Creatrix Tiara is a shenaniganist — one who performs in a variety of media and activities, from spoken word to interactive storytelling to sleight of hand to event organizing. Tiara performs as Queer Lady Magician, has been a writer for such games as Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers and What The $!#&@! Do They Need Now?, and uses their art to address themes such as immigration, intersectionality, and liminality.
In this podcast interview, I ask Tiara how they elevate stage magic to address social issues; the xenophobia inherent in immigration policies; why video games can produce a more visceral reaction than other media; the interrelation of multiple media that makes them inseparable; and how one gets up to shenanigans in the midst of a pandemic.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a full transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Creatrix Tiara on Twitter
- Queer Lady Magician
- Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers
- What The $!#&@! Do They Need Now?
- Escape from Woomera
- Return to Escape from Woomera
- An interview with Creatrix Tiara about Return to Escape from Woomera
- Animal Crossing New Horizons is coming to Melbourne Fringe
Announcer: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello, and welcome to Polygamer podcast episode number 104 for Wednesday, August 19th, 2020. I’m your host, Ken Gagne.
A few years ago I was on a PAX East panel with Anna Megill, a narrative director. She recently said to everybody, “Hey if you want me to signal boost you, let me know and I’ll retweet you.” She retweeted somebody with whom I just became absolutely fascinated.
The more I dove into this person’s websites, portfolio, and history, the more impressed I became with the variety of accomplishments and talents that they have, so I invited them onto Polygamer. I was delighted to receive a positive response.
Allow me to introduce you to the shenaniganist, Creatrix Tiara. Hello, Tiara.
Creatrix Tiara: Hey. How’s it going?
Ken: It’s going great. I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you for bridging the time zones. It’s 9:00 pm Friday my time, and it’s 1:00 pm in the afternoon on Saturday, tomorrow, for you all the way over in Australia, so thank you so much.
Creatrix Tiara: Happy to chat. I love that intro. Can I use it as a testimonial?
Ken: Absolutely, copy and paste it as you like. As I mentioned, you are a shenaniganist. I can say with 100 percent certainty, I have never had a shenaniganist on the Polygamer podcast. Help us out here. What exactly does that title mean?
Creatrix Tiara: It came about because I was trying to work out how to describe the breadth of things that I do, as you probably would have seen scrolling through my website. I’ve produced events. I’ve made games. I’ve written a lot. I’ve produced performance art.
It made me think a lot of the things that you start off as shenanigans, like, “Oh, this could be fun. What if we did blah,” and then it snowballs. My friends and I actually, we call it jokifesting. [laughs] You know the whole thing about “manifesting,” and “the universe provides”? That always annoys me to death. [scoffs]
We found that anything I start off as a joke, snowballs. [laughs] It’s like, “Oh, you know what I do? I get up to shenanigans. I thought, “Wouldn’t be funny if I called myself shenaniganist?” It’s like, “You know, maybe I’ll take that.” That’s what I have — shenaniganist.
Ken: If I look up the dictionary definition of shenanigans, the primary definition is mischief and prankishness. Second definition is deceit and trickery, which doesn’t necessarily have a positive connotation. Do you get up to deceit and trickery?
Creatrix Tiara: My last big project was a stage magic show where I actually interrogate the whole deceit and trickery part of it. I get the dictionary definition is leading on the negative end of things, but there’s definitely an element of mischief and prankishness to some of the things I do.
Creatrix Tiara: But it’s for a good cause. Last year, I threw a surprise birthday party for a dear friend, Mama Alto, who’s a Melbourne-based jazz cabaret artiste and all-round community legend. She was having a really hard year, and so some friends and I got together to throw a very special surprise birthday.
There was this atmosphere of mischief all around it, but it was in the service of making her happy. In that way, yeah, shenanigans, but it’s fun, but for good.
Ken: These shenanigans, when you say they snowball, do they become paid gigs or are these shenanigans you get up to for fun?
Creatrix Tiara: It’s a bit of both. Some of it is just the arts industry, it’s hard to get paid work to begin with. As I said, you start off with a germ of an idea, whether it’s, “Oh, why don’t we have a surprise birthday party?”
Or, my stage magic show, we started off as like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if we had a queer lady magician?” because stage magic is very Cishet White Dude. To my surprise, a lot of people were into that idea. Suddenly, I had a team together, and suddenly we have done two full seasons of the whole show.
Right as the pandemic hit, I actually was in the West Coast of the US touring bits of the show. It started from a germ of an idea and grew into an international touring show, which is weird.
Creatrix Tiara: You can’t predict these things. You can’t really plan this out. I see that in people who are trying to work out, “Oh, how do you go viral? How do you tap into the zeitgeist?” You can’t plan this. You can’t plan this. You just have to throw things at the wall and see what sticks.
Ken: Just play the odds. The more you put out there, the more things will stick.
Creatrix Tiara: It’s often the things you don’t necessarily expect. I think part of it is also being keenly attuned to what’s happening and being able to respond very quickly to it.
Ken: I get that. That’s the way I launched my YouTube channel. I put one video up. I’d never done any videos before. I put one up just for fun. It got millions of views. I’m like, “Well, I guess I’m running a YouTube channel now. I’ll upload another couple hundred.”
Creatrix Tiara: [laughs] Nice. I was like, “Well, I guess I’m doing this now. Great.”
Ken: When the opportunity presents itself, you take advantage of it. You talked about Queer Lady Magician. That is a proper name, capital QLM. I love magic. I had, as a previous guest on this show, Susan Arendt, who at the time, was editor in chief of Genii, a magic magazine.
