
Andrew: So sitting obviously, in a rehearsal room, what's your process now? Like, how do you think about an idea? And start to realize that and start to move through that?
Justin Shoulder: It's totally different now, so all those early works were very much I would make a make a costume and then whether it's like a very big mask that kind of covers, you know, like covers my face or is quite heavy or full body suit made of plastic bags or like kind of having stilts, they would then be the framework to work within to create a gestural ecology.
But now for the last few years, I've been working within kind of a lot more within body whether as a kind of dance framework training with Victoria Hunt as a mentor and she's kind of really given me tools to generate choreography and narrative directly from my body. So it's like very much focused on how I can use that my body as the primary form for transformation and then adding masks and prosthesis.
Today I probably work with some structured improvisations. I used to get really lost in this kind of space is completely daunting. But now I just kind of like set myself some tasks. I'm rehearsing both a club work that I've got at Club Kooky this weekend, as well as the new theatre work Carrion. So it will be a bit of like, so I work often now with notation systems and image based work through the body with a framework. So I'll I'll be like all this gestural ecology is called monkey machine.
And within that kind of framework that particularly I use my legs in this way, or there's this energy in my feet or that kind of thing. And that's become a kind of new notation system, which is very much more useful than before.
And then also working with my collaborator, Benji, we've been looking at the translation of particular cultural dance through YouTube. So my matrilineal lines in the Philippines, and we, we kind of are interested in how these kind of new manifestations come through, just through copying things on YouTube, and then creating your own language from that as well. And then, and then also going to the Philippines and training in those dances, and seeing what the difference is.
So I guess I use multiple different modes now, as well as I still return to like, working with masks as well. So it's kind of like a bit of everything in a bit of drag, too. Yeah. [19:00]
Andrew: It's such a big space. Are you in here by yourself all day?
Justin Shoulder: Yes, just me here today. But actually, one of the ways I start to claim the space Is I wash the floor. Yeah, so I’ll wash the floor. And then I'll just roll around and do a bit of a bit of the Body Weather like MB training, and I find that that kind of starts to claim the space. But it doesn't feel so big anymore.
And actually, the stage is almost that size. So I have to learn how to send my energy out to the entire room. And that's actually often one of the processes I do with Victoria Hunt is like, imagining beyond the room beyond the floor, and that actually kind of shift the scale of everything.
Andrew: Is it lonely?
Justin Shoulder: I love being by myself. So I have a very social existence. And I, I probably really enjoy having a moment within my familial social life to myself.
Andrew: Are there times in rehearsal where you do something amazing and you wish there was somebody to see it?
Justin Shoulder: Sometimes I do Instagram Live. [laughs] So yeah, probably got 10 people to see it. But then you end up performing for the screen, which is a very different thing. I did that for the first time the other day, and I was kind of an interesting experience, then I got a real high from people commenting and that's a dancing monkey.
Andrew: Is there something about I guess the the club scene perhaps lends itself to this. But that voyeuristic or that engagement with an audience that is, I’m trying to think of the language that exchange between an audience, spectator and your performance body?
Justin Shoulder: I feel like they’re more vocal within the club space, like you might get reviews and stuff for theatre work, but like people heckle you or like, they will shout things out, you’ll know if they're into it.
They exchange is much more hard work? Well, I think whereas I think Although, I mean, that's my kind of frustration with theatre blogs. But, um, I, I like both spaces. And they both have a different sense of value.
Yeah, I think it's that kind of, it's not always as critical in engagement within the club. But it doesn't matter because I think you're just one part of a much bigger ecology of things going on. And I guess that's why I get excited about the theater as a space because people can invest in a much deeper narrative for a longer duration. I mean, you could do that in a club but it's difficult to hold people. [22:07]
Andrew: Yeah, it's just different, I guess, different sets of rules. And each space as well. Your work explores, you know, queer narratives queer ideas with time etc. Do you want to talk a little bit about that within your current work that you’re creating?
Justin Shoulder: It's funny, I always think about the way that people classify my work as queer. And I guess in many ways, I like that as long as it kind of resist, like, just western queer ideas. I think Carrion probably speaks a lot to queer potentiality and the potential of the body because the work kind of is very much me seeing the potential of my form to move between machine, animal and human forms.
And, and that kind of like being a chimera, and being able to remix them, and I think like, I really like those kind of like, queer theorists, who talk about like, queer potentiality. How else would I frame it?
