[ALIVE PODCAST] Interview featuring Filipino-American Artist Jeffrey Augustine Songco, Artist-in-Residence at the Mattress Factory
Performance is Alive Director, Quinn Dukes, interviews multi-media artist, Jeffrey Augustine Songco. Jeffrey is an Artist-in-Residence at the Mattress Factory and premieres his installation, "Society of 23’s Trophy Game Room" on March 12, 2021. Augustine Songco discusses the challenges of being a gay, Filipino-American artist, the process of being an artist-in-residence during the COVID-19 pandemic and the creation of his own reality show.
Quinn Dukes: My name is Quinn Dukes. I'm the Director of Performance is Alive and I'm so excited to be here (via Zoom) today with a multidisciplinary artist Jeffrey who, I am going to let have the great honor of introducing yourself and tell us a little bit about where you are right now.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: Sounds great. Thanks, Quinn, my name is Jeffrey Augustine Songco and I’m actually in Grand Rapids, Michigan right now and we just got a wicked snowstorm so there's a lot of snow on the ground.
Just a quick background: I was born and raised in New Jersey. My parents immigrated from the Philippines. I grew up doing ballet and musical theatre. So you know that all kind of translated into me today doing a lot of work, based on my body performing for the camera. Trying to get that role, from the casting director I didn't get 30 years ago you know just trying to get over these obstacles and traumas that I had when I was a child.
Quinn Dukes: Yes, yes, I can relate, in some ways to those things. So you mentioned ballet and dance as being a part of your background. Is there a time when you can identify the fusion or introduction of visual art and how did that overlap happen?
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: Absolutely my childhood was definitely artistic both in performance and visual work, and so I definitely had supportive parents who gave me ballet lessons, tap lessons, jazz lessons. I'm doing the Nutcracker every Christmas season.
And so, while I was performing on stage, I was also interested in my visual art practice. In fact I wanted to be a graphic designer for a long time. I was in the public school system, doing the Yearbook committee taking AP Art. You know just the kind of normal education, you would get in like an affluent white suburb, if you will.
Quinn Dukes: In New Jersey?
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: In New Jersey, 20 miles from Manhattan. I was going into the city all the time for auditions and for rehearsals and things like that, but it's interesting I think for maybe really any performer or anyone who uses their body often, you are very aware of how you are received and perceived by an audience. I knew at a very, very young age, that I was a person of color. I am a person of color but I was an ethnic body on a stage in a musical in ballet.
And even you know, in the early 90’s, late 80’s, you would get a casting call that said “All ethnicities welcome.”
So with that, I learned very early that there was something different about my body from maybe what the normal body, the average body, is on stage. So, I am 5’ 4” but, as you can tell my voice is kind of low. So, in the middle of middle school actually my voice dropped. But I stopped growing much taller and as a child there's a discrepancy there. As a teenager there's a discrepancy for portraying a character on stage, I knew I wasn't going to get cast with my low voice and my short height a lot. So again, I was very aware of it. So, I started focusing on visual arts and by the time I started applying to schools, I ended up going to college for art.
And that's when the transition specifically happened.
Quinn Dukes: Okay. It is unique, still, in the United States to be able to take AP Art classes. You know, to be able to take those classes in high school. I grew up in the south, and I really had no sense of visual art.
And so I'm wondering in your AP Art classes and in your experience and working on doing these magnificent ballets, I mean that's a lot of work to the body. And it's interesting to think about your awareness of your body in tandem with the physical endurance and challenge of creating that work. To go back, I'm curious if you were aware of yourself and your ethnicity? When did that happen and do you feel like it really impacted the work that you were making in high school?
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: You know, I grew up in a very affluent white suburban town. For me, growing up, my parents from the Philippines, they did not teach me Tagalog - which is the language of the Philippines. They didn't teach me how to read or write or speak it. I have an older sister, same thing, but we understand it fluently when they speak to us and at us.
So, I imagined myself assimilating into kind of my town pretty quickly. I think there's a saying, an immigrant will come to the States and then they try to get their children to assimilate quickly into American culture. And so I think that was very much my childhood. I think AP Art, I think these kind of like public education art classes growing up in the states, I think a lot of it is so technical and a lot of it is also about observation. Let's do this still life of these pots. Let's paint this tiger. Let's do a self portrait right. Right?