Creatrix Tiara: Oh, yeah.
Ken: You know Genii?
Creatrix Tiara: I’ve heard of it. Yeah.
Ken: I got to hear about the journalistic side of covering the magic industry. I’ve never had a magician on the show. What is Queer Lady Magician?
Creatrix Tiara: Queer Lady Magician is a stage magic project, which is a queer, feminist, anti-racist take on stage magic, but also very deeply autobiographical. The initial project was an hour-long stage show where I go through my history with stage magic. I also loved it as a kid. It was my first true passion.
Then, when I was in secondary school, I tried to do a magic show and it completely bombed on me. I shied away from magic ever since, because I was struck with this massive fear of failure.
Through the show, I talk about having met this woman when I was in San Francisco. Her name is Blake Maxam. She’s an older trans woman who’s also a magician. She got me back into it. Then, there was the fallout with an abusive relationship, and how that gave me the fear of manipulation.
You’re doing magic though. That’s the art of manipulation. How do you reconcile the two things? Part of it is taking a different view on stage magic that conventional stage magic doesn’t really look at. One of my acts is…You know about the bullet catch?
Ken: I imagine it’s where somebody fires a gun, and you catch the bullet.
Creatrix Tiara: Yeah. The most iconic performance of the bullet catch was in Victorian era by this performer who went by a Chinese name the entire time. He got killed by that very same bullet catch. In his dying words, he suddenly revealed that he’s actually a white guy.
[laughs] I changed that piece into like, “Here’s the dangers of cultural appropriation. You might get killed by your own magic trick.”
Creatrix Tiara: My signature act is the menstrual cups and balls.
Ken: Oh, go on.
Creatrix Tiara: I had this great idea of what if you use menstrual cups for the cups and balls trick? Then develop a whole act around it where it ends up being partially a PSA on how to use menstrual cups while also doing magic. We hardly ever see any other stage magicians willing to deal with issues like menstruation.
There’s tricks like that, but also just the deep storytelling element of how do you deal with failure? How do you deal with the emotionally manipulative abuse in the past? How do you reconcile that with trying to get back into what was your first love and you’ve lost it? How do you find a way to connect with it again?
Making this show, I heard from so many other people, especially other queer people who are like, “I also loved magic as a kid, but I fell out of it because all the magicians I saw were white guys. I could not relate to it.”
It’s been really nice to be able to do this show, and see a bunch of people going, “Oh, my God. You’ve brought me back the thing I love as a kid.” That was the experience I had with meeting Blake, who ends up being a big part of the show. It was so gratifying to see that I could be that person for other people.
Ken: I’m not sure I’ve ever actually been to a magic show. I’ve seen them on television, on YouTube. I’m trying to reconcile or to figure out how do you talk about abusive relationships through the medium of card tricks, for example? Or whatever else sleight of hand we’re accustomed to associating with magic?
Creatrix Tiara: With the show, it’s not necessarily there’s a magic trick in every five seconds. The bit where I talk about my abusive ex — who actually turned out to be the person who introduced me to Blake — that is more of a dance number. That is not strictly a magic number, but it ties into talking about the larger themes of magic.
In the show, I do this spoken word dance piece about the ex, and then in the end go, “Oh, my God. What am I doing? If I had to deal with someone like her who messed up my mind so much, why do I want to do an art form that is about messing with people’s minds? What’s up with that? How do I go about this?”
It fits into the show’s larger story about, “This is the first magic show I’ve done in a long time. What if I fail?” There’s an assistant character who’s trying to murder me the entire time. [laughs] He finally gets to me and kills me, and takes over. I come back to life because, of course, it’s a magic show.
Creatrix Tiara: Stories like that, they’re less about ooh, flashy magic trick, but they give you an emotional context to this journey. You see my journey from being a kid wannabe magician to my adult self now. It’s less about, “Ooh, magic trick,” and more, “Here’s the heart of why I’m doing this show.”
Ken: Where did you learn all your magic from?
Creatrix Tiara: A lot of it I learned as a kid. I had magic books growing up. My dad and I also watched a lot of magic on TV, so we picked up stuff from there; the Internet.
Hen Queer Lady Magician started actually becoming a proper show and not just a germ of an idea, I did hire a magic consultant, Andrés Dumassi, who helped work me through some of the very specific tricks we need to do.
Again, it was like that, and then a lot of reading. I got a bunch of books and started reading through them. I got my old books and pored through them. The Internet, also, has plenty of resources.
A lot of it was less about learning the trick for the first time, and more trying to remind myself of the stuff I used to do more often. It’s like, “I remember this technique,” or, “This is just like I remember doing when I was 10.” I still had my books from when I was that age. I used them a lot in trying to develop the show, and also in practicing the tricks again.
Ken: I find that magic is very much a use-it-or-lose-it skill. I’ve been taught a handful of card tricks. If I practice them, then I can pull them off flawlessly, but if I don’t do them for a while, I’m like, “Wait, what’s the next step? How do I do this?”
Creatrix Tiara: [laughs]
Ken: It really takes a lot of practice.
Creatrix Tiara: It does. There’s many different magic skills, not just card tricks. Anything from big stage illusions to smaller more sleight of hand things. One thing I learned from my research into doing Queer Lady Magician was that the true act of magic isn’t necessarily in the technique. It is in your connection with the audience.
Magic is ultimately a conversation between you and the audience. I went to the Melbourne Magic Festival the year I did Queer Lady Magician for the first time. I volunteered there and watched.