So there's that kind of potentiality. But also, I guess it's a very nonlinear work. Yet it's still linear. It's not like the narrative is not particularly didactic or literal, it's very atmospheric. And there's very much a kind of language that comes from a queer lineage from particular artist, but it's also very much looking to a new, well that's the goal anyway. A kind of like Filipino futurism, which I think is very queer because the language is also of a kind of imagined Motherland because I'm, I'm born in Australia, and I've spent most of my life here and a lot of us Filo’s of the Diaspora who are kind of removed from the home land talk about the imagination of the home land, or these kind of like, and that that's just as important as a kind of connecting point. So many ways. I feel like that's a very queer framework.
Andrew: When it comes to ideas of queer. Do you remember that first time where you found that sense of community or that sense of contact?
Justin Shoulder: Oh, yeah, I think definitely was going to Club Kooky when it used to be at 77. So Club Kooky been running for, like, gosh, I think it's like 20 more years, could be wrong. But it used to be a regular night at 77 in Kings Cross. And they would always have a performance on the Sunday.
And I feel like that was a very formative time, because I witness it felt like a very collective language between those artists that they will co creating, whether they were aware or not, this a very relational motifs and signs and symbols that I could connect to that that felt like they kind of come from mainstream ideas, but then I totally twist it so I guess that was probably my first engagement and also how those kind of things emerge from dance, music culture and that kind of experience.
And it's probably left a really indelible imprint on me in the way I work, particularly out of sex and glitter and trash vaudeville, and I just remember their long kind of pastiche-y, nonlinear narratives that I probably still work with, in many ways. Yeah… [26:27]
Andrew: When it comes to like, inspiration, drawing inspiration from so many different sources, what are you looking at what stands out to you that could be people, things, objects, places, ideas?
Justin Shoulder: I think, say for example, with Carrion a lot of it also draws from nature so looking at birds and the way they were for the way that bodies decay, I guess it's, it's pretty diverse, what I use or kind of draw from in in order to kind of tell a narrative I like to think of the work as a kind of soup where like, you've got like your hot pot and there's all the different meats and vegetables and ideas and then particular ideas might rise to the surface but they all kind of like infusing and kind of informing each other. I always try not to like whack an idea over people's heads but to kind of create like a space for contemplation with moments of violence or sharpness and then beauty or I don't know that's what I'm really drawn to in other people's work as well yeah if that answers the question.
Andrew: Yeah I guess you know looking at your work is obviously so many influences.
Justin Shoulder: Totally. Yeah I guess like I mean I do it from places like the Muppets to Opera to watching drag performances or kind of like Hollywood movies and science fiction there's a lot of science fiction motifs in this work I guess also what else would be Carrion. But it's kind of like very pop cultural reference to do with, like, the ideas of the cyborg as a kind of entry point for people to connect to this kind of like very Apple kind of capital figure but also nature, I know it sounds a bit broad.
Andrew: You know, you mentioned drag. What's your view on Ru Paul and what's that's kind of done to drag or the ideas of drag and what that means?
Justin Shoulder: It's funny actually, this morning I was walking so I have a son that I co parent with my partner and he's 10 years old and he's completely he was just talking on and on about like Eureka did this and like you know like he's very like like we watched it with him and then now he's become very like into the kind of competitive nature of it and what kind of craft and what I like about RuPaul’s Drag Race is it's kind of like it's made something, accessible is a weird thing but also like like to have this kind of reach to a very diverse audience is quite cool.
I know I don't agree with all her politics. But I also like the fact that it prioritises performance and entertainment and it becomes a livelihood for so many queer people. It has kind of created a very specific language of what drag is. But people still subvert it the binary gender stuffs a bit intense sometimes and particularly to do with transgender politics.
But then also, I think I like how, like if you are looking at particular people and their stories, and then like seeing something that actually talks about class politics or like race in the more recent episodes on like, very, like mainstream television, I think that's pretty wild.
Yeah, it's, it's kind of got the gamut where it's like, great in some ways, and not in others. And it's like, you know, it is a capitalist phenomenon for her all the drag cons and stuff like that. [31:02]
Andrew: It’s that mass appeal? a mass audience and mainstreaming. But then the safety Yeah, those are things that are built into it to make it palatable to the mainstream ignores all these other types of doing drag or gender differently. But it's a catch 22 it's like there's a positive and negative.
Justin Shoulder: And you kind of see that with Instagram as well. And the way that there's like all these new makeup trends and, like, ways that particular ways of contouring or I mean, I guess my, my way I interpret drag is using the vessel of Carrion as this kind of machine that regurgitates text.
And so, I'm dragging the text often, or kind of song. But it's much less to do with particular ideas of beauty of femininity, it’s kind of more monstrous, or Yeah, it's kind of like more I become a vessel for text.
Andrew: And in that sense, you're playing more I guess with the ambiguity of gender and ideas. Then you're drawing upon particular tropes.
Justin Shoulder: Mostly it's like I work with voice to text on my computer. So it's I'm kind of dragging these simulated human voices.
