If “The Medium is the Message,” at least according to Marshal McLuhan, then Skylar Kergil must have a lot to say. The 21-year-old from Saratoga Springs NY has a best-selling Bandcamp called Lentils and Dirt, a YouTube account under the name skylarkeleven, and popular Tumblr where he showcases the projects from his visual arts degree. Now, on top of all of this, he wants to start a photography project.
Entitled “Re-Humanizing The Trans-Masculine Community,” the project is a collaborative effort with the goal of recreating the spectrum of masculine identities and expressions within the transgender community. Skylar has already sent out several disposable cameras to some of his 40 participants around the globe and also asks them to keep diary entries in addition to taking self-portraits. He is hoping to keep this project going after his graduation and encourages others to participate if they wish to also submit their own photos and entries.
The genre of autobiography has become standard amongst transgender narratives. So are self-portraits; both transgender cultural critics Jay Prosser and Jack Halberstam have written extensively on the use of photography to document the trans-masculine spectrum. Long before them, there was Diane Arbus who sought out interesting and innovative ways to shoot portraits of people she felt were ignored (though this often got her into trouble).
What makes Skylar’s project so innovative then? It is social media and the DIY ethic that is espoused from platforms such as Bandcamp and YouTube. The recent generation of transgender YouTube users often present their autobiographies in a different format than those who came before them, using the medium of film and serialization. They do not present a solid, cohesive story right from the beginning, but one that is ever-changing and growing. This evolution can be seen in the popular YouTube video by uppercaseCHASE1, where he took a photo of himself everyday on t (testosterone) for two years, created a video to document the change, and then stopped taking the hormone after.
Autobiographies like this have never happened before. Moreover, it is through sites such as YouTube and Tumblr where people and their stories connect, too.
This is why Skylar’s project is innovative, even though many other people have dabbled with the art of self-portrait before. Because Skylar has spread himself and his art over so many different areas, he has managed to create what Deleuze and Guattari called a rhizome in their work A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome is a root structure that spreads itself out horizontally, and not hierarchically. The ecosystem that new social media platforms encourage and invigorate are the ones that reach out to several people and encourage them, as Skylar is doing, to be the author of their own stories. By connecting so many people through the rhizome of the internet, Skylar is creating a project that is beyond sustainable. It collapses borders, ideologies, and hopefully produces some very good art.
Skylar’s art project is at rehumanizingproject.tumblr.com. His personal Tumblr where he posts art is skylark11.tumblr.com.
I was lucky enough to interview Skylar, and here is an abbreviated version of our discussion.
Your current photography project deals with trans-masculinity through photography and journal entries. Can you describe what drew you to pursue these mediums?
I was really drawn to both photography and journal entries for similar reasons. Photography seems to be one of few artistic mediums that can deal solely with truth but also blur the line between truth and fiction. The type of photography I’m incorporating comes from disposable cameras sent to me; the idea of a film/disposable camera is pretty pivotal to this project, as with only 27 available exposures, one has to decide what they feel is important to show as part of their day-to-day lives.
Digital photography is wonderful for many reasons, but the tangibility, aesthetic, and permanence that lies within film really resonates within this project. As for the journal entries, I thought it important to incorporate the handwriting of trans-masculine identified individuals.
While photographs can capture a certain amount of truth, I believe that the words expressed from those participating are just as important in order to create this visual diary. Some things cannot be said through words, and some things cannot be said through photographs; with a combination of the two, I hope that the project will be more expansive and honest.
How has the active transgender YouTube community influenced this project and your other art?
Overall, my experience with YouTube, vlogging there and conversing with others, has really heightened my belief that we need many mediums in order to express our identities. Also, through YouTube, I became more comfortable expressing myself and felt a huge sense of community. Because of this, I feel really passionate about representing the transgender community in a positive, meaningful way.
This project is the first time my visual art has been connected with the transgender community, and I’m finding that this is one of the first times I feel most fulfilled putting in the work to create something beautiful. While I’ve touched on transgender issues and my own transgender identity through music and poetry, I am new to exploring this in my studio art practices. Also, the community I have met through YouTube has really helped with outreach to find participants for this, and I’m extremely thankful for those connections.
One of the main forms of transgender narrative has been the autobiography. How much does your work pay homage to this tradition, and how much does it diverge from it?
By letting participants take their own pictures of their day-to-day lives and write without many guidelines or supervision by me, I believe this project is highly autobiographical for those involved. I am even considering writing a bit of an autobiography of sorts that will be a series of memoirs, and find that the autobiography is a great form for the transgender narrative.
However, my work is also diverging from some autobiographical tendencies by incorporating more than thirty different perspectives and experiences. Overall, its intention is to show how the trans-masculine community interacts and intersects with many other communities and identities.
I’ve asked participants to photograph their lives, including but not limited to pictures of themselves, their homes, families, friends, communities, favorite places and spaces. Simultaneously, I’ve asked them to write and reflect upon themselves, their thoughts, feelings, identities, and life in general, with the added note that talking about one’s trans* identity is entirely optional. In many ways, this project focuses on the trans-masculine experience, but does not only focus on that aspect.
In the end, I imagine it as a visual diary that includes individuals with certain similarities in identities, but also shows how widely and vastly we, as a community, exist and coexist.
Who is the audience for this project?
The audience for this project is fairly universal. I believe this can be meaningful not only within the trans-masculine community, but also for those who are unaware of our community’s existence and all the ways in which we interact within this world. While being transgender is definitely a huge identity, it is not the defining characteristic of a person. The audience thus will be anyone willing to open their eyes to a world they simultaneously may not know exist, but also are a part of.
What is your ultimate goal with the photography project?
My ultimate goal of this project is an installation for my Senior Thesis Exhibition this coming May. I imagine it as a large wall, say 6 feet by 6 feet of space, taken up by small prints mingled among journal-entry type writings. I want the aesthetic of it to be casual, much like a diary, but also much like how one may hang pictures up of their family, friends and such when moving in to a new space; those familiar signs and people that remind one of home and of their life so far. After that, I can’t imagine having the project simply end and be tucked away, so I am considering a goal of editing and publishing this project as a tangible book as well.
What has been the most rewarding experience you’ve had from your audience?
It is very hard to choose just one, so I’ll choose one tangible and one more intangible.
Tangibly, the most rewarding experience I’ve had from my audience was being invited to speak at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY last fall. They sent me a message, and before I knew it I was driving down there one evening and got to be their Transgender Day of Remembrance Week speaker. It was so rewarding to actually meet some of my audience in person, and definitely reaffirmed my feelings towards continuing along the public speaking path. Intangibly?
By mentoring or having conversations with many of my followers, I have found a wonderful purpose. I feel like I have a drive, a reason to keep going because there are people who are inspired by, and subsequently inspire, me. Feeling like I have made a difference and can help others, while also being helped by them, has fulfilled one of the biggest goals in my life. I am incredibly happy.