A lot of magicians that I saw were very technically competent, but I could not connect with them at all. The stories were a bit dodgy in too many ways. They were just not engaging as performers. It’s hard for me to appreciate that you’re technically doing this very well when it is turning me off as a performer.
There was also this one performer, his name is Vincent Kuo. He’s a 19-year-old based in, I believe, Sydney. He developed this really beautiful routine around Rubik’s Cubes. They’ll fall apart, and come back together, and change color. He set it to this background music. It sounds a bit like you’re in Narnia, and you’re encountering a very specific elf.
When I watched it, I could tell how some of the things were working. It was his first show of the festival. It was so beautiful. It brought me to tears. [laughs] It was the first ever magic show that made me cry.
That’s where I feel like the magic really is. That’s where I’ve learned also a lot of prominent magicians folk over the years, you’re basically an actor pretending to be a magician. The technique is definitely part of it, but so much of it is about getting the audience on your side.
There’s been times when we did Queer Lady Magician, there was one night where we just had stuff falling apart that day, like, “Oh, no, what’s happening?” The audience didn’t know. The audience thought it was part of the show. You just kind of have to sell it. It was like, “Totally meant for that to happen.”
Ken: I imagine there is some improv involved with magic as well.
Creatrix Tiara: Totally. Not just in terms of your stuff is falling apart so you have to deal with it. We have audience participation in some of the pieces. You just have to work with what they give you. Thankfully, our audience has usually been pretty good. Again, it’s so much about the relationship with you and the audience. You just have to work with what you get.
Ken: You mentioned that you were on tour on the West Coast of the United States back in March. With the pandemic striking at around the same time, were you ever concerned about being stranded as a magician in California?
Creatrix Tiara: We nearly were. [laughs] I was on tour with Sister Spit, which is a US-based group for queer and trans performers, and spending the last few years queer and trans performers of color. It’s mostly spoken word performance poetry, and then I brought in my stage magic bit. [laughs] That’s a weird one.
We were aware of the pandemic coming in. At that point, there was not any clear direction necessarily about whether things should be canceled or not. It was already a very troubling trip. Mind you, I’ve been there before. I’ve been there a billion times.
On my way into LA, I got detained at Los Angeles Airport for two hours. The detention and immigration officers forced me to perform spoken word before they would let me out. I was already melting down, and they asked me to do spoken word. I’m like, “What? OK.”
Then, we did the tour. Then, we went up to Oregon. We went up to Seattle and so on. Halfway through, we were going to start the California leg of our tour, but a lot of the California places were shutting down because of COVID.
We just made the executive decision to, “You know what? We’ll just cut our tour short by half.” We missed all the California dates because of it. Then I had to scramble to get home because everyone else was just going interstate. A lot coming out of California.
I had to go international. I’m scrambling to change my flights to make sure I come back to Australia on time. Every 24 hours, there’s some other news and some other lockdown. I’m just freaking out because I don’t know if I’m going to get home.
I finally get on this plane. The hour I was checking in, there was a big press conference when Prime Minister Scott Morrison was like, “If you’re overseas, you might want to come home now because we’re going to close the border soon.” [laughs]
I was like, “Please get me on this plane.” I already had to change my flights a couple of times, because of the 24 hour legal changes and lockdowns. I get on this Virgin Australia flight.
As we get on, the pilot is like, “Welcome to the last international flight.” I was like, “Oh, my God.” I had upgraded myself to premium economy, because I knew it’s going to be that last future comfort I’d had for a while.
Ken: I’m glad you were able to make it home. I imagine there aren’t a lot of shenanigans you can get up to during a pandemic. You may as well be home.
Creatrix Tiara: Which has been hard. Because of Australian lockdown law, the moment I got home, I had to be quarantined at home for two weeks. This was before they moved everyone to hotels. As opposed to when you’re in lockdown, when in quarantine, you’re not even really allowed to leave the front door.
The only time I could leave my apartment was to go get tested and go immediate testing because I immediately back. I tested negative but that didn’t cut short my quarantine time.
I was trapped basically in my house for two weeks, and it was deeply traumatic. Especially because I didn’t know if it was legal for me to get medical help, especially mental health help or if I’d be arrested for breaking quarantine. Trying to find that information was like pulling teeth, no one really knew.
That really affected me in a bad way, especially since I’d not even really recover from having been detained like just a few weeks before. Honestly, the only thing to make a very weird segue… [laughs]
The only thing that helped me was at the moment I got out, my first day out of quarantine, I went to the local game shop. I got myself a Switch and I got myself a copy of “Animal Crossing — New Horizons” because everyone I know was playing it. I was like, “I miss like everybody.”
Ken: That’s awesome. I’m glad that you were able to pull through and that there was a light at the end of the tunnel for you.
Creatrix Tiara: It’s a work in progress. [laughs] Let’s put it that way.
Ken: You mentioned having to perform spoken word as part of your entry into the United States. It sounds like this is probably not the first time you’ve had people challenge you at immigration. This seems like it’s a recurring theme for you and your work.
Creatrix Tiara: The thing is though, this is the first time I’ve actually ever been detained. I have flown everywhere since I was a baby and I’ve had difficult passports. I used to be on a Bangladesh passport, which meant you need visas for literally everywhere. Now I’m on a Malaysian passport. It’s a little better, but not the best.
Even though I’d gone through a lot of that, especially visa applications that take a hundred years and a lot of money, I’ve usually been OK. I’ve usually gone through fine. The detention was the first time I’d really had to deal with something of that magnitude. I was like, “What the hell.” It made me, for the first time, really fearful of airports now.
