Machine Dazzle — downtown legend, artistic innovator and Pulitzer Prize finalist — already has a body of work beyond the scope of what many creatives accomplish in their lifetime. The work of the costume designer, performer and recording artist will soon be on display at the Museum of Arts and Design in Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle, opening September 10 and running through February in Columbus Circle.
The exhibit will feature over 80 of Machine Dazzle’s creations and collaborations with artists like Mx Justin Vivian Bond and Taylor Mac. W42ST sat down with Matthew Flower, the self-taught artist known as Machine Dazzle, to discuss his New York origin story, queer maximalism and what’s next.
Machine Dazzle is excited about the upcoming MAD exhibit. “I want people to leave with a sense of joy,” he said. “I want to inspire people to maybe go home and make something themselves. I think society often places this glass cage around art — where it’s inaccessible and it’s exclusive — and I want people to be able to access this, express themselves and be who they are. I want people to have fun, and to laugh. Laughter is healing, and I want people to be healed by this exhibit.”
Healing was on Machine Dazzle’s mind as he recalled a childhood filled with frequent moves to often inhospitable states for a young queer kid. “There are certain questions that don’t apply to everyone — and for me, ‘where are you from?’ is one of them because I moved around a lot as a kid,” he said. “I was raised in a lot of fairly conservative places like Pennsylvania, Texas, and Idaho — which was really horrible, if you can imagine Idaho in the 80s.”
Longing for a place where he could live openly, Machine Dazzle remembers his early years as especially challenging within the context of the decade. “There’s something about coming out to yourself during the height of the AIDS crisis — it was a little weird, like looking in the mirror every day and like admitting to yourself that you were gay and it wasn’t okay with people at school or at home or wherever,” said Machine Dazzle. “And then on top of it, back then people were ignorant, they thought that gay and AIDS were the same thing. It was a double whammy.”
He eventually moved from Idaho to the University of Colorado in Boulder, studying photography and art. His time at UC Boulder sparked his creative side, but he had a longing for the life experience and queer community of New York City. “I bought a one-way ticket to New York after university, and it was the first decision that I think I ever really made for myself,” said Machine Dazzle, who arrived here in 1994. “I moved to New York not for my career, but to survive and for the first time in my life, be myself.”
Despite getting into the Parsons School of Design, the financial barrier of tuition fees left Machine Dazzle to figure out the city on his own. “Living in New York has always been expensive. I had never been to New York before and after I got off the plane, I realized what I had done and was in a little bit of a culture shock,” he added.
The artist quickly went to work carving out a life for himself, working as a jewelry designer and renting a small apartment in Alphabet City for $375 a month. “I had never lived on my own before and I wanted to see what the city was all about, so I started going to clubs and cabarets and experiencing nightlife,” he said. It would be the beginning of his fascination with the downtown scene, as he experienced “the era of the mega-club and the height of club kids before all of that died. New York had the most amazing scene where people really got dressed up — I loved it.”
Machine Dazzle started to make his own nightlife outfits, trying out drag and experimenting with makeup, hair and wigs. “This was all before the internet, and it was hard to find high heels in my size,” he laughed. “You really had to figure it out on your own — but over time I got better and I started to refine it a little bit.”
His evolution into costuming as a career “was a cause-and-effect thing,” he said. “I learned as I went, and I gained the reputation for showing up to parties dressed in a certain way and people loved it. They started asking me to do it for them,” he added. “At first it was some individual looks I did for a couple dancers, a drag queen and a performer here and there.”
Eventually the artist would become connected with a group of creatives who would not only cement his place as a professional performing artist, but also give him his professional nom de scéne. “I had some friends who had formed a dance group called the Dazzle Dancers. They were basically strippers with a hint of activism, and were really popular in the downtown scene and gay places and queer spaces. They loved what I was doing and their costume designer had gotten busy, so I started making their costumes,” he said. “And then I became one of the dancers.”
“All of the Dazzle Dancers had Dazzle names like Cherry Dazzle and Rinky-Dink Dazzle and Cornflake Dazzle,” added Machine Dazzle. Known among fellow club-going friends as a “dancing machine”, he was quickly dubbed “Machine Dazzle” by the dance group, and the rest is history. “it quickly became my professional name outside of the gig, and even after we stopped performing people called me Machine Dazzle, so it didn’t make sense to change it.” Although the group “stopped dazzling around 2008,” the friends plan to reunite for a performance at the MAD exhibition opening night event.