So just the connection there between my visual art and my ethnicity that wasn't as apparent. I did not see anything, I didn't see my race, through my art. I didn’t see my ethnicity, through my art, visual art. Yes, I saw it exactly, every day in a casting call or an audition. I knew I was the only kid in that line going for that role that didn't look like everyone else.
I applaud my mother, who was like, “let's go to this casting call” and I'm like, “I don't fit the Italian boy role.” She'd be like “No let's just try it, you never know.” So my mom was that kind of supporter.
But I think within my art education at college, that's when deeper issues and bigger themes started coming out. Like race and identity and ethnicity, like “Who are you?”and “What is the self portrait beyond looking in the mirror and just technically repeating what you see?”
Quinn Dukes: Absolutely, it's so fascinating to hear you articulate it in that particular way and how the shift of the higher education, you know moving into your undergraduate studies. How the mind shift is so immediate. You're immediately required when you get into art school typically to start digging in and investigating your own identity. And if you don't, your critiques are going to call you out on it until you do.
I wonder if you have any thoughts or if you have even considered ways that it can evolve for high school students, like the curriculum itself? I feel like it's something that we're really coming to terms with right now in education across the United States because there's such a marginalization of ethnic diversity within the curriculum.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: That is such an interesting thing to think about. I haven't thought about it, but you know it immediately makes me think of, I believe I was a freshman or sophomore in high school when the Columbine shooting happened. That makes me think of you know, the school shootings that have occurred over the last decade. Those are things I did not have to think about when I was in high school right. These were issues that we're not anywhere near the thoughts of this safe suburban town.
So, aside from race and identity, I can only imagine that high school students now through their visual art practice, you know as much as they're learning how to shade and use watercolor and acrylic paints are grappling with these really heavy issues. And what about right now, they are not in school. They have to deal with this remote learning that oh my gosh like there are themes that are coming out that they will be expressing through their work.
So I don't know about the identity portion regarding race and ethnicity, but I can already see other themes coming out that I personally just was not dealing with back then.
Quinn Dukes: It is certainly a lot to consider especially right now, as so many things are in flux and transition and we're coming up on a year of living completely different lives than we've ever led. And it will always inform us, you know moving forward.
Right now you are, you are currently in Michigan, as you said earlier, but you've been working as an “Artist-in-Residence” with the Mattress Factory, and in thinking about those students (remote) learning what is an artist in residency experience, remotely?
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: Yes, this is my first ever Artist-in-Residence. So to have it be my to have it be 100% remote is crazy because you know I have my cliche understanding of artist residency which is you go out into some remote area. You make your work. You have dinners with people by a campfire and then you go to your urban life.
But that is not the case here, I am really just at home making my artwork. The Mattress Factory has been incredibly resourceful and supportive about the whole thing. And so, basically, as an installation artist, a lot of my installations are rooms that are designed with an interior designer's mind. Objects are placed in different areas and those objects are things that are ready-mades that I might customize when I order them online. But they all fill this big narrative that maybe we'll talk about called the Society of 23 and that's essentially what I'm doing right now.
I have a room at the Mattress Factory that is being set up as this room, called the Society of 23’s Trophy Game Room. Within this space are objects and furniture that look like a space where my secret brotherhood can go and enjoy themselves with their trophies and play games like poker or bocce.
I am normally very organized. A couple of my day jobs have been administrative so I'm very organized. My receipts are all in place - type of thing. So that's what I've been doing with Mattress Factory. I’ve been ordering a lot of things, they've been coming to Grand Rapids. I'm sending my receipts in bulk to Mattress Factory, they are reimbursing it. I’ve set up space in my basement which doubles as my studio. That looks like a corner of the space that's at Mattress Factory.
Mattress Factory provided an assistant to the five artists-in-residence that are there.
And just backing up a little bit, I chose not to go to Mattress Factory for the residency because I did not want to get sick with COVID or put anyone else at risk. And then all the ramifications of that, the effects of that, not being able to work. So that was my decision and Mattress Factory supported it.
I believe there's an artist-in-residence there now, who is on site and living, you know, in the residency. But I didn't want to also do that.
So, what happens now, my assistant Dig (Divine) who is amazing. Dig has been essentially creating the room, based on my plans. For example, one huge element of installations that I've done in the past is this shiny foil curtain material that acts as the wallpaper of the room. Dig and Dig’s assistant Jana put up the foil curtain over a over a couple of days so.
So it's just been cool to see Dig and Dig’s team put up this installation physically while I've been on site also, doing another component, which is a reality show.