Ken: I know that travel is really tough for a lot of people nowadays, especially since not only the pandemic, but also just the state of the world and especially the United States in the last four years. Yet, you are nonetheless accustomed to being in multiple environments.
You mentioned how you have a Malaysian passport. You now live in Australia. You’ve been to the United States. Where do you consider home?
Creatrix Tiara: Oh, wow. That is a very philosophical question.
Creatrix Tiara: The short answer is I don’t know. The long answer is the first place that really felt like home was the San Francisco Bay Area. I was there for a summer artiste residency to start with and fell in love with the city. Especially, since during that time I was having a hard time in Australia with racism in the arts industry, and being isolated for a lot of reasons.
I went to San Francisco, it was like my people are here and they all really appreciate me, so I conspired to get back. I did go back, nominally, for a master’s degree, but really it was so I could spend more time there.
I felt like I didn’t have to explain myself. There were so many avenues for me to explore what I wanted to do. People were welcoming and accepting. I’m sad that I couldn’t figure out a way to stay there longer. But then, six months after I left, Trump gets into office, so I dodged a bullet.
Out of everywhere I’ve lived in, the Bay Area really felt like home. Having to leave feels a bit like those stories, like “Chronicles of Narnia” and all the other stories where the kids go through a magic portal, and they have these adventures there. Then they have to get out and you feel like, “What sort of fairyland was I in?” It feels a lot like that.
Creatrix Tiara: I also know the Bay Area as it is now, it’s likely going to be very different from what it was like in 2011, 2012 to 2015 when I was there. Your ideas of home shift over time. Not just in terms of temporally, but also where you are in your mindset, where you are in your life history.
Ken: You can’t step in the same river twice.
Creatrix Tiara: Pretty much.
Ken: I would like to talk about how this experience with travel and with immigration has informed some of your software development.
Creatrix Tiara: [laughs]
Ken: You laugh, but I actually want to start with that question, which is in one of your other interviews, you mentioned that your programming skills are from the 1990s, which I can relate to. The only computer I’ve ever written a program for is the Apple II, and they haven’t made those since 1993. Tell me about these programming skills of yours that are so many decades old.
Creatrix Tiara: I was on a computer before I could talk. I know, on the one hand, this sounds very millennial of me. On the other hand, this was around ages three to four. I was still an early adopter by that standards.
I learned how to program on QBasic and on Pascal. I used to go to these computing classes for kids. At a certain age, they teach you programming and taught you, too, Pascal. That’s what I became familiar with.
I feel like every time I blink, there’s some new take on a programming language. It’s like, “Oh no. I feel old and ancient. I can’t keep up.” I’m sure if I spend the time just studying, I could work it out. It just feel like by the time I learn, the language is already old. [laughs]
Ken: That was one of my issues with programming is that it seems like you have to invest a lot to get back very little. In the meantime, I could have designed a website or written a blog post. That’s just a language that is much more native to me.
Creatrix Tiara: Now that you have things like website builders like Squarespace or whatever, this feels a bit like all my HTML knowledge is a bit redundant now. It can get a little frustrating where it’s like, “I know how to do this in HTML, but you want me to pay more to let me use it? Why?” [laughs]
Ken: I get that. Programming may not be your strength nowadays, but you have, nonetheless, been involved in a variety of software projects including — this is actually the first time on this Polygamer podcast I’ve ever sworn — “Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers.”
Creatrix Tiara: [laughs] I played “Papers, Please,” which, for those who don’t know, it’s this indie darling of a game where you play as an immigration agent in a post-Soviet somewhere. If you don’t pass people through correctly, your children and your wife are going to die. There’s other people will try to be refugees and stuff.
Everyone around me loved that game, but I wanted to throw that game against the wall. As someone who has had to deal with the immigration system in highly negative ways, I did not want to empathize with the immigration agent. Don’t make me feel sorry for you.
I went to my first game jam in San Francisco, which is an event where a whole bunch of people…You basically make ad hoc groups and you work on a game for 24, 48, 72 hours straight. At the beginning, you could make pitches.
I went up and I said, “I would like to make a game like Papers, Please, but from the side of the visa applicant.” A couple people came up to me and said, “We’d like to make this game with you.” We decided to make a game which is now, Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers, which is basically a whole bunch of very annoying mini-puzzles about immigration.
I worked on the design. I worked on the content. The other two, Patrick and Charlotte, did the coding of it. One of the puzzles was this maze, where you have to escort a piece of paper around. The piece of paper always got stuck behind walls and stuff. You had to go back, pick it up, and go through it again.
Then there’s another maze where the walls are invisible. Every time you hit the invisible wall, something pops and say, “Sorry. You need this piece of paperwork. Sorry, you need to pay us some money.” Some were exaggerated but a lot of them weren’t. [laughs] Then you had one where it’s a Q&A, but it’s an immigration crocodile who just ask these increasingly invasive questions.
We thought about what elements of the immigration system I found frustrating, and how do you translate that into gameplay. I remember we did our demo at the end of the game jam. One of us was playing the game on screen. I saw everyone’s faces just viscerally cringe at how annoying it all is.
I’ve written about immigration a lot. I’ve made at least one performance piece about immigration. I’ve made a video of immigration. Nothing I’ve seen has worked so effectively in getting the point across than seeing this game and seeing people viscerally react.
That actually made me see the power of games and interactive media to get people to understand. Even though the game itself is abstract — you’re not actually literally filling out visa paperwork — the fact that it’s conveying a bit of an abstracted way but you can still feel emotionally, what’s going on, I think there’s something really powerful in that.
