In Conversation with Trans and Queer Art Collective, The House Down
‘Community’ is a word that most of us use so often without fully knowing its worth, demeaning its definition. True community is holding the same vision for the future world, to not only sympathise with each other, but to empathise. In conversation with Steele Astral, founder of up and coming art collective, The House Down, I witnessed a project born from the definitions of ‘community’ – love, respect, and shared success. The House Down is a riveting yet necessary art motive about to hold their second show for one night only in Manhattan. Created and continued by queer and trans artists translating their stories in which ever way they wish to, whilst amorously giving back to those in need.
As Steele and I meet through Zoom screens, five hours apart from London to New York, there’s an instant sense of excitement and the unknown that fills the metaphorical room. Before we discuss the past, present and future for the art collective, we begin by uncovering Steele’s journey. Astral tells me they came out as queer in their last year of High School whilst in Louisiana, where they were born and raised. Astral tells me that this only came with it’s trials and tribulations, as it is less than accepted in the southern state.
“I don’t create art, that’s for artists to do. I only make things and in making to be seen/touched/heard/experienced I want to communicate something, all I hope is that people communicate back.”
Astral now finds themselves in their second year at The New School in NY, studying a double major in photography, and religion and philosophy, after moving there last Autumn.
“That’s a part of the reason I moved to New York. I was already really happy with what I was going to study and my plans that I had laid out, but what really caught my attention was the amazingly inclusive, blossoming queer and trans community in New York.”
Continuing our conversation, Astral further painted the picture of the queer and trans community we all hope for; explaining that it was a newfound sense of wholeness, a place to learn and to be heard – “a chosen family.”
“To me, creating art is the process of turning emotions and experiences into something physical. I hope those who view my work find inspiration, joy, or any emotions that make them feel connected to their own creativity.”
It wasn’t long into Astral’s very own embarking in the Big Apple they realised that to blend both their love of arts and beauty of being in that community, would be a refreshing journey. A journey that would travel away from the system that suppresses, in life and in the art world. From that thought, The House Down was born.
“The House Down came about because of those two values and aspects of my life and passions that I wanted to unite, but I also wanted this to be a safe space for queer and trans artists to be able to show their work. I was moving out of my first apartment in NY and realised I still had the keys for another couple of weeks whilst it was completely empty.”
Astral set to have the first gallery show in their empty, old apartment. Knowing this was a home, Astral felt comfortable that it would be a place that the artists could make what they wanted, come to the apartment the day before and paste everything up on the walls, and then invite all of their friends over for the next day – to enjoy this really intimate, relaxed house show.
“Making art is the one thing that lets me turn my brain off and mindlessly focus on something I find visually compelling for an extensive period of time. I create in hopes that it allows others to do the same.”
With the first show only taking place in August this summer, Astral portrayed their awe to me in the turn out, and turn around in plans since then. With it being created by such a close community and group of friends, the pressure was off, no expectations looming over anyone’s head. They went into this unknowing, and were flooded with the image that took place.
“There were so many supportive people, other queer and trans people came to see the work – my flat was packed. The most beautiful thing.”
Steele has now partnered with Orientation NYC – a creative agency run by McGuire Brown that pairs young artists and designers with independent businesses – to create the next show, taking place October 16th.
The show will take place in a large gallery space in Chelsea, NY, where ten artists in the collective are showing a variety of work – installations, photography, painting, sculpture and performance.
It will open to the public with the tickets priced on a ‘pay what you can’ basis to drive Astral’s main message of accessibility home. I ask Steele who they expect to be there, and upon taking a moment, Astral’s eyes light up as they say “a lot of queer and trans kids – hopefully!”
“To me creating art is about processing the world through my own lens, hope that people get a kick out of my work, and that they find their own meaning in the project.”
I ask Steele to tell me what keeps them inspired, intrigued and driven to continue with the collective. Astral explains simply that the collective starting out as a group of friends who would hang out at each other’s houses, stay up late making art, and yet it turned into more than that. Astral deepens to tell me these were the people with whom they had intense conversations with, who made them feel comfortable in their identity.
“I want to see their success and progress with them.”
Where The House Down is born from the foundations of it’s community values, it’s only right that they continue to shine and progress throughout Astral’s other plans for the collective. Every artist within the collective is completely in control, outside of the systems of oppression. The artists create and showcase whatever they want to, and 100% of profit goes to the artists. People in the LGBTQIA+ community are often asked to do things they don’t want to do, or tell their stories in different ways, with a different and unwanted gaze upon it. Astral and their team are breaking down that vicious cycle.
