Photo by Agustín Farias
Photo by Agustín Farias
Photo by Agustín Farias
Photo by Agustín Farias
Photo by Agustín Farias

Colin Self: Living in an Orgy of Invisible Flowers

March 24, 2022
Text by Luki von der Gracht
Photo by Agustín Farias

Colin Self believes in the power of real human connection and transforming emotions through music. With Luki von der Gracht Colin chatted about the wilderness of the heart, Tulpamancy and Jean Genet.

Colin Self is an American non-binary artist, performer and composer based in Berlin. In 2021 they were a resident at Halle für Kunst Steiermark in Graz, where they started working on their latest work »Tip The Ivy«. This collaborative experimental opera just premiered at the same place and will travel to Performance Space New York in May. The piece deals with the coding of queer language in a historical and present context and the criminalization of desire and love. Hosted by the spirit of Marlene Dietrich the opera is a manifestation of togetherness and artistic collaboration.

How are you feeling about your butthole this month?

My butthole feels really, really good (laughs). You know this is a great question actually because so much of my anal health has to do with how I am doing in my creative practice. I do believe there is a direct link between your shit and art. In the same way that if you’re constipated and you can’t take a shit, you’re also probably cognitively constipated (laughs). So now I just finished my performance in Graz, it feels like I just took a big old shit (laughs). I released this big thing into the world and now I’m in the time when to look at it. And ask me »How was that?«, »How am I doing?«.

Photo by Agustín Farias

Amazing! (laughs). What are your thoughts on the position of the audience? Because when I’m on stage I like to just perform into the light, to God. And become light. I want the audience to be distanced from the stage, but you are the opposite, I think.

Yes, I like them being close. Sometimes. I also have this thing where I’m sometimes looking into the light and attempting to channel something from the source, from beyond. And then feel this responsibility to bring that download or transmission into the mundane person-to-person physicality. My psychic Asher was talking to me about this thing of taking people’s will away. Usually, we think of it as an evil thing to take them to a place of not being able to control their feelings, but that sometimes people need music or art to open up their hearts. To have feeling, to have emotion. So, sometimes taking people’s will away can be a very generous thing.

Which role does will play in your work?

Will has something to do with desire and intention. So much about »Tip The Ivy’« has been about desire and the language of desire. Polari being this survival mechanism of desire. In a time when queer desire was illegal, this language was the only way desire was able to survive. By giving people this opportunity through a song, through this human connection, there’s something about disarming people. It reminds me of the Nina Simone quote. She’s talking about how everyone is walking around half-dead: »All I try to do is open people up to feeling«. And to have these transformative experiences in a room with other people it’s very beautiful and a lot of fun. A lot of it comes from people not being able to express their sadness. When I was in grad school, I got into so much trouble because I would do these songs and people would cry. And some of the faculty would say, this is the same technique that Wagner used with the Nazis to control people. And other faculty members would be like »If this is fascism, then I want more fascism!« (laughs) And I was like »I’m really just trying to sing some songs, ya’ll«. The world of intellect and sometimes the art world can be very anti-emotion and anti-expressionist because to be emotional is considered to be out of control. The wilderness of the heart can be a beautiful but terrifying place to wander.

I only seek out emotional art. I need to feel something. If it’s art that comes only from the brain or the books or from theory, I don’t connect to it.

Me either. When I saw this Joe Brainard painting of the Pansies ­– now I have it tattooed on my arm – I learned that this work was a radical gesture against the seriousness and straightness of the art world. During the rise of the culture wars, he received NEA funding (National Endowment for the Arts given by the United States federal government) at a time when other queer and feminist artists were being de-funded. They didn’t realize he was gay. He used this money to make these campy paintings of pansies and flowers, selling them to rich conservatives who had no idea they were giving money to a »pansie«. It was this secret move of queer code, of sneaking this symbol into the world of conservatism. And then use this money to support other queer artists who weren’t getting money from the National Endowment for the Arts. In this painting of pansies and flowers is something very powerful about this sneakiness and it made me cry.

Photo by Agustín Farias

I have a quote in my notes that made me think of you: »He lives in an orgy of invisible flowers« by Jean Genet.

Wow! Come on now, that’s it!

Jean Genet was also an inspiration for »Tip the Ivy«, right?

