Coley Mixan

My first interview! A nervous experience, but I was lucky enough to get to sit down with the lovely artist Coley in her SYNKRAH INTRAGALATIC LIBRARY at the Specialist Gallery. The library installation will be up until February 19th, so hopefully after reading this you feel inclined to wander in and sit on a donut pillow, read some empowering text while eating sugary cereal and immerse yourself a sweet, intentional, feminist space. Thank you for sharing Coley! <3 

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I’m nervous, you’re the first person I’ve interviewed for GUSH! Well to start, I’ve never met you before officially, so you have to tell me—who is Coley—if you had to introduce yourself in this very awkward and forced way ha? 

Coley Mixan. Middle name is Marie, Germaine is my secret Catholic name...my patron saint, I think she died trying to save her village from freezing water or something. I wanted Saint Apollo, but I couldn’t have him because he was a man. I think it probably depends on who you are, and what kind of catholic family you had. I went to a catholic grade school, so I think that was probably why I couldn’t choose a boy’s name, but my mom probably wouldn’t have cared. St. Germaine was the patron saint of ugly people believe it or not. But her story is kind of sad and heartbreaking and inspiring. 

 

Were you raised catholic then? I had a lot of similar experiences growing up Catholic as well.

Yes, my family is still catholic, and although I feel like I’m not, I also feel like I can’t really escape that, cause that special Catholic guilt lives thoroughly in a lot of my work. I do try to process through it, in a lot of the stuff I create. I’ve always been really curious about learning and am a huge knowledge nerd. I’ve had many fortunate opportunities to work in spaces that are knowledge-gathering centers; whether it’s been teaching at universities or television stations or public libraries or academic institutes. So I think that idea has alway kind of fueled my reach for what information can sound like or feel like.

 

Do you think that your focus on information now is a reaction to the kinds of information that you were given in so many years of Catholic school—particularly because that kind of information was based on the idea that there is only one "Truth," and then you had to come up against that later and either have some kind of response of shame or guilt or sin? And then where does that leave you I guess...? 

I think so...my 15 years in catholic school were so centered on what truth with a capital T was, and then kind of realizing that there was so much knowledge out in the world that I haven’t been given access to, and feeling frustrated by that and then re-processing what is this sin that I thought was because of my own queerness. And thinking about what is or was my way of understanding the spiritual side of life. That is what I miss most about actively being in a spiritual community—like the striving toward this idea of the creator and ourselves being interconnected, even though there are so many other channels out there. I guess for me, most of my art-making and music is questing what the feminine divine look like—because it is not like anything I’ve ever had access to. Even in our broader culture as a whole, in my public universities… even in though those places broadened my perspective on a lot of different issues, they still didn’t have a lot of feminine or queer perspectives, or even perspectives outside of those relating to white supremacy; on anything, from philosophy to science to the arts. So I guess I’m always thinking about access and what that means and looks like—to kind of fully understand someone else and have a dialogue. 

In grad school I got into the idea of Nada Brahman (which is like sound yoga). Listening to sound as the first and foremost act of creation. I really got connected to that, one because I’m a musician and I love music. I always have. I love the idea that vibrating sound particles seem to fit into what I was looking at in the world, in terms of like everything is this wiggly thing, too slippery, always moving. It is never stagnant, but always keeps coming back in cycles. My work really kind of became about creating a fake mythology. This library that we’re in is the SYNKHRA INTRAGALACTIC LIBRARY. SYNKHRA is the goddess of music and time that I made up. So then she doesn’t really exists, but she does, because I create moments of her in my work. It’s like I’m always searching for this fake mythological goddess, who is the goddess of round-shaped pastries that you cut up and serve and share. And also music and sound and rock-and-roll and things like that. Which I think all does circle back to catholic upbringing—having a giant family, where my grandma came from a line of farmers, but whenever my she could she would bake pies...I got really into pies too, because I love pies and baking and I love giving food to people. Also with my own queerness, a lot of body issues came with that and come from this catholic  guilt. Like here is this really rich delicious thing, but don’t help yourself to it because you’re not supposed to...you can serve it to other people, but you personally indulging in it isn’t allowed. Just thinking about eating disorders and queerness—this is all stuff I have recently been digging up—but as a person I don’t really feel like I fall in either gender category, it just depends on the day. But I understand now why I’ve had such body issues, because I’ve never felt fully comfortable being fully feminine or fully masculine, and that relates on some level to why I feel okay putting certain things in my body and not others.

