Close Enough for Comfort: a conversation with Emil Cañita
Contemporary collective understandings of photography are deeply cynical; never before have photographic images been so ubiquitous and never before has our distrust of them been so complete. This suspicion views the photo as always already, or forever ready to be, corrupted. In doing so, it equates photography with a sense of immorality, particularly when it pulls its favourite target into its crosshairs: image-based social media platforms and their users. The latter are invariably condemned as attention-seekers, relentless self-promoters, fame-hungry wannabe influencers, or any combination of the above. Yet, like all forms of public cynicism, it fails to cloak the prejudices that drive it. Under scrutiny, it becomes clear that this suspicion isn’t really about the photographic image itself; it’s about who is exercising control over the image-making process and whose bodies they are portraying. The mask is off, and it wasn’t the 20-year-old posting selfies who was wearing it.
The work of artist and HIV advocate Emil Cañita (he/she/they) confronts this brand of cynicism and its underlying prejudices head-on. Using Instagram as their primary platform, Cañita (@babydilf) has been posting polaroid photos of lovers they’ve met on hook-up apps for several years, employing the interactive tools of the medium to convey innovative narratives of intimacy. Working from a lived understanding of the histories of invisibility and hypervisibility experienced by queer people of colour, Cañita’s image-making questions common-place assumptions about the possibilities of the relationship between the photographer and their subject(s), as well as the status of both art and sex as commodity objects. A few days before publishing this interview, Cañita’s Instagram account @babydilf was taken down by Instagram, a reminder that the prejudices that undergird the cynicism described above are not only held by onlookers but built into the algorithm of the artist’s chosen platform—you can support Emil by following their second account @babydilfx. In our conversation, recorded over two Zoom calls and then edited, Emil spoke to me about forging intimacy through image-making, creating work about queer sex in the shadow of censorship, and maintaining engagement beyond gallery spaces.
Above: Home (New Farm, QLD, 2019) All photos by Emil Cañita unless otherwise stated.
Title image: Emil Cañita. Photo: Sean Barrett.
Muhib: When you started your practice of posting photos of lovers you’ve met on hook-up apps, it didn’t have the sense of polished uniformity that your IG account has now—you’ve settled on a form and found this unique way of telling stories using the platform. You’ve said that at first, this was very much something that you did for yourself, for a number of reasons. When did you start this project?
Emil: Four or five years ago.
M: There’s a stream of contemporary experimental film that uses, for lack of a better term, Instagram-like aesthetics, in ways that are really radical, aesthetically and politically. One thing that came out of watching these kinds of films for me has been an increased attentiveness to and appreciation for people’s Instagram accounts, particularly their stories, this ephemeral form that possesses almost none of the attributes of a traditional commodity art object. However, these films employ such aesthetics in order to create a traditional, discrete cultural object: a film. You seem to be doing something quite different in your work: by maintaining your project on Instagram, you work might not necessarily be viewed as Art. I’m interested, when and under what conditions did you begin to view it as an art practice as such?
E: I didn’t consider it an art practice until recently. Before I moved to Naarm in December 2019, the director for the Institute of Modern Art Liz Nowell tapped me on the shoulder and offered to have a publication made about my practice. That shocked me. I was like “Oh!” One, I didn’t really identify as an artist because I didn’t go to art school; I didn’t go through this traditional institutional way of getting into the arts, so for a very long time I felt like it was in a space where I didn’t belong. So for me, it was more like “I’m doing this thing that I love doing—like I said, predominantly for myself—and sharing that with my friends and people that are close to me. I get a lot from that engagement.
Brandon (New Farm, QLD, 2019)
E: And then they (IMA) had their ‘Making Art Work’ program as part of their COVID response last year. I wasn’t particularly confident about my practice then, but after talking to Liz about it, I eventually got the courage to apply! And then I did, and I managed to have one of my works show at IMA, and it got really beautiful feedback.
Then this year, I got invited by QAGOMA to talk about my practice at William Yang’s exhibit, who has been a massive inspiration for me. When I was younger, he was the first queer Asian photographer to show the Asian body as a sexual person. And I guess that was a moment for me—to be talking about my work at the State Gallery of Queensland—which felt so surreal. I haven’t even had a gallery showing yet, and yet I’m being invited to talk at the state gallery and showing at IMA. So that was the moment where I was like, “ah, I guess I do have an art practice.”
Making Art Work Publication.
Photo: Institute of Modern Art
M: That does seem like an unorthodox route.
E: Yeah, I definitely felt quite outside of it for a very long time. I guess because in my head, I had this linear idea of how a practicing artist develops: you go to the Artist-Run-Initiatives (ARIs) first, then your group showings; then you do a solo show; then maybe you’ll get to the bigger, mid-size institutions like white boxes; and then you get to the state gallery.