So, this is kind of where the performance aspect really shines in that. The initial goal was I would be onsite aMattress Factory create this room and it would look complete, and then the Mattress Factory staff would become my camera crew and we would make the first ever reality show of the Society of 23.
Quinn Dukes: Oh yes, okay, so this would be a live action experience for viewing? Originally?
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: It was going to be a recorded live action yeah.
Quinn Dukes: Okay, so no viewers on site, but having the cast and then i'm sure, you're the host.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: Yes, so there were six cast members, so six brothers would be followed and documented within this reality show. Then within the installation itself, is a projection screen and television that broadcasts this recorded video that I edited.
The other thing that I haven't mentioned here yet that maybe, no one knows yet, but now will is, I play all the Brothers of the Society of 23, so I multiply myself.
Quinn Dukes: This is a very important piece of your practice and your work, I think.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: Correct and so before this residency I had only photographed myself, edited photographs in photoshop and then presented this documentation of these private performances through photography and having multiple selves within the photograph. And each brother has a different name, and all this stuff but now I have edited about an hour and 10 minute video of the first episode of a reality show called the “Fabulous Society of 23”.
And so there's six scenes. My partner here in Grand Rapids recorded me in my basement - in our basement and we make it look like I'm in the same scene.
I could have done this with a tripod. You know you see Tik-Tok, you see Instagram and you see people kind of look like they're in the same scene with themselves by playing different characters. I didn't want that aesthetic because it really just looks like I put my camera on a tripod and I'm going to change costumes.
I needed that movement, I needed that hand on the camera. So my partner, thank you to him, held the camera and followed me a little bit here and there. And so there's an illusion that I'm in the space in Pittsburgh, when in fact I'm in Grand Rapids.
And then, just one more element is that there's no audio. So I am talking, there is audio in the raw footage but in the edited film the final version all the audio was cut. And now I have put subtitles and the subtitles for the one hour and 10 minute video is the text from the US Constitution. So I've matched the text from the U.S. Constitution into syllables that are coming out of my mouth.
It's not exact you know, obviously it looks a little different but what you're then as the visitor as the viewer, experiencing this video within this installation. Is that you are challenged to come to some kind of meaning by looking at my face. Looking at these brothers' faces. Looking at the drama that's occurring, you know there's cliche reality show drama visually happening, but then, when you look down just a little bit and you see this inch of text. That's like you know, “The President this” “The Vice President, that” “The electoral college this” - Things like that.
So it's a little bit of what goes on in my brain right now and I scroll through Instagram and see the Kardashians and then flip to an article in The New York Times about what's going on with the elections.
Quinn Dukes: Right oh that's so interesting, I am really curious about what led you to the decision of the Constitution in this particular Reality show as the counterbalance.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: Yes, absolutely the residency was actually originally supposed to take place in August of 2020. And so I knew that I wanted to do something that was going to be topical. And so, when the original date of the exhibition was to open around October or November of 2020 I knew that it would be in line with the election. I know that the election since 2016 and since forever really has always questioned the electoral college and questioned “How are we supposed to be doing this election?”
Everyone goes back to the Constitution, and so I wanted to go back to that text, as someone who's heavy handed in my conceptual practice, I always go back to the text. Because we can get all the interpretations we want from other people but what does the actual document say. I'm not an expert in the Constitution, so I don't know what it really means either, but I just want to re-present - as I think art is a re-presentation have something to then find more meaning.
So you know I've been watching my reality show once or twice now just to fine tooth comb it and it's interesting to see what stuff pops up when I make a funny face and right under it is the word “felonies.” You know, it's like whoa this is so interesting - like what meaning am I getting from it? So you know I just imagine a bunch of drunk dudes writing the Constitution in the 1700s.
Obviously, there was a lot of time and research that went into it, but literally in the Constitution it's like we're gonna have a date here, like Monday in December is when this happens. It's like where did that come from? Why did you pick that? Is that, like your dog's birthday?
Quinn Dukes: Right, right. I'm really curious if the audio for your reality show will ever surface? It sounds like that content is also really interesting.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: Well i'll give you a little teaser. I mean it was a lot of gibberish just me kind of talking. Like telling you about my day, and you know, I have the, “A-roll” which I'm calling it. I don't know the technical term, but the A-roll is like where the brothers are kind of interacting with each other. And then there's the confessional the B-roll where it's just you know Kim Kardashian sitting in front of a pink screen speaking at the camera.