You can communicate it rather than just be, “This is what I went through,” or like, “Oh, that sounds terrible.” Now it’s like, “No. Now you feel it. You feel the pain. You feel my pain.”
Ken: Do you think it’s that interactivity that makes it so much more powerful than your other communications on this subject?
Creatrix Tiara: I think so. It’s interactive. You have to go through it but in a way that accessible to you. A game is going to be much more accessible than you trying to fill out a visa application.
Also, the fact that it’s a little bit abstracted means you get to the emotional heart of it a lot quicker. You might have very different experiences of filling out visa paperwork so you might not necessarily know how I feel going through it.
If you’re on a US passport, you probably don’t need to fill out that much paperwork to begin with. You might not know what the big deal is. Here it’s a bit like here is specifically how I feel when I have to go through this. Then, US people would be like, “Oh, now I get it. Now I’m getting what it’s like for you, specifically.”
Ken: Is this based on your own experience?
Creatrix Tiara: Yeah. Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers was entirely based on my experience. A lot of the content is based on the paperwork I had to fill out. One of the background images is scans from my old Bangladesh passport. It is very much rooted in my experience. In a way, it’s also the experience of a lot of other people.
If you have a third-world country passport, you often have to go through mountains of visa paperwork that no one else has to. The requirements apply across the board and lost paperwork is something a lot of people have to deal with. While the thing started from my experience, it’s something a lot of people have to go through but a lot of other people don’t really realize.
Ken: Why is it important to you that other people understand this experience?
Creatrix Tiara: There’s an assumption that a lot of people who never had to go through the immigration system in whatever way, shape, or form, I don’t think people know what it’s like.
I especially notice, with a lot of people on the progressive side of things who can pity refugees and asylum seekers more, but even then, up to a point. They’re like, “Oh no. You’re suffering so much. You’re in detention. We’re not being fair to you.”
Then, the moment those asylum seekers get into the country and get residency, suddenly no one cares about them anymore. There’s also the assumption, “If you can afford to get a visa, then obviously you’re rich and don’t have to worry about anything.” A lot of these people, their entire exposure with visas is, “I’ll just fill out a form and pay $14, and that’s my ESTA.”
They don’t necessarily understand why it would be harder for someone like me to move somewhere or stay somewhere.
When I struggle to find a way to live in the US for longer because I couldn’t find the right visa that I could transition to, I had friends who were grumpy at me. I wasn’t willing to break the law to spend $10,000 of my own money instead of getting an employer to sponsor me so I could stay, as though I was not committed enough to the country.
I was like, “I don’t have $10,000 spare. Also, I don’t want to break the law.”
It also means I used to get people who are like, “Oh, well, you should be grateful that you got here at all.” “If you want to complain, well, why don’t you just leave?” Or even stuff like, “Oh, you should vote.” You’ve got to see that I can’t vote. I don’t have the right to vote. What do you want me to do here?
In Australia, especially a lot of things like art funding, for example, is restricted to permanent residents and citizens only. A lot of scholarships are permanent residents and citizens only. The US is a lot more open about this kind of things, but Australia, not so much.
For a lot of my arts career in Australia, I was on a bridging visa waiting for my permanent residency, so I was ineligible for anything. Which meant my career was on a standstill for years just because I couldn’t access all the stuff that my peers were taking for granted almost.
The expectation’s like, “Oh, surely you’ll be able to blah, blah, blah,” because all of us that had to apply for a grant and get that for a show. Like, I can’t do any of that. It’s not that easy to get a visa, to get permanent residency, and a lot of it is outside my control.
I feel like if people can actually understand the sheer amount of roadblocks, and hurdles, and monetary costs someone like me has to go through, then hopefully they might be able to think about, “Well, what other structures can we build so that we are not reliant on people jumping through a million hoops to access the same things the rest of us access?”
Like, “How can we make this process more fair on people regardless of immigration status? How do you make visas more fair?”
Another thing I wish people would understand is things like this talking about, “Oh, you should pay people for their work,”or, “You should pay speakers for talking at your events.”
The intention is good. The problem is — as I found out when I got detained at LAX — you try to compensate someone to speak in your event, you’re going to contravene visas because there’s no good visa for I’m here to speak at a conference for one day.
It’s either a tourist visa, which you’re technically not supposed to have a dollar on, or a work visa, which is meant for long-term employment and takes a lot of time to organize. Your ideals around paying people for their work aren’t going to necessarily work, unless you also advocate for the immigration system to be easier and fair around this kind of thing.
Ken: Do you think that the pandemic, in moving so many events online, makes things more accessible or is that just skirting the issue?
Creatrix Tiara: It’s interesting to see a lot of events having to negotiate with trying to go online. I don’t know with it’s necessary, but especially this issue immigration-wise, I guess it’s more like well, they’re not having to tackle this issue now.
There have been like some events where it’s become, potentially, a little easier to engage international advisers because then you’re not having to worry about people’s visa paperwork.
At the same time, it’s like I’ve been noticing, at least with the Australian arts industry, a lot of them weren’t really appreciative about the Internet. A lot of them felt like, “Oh, this technology thing, it’s not real art,” or “I can’t express my art form properly.”
Now everyone’s suddenly having to learn how to use Zoom or YouTube in five seconds and grumbling about it. The usual methods don’t quite apply. Part of me is like, “If you listened to me years ago, you probably would be [laughs] better off.” It’s just me.