The Dazzle Dancers gave the artist more than just a nickname, however — it was during his time with the group that he met two of his most frequent future collaborators, the downtown legends Mx Justin Vivian Bonds and Taylor Mac. With Mac, “the collaborations were small at first — we would kiki at the gay clubs and we always got along so well,” said Machine Dazzle. “We were really getting to know each other during those early Bush years in 2002-2003, when New York was coming back post-9/11 and everything in the downtown performance art world was more meaningful, thoughtful and sensitive. We were all processing what we had gone through and our work started being more activism than just art for art’s sake.”
After several politically-themed projects together, Machine Dazzle and Taylor Mac collaborated on 2008’s The Lily’s Revenge, a multidisciplinary play blending music, puppetry, poetry and circus performance and a reaction to anti-gay marriage legislation. After premiering at the HERE Arts Center in 2009, “we really started to get noticed,” said Machine Dazzle, adding that it was “my first big feat” as both costume designer and performer. Despite rave reviews, “I still didn’t make any money off of the show,” he laughed. “I was still working my full-time job, but I did it because I loved it.”
But after working together again on the musical, commedia dell’arte-inspired piece Walk Across America, the two artists found a veritable hit in A 24 Decade History of Popular Music, an epic, 24-hour exploration of the nation’s musical history from 1776 to present. The creative process was somewhat of an epic in itself, added Machine Dazzle, explaining that Taylor Mac first contacted him about designing one of the 24 different costumes in 2010. “Taylor said, ‘Machine, would you make me a 1790s inspired outfit?’ And I said, ‘Okay, that’s random, but sure.’ Nothing gets my creative juices flowing as much as a brand-new project.”
The pair would go on to try out and workshop different decades, musical styles and costumes over the next six years before premiering the show at St Ann’s Warehouse in 2016. The piece went on to tour theaters all over the world and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. They still perform an abridged, two-hour version of the show to this day.
What keeps Machine Dazzle creatively inspired is the ability to simultaneously dip into multiple artistic forms, from design to acting to dancing to singing. “I’ve been called a maximalist, and a queer maximalist for a long time,” he said. “And I think it is because the way I do things is very other.” He describes his creative philosophy as a passion for jumping into different mediums head first. “I’ve never taken a sewing class, I’ve never taken a theater class, I’ve never taken a music class — these are all things that I do.”
This fearlessness has led Machine Dazzle to record his debut album Treasure, launching this fall and with a release party October 21 at Joe’s Pub. The record, born out of his Works and Process show at The Guggenheim, will be previewed at the MAD exhibition with sneak-peek tracks playing alongside the artist’s costumes.
Machine Dazzle is also working on the next Taylor Mac collaboration, a piece celebrating queer luminaries throughout history and premiering in 2023 called Bark of Millions in which he’ll both design and perform.
For now, the artist is looking forward to welcoming visitors to his temporary home at MAD. “I’m very proud of the fact that in collaboration with MAD we’ve created this very magical environment. And I hope that people take the time to really look at them and consider them. The museum has also given space on the sixth floor, and people can visit me if I’m here — I want to get a refrigerator in here so I can have rosé and people can come in for happy hour!” he said.
Describing Machine Dazzle as a “queer experimental theater genius”, the MAD site has this to say about what’s in store for visitors to the exhibition: “Excessive in scale, color, surface, texture and movement, Machine Dazzle’s living sculptures constantly transform as the designer combines the familiar embellishments of drag and burlesque, such as sequins, glitter, and feathers, beads, with found fantastical and found objects, such as ping pong balls, hoop skirts, slinkies, soup cans, and more, to build and deepen the work’s narrative intent. The result is an explosive “queer maximalism” aesthetic that joyfully counters the prejudices of high culture regarding extravagance and the overly decorated and embraces these associations as queer for affirming hybridity over purity, rejecting cultural hierarchies, and valuing different kinds of bodies.”
Decades in the making, the boundary-pushing, ever-innovative Machine Dazzle reflected on going from a kid hailing from everywhere and nowhere to a world-renowned, critically acclaimed artist in New York City. “I get two whole floors for six months — it’s quite a footprint in New York City. I’m honored and feel so lucky that it’s happening. Hopefully, it will open up a whole new world for me,” he said. “Maybe I’ll be a really busy artist for the next decade!”