INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST BUZZ SLUTZKY
Morty: Hi Buzz!
Buzz: Hi Morty!
Morty: I went to your website and saw that you have this huge body of work. I also saw that you work in many different mediums. Can you give me an intro to your career as an artist? Did you go to art school?
Buzz: I started studying painting and drawing on a college level in high school. I was lucky to be able to do a lot of the summer and weekend programs at various art schools (Pratt, RISD, SVA, etc.) and I also went to a public school in New Jersey called Columbia High School that had some amazing art electives. Maplewood/South Orange, NJ was a very creatively supportive community to grow up in, and my parents were always taking me to museums as a kid. I ended up going to Sarah Lawrence College instead of art school because I wanted to make sure that I followed other academic interests to make my art more interesting. I also didn’t think I’d be intellectually satisfied at an art school, which I think is probably true. That being said, SLC turned out to have an awesome art program. Sometimes I joke that I was socialized to be an artist.
Morty: What was your major?
Buzz: Well, Sarah Lawrence doesn’t have majors, but in addition to art, I also studied labor and economics, queer art history, radical movements of the 60s, etc. By the end I was mostly doing sculpture, video and art history.
Morty: Which artists gave you inspiration in college?
Buzz: During my senior year I interned at Electronic Arts Intermix, which is a video art archive in West Chelsea (in NYC), and so I had a lot of access to pretty esoteric queer video art. It was during the same time I was writing my final paper on queer video art… I got really into the work of Sadie Benning, Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, and Jack Smith.
Morty: So, you were out as a queer artist in college?
Buzz: Totally… I had been building queer community in Brooklyn for a while already since I was doing social justice organizing with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and a lot of the Brooklyn queers helped me develop a strong queer identity in my art practice. It was somewhat isolating in college because most of my art peers in class were not queer identified. Some of the comedic video work that was specific to trans politics didn’t really get many laughs. I was lucky to have a lot of queer professors who pointed me in a lot of helpful directions.
Morty: When did your gender identity change for you? Do you currently identify as trans, gender variant, or something else entirely?
Buzz: I used to identify as gender variant pretty literally, because for a period (maybe like 2009-2010-ish) I felt that my gender did often vary! When I was in college I felt like a secret fag-like identity was being nurtured by my high femme presentation, and that was super fun for a while. Eventually, I realized that I had been obsessed with trans politics and I began to cultivate a more genderqueer/fluid/genderfuck presentation. My preferred pronouns are they/them. I think that in every frontier of coming out, I always first identify my community and then later realize that I am one of them. I think finally moving to Brooklyn felt like this big homecoming where I could finally explore my true gender. It was a scary time. I didn’t leave the house often, and did some creepy drawings of my closet, so that was productive.
Morty: To be clear, you’re saying the coming out process with your gender identity was scary and led you to stay inside?
Buzz: Well, I moved to Brooklyn with internships but no paying job. It felt like there were all these contradictions in the job market, because I was qualified to do a lot more for art nonprofits than I was getting paid for. The high rates of unemployment and the excessive exploitation of interns made me afraid of getting out there in the career sense. Partially because my gender was shifting and I didn’t know how employers would perceive me. I think I did a lot more socializing than I remember, because the days that I didn’t have a job or internship to go to felt really debilitating.
Morty: Right. I completely understand that shift and had job issues when I was beginning my transition.
Buzz: Was that during the Year In Pink performance you did?
Morty: No, it was way before. I was 23 and living in San Francisco.
Buzz: I’m 23 now! It’s an interesting liminal time between life stages.
Morty: It certainly is! So, tell me then, has the life of a young artist in NYC been a good experience for you so far?
Buzz: It has been amazing! I feel so lucky. It feels like I magically fell into some amazing gigs and roles. In January 2011 I co-curated my first art show with Hugh Ryan as The Pop Up Museum of Queer History. We were expecting 100 people to show up at his Bushwick loft, but then 400 showed up… it had to be broken up by the cops! It’s not a radical queer event until the cops bust it up! The response to the project has been really exciting, and has really helped it take off.
Morty: Sounds amazing. Wish I could’ve been there!
Buzz: There’s a lot of energy in Brooklyn right now for queer art and history. It feels like something is in the air.
Morty: Why do you think?
Buzz: There’s a lot we weren’t taught about our recent history, because of the stigma around AIDS, structural homophobia, and the queer generation gap. I think that young queer artists and activists are starting to get more curious about ACT UP and the movement to fight AIDS. We’re trying to find out where we come from. It’s kind of like after a forest fire, the plants start to regenerate after a while, and now they’re in bloom. I’m close friends with Dan Fishback, who is doing a lot of performance work around that stuff with his “thirtynothing” solo performance at Dixon Place. It’s been fun to work with him on projects alongside him.
Morty: It also seems like the older generation of queer artists are coming together with the newer queer artists and finding more cohesive community in New York City…even more so than a few years ago.
Buzz: Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting dialogue going on right now. I think it’s a sensitive relationship to navigate, because no one wants to feel fetishized for having lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic, but it’s important for the older generation to know that we realize we know very little about it and that we’re curious to hear whatever they’re interested in sharing.
