4.17 / The Fourth Year

Inside the Artist’s Studio, Part 4: Chris E. Vargas

By Michele Carlson June 11, 2013

Image: Chris Vargas in his studio, Oakland, June 2013. Photo: Michele Carlson.

Art Practical is proud to collaborate with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on their Community Engagement Artist-in-Residence program and to present this profile of the 2013 recipient, Chris E. Vargas. You can find more information about Vargas’s residency and the related public programs here.  

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In his downtown Oakland studio, the film-and-video artist Chris E. Vargas pours hot water from a travel thermos and shuffles through a miscellany of tea. Vargas casually folds a paper towel and places the makeshift coaster on his studio desk to cushion two mismatched mugs. He sheepishly admits, “I’ve been staring at my computer screen for hours,” as he wearily closes his laptop and withdraws from the tedious task of editing a poster for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), in San Francisco. Vargas is YBCA’s inaugural Community Engagement Artist-in-Residence, from April 30 to June 30, 2013, and the position is consuming at times. So it takes him a moment to adjust his attention from full-production mode to our meeting in the studio.

Vargas occupies one third of a shared studio in a downtown Oakland office building, and afternoon light floods the space, sparingly populated with props and equipment. “A painter should really have this studio,” he knowingly rues but then playfully adds, “I do love it.” Vargas’s mood runs from a self-reflexive modesty to a mild amusement within his current storm of production, deadlines, and distractions. “It’s a combination of luck and hard work. Today might be calm, but right before I got the YBCA residency I was asking myself how I was going to make things work next month. It came at the perfect time. There are so many instances where that’s happened in my life, but, at the same time, I’m putting myself out there constantly, so something’s bound to come through.” The Community Engagement residency comes with a sizable honorarium and consists largely of the public programming Vargas is organizing around a budding project titled The Museum of Transgender History and Art (MOTHA). MOTHA engages and collaborates with other artists working within the transgender and queer communities under the fictional paradigm of a burgeoning museum with Vargas at the helm as Executive Director.

Though it is designed to have many facets, in its current stage MOTHA primarily organizes and curates events and live performances. Unlike Vargas’s projects that use the patterns of pop culture or the narratives of fiction to critique political and social issues, MOTHA points directly at the legitimating power of the museum as an institution to craft an alternative culture. Vargas says, “MOTHA is about the absence of something and the limitations of the institution. Why do we have to, as artists, ask for institutional exposure? I’m asking the audience to envision something more, knowing there are limitations and problems with what we have to work with now. Why ask for something different when we can just make it and imagine it? This is a radical imagining.”

Headphones from Chris E. Vargas's studio, Oakland, June 2013. Photo: Michele Carlson.

Much of Vargas’s oeuvre appropriates and remakes pop-cultural forms and mainstream media events such as reality television shows, karaoke videos, the 2008 pregnant man featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and even Liberace’s performances. Using a low-fi grace distinctive to a filmmaker trained in the era of the unwieldy camcorder, Vargas routinely employs his own body and often enrolls his friends, inserting them into these referential media platforms. His remakes are sincere interventions that are, at the best moments, strategically comical and awkward. A viewer gets the impression that Vargas is gently poking fun at much of the world he sees, utilizing humor as a strategy to understand, dismantle, and reassemble tough issues in one’s personal and public spheres. Vargas’s work ruptures seamless pop fictions that position certain bodies within neat and palatable narratives. He highlights the means by which pop culture and mainstream media affect social and political beliefs, and he continually asks audiences to position their identities in relation to their representations.

The boldness evident in his videos is in contrast to his personal presence and manner. Unlike the gaze of a live audience, the camera is impersonal, which grants him the freedom to produce images and documents that are not only evidence of a subject’s life but also of a subject’s views, interpretations, and interactions with the world. Like Vargas’s elegant gesture of turning a paper towel into a coaster for a visitor to his studio, he reworks everyday scenarios to both illuminate and reconfigure our perceptions of them. Vargas is adamant that his intention is not to educate the masses or convey some universal truth about being queer or trans: “I’m not trying to tell the story of transgender people but presenting that there are a lot of voices out there.” Pop culture has a tendency to reduce complex experiences for the masses, often selecting one experience to represent a whole. Less concerned with the “project of positive representation,” Vargas charges, “Why are we narrowing the conversation down to one voice?” In his work, Vargas locates these representations and tries to re-tangle the narrative threads that have been rendered too perfectly clean.