So a lot of that stuff was private my partner wasn't with me, and so I did kind of create a six scene narrative that would have kind of a story arc. And so I started talking about that action, because I think in reality shows, I heard somewhere that you can film someone for 24 hours, and you can make a really good one-hour episode of a reality show based on just those like 24 hours of filming. Because, then you come in with it with these confessional B-rolls and you have someone kind of interpret and say, basically, the story. And this A-roll stuff is just kind of like supplementary really to the story that you're creating.
But teaser wise, when my partner is recording us, you can read my lips, and one of the scenes, we call each other boo and he made me laugh, and I said “I love you so much boo stop making me laugh, boo.” So you can see my lips, and if you try to read my lips. I got a little bit of a headache actually when I was first editing the reality show, because I was only trying to read my lips. So that got really challenging but anyway, you know you can read my lips, and you see like “boo” but you also see like you know what else is on like “nobility” is under it or something. It's just funny. it's just a really, really funny juxtaposition of it, layering if you will.
Quinn Dukes: Absolutely. It's definitely apparent that humor is a very important element to the work and from the installation. The materials that you choose are often vibrant in color and shiny and glittery and it really adds to the level of lightness. And I'm wondering if you can talk about the material and the connection to humor within the work. How did that become a part of your presentation?
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: Yeah you know that reminds me of that in college, I was closeted I didn't come out till after college, but I was making a lot of artwork about me and I was being very sneaky about how I use the rainbow. The rainbow color scheme. And so there are photographs I have where you can see clearly that one guy is wearing red, another one's wearing orange yellow the whole thing.
But I kind of like move them around a little bit so that it's not like an obvious rainbow. So that reminds me of my materials, I think. I grew up as a creative child. My parents let me have all the puffy paint in the world I wanted. Play with all the glue, hot glue, sparkles, anything I needed, we were always at a craft store. Which is an aesthetic for gay culture. I think it's even cliche at this point to watch Rupal’s Drag Race and know that there's going to be a lot of sequins, a lot of sparkle and a lot of pizazz. And I think that's in the ballet world as well, you've got really beautiful sparkling tutus. And fashion, the fashion, I love fashion, you know I'm really interested in clothes and stuff like that. I think that sparkle is definitely just what one would say is like a traditionally gay aesthetic. So that comes from that area of my identity in life.
But I am very aware of materials, especially fabrics because I like it to be very familiar to the viewer. I want someone experiencing my installations to really feel a connection. And some of that connection is through these everyday objects and materials that we interact with.
And that's very challenging to say, you know there's different economic levels that people, maybe aren't familiar with what velvet feels like or what lease fleece feels like. So there's clearly this audience that I'm relating to in one way, but perhaps you know pushing away another group, but I printed photographs on fleece and on a fleece blanket ordered from Walgreens you know, but that fleece blanket fit into one of my projects because it was about sports and someone mentioned, “Oh, you know people were fleece blankets, when they go to stadiums to keep warm” and I thought that was perfect. I was like wow this project is all about sports, so let me print a photograph on a fleece blanket. It's such a thing right? Imagine if I printed a fleece fabric photograph you know decades ago. You would be like what is that? Now, you can literally order it from Walgreens and people are like, this is a normal graduation gift, Father's day gift, whatever gifts.
I also like how materials evolve. Right now we talk about the gay aesthetic of sparkles and rainbow colors but you know the rainbow color scheme is also something that the Christian community really feels ownership over. So I'm interested to see how materials evolve over time and I think that's something that I continue to play with and be very aware of within my work.
Quinn Dukes: Absolutely, I was enjoying looking through the samples of your work on your site and seeing that contemporary approach towards customization of the readymade. Customizing a fleece blanket a few years ago is something that surely seemed impossible, and now you can customize everything that you look at!
Two questions here: how did the residency come into your world? Is it something that you applied to and were selected for?
And then I was also wondering if there were mentors or critics, or you know members of the museum that kind of would meet with you and talk about your current project.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: The Mattress Factory was the first museum that we went to when I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon, so it is super super special that I am now showing there.
But that's where I learned about installation art, you know walk into a custom installation and was just like what is this, this is so weird I have to put on little booties to like go into this room?!
Just to affect a body that much, like I've only been to a gallery or a museum, where you just walk around and don't touch anything before that. So that was really getting my choreographer blood pumping you know, I was like “Wow you can control people when they come into your space!”
