I was invited to an art opportunity that was funded by a tech company that I detest. I weighed the ethics of my participation. Here’s what I decided to do.
Sorry this is so wordy—I’m choosing transparency and thoroughness.
In early May, I was invited by 100 Days Action to contribute art to Art for Essential Workers.
“100 Days Action is installing art on boarded up storefronts by local and national artists with images of optimism and solidarity with our essential workers.”
100 Days Action is “a Bay Area artist collective that produces creative resistance projects to build community at the intersection of art, activism, and social engagement.” It was formed immediately after the 2016 presidential election in response to Trump’s 100-Day Plan.” I know several of the members and respect who they are and what they do.
Art for Essential Workers is a cool model of a program that supports the community, small businesses, and artists. They invite artists to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with sketches to show business owners, who pick from the designs. Then 100 Days Action prints and wheat-pastes the artwork, to be seen by essential workers and neighbors. The project started with the Mission District in San Francisco and is now expanding to Chinatown.
Art, Culture, and Belonging
The chance to display art in SF Chinatown via Art for Essential Workers plugged in beautifully with Art, Culture and Belonging.
Art, Culture, and Belonging is a community-engaged project exploring the impact of art and culture on belonging SF Chinatown. I’m the lead artist and I work in partnership with the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco and the Chinatown Arts and Culture Coalition.
Since shelter-in-place restrictions, we’ve pivoted programming to online platforms and encouraged people to support local Chinatown businesses, which have been slammed by compounding losses resulting from shelter-in-place, xenophobia, and reduced tourism. For many reasons, I haven’t been able to travel and engage the community as much as I planned.
Because of this, Art for Essential Workers is an especially welcome, timely way for the project to have a physical platform in the neighborhood.
Hopes for Chinatown Project
In Art, Culture, and Belonging, we solicited stories about belonging in SF Chinatown, including a question about hopes for Chinatown. I’ve taken excerpts from these responses to create the artworks for Art for Essential Workers. (Thanks to YY Zhu and Weiying Yu at CCCSF for translation and proofreading.)
100 Days Action worked with the Chinatown Visitor Information Center to secure permission to install art at Dragon Seed Bridal and Photo. They installed my artwork on May 30. Dragon Seed is a longstanding business on Clay Street, facing Portsmouth Square. I’m pretty sure I’ve patronized this business—purchasing traditional clothes and trying on cherng sam for my wedding there.
I’m also excited about the location on Portsmouth Square, as that’s the neighborhood’s ‘living room.’ As a child, I played in the playground, getting splinters from the boat-shaped play structure located in the shade of the skyway. In spite of the physical distance, these memories—the sense of familiarity and continuity—make me feel connected to this location, and very proud to contribute to Chinatown in this way.
Art for Essential Workers “is funded by the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory and private donors.”
The association with Facebook presented a problem for me.
In 2014, I declined invitations to develop art projects at Facebook (see my blog post). It related to the lack of public accessibility and public good, balanced against public harm and lack of accountability in the Bay Area’s economic inequality and quality of living.
Also, a former Facebook AIR told me they had conflicting feelings about their participation. I also noticed that as soon as another Facebook AIR completed their residency, they deleted their Facebook account. Knowing myself—that acting against my conscience would lead to regret, which would haunt me for years—and values—money comes, and money goes—it was easy for me to decline and feel secure about my decision.
There are many well-known reasons to believe Facebook is evil. Two reasons that are unforgivable to me: Facebook tweaked its algorithms to mess with user’s moods. As a psychology nerd, this a major no-no. And, I don’t think Trump would be be president right now without Facebook’s negligence. [Not to mention Facebook’s complicity and collusion: Facebook board member Peter Thiel has donated at least $1.25M to Trump, and a few days ago, Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout to protest Zuckerberg’s inaction on Trump’s violence-inciting posts.]
I’ll point this out so no one else has to, internetz: I’m already complicit. I’m on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. I quit Facebook years ago, though I may have to re-join for my day job or art partnerships with institutions. As an artist whose “Hopes for Chinatown” project is now a part of Facebook art programming, my work may be used to “art wash” its corporate misdeeds on its platforms and internally. If I felt fine with this, I wouldn’t feel the need to write this post.
