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Interview with an Alien Superstar

Updated: May 3

Art Fart talks to Machine Dazzle.

Photo by Enrique Pastor

I am fully convinced that Machine Dazzle is an alien. Her planet, somewhere out there in the bizarre and mysterious universe beyond the Milky Way, is, one can only assume, full of dollar stores peddling cheap sparkly plastic that other aliens buy for a single use then throw away, as well as craft stores, party stores — stores, stores, stores! — that all essentially do the same thing, causing this poor, faraway alien planet to be packed to the gills with glorious, beautiful trash, heaps of it! A hoarder’s dream! All the aliens rolling around in trash, eating trash, making their clothes out of trash…

Wait. Crap. I just realized I’ve described planet Earth.

So I guess Machine Dazzle is, in fact, not an alien, so sue me. You wouldn’t blame me for being confused: the exuberant drag artist’s eye-popping show at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City, called “Queer Maximalism”, is aptly named, though it pushes even beyond its own labels, going beyond ‘queer’, beyond ‘maximalism’, and transports the viewer to, well, another galaxy entirely. It is full of clothes — if you can call them that — that are made of all sorts of things, a compendium of garbage, objects large and small that are recognizable upon close inspection: colored paper, pom-poms (both the soft little round craft-store kind and the cheerleader kind), balloons, silverware, corks, wax fruit — but combine to make an effervescent saturnalia similar to Daniel Lismore or even Nick Cave, where clothes become costumes become emanations of an expression of cosmic chaos, a simultaneous ode and elegy to the harrowing Anthropocene that produces planetary disruption for the sweet thrill of a sparkly plastic moment. Imagine that plastic digested, regurgitated, and re-interpreted as brilliant bodily imagery by a drag queen who is allegedly from planet Earth, and you’ll have a slice of an idea of what fuels Machine Dazzle.

Photo by Jenna Bascom

Fashion exhibits are a funny thing. Usually one is encouraged to admire, in some purely voyeuristic capacity, the craftsmanship of the clothing. The onanistic insider knowledge required to appreciate said craftsmanship aside, the museum fashion exhibit is prone to a significant disconnect, in my opinion, since such sartorial quality can really only be appreciated from living one’s life in the clothes for several years. Machine Dazzle, however, has created a spectacle that bucks at the stasis of the mannequins (one piece features airplane propellers that are actually whirling) — you feel as though you’ve walked in on a party that the mannequins will resume as soon as you leave, Twilight Zone style. Some of the costumes are so elaborate that you might feel inclined to imagine they’ve never experienced real motion — not to worry, the exhibit provides televised examples of the costumes in various states of dance, performance, and strut for which they were created. Clothing is made to live your life in, costume, on the other hand, was made to dazzle, which is partly why these incredible pieces are able to exist on their own in the way that clothing, haute couture or not, just can’t. 

While I was interviewing Ms. Dazzle we were interrupted several times in her studio in the museum, which was jam packed with outfits, outfits, outfits, as well as a sewing machine and jewelry-making table tucked in the back. One of her visitors, an old acquaintance she’d met some time ago at one event or another, asked a very New Yorker question: “Where do you store it all?” Machine laughed and let her face fall into her hands, “God, I hate that question!” (She eventually revealed that the theatre company she works with provides a storage facility—whew!). This question, however, stuck with me, and after our conversation I couldn’t help but continue to ponder the aspect of space in her work — for these costumes take up space. Occupying physical space is a fundamental quality of living in this dimension and on this planet, and one that is becoming increasingly fraught lately. Even the word “space” has taken on a kind of saccharine liberal sheen, “thank you for making space for that,” “safe space,” “claiming space,” or describing a room as a “space” instead of simply as a room. It’s rather obnoxious after a while, but something is at work under the surface of all this space talk. I’ve heard the argument that once the colonial project ran out of claiming land (the ultimate space), the modern territory to conquer and claim is human attention. Essentially, the argument goes, the new colonial territory is your psyche. What does that space look like? How do we claim it? How do we keep our attention from being claimed without our consent? Are we all trying to conquer each other for a slice of attention? Is this the point of fame?

