There was a time before Russian bots, Black Mirror, and Wikileaks when the idea of the Internet felt utopian—a network of limitless possibilities in which everyone was equal and connected. And throughout the nineties, little queer kids coming into their identities online affirmed that idea of the World Wide Web by finding each other in queer chat rooms and playing out their desired gender expressions in simulated worlds like Second Life.
Now, Cannes-awarded creative directors Valentine Freeman and Azsa West have brought us an updated (yet extremely eighties-inspired) version of that experience in their new co-directed short film The Zipper, which is also the music video for Oslo-based indie-pop band The Ruby Suns’ song of the same name.
Drenched in bisexual lighting and set in a cyber-punk vision of Tokyo, the video depicts two androgynous youth who are each exploring their gender expressions both at home and in virtual reality. As The Ruby Suns front man Ryan McPhun whisper-sings over glittering guitar strums, the video switches between tender shots of its subjects adorning their physical bodies at home and slipping into their idealized virtual bodies at what looks like an underground VR bar.
Freeman and West, who are both queer, met “at a punk house in the backyard around a bonfire or something” about 15 years ago when West was working as a vintage clothes buyer and Freeman was cleaning houses. Now, both have extensive experience as creative directors, working with brands such as Nike, Samsung, Shiseido, and Burberry. But music video directing is something pretty new for both, as is getting to collaborate with each other. (Although they plan to do much more of that in the future, with both movie and television projects brewing.)
The opportunity to work with The Ruby Suns arose because McPhun and West happen to be cousins. McPhun told the creative duo that they could do absolutely anything they wanted with the video. The song’s lyrics speak to the idea that we learn how to love based on how our parents treat us, so West and Freeman took that and expanded it to encompass how we come to define ourselves in the world more generally. “It got very queer very fast,” said Freeman.
West, who currently lives in Tokyo, said over email that the idea of bringing virtual reality into the mix came from her feeling as if she can’t fully express her identity in public. “Living in Japan is like a double-edged sword in some ways,” she wrote. “As a mixed-race self-identified lesbian, you can feel like the odd man out here, and for whatever reason this makes you want to disappear versus stand out.”
The idea of using a virtual world to show that immediately clicked with Freeman. “I’m really, really interested in the intersection between the developing medium of VR and the expression of queer genders and desire digitally—even from the most pedestrian Bitmoji to some elaborate beautiful project,” she said. “The first girlfriend I ever dated, I met her in a Riot Grrrl chatroom on AOL. It’s still the same, it’s still finding queer worlds by any means necessary. These two characters, they literally have nowhere else to exist fully.”
West echoed that sentiment with an optimistic nod to our tech-saturated future: “The line between what is real and what is fake is blurring. Digital is such a part of our daily lives… So, why can’t a virtual paradise be a safe place, too?”