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I Live Everyday With the Fear of My Observer's Shame • Ty Douglas

Brett Rawson


This interview capped off our month-long exhibition, Maybe U R Like Me, which featured a new image every single day. We were so excited when we first heard about this ongoing project by Ty Douglas. There is something magnetic about the images, but also the essence of the experiment: creating an exchange between two total strangers through a single sentence, and sentiment. 

Maybe U R Like Me connects people across borders of identification by establishing the possibility of a sameness, and similarity, that was otherwise unexpected. On each strip of paper is a confession of Ty's that he asks a passerby to draw from a bag. They vary in intimacy and seriousness, but are all relentlessly true. As Ty mentioned at the outset of the project, "We can dissolve fear by understanding that the things we don't commonly say are the things we have the most in common." 

To conclude the exhibition, we asked Ty a couple questions about the project, but also his sentiments about the then-recent events that took communities by the heart.

Handwritten: Your project is rooted in anonymity, and yet, it is deeply personal. You bring the private to the public, and this creates a powerful message. How did this pairing come about, and why is it important to you?

Ty Douglas: Honestly the idea came from the dark ether of last minute panic. I was signed up to be in a street art performance during Armory Week and I was planning on doing a live painting where I would make a poster that said "I am not afraid of you" whilst wearing a hot pink leotard and makeup. In my typical style I waited until the last minute to prepare and found myself without materials so I improvised something I thought would be fun and interesting. I had never had a single thought relating to Maybe U R Like Me specifically until the day of the show. It's funny how the pressure of time and procrastination is responsible for what I personally consider to be one of my best ideas yet.

Handwritten: In the wake of Orlando, the heart sinks. But as a society, we seem stuck in a continuous loop. How do you continue to rise after these incidents, and what can we do to interrupt this cycle of fear?

Douglas: It being so close to the incident, I'm not sure I have yet risen. The people lost in Orlando and the people who struggled with injuries were not just family members in my mind, they were/are me in a very direct way. The campaign slogan is "We are Orlando" and it's the first time one of those slogans has really hit a fundamental truth. We didn't lose 49 separate people that day, we lost 49 pieces of our own selves and I think I will be mourning them for a very long time and celebrating the medical victories of the survivors for just as long. Maybe U R Like Me, maybe u were killed by a broken person full of rage, maybe u survived. Maybe u will live more boldly and proudly in response.

Handwritten: It can be terrifying to put oneself in the public limelight. The internet can make easy targets of the visible. How comfortable are you in being seen, and have there been things that have changed how you approach your appearance, and appearing on stages or screens?

Douglass: This is a funny question because my online presence is very exposed and borderline obnoxious so people often get the impression that that's who I am, and even more, they get the impression that I'm free from fear. The truth really is that I live everyday with the fear of my observer's shame for me. I am ashamed of the shame other people hold for me for being who I am. Now of course the weight of this varies day to day but what I'd love for people to understand (maybe via this project) is that overcoming fear and shame isn't a matter of conquering, it's a matter of diligence, practice, and relating to the people around you. I don't believe in freedom of fear I just believe in consciousness.

Handwritten: Have there been any other recent events that have either inspired, or reminded, you to keep creating and connecting?

Douglas: I lived in Bed Stuy for maybe 3 months at the beginning of this year and was verbally harassed on the street quite a lot. I definitely don't have it as bad as others, but the fact that I couldn't feel safe once I walked out my door sparked the train of thought that I think led me to this idea. It's difficult to say that it wasn't personal because as a person...it feels personal, but I think ultimately the people who shouted things at me were harboring more pain in themselves than they were projecting at me so I forgive them and wish them well. But I did move.

Handwritten: What is one thing you hope Maybe U R Like makes people feel, think, or do?

Douglas: I'm not really sure to be honest. I think what I'm always looking for as an artist is just to connect with the people in front of me. There's a whole aspect that I haven't really revealed to anyone yet and that is the satisfaction of the hand to hand exchange of this. There is such a power in sharing confessions with strangers and having them recognize you by it. It's extremely vulnerable and it makes me nervous, but it's as intimate as real and true romance. So I suppose in a lot of ways it's a very selfish project.

Handwritten: At the end of this month-long exhibition, how will Maybe U R Like me continue? 

Douglas: I'd love to continue it in it's very raw form. Appearing in public places and interacting with strangers. There has been a performative aspect of it on the Say Yes stage (find Say Yes Electric Collective on facebook) where I laid out big papers with the prompts "Living in New York is..." and "Being Queer is..." at the top and all the guests were invited to write their answers on the page. Other similar iterations of it will emerge I'm sure, but it's not a project that I feel needs a lot more to be effective so I will just give it my time and continue to put it on Instagram until the next wave comes. I will say though I am looking for a partner who is maybe interested in doing the photo and video documentation in a long term way so if any of you beauties out there are interested please email me at tydouglasart@gmail.com.

A special thanks as well to all of the strangers out there who's eyes met mine with understanding after picking their confession. That brief moment of real human intimacy means more to me that I would have ever predicted.

To see the full exhibit, click here.