Clothing and the industry that surround it are intimately connected to this economy of attention, and the disposability of much of what is being produced seems to be almost a major part of what Machine Dazzle is responding to: here is disposal as raucous, glorious rebirth. She’s taken the inevitable waste that is a constant, painful, and unstoppable part of late stage capitalism and made it into a loud, ironic, jangling parade of wonder. Trash is treasure, treasure is trash, and objects occupy space one way or the other: how you allow things to blend in your psyche, after all, is not only up to you, it’s how art is made. If the idea is to grab and conquer attention, then you might as well do it with flair, baby. We are all drowning in the amount of crap we buy, the amount of crap that is thrust upon us, the crap we are constantly surrounded by — the nature of our current moment is about what to do with all this stuff, and Machine Dazzle offers an example of what to do: wear it, own it, flaunt it, make it dazzle.

Photo by Jenna Bascom


I first met Ms. Dazzle at a film screening in the MAD museum’s basement, where she was showing The Eyes of Lara Mars (1978), starring Faye Dunaway, the week before Halloween. On-theme outfits were encouraged, and Ms. Dazzle had audience members who showed up in the dress prompt (per the email: “trashy 70s lingerie and fur coats”) reenact a pivotal scene that was actually filmed right outside the museum in Columbus Circle (so meta! hot hot meta!). In the scene, the Faye Dunaway character, Lara Mars, who is a famous fashion photographer in the film, takes provocative pictures of models fighting with each other bedecked in lingerie and furs and full glam makeup in front of a scene of wrecked cars in flames below the Columbus obelisk. For Machine Dazzle’s version, wooden car cutouts and red, orange, and yellow scarves representing fire were held and waved around by non-dressed audience members as those in their lingerie and fur, including Machine Dazzle, were encouraged to do hand-to-hand combat, pulling hair and making faces, just as the models had done in the film. Photos were taken, naturally, and candy was served.

After a little bit of pugilistic fashion whimsy, I caught up with Machine Dazzle and we talked all things fame, her connection to the alien characters on Star Trek (tracks!), and how she feels about her supposed home planet, Mother Earth.

Tell me about your work.

I’m Machine Dazzle and I describe myself as an emotionally driven, instinct-based concept artist trapped in the role of costume designer most of the time. I generally am working through something when I’m making something, I have a reason to make it, I don’t make products that are for sale, I make things for specific events and moments — that seems to be what I’m really good at. My costumes have a lot of stories, there are a lot of ideas, like Taylor Mac for instance, he’s wearing like a hundred ideas in one costume — well, not always a hundred, sometimes there’s only two or three, but maybe they’re big stories. I like things that are layered. I like details. In terms of costume, when I went to university I studied art in general, and then the rest of the curriculum in Boulder, Colorado, but I never studied theatre, I never studied music, I never studied costume design, I never studied fashion design, so I’m self-taught in that way. What I do is I fit things onto the body in very makeshift and DIY ways. I’m not a tailor. I make fun, beautiful things, but it’s almost like I make large body accessories. My friend Julia, a muse of mine, once said, ‘You make dresses that are basically large necklaces.’ Who knows? I call it costume, I call it art, I call it a moment. 

Our first theme is ‘fame’, by the way.

Are you going to live forever?

Ha! Maybe! Now you and I met when you screened The Eyes of Lara Mars, which deals with the dark side of fame and celebrity. Here’s a question for ya: does real celebrity even exist anymore?

To me, a celebrity is someone who is important in a particular community, or multiple communities. Do I want to say that? It’s an unusual question. Because of course people are famous. Who’s famous? Kanye West is famous. He’s famous for catchy songs and being really politically incorrect, and being really loud and obnoxious. I’m worried I might start contradicting myself but I’m working through this question.

It’s weird! Once you start thinking about ‘fame’ — I’ve been reading about it and it’s just like such a strange concept especially now, because it’s been so democratized, it’s just a really strange thing to start wrapping your head around like, ‘what is fame?’ 

Photo by Dusty Rebel

I think it might change person to person and group to group, but I do think fame exists because famous means it’s a very known thing, a well-known thing, person, place or event — oh, that was a famous uprising in 1969 at Stonewall, for example. Marcia P. Johnson is famous, fabled and famous. 

Do you think of yourself as being famous?

I have been called famous, but I know that I am only famous in certain circles. If you’re aware of theatre in New York, you have probably heard of me, a lot of downtown people know me, especially the longer they’ve been in New York, the more likely they are, a lot of the newer kids I don’t think they know me, like if you’re 20-something, maybe you don’t know me unless you’ve been to a Taylor Mac show. 

That’s one of the things about fame, it sort of connects us, and then you meet these younger people who don’t know the things you know about and it’s frustrating.

