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intent on being this famous pop star. I had been writing my own songs, and making beats on the computer, and performing everywhere. And in high school, I told my mom that I wanted to be this famous pop star, and she said “No, Filipinos are never in the spotlight. You will always be in the background, backstage. Because that’s just not how we are in this country.” [musical interlude] Nia: Welcome to We Want the Airwaves. My name is Nia King. This interview is the last from my trip to Chicago that I took in July. I talked to Kiam Marcelo Junio, who is a queer Filipino fashion designer. I had the opportunity to go to this really amazing queer performance sort of event when I was in Chicago, called Salon-a-thon. And, the final act was a fashion show put together by Kiam, for his clothing line, which is—so his name is Kiam, K-I-A-M, but his fashion line is Qiam, Q-I-A-M—and I was just really impressed by the energy of the fashion show, and the clothing, and the sort of politics behind it. I think I talked to him on my last day in town, or maybe my second-to-last day in town, but fortunately he had time to talk to me, and we had the conversation you’re about to hear now. So, without further ado, here’s Kiam: [musical interlude] Kiam: I grew up as a military brat for a good part of my life. When I was adopted by my aunt and uncle at the age of 11, I went to live with them in Japan in a military base. So, since then I had been familiarized with American military lifestyle. Nia: So, your uncle was in the military, and your dad was also in the military? Kiam: No, my uncle is my dad. Nia: Oh, okay. Kiam: Yeah. So, what was the question? I’m sorry. Nia: So, it was about the role that your military background had in developing your critique of American imperialism abroad. Kiam: Yeah, so, it grew from that. Mostly from my own personal experience—cause, I mean, as a child I could see these things, but I never really internalized them or really paid much attention. I could see how Americans interacted with the Japanese, and that type of relationship. Nia: Could you describe that relationship, for folks that might not be familiar? Or at least what was remarkable to you about it? Kiam: What was remarkable to me about it was the relation to World War II. It’s a direct effect of World War II that there are American bases— Nia: In Japan.
Kiam: Yes, in Japan. Because the Japanese did surrender, and it was part of the treaty that there would be American presence in Japan. So it’s been in my mind that, you know, this concept of occupying lands to either police people or to enforce influence upon people and a culture—it was always interesting seeing how these two cultures interacted with one another, because they’re very different in many ways. Nia: Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that both the US and Japan had a military presence in the Philippines. Kiam: Yes. Very much so. Nia: And it seems like that’s also part of your critique. Kiam: Yes. Mostly, with the Philippines having been such a contested territory, throughout most of history, really. Before, it was in the indigenous era, there were different tribes, and it was not even really a nation. And then the Spanish came and colonized, and brought Christianity and Roman Catholicism. From then, it was ceded over to American forces, where the Philippines became a US territory, a colonial territory. And then during World War II, Japanese occupation of a lot of the areas. And so, there’s always kind of this outer presence that’s formed Filipino culture, that I find really interesting. On a personal level, it makes it interesting that I can go to a lot of places and feel—I can find a semblance of home because, I feel like it’s relatable. Like, I travelled around Central America after I left the Navy. The first thing I did was travel around Central America and volunteer at different farms and different sites, and it felt like home. It felt like the Philippines. I could see that Spanish influence, and even the weather. Nia: I think what I’m sort of trying to get at is that, in your work, I sense a critique of US imperialism, and militarism, and colonialism. And also, you were part of the US military. So I’m trying to understand how those things inform each other and how that experience and that critique sort of informs you as a person, and also as an artist. Kiam: That’s kind of a statement in itself. These experiences inform one another. These larger power dynamics are reflected in the experience that I went through, and kind of how my own identity was formed. And I feel like, in a way, it’s kind of self-critique in that I’m studying what my experience was, and what that means in a larger context. Because I do feel like, even just my life in itself is kind of a reflection of Filipino history in general. Having grown up both in the city and also in the provinces, and then going to Japan—and I lived in Spain for three and a half years—so it’s kind of all these different forces on my own life, it’s kind of a reflection of my relation to Filipino history in general. With regard to the military power dynamics and colonialism, I’m really still trying to figure that out myself. Nia: Figure out sort of what your stance is on it, or –? Kiam: No, not necessarily. I mean, the stance is fairly set. I mean, I’m critical of it, just on more of the human scale. But I’m also studying it as well, because whether we like it or not, whether it’s to be critiqued or not – and it should be, as anything really should be looked at critically—it is what it is, also. And, I feel like—for me, my goal is to
