The Marriage of Men and Art: A Conversation with Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin
By Fiona Kyle, Cloud 9 Dramaturg, Artistic Assistant
And we found ourselves looking at the mantle of suburbia, this heteronormative, traditionally homogeneous world that earlier generations of gay couples didn’t have access to, and wondering, “Well, now that we kind of have access to this, do we want to have anything to do with it?”
Hartford Stage: We are so thrilled to be exhibiting three of your original pieces from your Cut Maps Suburbia Series, June Grooms, Nuclear Family, and Lawn Chairs, in The John and Kelly Hartman Lobby for Cloud 9. You have written that they are “a series of cut maps examining our relationship to the iconography of suburbia.” Can you talk about your inspiration for, and the process of, creating these maps?
Nick Vaughan (Set Designer for Cloud 9): We are so excited that you’re showing these pieces! We made them at the height of the same-sex marriage debate, and it’s really interesting to see how they resonate in the current political climate.
The cut maps actually started when we saw the ‘Bodies’ exhibit (the controversial travelling show in which human bodies - of people who may or may not have given consent - were preserved and posed doing perky things like throwing footballs . . .) Anyhow, we saw the show in New York, and in one room they had excised/preserved just the human vascular system: arteries and veins, red and blue, and there was just this little epiphany that the whole thing felt like a road map. And then we took the next step, realizing that road maps and waterways felt like this circulatory system writ large . . . which spoke to a feeling we both had about landscapes and our very corporeal physiological connections to them. Landscape has a very real physiological effect on us as humans, and is a defining characteristic of our identity.
Jake Margolin: So the first map that we cut was of California (where I’m from), and we cut out all of the land using X-Acto blades and framed it so that I could stand behind it and the viewer could see the arterial network of roads and waterways laid over my body. Then we began to overlay imagery that felt key to our understanding of place on top of the map and cutting away the land within those images. These three maps incorporate queered images from vintage photographs and advertisements.
We found that we, and many people we knew, felt deeply ambivalent about the central role that marriage equality had taken in the queer rights movement. We have been married for almost nine years and obviously think it is important, and yet marriage as an institution is historically patriarchal, and there’s an overtly consumerist angle to the argument that doesn’t really support the more radical and inclusive elements of the queer rights movement. And we found ourselves looking at the mantle of suburbia, this heteronormative, traditionally homogeneous world that earlier generations of gay couples didn’t have access to, and wondering, “Well, now that we kind of have access to this, do we want to have anything to do with it?”
Elizabeth (Williamson, director) and I also spent a great deal of time talking about how to navigate the secondary layer of artifice/theatricality that is created by the disconnect between a reality that was current in 1979 but reads, in 2017, like its own sort of period piece.
HS: Can you speak to how the Cut Maps from the Suburbia Series relate to the journey our characters go on in Cloud 9?
Nick: The first thing that jumps out to me is the similarity of the social/political moments that the maps and the play were made in, namely the crest of a cultural swell. By 1979 the sexual revolution had fundamentally reshaped the social landscape and had moved from the margins to the mainstream (if not universally accepted). In 2013, when we made these cut maps, the marriage equality fight was experiencing a very similar moment.
It’s also worth noting the basic subversion of traditional gender roles in both the play and the maps. In each of the maps we’ve taken an iconic heteronormative image (a 1960s advertisement for a suburban development, a wedding portrait from the late 40s, a 1970’s candid photograph of a family enjoying a summer day. . .) and altered the image to create a same-sex couple. It’s a somewhat analogous strategy to the subversion of archetypes that Churchill uses throughout Cloud 9.
Finally there’s the basic preoccupation with the nuclear family as a unit and an interest in that architecture as an inherited mantle, something passed down from prior generations that can be restructured/redesigned/reorganized to function in a new cultural order. I remember a few years ago a friend of ours complained that she was tired of the argument that same-sex marriage wasn’t a threat to heterosexual marriage, that queer people just wanted the same thing as everybody else. Instead, she argued, it should be a threat, that same-sex marriage presented an opportunity to fundamentally alter the historically inherited gender-based power dynamics of heterosexual marriage and rebuild the institution as an equal partnership. That’s always stuck with me.
We felt like we did in fact belong; like we had a claim to the history of this epic landscape. It inspired us to make one of these installations for each state.
HS: You are both visual artists and theatre artists. What are your backgrounds in theatre and visual art?
Jake: Mine is as a performer and writer. Nick went to Carnegie Mellon, and I went to NYU, and we met working with the devised theater company the TEAM in 2006.
Nick: I spent the first six or seven years after school just being a designer. I did a lot of work in downtown theater and experimental choreography, venues like PS122, HERE, La Mama . . . I spent a few years designing Operas, small (Curtis Institute) and large (National Opera of China). I actually haven’t spent that much of my professional life designing straight plays, though I did do a production of a new piece called The Royale at Lincoln Center last year with the TEAM’s Artistic Director, Rachel Chavkin.
Anyhow, we’re still members of the TEAM, and there are a few projects in the pipeline right now. At the moment I’m particularly excited about a project called “Primer” that we’re making with the company, an ensemble of seniors and an ensemble of teenagers. The piece will essentially be a concert event in which we all form an intergenerational cover band to perform protest music (broadly defined) from Nina Simone to Minor Threat. We started making it a few years ago as a way to answer questions we all had about our generation’s capacity for civic disobedience and rage, a sort of sense that we had all gotten complacent, forgotten how to protest or lost that “muscle” that the generation above us spent so much time training, and as something of a model for passing down cultural knowledge from one generation to another. In the wake of the election/inauguration, the piece feels even more necessary and twice as exciting.