Exactly. You know, I’m going to be thinking about this question long after this and I’m going to call you and be like, ‘Now about the f word.’ You know, Fame is a movie.

I still haven’t sat down and watched it.

I feel a little famous at the moment because of this show. My life has gotten a little messy because of fame! I have strangers coming in and out of the exhibit and they’re taking pictures and having a great time and they have all these amazing things to say and then they post it on Social Media and tag me and I’m like, ‘Thank you! I don’t

know who you are, I may never meet you, but thank you for taking the time.’ And that feels good, that makes me feel famous.

The Dazzle Dancers

That feels like almost the point of Social Media in a way at some point, it just drives this thrill of running after fame. On that note: how do you think a costume creates glamour?

Glamour is both sensation and aesthetic. I think that glamour — that’s another weird word. I think it’s all about the moment. They say the same thing about camp. It’s something that happens in the moment, and to discuss it is almost to negate it in a way. Glamour just happens in moments. I think a costume can help you feel glamorous and make you look glamorous. You have to define glamour for yourself, I would say. It’s just another weird word, you’re tripping me up with all these weird words!

Welcome to my brain! But I feel like I understand, to a certain extent, the power of costume and the way it can transform you into something else. 

It is transformative, and that’s what I’m interested in. My favorite word is ‘transform,’ to change shapes. I love that. Costume plays a major role in that. And they can be glamorous! And they can make you famous!

Exactly! Or make you feel famous! You said that you don’t make products, and I love that anti-capitalist thinking which is just so f*cking rare anymore, it’s crazy!

And people will bark back, ‘Well, how do you make money?’ And I’m like ‘Well, when you buy a ticket to the theatre.’ The relationship between artist and patron is probably one of the oldest relationships in the world. Artists need people with money. They need support. That’s how artists make it, especially in this country. I have so many friends who have moved to Europe because they’re more supported as an artist in London or Berlin or wherever they are. The culture is in place where they just value art more. Europe values art, America values commerce.

This is reminding me of The Cockettes documentary, which I just saw the other day.

Welcome to the family! I’m so happy you discovered them, they’re like one of my huge inspirations. 

I could tell!

It’s like some of the best drag you’ll ever see, and some of the most inventive, interesting, whimsical costumes like, ever.

Have you seen the documentary?

Yeah. I’ve met them!

But then there’s the upstate ones, the Radical Fairies. 

I feel like I’m a Radical Fairy by association. I don’t go to rituals or the sanctuaries, but I know a lot of people at Camp Destiny and Short Mountain. There’s one in New Mexico. There’s one just north of San Francisco. It’s kind of pagan, it’s like queer people in the woods and there’s community, there’s psychedelics but there is ritual, there’s pagan-ness. In Short Mountain they do the Maypole and when the moon is rising they come out and masturbate into the mud pit and you know, there’s other forms, there’s a lot pagan ritual involving sex, there’s hallucinogens. 

The other editors and I constantly reference Koyaanisqatsi, and it was such a huge moment when I looked up the director you worked with in the exhibition, Godfrey Reggio.

He’s very interesting. I could share something with you: his studio in Santa Fe is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Memories everywhere. Written down words, sketches, important objects, everything. It’s almost like it was a living installation of thought, but put into the physical realm. There’s shelves with books, everything is organized in a very specific way — he’s just one of the world’s great thinkers. So I was able to do costumes for his most recent film called Once

Machine Dazzle with Art Fart

Within a Time, and those are all downstairs in the exhibit. And then you saw the clips from the film and behind the scenes. I don’t know what you know about him, but he was born and raised in New Orleans, he traveled all over and was actually a monk at one point, so he’s highly spiritual and very knowledgeable. His education is just knowledge of the world, reading a lot through all the different religions, philosophy, and so when he creates a film it’s coming from philosophy, it’s coming from this well of ideas. I’ve always found that deeply religious people, like nuns and monks and people in the priesthood, they are separate from the society we live in, and they’re able to witness it kind of by not participating because they don’t, really — they’re seers, they’re like owls, they’re all-knowing.

It reminded me of a Smashing Pumpkins video. That 1920s special effects style. 

The entire thing was filmed on green screen, there were a lot miniature models. It was all small models and then all these performers superimposed onto it, it’s very… art, it’s art film. And original music by Phillip Glass. I met and worked with Mike Tyson for that. He’s famous! He’s like overly famous. Is there such a thing as being too famous? What’s the line? Now I’m interviewing you!

