Ash, Lazz, & Nika
We sat down with a couple of the people responsible for putting on this year’s Swamp Cooler Fashion Show in Tucson to think through fashion, the show’s theme of “emergence,” and communal experience during a pandemic and our tumultuous times. Lazz and Nika are only parts to what Fred Moten might call (via jazz, Édouard Glissant, and others) an ensemble, speaking only from their perspectives which contribute to, but do not define, a whole. We agree that what Swamp Cooler is, is what emerges from the various visions of what it is and what it could be.
1.First things first, tell us what Swamp Cooler has been and where you think it is going:
Lazz: Swamp Cooler was a one-off DIY fashion show held in May 2019. It started with a few people saying they wanted to have a show—builders, organizers, artists, DJs, thinkers, teachers, musicians. I don’t remember the genesis other than that; we wanted an occasion to make weird garments, to see people in Tucson use a runway their way, to repurpose the cultural phenomenon of a fashion show for a different context with a different vibe. Most of us wanted to fuck with the oppressive normativity of the traditional fashion show: its place in the capitalist market, the kinds of bodies it features, the norms it sanctions and perpetuates.
When we organized the first Swamp Cooler, social energy felt bustling and alive. It was early 2019. There were 13 designers/collections. “PPE: It Only Works if you Wear It” was a tuff workwear line designed by a firefighter that featured a gas mask, rope, and fire protection gear. “Floral Bloc” took anonymous swarm to a new level; instead of black bloc, 20 models undulated onstage in head-to-toe flowers, “blooming.” “Ice Factory” sent ice accessories down the runway: an ice backpack with a vintage phone and some coins frozen inside, everything melting on the models’ bodies. I made a collection based on Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol 1 & 3 called “The Use of Pleasure,” accompanied by a Foucauldian hanky code. 2019 feels distant so it’s hard to remember many specifics. One designer sent a chainsaw down the runway; another had models walk in bathing suits and pool floats (the theme for 2019 was “Tucson Summer”); another designer made a bikini top out of Circle K Polar Pop cups.
What I gather from a cursory glimpse at the history of fashion shows is that they’re often attributed to British elites, and the first models (“mannequins” in French) were upper class, white, slim, women, and expected to be elegant. Style is part of Western imperialism; one culture’s values and norms (sophistication, elegance, minimalism) were used to justify colonialism, dispossession, and enslavement by positioning Others as excessive or uncivilized. These histories impact dominant conceptions today about what’s desirable both on and off the runway.
I’m interested in models having a personality, or countering the idea that bland aloofness is what allows for a garment to speak. We see this with the formula of tall, thin models walking uniformly down a runway, often vacant in expression—the assumption that this is the best palette for a design. This sort of suggests a person is made by what they wear or the garment can stand alone. Sure, a person can take on new meaning based on their dress; but it’s the person who wears the clothes—and the person who makes them—that activates them. This idea that it’s the artist/wearer who activates a look is a reversal of commodity fetishism, or the belief that a product has any magical powers aside from its connection with sentient labor. I’d say one aim of the show is just being together.… and taking excess to new heights. And stunting. And basking in people’s brilliance.
Swamp Cooler was the name we chose for the first show in 2019. It stuck. There’s no funding, it’s very DIY, and the group who puts it on is AD HOC. We have some cool things on deck for the 2021 show and after that who knows? You ask where it’s going… maybe nowhere
2.In your call for participants for the first Swamp Cooler in 2019, you said:
“Fashion is created by the streets, by the discontented; it is a platform to crack the veneer of the calculated product output machine, a vibrant cry into the ear of the managerial morass; it is a finger up to the cameras of the panopticon; and a joyful celebration of the beauty in ourselves and our freak families projected into public spaces”
What influences gave you inspiration to fulfill this assertion of fashion as a participatory counter cultural practice, rather than a commodity to be bought & sold?