I don’t know how this is going to be impact on immigration. That would be something we could see maybe in a year’s time and study like, “Has there been more international engagement because you don’t have to worry about people visa fees?” “Has it not changed as much?” I don’t know.
I think this would be a good opportunity to investigate down the road once we have more data. We’re not in the middle of a pandemic.
Ken: Right. It’s hard to see where we’re going right now because things are changing every day.
Creatrix Tiara: Exactly. Pretty much. Sorry, I don’t think I answered your question at all. [laughs]
Ken: No, that was a perfectly valid answer. So, 2015. That is when you made that game that we were just discussing, and then two years later you made “What The $!#&@! Do They Need Now?” I hope I got that right.
Creatrix Tiara: [laughs] Yeah.
Ken: I’m not censoring myself. The game is written with censorship marks where the square would be, so I’m filling it in. I believe that game is about a related topic, isn’t it?
Creatrix Tiara: Yes. That was made through Indie Game Jam, which is a game jam that takes place on an Amtrak track train from Chicago to San Francisco in time for GDC. I got a scholarship to go. Around the time that game jam was happening, the US travel ban was in place.
While Malaysia wasn’t part of the travel ban countries, because Malaysia is a Muslim country, I was worried about whether something would happen to me. If I would get detained there or not, especially since there had been at least one Malaysian that got caught up in all the travel ban stuff.
Even leading up to it I was like, “Should I go or should I not go? Will something happen to me? Is this a bad idea? Even without a travel ban, this is Trump’s America. Will I get bashed on the street?”
I went anyway. To my utter surprise, nothing happened to me. I was slightly disappointed. I had this essay planned for, “Oh, yes. I survived the travel ban.” I was like, “Oh, nothing happened. There was nothing to survive, really.” [laughs]
When we got to Chicago, again, we had the pitching session. I said, “I want to do a game about the travel ban.” I had to go through that anxiety. I want to make a game about it. Again, a bunch of people came up and want to help me with it.
We did this story game where you play someone that is packing their bags to go on this trip. There’s a TV, and every few minutes or every few hours or so, there’s a new restriction or a new something that got announced about the travel ban.
You talk to a couple of friends about whether you should go or not. One of them says, “Go for it.” Another one says, “Stay home.” You ask a lawyer, and the lawyer doesn’t quite give you necessarily the most definitive advice.
At the end of the game, it gives you a choice to make — to go or not to go. We had planned to extend the game to see the things you prepared for when you’re in the first stage, you get the immigration counter. It affects how you get treated.
A, we didn’t have time and B, really, nothing you can do to plan can make a difference at the immigration counter. You could do the best planning, like I did for my Sister Spit trip, and still get detained anyway.
Or it could be like how was the travel? I planned everything and it never actually came up as a question. so it became irrelevant. I think just ending it on a hard like, “You go not to go out?” Then, the game ends. That’s reflective as you can’t predict the future.
I remember watching someone’s play through it. She, within the first couple of minutes, noped out. She’s like, “I already know that I’m going to be denied entry, so I’m not going to continue.”
I’m just like, [laughs] “You are a white American woman. You will probably be fine. Also, you haven’t even gone through most of the game yet. The game doesn’t actually decide whether you get in the country or not.” Within the first five minutes, she already was like, “I’m too scared to continue. I know I’m going to fail getting in. I don’t want to go in.”
Ken: On the other hand, if there was a way for you to know that you weren’t going to get in, then why bother trying, right?
Creatrix Tiara: That’s the thing about immigration though. There is no way to know. Just in my friends in the US, I thought I was super prepared for Sister Spit. Then I showed my invite letter. Usually, if you don’t have an invite letter, they get grumpy at you.
I showed my invite letter to the detention officers, and they threw it into my face. You could be crazy prepared and still not make a difference.
One time I went to New Zealand for a conference. I thought, “New Zealand is next door to Australia. I’ll be fine.” I treated it as Australia. I nearly got in trouble because I didn’t print out my invite letter. I just showed it on an email. It was like, “Ah, the one place I didn’t super prepare for and I nearly got in trouble.” [laughs]
It’s really a mixed bag. Sometimes, you gets crazy prepared and no one ask you anything. Sometimes, in one case, they ask me too many questions. You never know. Sometimes, it’s just the mood of whoever you’re talking to at that particular counter on that particular day.
Ken: Do you think all this difficulty with immigration is reasonable? Are there are reasons for it or is it just another manifestation of xenophobia?
Creatrix Tiara: Totally xenophobia. I am all for open borders. I know I’m maybe an extremist on that point. So much of these regulations are based on xenophobia, especially when they make it harder for people in the Global South to go in.
They think, “Oh, you’re all usually illegals. You’re going to come here and destroy our country. It’s not that much of coincidence that you’re also brown, or black, or Muslim.” Like, “Oh, one of the undesirables.”
It’s totally xenophobia. It’s totally racism, Islamophobia, and anti-blackness all mixed in. 75 percent of the world is seeing us as suspicious. They go, “The only reason you want to be in our country is to drain our resources, steal our jobs, and commit crime.” The visa process exacerbates that.
It’s dehumanizing. You have to prove that you’re not going to use the country in any way. You end up with disabled people having difficulty migrating or even getting a tourist visa because, “Oh, you’re going to be a drain of our healthcare system.”
Everyone is seen as suspicious first. “Why would you even want to be here?” rather than being like, “Oh, yes, we’ll welcome you. Yes, come in. Yes, we would like to make sure you have a good time.” Everyone is guilty first, which is very, very, very frustrating.
