A Conversation with Creatrix Tiara
Interview by Cher Tan
Creatrix Tiara works with creative arts and media, technology, games, community cultural development, and education. Currently she’s interested in exploring the ways that arts can be used to convey and support experiences of transience and flux, while also building empathy and understanding for experiences and stories outside one's own.
Cher spoke to Tiara about what it means to be a jack-of-all-trades, using games to appeal to empathy, and decolonisation politics as experienced by People of Colour born outside of the west.
You're a lot of things: performer, activist, designer, and more. How did it all begin, and how did you get to this point?
I have a life philosophy of ‘signing up for anything that looks interesting’. There’s just so much out there that’s so interesting and fascinating and I want to give it all a shot—especially if it seems out of character for me.
That was actually how I first got into performance art! After university, I got cast in my first ever theatre role: the lesbian dominatrix in The Vagina Monologues. I thought I’d take some burlesque classes to figure out how to get into character. I’d been curious about burlesque for some time, but at that point I thought I was going to leave Australia to return to Malaysia and figured I might as well do something naughty before I went back.
Instead, I ended up loving the form so much that I stayed in Australia and started trying out for other opportunities while building a career; one thing snowballed into another and almost a decade later I now have an MFA (which I never thought I’d do) and an international career that’s dotted with some controversy because I’m a very outspoken brown woman in a white-centric scene, but also a lot of very interesting experiences, some of which I couldn’t have dreamed of before.
What about writing, and games?
Growing up, I lived in a city where there weren’t really a lot of options for someone who was creative, but I’ve always had a deep need to express myself. I started writing very early on, and was a very voracious reader. The Internet came to my hometown when I was nine, and that was a huge boon; I could publish online, find communities of friends and readers worldwide, experiment as much as I like. This became especially important when my family moved somewhere more isolated; I had no neighbours and no easy access to anything except shopping. Writing was my only creative and social outlet.
Games I got into by accident; I’d long wanted to make a game but didn’t know how. In 2015 I mentioned wanting to make a game and a friend told me about a game jam (an event where a group of strangers form groups and work on games within a tight timeframe of around 48 to 72 hours) run by a group she was involved with called GaymerX, who host LGBTQ-centered games conventions in the US. I went there and made a pitch for a version of acclaimed indie game Papers, Please from the point of view of the immigrant, because I was tired of playing a game where I had to sympathise with the immigration agent.
That game, Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers, was a bunch of really annoying mini puzzles that demonstrated the frustration of the visa process. To my surprise, despite having spoken about immigration a billion times in many different forms, that game was the first time I’d seen a visceral response. That was when I became much more interested in games and interactive art, and their potential for them to build empathy and understanding in a way that can be hard to achieve through mediums such as writing or performance.
Where do you see all these professions intersect to form a more cogent whole?
From the outside it seems like I’m all over the place, but there's an internal logic to almost everything I do: they’re all ways for me to explore or express something that’s important or interesting to me, even if that importance is momentary. I function best with variety, and the projects I do all actually benefit each other—they give new perspectives and open up new opportunities that just focusing on the one thing wouldn’t do.
Most of my work is connected to my identity and experiences as a queer immigrant gender-non-conforming woman of colour with mental health issues, but I also don’t really want to be stuck in just Talking About Racism or Talking About Sexism. I call myself a ‘platypus'—made up of parts that don’t always go together, to the point that people think I’m a myth. Exposing the ways that those discordant parts exist is important to me: here I am, I do exist, and I’m probably not the only weirdo in this situation so I’d like to connect to people who can understand. Liminality is the only constant thing about me.
In what ways do you see the technology that you work with subverting the dominant paradigm, especially seeing how power is concentrated in these realms? How would you use tech to amplify marginalised narratives?
I feel like technology takes on the shape of the people that use it—it’s not necessarily inherently any one way or another, it’s all in how people make use of them. So far those fields are dominated by the same kind of demographics that dominate almost everything else, but there’s a lot of possibility for marginalised narratives to take charge of those mediums and do what they want with them.
From my experience with games, I think there is a real opportunity to present a kind of first-person view of the experiences of marginalised people in a way that can be embodied by others. Looking through the eyes of the Other (so to speak), or an almost literal take on ‘walking a mile in their shoes’, in a more active and almost more tangible way. It doesn’t have to be a 100% super accurate rendering either—for example, with Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers, if I made my game to be literally filling in a bunch of forms, you’d get the tedium, but you wouldn't really be invested in it. The game made elements of the visa process more abstract, but those abstractions—slow lagging items, invisible walls—evoke particular emotions and thoughts that can represent aspects of the real-life experience in a way that bypasses expectations.