understand it and to see what the alternatives are. Or, what does it mean that we’re here now, you know what I mean? Nia: I think so. It’s like you’re critical of the forces that are perhaps responsible for your migration, but they also shape who you are and how you got here. Kiam: Exactly, right. And so it’s hard to parse those things out. And it’s hard to say, “this should be” or “this should have been” because that’s not necessarily the case now. I’m more curious about, first of all, what does it look like, that these things have happened. What has shaped the present into being, and what can come after that. Not so much assigning blame as much as figuring out, well then, if my identity is created by these things, is that the end of it, or is there a way for me to, now, create my own identity? Nia: So, sort of like, not can you ever extract yourself from history, but can you be more than the result of these colonial forces? Kiam: Exactly. And that’s what I’m most interested in. Nia: Yeah. That’s a great question. [laughter] I recently did a podcast that’s a little bit different than the ones I usually do—so I am a contributor to an online magazine called Interrupt, and they’re doing an issue on race right now. I interviewed this musician named Safe, not just about his work, but—so, I identify as mixed, he identifies as mulatto. I really hate the word “mulatto”. He really loves it, and so that’s what we were talking about, is our relationship to this word, as people who, both of us, are both black and white. And that was one of the things that came up in the conversation—can we ever be more than the product of our histories? Because the history of racial mixing between blacks and whites in the US is very much the history of slavery, and colonialism, and sexual violence. And so, how do you take pride in your identity when it’s a result of these really fucked up and violent historical… when you are a product of something that’s not pretty. Kiam: Right. And you know, honestly, that’s where kind of my yoga background comes into play. Because for me, yoga is all about being in the present, and really kind of disregarding everything else that’s happened before, or that is supposed to happen. When I practice yoga or when I teach, it’s all about feeling exactly how the body is in space at that very moment, and how each part is moved, and the amount of energy and control that we have over our bodies. So, that comes into play for me on more of a psychological level also, and a conceptual level in art, in that I’m conscious, and of course aware and critical of all these things that have come to be, but it’s also— Nia: —you wouldn’t be here without them. Kiam: Right, yeah. Nia: I can relate to that. [laughter] How do you see yoga as informing your art practice? Kiam: It allows me to be in my body, and really aware of, like I said, my body in space. I feel like, you asked me earlier what medium I use most, or what kind of artist I identify myself as. And I say that I’m largely a performer, because even just living in itself is a
performance. You know, performance art is built in with historical context and so it’s kind of the intersection of history and the present time, the presence of the body in space at that very moment. So, for me yoga is very much about that. And not just in the practicing of the postures, but also philosophically, yoga is also about integrating the body, the mind, and the spirit. Nia: And you feel that you also do that through performance? Kiam: I do. I try to channel that type of energy, and that awareness. Nia: I think it’s interesting when you say that “breathing is performance,” cause it’s bringing to mind a lot of stuff for me. Someone that I was in my thesis class with did their thesis on black drag performance, and was talking about the surveillance of black bodies in public, and how basically being black, you’re always on stage because you’re always being surveilled. And then I’m also thinking of the CeeLo Green lyric where he’s like “I’m on stage as soon as I step out of the house/I might as well give them something to talk about.” So I guess I’m interested in like—if a straight white man breathes in a forest, is it still a performance? [laughter] Or is it because being a queer person of color —and you can disagree with this—you’re kind of made a spectacle of regardless of what you’re doing, and that makes breathing performance? Kiam: I feel like both of those are correct, in different contexts of course. Because I do validate and value each person as an individual in that one person, no matter who they are, if I say breathing is performance, they’re breathing, they’re also performing. Regardless of who they are, the types of privileges they have, or their own socialization. So, that’s on a human level. But, also of course on a larger social scale when we bring in power dynamics, and