But for me, I went to IMA, then QAGOMA, and then ABC Radio National. It then made me realise: there are actually no rules to it. And in so many ways, I guess for me seeing and having people see and value the artistry of my work, it’s also allowed me to open my eyes to what art is. So the same way as you described having a different engagement with Instagram after seeing those films, I have the same when it comes to just seeing people express their creativity. And it’s so fascinating because now I do the same thing with some friends of mine who have these creative ventures; I call their work art and they have that reaction: “oh no, I would never call it art. I’m not an artist.” Which I find so interesting, because there’s so much creativity in what they do.
“…I say to them, it takes an immense amount of creativity to keep yourself alive, so if that’s not art, I don’t know what is. And I think with sex, it takes an immense amount of creativity to have sex, connect, and be intimate with someone. And I think there aren’t enough spaces in which we can talk about the art in making love.”
E: Whenever I ask my lovers to take a photo of them and ask if I’m able to share their story and their photo in a gallery, their first response is always one of shock, like, “why would this [Emil points at their body] be in a gallery space. And I say to them, it takes an immense amount of creativity to keep yourself alive, so if that’s not art, I don’t know what is. And I think with sex, it takes an immense amount of creativity to have sex, connect, and be intimate with someone. And I think there aren’t enough spaces in which we can talk about the art in making love.
Joel (North Fitzroy, VIC, 2020)
M: It’s really interesting to hear you talking about asking lovers for their consent to take their photo and share their story and their reactions to that. You seem to be collapsing the notion of the photographer as inherently external to the situation that they are photographing, showing how image creation can make way for new intimacy.
E: Yeah, and I guess for me in the way that the photos do end up showing, it already reflects the person’s relationship with consent and intimacy. So I have photos where it’s just their leg, or their torso, but sometimes it’s their whole face and their whole body. For me, that shows whatever level of vulnerability they were able to give me in that situation. So even the photos themselves already speak to the level of consent.
I really appreciate that insight, because you’re right: for me, there’s a performance aspect to my practice, from this long process of flirtation, to building a safe space, to the kind of sex that we have, to the level of intimacy that we have during this. Then they come out at the end with a little kind of souvenir. So I guess for me when I think about my practice, I want to be the best lover I can be for you and even though I know this is only going to be a one-time thing, a one-night stand most of the time, I still want it to be the best experience possible. So that this is something that we can actually value in the end. I want to reject the idea that hook-up sex is only transactional and we’re just there to get off. I mean, people do that, and I’m sure we all do that every now and again, but there’s so much artistry and beauty in trusting strangers, first and foremost.
Brad (New Farm, QLD, 2019)
“I want to reject the idea that hook-up sex is only transactional and we’re just there to get off. I mean, people do that, and I’m sure we all do that every now and again, but there’s so much artistry and beauty in trusting strangers, first and foremost.”
Country Boy (Brunswick East, VIC, 2021)
M: How do you see your HIV advocacy work as relating to your practice? And vice versa.
E: I guess because I am out with my HIV status, it’s an implication with the work. Particularly with the rejection—especially when a lot of people’s knowledge of HIV is very much still attached to the ‘80s, that it’s infectious and that it can kill you and all of this. I like the implication of my work in this context: look at all these people who I’ve had sex with—I’m still a sexual person as an HIV-positive person.
Being in a space, working in the HIV sector, a lot of the time, the first thing that people lose after a diagnosis is their sexual citizenship, because acquiring HIV is commonly a very sexually traumatic experience, so it’s very reasonable that someone would be like “I don’t want to have sex for a while”. Sadly there’s still a lot of HIV stigma out there. When you’re also part of a culture where your sexual citizenship is a form of capital—especially with a lot of gay men I know, it’s like “are you even gay if you don’t have sex? Are you even gay if not for your identity?” And I think that says so much: to I think our society has reduced people to who they have sex with, because what is a homosexual man if not to be homo-sexual?
“…a lot of people’s knowledge of HIV is very much still attached to the ‘80s, that it’s infectious and that it can kill you and all of this. I like the implication of my work in this context: look at all these people who I’ve had sex with—I’m still a sexual person as an HIV-positive person.”
Emil (Fortitude Valley, QLD, 2019)
E: I think it’s important for people to know that HIV-positive people on effective treatment can never pass on the virus to another person. They can have children, have condomless sex with another person, and live a normal length of life with just a daily pill. That’s how being positive informs my work. Every now and then I take the opportunity, using my art practice, to educate people about HIV, and give them up-to-date information.
With my own (HIV advocacy) work though, I don’t tell them that I have an arts practice, especially when it’s something so open. If they find me, that’s fine, but I don’t actively tell people at my job, “oh yeah, I have this project and I…” Because, you know, if you look at it with really fresh eyes, you just see a person who’s sharing all the people they have sex with on Instagram and you have to dig a bit deeper and think about it culturally and conceptually to get there. I also just don’t want to risk having someone’s prejudice over my work affect the level of support that I’m offering them.
“I think it’s important for people to know that HIV-positive people on effective treatment can never pass on the virus to another person.”