Since 2008, Vargas has been collaborating with his life partner, the film historian Greg Youmans, whom he met as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Vargas and Youmans produce and star in a cheeky, ongoing, streaming video sitcom titled Falling in Love with Chris and Greg. Loosely based on their relationship, the show follows Vargas and Youmans in their daily life in San Francisco, on a road trip, and even on a vacation in France. Short narrative dramas expose the mundane theatrics that occupy much of a relationship—receding hairlines, jobs, and New Year’s resolutions. Vargas, in his soft-spoken yet deliberate way, describes, “[This collaboration is] no holds barred. We disclose a lot. That is what a lot of the project is about.” The mundanity of the plotlines belies the specificity of their relationship. Vargas and Youmans are a queer and transgender couple. Vargas is transgender, so the seemingly boring crisis of a receding hairline is distinctly complicated by Vargas’s consumption of the hormones necessary for one who has transitioned. Viewers watch Vargas and Youmans navigate conventional situations like possible job relocations, children, and marriage but through a strikingly complex lens. In Falling in Love with Chris and Greg, Vargas and Youmans utilize camp, humor, and melodrama to make these scenarios accessible not only to their audience but also to themselves.

In a recent episode of Falling in Love with Chris and Greg, Vargas and Youmans alter an episode of the reality-television competition Work of Art, inserting themselves as contestants. The show puts contestants through constrained and often silly challenges as the means to discover the next art star. Vargas and Youmans refocused the challenge of the episode, which featured a contestant’s project on California’s controversial Proposition 8, to be about queer art and failure. Vargas recognizes that, “The show is how art itself is getting pitched to the masses. The art world is this really weird insular world where the politics are so specific. Artists’ lives and their work are so varied and different, but [the show’s producers] try to fit that [variability] into this formulaic competition. It’s the same with transgender and queerness. How are these identities and stories being told? It all feels strategic.”

Popular culture is easily consumable. It is meant to be absorbed as entertainment, after work while preparing dinner or from a smart phone on one’s bus ride to work. It is trivial and frivolous, but this is exactly what makes it so pernicious. 

Vargas sees this arena as reflective of a hetero-normative culture, and thus his queering of this space makes it conspicuously so. “Pop culture says so much about the world we live in but also the beliefs of that world. So what does being gay or transgender mean, according to this world? People who feel outside of normative culture have always looked at pop culture to understand themselves in relation to what the world thinks about people like them.”

In the studio, Vargas reflected on the representations of queer culture he witnessed while growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Even as a teenager, he was aware of the slippages between media representations and individual experiences or histories. He was suspicious of how and why certain groups come to be represented in the larger world and the politics behind their chosen representatives. 

Bemused, he recalled the media spectacle of Ellen DeGeneres coming out publicly as a lesbian on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997. Vargas was fifteen at the time, and he recollects, “I was in a community of punks with a lot of queers integrated into it. It was a bunch of fags, like me; I wasn’t a fag yet but [still] a girl. My friends and I watched it with our older butch-dyke friends who had taken us in. And, in comparison to our friends, who were so butch and so not Ellen, it made us realize: this is what a lesbian looks like on TV! We were incredulous, at that moment: this is where we are? It just felt like it wasn’t enough. Even from what I knew about the world, I was surprised this was big news.”

With its proximity to Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley for Vargas was the suburbs: “It always felt like not enough. It always felt like the outside. There was something better just over the hill in Hollywood.” Nonetheless, Vargas attended a humanities magnet division within his Los Angeles public high school, where they offered classes in feminist history and theory along with gay studies and history. “I remember learning about Stonewall in high school. It was really extraordinary. [I found a community], the people one gravitates towards in high school: like-minded individuals with queer, alternative, punk, and Goth leanings. I was lucky to find a bunch of people.”

Vargas’s exposure to alternative histories and critical thinking had an important effect on him although he did not translate this into art making right away. He says, “Nobody went to college [in my family]. Nobody was an artist. We are pretty firmly working-class. Going to college was out of the norm. Having a creative practice has always felt like a huge indulgence compared to the intense work ethic of some of my family members.” His maternal grandparents made their way from West Virginia to Los Angeles to escape working in the coal mines, and his grandmother worked in the cafeteria at the middle school, with perfect attendance for twenty-five years. Vargas grew up an only child in a primarily single-parent household. “My mom worked every single weekday of her life. She’s got that work ethic instilled from her parents, and she wished me not have it. She was always telling me to take every opportunity I had to not get a day job.” And despite his mother’s advice for him to stay away from the grueling working-class lifestyle, its ethics were still impressed upon Vargas. Hard work and perseverance became vital aspects in crafting his creative practice. Accepting the tenet that he could and would find ways to support his art practice without a day job has required guts, dedication, and intelligence.

Chris E. Vargas in his studio, Oakland, June 2013. Photo: Michele Carlson.

