Chris Vargas and Greg Youmans, have been working on their collaborative video series Falling in Love With Chris and Greg since 2006. In short episodes and “specials,” Chris and Greg “play” themselves, in a queer(er) Odd Couple style sitcom screened online, at film festivals and in gallery settings. With just enough coded references, DIY aesthetic and awkward pauses to keep it campy, Vargas and Youmans take on both personal and political queer experience in intelligent and critical comedy.
Through generous grant funding from the Queer Cultural Center, Strange Bedfellows is able to commission a new video from Chris & Greg investigating their collaborative practice for the show.
Amy Cancelmo: How did you two meet, and what inspired you to make work together?
Chris Vargas: We met at UC Santa Cruz. Greg was my T.A. (teacher’s assistant) for a film theory class I took there while finishing my undergrad degree. I graduated from the Film & Digital Media department there in 2006. We didn’t start dating for a year and a half after I graduated, so there was nothing illicit happening when we were student/teacher but I wished there were. I had a major crush on Greg since the first time I met him. I remember going to a party he had at his house and straddling him and punching him in the chest, that was the way I said “Goodbye and I like you” in my younger days.
Greg Youmans: We are the same age! I swear: nothing illicit or improper. And we waited until well after the class ended before pursuing anything. Chris was also in a relationship at that time, and I refused to be “the other woman.”
AC: Since then you’ve made one and a half seasons (four full episodes and four shorts) of a sitcom based on this relationship. How do you generate ideas for Falling in Love…with Chris & Greg, and what does your working process look like?
CV: In the first year of the project we made videos really really fast. We made 3 in one year; now we’re averaging 1-1.5 a year. Issues would come up in our actual relationship and because we were still in the energetic limerence phase, we made videos about those issues. Our first videos were about open relationships, gay marriage, pregnant transgender men, and Prop 8. These were all things that were happening in and around our own relationship and in pop culture, and the videos just made themselves. Or at least that’s what it feels like looking back. It was really fun and easy. Now it feels much slower and harder.
GY: Well, from my perspective, I think it was more that we hit a wall with the framework of the project. It’s a strongly generic, odd-couple format (or at least it’s supposed to be). This means that we play polarized halves of a couple, and my character is the cisgendered gay-liberal half to Chris’s transgendered queer-radical half. We couldn’t keep making episodes where my character perpetually fails to understand Chris’s embodiment and gender identity; same with the politics. The series was set up, like TV sitcoms, so that we would perpetually have tensions around our relationship and politics but neither of us would ever change or learn. It’s a limiting framework in a lot of ways, which is why we keep breaking the frame and making episodes with “Special” in the title—as a way to tweak the recipe. On the other hand, it’s a really generative framework: it’s like we can drop any topic or issue into the odd-couple dynamic and come up with something interesting. One thing that’s come up though is that I have a lot more difficulty playing “myself” than Chris does, because my character runs the spectrum from cluelessly pathetic to shrewdly manipulative throughout the project. But he’s not yet been, say, smart, or generous, or kind.
AC: Do you have intentions of changing that in the work? Is this going to be one of the issues addressed in piece you’re making for Strange Bedfellows?
GY: It’s been really hard for us to come up with what we’re going to do for Strange Bedfellows, largely because we do want to change those dynamics in the project. To help us figure out what to make for the show, we had a session with our amazing friend Beth Pickens, an experienced arts administrator and a trained therapist who works mainly with artists. She works with them on grant writing and professional development but also with counseling. We asked her to do a session with us, a sort of collaborators’ couple therapy. A lot came up, much of which Chris and I knew were tensions between us. It turns out though that I’m more ambivalent than I realized about continuing the project. In part because my character feels so boxed in, in the ways I just mentioned. But also because I’m feeling a need to branch out on my own instead of always investing my creative energies in this project.
This has all put a lot of pressure on us when it comes to the piece we’ll make for your show. Will it be the last video we make in the series? If so, how will we reach closure with it? And, regardless of whether it’s the final video, how will we stay true to the generic framework of the project while also allowing our characters room to grow and change?
CV: Playing with the idea of gay collaboration, we thought first of making a video in which we perform as the members of Wham!: George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. That collaboration resonates with us in a lot of ways, though it’s also too lopsided because it’s seldom remembered as a balanced pairing of talent. Then we thought about recreating Marina Abramovic & Ulay’s break-up walk along the span of the Great Wall of China, but maybe the world doesn’t need another piece inspired by Marina Abramovic right now. So finally, we decided to make a piece inspired by Siegfried and Roy, with our cat Holiday in the role of Montecore.
AC: Why Siegfried and Roy?
GY: I saw an IMAX film about them a long time ago (well before the incident that ended their show) and in it Siegfried said, “I’m the magician; Roy’s the magic.” I thought that was so sweet. It’s stayed with me for a long time and I often mull it over thinking about what exactly he meant.
AC: Siegfried and Roy aren’t the first queer “historical” figures you’ve referenced in your work.
