Fantastic Futures: Cosplay in the Work of Phil Ly and Marissa Sean Cruz by Dallas Fellini
The photograph I interact with most on a daily basis is, of course, the image I have saved as my phone lockscreen. It is a photo by emerging Toronto photographer Phil Lý. In this image, a woman turns her cheek towards the camera, her gaze resting outside of the frame. Late afternoon light flits down through foliage to kiss the tops of her shoulders and head. The line of her jaw peters out to where it meets a pointed, prosthetic ear, its yellowish colour a severe contrast against her brown skin.
Like ballet slippers and band-aids, the prosthetic elf ear industry falls behind in colour equality, favouring the homogeneity of Euro-centircism over diversely-coloured elven ears. Here, Lý’s self-aware prop incongruency makes visible the tattered edges of the magical realist world they are crafting in their photo series, Intrusions. Lý describes this body of work as investigating interactions between fantasy and reality in order to capture a mundane escapism1. The eerily-yellow imitation flesh, which isn’t quite pressed flush against the side of the model’s face, demarcates a threshold between fictional and realist realms. This moment of pulling back the curtain is where Lý’s fantastically mundane photos live: in celebrating poorly executed illusion, semi-opaque escapisms, and costuming and cosplay as a creation of second selves.
The emphasis on costumes and props in Lý’s photographs plays into the performative qualities of these material objects and the significance they hold within subcultural communities. In this series of photographs, plastic elf ears, an anime dakimakura (body pillow), and a mascot tiger head stand in as speculative projections of an identity and inner world. The tiger head, a reference to the subcultural furry community’s practice of cosplay/kink, speaks most directly to an inner world or identity that is at odds with reality, as well as to the phenomenon of material possessions and clothing assuming an excess of meaning under capitalism. The fursuit—the tool through which the furry can convey and project theirself to the world, to their sexual partners, and to their community—comes to signify consumer identity. For an (often steep) price2, an imagined world of anthropomorphic animals, inherently intertwined with the wearer’s identity, can be actualized.
For me, this representation calls to mind a line from Tiqqun’s highly-criticized3, anti-consumerist text Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl: “As a last resort, the young-girl drapes herself in her own lack of mystery.”4 Here, the “young-girl” denotes the enactment of an archetype of femininity in modern capitalist society where an individual’s image becomes their identity, reinforcing the dominant economic system.
I see this quotation similarly reflected in the work of Halifax-based video performance artist Marissa Sean Cruz, in their video work fire, wires, gas, glass, people, pets & poison. The first time we see Cruz in this video, they are smoking a Flaming Hot Cheeto™ rolled into an uncomfortably misshapen joint. They wear face paint and a facial prosthetic that forges them into an anthropoid version of Cheetos’ brand mascot, Chester Cheetah. Just as the fursuit allows the furry to simultaneously own and become the commodity, Cruz uses cosplay to represent this type of capitalist commodity-as-identity more literally, as they get Hot-Cheeto-high in their cheetah cosplay. Discussing capitalism and the end of the world with their plush tiger co-star, they assert: “we don’t need any more people to sell us a dream that just isn’t…isn’t even written for us.”
Throughout fire, wires, gas, glass, people, pets & poison, Cruz performs the ways that capitalist frameworks and institutions fail and oppress them, and meditates on a future where they are liberated from these oppressions. They cosplay as a number of creatures throughout the work, becoming a blue ogre, a dalmatian, a pink-wigged cat, and Chester Cheetah, all the while cleverly commenting on the intrinsic exploitativeness of different aspects of everyday life: from wellness culture to facial recognition technology imbedded in social media apps. Their cosplay is comedic, but represents a temporary recess from repressive and gruelling contemporary conditions. Lý explores cosplay similarly, drawing inspiration from subcultures that employ fantasy and speculative fiction as an escape from the monotony of the everyday. This escapism becomes increasingly relevant within a post-truth era characterised by terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and politicians’ continued manipulation of truth for their own gain.5
The fiction present in both Cruz’s and Lý’s works draws from a long history of oppressed people, particularly people of colour, who employ speculative fiction as a tool to envision livable worlds and to potentiate revolution. In the opening sentence of Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of short stories inspired by the work of science fiction author Octavia Butler, Walidah Imarisha writes: “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction.”6 Speculative storytelling allows escape from a bleak present and an opportunity to imagine alternate realms, where the subject can define their own conditions and forge new selves, even if the new self happens to be an anthropomorphic snack food mascot.
While understanding cosplay as a transgressive form of performance art is nothing new, Lý and Cruz cleverly harness the surreal, referential, and performative qualities of the practice, creating works that speak to a contemporary post-truth reality and escape the promised adversity of our future. Lý’s images document fantasy and cosplay as the illusionistic realization of imagined worlds. Their photos recreate the experience of sitting at the extreme sides of a theatre: while the performance is never faced directly towards us, we are able to glimpse into the backstage realm and see the performers prepare to enter the stage from the wings. Their subtle disruptions of truth and reality construct the alternative world in which this series lives. Like Lý’s Intrusions, Cruz’s fire, wires, gas, glass, people, pets & poison renders a surreal and immaterial world where institutional ailments are brought into focus and critiqued, but also where an alternate, more desirable reality can be reified. The two artists engage in a sort of world-building that allows for temporary escape, pleasure, and humour, and projects alternative potentialities into an inherited catastrophic future.
Dallas Fellini is a curator, writer, and artist living and working in Tkaronto/Toronto. They are a cofounder of Silverfish, an arts publication devoted to interdisciplinary collaboration, skill-sharing, and cultivating ongoing dialogues between emerging Toronto artists and writers.
Marissa Sean Cruz is a digital multimedia and video performance artist from Kjipuktuk (so-called Halifax). Their experimental videos use 3D modelling, sound design and costumed performances to study identity and value systems. Remixes of pop culture and commercialized products are synthesized creating alternative narratives. These humorous works aim to process a fast-paced contemporary present and envision possible, utopian futures.
Phillip Ly is a photographer currently working in Toronto, and waiting desperately for alien abduction. They are inspired by the depths of DeviantArt, the act of collecting, and Mariah Carey’s commercial for Game of War. At the time of reading this they may or may not have a BFA from OCAD U.
- Phil Lý, in conversation with the author.
- Mark Hay, “Who Makes Those Intricate, Expensive Furry Suits?,” VICE, July 27, 2017, https://www.vice.com/en/article/7x9njz/who-makes-those-intricate-expensive-furry-suits.
- Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern, “Further Materials Towards a Theory of the Man-Child,” The New Inquiry, July 9, 2013, https://thenewinquiry.com/further-materials-toward-a-theory-of-the-man-child.
- Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, trans. Semiotext(e), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 61.
- Stephen Malcolm Hart and Jordan Hart, “Magical Realism Is the Language of the Emergent Post‐Truth World,” Orbis Litterarum 76, no. 4 (2021):158-168, doi.org/10.1111/oli.12297.
- Walidah Imarisha, Octavia’s Brood, eds. adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 16.