Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged in the end was a celebration of New York’s queer nightlife in all of its messy glory. Over the next few months, we’ll be featuring each subject from this project in their own words, along with a portrait of them at home.
Who: Untitled Queen
What: Drag artist, visual artist, event and drag show producer
What was your first time out in a queer nightlife space?
So much of my early everything, thoughts, ideas, work was all about this period because when I was growing up in Connecticut, it was a really small town, and I was one of like two out people in my high school. I was hungry for gay culture. I was dreaming of the day I would turn 18, so I could finally go to clubs. My friend and I would drive to Rhode Island to go dancing. Connecticut didn’t have that many spaces that were 18 and over. I believe the first place I went to was Mira Bar, which I think still exists.
I was really, really excited. It had a cut-out in the balcony, so you could look down to the dance floor. There were people fighting outside, gay guys having a lovers quarrel. I was like, oh my God, it’s a real romantic gay relationship. Inside, I had never been with more than four self-identifying gay people my life, so it was a thing.
I’ve been thinking about Queer as Folk and all this shit I was watching and I was super excited. I liked dancing. I had a lot of expectations of what it was going to be like and it didn’t live up to that. I could go on forever about feeling like a white fetish was shoved down my throat. I never had words for that, but being desirable had to do with what people on Abercrombie and Fitch bags looked like, what the white kids at my school and Will and Grace looked like. That was the same thing in this club. I remember feeling not within its realm. I hungered for this thing, and it was a disappointment. It’s a recurring thing in my life where I have expectations of belonging in a space, and then I don’t. I’ve always been between spaces, socially and artistically.
There were people fighting outside, gay guys having a lovers quarrel. I was like, oh my God, it’s a real romantic gay relationship.
I had a similar experience going out for my first time at a gay club, Splash, and feeling both excited to be around other gay men, but also really uncomfortable and preyed upon, like my body wasn’t correct and didn’t look like the other bodies, and also being eyed and touched by older guys in a way that was uncomfortable.
Yeah, I feel like that was my first era of going out, and I had a second one when I came back to New York.
You came to New York to get your MFA in Studio Art. How did you start becoming involved in nightlife in New York?
My second phase is not actually nightlife as I know it now. It’s an introduction to nightlife because when I got to grad school, I started dating this actor, who I was with for four years. He was a graduate of the Actor’s Studio in the New School. I was at Parsons, which is a part of New School. He totally cruised me online. I joined Facebook before it was open to non-college folks. You could see who was coming to New York and message them. When I arrived I was super nervous. I was in my new place, and class hadn’t started yet. He messaged me and came over. When we started, he already had these rituals that he liked to do. He loved going to Chelsea gay bars. I was in the West Village and we’d walk up Seventh and go to Chelsea, which is so funny, because now I wouldn’t really be caught dead going into those places. We’d go to Barracuda, G Lounge. He showed me a lot of those things and we enjoyed it. I didn’t party very hard back then, we just drank. I wasn’t going out every night.
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I was enmeshed in school because it was so intense. I had new friends and that became another gateway. I met and became very good friends with Jess Ramsay, she was a DJ in gay nightlife. She DJed for drag artists at XES Lounge and for the drag artist, Peppermint. She was working at The Strand. She knew all these underground bars and she lived near St. Marks. I wasn’t so into it all yet. I didn’t really go to drag shows. She was someone that encouraged me to do drag. I always tell people I was the last person to know that I was a drag queen. In school there was one professor that was very much like, “these drawings that you do, they don’t look like women. They look like drag queens.” And I was like, that doesn’t make any sense at all.
It makes sense to me that a close art school friend was able to look at you and your work and see you. I know that experience from being in art school in a small major and us knowing each other and our work so deeply.
Yeah, you get so intimate. They all knew it. I always tell the story about the professor because I had to give him credit. One time we were going to his studio and we walked by the Halloween store in the East Village and there was this slutty nurse outfit, and he said, “you know, this should be you.” And I was like, what? And he’s said, “You know, you’re a personality, a Leigh Bowery, and you go to a party and that’s what you do.” And I thought, no, that’s not me at all.
Cut to five years later and that’s all I was doing. A lot of people saw it, it’s definitely in my work, in my drawings, my video, costumes, and making environments for my stuff. I wasn’t calling it drag and it wasn’t necessarily make-up or a typical definition of drag, I was doing lots of creatures. I think drag is this ever-constructing, ever-deconstructing idea about what the self and place and all these things are melted together.