 

That perks my ear, the idea of your body growing up through a lens of catholicism. Where you body isn’t your own, it’s only a temple for whatever divinity possesses it…and the rules that come with that: don’t masturbate, don’t have sex outside of marriage, don’t participate your with your body in any real, tangible way really. I’ve been thinking a lot about that myself. With eating too, it’s interesting to think about what you allow yourself to put in your body and what feels “wrong.” 

Yeah totally…being raised as a female, even though I have no desire for a cis-man, still feeling like I somehow need to make my body attractive by the way society defines it — you’re going to be this white, thin, able-bodied person. Those categories are so narrow, and as someone who is trying really hard to fight the system, this patriarchal, capitalistic thing that we’re all dealing with— still sometimes feeling this weird pressure like I’m not like anybody else, and it’s like so? 

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Was that your personal experience—having an eating disorder, struggling with body image?

I think for me the biggest struggle is that I am anorexic, because I don’t think it’s something that ever really goes away. Thankfully I am no longer dying skinny, but I think for me it was really dealing with my sexuality and with the fact that I would never be good enough for my family and also this queer community that had it’s own expectations. And feeling like an accordion between those two realities, but neither one needs to define a person.

 

From my own understanding it seems to often be about control? In being able to present how you want to be or what you want to be for yourself and then for other’s perceptions too, and controlling what’s given to both of those sides.

Yeah, now that you’ve said the word perform — like I am a performance artist and I don’t really do installations or see this space as an installation piece of art, it’s more like a community space that I’ve built so people can have dialogue and come in and feel safe or read some books hopefully. So I feel like performance is my work, whether I’m doing music live or sound, or doing a video piece or performing. Then there are those questions of what is actually Coley and what is the work—but I don’t really see a defining line, which is why I feel like I’m coming into more of a healthy mindset in terms of processing myself and my own interests in the world. I can totally be in love with jello and how it works and wiggles, and not feel like I’m weird for enjoying that sort of thing or something.

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That was something I was curious about. I saw some of your performances when I was at the UW, when you seemed to be doing something that felt more like an art performance, whereas maybe now in the last few times I’ve seen you, it feels like a shift, but one that feels familiar. So maybe recognizing that you do a lot—performance and music and installation, and I’m wondering how you see the shifts in that or if it all feels really continuous to you? 

I think it’s so hard because I think the past year and half my out-put hasn’t been where I wanted it to be, because I still have this super deep desire to do a lot of video work and that sort of thing, but I haven’t one, had a camera to film with, and two, didn’t have the space up until very recently, because I had been in a couple weird living situations and work situations where I was just never home and then when I was, it wasn’t a very comfortable space to be personal. So for me the shift then became looking at other people’s content and curating ideas, or making more flat pieces, and editing information that way instead of filming and performing and recording and trying to navigate what that feels like and looks like. The biggest shift has been space, and thinking about how especially in Seattle there is this crisis of space, for people to have access to safe spaces for dialogue or thinking or just to relax in. I started thinking about what this show could look like and I kinda just wanted to make a soft space for people to come in and hang out and do whatever they want. And not have to have rules...a space for people to just sit and interact with one another. 

 

Do you think that when you were talking about what you’re drawn to, and the jiggly, hard to grasp part especially—which makes me think of the videos: with shaking donuts and the jerky, quick motions of you—is there a similar sense to the visual language like you use, like trying to make the mind be confused or overwhelmed by it all? 