Turning Tina (2018) a resource designed by Emil Cañita as part of their work in the HIV sector
M: It’s really telling that the reaction of some of your lovers when you ask to take their photo and share their story as part of an artwork in a gallery setting is to say “why would my body ever be in a gallery?” It gets to a point where we might ask, “is what is considered art determined only by institutions?”
E: Yeah, I think so much of it is set around institutionality and its gatekeeping; it has a very colonial lens to it and framework around it, but I’m also aware that there are so many people out there who are slowly changing this from within. I love that I’m not even in the galleries yet and just doing my own thing, but still getting, I think, the function of art: I’m getting engagement, I’m having those conversations happen within my community. If that is not art then I don’t know what is.
M: That might be a definition of good art. It’s certainly not the function of most institutional art.
E: I’d rather have that than be in a vacuum in a white box, where people see it sure, but not in a way that has that organicness about it. I appreciate that Instagram gives me that: people engaging with the work in real-time.
“…it’s about seeing male sexuality and its softness; the vulnerability in male sexuality. With my focus, I’m portraying male sexuality and its beauty…”
M: And you reach a demographic that’s different from the people who are going to white box galleries armed with the language of art criticism.
E: It’s interesting, the most engagement I get is from cis hetero women. I get a lot of women engaging with my work, more so than queers.
M: What does that engagement look like?
E: Commonly, it’s about seeing male sexuality and its softness; the vulnerability in male sexuality. With my focus, I’m portraying male sexuality and its beauty; a lot of these women would reach out to me and say that they find it refreshing, because it’s like, “oh yeah, there is goodness in men; there is softness, there’s this vulnerability.”
Carlos (New Farm, QLD, 2019)
M: Recently some of your stuff was taken down by Instagram. Has that happened before? And how does that kind of censorship change your approach to your work moving forward?
E: I actually lost my account a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve been very sensitive with my content and in some ways really quite playful with it, like I’d only give enough of a visual context for someone to understand. But now their algorithm is becoming a lot smarter and more sensitive. Because even with old work that I posted months or years ago, it’s now getting pulled up as “violating community standards.” So if Instagram does up their AI, it would really put the whole practice at risk. And I suppose it’s one of those things, because it is so precarious. I do actually love the precarity of the work, even in the medium that it exists in, because it does reflect the precarious aspect of sex: it can be very healing, but it’s also destructive. So in many ways I do like that relationship with the medium itself. In saying that, if my account was permanently taken down, it would definitely fuck me up (laughs).
“I do actually love the precarity of the work, even in the medium that it exists in, because it does reflect the precarious aspect of sex: it can be very healing, but it’s also destructive.”
M: How are you thinking about presenting work in galleries? From what you’ve done so far, it doesn’t seem like you’re content to import Instagram-like aesthetics into the exhibition space. You have these concepts and themes you’ve been working with on Instagram; how do you then adapt those to the gallery space?
E: In the context of the gallery, one of the key things I want to think about is having the polaroid and the writing there and seeing the power in that. And now, with QR codes being so normal, incorporating a QR code so people can access the story through their phone. I’m looking forward to exploring how I can differentiate the sort of interaction I can have with another person through a gallery wall and via their phone.
Not Just A Hole, Sir (Brunswick East, VIC, 2021)
“By developing my practice on Instagram, I’ve learned that the idea of an exhibition can exist beyond the white walls of a gallery.”
M: How do you feel about that transition to presenting work in gallery exhibitions?
E: What is inspiring me now is actually to think, “how will I continue to present my work outside of the gallery?” So using different environments as points where people can access art. By developing my practice on Instagram, I’ve learned that the idea of an exhibition can exist beyond the white walls of a gallery: it could be through your Instagram story, through a zine or small publication, a Twitter feed, and so on. An example of this is this “Out in Public” project that I’m working on right now. I’m planning on geo-tagging these people’s narratives, these oral histories, from POC, Black folks, First Nations people, and their relationship with different beats across Victoria. For those unaware, beats are public spaces people use to have sex. So basically it will be an interactive piece where a person can go to a location and walk around in this app and listen to a person’s story. That in itself is an exhibit.
Out in Public (2021) Design: Mike Nguyen
M: Can you tell us a bit about what else you’re working on at the moment?
E: There will be a publication for ‘Out in Public.’ I’m also currently developing a publication for my ‘GloryHole’ project. They’re going to be quite interactive using a phone. Through them you’ll have access to videos and content that aren’t Instagram-friendly, maintaining that technological aspect. I’m really looking forward to marrying the physical and the virtual.
Then I’m just waiting for another gallery to finish setting up; well, it’s not a gallery per se, it’s a space a friend owns, and I thought it would be the perfect space to do an exhibition on the glory hole. I’m just waiting for EOIs from other galleries from across the country, because I’d really love to do a show in Brisbane; it would be so special. It would mean a lot to me to be closer to my community, because I feel so deeply connected to my community in Meanjin.
Emil (Tea Tree Lakes, NSW, 2018)
©2021 Emil Cañita & Muhib Nabulsi. All rights reserved.