The day it’s announced that Séamus Gallagher has made the longlist for the Sobey Art Award—the biggest visual art prize in the country—they’re catching some Vitamin D on The Common, neon manicure and cornflower-blue leather blazer complimenting perfectly with their highlighter-yellow Telfar bag. “I mean, I take a lot of inspiration from a lot of very varied amount of sources, like drag, video games” the multidisciplinary artist ticks off on their fingers between sips of coffee. “One project I did that was in VR, was inspired by Whitney Houston's ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. So, yeah: I have a large and varied amount of interests. And I get excited when I find similarities in what I'm interested in, and creating links between disparate things I'm passionate about. I feel like within those links is when I am able to create a project.”
Ever since winning NSCAD’s prestigious Starfish award in 2018, Gallagher’s been an almost hard-to-ignore buzz-builder on the Halifax scene: Winning the national 1st art! Award in 2019, getting nominated for the noteworthy New Generation Photography Award in 2021, showing work in Ottawa’s national gallery in 2022—all while crafting brightly-coloured, pop-culture-informed art and all before having their first-ever solo show. (This, FWIW, is the visual art equivalent of guesting a ton of hot verses on other artist’s songs before dropping a debut LP.)
Oscillating between photography, VR-based work, performance and video installations, Gallagher’s work is known for incorporating drag and existential malaise in equal measure. (The buzz grows ever-louder, of course, with the Sobey nomination, which sees Gallagher named alongside 24 other artists from coast to coast and one of three from HRM to get a nomination. During their interview with The Coast, Gallagher also mentions they’ve been accepted to Carnegie Mellon University to further their studies this fall.)
Here, they sit down with The Coast to talk about the Sobey nomination, why having drag in their art is more important than ever and what keeps them inspired:
The Coast: When we last spoke (in 2019) you said "One of my professors used to say 'pay attention to what you pay attention to,'” as a way of finding meaning and inspiration. What have you been paying attention to lately?
Gallagher: That's actually the professor that nominated me, so that's pretty sweet! What am I paying attention to? I guess reading a lot of Mark Fisher: He wrote about this idea of ontology, this idea that our present is haunted by lost futures of the past.
So, I've been thinking about that idea in relation to plastic use, and artificial materials like nylon as well. [They nod to the disposable coffee cup in their hand.] And I’ve been thinking of plastic as a form of haunting: The way that it will disappear when we're done with it, but lives to remain with us for long beyond our lives.
Tell us a bit about the works you submitted for consideration for The Sobey Art Award: What they look like, their themes and so on.
One of the series that I did submit was A Slippery Place, which was my NSCAD thesis work. It was this 3D modeling: Creating a series of self-portraits where I create the sets out of video game environments, and then perform within them using a 3D rendering, and then converting it to paper templates, so I can then print it out and cut it and wear it for the photos. There was a very specific idea behind it. And I think it's sort of reflective of other ideas that I've been working through, both before and after.
You’ve mentioned that drag is a really key part of your work. Why does it feel important to keep incorporating drag into your practice, especially given the current aims to ban and restrict drag in America?
I mean, I don't know. So, two weeks ago, I am looking for housing in Pittsburgh [where Carnegie Mellon is located], and made a Facebook post about me—and included some images about my work, just because it's flashy and easy to catch people's attention. I got a lot of positive responses. But then, I went to check my notifications, and saw that I was permanently banned from the group—this, like, 20,000-member Facebook group looking for housing. And you know, it's speculative, maybe a bit paranoid, but I'm assuming even the reference to drag, somehow, made people report me to this group.
It's just frightening seeing these headlines, and having it seep into my own personal life in, right now, maybe sort of small ways, but it just feels like it's continuing to grow. I don't know what to say. It's just frustrating when people talk about drag in one singular way, because it's an art form, and a form of entertainment, like anything else. And so that means that there's like a variety of audiences and styles. It's just frustrating: Having it painted in this one singular, vilifying way.
Absolutely. Another thing about your work that’s really compelling, though, is that you’re putting drag into an unexpected sphere of so-called high art, and that feels like pushing a boundary in a way.
Yeah, I think that's why I like drag: Because it can exist in so many different forms, where all of it is important. And I think what you're able to say within a white cube is different than what you're able to say in a club. And it will reach different audiences: They both provide different platforms to express any ideas you're working through. And that's what I love about it. I am happy existing in this white cube space, but it's also liberating to see it in clubs as well. It's just different ways of sort of getting one's own creative practice out.
You’ve said in the past that “there’s something pivotal about creating my own spaces.” What is important to you about creating these other worlds through your art?
Yeah, I mean, alternate worlds—but also just physical spaces, or actual spaces—is something that I feel like becomes more and more important as a city like Halifax changes so rapidly, to the point where space is such a privilege. I think working in digital environments allows me to create a larger space than I'm able to in such a rapidly gentrifying city. So, I'm drawn to the aesthetic qualities of working in sort of 3D renderings, I guess, but it is also just a necessity due to the lack of actual space.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.