of course, like you were saying, black bodies are more highly observed, more criticized, especially in this country. Even growing up in the Philippines, there’s also a lot of stigma and kind of racism with skin tone. Which is of course a result of colonialism. You know, skin whitening powders and creams and all that. What was I saying? Nia: We’re talking about bodies of color being spectacles in public, and queer bodies. Kiam: Yes, very much so. Because it is the non-normal. It’s the not-invisible. It’s the— Nia: Hyper-visible, I would say. Kiam: Right, exactly. Hyper-visible is the thing, yeah. I was thinking also while you were saying that, how, in my own critique, Asian bodies are—in comparison to, say, black bodies—I feel like Asian bodies are more invisible, actually. And more, kind of, either exoticitized or exotified or in the background, and kind of—not even really seen. And so that’s kind of the critique that I’m coming in with as well, because there was this time when I was in high school, I was kind of really intent on being this famous pop star. I had been writing my own songs, and making beats on the computer, and performing everywhere. I’ve been singing since I was, what is it, 5 or 6? My first public performance was in my kindergarten graduation, I did a solo song. So, I’ve been singing since then, performing in front of people. And in high school, I told my mom that I wanted to be this famous pop star, and she said “No, Filipinos are never in the spotlight. You will
always be in the background, backstage. Because that’s just not how we are in this country.” Nia: This country, at that time, being—you were in Japan? Kiam: We were in Japan, but she really meant, like, America. And that has always kind of stuck with me. And not faulting her, really, because that was her own socialization, that was her reality. But since then, I’ve been really critical and hyper-aware of the invisibility of, specifically, Filipinos. Because Filipinos are the second-largest Asian population in the US, and yet, there are hardly any Filipino restaurants, we have basically zero representation in the media, and I’ve always wondered, why is that, why is it that we kind of just disappear into the background of people’s consciousness, when we are so populous? We are in every part of industry. We basically, like, run the food service in the military. Filipinos are in every single cruise ship. We’re everywhere. And yet, we’re nowhere to be seen. And so, for me, performance, when I talk about performance and taking up space and being in public, I’m always coming with that background in mind, and a challenge to that. And claiming space, claiming attention, and kind of claiming my own humanity and presence in that space at that time. Nia: And so you feel that being Filipino on stage is a political act, and that you’re showing that “I am here.” Kiam: Very much so. Yeah, and in fact, we were talking about my video “Nostalgia.” That is actually a two-part piece. There is the video itself, which is a collage of different pop-cultural events and political events that happened in the Philippines between 19851995. Kind of, this timeframe that everyone’s a little bit obsessed with right now. Maybe a little bit of a larger scope than that. Nia: Obsessed in the States, or in the Philippines, or both? Kiam: In the US, specifically. Because my reference now is the United States pop culture. So, I wanted to show a sampling of a similar aesthetic—you can tell that the videos are dated, just by the sound quality, and the fashion, and the sound of the music. So, I wanted viewers seeing that video, to feel this strange disconnect between something being really familiar, but then completely foreign at the same time. So, that video piece is that in itself. But then, when it’s accompanied by the performance by Jerry Blossom, it’s set up so that people are watching this video, and then Jerry Blossom’s in the audience, usually as the only Filipino there, who gets what’s happening or what’s being displayed on-screen. And Jerry gets really excited, and starts talking about the video in Tagalog, talking about “Oh, I remember that!” and trying to get people into it like “hey, remember this?” like “Oh, isn’t that the great song?” like “Oh, I love Imelda Marcos, she’s got so many shoes.” [laughter] Nia: [laughter] So it’s kind of like an inside joke. Like, you’ve created something that has nostalgic value only for you, because you’re the only person that understands it. Kiam: Exactly, exactly. Yes. And so what it does is it kind of, when I’ve talked about this to people who’ve seen the performance, it creates this strange disconnect where on one hand, Jerry Blossom becomes kind of exotified in that like “Oh, look at this foreign