Yeah I think going back to the idea of sound...I always edit to music that I’ve written, in the videos that I make, and that becomes my rhythmic beat—it tells me where to place the colors or where to put it  everything. So in grad school, in a lot of crits, I would always talk about the idea of overwhelming the visual sector of your brain because we live in such a visual world. We are constantly seeing images, and with photography itself...like who is a photographer anymore? Everyone, we all have nice cameras and are sharing images on a daily basis. So in these channels of visual representation, and the eye, I think about the eye as an arrow. The ear tends to be like a womb, or something more enveloped, we live in the sound that we feel but our eyes can never scan the surface of what we see. So then I was always thinking about how I would hope that whatever music I’m making and sharing is more about the feeling than the visuals. The visuals might overwhelm you to a point of needing to close your eyes to listen, or you just don’t since we’re so used to seeing. The are both working with and against each other.

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And maybe reacting in part to your own struggle with space this year, which is so real to Seattle and marginalized folks, young artists amongst them in many ways… 

Yeah there are so many of us that don’t have studio space, or if you do you’re sharing space. I definitely see that I’ve been wanting to make more video work, because that’s my favorite type of visual art. And I’ve also been just recently thinking about how hard it is to think about yourself as an artist, at least for me, because who in the heck would want to see anything I make. But then I was like, oh yeah, people buy prints that people make that are almost just sketches…so I’m like, oh my voice is unique and needed, so why not keep making it. When I think about your first question “who is Coley, what is Coley?” — I don’t know...but the work somehow tries to help me come to terms and be okay with that question. 

 

It is hard to exist in a city that doesn’t make it easy to be creative and exist in all the ways that you want to be fulfilled. Have you struggled with the lifestyle of working to support yourself and make art too?

Yes. I think that’s why I’ve overbooked myself which I’m realizing at this point, ha. But I don’t know how, or it’s hard to say no, but also hard to say yes. It is super difficult to find time for yourself as artists…I think for me that’s why I haven’t made a lot of videos. Even just sitting and thinking is hard. 2017 really felt like that, and 2018 has already been a full steam ahead...it’s felt better, more positive, like mentally I’m saying, “We’re gunna go into this and have fun!” And I think something I’m coming to realize, just about myself, which then of course reflects on my practice...is the mental aspect. The whole self-care movement that is getting really big, like that is the activism that I need to focus on for myself. It is slowing down and being okay to myself and using the spaces that I have to do little things, but also not feel like I need to accomplish these big things.

 

Yeah I feel like it’s become a lot more mainstream in away. And it is good in that it’s letting people slow down, and allowing for the realization that you’re not really able to serve anyone when you can’t serve yourself. Speaking from my own experience, I went through a lot emotionally this past year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to take care of myself better. And there is so much guilt even in that! In feeling like I’m not allowed to just zone my mind out and watch too much tv or lay in bed...it feels like I should be productive or performing some kind of role for myself, and it’s super weird to navigate. Do you relate to that at all? 

Yes! It is so weird and hard to navigate. I think it’s really hard with social media like, wow everyone is always supporting each other and doing all this cool stuff in their tight communities. But then it’s like oh wait, we are all just photoshopping our lives. No one sees us all going home and crying in bed alone. But you know it’s also okay to just go home and veg. Last night I had a whole list of stuff to do after work—band practice, then get other shit out of the way. But nope, I told myself I was just gunna watch Black-ish and relax. 

 

Do you feel like you exist more as an individual, or where does your community come from, if you would consider yourself apart of one?

