Michael Venus' world of beauty, love and wigs
House of Venus founder on his films, culture and wearable-art headpieces
A man — and sometimes, a woman — of many faces, Michael Venus' creativity knows no earthly bounds. His expanding body of work, often in collaboration with his artist collective House of Venus, includes films, TV shows, music, visual art and drag performances. His short film Supa Natural appears in the Wanderlust episode of Exhibitionists, online now and airing this Sunday on CBC TV. We caught up with Venus in Montreal, where he now lives and works as the director of a new non-profit arts organization, Never Apart.
What is the House of Venus? And why Venus? Why not Pluto?
We formed Venus back in Windsor, Ont. in the early '90s, when we were kind of into the Goth scene, and things were pretty dark. Venus symbolized beauty and love, and there was that art history element as well as the planet Venus. Venus symbolizes beauty and love and feminine energy, and we really wanted to embrace that and use that as our platform.
It's basically a way for people to come together to bring their dreams to the real world and model them onstage.- Michael Venus
It's always really important for us to try to create positive change. That's kind of the original philosophy with the House of Venus, just because our world was, and still is, filled with so much negativity. And us being out gay people at the time, the climate wasn't especially friendly, so we felt it was necessary to create these events and make art all in the hope of making change.
You moved to Vancouver in 1995. Wouldn't it have been more logical for you to go from Windsor to Toronto?
We chose Vancouver because we were in New York and some people had mentioned how fun and cool Vancouver was, which shocked us. And then literally we were having a discussion about where we were going to go, and we were kind of in a meditative state, and then the TV told us to move to Vancouver. We literally flipped the channel and it said, "In Vancouver weather…" And the next channel we flipped to it said, "On the West coast, in Vancouver…" And the third one was playing Go West by Pet Shop Boys. So we knew it was a sign from the universe that we had to move to Vancouver, even though none of us had ever been there and we didn't know anything about it other than there were hippies, yuppies and mountains.
What is Wiggle and how is it connected to your film Supa Natural?
Wiggle is our annual wearable-art wig and performance extravaganza that started many moons ago, where different artists create wearable-art headpieces, and we have a multitude of different forms of expression on the stage. It's basically a way for people to come together to bring their dreams to the real world and model them onstage. In Supa Natural, those were some of the headpieces worn in a past Wiggle in Vancouver.
You're also a prominent drag performer appearing on TV and at events (like OutTV and World Pride). Who is Miss Cotton?
My alter ego, which is basically my female side, is Cotton. Cotton is the House Mother of the House of Venus, and our drag element was the Venus Girls. But we never wanted to be like other drag queens we saw — we wanted to create the female extensions of our male selves. Our whole thing was to be like fairy godmothers and try to be positive because a lot of the drag world is very bitchy — we were kind of the punk rock of it all.
And we didn't want to be what was already happening – you know, drag queens lip-synching to Liza Minnelli. We wanted to be supermodels! And look pretty and be positive and stylish. We did performance but it was more avant-garde whether that was through our drag or our films or our fashion. And we took nods from Andy Warhol's factory, and John Waters and his Dreamlanders — we were really all about community and collaboration and creating our own family — our chosen family.
How did you end up in Montreal?
The last few years I was based mostly in Toronto, but while making my film Snow Queen last year in Montreal — which is a herstory and expose of drag in Canada — my friend Dax Dasilva (CEO of software company Lightspeed), mentioned this idea that he wanted to create a non-profit art organization that gave back to the community and celebrated Canadians, and was charged with spirituality and social awareness — basically everything I've always been up to. So I jumped on the opportunity to come and be director of Never Apart and moved to the beautiful city of Montreal.
Tell me about the film Supa Natural. It's part of a series of films, isn't it?
Supa 8 was originally a series of 8 films we shot in the 1990s on Super 8 film, and those still continue to play in festival and on TV. But in more recent years I've decided to make another series of eight films, paying homage to what we did back then but using modern technology. And Supa Natural is from that new series.
I always try to bring people out of the mundane, normal, Planet Earth scenario. So with Wiggle and with my Supa 8 films, we're trying to create an out of this world, unearthly atmosphere. And to let people fantasize and dream.
Watch Exhibitionists Sunday at 4:30pm (5pm NT) on CBC Television.
Never Apart: LGBT Youth Program presents a screening of Snow Queen: A Herstory and Exposé of Drag Culture in Canada. Directed by Michael Venus. Live performance and artist talk with Michael Venus, Michel Dorion. Never Apart, 7049 Rue Saint-Urbain, Montreal, PQ. Saturday, Nov 7. 6pm. Free.