To get to Killjoy Collective, you have to go through what curator and artist Tabitha Nikolai calls the “airlock”—a set of closely-spaced, rattly and slightly-rusty doors on the side of the handsome but mysterious Troy Laundry Building,at 221 SE 11th Avenue in Portland.
It’s a bit of a dance for two people to enter at the same time, but once inside you descend into a basement warren of studios. The established spaces are clearly very active, and the scent of drywall and sawdust and the piles of power tools indicate the building’s attempt to grow and attract new clientele to freshly-partitioned units. Even just five or six years ago, you were likely to hit a space like this if you chucked a rock off any rooftop in inner Southeast Portland. Now, with closures of places like Towne Storage and Recess Gallery, it’s one of the few remaining concentrations of DIY and community art spaces in this fast-changing neighborhood.
Killjoy’s space is close to the bottom of the stairs, and with the front doors open, it presents a remarkably spacious world all of its own in what could easily feel like a cramped basement. It’s a fitting home for a show that describes itself as follows:
“Children of Revulsion is about living inside media when you can’t go home again.
It’s about making a house from virtual trash, lashed together with scraps of code, and uploading it to your dear ones, wherever they are. Big enough for everyone, you dwell in it together, replay and reply. Every pixel a good night kiss on the forehead. Every beat a tender hand-squeeze in the dark.”
It’s an ambitious group show featuring more than a dozen artists, musicians, and meme-makers. Multiple large monitors featuring homebrew videogames and digital environments ring a central bench that invites you to sit, don a pair of headphones, and pick up a wireless keyboard where the control keys are indicated by textured flower stickers. In the far corner, a modern LCD screen is housed in the skeleton of a small 1980s CRT TV set, perched atop a dresser. This echoes the homey, inner-sanctum vibes broadcast from the squishy, colorful installation of blankets, stuffed animals, and fabric creations at the front of the room on the same wall.
One of the open doors displays a collection of relief prints, adding another handmade touch to the multimedia centerpieces. Amidst the whirr of cooling fans and the shifting color projections of fakeTV® lights, a sound piece runs on a tablet in one corner, mapping sounds from the room and the tablet itself to a constantly changing image, which viewers can screenshot whenever they want, the captured image to be added to an online gallery for the project. The full list of featured artists is: Alan Page (aka [sic][redacted]); Arisa Leisure; deSolid State; e. sakai leisure; #femmebreak – Seanna Musgrave with Erika Anderson, aka EMA; Garima Thakur and Autumn Knight; Laurence Myers Reese; Lysandra Frex; Rani Baker; Porpentine and Rook; and Stephanie Mendoza.
Once you step inside, you are feel surrounded by portals to other spaces, perhaps some that exist in their own dimensions. It is the polar opposite of, say, the Ellsworth Kelly room in the new SF MOMA—surfaces here are only membranes protecting the worlds they contain, and the image is definitely not all there is. Each of these pieces, true to the show description, is in invitation into some digital or aesthetic territory deeply occupied by someone searching for a space where they can exist the way that they are.
Perhaps the most intimate is Rani Baker’s game Can’t Go Home, which mixes small-town-horror vibes familiar to any Twin Peaks or Stranger Things fan—or anyone with raw moments of alienation from their own home and family—expressed through glitchy 16-bit graphics and classic RPG gameplay. Nikolai’s decision to present this piece in the old TV case on top of the dresser in the corner was an inspired move, capable of channeling intense memories for anyone who has tried to escape a confining suburban bedroom through art and media.
The videogame by Porpentine and Rook, Sticky Zeitgeist, works as an excellent counterpart, feeling like a fully-realized Sega Genesis title from an alternate history where the late ’90s were as dystopian and cyberpunk as movies in the ’80s led us to believe they would be. The multimedia fabric installation by the door, rest in my pieces by Lysandra Frex, works surprisingly well with all the of the electronic media in the room. It demands—and rewards—close investigation. At first glance it resembles any entry in the sub-genre of installation art that takes familiar fabric items and metastasizes them into strange shapes or accumulations on the floor. But if you snuggle up to it, you encounter plush animals carefully re-stitched and remixed in surprisingly complex configurations and a banquet of strange textures.
Curator Nikolai played an instrumental role in gathering and presenting these many strange, personal voices, but it is not one of those curator-centric shows that sometimes feel like attempts to justify the existence of advanced degrees in curatorial studies. Each voice in the show has room to speak, and together they present a solid introduction to the shared aesthetics of the online netherworlds that they conjure. Few of the artists involved show in gallery spaces. Some were known to Nikolai simply through sharing memes online, others thrive in the video game scene.
A graduate of PNCA and an ongoing force in the Portland art scene, Nikolai is well-versed in the dynamics what she calls the “orthodox art world.” She points out that the community of artists that show in that world branch out from hubs, like art schools and institutions. The community in Children of Revulsion, one clearly dear to her heart, works more like a network, with disparate entities reaching out through their work to find connections with other marginalized voices.
“Creating that kind of interconnectedness with people who are on the periphery is super important because I’m trans and I make weird art stuff that people might not quite get,” Nikolai says. Finding resonant voices and community is central to the work that catches her eye.
Gender identity is unquestionably part of the fabric of that network in this show, the communities it presents, and the way in which they are marginalized, but Nikolai is careful not to present it as “trans art for trans people by trans people.” For one, while Nikolai and other members of the show do engage with their trans identity in their work at times, that doesn’t apply to all the members, nor is it necessarily all-inclusive for some of those that do employ it. Moreover, the power of this artistic community lies in its internal cohesion rather than the inclusivity-from-the-outside practiced so often by institutions.
“Institutions want to be lauded for every now and then admitting marginalized people and I’m not super into that,” Nikolai says. “It gets tiresome always having to wave the trans banner.” Like any other artist, “You just wanna make the work that you wanna make, and if that happens to be about processing gender identity, there’s that. It’s inescapable, but it’s not for me as a curator to brand other people’s work with that, to be definitional. We can say something more interesting than ”our experience is outside heteronormative experience.“ We can have a deeper conversation than that.” Nikolai says she designed the show “for the the themes and the statements to resonate with people who feel marginalized, regardless of why.”
In many ways, it comes down to space: Space to be occupied, rather than given. Killjoy is one of the exciting new generation of galleries in Portland, such as Grapefruits and Ori, that have carved out a space for themselves. Founded by artists from the MFA in Visual Studies program at PNCA in 2016, the collective originally intended to create a shared studio space and gallery. Their focus shifted to exhibition when they managed to secure the Troy Laundry space. A last-minute phone call notified them that a previous tenant had dropped out, and they entered the building only shortly after a tenant turnover when the ownership of the building changed.
Member BriAnna Rosen says of their mission: “It was important to all of us to create a physical space in Portland where non-traditional work and artists had the freedom to create installations and other artwork… especially artists of color, womxn artists, womxn-identifying artists, gender non-conforming artists, trans artists, queer artists, and other artists pushing the boundaries of gender and feminism.” Children of Revulsion is an excellent example of this mission and a great introduction to anyone who has yet to visit this small but exciting space.
While the show is only open by appointment for a few more days, there will be a closing party on the night of June 16. Stephanie Mendoza will present her VR experience EULAland, and Laurence Myers Reese will offer the intriguingly-named Citrus as Metaphor. If you can’t make it to that, Killjoy members will be showing at the Littman + White gallery at PSU next month. (Sun Kittens & Moon Puppies runs from July 9 to August 2, featuring a book release by Killjoy member BriAnna Rosen.) For anyone interested in new, compelling voices in the local art world, this is a community you can’t miss.