Mmmm, I feel like I’m very independent, but I don’t exist as an individual if that makes sense? I feel like I have a lot of really cool friends. Most people I hang out with I met at the UW—Brit, Benji—that whole group of cool kids. I’m like how are you guys my friends? I also think that my job at the library is hard, because I’m usually dealing with people at their worst or their lowest, or they just need a place to go so they come to the public library. And I like being able to help make sure a space like that is open for people. But it also makes me really realize that all of my actions are really connected to everything. Like the weeds that I walked past on my way here, are apart of my community whether or not I take the time to acknowledge them or whatnot. I feel like I tend to go and do a lot of things myself, but I really kind of exist and depend upon everything else that is around me. I don’t feel super connected to an art community other than my friends. Sometimes I feel guilty about not being big in the queer scene here...but I’ve never really felt apart of that, or maybe don’t feel like that is exactly my type of queerness. 

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Do you feel like the queerness in your life—I mean it’s probably so personal and expansive—but do you think you were aware of that feeling pretty young? Or how do you think about that awareness showing up in your life?

Oh my gosh no, I mean I look back at it now and I’m like, “pfft that is hilarious, you are so queer.” But no my god, I didn’t even realize like what my feelings for other women, and realizing that I was not feeling apart of that heteronormative narrative until i was like 19 or 20. It took me a long time. I remember being in high school, I went to an all girls catholic high school, and having this really amazing teacher who was also very pretty. And I remember being like, “I need to meet a boy who is just like Mrs. Jackman.” I look back at those thoughts now and just think like wow you were just so confused. Like this ideal that I thought was the only way. I didn’t even know on the surface what a queer person looks like. I remember I watched this movie called “The Children’s Hour” from 1961 with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLlain. Watching that film and the intense terrible things that happened to the queer characters in that movie…it was feeling like someone had verbalized my fears and then being like, “oh god, that’s me” and then feeling really guilty for too long about it. It took me a long time, or longer I think than most kids. But I’m also not sure, because that was my journey...I have a big family, I’ve got over 30 first cousins on my Dad’s side, and all of them are married with kids and have never seen or processed anything like the queerness I know now. Even when I go back and visit my family, it’s not something I can talk about with my parents. Or I’ve never introduced them to my past partners when I was dating people. It’s just like another world. I’ve come out to my parents, but it’s not something we openly engage with. I have a much better relationship with my parents now than my earlier 20’s. For me then it was really tense, like there was this thing that wasn’t working for me, or for you. Now my mom actually has a boss at her work now who is a lesbian, and she goes over to their house, and she’s always like “Gail (which I think is the gayest name ha) went to Stanford and has a PhD.” So I think for my mom her journey has been like—people who aren’t straight can still find success in life. I think probably her narrative growing up was one in a similar boat to me, repressed in that way of not knowing any queer people and not seeing them in the mainstream media except during the AIDS crisis and then being like “that’s what that means.” The fact that Catholicism too is deeply invoked with them, like their beliefs align with the Church’s and so I can understand that that is something that is important to them. It’s hard.

 

Do you feel like your queerness is in the music you make—or at least in the way you were saying everything feels kind of all-encompassing?

Yeah I think so. I think my music is closet to who I am as a person, because it’s where I feel the most comfortable expressing myself. So I would say, it’s the queerest part of all. And not necessarily in that—I think it sounds like this totally bizarre, outsider thing—but I was never formally trained in music, so it’s always just been this thing that I did but it also comes from you know, love of David Bowie and Prince and all these people that were kind of othered in their own way, and wanting really to be what it feels like to…I don’t know…I guess when I perform music and I do it and do it well, I’m no longer cognitive of Coley, if that makes sense. If I’m not aware of myself, then I’m closer to the essence of whatever is my most me. And it’s the one that my small ego blocks. But music for me is my closest way of living outside of that. I get closest to the big-C Coley when I play music, instead of just the small-c coley. 

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Where does your music and writing come from; has that been something you’ve always been doing? 