After school, when my ex was away for a month and Drag Race was on Hulu, I thought I’d just watch it and see what’s up. Hook, line, sinker, I got obsessed. A teacher at Parsons invited me to dinner. She said, “one of my students is starting to do drag and I know you’re interested, we’ll talk.” The person was Macy Rodman. Macy told me about her show Bath Salts and asked if I wanted to do it. So I did and that’s where I met Amber Alert and all of them, at the Bath Salts at Don Pedro’s in Brooklyn.
What really kept the ball rolling was when I met the drag artist Merrie Cherry out one night. I was a Pride drag artist. June is when I was born. When I was out, I was dancing in drag. One night at Nowhere Bar, Merrie saw me and she was like, “I have this contest called Dragnet at a bar called Metropolitan, do you want to do it?” And so at that point, I just started to say yes to everything. I did it and then I won.
I think drag is this ever-constructing, ever-deconstructing idea about what the self and place and all these things are melted together.
It was the Brooklyn Renaissance, that’s what we call that period, not that Brooklyn wasn’t already popping, but 2012-2014 was this really golden time. It’s still going on, but something was happening then. Everyone was converging in Bushwick and we all lived really close to each other and we’d see each other every night. A lot of really amazing makers and thinkers were bumbling around and dancing at Sugarland. Sugarland was the first place I had my own show, with Elizabeth James. It was my favorite spot.
What brings you joy from queer nightlife? Why do you continue to do it?
Creating is where I’m happy, and drag is the light bulb moment for me that connected all the things I’ve been doing. Drag became a dumpster I was able to throw everything into and make it begin to make sense as a medium. Because my work is pretty interdisciplinary, drag can bring it all together. I love how flexible and how fluid it can be. I’m so interested in this constantly in-flux identity construction and creation, and drag is the epitome of that. It’s stupid heady art-speak, but for me, it’s a version of social sculpture, because it’s not this flat thing that people think you perform, and then it’s over. It involves a lot of in-between. You’re talking to someone in a bar and then they get to understand what you’re about and that creates something. Drag is through the Internet, through social media, through video, through all these different media and it creates this current. Drag is constantly slipping and falling apart, and then coming back together.
The show I did this past week was a drag show about my romantic experiences that I turned into an artwork: drawings, written works, performances with songs, and speaking. Drag really empowers me to do a lot of stuff.
The other element is the community aspect of it. I love getting to see other artists make stuff together. When I came into the community, I didn’t know anything about it. Jess showed me a little bit, and I also grew into drag with kids that had no drag moms, no drag parents. We were making it up as we went and suiting it to what we thought made sense with our own interests.
The next thing I’ve been doing is community activism. That is the next world that opens up to me through drag, through nightlife, which has been great.
Drag is a political art form. It’s become more open to growth and being challenged. How can it be more inclusive? How can it acknowledge its shortcomings and be actionable? How can we check ourselves?
I’m curious about creating nightlife spaces, because you talked about feeling ‘in-between,’ wanting to belong, going into a space, and being excited and wanting to be there, but not a hundred percent feeling like it was your space in your earlier days. Now you’re part of the Brooklyn nightlife scene and NYC at large, people know you, you do high profile things like Sasha Velour’s Nightgowns. How does that level of involvement impact the way you participate in nightlife now?
This is actually a big topic in my mind right now. Lady Quesa’Dilla, a close friend, brings this up a lot. She’s an amazing social justice person and drag artist. She always talks about how your community includes the people that don’t look like you. It’s actually bigger than what we perceive. She goes to the community of people that are incarcerated, the community is unhoused, these areas that we exclude. And I feel like I’m trying to challenge myself too, when I’m a part of these things and when I produce events, to widen what that word means because it’s still super exclusionary. I still go out and can feel like an outsider even though I’m garnering respect and I have this community, but I don’t everywhere. Everyone knows me in certain spaces but in others, it doesn’t feel so cute. I’m well aware that the three places I haunt are not always femme friendly, there’s a lot of exclusion and I think there’s a lot to be done to create more inclusivity. But there are places that are great. Horrorchatta does Bushwig, which I think is one of those examples where all kinds of performers and all kinds of people come and really converge and celebrate.
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Where are you performing these days as Untitled Queen, and where are you just going out?
I perform at Metropolitan Bar, Macri Park, and The Rosemont, which are local queer home bars for me. I also perform as part of the resident cast of Nightgowns at National Sawdust. I love to hang out at bars like HappyFun Hideaway which are super DIY, queer, and relaxed.
Do you see any trends happening in queer nightlife in general?