Still trying to shed the pressure of his production schedule, Vargas seems a bit shocked by his current opportunities. Fiddling with his empty mug, he says somewhat convincingly, “I feel I am in a good place right now, and I’m finding the balance in the amount of work and hustle that comes with the territory.” He is contemplative about and gently amused by his career. Since graduating in 2011 from the University of California, Berkeley, with an MFA in art practice, Vargas has managed to support himself with his creative work, a daydream for many emerging artists. In part, Vargas has figured out how to live very cheaply. His low overhead is his key to his flexibility in his choices for income and work. Vargas is inherently reserved, a quality that may be belied by his drive to build a self-supporting practice. “It’s so easy not to take yourself seriously in a world where you’re not likely to make any money doing it.” As much a reminder to himself as a genuine question, Vargas wryly ponders, “But now that I’m taking myself seriously, how the hell am I going to support myself doing this?”

Vargas thrived in graduate school, coming into his own as an artist. Previously, Vargas reflects, “I was not a self-identified artist because it wasn’t like I ever saw it as a full-time gig.” Instead, it was an opportunity to make stuff with his friends and collaborate. Vargas had been nurturing a collaborative spirit and interest in film from an early age. He says, “[As teenagers, my friends and I] would go to this really weird video store in Hollywood called Mondo Video that had a bunch of artists’ videos. You could just put your video in that store, and [people could] rent it out.” This sort of generosity and liberal sharing of cultural production and information would greatly impact the direction of his work. When he was introduced to the work of filmmakers such as John Waters and Gregg Araki, Vargas elated in “these fucked-up trashy performances with a bunch of friends and queers and artists collaborating. I think what it represented was most exciting for me.” Vargas was interested in “the window into other possibilities” he saw in the films he was consuming. And he spent much of his time in high school and in his early 20s consuming film and viewing the world from behind the lens of his camcorder.

At UCSC, which Vargas selected because its film program was small, queer, and experimental, Vargas met a PhD student, Eric A. Stanley, who was a teaching assistant for “Film, Video and Gender,” a class Vargas was enrolled in. Vargas and Stanley formed what has become an ongoing collaboration most popularly known for their co-direction of Homotopia (2006) a campy and gritty experimental narrative that challenges the politics of gay marriage, assimilation, and the state. None of Vargas’s work is about passing as the original or for normal but about highlighting or creating ruptures and irregularities, which point to imperfect social and political systems. Vargas is not satisfied with simply exposing problems. He wants more.

Vargas’s stake in his current project is great because it is aimed at the institution that purports to represent how one creates and situates personal narratives and identities. An extension of Vargas’s past works, MOTHA addresses who, what, and how an experience or community is represented in the broader cultural landscape. But whereas his past projects intersect with existing media, MOTHA acknowledges the limitations of the institution and suggests what seems like a simple alternative. Vargas says, “MOTHA started off with that broadsheet collaged poster, [in which I conceived] I would just put this promotional thing out in the world and ask people to believe it is real. Then I realized I could produce programming around it and play with the fiction of it.” Though Vargas exploits the liberty of the fiction, he is heavily invested in creating real scenarios and opportunities for other practitioners and audiences: “It's really open and is a generous project. It alludes to other people working currently and asks them to be involved in a way that shapes it.” Vargas is concerned with a community being allowed to engage with itself and to participate in shaping its own meaning.

Portrait_of_Chris_Vargas

Craig Calderwood. Portrait of Chris E. Vargas, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist and Chris E. Vargas.

Cultural production can be evidence of a community trying to grapple with itself—chipping away at its conflicts, contradictions, and hypothetical futures. But what happens when that process becomes reduced to one or two narratives? Vargas finds parallels between what happens in pop culture and what happens in the art world: “There’s this tokenizing, canonizing, and plucking of certain artists out of context of a larger group of working transgender artists. It’s this controversial way where a few are supposed to represent a whole.” One should not mistake Vargas’s criticality as territorial, but he is conscious that social critique and identity are fluid and complex. When a community is labeled or defined, its limitations become fixed, and its audience is asked to position itself in relation to those limitations, whether desired or not.

Ultimately, Vargas is suspicious of the frustrating project of social definition, which is inherently political, economic, and systemic. He is thoughtfully aware: “[There is] this futility in MOTHA, in pinning down this identity that's not yet stable. Transgender is relatively new within the identity category. Maybe it will stick, maybe it won't. But it defines this moment in our understanding of gender—already knowing that it's going to exclude a lot, or it's going to feel offensive, or it won't fully fit.” Vargas’s practice challenges the systematic fitting into defined and normalizing social and political groups—such as marriage or clearly delineated gender and sexuality identities—that institutions, popular culture, and mass media continually reinforce. He admits,  “Just knowing that MOTHA is impossible—and it's destined to not exist in the world as we know it—acknowledges the limitations of using that identity to organize a museum around and of that identity itself.” Vargas’s work suggests that even though we know the world is flawed, we should and can decide to do things differently. His is a radical imagination.

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