“Creation for me is a form of play, a way to stay connected with pleasure and curiosity! In engaging with material and form in a way that scratches that itch I hope I can bring other people into a moment of indulgence with me and my work.”
Astral has the artists, their work and wellbeing front of mind, and hasn’t forgotten about the wider community that they belong to.
“Working with queer and trans communities should always include redistribution and mutual aid on the forefront, especially working as a white person since I have, and I cannot stress this enough, have extreme amounts of privilege in my whiteness. To start, the community in the US has been completely built from the ground up by black, trans, femme abolitionists. These incredible people have paved the way for queer and trans rights in the US, that white people benefit from. The intersections of marginalised identities of black and POC trans folks is in direct opposition to the white supremacist, cis-hetero patriarchal model. Which means experiencing the most amount of violence, poverty, incarceration rates, sex trafficking, HIV rates, and the least amount of money coming in.
“Mutual aid can be a step in working to disrupt the cycle, since, for trans people, there is not only immeasurable safety in your physical body being publicly perceived in alignment with your gender identity, but also extreme importance in gender euphoria that medical transition provides. Black, trans folks don’t usually have the money, time off work, or months to recover from gender affirming surgeries that white folks do. This is why it’s extremely important to contribute to mutual aid for black trans people’s rent gender affirming surgeries.”
“The process of creating art is much more precious to me than the end result. Having a moment to forget all rules and enjoy time in my head is something I never want to stop sharing. if someone could take anything from my art I hope it makes them want to buy glitter.”
Discussing the patriarchy and the white supremacy that looms over the minority groups of our world, Steele and I stumble across the notion that is to ‘take up space.’ We bounce back and forth about how this is necessary for anyone in a minority group, who is given the chance. Astral left me a beautifully necessary quote from River Walker, one of the artists included in The House Down collective.
“It’s particularly important to create spaces specifically for queer and trans folks – particularly QTPOC – that are community run and operate relatively independently from the mainstream systems within which marginalised folks are often taken advantage of. Through The House Down, Steele has prioritised putting resources directly into the hands of queer and trans artists (both monetarily and in terms of access, exposure, and networks), allowing those artists to create the spaces they need when others don’t welcome and affirm them.”
“I see creating art as a demonstration or presentation of conceptual thought. Art itself is a physical form of our own consciousness and thought. My work is heavily influenced by intuitive thought and subconscious bias. When people see my art I want them to interpret it for themselves and consider what it might represent. The reactions and connections that people have toward the art adds to the meaning of the work itself.”
With the next show only a couple of weeks away, Astral and I draw our conversation to a close by looking to the future of The House Down. Astral only hopes that the first ever show in a public gallery will make each artist feel seen. Striving for them to have a fun whilst engaging with whoever comes, also wishing that the queer and trans attendees can see the community of artists and feel seen themselves.
Steel continues to show me their sky high dream, which only reflects everything I have come to learn about Astral in our short, virtual time together – everything should be built from community and social responsibility. Astral visualises a permanent space for The House Down in the future. Somewhere that has a gallery and a large studio for queer and trans kids to be able make work and have community.
“Creating has always been a way to bridge a gap between my own mental catharsis and the perceptions of others. To allow my work to spark a conversation and internal thought process on gender, intimacy and conflict.”
Tania El Mallah
“I have no idea where I would be right now if I hadn’t had a space during High School in New Orleans to go to, leave my home to and create and define my work as an artist that ultimately gave me the confidence to be where I am now, in NY and happy. I want queer and trans kids to be able to come to a studio space where the space is free, the resource is free, to have fun, to form bonds – all whilst they are young so that they learn their capabilities and confidence.”
“The House Down” is queer language with a similar meaning to “bringing the house down.” The name of this collective is illustrative of their work and who they are; intriguing, and representative of the home the first show. The collective seem to be pushing their way through in this exciting, upstanding journey. Where the collective is built on meaning and changing responses to the queer and trans community.
“My mum is Korean and my father is from Hong Kong, so I have a dualistic cultural perspective, however, I refuse to be bound by either; I love to exceed my limitations in art. I also enjoy provoking through art. When creating art, I explore topics typically considered taboo in Asia and explore them, such as the use of plastic surgery in Korea and Asian beauty standards. My photography is predominantly focused on the beauty that Asian women have and it is a tribute to all the women in the world who have inspired me, my mum, my sister (the centre piece of all these photographs) as well as my friends, uplifting and empowering one another by photographing different body types and people whom I look up to.”
“A common principle of mysticism is ‘not being able to be described by language’. The Indiscernible, sense-oriented, and intuitive nature of my relationship with my identity are uncovered through my work. I want the viewer to consider the unconsidered.”