person speaking,” there’s the visual impact of that. And then there’s also the disconnect of trying to be a part of that art piece, and yet feeling that they can’t go there. Nia: Yeah. It kind of makes the audience the “foreigner”, because they’re the one that doesn’t understand what they’re looking at. Kiam: Exactly, yes. So, that’s what that is. And then in the video, there’s a very small clip from a Mariah Carey video— Nia: —I saw that. Kiam: Yeah, so, my intent with that was to show that the Philippines was not a bubble in itself. We had a lot of American pop culture influence. And even that was just as much part of our development in that time as anything else. And that also kind of gives the audience just that little, brief kind of respite—like, “that’s something I’m familiar with.” Nia: Yeah. It’s like this brief moment of something you can hold onto that’s familiar, and then it’s right back to the stuff that you don’t understand. Kiam: Right. So, that’s kind of how I try to operate with my performance in general, is giving viewers an access point, but then keeping it personal also, and in the personal is the political. Nia: Yeah. When we were eating before, I talked about my interest in whether artists choose to let their audiences in, or shut their audiences out, and you just described an example of a time when shutting your audience out was a very intentional political act. Kiam: Yes. Nia: Do you feel in general like your desire for your work is to be accessible and understood, or how much does it matter to you that your audience gets what you’re trying to do or say with your pieces? Kiam: I feel it is very important, but I also try to honor different people from different access points. Because it’s a different conversation when I’m showing pieces to an art audience who are familiar with references or history or, you know, what does it mean to use mirrors in an art piece, versus just someone coming in and seeing a visual impact of something. So, I try to go about it in that people have different access to it, and then giving them enough information that if they want to learn more, that information is there and it’s accessible, and can be learned. I never try—maybe it’s part of my Asian upbringing, I don’t know—but, you know, not pushing, not shoving the intent to people. But rather saying, it’s available if you want it. Nia: So, it sounds like in your work there’s something for everyone. There are things that maybe an art audience will have a better appreciation or understanding for than a non-art audience, and things that a queer audience of color will be able to take away from it that maybe a white or a straight audience won’t necessarily get the same meaning out of.
Kiam: Exactly, and maybe I’d even want to say—not necessarily kind of hierarchical access points, but different depths. Because I really believe that everyone kind of looks for their reflection in other people, and that’s why I love using mirrors in my artwork. My theory is that we always look at things or look at people to see what we see of ourselves reflected back. And the more that we have in common, the more we are united with people and the more we understand, the deeper that experience is. So, of course I have a much closer affinity and a more loving energy towards other queer people of color because we do share more of that experience together. Which actually is segueing kind of into my fashion line, Qiam, with a Q. I put in my statement that I put priority on local queer people of color. That’s who I really want to get my clothes into because, for me, the way that the clothing line is going to operate is: they’re all hand-made—well, not hand-stitched necessarily, but hand-made—so, it’s hand-made for each person, and it’s kind of made to order. Because I’m trying to have this dialogue and this transference of energy. Like, this, I’m creating this for you, I’m performing this labor for you, each of these stitches is for this person. Nia: It seems like that would make the clothing a lot more expensive, if it’s custommade for each individual. Kiam: I haven’t quite decided on the pricing yet. But here’s another thing, too, is that I’m working at making the clothing line—I’m trying to make it sustainable for me, of course, I’m trying to pay my rent and eat—but I’m also welcoming different forms of payment, like skillsharing, gift exchange, trading something else, where both parties can feel that they’re benefitting something. Nia: Yeah. So, if you’re focused on having your consumer base be local, does that mean the clothes will not be available to purchase online? Kiam: Not necessarily. Because that’s where it’s kind of different, in that I welcome both modes of production. I do have patterns that I use to make a bunch of clothing if I need to, and that can be made available for a wider release. But then, I’m also welcoming the experience of talking to each individual and serving what they—say, which tank top they like, and making that with them in mind. Each item ofclothing is hand-made with the intention of honoring individual bodies. It’s kind of an alternative to fast fashion, which is inherently capitalistic, and colonialist, and binary-based. Nia: Can you explain “fast fashion” for folks that might not be familiar with the concept? Kiam: Fast fashion is really anything that you can find at a department store. Anything that has multiples that are exactly the same thing—things like H&M, Urban Outfitters, all the fashion outlets, really. Also, the way that they’re produced is very much mechanized, and using human labor as machinery, essentially. The way I understand fashion production to work—there’s one worker doing one specific stitch at a time, and then it moves onto the next one— Nia: Like an assembly line.