GY: It’s a nice way our interests come together, even though Falling in Love is not ostensibly about history. I work as a scholar on queer history, especially film and activist histories of the Bay Area. And Chris has made a lot of solo videos that mine queer history. We both look for ways to approach history respectfully but creatively, so not always “objectively.” And we both love queer elders.
AC: In your recent “Special Holiday Message,” you reference The Cockettes’ New York City tour with Sylvester. At the very end, Chris says, “The only way for queer art to advance is if we stick together in our tired mediocrity.” I laughed really, really hard at this statement—mostly because it represents a mindset and reality in queer art that is thankfully becoming outdated. Without naming names and calling out bad queer art, how do you feel that contemporary queer artists can get out of this cycle of mediocrity?
CV: I had a few experiences early on when I first arrived in the Bay Area when realized that the culture of inclusion made for some really bad art, specifically performance. I remember feeling really disappointed by the shoddy production values. I remember thinking that I loved the raggedy aesthetics but that I wished people rehearsed and tightened up a little bit more. That said, I really do appreciate that people resist a polished commercial-gallery aesthetic. And while I’m critical of it, ultimately I’m glad it exists. After all, I’ve been guilty of every characteristic that I am critical of regarding this subject.
GY: I’m really torn about it. If good art is slick, art-world-ready art, then I side with the Cockettes, which is the position I inhabit in that video. There’s a community ethos behind that ragtag queer art that is being squeezed out by the gentrifying city and the careerist pressures put on everyone as we all struggle to build our careers as “independent” artists, scholars, and curators without any real institutional support or job security. Also, there’s a lot of amazing ragtag queer art being made in San Francisco right now. I just wrote about it for the April issue of e-flux.
AC: You seem to make it work though, making art and balancing living in this expensive city. You both work in academia. How has teaching helped or hindered your projects?
GY: I earned my PhD a few years ago and have been adjuncting for a while now. I have a somewhat troubled relationship with academia, and that was true even before I became an exploited temp worker and got my front-row seat to how broken the system is. We began the project when I was still in grad school, and for me it was a way to speak in a different voice than the reserved, scholarly one I was being trained in. There’s very little room for first-person voice, irreverence, or humor in academia, even though these are vital sites of learning. I was recently at a dinner where an academic said that she waited until she had tenure before taking the risk of using first-person narration in an essay. I’m not a person who would be able to wait until then, even if I were on the tenure track.
CV: I am doing adjunct teaching at California College of the Arts, a private arts school in Oakland & SF. It’s even more precarious than Greg’s situation. I am on a semester-by-semester contract and part-time, so I get paid very little, and I have no health benefits and no job security. But just to play into the cliché of the selfless, ever-devoted educator, I like the job and I like the students so I’m staying on this track as long as I can. Also, the job title offers me legitimacy as an artist, when I usually just feel like a faker.
AC: For Strange Bedfellows, we are obviously presenting this work in a gallery setting, but your work is also available online for anyone to see. Can you speak a little about authorship, accessibility, and commodity as it relates to your collaborative project, and to your individual works?
GY: We make our work for a niche audience, really for anyone who finds it and appreciates it. That’s something the internet enables. We put our work online, first on YouTube and now on Vimeo, but that doesn’t make it a mass-media project even if potentially it could reach a mass audience, as I guess anything online could…“potentially.” People find our series through their friends’ recommendations, and it’s great to realize that trans and non-trans queer people from all over have seen it, many of whom we’d never meet otherwise.
Film festivals are another place the project screens. I love festivals because they are spaces to experience collective viewing. But I also think that their political, affirming, and identity-constructing function within queer culture is largely something of the past. They are not vital in the way they used to be, not four-plus decades after queer liberation and deep into the internet age.
And then art venues, the third place we screen our work, are a different beast altogether. When I think about the art world, I don’t think about reaching an audience of queer people that might benefit from seeing our relationship onscreen or hearing us engage with the issues we bring up. I don’t even picture that audience coming into such settings. And yet, our most recent two pieces, “Work of Art!” and the “Holiday Special,” are all about the art world. Clearly we’ve been grappling with this particular venue as a site of professionalization.
AC: You both have active individual projects outside of this collaboration. What are you working on now?
CV: I’m working on a new project called MOTHA—Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art. It’s a fictional museum project that will take the form of temporary autonomous events, including performances, exhibitions, panel discussions, public programs, membership openings, ribbon cuttings, and other occasions that will signal the existence of a legitimate and legitimizing arts and history institution. The project calls into existence a cohesive visual history of transgender culture and, in doing so, it asks us to think critically about what that would look like, how it should be organized, and if it is even possible to compile the history of an identity category that is still so relatively new and contested.
I am hosting a members and donors reception this May at ArtPad SF (San Francisco Art Fair) on May 18th at the Phoenix Hotel. Then on June 21st I’ll host a ribbon-cutting launch party for MOTHA at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where I’m currently the Community Engagement artist in residence.