Lazz: Getting dressed can be about being seen on your terms, which makes it a crucial part of self-determination. Style is also an act of creating culture—it’s one way to revel in aesthetics, to enjoy yourself and others, to intentionally reproduce pleasure. I think about the song “Showers” by Junglepussy: “Shower w/ my chains on, took a shower all my chains on” …. or Future’s “Rich sex”: “when you look down see my chains on…” There’s so much going on in just these two examples. Like, the symbolism of chains in Black cultural production can span the history of transatlantic slavery to displays of material wealth in rap and R&B; Black self-styling in a racist capitalist empire is a way of retaining cultural practice and agency against every attempt to crush it. These two songs are also good examples of how style can be autoerotic, where auto- encompasses not just a singular self but a plural one.
At the same time that fashion can be about being seen on your terms, we get dressed in a world where the ability to choose the terms is severely limited—whether we’re talking about the economic resources you may or may not have to self-decorate, to larger philosophical questions about the importance of appearance and who gets to determine what’s ideal. Is it important to “look good”? Can the goal of “looking good” for an external gaze privilege the visual in a way that leads one to neglect “feeling good”—a more phenomenological approach that centers how it feels to be inside your body, acting from the inside out? How can the latter lead to looking good? This reminds me of something Lauren Berlant wrote about a colleague who acted “inappropriately” in a meeting: “There is nothing I love more than watching someone use their freedom.” Inhabiting yourself with zero fucks about appearance can be one of the most alluring things in the world. “We bear each other hoping to breathe in each other’s freedom” (Berlant, The Hundreds)
The arena of fashion really holds up the question of value. Who defines looking good? What does it mean to “look expensive” and why is that the measure of desirability? What determines a commodity’s price? What makes a designer garment cost so much?
To your question posing participatory counterculture against a commodity to be bought and sold: it’s both. Capital is parasitic—it feeds off human labor and ingenuity and there isn’t a way to stop it from incorporating things that are “new” or even oppositional. But I think the above lines are about how the collective will outpaces capital and the state, and about how these entities of capture are always using that will against us.
3.How do you see Swamp Cooler walking the line of tension that exists between authentic expressions of defiance and the commodification of counter-culture into an identity to be bought and sold like any other product?
Nika: There’s so much nuance in this. We’re suggesting that the fashion being presented in this show is imbued with an anti-capitalist approach as we visioned the show’s theme of “emergence”. I think it's important to question whether fashion and aesthetics at large can exist outside of a reaction to forces of power. Inevitably, there is an inherent cycle to the generation of counter-aesthetics and their subsequent co-option. Yet, there will forever be a subversive collectivizing towards the world we want to live in together. The shared visual presentation that emerges from that world will always evolve at a much greater, more profound rate in reaction to the extractive machinery of the fashion industry than it can ever catch up with. Swamp Cooler, as a fashion show, also offers a space in which to commune and celebrate an infinite expanse of aesthetics and complicate a singular notion of what a “street” or “counter” fashion might look like, rather attempting to generate a space to imagine fashion multiplicitously; whereas, market and commodity sustains its extraction of the counter-culture through superficial refinement and surface skimming, not negotiating the nuance and interrelation imbedded in the world building that takes shape through collective adornment.
4.Aside from the fashion show itself, Swamp Cooler has a fairly active Instagram account that has highlighted every day fashion along different themes. This has included masks during the first months of the pandemic, the court fashion of supporters of Scott Warren as he faced felony charges for humanitarian work in the Sonoran Desert, as well as assorted, everyday fashion activities from your friends in southern Arizona. Why does it feel important to present fashion off the runway? Especially as it occurs in spaces not usually thought of as spaces meant for self-expression?
Lazz: After the first show in 2019, people wanted to ride the energy the project brought to the question of style & self-presentation. Many of us in Tucson were attending Scott Warren’s felony trial at the federal courthouse shortly after the fashion show. We had to comport ourselves according to standards white Western values hold dear—a hygienic “professional” presentation that communicates respectability. This meant that a lot of us had to dress like someone else entirely; from soiled workwear and dirty cut-off denim to collared shirts and boring dresses…often stripping the second we crossed the street into the sun. Calling it “court drag” and making photos allowed us to sort of gamify assimilation, knowing that it’s all fake. We got dressed for each other. Give us your best go at playing this game and we can take some modicum of pleasure in performance amid a really difficult time. When the pandemic hit we held the same tension between immiseration and joy (thru fashion) by posting covidwear on our IG.