Kiam: Yeah. It’s an assembly line. And so my goal with my brand is to not have that mechanized production, but rather having the intention of making each piece one at a time, and in a way kind representing all of those people who are part of making that same garment, kind of embodying them all in the creation of this one piece. So, in the same way that there’s fast food, and there’s a chef-created gourmet dish. I consider my clothing to be like a gourmet dish, in a way. Nia: Nice. Kiam: Yeah. It’s done with intention and with awareness of the type of body or the type of experience of the person who’s going to wear it. Nia: Is there anything that you’d like to talk about that we didn’t get a chance to, or anything that you want to plug? Kiam: I do welcome, of course, people from all over the country or wherever to check out my work, and if they’re interested in purchasing a tank top—or, actually I’m making not just tank tops, jock straps, and different accessories. My tagline is “fashion tops, bottoms, and versatile accessories.” And also, with the jock straps, what I’m doing is, I’m making two models for different people. There’s one with a pouch, and then there’s one with a triangular swatch of fabric. So, anyone can purchase one. Nia: Okay, this might be a stupid question, but what makes it a jock strap if it doesn’t have a pouch? Kiam: The form of it. It’s an elastic, and then the two elastic bands that wrap around the butt. Nia: Ohhh, okay. I don’t know a lot about jock straps. So, why jock straps and tank tops? Kiam: Tank tops, I feel, are one of the most basic articles of clothing. Because it can be unisex. It’s a very basic form. It can translate—it’s such a versatile garment. You can layer it over or under things, you can wear it by itself. So, just as a piece in itself, it’s one of the most viable articles of clothing. Jock straps, mainly because it uses a smaller piece of fabric, so I can use the scraps of the tank tops. Nia: Okay. So you could have a matching tank top and jock strap. Kiam: Yeah, you can. [laughter] And, they’re sexy! [laughter] They really are. They’re also just really simple pieces of clothing—three pieces of elastic and a swatch of fabric, that’s all it is. So, I just appreciate the simplicity and the sexiness in it. And also, jock straps are historically for athletic use. And I feel like they’re athletic or now, sexual use. Nia: I’m sorry, I don’t actually know what you’re talking about. [laughter] Kiam: Okay. Well, jock straps—[laughter] Nia: I’m going to get some sex education right now. [laughter]
Kiam: Well, jock straps have the elastic band, and then the piece of fabric that covers the junk, and then the two pieces of elastic, just over on the side of the butt area. So it really highlights the butt. Nia: Okay. [laughter] Kiam: So it’s really aesthetically pleasing in that way. [laughter] Nia: Okay. Got it [laughter] Kiam: You know, and also people use it in sexual play— Nia: Like a harness? Kiam: They can. They can totally just, like grab it, and use it as a— Nia: [laughter] I’m really embarrassed at how much I don’t know right now. Kiam: No, totally, it’s fine. So it’s actually really common in gay culture to see jock straps. It’s one of the things, like, everybody has a jock strap. Well, maybe not everybody, but, you know, it’s normalized in gay culture, especially gay porn, gay sexual culture. And I know some of my trans friends who are interested in that, and I thought it was unfair that all jock straps have the pouch, like that they inherently make this shape where things are supposed to be. Nia: [laughter] It’s funny, you’re doing a lot with your hands right now, people won’t be able to see it. But they probably know better than I do what a jock strap looks like. And if not, they can Google it. [laughter] Kiam: And so, I actually saw some videos of trans guys wearing jock straps, and seeing that it’s not made for that—and so I wanted to honor that experience. Nia: You were like “I can do this better, I can fix this problem.” Kiam: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, if someone wants to wear a jock strap, why shouldn’t they? And so that’s why I’m making them for different audiences. Nia: Yeah. That’s awesome. So, if people are interested in learning more about your work, they should go to iamkiam, with a K, .com, or iamkiam, with a K, .tumblr.com. Kiam: Yes. I have multiple websites. I’m thinking I’ll probably just have one central one where people can go into what they’re interested in—I have my photography website, I have my yoga website, I have my fashion website, I have my blog, and I have my art website also. Nia: I have that problem, too. I have, like, five tumblrs and then another website, and it’s like—there’s got to be a better way to do this. Kiam: Exactly. So, you know, multiple access points, multiple intentions. Whatever you’re interested in, I’m here, and there’s a direction.