So that was in 2001 and then, here we are, you know I applied for the artists-in-residence multiple years in row and finally got it maybe the fourth year, I believe. And that was just it was just a true honor and I'm super grateful. I still can't believe I got it, you know “who am I?” but I've been working hard for the last two decades, or whatever you know. So I'm just very excited to have the opportunity.
In terms of the actual project, I believe that Mattress Factory was different in that they didn't require a proposal, they just wanted to see your body of work through some images. And a pro tip, I put a video documentation of an installation that I shared within the application and I honestly think that was the only difference between the one year and the next year, which I got selected for in my application.
So I think it's incredibly important now from that experience from that selection and understanding that it's incredibly important to have really good sexy video documentation of anything you do that isn't flat work, hanging on the wall.
Quinn Dukes: Yes, yes, so for our listeners, which are also commonly performance artists alike, take note of Jeffrey's tip!
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: The other pro tip is just keep trying. I get rejection all the time. As a child actor I got rejection all the time. I am so used to it, and it is just part of the thing and I've been making some memes about it on my instagram account, but you know there's always room for humor to poke fun at what's going on. Just keep just keep applying because I think, as you grow as an artist, as the panel changes the application selection committee or whatever changes. Someone's going to resonate at the exact same moment with your application and something good is gonna happen. So that's what happened for me.
I had an idea with the Mattress Factory and I presented it to them and they liked it.It was primarily the Exhibition's Manager I believe, who I shared that with. But otherwise it was “Okay, how do we make this work?”
The Mattress Factory has an audience that likes to participate, and I have a lot of objects that I needed furniture pieces. The marketing team said that we can add these items to our mailing list if you want to figure out a way to do that. And I’m like yep, I'm an Admin, I know how to do that! So I made a wish list website that had all these objects on it. Like a chair, a couch, an arcade machine and they shared it with their audience, and that was going to help that was what I wanted for my installation.
So what ended up happening, though, is that the audience didn't have those items right and so. As a nonprofit and as someone who is deeply supportive of nonprofits, I'm like I don't want to spend I don't want you to spend money that you don't have. I don't know what the Mattress Factory’s budget for everything is but I'm like well if you're putting some to me but you could also put some of mine to some other artists.So I think about those things in my practice which is challenging because I wish I could just be like, “let's get all the Swarovski crystals we want.”
Anyway, where I'm going with this is that I had to change my installation because I wasn't able to get some of these furniture pieces. And it's been great. I'm very flexible with my work because, as a conceptual artist, I am grounded in my text. In the idea of the work itself. So that idea can take on many different aesthetic choices and can take on many different things. What happens is that my hand, my being, touches the artwork. So in the end it will most likely be sparkly you know. It will most likely be something fabulous and rainbowy. But I don't need to have that large wooden chest in the corner of the room. I'll find a different solution to making it “Trophy Game Room.”
What do you think of when I say the word “trophy game room?” What does my Mom think of when she hears the words “trophy game room''? What does someone who has a hunting background think of when they think of “trophy game room?”
Everyone's aesthetic answer is correct. Now I’m the one who happens to be making this room, so what you'll see when this opens in March is something pretty fabulous.
Quinn Dukes: Oh I'm so excited for this Trophy Game Room! Is there going to be a way for people to experience it still remotely or will the installation be exclusive to experiencing in person? How's that component going to work out?
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: That's a great question and we haven't gotten to it yet. It's definitely open to the public. Hopefully March 12th. Actually the museum's reopening to the public, I believe in a couple weeks, but yes, the exhibition itself will be open to the public to come into around the middle of March. Now whether or not that's going to be online virtually, I hope so, because I literally haven't seen it in person, yet.
And it's very cool. My assistant Dig sends me photos via text of the space or FaceTime but everything is still this mini scale. I'm still looking at my phone at this 40 ft. long room but it's on my phone that's 4 inches big. So everything's just very mini to me.
It does remind me actually, I do hope one day that after I create all these rooms, that I get to have like one large doll house of all these different rooms to play with.
Quinn Dukes: Yes, yes.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco: I'll keep you posted on what happens with the virtual experience, if any.
Quinn Dukes: Wonderful well, we will definitely keep our listeners informed on those updates to the site. I have one final very important question for you Jeffrey. What is your go-to song to get you motivated in your studio?
JEFFREY AUGUSTINE SONGCO
Performance Is Alive is a fiscally sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a 501(c)(3) charity. Contributions made payable to Fractured Atlas for the purposes of Performance Is Alive are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.