Andrew: What’s your favorite computer textbook?
Justin Shoulder: Vicki. She's She's has some empathy. But she's quiet cold. “Yeah, it's funny because I do switch between all the different voices till Brian fine when she works well as a narrator. So Vicki is often the narrator figure.” You could probably theorize that.
Andrew: So with this current work what's the outings, the seasons, the spaces?
Justin Shoulder: So Carrion a body of work, I probably should have articulated different titles. But as it happened, I have a kind of series of club based works that I've been touring. And that's kind of where the seat of the figure began. And it very much focuses on Carrion that kind of human Cyborg.
And so I've got a kind of series of like 15 minute works that I've done, I have my theater season of Carrion, which doesn't just focus on the cycle figure. But I kind of like becoming of multiple figures, more like a chimera, and that season, will open the last week of June at Arts house in Melbourne, it's been great because all these kind of works inform each other.
Because it's difficult to do this the theater season regularly in terms of resources and interest, whether it's building, it means that I can keep it in my body.
And I keep finding different ways that these figures can kind of manifest. And then I'm doing a kind of club base mash up in Denmark at this festival called Roskilde. Which is like, you know, you've got Cardi B and Eminem playing probably in the background while I'm performing. It's like a very different context within which to hold people. But I really enjoy Yeah, like I always say, jumping between all these spaces. [34:39]]
Andrew: It's nice that the same ideas are being interrogated in those different spaces. And they're not necessarily standalone.
Justin Shoulder: It's interesting that kind of reception for this particular figure and how popular it's been as within, especially within the kind of club space. And then moving into theatre, like the kind of I think this kind of fear of the cyborg. Yet desire to see what's possible is a very, not just a Western feeling like it, it's been interesting how that works been, like, I've done it like six or seven times in Beijing and Shanghai, within different club and gallery contexts, both commercial and also like, kind of more underground.
And it's been its kind of like a universal language. Yeah, I know that's so broad. But it’s really curious why people are drawn to that figure.
But it kind of makes sense, given the kind of observations of our trajectory at the moment, and our relationship and our relationships, relationship to technology and kind of developments with surveillance, that kind of thing. [36:04]
Andrew: Do the audience's receptions of your work in club settings change depending on where the club is or the politics that club? Are there different nuances around them? I'm thinking internationally as well as locally.
Justin Shoulder: Yeah for sure, I mean I don't know exactly what they're thinking. But I mean, it also depends if it's a good run, and whether the sound and lighting is good and if I have good energy putting it out there.
In terms of conversations afterwards. I mean, recently, I just came back from doing it in Texas. And I was kind of nervous because the last nervous / excited because the last speech within that particular club work is very much a kind of like reflection of Western fascist dictator salesman figure, which is quite tyrannical and whether my understanding is a kind of like person living in Australia, although we kind of have many similar figures here
was nuanced enough, but I had a really great conversation and response from a lot of different people I've met there. In China, it's been very much I think people are drawn to the spectacle of the work if, and maybe the text is more of a kind of texture or feeling, whether it's understandable or not because it's still in English.
Yeah, I'm sure that there's like a lot of nuance to do with particular spaces. I mean, I’ve even done it actually recently for a kind of older people and children in Canberra at the NGA and that was, they read it in a very different way as well. So it is very much about Yeah, the audience and then the context for sure.
Andrew: What's next what's on for the rest of the year?
Justin Shoulder: Next I am developing a really big museum work for 2020 that I'm trying to, it's like the first time that I've been given a really big space to create a work that's a combination of video sculpture and live work. And that's kind of somewhere I'm really interested in moving where, because I haven't It's been a long time since I've had the time to really focus on objects and, and my visual arts practice. But I want to use this as as to kind of create a immersive frame to then host both my own performance and performances from the collective, Club Ate. So that's something I'm working on for the next two years. That will come out in 2020.
I'm going to Taipei to do a two-week residency as part of the Atom Lab. And then I'm going to spend a month in the Philippines doing research as well, and visiting pageants and family and, and that's all kind of the idea is to inform this new work.
I'm trying to make everything inform each other, instead of having such discrete works. And I know that I'll be doing Carrion a while based on the interest so I'm trying to create something completely oppositional Yeah, but I guess I keep saying it's like this is the album people like this is my hit song, one hit and that's just what you do you keep singing.
Andrew: Thank you so much. Is there anything else that I should have asked you talked about or anything you wanted to talk about?
Justin Shoulder: I'd encourage people to see Carrion because I think it's my most complex work I’ve done within the kind of collective I work in and it's and within these kind of short seasons like it's very much about being present and seeing what can engage with it. So that's my kind of selling point, come and see the show.
Andrew: Thank you.