Yes, his »Thieves Journal« was so inspiring to me because it has such descriptive visual language and even though we have this bounty of inspiration from this person’s experience we actually don’t know so much about Jean Genet. I really like this idea that we have these super descriptive materials. There is this shadow or this mystery to the origins of what was real or not, but then you have this amazing visual language where you can imagine Jean Genet as a young queer person in these gregarious dangerous situations that were also so pleasurable at the same time. His words, his poetry really work as a cognitive filter that changes how you see your own day- to-day life. That is poetic resilience. And that’s what I also like about emotional art, it becomes this thing when you walk around your normal day to day everything is poetic, everything is beautiful. Even the hard stuff can become beautiful.

I watched this Toni Morrison interview today and she talked about shadows.

Yes! Shadow worlds are often these places that are close to us but imperceptible. In architecture, in language, in so much of the Western world, it is always about reducing or holding the shadow. When money is really present in a city, they usually want to get rid of any place without light. So, they put streetlamps in places where they weren’t before, so people stop doing illegal things, having sex, stealing wallets, doing illegal drugs etc. People fear the things that happen in the shadows.

Photo by Agustín Farias

But I also fear the streets where there are no streetlamps.

Right! I think we naturally fear the darkness. I became interested in the Tulpa, originally a verb from Buddhist monks, to be in dialogue with a secondary you, your shadow self. It’s a theme I am working with on this new cycle of work. It relates to puppetry too. Like in Peter Pan, the shadow is a troublemaker, a trickster, an archetype that is often doing the things the main character wouldn’t do. In Tulpamancy the concept is to communicate to this figure about your struggles, your addictions, or your pains. Through your conversation with it, you can problem-solve together. It’s a playful way to interface with the ugly parts of ourselves that we fear. Self-doubt, trauma, anger, or pain. Tulpa creates its own personality, physicality, a shadow creature that can be with you at all times. This is so much about desire too, something that is often concealed.

How do you get in touch with it? Because usually, people don’t want to think about their dark emotions.

The process is called Tulpamancy. It’s the process by which you speak with your Tulpa throughout your day. So, I was like »Yeah, I’m sitting across from Luki and we’re having this conversation. And we’re talking about art.« The more you start doing that, you can also be like »Now we’re going to the grocery store.« It’s like having a little dog. You start narrating your day-to-day life to them. The more cognitive energy you give into it, the more it »becomes«.

Do you give it a name?

It can have a name or it can choose its own name. My Tulpa doesn’t have a name. Yet. It has resisted naming. For »Tip The Ivy«, a lot of inspiration came from resisting a name. The writer Malidoma Somé wrote this amazing book »Nature Magic and Community«. He talks about this inverted concept of what the Western world considers to be intelligence; the vegetable is actually the most intelligent because it does not possess language. And second comes the animal because they can create utterances, but they do not have words. And we as humans are at the bottom because we are constantly destroying things with language because as we continue to speak to them, they become increasingly deranged. No longer do they become the thing that they once were. I was thinking about the commodification of queerness and when words that are meant to empower people get destroyed by losing their meaning by being possessed by the wrong people who change what the words mean. And that forces people to make new words, new language. But on the other side of that is that naming can be very empowering, with chosen names, how important it is to sometimes declare a name or reclaim a name. The words that we develop within shadow spaces that cannot be recognized by other people in the shadows. That’s why I became interested in Polari.

Photo by Agustín Farias

How do you do research for your works?

I have this idea of the research sister. You develop these threads of curiosity or interest in which conversations and the sharing of ideas become a way of taking care of each other and loving each other. You mention one thing and the other person is like »ahh, do you know about this?«. And it’s a way of mapping pathways for survival to find these meaningful little secrets worlds to share with each other in the sacred space of those relationships. Surviving through this shared poetic resilience. You’re able to feel held by it. It can be a poem, or a song, a quote or painting. And you think »wow, somehow this art thing imbued my day with meaning«.

That is so beautiful! Thank you so much for the conversation. You inspire and enlighten me <3

Thank you Luki! The feeling is mutual. A treat, a treasure, a joy, and a pleasure.

Next article

A Material Gesture of Collectivity: »Handspells. Kunsthalle Wien Prize 2021«

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture run by Luca Büchler and Lewon Heublein. 

PW-Magazine is supported by the Federal Chancellery of Austria and Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.