Imagine sci-fi junkie meets downtown trendsetter, “cyber punk meets lizard people,” tech guru meets “yass queen.” NYC-based performer, DJ and artist Juliana Huxtable visited the Michigan Theater on Thursday, following her live set at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater the night prior, to deliver a talk for the Penny Stamps lecture series.
Huxtable was born in Houston and raised in Bryan-College Station, Texas. With parents in the tech industry, she increasingly came to use the internet as an escape from a community where she felt like an outsider as a genderqueer black person. While one might expect the area surrounding Texas A&M University to be an area of well-educated and progressive thinkers, Huxtable jokingly described them rather as the people who find ways to genetically modify chicken for McDonald’s so that they can even further lower the price of McNuggets (so you can get like 300 for $20 or some craziness). Although she didn’t know it at the time, this familiarity with the internet would later form the basis for her artistry.
Huxtable attended Bard University in upstate N.Y., lying to her parents that she was majoring in economics while taking studio art courses on the side. While it was evident from the start that economics wasn’t for her, it took a few classes for her to realize that studio art wasn’t, either. As a genderqueer black person in a majority-white school, Huxtable’s identity was often brought into question during reviews of her work. She grew increasingly suspicious of this and switched to gender studies and lit instead, a path she would follow all the way through graduation and into a job at the ACLU in New York City.
Working at the ACLU provided a sense of direction for a while, but even here in the big city at an organization that fought for civil liberties she felt a type of “NPR racism” (a more subtle form than she had previously encountered that involved trips to the Tibetan crafts store and watching “The Wire”). Once again, Huxtable felt more comfortable expressing herself on Tumblr than in real life, and began voicing her frustrations in writings she scanned and posted.
Through some miracle web of common interest, Huxtable started bumping into her growing circle of followers and clubs and bars in New York. Eventually, she began going out with these people multiple nights a week, finally making a reality what had so long been virtual. The virtual aspect of Huxtable’s life didn’t stay on her laptop, though. Every time Huxtable went out, she would get a new outfit from this consignment shop she had “a really good deal at,” would photograph herself in it and journal what the clothes meant to her. Her online avatars were shaping who she was on a nightly basis, and she loved it.
With previously disparate ideas and interests finally forming a cohesive whole, Huxtable, still denying her status as a writer or an artist (that Bard self-loathing), reluctantly accepted her friend’s request for her to perform a show at a bar one night. This night changed everything. Presenting herself to the audience and saying her written words aloud, backed up by audiovisual effects, finally connected the avatar to the writing and drove her self-expression home as an artistic whole.
This is where Huxtable’s avatars finally began to fully form. Her most well-known, the “Nuwaubian Princess,” (photos on show at the UMMA until April 7th) developed out of an interest in the way the Nuwaubian nation, a Black supremacist cult, that had constructed their own history as a method of community-building. Huxtable loved the way these conspiracies worked against almost everything that had been pushed upon her since birth and, acknowledging the loopy connections in their ideology, embraced their drive for something more.
When the unfortunate truth of daily life imposes itself, Huxtable offers a “visual culture that unteathers us from reality.” Her performance at MoMA PS1 in late 2015 featured a combination of video, life performance, dress-up and speech that proposed a variety of alternative pasts that don’t seem all that far off from what you would see in an Assassin’s Creed video game (a consolidation of historical evidence that creates a representation of a past that never quite was) .
Huxtable’s keen ability to seek out knowledge as a gender studies major and an internet native has led her to become the critically-thinking artist she is. If you think you know someone who’s deep in the internet — someone who can pull references out their ass — Huxtable’s deeper. She has an intensity that’s hard to keep up with and an internet-age mentality that are sure to fuel even more enlightening work in the future.