I think there is such a thing as being too famous. With the things I’m reading about fame, I actually think that in our current era, because of the democratization of fame, it’s actually a lot less stressful to be famous than it was — the book I’m reading is from 2007 when it was like hell to be famous because of the paparazzi, and now there is no paparazzi, we’re all paparazzi, we’re our own paparazzi. 

We’re all artists, we’re all musicians, because the phone allows you to be everything. With a computer and the way technology is, it allows everyone to be everything. Everyone has luxury. Everyone has fame. Everyone has access to everything. 

I find it a little overwhelming. 

You have to decide what you want in life. They say pick your battles. If you do anything in a really great way, it’s going to be difficult. The only true happiness that I have found comes from a sense of accomplishment — that means I worked hard, I accomplished something, I reached a goal and I learned and I made a lot of mistakes along the way but I did a thing. That sense of accomplishment, that’s the only way I experience true happiness. I don’t just like wake up and feel good after not doing anything, that doesn’t make me happy, that doesn’t make me feel worth anything. I have big ideas and I’m very ambitious when I’m working on a project and it’s like, oh I gotta get that done.

Me and the other editors are always talking about doing a fashion collection made entirely out of trash, and when I came here I was like, ‘Bitch stole my idea!’

Artists have been using discarded items for as long as time. Would you like a madeleine? Do you do carbs? You don’t look like you do carbs. 

(munch munch) Who did you think was the most famous person when you were little?

There’s that word again. When I was a little kid? I will say that I was taught that certain people were very important, like the President of the United States. But then I have my personal heroes who were famous like Olivia Newton-John, who was from Grease, like I was a little kid when that came out and I loved that movie, I wanted it to be real. But my favorite film from my childhood is Xanadu, which we’re screening on December 20th and I want to do another photo shoot [like we did for The Eyes of Lara Mars], we’re going to do that again but for Xanadu, and I’m expecting for people to come in hordes

I really want to go to that but it’s probably too close to Christmas. I just discovered Xanadu and I’m like, this is the greatest movie ever made. 

The plot is like blah, but I love the art in it. There’s Gene Kelley, legendary dancer and personality. Olivia is so beautiful in it. And you can’t ask for a better soundtrack, you know? You can’t! Electric Light Orchestra — you hear that music all the time. I’ll be in the middle of a supermarket in bum-fuck America and ‘Magic’ will come on. People are aware of the music. It transcends the film. 

Who’s the most famous person you’ve worked with? 

Probably either Diane Von Furstenburg or Cara Delivigne. Cara Delivigne is probably more famous. I did her headdress for the Met Gala. I helped Diane with hers for the same year, ‘Camp’ in 2019, but the thing is, Diane didn’t get any press, Cara got all of the press and I got like 20,000 hits on my Instagram that day, they didn’t all like it, but they looked. I don’t really play the Instagram game that well, some people play it really well. I posted, but. In terms of fame… we’re going back to that question! It’s recognized in different ways. There’s Instagram famous. There’s TikTok famous. There’s Twitter famous. There’s TV famous. There’s movie famous. There’s music famous. There’s country famous — famous in America, or they’re famous in Australia, they’re famous in Africa. It’s a situational word, it’s something completely dependent on a lot of things. 

Where do you shop?

Everywhere. I’m shopping right now! (Looks around) I’m shopping in my own studio. Some things are found. People give me things. I go fabric shopping all the time, I love vintage shopping. I do like reusing things. I will say that fabric stores depress me, because it’s all this new stuff, it’s all mostly plastic and you see the future landfill. I like to shop at secondhand stores and take apart secondhand clothing, it’s generally more economical and definitely more eco-friendly, even though it’s all gonna be in a landfill at some point, when Mother Nature is done.

What is your interaction with Mother Earth?

My interaction is: I am very aware of Her every day and I wish I had a better relationship with Her. I live in a city, and urban life just isn’t… it’s not earth-friendly. To me an urban center is almost like a cancer, an ever-expanding cancer cell on the face of Mother Earth, that’s what it feels like, and I know that because when I finally get out into nature, I am so relieved at how healing the air is, the sights are, the sounds, just the sheer experience of it — I’ve been in extreme places like Hawaii, and you know that nature is powerful and healing because you are so at ease.

I think living in the city has made me more appreciative of nature in an exponential way. It reminds me of what we were saying with artists vs. money it’s kind of like city dweller vs. nature, we need it, we want it, but we also are pulled apart by it or something. 

