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Miami Drag Performer Kunst Turns Alienation Into Art

Miami Drag Performer Kunst Turns Alienation Into ArtEXPAND
Photo by Karli Evans
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As Karli Evans and Cassandra Keith's Indiegogo campaign for their film Emergence continues, New Times has been interviewing each of its six performers for a deeper look into the film and the world that inspired it. The documentary interviews drag performers, goes behind-the-scenes as they prepare for gigs, and dives into a fantasy of each queen's creation in a short film sequence.

New Times' first three interviews have been with Jupiter Velvet, Karla Croqueta, and Queef Latina. Today the focus is on Miami's most cerebral and emotive extraterrestrial performer: Kunst.

New Times: What is your name, and where did it come from?

Kunst: My name is simply Kunst. I am still not quite sure where it came from, though. I get asked about it a lot, but I can't seem to remember at all who gave it to me or where it came from. I suppose it was something someone said to me along the line of performing or being out and about in nightlife, and I must've liked it!

Is there a fictional story attached to your drag persona?

In terms of a potential backstory to the performance character, there exists a very loose and incoherent interpretation of things that could lend itself to context for the persona. Kunst as a concept is meant to [embody] certain experiences rather than convey them through a narrative that underscores the character you see in the performance. All of the aspects of the visual are tied to experiences or moments in my life rather than an attempt at conveying a backstory.

For example, a lot of folx ask about the usage of the conehead in my work. Yes, more recently in my online presence I have toyed with the notion of being an extraterrestrial from a different star system. But the conehead is really meant to be a visual reference for the kind of underlying experience of alienation that oftentimes precedes and exceeds the frame of the experience I'm referencing for the performance. So when I was formulating a way to visually translate my overarching feeling of alienation into a kind of reference that people would immediately get, the image of the conehead popped right into my head. (Coneheads is one of my favorite films, so perhaps there is a bias there!)

So, in that way, what you're seeing in my work is an amalgamation of various references that lead me to use things like prosthetics, for example, as ways to translate them into the aesthetic. This way I allow the audience the space to fill in the connections in their own imaginations while also consuming the performance happening before them.

Miami Drag Performer Kunst Turns Alienation Into ArtEXPAND
Photo by Karli Evans

How did you start doing drag?

I started doing drag around six or seven years ago. It started when I moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue an internship at the White House, which, being the intensely normative and hyperregulatory space that it is, led me to recognize my own deviations in experiencing of my gender identity. I started to look to drag as a way to explore. So at that time, it started simply as going out in looks that eventually evolved more and more towards the monstrous and grotesque. Three years later, I was regularly going out to bars near my university in large garments and often terrifying makeup.

I also started visiting my hometown of Miami more and more often since I was starting to find myself through the nightlife scene. I was similarly interested in utilizing drag as a part of my artistic practice and bars and clubs as performance and gallery spaces. Soon after beginning my visits back to South Florida during my undergraduate, to start participating in the scene here, I met two people who would change the trajectory of my life forever. Those people are the legendary mother and father of the House of Shame: Queef Latina and Sleeper. Sleeper soon asked me to start performing at Counter Corner, and through all of their incredible guidance and support, I was able to begin taking my practice to new and unimagined places.

What are your inspirations for drag?

My inspirations are as erratic and eclectic as they get! I'd say some of my more primary references are the queer performance artist and legend Vaginal Davis, Cindy Sherman, Leigh Bowery, scholar Lee Edelman, and other anti-relationist queer theorists, and many other people. The conceptual undertones of my work are almost always drawn and structured from my training in queer theory during my time in college as an undergraduate. It's an oeuvre that has always been a touchstone for trying to abstract the history of experiences that I typically draw from when putting together a performance idea.

When I think about my outfits and garments, I can't necessarily pin down any one reference point. In approaching my costuming for my performance work, I always make a new look for every performance. I consider the process of making a garment as not only an indirect conversation with the various qualities of the fabric I am working with (the texture, sheen, color, pattern, etc) but also as a stream of consciousness whose productive dimension is always spontaneous. I never go into making a look with any kind of idea for a final look. I typically will lay out all the materials I have available in the space with me before I start, and then I just jump right into it.

What is your fantasy segment of the film about?

My segment in the film is actually a performative interpretation of one of my favorite psychoanalytic parables from a psychoanalyst whose work I became very familiar with and subsequently developed a strong love for during my time in university. So the parable, or story, is first told by the scholar Jacques Lacan in his eighth seminar on the psychoanalytic concept of transference. In the text, Lacan describes the parable like this:

"Imagine you see in front of you a beautiful flower... You reach out your hand to grab it. But at the moment you do, the flower... bursts into flames. In its place you see another hand appear, reaching back towards your own."

This parable explores Lacan's interest in understanding the psychic framework of love. The parable is about the multifarious quality of love: the suddenness that marks the appearance of love, the relation of beauty to satisfaction, how our representations of the loved thing always seem to fall short of the experience itself, and, finally, the narcissistic dimension of love. Lacanian psychoanalysis has always been my analytic lens when considering my existence in the world, and this parable along with the others he offers have always been moments of clarification and revelation for me. So it seemed absolutely appropriate to engage with this in the short.

How was it working on the production?

Absolutely nothing short of spectacular! Karli and Cassandra are both individuals who care so deeply about the work that artists are putting out in the scene here in Miami. They have instrumentalized their incredible talents in the pursuit of documenting our work and bringing a fresh, interpretive lens to the kinds of documentation that are often integral in the survival of nightlife artists. Like many of the other folx in the community have said before, we are very thankful for the hard work that they and others have put into continually supporting the artistic practices of everyone in the scene here in Miami. It wouldn't be the same without them!

What was it like seeing yourself onscreen?

Alienating and strange, to say the least. I never expected to see my work in such a formal and refined context. I had always reveled in the grimy and gritty ephemera that characterizes work in nightlife. So to begin to experience the outpouring of interest in documentation and articulation of my work in these kinds of contexts has been quite the journey for me. I have always and still do maintain a significant commitment to my work always operating in the realm of ephemerality, as happenings — things you had to be there and see in order to understand and relate.

I never intentionally attempt to document my performance work, encourage the documenting of my performance work, or even keep originals of my visual art. So to start seeing myself in these more concretized kinds of documentation was a new realm of experience for me as an artist. It's something that I am grateful for, though. It was an opportunity to engage with cinema as a form along terms that were comfortable and familiar.

Where can we find you regularly?

This is a tough one. I'm in a space right now where I am attempting to develop a more public performance presence, as well as developing and giving time to my visual art (drawings, paintings, and sculptures). When I do perform, it is often for events like Gender Blender or in spaces like Churchill's. Right now, some upcoming events I am most excited for are Gender Blender on September 23 and the Creative Time National Summit at the PAMM on November 1. But I am looking to start a few public-performance series as well as returning more regularly to my street-art practice. So keep your eyes peeled. You may catch me performing my own work in the streets of downtown or my drawings glued up on the sides of buildings in Edgewater.

Emergence's Indiegogo campaign ends today. Visit igg.me/at/emergencemiami.

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