Morty: For instance, I just recently heard about QuORUM (Queers Organizing for Radical Unity and Mobilization) in New York City. When did this come to exist? Are you familiar?
Buzz: Yeah! I was involved with QuORUM for a little while in between Pop-Up Museum shows, and then I got too busy. I am close with them and we love collaborating on events. We have a dream of starting a DIY Queer free school called U QUEER. QuORUM is, after all, how Pop-Up started!
Morty: Oh, ok. So, all of this action was beginning when?
Buzz: We were the opening event of the Quorum Forum in January 2011. Then this January, we were the opening event again, but instead, I led an unofficial docent tour of the Hide/Seek exhibition (on gay portraiture) at Brooklyn Museum. The controversy surrounding that exhibition and censorship in Washington DC during 2010 is what inspired the Pop-Up Museum into existence. It was a very hot topic, the David Wojnarowicz piece censorship, so it seemed apt for me to study the works and present my reflections as an event.
Morty: It really does sound like a great time to be a queer/trans artist in NYC but an artist has to eat/pay rent and NYC is still so expensive to live.
Buzz: it’s true!
Morty: How do you go about living in such an expensive city?
Buzz: It is so expensive here, especially if you want to have a studio, or take classes to expand your skills. I think a lot of us babysit! We have a little network of trans nannies. We pass around gigs we hear about and also process together about how the children we work with perceive our genders, etc. I work after school hours in Park Slope, with these adorable girls that love drawing! I also work as an artist assistant in the West Village. I also do some freelance design work sometimes.
Morty: I guess just how artists have always done it, by the skin of their teeth. Going back to your identity as an artist, I kind of have this stock question I ask most of the artists I’ve interviewed. That is: Do you identify as a quote “trans or gender-variant artist” and if so what does that mean for you?
Buzz: Well, I was an artist years before I identified as trans… so something about combining them as a term feels odd. Both words bring up so much about individual subjectivity that it’s hard to understand at this point what that means in the grand scheme of art movements. I think it will take time to see the ways that being trans influences my artwork. But, ultimately, I guess I am a trans artist! I think I forget how much my portraits are about trans community, not just about friendship and love.
Morty: I see from what you have up on your website that lately you have focused primarily on drawing the gender-variant and trans community.
Buzz: Yeah!! I think when my gender shifted I felt less of a need to focus narcissistically on myself in my video work, and I felt less like an outsider to Brooklyn and the queer dating scene (which is the perspective from which I did the OK Cupid drawing series). I have become more focused on creating an emotionally supportive and energetically sustainable lifestyle and community within trans and genderqueer people. I want to get back into video, but I think more along the lines of drawings that talk, kind of way. Also, I’ve been doing a lot of bookbinding and crafting, which are not things I post on my website, but are symptomatic of my return to more tactile explorations of materials and how they can interact two-dimensionally.
Morty: Can you tell me a little about the video Cool Rider? I really love it.
Buzz: Well, it all has to do with my friendship with Julie Blair. We became friends because I met stand-up comic Red Durkin at a Tranny Roadshow performance and I couldn’t stop talking about Grease 2, and how I read into all these themes about gender failure vs. gender success in the movie. Red was like “you have to be friends with Julie.” Julie totally understood my gender situation. At the time I was femme-presenting and mostly interested in dating transguys, but felt frustrated because I didn’t feel like a cisgender person trying to date a trans person, if that makes any sense. I projected my situation onto the movie because I read Stephanie, the main character, as a femme that didn’t wanna date “an ordinary guy”, AKA a trans guy! It was a way to parody the fetishization of transmen in queer communities, and distance myself from it by making fun of it. We couldn’t stop laughing the whole time. Nobody in my sculpture class understood what Cool Rider was about!!
Morty: Yeah, I love that it really delves into the sticky subject of fetishizing transguys.
Buzz: Totally. Fetishization is always difficult to talk about. People get really defensive!
Morty: Are you trying to get your work seen in places like museums and gallery settings? I know the Pop-Up museum you do is an answer to that.
Morty: But do you feel, as an artist, like more queer/trans work needs to be seen in museums and galleries and try to infiltrate that area?
Buzz: I think most of my energy going out to museums and galleries is either through my paid (or unpaid, ha) work, or Pop-Up. I collaborated on a piece with LJ Roberts (http://laceyjaneroberts.com/index.php?/work/crafts/) that is getting a lot of museum and gallery representation. As far as my own work, I’m mostly trying to develop my body of work and do smaller, community-based shows. I think I will try to get my work out there more when I’m done trying to get the Pop-Up work out there! I really do want there to be more queer and trans representation in the museum and gallery settings. I find it exciting that the Hide/Seek show is doing so well, and was the first major queer exhibition at major museums. But unsurprisingly, it mostly represented the work of gay white men. It is a very exciting first step, and I’m committed to pushing queer representation much further.
Morty: I look forward to seeing more of your work as things progress!
Buzz: Yeah, thank you!
Morty: Keep me posted on what you have going on with the Pop-Up Museum, and any other projects, so I can post it on Bodies Of Work.
Buzz: Of course! Thanks so much for interviewing me! This has been fun.
To see more work from artist Buzz Slutzky please visit their website HERE.