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Spanning seven decades, Make Me Feel Mighty Real: Drag/Tech and the Queer Avatar opens to a lavender wall emblazoned with the words “make me feel mighty real.” The show includes work by visual artists, performance collectives, comedians, drag icons, filmmakers, and game developers. Transcending the limits of biology and physicality, the exhibition conjures the queer avatar as a protective surrogate and divine incarnation of ancestral teachings to celebrate the power of drag as a vehicle of self-actualization, superhuman visibility, and camouflage.
Throughout the exhibition space, sculptural wigs and costumes are positioned like the reliquaries of queer saints and martyrs. Installed in the gallery entrance, three intricate headdresses by Enrique Agudo hang from the ceiling, each an assemblage of textures and amulets, adorned with beaded eyes (Hiereia I, II, III: The Pantheon of Queer Mythology, all 2020). Designed for VR compatibility, the sculptures hang above a VR headset and QR code that links to Agudo’s short film, The Pantheon of Queer Mythology (2020). The code provides a gateway to a matrix of personal deities, hookup apps, mesmerizing landfills, and dysphoric festivities that reflect the modern queer experience as a shifting landscape.
Recalling the use of drag and satire as tools of subversive entertainment, films such as Tom Rubnitz’s iconic Pickle Surprise (1989) and Suzie Silver and Hilary Harp’s ROBOT LOVE (2008) meet Jake Elwes’ interactive The Zizi Show (A Deep Fake Drag Cabaret) (2020), inviting the viewer into a fantasia of humor and vibrancy. In contrast, both artist Zach Blas and performance ensemble Big Art Group employ vigilante costumes to highlight the need for collective revolution in the shadow of neoliberalism and tech surveillance. Harnessing camp para-militarism, Big Art Group’s multichannel, recorded live performance SOS (2008–13) features parodied shootouts, car chases, and fast-talking revolutionaries. In an alternative demonstration of guerilla tactics, Blas’ wall-mounted Fag Face Mask (2012) is a digitally generated visage, 3-D molded from a data pool of queer men’s facial characteristics. Resembling a chewed-up wad of bubble gum, Fag Face Mask urges solidarity through anonymity, offering sanctuary to those targeted by politicized algorithms and databanks.
Further engaging the need for the security and protection of queer communities in online spaces, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley has developed BLACKTRANSARCHIVE.COM (2021), an interactive computer game that aims to connect the viewer with the spiritual guidance of Black trans ancestors. Before venturing into the digital environment, viewers are guided through a process of identification, so the archive can protect access and expel those who cannot be trusted. A banner across the homepage declares: “We are here because of those that are not,” in recognition of the long lineage of Black trans erasure. Similarly, Antigoni Tsagkaropoulou’s neighboring film Dentata Pearls (2021) honors the wounds and wisdom of the past through the origin story of a planet governed by the collective care of fearless superhuman beings who cultivate pearls of past trauma to adorn their armor of synthetic vinyl, replete with spiked epaulets and extraordinary footwear.
As a beacon of transformation and fulfillment, the avatar takes on many forms across the evolution of queer knowledge, providing platforms of visibility and spaces of sanctuary. By adapting technologies that have been weaponized against them, these artists remind us of the ability to adapt, organize, manifest, celebrate, and satirize in the face of oppression. Walking out of the exhibition, the lyrics and bass of Sylvester’s 1978 disco anthem “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” continued to circulate through me, like a mantra: “I feel real, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real.”
Make Me Feel Mighty Real: Drag/Tech and the Queer Avatar runs from March 3–May 27, 2023 at Honor Fraser (2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034).