Kill Joy’s Laughing River

An interview with Meow Wolf Houston collaborating artist Kill Joy on street art, nature, and post-apocalyptic peace.

In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, chronicling the young prince’s physical and spiritual journey to becoming the Buddha, Siddhartha comes to a river and talks with the Ferryman about crossing to the other side. The Ferryman agrees, and as they cross on a raft, Siddhartha gazes into the flowing water. He sees and hears all of the people in the world laughing, all of the voices in a chorus together. In the river, Siddhartha saw all things and all people as one, even if only for a moment – and that moment was full of joy. 

In the new Meow Wolf in Houston, TX, Kill Joy’s exhibit space tells the story of this moment. The space includes a wheelchair accessible,  serpentine ramp winding up to the stage. The ramp is the river, flowing and connecting all of the land it touches. But all around the space are also visible the remnants of an apocalyptic past – our present. This space shows that even amidst what we might consider disaster and destruction, water is still a flowing source of life. Nature prevails. The land remains.

“We’re living in a time of immense change and even mass extinctions, we’re in the 6th mass extinction event that Earth has ever experienced,” says Kill Joy. “The most popular post-apocalyptic stories that we have are very violent. They’re not necessarily encouraging, especially as we slide down toward a Mad Max-type future.”

How do we look through that dismal lighting and shadow to see our own future through another lens– one that is more magical, more peaceful, more beautiful? How do we picture ourselves outside of Hollywood’s apocalyptic futures to instead see the future through our own lenses? We have to imagine it. 

“The lens with which we view the world has been very influenced by Hollywood, which is often the lens of the colonizers, the victors, the oppressors. But extinction doesn’t mean everything will disappear,” says Kill Joy. “It means that there will be evolution.”

Artwork of a being in nature, holding hands out in a gentle, welcoming way.
Photo courtesy of Kill Joy

Kill Joy, the full-time Filipina artist from West Texas, studied printmaking in university before moving to Mexico City for five years. During her time in Mexico, KJ continued her studies in relief printmaking. Much of her subsequent works are marked by that experience, replicating an aesthetic in the vein of Mexican murals and street art. And from observing the politically galvanizing art of painters and muralists like José Guadalupe Posada, Leopoldo Méndez, and Diego Rivera, Kill Joy started doing paste-ups with prints and wheatpaste in CDMX, creating large scale collages. Kill Joy picked up mural painting, creating her first mural in a Zapatista community. 

Kill Joy also traveled with COPINH — an alliance of indigenous groups -– through the mountains of Honduras along with three other artists, visiting schools, community centers and other hubs in mountain towns that were being targeted and infected by corporations for land development. In their travels, this group offered to install art which advocates for and encourages land and water defense – indigenous stewardship of traditional sacred lands as opposed to taking or extracting from the environment. Street art and murals reflect the people that view them on a daily basis. As part of the landscape, they can reveal how people view themselves, their lands and homes, and how they steward their spaces. 

Street art and land justice go hand in hand: land and street art are both meant to be public but land defenders and street artists are also often  targets of police forces, protecting what they consider to be private property and not public space or traditional indigenous lands. Governments also target and co-opt vulnerable, resource-rich lands for corporate developers, who raze landscapes and ecosystems making them uninhabitable by releasing tons of toxic byproduct into the airs, waters, and topsoil. Somehow, this kind of vandalism is not punished or held accountable by the same legal entities that punish land defenders and street artists. But land and art should be stewarded and organized by the people who occupy and have occupied those spaces, whether for months or centuries. Our art and our activism are around our sacred spaces – spaces that should be defended and cared for. And, ultimately our fight for autonomy comes down to land – something Kill Joy has experienced in her hometown of Odessa, TX.

“There is an understanding from a very early age that when you leave Odessa and you come back, you can smell the petroleum – that there’s a nose-blindness you develop against the destruction that’s happening in your own backyard,” says Kill Joy. “And though I currently live in the city, I love hiking and backpacking, which is hard when you live in the city. It’s hard to get out. But in another life, that’s what I’d want to do. Art and nature are antidotes to the depression that comes from capitalist pressures–the pressure to be prolific, to be creative and imaginative for the algorithm instead of acting on creative impulses that come from within.”

Part of that action comes from looking at the past, and some from looking at the future. Kill Joy takes a lot of inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, which says that a story or an archetype is not limited to one culture or one people, but is universal, and not specializing in one story or one realm of stories is how we come to understand that we are all connected as human beings. By expanding our capacity for story, we gain Siddhartha’s power of hearing all the voices of all the people of the world laughing together.

illustration of a dog handing hay to a fish-person
Photo courtesy of Kill Joy

Kill Joy works with myths in her art, following a three-part narrative: “The first [part] being a current political situation looked at through a lens of sci-fi, fantasy, or folklore. Something that connects us emotionally to the struggles we face in reality. And second, solutions for those problems we face today, and not only solutions – but thirdly, what gives us hope. We can use our imagination as the roadmap and embodied solutions as a guideline for success in sovereignty. We need to envision worlds and communities without war, without borders, without limitations. We can’t know where we’re going to go unless we imagine a world that suits our needs, and [to] strive towards. Not a utopia, but a realistic world full of intersectionality and gray area.” 

We have to imagine the world that we want for ourselves, and take steps to realize that vision. 

“If we organize,” Kill Joy says, “then we don’t have to move into doomsday, but with collective radical practice and power through community and collective organization, we can realize the future of our wildest imaginations. We will rebuild the remnants of the old world into something beautiful and new, something supportive and collective.”

In the meantime, how do we reckon with historical efforts to remove stewardship from their indigenous lands, and the ways those historical traumas bleed into our present? How do we stop them from staining our future? By imagining and creating, organizing, and building. 

“Artists and land defenders are radicalizing the world and leading that shift at the forefront. This is why this struggle is so important, because all of our lands are under the same attack from the same entities, corporate and governmental,”  says Kill Joy. “This is why resistance is key, because our struggles are intertwined.”