Kiam Marcelo Junio is a multidisciplinary artist living in Chicago, IL. They work in various media including photography, video, printmaking, installation, burlesque, dance, and performance art. His research and art work centers around queer identities, racial and gender studies, the Filipino diaspora, post-colonialist Asian American tropes and stereotypes, international camp and drag culture, and military and civilian power dynamics.
Kiam served seven years in the US Navy. They were born in the Philippines and have lived in the US, Japan, and Spain. Kiam is also known as Jerry Blossom, a performative alter-ego.
Interviewed by Kristina Daignault
Live Interview as part of 2nd Floor Rear
Visual and performance art
Kristina Daignault: OK, we’re officially going to start. You should feel free to jump in if you have any questions of your own or you want to ask a follow-up to anything. I’ll just start us out, and then we’ll just have a conversation. I ask at the beginning of all of our interviews of the artist, “What kind of artist do you consider yourself?”
Kiam Marcelo Junio: I consider myself a visual and performance artist. Those are kind of separate, but then they do go together for me. It tends to talk about the same research base and the same ideas manifested either through art objects or through performative body motion.
KD: Can you tell us a little more about your background? We know you’ve been in the Navy for 7 years, and I was curious how that informs your work, and how that experience was overall.
KJ: Let’s see… my dad was in the navy, and I grew up in Japan and in California because he was stationed in both those places, and I had an idea of what the military was about, but knowing that I wanted to go to art school, the navy felt like the farthest thing from that, but it was really the only way that I knew of at the time to become an independent person and not have to live with my parents or depend on them for college funds, and I so I took off. That experience was challenging in many ways, but overall, I got what I wanted out of it. I got to travel the world, learn responsibility, how to be an adult and all that. I met some amazing people while serving in the military, so I have no regrets about it. As for my art, how it informs that, a lot of my work does take a look at the military industrial complex, and at the very least taking the aesthetics of it and the ideas that are represented by the military, as in power dynamics, how power is distributed, and taking that as inspiration to make visual works. One of my recent series is called Camouflage as a Metaphor for Passing, and that uses the camouflage aesthetic, but it kind of subverts it in a queer way to talk about queer visibility, Asian visibility, Filipino visibility and invisibility, and how those dynamics are formed, how they’re socially manifested, and how they came to be what they are right now, and what do I have to say about the state of things, and how to change that. Jerry Blossom is a very central figure in helping to break those ideas down.
KD: Were you making work as an artist while you were in the military?
KJ: I was always making art in some way. I took up photography when I joined the navy. It was the easiest and most invisible… easiest to hide behind, and work on a craft without being forward, without attracting too much attention to myself. It gave me a really good excuse to put myself in places. So I took photography classes at a community college in Maryland, and most of my portfolio applying to SAIC was in photography, but towards the end of my military career, I started to play with the actual photographs, using Polaroids and pulling them apart, making collages with them. And so my work started to grow outside the medium itself and become more about object-making and performative use of the medium. So, in Chicago, after I left the military and was at SAIC, I really haven’t looked back since. Well, no, that’s not true. I look back all the time.
KJ: Sort of. Jerry Blossom started as a name… actually, I was taking some burlesque classes not far from here at Vaudezilla studios, and we were prompted to create a burlesque name, a burlesque persona, and right away, I knew that I wanted to create a name, create a persona that defied gender and that used orientalism in a self-empowering way. And Jerry Blossom, I found, was a really cheeky name. It’s very gender neutral and has these associations of beautiful oriental flowers, and so I used that. I was like, “OK, this is the name. It does everything it’s supposed to.” Since then, Jerry just grew out of the boundaries of burlesque performance, and as I continued my research about Filipino identity and Asian-American, deconstructing the model minority myself, Jerry became this vehicle that perfectly was able to accommodate these ideas and challenge them for myself even in different ways.
KD: How did Jerry evolve to get a whole brigade?
