Teenage Daydream Bedroom: An Interview with Nick Alciati on “xoxo, Darlene”

by Emily Colucci on July 1, 2016 Interview

Installation view of Nick Alciati's xoxo, Darlene at SVA Photo, Video and Related Media's 2016 MFA Thesis Exhibition (Photo by Jeremy Haik)

Installation view of Nick Alciati’s xoxo, Darlene at SVA Photo, Video and Related Media’s 2016 MFA Thesis Exhibition (Photo by Jeremy Haik/all images courtesy the artist)

Artist Nick Alciati’s bedroom installation xoxo, Darlene feels immediately familiar to anyone who was a teenager in the early 2000s. Photographs of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Madonna and Alicia Keys almost completely paper the walls. Trendy clothes lie strewn on the bed and floor. High school yearbook photos are wedged in a mirror above a row of cutesy thrift store tchotchkes. Even if your bedroom wasn’t a pink shrine to mainstream pop culture, Alciati’s contribution to the SVA Photo, Video and Related Media’s 2016 MFA Thesis Exhibition is accurate enough to spark memories of classmates’ similar spaces.

Between images ripped from magazines, Alciati hangs posters of his glamorous alter ego Darlene. Darlene, with her long auburn hair, sultry poses and crop tops that reveal just a little chest hair, represents Alciati’s attempt to embody the pop idols he worshiped as a teenager in Syracuse, New York. In addition to the cheesy centerfold photographs, Alciati also presents Darlene’s recreation of three music videos from that era–Britney Spears’ Everytime, Mariah Carey’s Honey and Ashanti’s Rock Wit U (Awww Baby).

At first, Darlene seems like a hilarious drag critique of the artificiality and overblown sexuality of these commercial pop superstars as she seductively lounges on the beach and dances in a sticky stream of honey.  However, the video After Britney (Confession) depicts how xoxo, Darlene means much more to Alciati than just campy nostalgia. Darlene, instead, is a tool for Alciati to explore his own gender fluid identity. In a revelatory interview between shots of Darlene’s version of Britney Spears’ Everytime, Alciati explains, “Darlene is not just a project for school. Darlene is not just a project for art. Darlene is a project for me to be who I am…”

Reminiscing about teenage aesthetics and pop culture, I spoke with Alciati about the development of xoxo, Darlene, the role of bedrooms as a safe space for teenagers and the power of role models to influence our identities.

The wall text in the 2016 Thesis Exhibition describes xoxo, Darlene as your “dream bedroom.” What initially inspired xoxo, Darlene?

Basically I developed these alter egos probably five or six years ago with my brother. They were Darlene and Mildred–I was Darlene and he was Mildred. We were just being silly. We would call each other and developed these two southern sisters. Originally, they were middle-aged women.

In my first critique when I started grad school, I showed some older work that explored masculinity. Collier Schorr, who was my Crit teacher at the time, said, “What do you have to bring to the table that hasn’t already been done?” I went back to that period with my brother and Darlene and Mildred. I thought of transforming Darlene into the girl I wanted to be growing up.

I grew up in Syracuse. I went to Catholic school for all my life. Syracuse is very much a sports town with the university. I played football, but at the same time, I was hiding all these parts of myself that I really wanted to show. At that time, I didn’t have the space to do that. The bedroom explores what my dream bedroom would have looked like in 2002. I idolized all these female pop singers. A lot of my guy friends thought they were hot. But I didn’t want to be with them, I wanted to be them.

Installation view of Nick Alciati's xoxo, Darlene (Photo by Jeremy Haik)

Installation view of Nick Alciati’s xoxo, Darlene (Photo by Jeremy Haik)

What struck me first about xoxo, Darlene is the incredible amount of detail that captures the look and feel of a teenage girl’s bedroom in the early 2000s. With magazines, posters, photos and other teenage ephemera filling the space, was collecting all these materials an arduous process?

It was. I never used eBay until last year. I fell in love with it. I don’t have a lot of what I had as a child, but it’s still on eBay. I found the whole year of 2001 Rolling Stone Magazine on eBay. eBay became my friend, as well as thrift stores. All the CDs in the installation–it’s kind of tragic–are all only 99 cents now. With the little characters and tchotchkes that are scattered all around, I’ve always been obsessed with collecting things like that even in childhood. My apartment isn’t too far off from the installation. It’s more organized, but I definitely have figures all over my room. I have boxes of them that I’ll switch out every six months when I get bored of them. While xoxo, Darlene is a fantastical dream bedroom for me, it is also a reflection of myself. I wanted the biographical aspect to come through.