Why is it important to present fashion off the runway? The runway is like the art world’s white cube. It’s just one way of trying to showcase something. This is a question that shows up in every creative genre, I think: “is this the best way to present X (paintings, sculpture, poems, essays, etc.)?” I dunno. What’s the best forum for showcasing bodily adornment? For me it’s all about context and who you’re with.
5.Some might describe the fashion show as a Queer fashion show and there is no hiding that many of the participants and creators identify this way, yet both year’s call for participants describe the show as “DIY”, “Wild”, “Freaky”, and “Anti-Normative”, not Queer. Why is this?
Lazz: The original organizers were definitely queer. Your question is interesting because it points to the happenstance of any utterance; while we used one term in one instance, it shifted in another. “Queer” was on the 2019 flyer if not in the call for designers but who knows if there was a reason for this.
I’m pretty oldschool about the term queer. My allegiance is to queer and feminist theory that posited queer as an anti-identitarian impulse to question the fixity of any identity, foregrounding its constructed and historical nature. Queer is about who you fuck, how you fuck, sure—but it’s also about a deep skepticism toward the immediate acceptance of any norm, whether it be heteronormavity, whiteness and its values, capitalist progress narratives, the American dream, beauty, etc.
Today, “queer” tends to circulate as a synonym for the entire acronym LGBTQ, or in some cases is interchanged with “fluid.” This means it has lost an element of negation. If Swamp tended toward the descriptor “freaky” it might have been because there’s a chance that using “queer” in its current popular iteration could be too prescriptively about sexual orientation. Who knows.
6.Why did you choose the theme of “Emergence” for this year’s show?
Nika: Emergence transpired out of improvisational brainstorming sessions as we talked about how to transcend the extremely extractive, commodified notion of fashion “seasons”—the idea that one necessitates a new wardrobe under the guise of changes in planetary cycles that are actually a means for the market to generate relevance of constant consumption. Simultaneously, the possibility of prompting a question of post-covid era aesthetics seemed interesting to imagine, while also recognizing that we are forever situated in a reified state of virality, of fluctuating conditions. These states are not, in fact, a before and after—the very thought of explicitly offering garments for the post-pandemic proliferates the false necessity for a new commodity to be created and coveted.
adrienne maree brown writes that “emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. it emphasizes critical connections, authentic relationships, listening with the body and the mind. in emergence, the whole is a mirror of the parts. fractal—the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet. birds don’t make a plan to migrate, raising resources to fund their way, packing for scarce times, mapping out their pit stops. they feel a call in their bodies and they must go, and they follow it, responding to each other, each bringing their adaptations.”
I drew inspiration thinking about this concept the way brown speaks of it and also in the Swampcooler ensemble’s shared philosophical hopes for a greater sense of interrelation. We thought about the idea of emergence as the constant cycling state of possibility that surfaces out of interdependence, and possibility of becomings that arise from dissolution (coming out of quarantine to find one another, re-attaching to land within an extinction event, re-visioning community through our shared values and aesthetics). We’re asking, what does the relationship of adornment and physical functionality to an emergent state look like to any participant of this event. Swamp Cooler is an effort that only exists through the multiple visions of what it is, and from that it emerges.
7.Anything else you want to say?
Lazz: People in the US are living through a diminished form of social life. We were before the pandemic, but covid has ensured separation in an even more drastic spatial way: shelter in-place (what if you have no place? Placelessness is a defining characteristic of racial colonial capitalism); social distancing between bodies; evaporation of touch; quarantine.
The fashion show is happening after our social spheres have shrunk dramatically, after we’ve adapted to terribly isolating conditions. I’m seeing the show as an opportunity to remember connections that already exist and to make new ones even though it’s a trying context. In organizing this I’ve already met so many new people.
Photos courtesy of Caroline King. View the full photo set from 2019 here.