Ken: Of course, if you’re a white person who wants to immigrate into a country and then embezzle millions of dollars, that’s absolutely fine.
Creatrix Tiara: That’s totally fine. There’s so many overstayers, people who are here on working holiday visas and then stay a little bit too long, and then ends up being a significant chunk, if not the majority, of visa violations, but they’re not seen as inherently dangerous. They’re not seen as inherently, “You’re going to destroy our way of life.”
Creatrix Tiara: I wish I could say that that’s only a problem with western countries, but no. A lot of Asia is also the same. In Malaysia, I was born and raised there, but because my family were Bangladeshi migrants and they weren’t yet a permanent resident when I was born, I was considered a foreigner, and then only a permanent resident when I was six.
It didn’t matter that I was born and raised in Malaysia and Malaysia is what I know the most, I was always perceived as an outsider. The country is very, very, very anti-Bangladeshi. We were always the bad guys.
Again, it was, “You’re here to ruin our way of life. You are trying to take over. Most of you are illegal.” It didn’t matter that my dad is an engineer and then turned into a managing director. It’s like, “How dare you be better than us.”
I was in school and, straight-up, the teacher would say to my classmates, “Don’t let the Bangla kid do better than you in your exams,” in front of my face. It’s always being the case of, “You’re the other. You’re suspicious.” Especially if you’re the kind of other that is especially maligned.
That’s why, when you asked about which places feel like home, a lot of it is even if I want to call a place home, that place will not accept me as one of them. What do I do?
Ken: I’m sorry that you have that disconnect. It’s important to put down roots or some people think it is. It can be very grounding to have a place that welcomes you, whether that’s because the country does, or the people do, or it’s just a place you can call your own. It can be very comforting.
Creatrix Tiara: For sure. Stability can be very helpful. Not having a sense of the stability can destabilize you, but basically, that’s a totality. [laughs]
Creatrix Tiara: Not having a sense of stability can affect your standing everywhere. I’ve been in Melbourne now for a little over four years. I’m in the middle of applying for Australian citizenship. I finally became eligible to apply. It’s a waiting game. It’s the first time, possibly ever, that I didn’t have to worry.
I wasn’t faced with the choice of I have to leave because my visa is running out or the place isn’t safe for me anymore. I also don’t have to stay if I don’t want to. I have a little more freedom of movement. It’s been kind of a weird adjustment. It’s like I can actually think about the long term now in a way that I could never have before.
The only reason something like Queer Lady Magician was able to happen was because, “Oh, I can actually do things that would last longer. I don’t always have to work on a six-week cycle. This can take months, and that’s fine.”
That’s still a thing that I have to make adjustment for. Now, it’s like, “Oh, the pandemic has thrown all of that on its head again, so who knows now.” [laughs]
Ken: I get that. I move every two to three months. I know there are some things I can’t do in a space of two to three months because I’ve only have gotten so far into a project before it’s time to pick up and move again.
Creatrix Tiara: Absolutely.
Ken: There’s one other game I want to ask you about, which is “Escape from Woomera,” which was made 16 years ago. Now there is an event coming up in October based on that called “Return to Escape from Woomera.” What is this game? What is this event?
Creatrix Tiara: Escape from Woomera is a game that was made where you play a refugee in a detention center. You, basically, literally try to escape the detention center. It was made in consultation with the people at this detention center, but even when it was made, it was controversial in a lot of ways.
Some people thought it was a good way to experience, to know what it’s like in the detention center. Some people thought it was trivializing it. Some people did not like that, “Oh my God, you’re talking about this controversial topic. How dare you?”
It was so controversial that the Australia Council for the Arts refused to fund any other game-related project until they funded the Freeplay Independent Games Festival last year. It took them that 15 years for them to be comfortable funding any sort of games thing again.
Return to Escape from Woomera, I actually was a part of one of the events last year. It’s a group, I believe it’s Applespiel. It’s a group based in Sydney, where they do a retrospective of Escape from Woomera. There’s a part where they get people in the audience to play the game. They do a little bit sport-style commentary about how the players think of the game.
While the player is playing the game and everyone’s watching the progress, they also have a panel discussion about the arts, immigration, games. When they first did the Return to Escape from Woomera event in Sydney, I got invited to be a part of the panels because there were hardly anyone else who was sitting in the intersection of immigration and games.
Me and maybe Lucas Pope, the two people. I got to be in a couple of the panels. One of the panels was me and a couple of other immigrant artists. We talked about immigration, the arts, and how that intersects together.
The other panel I was on was with Julian Burnside who is this very well-known lawyer who’s worked with refugees, asylum seekers, and has been part of a few landmark cases around this. When I found out I was on a panel with him, I was like, “Oh my God, why am I on the panel with this guy?” Ha, imposter syndrome.
It was an interesting discussion that we had about immigration from the perspective of someone in the system versus someone working outside the system. Well, not outside. Julian Burnside isn’t dealing as an immigrant. He’s a lawyer advocating for immigrants, talking about the legal issues thereof.
There’s been an event in Melbourne a little while ago. Looks like they’re bringing it back again. It’s a way to explore the effects of that game on arts funding, funding controversial art, funding political art. Also, how do you depict politics in games specifically? How do immigrants make art?
It’s been a few different ways. I remember going to the one in Melbourne. They had a panel that had at least one person who was a refugee. She was talking about on her bridging visa, she was not even allowed Medicare access. At least, I had Medicare, which was a godsend.