KJ: In December, December 6, I was invited by Chances Dances to perform at the MCA, and I wanted to really take up that space… because my work is about visibility and claiming space. I wanted to really mark that space as queer, as an open and safe space for queer expression. I had performed the Jerry Blossom Brigade previously at Salonathon, which happens Monday nights at Beauty Bar, and I had a group of thing, but I wanted to take that idea and really expand it. I asked some friends, and I put out a call on Facebook. I got some responses—Chad here was one of my marchers in the Jerry Blossom Brigade at the MCA. It was a natural growth, I think, of taking one idea… What I like to do with my performances is tailor it to whatever space it is, and then taking that idea, if it can manifest in another space, it shifts, and so a space as big as the MCA, I wanted a group just as big to occupy it.
On Previous Work
KD: I also wanted to talk about a static piece you made, which was a print of your birth certificate, a really large one, that you encouraged people that were coming to see it to clip away pieces and take it back with them. I wanted to know what your birth certificate symbolizes to you and why you were willing to give away pieces of it.
KJ: My birth certificate… Actually, my name now, Kiam Marcelo Junio, is not what’s on my birth certificate. My birth name was Kim Gregor Marcelo Santos, and I feel like what I’m challenging with the presentation of the birth certificate is the idea that someone else, or this organization, or this system is telling you exactly who you are and putting it on paper. A birth certificate, you know you can get it corrected or whatever, but for the most part, it’s permanent. It’s the first piece of legislation that a human body encounters or is put on a human body. And so having people cut away pieces of that, I was letting them essentially change that or offering myself as… There’s a lot of references with that. There’s Felix Gonzalez-Torres who has the candy piece, where you can take candies or pieces of paper, so I wanted something that was interactive with people where they could take something of me, and doing that completely changes what it was to begin with. And that piece, I only actually presented that in school, but it’s transformed into this other performance where I have my birth certificate printed on fabric, and during a durational performance, I cut and sew them into tank tops, and those are available for people to purchase.
KD: You have another interactive piece, the I AM project? I want to know a little more… maybe describe it to people since they haven’t seen it.
KJ: Interesting, I presented that at the first 2nd Floor Rear festival. It’s essentially these acrylic mirrors that spell out “I AM,” and there’s little post-its at the bottom, and I’ll post it up in the street somewhere kind of unassuming, and I’ll leave for an amount of time, and I’ll come back and see what people see and what… when you’re confronted by your reflection in the middle of the street that says “I AM,” my idea was to challenge people to think, “What am I right now,” or “Who am I right now?” and kind of leave a mark on that space.
KD: What’s the most interesting response you got back?
KJ: There’s so many, I can’t even…a lot of really fun ones.
The Here and Now
KD: Well, to jump to current time, you’re an artist in residence at the Chicago Artist Coalition, and I was wondering if you would describe a little bit about what you’re working on this year with them and what we can expect from you in that area.
KJ: That’s a really good question, actually. I have a group show coming up in March. I’m part of the HATCH program. We’re split into groups, and we present in one three-person group show and then a six-person group show. My three-person group show is coming up this March. Basically, I’m going to be showing what I was mentioning earlier—Camouflage as a Metaphor for Passing—I have new pieces that I’m creating from and for that series using these acrylic installations. When I made them the first time, they were this camouflage skin tone mirrored acrylic wall pieces, so you see yourself in these different approximations of skin tones in a camouflage pattern. So I’m taking that idea, and making it bigger. I’ve also started researching this piña fabric—this fabric made from pineapple leaves that is hand-made in the Philippines, and you watch this process, it’s really fascinating. They’ll take the leaves, and then they’ll scrape off the surface and pull out the threads and let those dry, and literally put the threads together piece-by-piece, turning it into yarn, and then spooling it, and then finally weaving it. I haven’t done this process myself, and it’s only done in, I think, three regions in the Philippines, and it has a really fascinating history. It’s this very beautiful gossamer-like shiny, shear, really beautiful fabric that is kind of like royal… only the elite wore this fabric, and it was traded during the Spanish colonization period. It was traded in Europe. It was very famous, and it had a bargaining currency. So it’s really fascinating material. I’m using that and making sculptures out of it. You can expect to see that, hopefully, if you come to the show in March.
