I began this blog because I have profound interest in fashion, clothes and dress, but lately I have been much more interested in the latter two. Focusing on clothing and dress has granted me a degree of flexibility in what I feel I can cover for this blog, which I must admit I am revelling in right now. And so for the next few posts, I will not be talking about fashion per se, but clothes and dress, and how people use clothes or construct an aesthetic to help navigate the environments, spaces and communities that we belong to or find ourselves part of. Elija Montgomery is a Toronto based artist who’s,“I Am a Monster,” project and exhibit I was fortunate enough to come across at OCADU’s recent grad show. Montgomery explores themes of embodiment and environment through WAT, the monster that serves as the focal point of Montgomery’s project. After the show, Montgomery was kind of enough to agree to spare a Monday afternoon taking me through his project.
The Street Idle: How did you come with the idea for “I Am a Monster”?
Elija Montgomery: This past year was my thesis year, which means for my undergraduate thesis I had to pick a topic and explore it. It was a very strange process. I ended up focusing on monsters, using monsters as a narrative device to talk about the ways in which we feel other. Whether that’s public spaces that make us feel other, environments and relationships, objects, or even internally the ways in which we feel other.
I wanted to create something challenging for me as well as enjoyable. That is why I wanted to create something that was physical as well as conceptual. I wanted to explore and embrace the fact that we are so much more similar than we are different.
SI: Is WAT both a costume and a character then?
EM: The physical components are worn by a person. The character is that he’s just your average monster.
SI: Why do you choose monsters to explore the themes of “otherness” and “narrative?”
EM: Monsters have always been a way for us to categorize others, throughout history, throughout myth and legend. I wanted to create something that was very noticeably different at first glance. That was both kind of alarming and alluring visually, but then the more you get to know him and get to learn about him you realize that you’re more like him than unlike him.
I wanted people to think, “I’m not really comfortable about this” [or] “I’m not afraid of it, but I feel like I should be.” Something that is confronting you in a way and you’re not really sure how you feel about it.
SI: When I first saw WAT at the grad show, he reminded me of a muppet. He came across as something strange, but also familiar at the same time.
EI: I’ve been working very hard to give myself and others permission to exist. This has been a really great way for me to visualize things that I’ve been working on personally. I wanted to make it [the project] personal and intimate, but I did not want it to be just about me. I wanted it to be this character and, of course, this character would be highly influenced by me, because it was created by me, but I wanted to create something that others could relate to as well and others could see themselves as and connect with in a way that wasn’t necessarily connected with me. Having something that isn’t necessarily me, but another creature, it could say things that I couldn’t necessarily say. It could also say things that it believed, but I didn’t necessarily believe or that it felt, but that I didn’t always feel.
SI: What has the reaction been to WAT so far? Have you come across audience interpretations that have surprised you?
EM: I’ve put all my work on Tumblr, which was something I really enjoyed doing, but held off putting up my main photographs until after the graduate exhibition. There have been two main things that have been really interesting to have come out of that. The first, and this also came up at the grad show, is that people said he [WAT] looks like a Furby. This [reaction] is an echo of something that we as humans or people in society do all the time. We see someone that we don’t know and we know nothing about them and we say this is what you are, this is how you should react and if they don’t react or act in these ways then that person is held accountable for [it]. It is very frustrating and I have definitely been on that end where people will see me at face value, make assumptions and then hold me to those false assumptions and that is so fucked up and we just do that. And so though I still don’t it like when people make that association, it is still important to address. It’s almost like they’re proving my point.
The other interesting part is that when people re-blog the post I can see their comments and there has been a large category of people who have commented about the trans aspect of it. Which is really interesting because, yes I am trans, but in no part do I mention gender or body or trans, but I do talk about feeling other or different. Obviously I’m not going to go ahead and separate my trans identity from the rest of my identity because everything is together, it’s who I am, but I didn’t set out to make this about being trans. But, I love that trans people pick this up right away and it’s almost like this secret message from me as a trans person to another trans person. It’s [I Am a Monster] also about visibility, the good type of visibility and the bad type, being heard and seen and feeling like you stand out or that an issue is not being addressed. It kind of addresses that duality of visibility.
SI: How did documenting “I Am a Monster,” on Tumblr influence the final project?
EM: I started documenting my process and putting it on Tumblr in January 2011. Documenting all my work was a way to gain perspective [and] to be able to share my work. When you are so intimate and so involved you stop being able to see it, so when I share [my work] with my followers they would comment on it and say what they liked about it.
My physical world was very small while doing my thesis, because I live a stone’s throw away from school, I basically lived at school and slept at my house .I had no social life and basically the people I saw were in my program, but the internet and Tumblr and the digital world is massive, it’s huge. So basically every time I would get a new follower I would go and look at their Tumblr and see what they like what they’re about and where they are as well. It was great to connect with all these strangers that I could never dream of having or connect with. That’s been very impactful, because it gives, and I think I wanted to explore this in my project, a glimpse of the ways in which we are connected and the ways in which we are similar even with our differences. So the internet is a mazing for that.
And sometimes the physical world can be scary sometimes I can be very introverted and sometimes we are not always in an environment where we feel safe. So unlike a physical environment you can find digital communities where you feel a lot safer. So you can be more honest and share yourself more [than] in physical spaces.
SI: In your project WAT photographed navigating various intimate and public spaces where issues related to bodies and identification are the focus. Why did you choose the settings and scenarios you did and how are those spaces transformed by WAT being in them?
EM: I had some of these scenes in my head and some of them were still developing and came together more as he was created, but I wanted him to be photographed in very recognizable places and environments and scenarios, and accompanied with related text. Some of it[ the scenarios] were things that I have experienced myself, like the one in Darkhorse [Café]. It says, “I have changed so much in the past two years, even the baristas at my regular coffee shop have noticed.” I live around the corner, this is my regular place, everyone knows me and they know my drink order, I know people by name and we chat and stuff and they know my work – they know what I’m up to. So I came in last summer and none of them [servers] knew what had been going on in my personal life- I had not really talked about it with anybody, just a lot of internal stuff – [ The server] says to me, “You’re different,” and I was like, “How did you know?” and he said, “You just seem different. It’s good right?” and I said, “Yeah.” It was great to take that photograph in the space in which it occurred, and really kind of almost pay tribute to the safe environment which I have.
And then there is the TTC, which I hate taking for lots of reasons, but it is also a very public space and your more often surrounded by strangers than people you do know or people you would want to encounter. I do feel sometimes like people are staring at me whether it’s because I have weird crazy hair or wearing a bowtie and I’m under the age of 60. I would refer to what I have as a very queer body, which is fine, so sometimes it feels like everyone is staring at me even when they’re not. It’s that weird paranoia of feeling starred at and unfortunately that does dictate whether or not I engage in these public spaces or feel comfortable or not going with that risk. It’s [the photograph] not about if people are actually staring at me, it’s that feeling that you are, that you stand out more than anyone. It’s like being in a spotlight, it’s that feeling of being in a spotlight even though no one really does cares, it’s that tension.
You can check out “I Am A Monster” at http://madebyelija.tumblr.com/post/50095796089/i-am-a-monster-is-an-exploration-of-misunderstood
*All images were reposted with the permission of the artist