Let's state the obvious, Sin uses drag in their practice. But isn’t it remarkable that the art of drag is now so well-known? How could you disagree with RuPaul when he proclaimed himself 'a marketing genius. I marketed subversive drag to a hundred million mother fuckers in the world’ during an episode of Drag Race All Stars? That was in 2016, and today, mainstream drag doesn't seem all that subversive. It's become part of slang, with a generation adopting terms like tea, shade and slay. Yas, drag has also had a huge influence on make up, from contouring to highlighter, from social media filters to fluttering fake eyelashes. It’s now so ubiquitous that even Bianca del Rio has got drag fatigue.
Change / Channel
Turner Prize-nominated Sin Wai Kin has set the scene for Somerset House’s new curated online space Channel with their short film The Story Cycle. The commission follows two clowns, both alike in dragnity, in a strangely familiar Neoclassical complex – but beyond its bricks and mortar, Somerset House hopes to create an online space for ‘art, ideas and the artistic process’, drawing from its resident artistic community in an ongoing digital program. Sin (formerly known as Victoria Sin) has made work as enigmatic as it is playful, from extravagant ruffs to carefully painted question-mark moustaches.
"two clowns wander through a dreamscape in various states of belonging and estrangement"
Those with the stamina to tune into Drag Race’s fourteenth season this year witnessed a controversial piece of herstory with the casting of Maddy Morphosis, a cis straight man, for the first time. Some saw Maddy's entrance as a sign of ‘the increasing willingness of [cishetero] men to experiment with and transgress the limits of “normal” gender’ - straight men a part of the conversation, allies rather than alienated? Others couldn’t past the idea that if RuPaul's Drag Race, of all places, couldn't remain a straightforwardly queer, non-straight space, where if anywhere is the final frontier? ‘It’s happening in ours clubs’ wrote one Twitter user ‘and now our shows’.
The queerness of space is also contested Sin Wai Kin’s The Story Cycle, albeit by entirely different means. The film sees two clowns wander through a dreamscape in various states of belonging and estrangement (Sin is irreverent when it comes to binaries). Somerset House is colourfully lit, metaphorically charged, and as Sin’s camera gazes up the five-storey Nelson and Stamp staircase, the way that the skylight in the rotunda is framed looks like an eye staring back at you. Fitting for a film that revolves around the issue of perception.
"like an eye staring back at you"
The Story Cycle's positioning in digital space is important, too, and while watching the first shot of a clown in a billowing nightgown walk into the imposing, Neoclassical architecture I couldn’t help but think of the term 'Enter the Discourse' – a phrase that has come to mean 'Prepare to get mauled by appalled reactions and take-downs on Twitter'. Since 'The Discourse' could envelop any subject, from disco to lawns, why couldn't 'Somerset House' be The Discourse? Sin’s clowns first appeared in a film called Irreconcilable Differences (2020) where ‘they have this gibberish argument with each other,’ the artist said. ‘The fact that you can’t understand what they’re saying – that they have this alien language – but they’re still fighting each other... you can identify with them in some way.’ Yep. Sounds like Twitter to me.
In any case, if not strictly the internet, Sin is interested in how different forms of technology mediate our identities. Soon the first clown is confronted with a television, which flickers nostalgically as a VHS player – ‘twas a simpler time. On screen is another character, a news presenter who Sin created to ‘think about the technology of storytelling, and how storytelling is this thing that we use to try to understand our relationship with our bodies and our bodies’ relationship to the world.’
For a work called The Story Cycle, there’s a perverse lack of what we typically think of as story – there’s ‘no beginning and there is no end’, Sin says, not even really a protagonist. Instead there are two clowns (or perhaps two warring psychic factions of one clown) and ‘they have to try to figure out their place, while this guy – who's really just a guy in a basement with a camcorder – is defining what the reality is.’ In that sense, it’s the story of the Smartphone era. What The Story Cycle’s steady stream of gibberish facts and statements makes clear is how bad we have become at having conversations – especially online. Fear and outrage generate clicks, the overblown reaction reigns supreme, and no-one’s really listening. Yet, increasingly this is the space in which we spend our lives.
"the difficulty – and the joy – of the unknown"
That's why Channel, and Sin Wai Kin’s work more specifically, prove a welcome interruption: a space to prompt conversation where viewers can embrace ambiguity and ambivalence, along with the difficulty – and the joy – of the unknown. While stories often end with the hero having changed, Sin rejects that by having their film loop around infinitely. Rather than identifying with these clowns in an illusory site of safety – sailing off into the sunset – the viewer is invited to participate in an ongoing self-fashioning. And that's one of the increasingly relevant invitations that drag, as an art form, extends, too. As Sin, quoting Octavia Butler, said: ‘The only everlasting is change.’
By Sammi Gale
Channel is a new curated space for art, ideas and the artistic process.