Considering agency within partnerships with institutions
In the past I’ve had a self-limiting view of artists’ agency in relationships with institutional partners: I thought the institution gets to set all the terms, and the artist was so relatively powerless and needy that they just have to accept what is offered. But artists have more agency than that.
In my zine on interdependence, I learned about some tactics that have informed my thinking over the years:
“Instead of competing for individual … opportunities, [radical opportunists] utilize project-related apparatuses to foster temporary yet tangible collectives, clusters, and networks based on principles of solidarity and equity.”
—Kuba Szreder, “How to Radicalize a Mouse? Notes on Radical Opportunism,” in Dockx, Nico, and Pascal Gielen, eds. Mobile Autonomy: Exercises in Artists’ Self-Organization. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015.
“members and allies of this [alternative, artist-run] ‘field’ must leverage [our power] within … commercial, academic, … and civic spheres… to position ourselves outside, and in resistance to, these hegemonic power structures… using radical forms of participation to forefront self-organized, inclusive, and equitable structures.”
—Sarrita Hunn, “Artists for Artists’ Sake.” Temporary Art Review, October 15, 2015.
I think some of these ideas are at play in 100 Days Action’s participation. When I asked them about their thoughts on the funding, they shared some of their deliberations. I can’t speak for them, but I think they are parlaying the resources to benefit artists, small businesses, and essential workers through this project.
Here’s another idea that resonates from the zine:
Seeking “opportunities to support folks … (rather than solely … individual projects)”
—Weston Teruya, as quoted in inter/de-pend-ence, 2015.
I’m not saying that the Hopes for Chinatown project falls neatly within, or is an example of, any of these concepts or calls to action. But these ideas have been helpful for thinking about how I partner with institutions, who benefits from my projects, why, and being able to have more agency and options than to either accepting or rejecting.
I will donate 100% of my $500 artist fee to support Feed & Fuel, the Chinatown Community Development Corporation’s response to COVID.
Feed & Fuel mobilizes legacy restaurants like New Asia and volunteers to prepare and distribute up to 1,600 meals per day to seniors living in SROs and public housing, where residents live in 80-square-foot rooms with communal kitchens where social distancing is impossible. Feed & Fuel reduces transmission rates in dense housing among a particularly vulnerable population of elders, helps local businesses survive, keeps restaurant employees working, and provides a safe way for volunteers to serve the community. Learn more about Feed & Fuel, watch their informative video, and donate if you can.
Feed & Fuel tackles multiple issues—loss of business from xenophobia and shelter-in-place, serving vulnerable elders, and stabilizing food security. And it’s all organized within and by the local community. I love that it’s an effective, responsive social initiative, as well as an aesthetically elegant network of relationships, mutual empowerment, and service.
Chinatown Community Development Corporation is a non-profit 501(c)3 founded in 1977.
Another useful set of questions are:
“Given an opportunity…
Do I believe in what this institution does/stands for? Is it the ideal venue for this project/my work? Does my work feel alive in this context? …
Is this opportunity helping me reach the audience I want to reach?…
Is there enough freedom in this opportunity? Is this the best artworld for my work? Is it the most effective use of my time/money/energy? …
Am I being instrumentalized? Am I okay with that?”
—Helena Keefe, “Standard Questions for Artists” from Standard Deviation, via ArtPractical.com, June 13, 2013.
My answers to these questions are “no” followed by all “yes” responses. That’s much different than in 2014.
With Hopes for Chinatown/Art for Essential Workers, I’m compelled by:
- the public accessibility of a street-level storefront window
- engagement with a community facing economic and public health uncertainties under Covid and shelter-in-place
- coordination between community-minded organizations
- the messages’ emphasis on optimism, health, and discrimination
- the alignment with this neighborhood (a low-income, immigrant community of color), at this urgent time, with me. (Not to trying to toot my own horn, but I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time for this project: I’m Chinese American, and in a position to submit bilingual artworks that amplifies voices from the community.)
So rather than being stumped by a complicit-or-resistant choice, these questions have helped me think through tactics of circumvention, re-distribution, and public benefits. Ultimately, I participated because I think the impact on the local Chinatown community will be a net positive.
Documenting and sharing my thought process—and registering my hesitations openly for other artists to consider and discuss—are also part of this experience. I’m happy to engage with other artists, curators, and thinkers in respectful dialogue about this. If you have questions, please ask. I always prefer open dialogue over silent recriminations or unspoken criticisms.