Over the last several years now, the verbiage has grown. It’s starting to include more people in the spectrum and have more queer performers and more spaces. It’s not just some gay boys dancing around for Gaga and then one girl party. Activism is a growing thing. People are realizing that queer nightlife, “Drag Race,” and other things are becoming more mainstream, and we’re seeing more of ourselves in media and having more voice. We can use that to various ends. People, including myself, are starting to see how we can use it to create activism and fundraise. I do one main charity event each year called The Brooklyn Ball. There are parties like Wall Breaker, a monthly party that raises money for a different charity every month. Because we’re now wielding so much image, voice, and power, especially through social media, people are able to wield it to do things. With this particular administration, it’s triggered this sleeper generation to wake up a little bit. That’s a good trend.
Hey Untitled! It’s so good to catch up with you. You’ve been up to so many things this last year. I want to start with the beginning of lockdown in New York, when we were all pivoting to digital interaction for nightlife communities.
Those first two months of quarantine were so hardcore but also really good quiet time. I was into the Zoom parties in the beginning. I think my sense of it got more developed as it went on. I really enjoyed the digital pivot, but I know a lot of people hated it. I love seeing how people and artists react to things. For me, it was really fun because I got to go back to doing video, which I used to love doing in grad school. It was a nice return to using those skills, doing stuff in my apartment, which is my favorite kind of DIY aesthetics. It opened my mind to all these possibilities. We lost everything so fast at that time, no seeing each other, no going to bars. That is a huge loss for us and for queer community because we have so few spaces already to engage. I think creativity and being able to see a lot of other people’s work and learn about other people is one great thing about that time.
In my own work, I love to respond to what is going on, so I wanted to see what digital could offer. I realized that all these digital shows were exposing us to people that were not in our immediate community. I wasn’t just seeing Brooklyn drag. I was seeing drag from all over the country, from South America and Europe. It showed me that these limits are really made up. We can share and make relationships with people all over the place. We already have technology to do that and digital shows are an example of how that was being done.
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I really loved the two big digital drag shows that you performed in and organized, Untitled America and Untitled World. Video was a medium that seemed so native for you as a viewer.
Oh thanks! It was a lot of work and so stressful. These shows really came together, not just because of quarantine and learning the medium, but also specifically with Black Lives Matter and a deep political and personal awakening. I became much more intentional about things I was already interested in, which is decolonizing and centering of QTPOC people. During quarantine, I read a lot more. I had time to curate my own education. I started to read non-white history, non-white narratives, non-white authors. That really changed my outlook. I was looking to Indigenous artists. I was already passionate about accessibility, particularly for Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities. Through digital drag, I learned so much about how to add captioning to videos.
Can you talk more about how Untitled (America) and Untitled World came together?
I had a thought in the shower, I was like, what can I do with a digital show that centers people of color? July 4th was coming up and I wanted to do a totally anti-colonial, in the anti-American sense, show. I didn’t know what drag was like in Arkansas or even New Jersey. We’re so focused on the coastal cities. So that’s where I came up with Untitled America, which would be a digital drag show that centered drag artists of color, representing each of the so-called ‘States,’ for July 4th. It was to give voice to people of color in their amazing local drag scenes through their own art and narratives. The prompt was, what does it mean to be an LGBTQ+ person of color in America today? I reached out to different people asking if they wanted to represent their state and they sent something in and we showed it in a big marathon on the 4th of July. Through it, we supported the Navajo Water Project. I wanted to highlight not only these artists and their voices, but also give attention to Indigenous communities and their history of displacement and genocide by American colonialism.
After that project, I thought, what about everyone else? Untitled World was an extension of that. What does it mean to be an LGBTQ person in the world today? It was 47 artists each representing a country. It was an open call. People could apply with a video and I had a peer review panel who helped rate the videos and then the number ones got chosen. We premiered in December on the week of World AIDS Day and raised funds for three different HIV/AIDS organizations, global and local.
I’m really proud of those projects. They taught me so much about other people’s communities, how many parallel struggles and victories and ways of doing things exist, how our community is a global community. It’s not just the neighborhood bar that you go to, it’s everywhere. It was exciting to learn about all these different communities and see what’s important to the artists and what their scenes look like. In more than half of the countries represented in the show it’s illegal to be LGBTQIA+.
You touched on two other things that I wanted to talk about. One was the collapsing of geography during quarantine and how through digital nightlife we were able to do not just NYC, but bring in people from all over the place and have so many folks participate together. Untitled America and World are just such examples of that. The other thing you started talking about was how the Black Lives Matter movement was a catalyst to do your own learning and informing the way you wanted to create spaces. I’m curious more about that connection for you.
