Photographer and creative powerhouse Alien has always been inspired by people, their peculiarities, and the subcultures they create. They unpick “the niches within the niche” of these subcultures, exploring how different communities influence each other’s evolutions and mutations. In their new photobook Bodybuilders, Alien highlights the United Kingdom’s drag and club scene, featuring thirty artists who are not just pushing the boundaries of gender and queerness, but the boundaries of the human form itself. They talk to us about the construction of the book and its bodies, as well as how to access authenticity through artificiality. Fascinated by subcultures and those who define them, Alien invites us down the rabbit hole into a world of extravaganza.
For starters, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a self-taught photographer based between London and Milan. My background in social sciences and fashion styling shaped the way I approach photography and see things.
Working as a photographer, you create the gaze through which the audience experiences and perceives the subject of the photograph. What do you feel is signature of Alien about the gaze that you construct?
I personally like to look at people and get to know them in my everyday life and I believe that it is a signature of mine, the simplicity and the ‘un-constructed’ style I have while photographing any sort of situation, made-up and spontaneous, doesn’t change the way I approach people and the way I photograph them.
Let’s talk about your latest project, the photobook Bodybuilders! The book features thirty of the UK’s most exciting drag artists and club kids. What is it about the queer scene in the UK that makes it so special?
While I launched the book in different countries, I realised how rooted the theatrical and quirky way of dressing up is in the UK compared to other places. Take Italy, it is very conservative in the way people dress up and perform in public spaces, it is more bougie, classic and judgmental.
Bodybuilders was made to be done in the UK, and especially London, which is a melting-pot for many people, all coming to the capital with this dream of cultural, financial, and personal freedom and it is somehow a catalyst for new niches and underground cultures, as it has always been.
Did anything or anyone particularly inspire this project?
I find people inspiring in general, and this project wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them. I started by looking at performers from overseas, after realising there was a huge community right next to me. It was very evanescent though and I wanted to collect it and make it last in one whole project that became a book and exhibition. A big-time reference for me is always Dana Lixenberg, who built an extensive body of work around a community in Los Angeles. Her work is honest and straightforward and it’s always been a source of inspiration I go back to every now and then.
What did your creative process for the book look like? How did you conceptualise the idea and work with others to bring it to life?
The project was born from the desire to pay homage and freeze in time a community of creatives that belong to a scene that might be fast-changing and considered to be a niche because it is alternative and it is queer. These people are part of my community and during pandemic times I grew the desire and, perhaps, the need, to photograph and represent them in a physical format, a medium that has the power to stay over time regardless of the algorithm or online presence and reach, even casually, insiders and outsiders of the community.
The introductory texts for Bodybuilders were written by Helen Hester, co-author of The Xenofeminist Manifesto, and Lewis G. Burton, artist, DJ, and founder of Inferno. How did those collaborations come about?
I was looking to create a project that people could enjoy aesthetically but also in a deeper, meaningful way. The choice of Helen Hester and Lewis G. Burton was to have the ‘extremes’ to talk about the same subject. Lewis G. Burton is also portrayed in the book and is an active part of this scene, as a promoter, activist and DJ. They are the insider narrator for the project. Helen Hester instead comes from academia, and I appreciate her sensitivity and way of exploring topics that are accessible to anyone. It’s ironic because hers is perhaps a very human and empathic approach to academic writing, in contrast to what she conceives in her piece as to “rescind the privilege of the human.”
A prevalent theme within the project is the aesthetic expression of identity. What do you perceive the relationship between aesthetics and constructing and consolidating one’s identity to be?
We always get seen and filtered by an aesthetic, no matter how unconscious or thought- through that is, that’s just the way it is. Especially for certain people and paths, building an appearance, and changing it over time is extremely important to affirm an identity. In some cases this cycle ends at a certain point, in others, it is the actual process of change that is vital and the point of it all.
The book provides a space in which differences can be openly celebrated. It does so, at least in part, by featuring people with a variety of gender identities, such as women and non-binary people. What was the model selection process like?
I try to give space to diversity but then there’s a constriction that comes with the practical phase. Whether it is because of space limitations like the number of pages, budget matters or time, I had to come down to make a choice and represent only a small percentage of the number of people that populate the scene, and I chose to select it based on an affinity to my personal aesthetic, trying to keep it as diverse as possible, to better describe the niches within the niche.
The bodies that have been ‘built,’ let’s say, in Bodybuilders are so exaggerated, so vibrant, and so amplified. What is it about these concepts of artificiality and performance that interests you so much?
I have a background in styling, and I’ve always been interested in creating personas, in most cases, strangers to the people who were impersonating them. It was more of a fantasy and a projection of who I would have liked to meet, photograph and talk to. Prior to this bigger project, I made an editorial where I imagined eight fictional characters, and with the help of styling, makeup, and hairstyle, I transformed these people into someone else. I’m interested in this idea of performance that isn’t necessarily on a stage, but every day. And when it came to my bodybuilders, they already were the persona they invented, and it was very close to who they actually are inside. It was not something I would come up with but it was a process of transformation they would undergo in their life and expressed through this. So, besides the artifice that you can see, it resides way more truth.
Bodybuilders portrays a very intentional and comprehensive expression of queerness, as well as a perceptive deconstruction of various binaries. What does queerness mean to you, if definable at all?
Queerness is a very vast and fluid term that mutates over time and with people and their expression. I reckon it would be easier to say what it doesn’t include or doesn’t mean and that is any sort of stereotype, oppression and constriction. This word has a political implication, and it goes beyond the again stereotypical conception of ‘being/looking weird.’ It is more about a person not being passive in rescinding some norms, whatever that might be done with: through clothes, through makeup, through words, through actions. I see it as a term to liberate ourselves from – and I leave the sentence open on purpose.
You recently held an exhibition for Bodybuilders at the Volksbühne in Berlin, and, before that, you launched the book in London and Glasgow. How has it been celebrating your project and experiencing life and art imitating each other at these events?
It has been great to start collecting the experiences and feedback from strangers, entering a site-specific space like the one I was able to build at Volksbühne and that I later expanded for Sprint Milano at Artifact, where the crop of the artists’ eyes has been framed in CRT TVs with a role-play of who’s observed and who is the observer. The pick of contact between the book and reality has been when Sonora came to play for the Berlin show’s afterparty.
Finally, are there any other projects you’re working on that we can look forward to seeing soon?
I will be launching the project Flora soon, an exploration of fetish shoes and botanic compositions in the form of an A3 zine. Flora will be presented at the tenth edition of Sprint Milano, a non-profit and artist-led platform that promotes independent and artists’ books and zines. And next year I will start planning Bodybuilders’ volume 02, made around North America.