Yeah, I’ve always been really into writing, I love writing. And I’ve always loved poetry. In high school we didn’t have a music program, and I really wanted to play drums but I didn’t really have an opportunity to. I did save up babysitting money to buy a guitar, because it was cheaper and also something my parents would let me play. So yeah I just picked up a guitar and then “this is what I like to do.” and I was really really—and still am kind of—but I really loved U2 in high school. I just thought they were the ultimate. And I was like, “I’m really trying to be like U2 and write songs,” and I did. In undergrad I started to play, but I didn’t have very many friends, or especially ones that also played instruments, so I would just play on my own and ended up writing the kind of songs I do, where I do a lot of layering, kind of like my videos. I lay down a drum part and then do a loop of bass line on the guitar and continue to play, adding bits. Then I moved to Seattle after I graduated, cause I wanted to get out of Omaha like hell in rocketry or whatever ha. My thought was mostly, “I like KEXP, I’ll apply to the UW.”  And then I got in for cheap, so I did it and I haven’t left yet. Lyrically, I don’t know, I guess I tend too…none of my songs are love songs but they’re love songs for the planet I guess, if that makes sense. I don’t know if I’ve ever written one particular love song. I feel like they’re about a lot of different things personally, I’m not sure I could ever really nail it. 

 

I’ve really enjoyed reading your lunch break doodles that you post on instagram...something about the way you write—there are sounds in it which create movement and patterns that I see in my head and I resonate with those a lot. Where does that come from and are they in the music too?

Thank you, so much. I’ve always adored Frank O’Hara’s work, he has a whole book of lunch poems. Which are really beautiful, that he would write on his lunch breaks at the MET or the MOMA when he would hang out with all those cool artists in the 50’s and 60’s. I thought I could do that, I have a lunch break. So I try to write stuff on my lunch break now, and doodle and write them down. Those I haven’t ever really sat down to finish. Sometimes I will pull out a couple lines, and make something like it, but those tend to just be like my emotional space of the day where I want to try and craft something as quickly as I can, just so I can get myself writing, otherwise you just don’t write.

 

It’s interesting in music, how aware of the audience and others observing you you must feel? When I make things, and am immersed creatively, I’m alone usually. So in performance you seem to be sharing even more, because you are the art too. Does that feel nameable? 

Yeah I get totally nervous before every performance. I can’t eat, I’ll think about it the night before, I’ll sweat bullets. And then if I’m up onstage and I can kind of transcend thinking about it too much, I’m not even then aware of the audience. I become aware of them only through their energy. And hopefully the energy that I put out is good, so the energy I get back is hopefully good too, so it kind of becomes a dialogue that I don’t feel nervous visiting. So I always like that, I like the idea of dialogue in general. What and how do we process information, and talk to each other and not talk to each other. Is there ways to communicate without having to use english to speak? I guess the thing I’m always trying to figure out is how we are all interconnected and what my role is—and feeling like I am connected to something bigger than myself, but it’s not actually bigger than me because it is me too, and so I think that’s probably my work in all dimensions. that’s also why I love donuts. The shape—a lot of quantum physicists think that our multiverse is shaped by different tortilla forms—it is always coming back into the center. Our bodies are like that too, or a split open orange looks the same way. And of course donuts are beautiful. 

 

i feel like you could write or talk about your work in a way that is very formal and more academic, so much is going on in all these little layers of thought and identity, but it doesn’t come across that way when you experience your work or even talk with you about it in this personal way—is that intentional?

That’s good, I never really want it to, because it’s my biggest critique of academia and the art world. I want anybody to come in here and feel like they could come in. They don’t need to know about art or not feel entitled to be here. That is usually my goal.My work is all about wiggles and queerness and trying to figure out how to be connected to people. And laugh. I think it’s about humor too. I have another exhibition in June at 4Culture which will sort of be a continuation of this library, but I have no idea what it will look like. This library is installed by the F.I.B.E.R organization, which is feminists improving boundless, eternal rock and roll. This is the mental training facility and the mental spiritual installation will go up in 4Culture. My goal is—I think it’s kind of a joke—but what I really feel like Seattle needs or what I feel I need if people are interested, is how can we come together and like talk about these issues that affect us, but also just have fun and do weird, take over the patriarchy sort of things and have secret meetings. 

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Coley's instagram / website