That kind of expectation-bypassing can be a really powerful way to get people to understand something about an experience they don’t normally share without getting stuck in preconceived notions. You’re starting to play a game about X, but the process of X makes you think about Y in a way you don’t expect.
You've just received a Melbourne Fringe mentorship with the Women's Circus to embark on a new project: Creatrix Tiara: Queer Lady Magician. Can you speak more to that?
So my first childhood passion was stage magic: I got magic kits and books as presents, and one of the first big stage shows I attended was David Copperfield. As a teenager I tried to put on a magic show at school, but it went poorly, and between being raised in a ‘if you fail once you should never try again’ culture and not really having any motivation or support to keep going, I just dropped it. I flirted with magic again occasionally, especially as I was developing my performance work, but never really took the idea seriously.
In the past year I started talking more openly about this and how I’d been idly considering getting back to it, especially if I put in my usual political-social-justice commentary style into the mix. To my surprise, I got an incredibly enthusiastic response, especially from people who'd never seen a magician who wasn’t a straight, cisgendered white guy and were really into the idea of a queer lady magician. It appeared that I wasn’t the only person who was into that, given how quickly everything came together. I applied to the Women’s Circus Fringe mentorship on a whim, because I thought that having a goal would give me some direction in my magic exploration. I didn’t think I’d get it! They were very interested in a queer feminist take on an old art form and, like me, they wanted to know what would happen if you queered up magic even just a little.
What has the process been like so far?
After celebrating for a couple of days, I went into a spiral of major impostor syndrome. It was like all of my neuroses were being set off at once. I decided then that the feeling of impostor syndrome would actually be the underlying theme of the show. There will still be some social justice commentary, as always with my work—gendered dichotomies, Orientalism... the show is also deeply personal: about my history with magic, my failures, my inspirations, even darker parts of my past such as the abusive people in my life who’ve given me a fear and distaste for charisma and manipulation—two elements that can be so important in stage magic! In some way this project is very cathartic.
This project is the first time I’m working with a team for a project that’s of my creation and direction, and their support and enthusiasm is both super lovely and super intimidating! I’ve never really been able to be this ambitious before because I didn’t have access to the same sort of resources as I do now. For most of my creative life in Australia I was on a bridging visa, which meant having no access to grants or funded opportunities and hardly ever any access to jobs, which meant I was only ever able to do small self-funded projects.
In a piece titled 'Decolonisation and Alienation: Why I Find My Peers' Politics Unrelatable', you point out that the decolonisation politics that western-born POC engage in cannot be applied across the board, especially for POC born and raised outside of the west. How do you think first-generation and second/multi-generation POC, as well as First Nations folk, can work together to form a better understanding of each other's struggles and create a sense of solidarity that feels less disparate?
There’s this idea especially amongst western POC that there are only two kinds of POC that exist: people who are born and raised in The Homelands who are of that country's dominant race and therefore never experience racism, or POC born and raised in the White West (or at least moved there as babies) who grew up in a fully white, western culture. Those of us in the diaspora elsewhere, like my family (my parents and sister moved from Bangladesh to Malaysia in the 70s)—those of us who are racial minorities in our own countries, or those of us who are adult migrants—don’t really figure into these categories. Our own experiences of racism, racial dynamics and marginalisation are ignored, especially when they complicate the often-romanticised notion of The Homeland that westerners have.
Also, I don't think the whole ‘x-generation’ thing is all that useful. I’m likely to never have kids: what does it mean to be ‘first generation Australian’ when I’m not even properly Australian, may never be, and may be the last of my line here? Or, my parents moved to Malaysia but both of their kids moved out of Malaysia—how does ‘first generation Malaysian’ work in their case when the ‘second’ generation has left? Hell, Bangladesh as a country didn’t even exist until 1972, just 2 years before my sister was born. The country my people are from has changed hands at least twice just within my parents’ time. How many generations ‘Bangladeshi’ would they be had they stayed? Would they revert to some-generation Bangladeshi if they decide to move back now?
