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Becoming One with the Internet: A Conversation with Cae Monāe

Words and interview by Marguerite Wynter

Virtual experiences have now, more than ever, become the normal way of connecting with visual arts and culture whether that’s through virtual studio visits to gallery viewing rooms. It’s a good thing that artist and performer Cae Monāe has already become a force on the Internet way before this recent transition where everything (literally) has gone digital. To the Chicago based queer icon, claiming space in the virtual world is nothing new. Monāe evokes the epitome of the digital past and present with her longtime use of social platforms such as Instagram, Bandcamp, Soundcloud to connect with her audience. 

Monāe’s artwork and music jump off the screens and vibrate through speakers, while her in person performance grows and pulls energy directly from the audience. Starting before the pandemic with no plans of stopping now, each Thursday Monāe dawns a new look on the social platform. Most recently the performer is surrounded by hot pink crinkled paper that casts a rosy glow and yellow curlers to match the yellow piercing eyes that gaze right off the screen. A big component to Monāe’s work is online accessibility, allowing the audience to view and listen to her music without a paywall in place. Dropping new music on Soundcloud for free allows her to bypass royalties and experiment with mixed sounds. 

Last month, Monāe premiered Masca at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, a new experimental film weaving together deep textures and thoughts through costume, spoken word, and mixed soundscapes. The 20 minute film displays the artists desire to bridge the gap between her digital and in-person presence – making them both the reality. Masca shows true experiences and emotions Monāe faces everyday as a Black trans woman taking space in the world. She demands attention in her representation of these emotions which at times place the viewer in moments of unease and vulnerability. 

Monāe’s work contextualizes lived experiences to viewers that are unaware that such realities exist within the LGBTQ+ community. Even as many of us are striving for ways to connect face to face, the world of Zoom screens seems normal when speaking with Cae and her digital persona. This time we sat down to discuss inspiration, process, URL dreams, and what is next for virtual maven. 

Marguerite Wynter: This is the first time we’ve spoken since the In Progress at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago where you premiered Masca. When we first started talking about your vision for the project last fall you mentioned that a lot of your work would make the audience feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, which really came across in this piece.

Cae Monāe: Absolutely. I knew the audience would appreciate the video for it being what it was on the surface but I also wanted people to fall into the mania and dysphoria of it all. That was my secret plan. Which plays into the masking and layering of the entire video. 

My biggest inspiration as an artist is the shock factor, but not in a corny way, I want something that is everyday but also authentically shocking to someone because they don’t have that day to day experience of what they are seeing. With the footage in Masca, I wanted to show things and experiences that I have personally witnessed in my life. I’ve been to these sex dungeons and sex working spaces and where people are dominated and controlled. These are places that pre-quarantine I would go to anytime. These are spaces that promote and celebrate girls like me. That was the culture. I wanted to peel back that veil and show the audience this is what I see in life and for the next 20 minutes you’re going to see the soft moments, the beautiful moments, and I want you to feel it all.

(Q.) Masca is the first time you’ve made an extended music video that incorporates your spoken word, makeup artistry, and movement. Right from the start, it is very in your face with lots of high intense montages but mixed with some quiet moments. 

Yeah, juxtaposition of the soft moments and the in your face. I always want people to see this intimidating and tall force when I present myself as this persona I am when I perform. I am giving you brutal intense imagery and if you make it through that first layer. I started the video off showing my hard exterior and as you peel away you get to see the vulnerable parts about me that you might expect.

There are definitely lots of weird layers in the work. I really enjoy mixing low quality film that is made at home vs super high quality film to show that contrast. Messing with people’s perceptions and how they view something through the editing process. 

(Q.) You talk about the layers and textures which are hard to miss in this piece. How does this translate into other aspects of your work from your makeup artistry to music?

I’m supposed to be this high femme queen but at home I’m the king of my castle. Oftentimes I create music with me talking about one thing and then the music that I sample contradicts it. Like in the CISPHOBIC track came from an experience I had of being completely uncomfortable in a grocery store. I left feeling so emotional and thinking “what is it about trans women that make you look at me like this, like you are scared of me?” I flipped the narrative to “Cis people scare me”. It became an anthem that people in my community didn’t even realize they needed. 

Trans sexual examination video is featured in the film. I stumbled across the video in 2012 before I had started my transition. It’s this old 1970s video with overlapping footage of this experimental trans examination. These are awkward conversations but they are real conversations that happen with postoperative women. A lot of assumptions and questions get brought into the conversation that are so wrong but it’s the reality, so this is why I needed to perform this piece and track.

(Q.) How do you start to have those conversations and allow them to become your work? Let’s talk about the process.

With everything I do, my Instagram portraits or my music, I’m bringing forward materials that people might not understand and that’s okay. I feel uncomfortable everyday and I want you to feel that when you see my work. Important to have these conversations – conversations that no one is having and I want to do that. I’m not afraid to have the birds and the bees conversations of being trans through my performance and music and my work.

About seven years ago, all these looks I would create were with acrylic paint, markers, old makeup laying around. I was the scavenger friend because I learned money management at a young age and then learning how to make what you can with what you have.

Accessibility is something I think about all the time when I create. Thinking of people like me at 17 years old and wanting a band tee but not being able to afford it. I use Soundcloud and Bandcamp to make my music free–it also allows me to experiment and sample other beats. Growing up I looked up to all the amazing makeup artists who had access to these high quality products. I would feel so discouraged and felt like I can’t create good work because I don’t have good products. But instead it was this weird combination of my graphic design background to my love of these glam fashion magazines that I turned these crunchy looks on my face and made them high fashion. It’s been a progression to these looks I create and display on Instagram every Thursday is a new look.

I had this weird dream-like feeling that I wanted to exist as a digital person where I could escape to only having a virtual persona.

(Q.) You were constructing yourself and performing in the virtual before it became the new normal in the pandemic.

I had this weird dream-like feeling that I wanted to exist as a digital person where I could escape to only having a virtual persona. The reason I never did this was because in my industry there was this need for a physical presence. Whether it be my music or drag, I knew I needed to be there in person. Right now I just don’t foresee it being a necessity anymore to exist as an artist. 

(Q.) Or to be relevant, right? Because what’s the difference between the performative nature of URL vs. IRL right now?

Speaking of URL, I just bought caemonae.com today like hours before we got on.

(Q.) Very exciting! So what is next for Cae? I know I’m eager to see your look this Thursday. 

Yeah I’m excited for what’s next and how I can evolve in the space. I’m really hoping to have an online gallery space soon. My goal at the beginning of each month is to release quarantined created music on my Soundcloud. Free to download and to stream. This is drag and trans music that I would usually perform in the club. I find a beat, listen to it a few times, write the lyrics, and go straight to recording. Listen, I’ve been prepared for this at home pandemic life since I figured out how to turn my bathroom into a recording studio years ago.

Look out for new looks by Monāe every Thursdays @caemonae