Jake and I also still work with some choreographers in our sort-of visual/installation artist persona, frequently collaborating with Faye Driscoll and Yoshiko Chuma.
Jake: Shortly after we met and after a couple of collaborative projects, we realized that we were both interested in making installation art and started dreaming up some projects together. Through a couple of residencies, fellowships, and generous mentorship from some older artists we began to make the transition to the visual arts. We now live in Houston, and it’s funny to realize that people there are surprised to hear that we also work in theater, whereas in New York, folks were often surprised to learn that we also work in the visual arts.
HS: Do you feel that your work in visual art informs your work in theatre and vice versa?
Nick: I think for a long time, I had the distinct impression that our theatrical backgrounds had a great influence on our visual arts practice (we have a strong tendency toward narrative, much of our work is time-based, we tend to use theatrical lighting and sound to contextualize installations), but I sort of thought it was a one-way street.
Looking back I think our visual arts practice has actually loosened up some of my sense of responsibility to theatrical convention. I think I’m a little more interested in ambiguity and the space between a viewer and a work, that sort of middle thing that’s made between them. I find myself less interested in created settings and more interested in creating space.
But some of it has also always felt parallel, too. I think the best example is my personal obsession with the primacy of materials. For a long time I had this dogma—still do—that materials needed to behave like the things that they were. I’ve never really been interested in illusion or transformation, such as sculpted rocks or faux finishes. I like plywood that looks/sounds/feels/behaves/tastes like plywood. I like fabric scenery that looks like fabric scenery and behaves that way. I like raw mechanics. And in some ways I think that’s what started the two of us into installation in the first place.
HS: A few years ago, you embarked on the 50 STATES project, “an ongoing fifty-part series of installations created in response to recently uncovered or unappreciated LGBTQ2 histories from each state.” What drew you to begin that project, and what do those installations include?
Nick: Four or five years ago, while we were creating an installation called “A Marriage: 2 (WEST-ER)”, which dealt with Western masculinity and the icon of the “cowboy,” we stumbled across an amazing book by William Benemann, an archivist out of UC Berkeley, that detailed the life and times of a same-sex attracted Scottish laird-turned-fur-trader and his partner, and specifically about an expedition of 100 like-minded men, that the two lead in 1843. It was essentially a big gay pleasure party.
Jake: We made an installation that involved retracing their 1,200 mile trip from St Louis to the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. Now, we both grew up thinking of Wyoming as real hostile country to gays - a place we fundamentally didn’t belong. But being out there, armed with this history, was a sort of paradigm shift for us. We felt like we did in fact belong; like we had a claim to the history of this epic landscape. It inspired us to make one of these installations for each state. We’re now four in, and we choose the media that we work with in response to the narrative that we find.
The Wyoming piece is a series of wax panels documenting our retracing of the journey. The Colorado piece is a six-channel video installation that is the record of a live, multi-city video conference potluck for which we commissioned five transgender and gender non-conforming writers to create toasts to a little-known trans pioneer from Trinidad, Colorado. Our Texas piece is a reprinting (in unfixed loose graphite powder) of an 1895 novel written by a medical doctor in LaGrange that features American fiction’s first unambiguously lesbian heroines, and wildly progressive defenses of homosexuality and the Oklahoma piece is a documentary about the daily lives of two drag queens and a trans activist in Tahlequah that references the work of the widely forgotten gay Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs, most famous for writing the play that the musical “Oklahoma” was based on.
HS: Act One of Cloud 9 takes place in British Colonial Africa, and Act Two takes place in London a hundred years later, yet also only twenty-five years apart; that shift sounds like it poses a unique challenge for a designer. How did you navigate that, Nick?
Nick: It’s funny, I think there are a lot of design challenges with this piece but I don’t think I ever really registered that as one of them. I think, for me, the basic assumption is that in a “theater” the single most important setting/reality/context is the basic fact that everyone, audience and performers, is sharing the same space. So more than anything else I want to make sure that relationship has the right tonality and is contextualized in the right way. Regardless of the time gap (or the split time gap), the centrally important factor is how the piece sits overall. The real challenge in this piece, I think, between acts one and two is navigating the various levels of theatricality and artifice, and framing the action in such a way that they can all coexist, even as some of those layers start to peel away.
Elizabeth (Williamson, director) and I also spent a great deal of time talking about how to navigate the secondary layer of artifice/theatricality that is created by the disconnect between a reality that was current in 1979 but reads, in 2017, like its own sort of period piece. In other words, I’ve attempted to set/contextualize the “1979” present within a larger framework of the 2017 present (in the guise of Hartford Stage) as a means to make the act feel less dated.
I think of the whole thing like a screen within a screen within a screen . . . where there’s the objective and honest reality of all of our bodies (performers and audience) in the same room, and then there’s the subjective reality of embodied/felt experience (realistic theater/acting), and then there’s a third layer that in which the embodied/felt experience (character) views/comments/embodies this highly theatricalized reality through the lenses of gender play and heightened language. If it’s really working, all of those will be visible at the same time.