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A Homecoming for Installation Artist Jeffrey Songco

Photo courtesy of the Mattress Factory

Art is a powerful form of self expression that often allows onlookers to catch a glimpse into the mind of the artist. Jeffrey Augustine Songco’s installation Society of 23’s Trophy Game Room at the Mattress Factory acts as this portal for visitors. The work is a fun experience for visitors while also confronting his identity as a gay American man of Filipino ethnicity. The installation is on display through November 1st.

Songco’s journey in art has seen him take on many different mediums however the performance aspect of his pieces has always been present. Taking his first steps into the world of art in his hometown at the age of 6 by enrolling at the New Jersey School of Ballet. Seeing his ballet performance, a local theatre cast him for a role in a production of “South Pacific”. This step into the world of theatre, Songco believes, sparked his passion for performance art. In high school, his focus shifted into more visual arts.

In 2001 Songco applied for and was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Art. During his time as an undergraduate he focused on printmaking but also delved into more mediums that can be seen on display in the exhibit – digital photography. Mixing his history of performance art with this new found digital photography, Jeffrey Songco began to perform for the camera. With a point and shoot camera, Songco would take and then print self portraits. From there he meticulously cut out these images and collaged them together multiplying himself into a new image.

Photo courtesy of the Mattress Factory

Songco’s exploration of art did not only happen on campus. As a student visiting the Mattress Factory, he discovered and fell in love with installation art. For him it was another progression of his art, a way to perform and create an environment for others to enjoy. Now, at the place of his first encounter with installation art, Jeffrey Augustine Songco’s installation Society of 23’s Trophy Game Room combines various mediums as a means to examine and explore his identity as a gay American man of Filipino ethnicity.

From a very early age, Songco was forced to understand the social construction of race. He recounts him and his mother reading casting calls hoping that the very last sentence said all ethnicities welcome. With the Philippines being a strongly catholic nation, Songco grew up as such. Like many others, religion made it hard for him to come out early on. While bartending at Pegasus night club, the now-legendary, former gay bar here in Pittsburgh, Jeffrey Songco came out. “ [Being gay] did not feel like it was against being Filipino or American, it actually just felt like I needed to do this for me regardless of what the church is now saying or any other ethnic identity. I just knew I needed to be gay,” Songco said speaking on his experience coming out, “Of course as soon as you come out you suddleny realize how racist gay culture can be.”

The exhibit itself is a game room and safe space for the fictional group the Society of 23. The Society is 15 years in the making reality show – The Fabulous Society of 23 –  featuring Songco as all members of the brotherhood. All members of the brotherhood are made up but draw inspiration from his brothers at the Theta Xi fraternity of which he joined during his time at CMU. The room is meant as a space for the brotherhood to revel in their greatness. Songco plans to create more rooms of what would be the society’s mansion. Thus far he has created one other room – the locker dressing room – which can be seen here. With each room he hopes to let viewers in on a different aspect of the society he has created.

A visitor immersed in this fictional society will feel the energy and mystery of the brotherhood. Songco hopes that they will “create their own story about what they are seeing and make connections.” He thinks that “it’s a fun place for a visitor to kinda get lost in and feel like they’ve entered someone else’s home,” – a truly immersive experience. With the visitor fully engulfed by this society he hopes that one can view this microcosm and dissect the creation of our own society. 

Photo courtesy of the Mattress Factory

This installation was originally chosen by a panel of three in an open call for artists in the summer of 2019. Unlike other art museums, the panel did not ask for a proposal of the installation but rather just to view the artwork of the artists. “It’s more of a process driven exhibition as opposed to something that’s been preconceived maybe a few years before,” said Danny Bracken the Director of Exhibitions at the Mattress Factory. “Typically we say this is the space you have to work in. What do you want to do? How can we make it happen? It’s a continual conversation about how to make that happen.”

Much like most things over the past year this took a rather unconventional route. With the pandemic in full swing, Jeffrey Songco was unable to physically visit the space his work was meant to go in until the 24th of June. He did a lot of production and fabrication from his home studio. Over many Zoom calls the team at the Mattress Factory, along with an assistant, was able to create the installation. “I couldn’t imagine a better artist to work with through those circumstances… He just had the best attitude and has been a joy to work with despite these circumstances,” said Bracken.

The exhibition will be at the Mattress Factory through November 1, 2021. Tickets and more information can be found on their website. You can learn more about Jeffrey Augustine Songco by visiting his website here.

Boomba Nishikawa
After moving to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2013, Boomba became active in the community attending and organizing climate rallies and events. They are very passionate about advocating for a better Pittsburgh.