Drag is a political art form. It’s become more open to growth and being challenged. How can it be more inclusive? How can it acknowledge its shortcomings and be actionable? How can we check ourselves? In the wake of Black Lives Matter, we’ve become much more critical about everything, about systems, protocol, how we affect others and spaces and programming. I was already involved in heavily POC and queer spaces, but there is always room for better and more. I think there’s a downfall and decentering of simple white cis faggotry and corporatized Pride. A lot of work has been done to call attention to that and it helped inspire all the work I’ve been doing in centering QPOC folks.
What are some of the other things you were up to during quarantine time?
I did the Lunch Break show with my friend Jess Ramsay. I had a residency before called Shift at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts and they asked if I could do something digitally for them. Jess and I were thinking about lunch because during quarantine, lunch became a time we would see each other on Zoom. It was a time of communing that was more regular than anything because I wasn’t seeing anybody. So Lunch came out of that. We did a whole Untitled show that had four guests, all around the concept of lunch. Artists reflected on what it meant to them, making food and sharing meals. That was before Untitled America. And there was the short-lived Quibi digital platform where we had a documentary show of Nightgowns. You can see it on Roku now.
In March you spoke at the Spring Fling Bushwig show at Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, which was my first in-person show during the pandemic.
Bushwig also had a show in October and Merrie Cherry was doing outdoor events too but this was definitely a big gathering of folks. Following the anti-Asian violence spa shootings in Atlanta, I asked Horrorchata if I might speak at the Bushwig show. It was amazing with everybody there. It was another thing that pulled together all the movements, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous sovereignty, Asian liberation. They’re all connected to me. It was a space to speak about that, about the recent events and to hold space. I was proud to stand up there.
You were also really busy during Pride this year.
This Pride was the most. I put myself in this position but it’s the most work I’ve ever done. I think because I wasn’t anticipating Pride, I thought it was going to be very chill and virtual, but then everything opened up in New York at the same time and it was full blast. It was amazing. I was really grateful that there were all these experiences. Jess Ramsay and I had a premiere at ARS Nova digital festival AntFest. We premiered a video called M.E.E.B.U.L.A. and it was a tribute to our 13 years of friendship.
With the Nightgowns crew, Sasha Velour’s drag show, we did a musical. We did 10 shows at the Connelly Theater which was incredible and so much fun. Sasha wrote the whole script. It was a whole musical set in the 1960s, a drag pageant. I also helped co-curate with Tyler Ashley, for New York Live Arts Pride which included a live show at the Red Stage on Astor Place with Creative Time. There was also a marketplace and an exhibition that I helped curate in the New York Live Arts lobby.
The Nightgowns musical was definitely a highlight of my Pride. I loved seeing that whole cast. To wrap up, I’m curious about your goals, hopes and dreams.
Oh my gosh, many good things. Black and brown excellence as always. One incredible example, I just had the privilege to perform at Junior Mintt’s In Living Color which is an all POC cast show drag show at 3 Dollar Bill. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen and I don’t say that lightly. Junior Mintt is an incredible everything, a leader, a Black trans rights activist, a performer, and maker. In Living Color was out of control, the audience and the performances were next-level. I’d never seen an audience so engaged before and so loud.
My piece was about Indigenous sovereignty and about the end of the US occupation. I was trying to draw parallels between the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, to the same thing that’s happened on Turtle Island. Basically showing that if you believe in Free Palestine, you believe in Free Turtle Island. Turtle Island is the Indigenous name of South and North America but I’m speaking specifically about the American colonial occupation. A lot of my work now explores those decolonial themes and diving deeper.
There’s a new show called Sylvester that’s run by Paris, Voxigma, and Julie J. It was so amazing. It’s all about Black Futurity and it’s also a tribute to Sylvester as a trans icon of funk music. YAS Mama is another party, one always holding it down for Latine music and art. And I’m always scheming. I want to quit my day job and eventually become full-time freelance to make more time for my art, which I’ve said for years but I really am trying to do the jump.
I’m also focusing on the present, and really galvanizing that. Re-envisioning protocol for running spaces, opportunities for community fundraising, and mutual aid. There’s a way of destabilizing capitalism and white supremacy through mutual aid that’s not corporate or non-profit led. Would love to incorporate more mutual aid efforts in our nightlife spaces and communities for sure.♦
Text and Photography by Seth Caplan. Read his statement here.