There's definitely a lot of demand being placed on non-western POC to be accommodating. We supposedly never have to deal with racism (which is utterly false) so we should be more sympathetic to westerners who always grew up with racism. We’re the ones who should be more understanding of your ‘struggles’, yet ours go unheard or disrespected. We give all our energy into signal-boosting campaigns and efforts, but it’s never reciprocated. Even things like talking about POC representation in universities but never actually engaging with international students just because they haven’t signed up to join the university lefty party. Western POC should really do more to reach out to the rest of us—not in an objectifying way but actually engage with us, especially those of us who are alienated by the Homeland. Get to know us for who we are, not as caricatures. Be of service to us, help us out, put our needs at least on par with yours if not first.
I have complicated thoughts about how POC from different regions—especially those from regions where the idea of ‘people of colour’ as a separate entity doesn’t really make sense—interact with First Nations people. The romanticisation and homogenisation of The Homelands creates an impression that almost everyone there are indigenous of those homelands, instead of products of their own history of migration and colonisation, and the struggles of the actual indigenous peoples over there often go unnoticed. Furthermore, there isn’t a lot of discussion about how settler migration itself is often a symptom of colonisation: we move to seek the promised ‘better life’ because colonisation left our countries with few resources, or we’re being accused of being ‘western colonial agents’ in our home countries (a common accusation against LGBTQ people in Asia at the moment) and so move where we’re told we’d belong. Being able to share our cultural contexts and histories in an unromanticised honest manner would go a long way—it’s hard to understand others when you don’t know the truth of the situation.
Do you have any advice for emerging multi-disciplinary artists and activists?
Do something that seems out of character. You might find that it’s really not your bag, which is fair enough. But you might also find that there is something about that experience that actually connects with you. Maybe you find that the thing you’re doing is actually more enjoyable than you thought. Or you meet people you click with and become friends. Or you learn about something else that intrigues you. Maybe your preconceived notions about a topic have become more nuanced.
At the very least, you got to know about a world and its people that you wouldn’t have necessarily known anything about otherwise. You learned something that you can now apply to your own art or activism that makes it more interesting and relevant. Many of us sometimes get caught up in our own little bubbles, even if the bubbles seem ‘diverse’; breaking out of them can actually be really refreshing.
Who inspires you?
Mama Alto’s whole Fairy Godmother energy is deeply inspiring to me. She’s like Oprah but more queer and more accessible! Speaking of Oprah—I grew up watching her show and she has been quite an influence on my interest in changing the world through media. I’m always and forever a fan of Darren Hayes: his songs have meant a lot to me since the early days of Savage Garden and he’s a large reason I do any kind of performance. I was part of Taylor Mac’s 24 Decade History of Popular Music last year at Melbourne Festival and judy’s show was so many of my maximalist artistic director dreams—vibrant, super ambitious, very interactive, political, queer, pushed the limits. I hope I can do something anywhere near that epic one day.
What are you currently listening to?
I got into a bit of a Toto Coelo rabbithole recently—I Eat Cannibals is glorious eighties ridiculousness and they’re so intense and really into it! Otherwise I mainly listen to my Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify, which currently is a mix of Southern Gothic, femme fatale, and contemporary versions of (more!) glorious eighties ridiculousness. I also have a fondness for the sort of music you can only really find on the Internet: funny mashups, 8-bit medleys, weird remixes like ‘500 Miles but every other beat’.
What are you currently reading?
Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer, which is all about the history of notable magical stage illusions and also about the history of stage magicians such as Harry Houdini.
How do you practice self-care?
Hahaha! Well, more seriously, I spend time with people I care about. I’m an extrovert, though one with a lot of social anxiety so I find initiating contact difficult, but when people choose to hang out with me that’s great! I can be kind of an open book online that actually helps especially when I’m in dire straits—it’s often the acquaintances that end up being the most helpful.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
Well I’m barely Asian—in that I was born and bred in Asia of Asian parents and hold citizenship of an Asian country, but by their standards I’m super ‘westernised’ mainly because I’m queer, outspoken and have no desire for a traditional career and family path. And while I’m in Australia now and have been on and off in this country for the last 12 years, I don’t know if I count as ‘Australian’ because I’m not officially a citizen (and may never be at the rate the Immigration Department is going) and didn’t really grow up here. At what point do you feel like you belong to a particular country, a particular continent? What happens if they reject you? What if you can only interact with your ‘home’ as an outsider, an Other?
I don’t know what being Asian-Australian means to me because I’m not sure that it does mean anything to me. I can only really claim half of that title and it’s a half that keeps trying to reject me. I’ll leave you to decide which half I’m referring to.
Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s 2017 VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.