At Performa, Juliana Huxtable Takes a Web-Induced Journey through Time
Entering Juliana Huxtable’s Performa commission on Saturday, November 14th, visitors found a room cast in deep blue lighting, which, along with the hypnotic dance music emanating from grandiose, obelisk-shaped speakers, transformed it into a quasi-nightclub. The walls were pasted with torn, blown-up scraps of text appearing to come from academic papers. Some of their phrases—“the historical revealed itself to me as cosplay, a fantasy-fiction,” “The Egyptians definitely didn’t have pink nipples, even if their orifices were otherwise”—were highlighted in neon yellow. This is the world of Huxtable’s There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed (2015)—a space where futuristic electronica, Egyptian antiquities, and academia exist side-by-side.
It’s been a big year for Huxtable, who first rose to prominence hosting a weekly club night. Her appearance in the New Museum’s Ryan Trecartin-curated Triennial (as both a participating artist and a subject of Frank Benson’s hyperrealistic sculpture, Juliana (2014)) had some calling her the “star” of the survey show. Huxtable’s works at the Triennial addressed just some of the artist’s vast range of interests, from surveillance technologies to mythology and trans identity.
Her Performa piece, co-commissioned by and presented at MoMA, follows a three-act structure centering around Huxtable’s hallucinatory poetry recitations. Video projections, chaotic live music, and a handful of performers accompany the artist’s spoken explorations into history and identity in our digital age. Huxtable appeared in what looked like a set of 18th-century undergarments, as though stepping out of a Hollywood period drama; the performance was preceded by a series of clips of such films, featuring historical figures from King Tut to Marie Antoinette. The idea of history as cosplay (the catchall term for a subculture that fuses roleplay and elaborate costuming, often inspired by anime and gaming culture) pervaded the night’s intertwining mediums, and Huxtable delighted in the transformations of self that such historical role play allows.
The artist’s poetry, especially when experienced live and intermittently channeled through a robotic voice modifier, is less about creating concrete narratives than it is about drawing connections between disparate discourses. Words wash over the room, touching on a dizzying array of references: the history of evolution, the Roswell UFO Museum, the accessory retailer Claire’s. I was left chewing over a sentence about the Big Bang while Huxtable went on to describe “radioactive dating on a scanned polaroid on an OkCupid profile.”
Yet, Huxtable’s work is more than a collision of references. As her readings progress, themes emerge. Particularly memorable is her second act, titled “MOURNING,” which centers around the often-futile nature of archiving. Huxtable begins by reading a series of messages to a figure she addresses as “Geo”—a reference, seemingly, to GeoCities, the once-popular web hosting platform which was shutdown by Yahoo in 2009, effectively scrubbing at least 38 million pages from the web. (A few ambitious groups have created GeoCities archives.) Huxtable addresses Geo as an ex-lover who’s vanished from the face of the Earth. As her messages become increasingly frantic, she laments, “Why can’t I disappear with you?” As well as mourning the loss of her internet archive, the moment serves as an elegy to an earlier time in internet history—when it was still imaginable that one could exist online and be able to vanish into thin air.
There Are Certain Facts makes its most powerful statement in its third and final act, “AVATARS,” imagining history as a fluid medium. The act opens with a video of subjects in historical garb posing in front of backdrops resembling art-historical masterworks, as if bringing Renaissance portraiture to life. Huxtable instructs them how to act, gleefully imagining situations that conflate histories; at one point, she tells a sitter to act as the 18th-century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Overture while sitting for a communist portrait. The joy evident in Huxtable’s laughter underlines the subversion at the heart of her historical costuming: the sitters are people of color, laying claim to a genre of painting that has all but excluded them.
As the first loop of the video comes to a close, Huxtable begins her final reading, invoking cultural artifacts as disparate as the video game Assassin’s Creed, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and Walter Benjamin’s famous metaphor of the “angel of history.” In the work’s terminal moments, pairs of performers (the same as those in the video on screen) in historical dress storm the aisles, dueling each other with mock swords and axes. Between Huxtable on stage looking like a French-lady-in-waiting, and actors performing a Renaissance role play, I was left with a distinct sense that some barrier separating the present and past had been breached.
Though a heavy dose of philosophy and theory underpins There Are Certain Facts, the piece succeeds through its sensory charge. As I left the auditorium wide-eyed, reeling from the tumultuous mix of language, music, projections, and mock-fighting, I tried to sift through the information overload I had just experienced. Huxtable’s performance feels apt for someone who’s grown up with the web, replicating the way in which time periods seem to clash and merge together as we click from web page to web page. If Huxtable suggests that technology has unleashed new potentials for how we conceive of our histories, it’s not without a dose of anxiety that such boundlessness creates.