In xoxo, Darlene, the bedroom becomes a space for escape and experimentation with gender identity through pop cultural obsessions. What do you think is the significance of the teenage bedroom?

For me, it was my safe space. I could close the door and do whatever I wanted. At the time, I couldn’t really do what I wanted outside of my room. The teen bedroom too becomes a shrine in a way. It’s almost a ritualistic place like an altarpiece. That’s where your personality comes through. Going to Catholic school, I wore a uniform every day so I didn’t even get that form of expression. The expressive aspect and the bedroom as a safe space were themes I wanted to explore.

Now that I’m out of Syracuse and I’ve lived in New York for four years, I think about the freedom that I allow myself to have. It’s important to look back to that time now that my thoughts on my gender identity are more fluid.

Installation view of Nick Alciati's xoxo, Darlene including the video After Britney (Confession) (Photo by Jeremy Haik)

Installation view of Nick Alciati’s xoxo, Darlene including the video After Britney (Confession) (Photo by Jeremy Haik)

The installation features three recreations of music videos as if performed by Darlene. Why did you choose to revisit Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Ashanti specifically?

Britney Spears has always been my number 1. The poster I did have in my bedroom as a child was Britney. It is actually the one featured in xoxo, Darlene. It was essential that it was the exact poster I had. I went back and forth with one of my friends–Pacifico Silano–about what song I wanted to do for her because she was so important to me. I thought back to the videos, which were a huge inspiration for me growing up. I could just forget about everything and look at these women. The video for Everytime was really powerful. It was Britney falling down from being a pop star because she just couldn’t handle it anymore. In the video, she commits suicide metaphorically–her slit wrists turn into a Kabbalah bracelet. For the Britney video, Everytime just seemed appropriate. Regarding the interview confession in the video, I thought it was necessary to tell the backstory of my own gender identity and figuring out where I am now.

With Mariah and Ashanti, I had a whole list of songs that I have distinct memories of. I remember listening to Ashanti’s Rock Wit U (Awww Baby) at school dances. I remember really feeling the video. It’s the same with Mariah Carey. These songs made me feel empowered at a time when I was feeling really ashamed for being–or trying to be–who I wanted to be.

Xoxo, Darlene made me think about the place of role models in the development of identity. Particularly for queer individuals who feel alienated from family or school, these role models become sources of strength, possibility and courage. What did these pop role models mean to you?

Going back to that time, the role models I was supposed to have were men–sports figures or whoever. I was always fascinated with the confidence and raw energy that pop stars had. They were definitely sexualized in a lot of ways, but that’s not where the empowerment came from for me. It had a lot to do with the confidence they exuded. Whether that was real or made by their team of PR people, I don’t know. It didn’t matter to me. When I was in my bedroom, I could just sort of escape, put on Britney Spears quietly and do the whole “sing into your hairbrush” thing. Even earlier, I never got to play dress-up the way I wanted to. I developed this character to be a pop star so I could finally play dress-up. I’m glad I was finally able to do that.

Darlene in bed at the opening of the SVA Photo, Video and Related Media 2016 MFA Thesis Exhibition (Photo by Pacifico Silano)

Darlene in bed at the opening of the SVA Photo, Video and Related Media 2016 MFA Thesis Exhibition (Photo by Pacifico Silano)

While xoxo, Darlene certainly takes this investigation of gender seriously, it is also quite funny. I’m thinking in particular of a moment in After Ashanti when Darlene flips her hair and her wig falls off into the ocean. What is the role of humor or camp in xoxo, Darlene?

Some of the camp is my way of making sure I keep it light and approachable. If it was too serious and just a confession about how this project started and where it is now, it wouldn’t be as approachable to a universal audience. Especially in the United States, there is a rich history of drag and camp. Although Darlene is autobiographical for me, she is also very humorous and playful. I’m thinking too about the ridiculousness of some of the music videos at that time. They’re supposed to be so serious and about love, but they’re all really silly too.

On the other hand, these commercial pop singers are not typically respected in the art world and in a similar way, neither is this bubblegum teenage aesthetic. Your installation asserts that maybe they both should be. What is your goal for the installation?

First, I want to tell my story–or at least part of my story. I also didn’t want this to be just a representation of a bedroom. I wanted it to take over and transform the gallery space. A gallery is typically this sacred, clean space and I wanted to mess that up a little bit. I actually found that hard. I originally set up the installation in a studio at SVA. It was easier for me to make a mess of the walls and go wild in a studio. When I went into the gallery for installation, I found that I was being really neat about everything. I had to close my eyes and start tossing things at the wall. I had this package of 100 bobby pins and I just started throwing them everywhere. I think we all developed in our bedrooms so why not show the world what I wanted mine to be like?

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