Humans, we’re born to die, you know? And nobody destroys us more than we destroy ourselves. 

Do you think that comes across in your work?

I don’t know! Not necessarily. I don’t know that I’m helping. I’m consuming things. I find things and I change their surface. I do think that taking something existing and transforming it into something else is a very interesting concept insofar as the universe at large now has to deal with that shape. It’s like, it was a bottle and now I’m going to take it, I’m going to melt it, I’m going to drink the water, and that’s going to become something else, I’m going to take this bottle and melt it and paint it and turn it into something else, now there’s a void in what was, and now there’s something new for the universe to discover. Sometimes I just wonder about he microscopic particles of the ether — let’s say I turn this into this, now in some kind of crazy way the universe is caressing it and considering it. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it’s almost like the nature of costume at its base is a contemplation of existence itself, because you have to consider the self as a material when you’re making a costume, and then you’re transforming the body and all of it.

You’re transforming what’s possible. I remember growing up, this little queer kid in rural and suburban places in middle American and my only access to things I love now or things I was fascinated with was through TV. I think I was constantly trying to find the queer narrative, or a familiar narrative, in anything. I think it’s easier for queer youth these days, but you know when I was growing up, or God forbid before me — when we screened Star Trek, it came up, ‘Why am I screening this?’ It has an early transformation, there’s this character whose name is Lieutenant Ilia, she’s beautiful but

Machine Dazzle with Art Fart

she’s bald so she’s already odd, and then this crazy weird force thing, the antagonist, it’s this big force in the universe and it came and kind of killed her in a way and she was transformed into something else, and she came out and she’s wearing this white outfit and heels and it’s like, what happened to her? She was wearing just a regular Star Trek uniform on the bridge before this thing had its way with her — weird shit. My point is, that’s where I found the queer narrative — there was no familiarity with any of the regular characters, none of those people were me. Who was I fascinated with on Star Trek? Uhura, because she was so exotic and beautiful and I was like, who’s that? And of course I loved all the women, the strong women characters were the ones I gravitated towards, never the men. And then the creatures. Like Spock. It was like, oh that’s where I am because I’m different and strange and here’s this thing I can relate to. 

You mentioned Taylor Mac before, you’re performing at MASS MoCA?

We’re rehearsing. We’re working on a big show called The Bark of Millions which will premiere next fall. We’re going up there just to be together as a group with a choreographer and a designer and all the singers. It’ll be a live show. This next two weeks is a rehearsal period. It’ll be at BAM — we’re going to take it all over the world. Taylor Mac is a long time collaborator. The entire fifth floor of the exhibition is a Taylor Mac production that I costumed and was a part of, and that was called 24 Decade History of Popular Music, and it was a 24-hour show. I was the costume designer. I would change Taylor onstage. I was kind of a character in it.

So he was the director?

He’s an artist — a producer, director, playwright, cabaret performer, he had a show on Broadway, he’s won many awards, because of the 24 Decade show he’s a McArthur Fellow, he got a Kennedy award, he got an Ibsen. He’s very accomplished. I would say he’s my most significant collaborator. 

So you have an album coming out?

It’s already out! It’s called ‘Treasure’. I dropped an album! And no, I don’t have vinyl or cds, nobody listens to cds, and vinyl is for like really amazing music nerds, and I do want to press vinyl, but it takes a long time to do that. The album is out, you can listen to it on all the major streaming platforms, Spotify, Bandcamp. 

Does music feed your soul?

It does. Music is magic. It resonates. Costumes help pass the time and I love it artistically but I write songs and sing to myself all day long. Costumes are very much of the physical world, music is something else, it’s invisible, it’s like magic, it comes out of nowhere, yet it fills the room. It’s an invisible experience but music inspires me to make physical things. If I resonate with a certain song, I see shapes, I could do a whole show based on one song if I really like it, ‘oh this is what I want to wear, this is what I’m seeing, this is how I’m feeling, this is what I want to do.’ Music inspires all of those things. 

Do you have a main instrument?

My voice. I don’t play any instruments. I’m a singer and writer. 

And one final question about your work here at the Museum of Arts and Design: Can I eat it?

You can eat it! What looks good?

What does it taste like?

It tastes like fame! And it feels like glamour going down. You might even feel glamorous twice! 

This article appears in our 'Fame' issue, available in the shop!


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