She wasn’t even allowed to access healthcare on her bridging visa, talking about how people like her get left out of a lot of, “Oh, let’s help refugees,” and like, “Yeah, you only help them with dinners and stuff, but not anything is super practical long-term.”
It’s an event where you get all of this perspectives together to talk about different aspects of using the game as a base, but branching off to a lot of related topics about it.
Ken: It’s not solely a retrospective on a game that was relevant 16 years ago. This game is still relevant today.
Creatrix Tiara: Especially the Australia’s refugee and asylum-seeker policies are still very, very restrictive, if anything, even more so. We have a government campaign literally called You Will Not Make Australia home. Nothing has improved, really.
There is perhaps a need still for something like Escape from Woomera, whether that is a game, whether that is some other media, and doesn’t need to be an interactive experience for people to relate. Now, there’s a lot more people on the ground that have a better understanding perhaps than there were maybe 15 years ago.
A lot of it is structural, like how do you get governments to care? It has been especially frustrating in the last Australian election, I believe last year. I went through the policies of just about every party that was running. I decided to look at what everyone’s immigration policies were. The vast majority of them were anti-immigrant.
It didn’t matter what your core policy is. Environmental parties were like, “We have to solve climate change by blocking immigration,” or, “Oh, we’re the Secular Party, and so we support freedom of speech. Let’s ban burkas.”
You see right now it’s who’s in power nowadays, the US election return with Brexit, Australia even, so much of it has been rooted in anti-immigrant, anti-refugees, anti-asylum seeker sentiment, like, “Oh no, basically we need to keep the outsiders out one way or another.” It ends up affecting us in insidious ways.
Ken: There’s one more game project I want to talk to you about. We’ve been talking about immigration, the challenges thereof, and how games can be used to progress the social cause. This one is maybe just a little bit lighter. How much do you want tell us about this?
Creatrix Tiara: I did mention the one thing that helped me recover from forcibly being quarantined for two weeks was buying a Nintendo Switch and getting a copy of Animal Crossing — New Horizons. I’ve played a little bit of Animal Crossing before, but this was the first one I’ve sunk my teeth into it.
I loved how interactive it is. I loved how many players have used Animal Crossing as an avenue to host events on it.
I thought, “What if I tried to host a show via Animal Crossing?” It looked like it technically was possible. Then later, I see people like Gary Whitta’s “Animal Talking,” which is an entire talk show entirely in Animal Crossing. He’s got big names on it now. There’s been another artist that’s done comedy shows on it. It’s people done fashion shows, all sorts.
Initially, I pitched a thing for Melbourne Fringe about what if I did a show on Animal Crossing, la, la, la, as in the tradition of things that’s sort of a shenanigan and then snowball. This is another one of them.
The most I could say, because you’re on embargo technically till October, is that their Animal Crossing — New Horizons is coming to Melbourne Fringe in a really, really, really big way. I think about a fringe festival within Animal Crossing.
I’ve been working on it slowly and still very surprised that I’m getting to do this. We’ll bring Animal Crossing to Melbourne Fringe and to future festivals as well. We’ve got one other festival interested.
Ken: That is awesome. Is there a place online where people can follow this Animal Crossing project? Or do you want to send them to the Melbourne Fringe website?
Creatrix Tiara: It’s not on the Melbourne Fringe website yet. I’m working on a online page for it. You can sign up for updates on acnhfringe.substack.com. That’s probably would be the best way. I’m still working on an actual proper landing page for it. Sign up to the Substack Newsletter, acnhfringe.substack.com, and you’ll get some insight into what exactly is happening.
Ken: Excellent. I’ll include a link to that in the show notes. One last question before we go. You talked about how powerful the visceral medium of video games can be. We also talked about so many other things that you do, including magic.
If you had to choose just one of your many forms of shenanigans, just one medium that would be your favorite, would you be even able to choose from so many? What is your favorite, if there is one?
Creatrix Tiara: My favorite would be bring together things in unexpected ways. The whole point of the way I work is that I bring together different forms and mediums into something new. Trying to pick one is slightly besides the point.
I’ve always been about melding things together and looking at…not necessarily to inform. Not just like, “Oh, I want to do an art piece,” or “I want to do a performance piece,” or whatever. Like “What is something about this topic I want to explore? “
Whether is “Oh, what if there was a Queer Lady Magician who was as well known as the Cishet White Dude Magician. What’s that like?” Or, what if Animal Crossing but a fringe festival? That’s my favorite thing. My favorite thing is trying to see what unexpected things lie behind something and running with it.
Ken: No, I get that. That makes perfect sense. I love that answer. Thank you.
I’m somebody who enjoys a variety of media myself. I have a YouTube channel. I edit podcasts. I publish a print magazine that actually goes in the mail. They all feed off each other. If somebody would ask me to pick just one, it’s like, “Well, you can’t do one without the others. It’s all part of one body.”
Creatrix Tiara: Exactly. People trying to sometimes ask me like, “Why do you do so many things? How do you do so many things?” As you said, they all feed each other.
My games work informed Queer Lady Magician in a lot of ways or my stage work informs like my approached to a fringe festival involving a video game. They all feed within each other, even if the influence is not necessarily that explicit.
Ken: I love it. Well, I’m not quite at the point of calling myself a shenaniganist. I’ll leave that to the professionals.
Creatrix Tiara: [laughs]
Ken: It’s been such a pleasure to learn more about you and your many crafts. For those who are also as equally fascinated as I am, where can they follow you online?
Ken: Very good. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes. Creatrix Tiara, thank you so much for your time.
Creatrix Tiara: Thanks for having me.
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