The outside of the building where Juliana Huxtable rents her Bushwick art studio smells like acetone, even from the street. On a weekday afternoon in late May, I make my way up to the top floor where Huxtable works, though the 29-year-old artist, poet, performer and DJ hasn’t arrived yet. A pair of nude booties with lucite heels are overturned on the floor, the calendar is still January, empty bottles cover each surface—mainly water, some seltzers, a kombucha and wine. On her desk, the back cover of her new book is facing up so an image of her, with orange hair and blue mascara applied to her eyes and her eyebrows, is smiling at me while I wait.
The book, Mucus in my Pineal Gland, is the primary reason for my visit. Huxtable is flying to Vienna tomorrow to start the bulk of her year’s music work, and will be in at least three different continents over the next month. She’s been based in New York for more of the year than she’s used to spending in the city to finish the book, and to mount her exhibition, A Split During Laughter at the Rally, at the Reena Spaulings Fine Art gallery. Her studiomate’s phone rings, and I am now to meet her at her apartment a short ride away.
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All of this is to say that Huxtable is a star, not that I was learning this for the first time. When I get to her apartment, Huxtable greets me in a welcoming, slightly wearied vocal fry. We conduct our interview from her couch, underneath a wall of newspaper covers with sensationalist, all capital letter headlines—“WHITES STILL SCORE TOP JOBS” and “ZOLA PULLS A CHRIS BROWN”—that she collected while living in Johannesburg, South Africa. One of my first questions is about the the font choices for Mucus in my Pineal Gland, whether they are meant to help delineate form. “I write [in] all caps, because I think in all caps now,” she explains.
Mucus in my Pineal Gland, published by the arthouse press WONDER, is an amalgamation of poetry, performance texts and essays. Innovation abounds, and Huxtable not only sprawls inside her pieces, but across them. The work references her use of digital spaces, including Tumblr after several years of not having a personal computer—the platform allowed her to be “diaristic” and the “freedom to be kind of lucid about the writing.” She challenges ideas of the dimensional by including click-through links in several pieces. There’s even a piece that is a blank page, called “THE ETHICS OF THE CLICK-THROUGH LINK,” where the void is not a placeholder.
Some of the book’s performance texts are meant to be paired with music, and a glitchy rhythm pulses inside them. The book is also the closest Huxtable has felt to the form of poetry, if not the institution. She’s “more comfortable” with the designations poet and artist now than she was in the past. She likes poems that have an “intelligent ignorance of obsessing over the canon.” After her studies at Bard College, she says she “got a lot of really crass readings that couldn't separate what was happening in the work from a reductive reading of who I was as a person.”
Throughout Mucus in my Pineal Gland, Huxtable’s characters plumb digital underworlds searching for freedom, sometimes finding fetishization instead. “THE iMOBILE, EVER-PRESENT SHARE-TUMBLE-TWEET-POST-REBLOG REGIME SEEMS TO HAVE SUCCESSFULLY KILLED THE FLESH OF IT ALL, THE BODY BEHIND THE IMAGE,” she writes. Her characters are not ciphers, which she reminds you through her writing. They have jobs they have to get to in the morning; nightlife is a beacon. The body is vulnerable, and subject to change. Accoutrements enhance the form, while covering scars. Underneath, we are fluids.
“I got really obsessed with the idea of mucus when I was in school,” Huxtable says, citing it as the “the most genderless bodily form. There's this feminist theorist Luce Irigaray. I was really obsessed with her writing. My thesis was about trying to find gendered metaphors and symbols for intersex people, and the idea of biological indeterminate sex, and how to escape sexual dimorphism as the only way we can process psychoanalytic reading; literary readings. It's all about void matter, void feminine/masculine matter. How do we get outside of that symbolically?”
The book is also partially informed by life in New York, and Huxtable is uninterested in the conversation about whether a city of more than 8.5 million people could possibly be over. On the grief process of bygone eras Huxtable says, “I don't like nostalgia, I think it's kind of toxic. It's almost like revenge in this weird way, where people hold on to an idea that they have about something that's right, and the fact that [it] doesn't exist anymore is something that they feel needs to be acknowledged by the world as a harm.” Besides, she laughs, “Everyone I know is having a great time.”
I mumble something about whether we both find the “toxicity of nostalgia as a trans thing.” Maybe so, but she says she finds “most of the conversations around transness generally to be really problematic, and kind of late.” She clarifies, “There was never a point at which I was like, 'I am living in the world as a boy and now I'm living in the world as a girl.' It's always been kind of fluid. If anything the most explicit phase that I went through was aggressively identifying as genderqueer.”
Huxtable can be irreverent, and tells me she struggles with social media that demands being embedded in its culture. She prefers using Twitter, because it brings her “a lot of joy. I laugh on Twitter all the time. There are so many people that are so funny. The memes are so funny.” Her humor is present in her exhibition’s film, A Split During Laughter at the Rally, which features a post-Trump protest with glamorous, bored demonstrators coming to terms with complacency, while a man yells, “Don’t you realize all of our lives are on the line right now?”
Elsewhere in the gallery is an untitled wall diagram, recalling her home newspaper wall: “BLACK STYLE THE RAGE FOR WHITES” and “PERFECT OPPORTUNITY 4 WESTERN POWERS 2 DESTROY BLACK SYMBOLIC ORIGINS.” Inkjet prints, vinyl and magnets on metal sheets reference a DIY aesthetic with slogans like “TERF WARS” and “REAL WOMAN FOR SALE RENT OR TRADE.” They have titles, including The War on Proof, Transsexual Empire and The Feminist Scam. The exhibition, as well as Mucus in my Pineal Gland, make Huxtable’s virtuosity highly visible, even as they express boredom at the artifacts of visual culture.
As I wander through Reena Spaulings taking in Huxtable’s show, which, per the exhibition’s press release, suggests that “sci-fi, sex and magic are the weapons of choice for a conspiracy more virulently alive than any of its supposed authors,” I wonder where on her itinerary Huxtable is. Then I realize that—our ideas about her whereabouts and whatabouts is besides the point. Wherever she is, I hope she’s having fun. Her work may concern itself with avatars, but her life concerns itself with us never being able to make her into one.
Purchase Juliana Huxtable's Mucus in my Pineal Gland, here.