Justin Shoulder in Carrion. Photo by Alex Davies

Queer speculative fiction at the Monument-National

Australian performance artist Justin Shoulder on developing his work in the queer club scene and drawing from Filipino mythology.

Justin Shoulder is a performance artist whose works often emerge out of Sydney’s queer club scene before being transformed for the theatre or the gallery or the screen.

Shoulder is presently visiting Montreal at the tail end of a five-week international tour of his show Carrion, a one-hour piece of physical theatre in which he performs as the masked and transmutable titular character who is “both human, animal, machine [and] bird.” The show plays with a diverse array of culture references, from the scores of Studio Ghibli films, to evolutionary biology, to the iPhone headphones that make up the hair on Carrion’s mask – what Shoulder describes as his “contemporary Medusa.” The costumes for Carrion, meanwhile, are reminiscent of a kind of apocalyptic underwater Leigh Bowery, another Australian multidisciplinary artist for whom clubs were an essential part of creation and performance alike.

We spoke about Carrion and about his larger body of work, Phasmahammer, an ongoing project focusing on interweaving ancestral mythology with queer and intercultural identities.

Nora Rosenthal: Do you often use masks in your work?

Justin Shoulder: For sure. I’ve been building this body of work called Phasmahammer for the last 12 years. “Phasma” as in spirit and “hammar” like wunderkammer so it’s kind of like the cabin of spirits. I have always worked with masks and costumes. At the beginning it was more [a question of] how I could reconfigure my body as far as possible and make these very spectacle-driven costumes that I perform with in mostly queer clubs. Then every time I refine the process. I started to collaborate more with my partner Matthew Stegh to develop more agile costumes and more functional objects that can have much more choreographic potential. But I’ve always worked with masks. Actually this is the second work where you actually see myself without any artifice as well.

NR: What was that like, to make that transition?

JS: A big part of this work was to focus on movement and choreography and dance as a primary mode of transformation so it was a challenge to my practice to really train a lot harder. I’ve had a mentor — Victoria Hunt — and we’ve been working together over the last 10 years, but for this particular project we’ve been training in Body Weather, which is a form that stems from the Hijikata school in Japan so it’s kind of an offshoot of Butoh.

NR: What are some of the inspirations for the costume design itself?

JS: A lot of it came from the idea that every object and element had to have multiple functions. For example the opening costume is modelled on a tardigrade, those microscopic phylum that can survive extreme heat and extreme cold. That same costume is used in multiple ways across the whole work. [It] becomes an alien starfish or a dead body and then eventually a prehistoric bird, so every object and every material moves between microscopic organisms and much more big things, like whole environments.

NR: I know that in your body of work more broadly you draw a lot on Filipino myths. Is there a particular myth that you initially used as a foundation for Carrion?

JS: I wouldn’t say for Carrion. I mean it probably draws from the idea of spectacle and mask play and dance as a form of storytelling, especially within the queer community. I’ve spent a lot of time back and forth within bakla and queer and trans communities in the Philippines and there’s a particular language that comes from doing spectacle/handmade/drag-y types of work that also comes from pageantry, so it’s more probably to do with form as opposed to narrative. The stuff I do with my collective Club Ate is more focused on that ancestral lineage. Carrion in a way [is] much more about science and biology; evolution. It’s also a future folklore that draws from pop cultural reference as well as prehistory.

NR: What do you find particularly appealing about speculative sci-fi as a genre to work within?

JS: I guess it’s an opening. I try not to be too didactic. I like poetics that can offer potential for possibility as opposed to naming something too tightly. Although the club works have a lot of text the theatre show doesn’t have any text. It’s more about the felt, the empathic. It’s highly sensory. I’ve always been drawn to fantasy and speculative fiction. The idea that you can create a whole cosmology is very exciting for me, where all the figures and the parts can intersect and accumulate and narratives can continue to layer over time. 

NR: As you’re drawing to the end of this tour, is there a particular moment in the show that still feels very fresh to you?

JS: It’s funny cause just two weeks ago I was in Birmingham and this artist Ariah Lester — the Venezuelan singer — was giving me advice. He’s also a choreographer and his theatre work is very structured but he was encouraging me to find the intimacy and spontaneity in every moment. Now that I’ve literally come into the space – this is about a quarter of the space we usually work with. It’s actually quite good in a way because you can get a bit set in your cues. So I’m probably gonna say all of it. All of it’s going to have to be completely reimagined. ■

Carrion is presented by the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) at the Monument-National (1182 St-Laurent) from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, 8 p.m.,$16–$28, free for a person accompanying a spectator with a disability.