KD: My last question is going to be, “What do you hope to accomplish simultaneously—you’ll be working with us to continue this cooking series—what else will everyone be seeing when they check out the website?”
KJ: A lot of delicious Fillipino Fusion food. I want to continue researching exactly what… the nuances of Filipino cuisine are because I feel like there’s not a lot that’s known about Filipino food. We know—we think we know—Chinese food, Thai, maybe even Indonesian. So we have access to these other south East Asian cuisines, but for some reason, I don’t know why, there’s not a lot of Filipino restaurants, and it’s fascinating to me because Filipino Americans are the second largest Asian-American population in the US, and we’re just a little bit less than there are Chinese Americans in the US, and yet we seem to have no representation even in the media or in cuisine or really anywhere. My work as an artist is questioning that invisibility and finding out why exactly that is, and what can I do to change that, because I do think it needs to be changed. As we know with any kind of minority group, the more representation there is, the more chance there is to express your voice and for people to learn about that culture, and for me, that’s my goal, is to expand that through either visual work or performative, or in this case, even doing something as simple as making food. I think it’s such a powerful tool to explore a culture.
KD: Does anyone else have any questions?
KJ: Yeah. The model minority myth is kind of applied to Asian Americans in general. I don’t know how to talk about it without being angry about it because it’s so fucked up, really. Basically saying that Asian Americans can assimilate into white culture or into American culture much easier than other minorities. It pits Asian Americans against other cultural groups, which really is bothersome, and also places a lot of unfair expectations upon Asians, like, “Oh, you all are good at math, you’re very organized, you’re very hardworking, you can succeed in this country because you have those Confucian ideals.” Even if it seems positive, it’s based on othering that culture and saying, “You’re enough like us that you can pass.” That’s that model minority myth that I’m trying to deconstruct.
Audience member: Do you feel like that’s why Filipino culture doesn’t have as much representation? Because maybe there’s some internalization of that?
KJ: Possibly. But I think model minority applies more to general Asian, and not even specifically Filipinos. My ideas about Filipino invisibility are more about effects of colonization, and to be told for 400 years that, “We own you, we own your land, we’re better than you, you should strive to be like us,” and that happened, even through the 20th century. When, I think it was Woodrow Wilson who was the president at the time that the Treaty of Paris was happening, one of the addresses that he made to the country was, “The Filipinos are a backward nation, and they need our help to bring them into the 20th century.” So there’s always been this patriarchal and condescending way of viewing Filipinos as other bodies, as primitive bodies, that hasn’t really gone beyond that. It’s been so engrained in our cultural identity that it’s just become the norm. One anecdote that I like to talk about is when I was sixteen, I had dreams of becoming this pop star. I was writing songs, I was collaborating with people. My friends would make beats, they would rap, I would sing. I told my mom, “I’m going to be a famous pop star. It’s going to be great!” And she said, “No! You’re not! Filipinos only work in the background in this country. You’re not going to do that. It’s not going to happen.” And I didn’t understand that, but I did at the same time. It was this harsh truth that was thrust upon me. Since then, I’ve always questioned that idea of Filipinos having to be invisible.
KD: Any last questions?
Audience member: Did you really perform a piece using ramen noodles?
KJ: I have this piece called Oriental Flavor. I fill up a bathtub with hot water and forty packs of ramen noodles, the oriental flavor from ramen noodles, and essentially, I take a bath in it, and I have people… and then there’s sesame oil, there’s ginger oil, some sriracha sauce, and people can pour it on me. I’m just there, like… yeah. That started as a joke, actually, “Oh my god, it would be really funny to fill up a bathtub with ramen noodles,” and so I did it, and it was fun. I’ll probably perform that piece again at the Whitney Bisexual, organized by Rosé Hernandez, a performance artist, and it’s happening at the same time as the Whitney Biennial. It’s kind of a subversion of that.