GY: I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I’ve also been working on a series of publications and public events around important but lesser known figures from the queer past, under the rubric Queer Are You Going, Queer Have You Been. Right now I’m putting together a literary event in memory of poet and revolutionary Tede Matthews, who lived in San Francisco from the mid-1970s until his death from AIDS in 1993. It will be held on June 6 as part of Queer Arts Festival and will feature readings and recollections by a number of important writers, poets, and activists who knew Tede during his lifetime.
AC: Is balancing working together and maintaining autonomy in your art and research important to you and does it ever become an area of conflict?
CV: I don’t have a hard time balancing my collaborations and the work I do individually. It seems like for years now I’ve worked on several simultaneous projects. Maybe in the beginning it was a challenge to have so many loose threads existing at once, instead of working on one project at a time, then completing it and moving on. At some point I realized that’s not how it’s going to play out and I found peace in it, used it to maintain momentum, and learned to appreciate the pace that is required to sustain energy on multiple projects at once. For example, I’ve been working on a feature-length movie with Eric Stanley, Criminal Queers, for almost 6 years now, and as you can imagine that is a much slower process than Falling In Love… and the many solo videos I’ve made concurrently.
GY: I have a horrible time balancing everything! But I’m working on it.
AC: The concept of failure has been a theme in your work, and I have seen interviews where you discuss trying to present an alternative to the “It Gets Better”/Glee culture that presents queer relationships as perfect, easy, or put up on unreasonable pedestals. How do you think your project contradicts mainstream presentation of queer relationships?
GY: When we started the project we were trying to get away from a few dominant narratives in queer filmmaking: one was the earnest trans video, which I know Chris was trying to create an alternative to, and the other was the glorious gay romcom. At the same time, people behaving badly in comedy has a long, long history, so we weren’t working in a void. We like to bring tensions to the surface though, like transphobia in progressive gay circles, which we’ve dealt with in a lot of the videos. And I guess we are more interested in presenting a bad gay relationship than a good one—or at least we have been until now.
One crazy thing about a serial, relationship-based project like ours is that the only real, true failure at its core would be our breaking up. So every video we make, no matter how much failure we weave into it—in terms of behaving badly toward each other, miscommunicating, being unsupportive, etc.—if we’re still together at the end of it all, many people will read it as being about success, not failure. And maybe it is.
AC: What would you say has been the biggest failure in your artistic collaboration?
CV: Division of labor issues and lighting. After our third full episode, “Food!”, we hit a wall. That one took a year to make and every shoot felt so difficult to coordinate and do. At that time Greg was still doing all the editing which is probably the most tedious part of making the videos and he was getting really resentful. Initially, he did all the editing because he wanted to learn the software but then he did and excelled far beyond my own knowledge and was mad that he was still doing all of it. It’s true, editing is a thankless job. So, the way he saw it, he was just sitting in a dark room in front of a computer monitor killing his eye health, growing increasingly more isolated and unappreciated, while I was out in the world getting showered with fame and recognition. It wasn’t like that exactly, but it drove a wedge between us and we ended up in a McDonalds in Paris processing about how the labor needs to be more equitable. After that we changed how things get done in the project. “Oh La La! Paris Special” is not our favorite of our videos but we got it done and my memory of shooting the final scenes (in the most Parisian looking Oakland park we could find) and editing it was much more pleasant than “Food!”
As for lighting, we’ve never figured out how to light our scenes correctly.
GY: Well, we kind of know how to light our scenes, we just don’t do it. It would involve getting a lighting kit, and that would involve a lot more planning at the preproduction stage than we’re willing to do. Yeah, we ran aground with the project around “Food!” and then “Oh La La!”, which is why we decided at that point that “Season 1” was done and it was time to make a fresh start. In terms of the recognition issue Chris was talking about, he has the identity of “artist” in a way I don’t because virtually all of the videos I’ve made have been collaborations with him and otherwise I’m an “academic.” So, at the start of the project people would sometimes act like he made the videos and I just perform in them. That was hard for me. I should probably start making solo videos to solve that issue, but that seems like an insufficient reason to shift my energies away from a fruitful collaboration. (And yes, all of these fun themes will come up in our new video!)
AC: Do you think there is something inherently queer about collaboration?
CV: I don’t think there is anything inherently queer about collaboration, but I’m sure one can theorize that there is. I do think there is something natural or obvious about collaborating with one’s lover, boyfriend, or same-sex life partner. I’m referring to the energy that’s there in the beginning of the relationship that’s pure magic, and for many it feels right to harness and direct it toward something outside of yourself. In our case, we made videos, but maybe this is exactly the same tendency that drives people to have kids. So maybe there is something queer about collaboration, but that also means there’s something queer about having kids and given the staggering number of straight couples doing that, I guess that’s not true.
But seriously, I think queers do have amazing skills for collaborating and this might relate to the way we’ve skillfully built strong complex networks of community and support beyond our given families.
GY: I’m not sure I follow that train of logic, but I fully agree with the final point!