Research

Brené Brown on Shame, Racism, Accountability, and Armoring Up

Shame and belonging researcher Brené Brown spoke specifically to white people confronting racism and their own feelings of shame in a terrific podcast episode (“Brené on Shame and Accountability,” Unlocking Us, July 1, 2020).

There’s a lot in here that resonates with the current moment—resistance to antiracism and white racial resentment—as well and a central question in my art and life: “How do you keep your heart open?”

Racism and Shame

“…being held accountable for racism and feeling shame is not the same thing as being shamed…. We need to understand the difference between being held accountable for racism and experiencing shame as a result of that accountability, and how that’s different than actually being shamed for being a racist.”

Shame vs Guilt (focus on personal flaw vs behavior)

“We think that shaming is this great moral compass, that we can shame people into being better. But that’s not true. …everyone needs a platform of self-worth from which to see change. You can’t shame people into being better, and in fact, when we see people apologizing, making amends, changing their behavior, that is always around guilt…. We feel guilt when we hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values, they don’t match up, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s helpful. It’s a positive, socially adaptive experience [which] motivates meaningful change. It’s as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive.”

Shame as a Social Justice Tool

“…shame is not an effective social justice tool. … Shame is a tool of oppression. Shame is a tool of white supremacy. Humiliation, belittling, those are tools of injustice; they’re not tools for justice. First, shame corrodes the belief that we can be better and do better, and it’s much more likely to be the cause of dangerous and destructive behaviors than the cure. … Shame itself is inherently dehumanizing.”

Self-regulation and Antiracism

“…there’s a huge difference between being shamed for being a racist and feeling shame. And it’s our responsibility for experiencing and regulating our own emotions. It’s my job to regulate my emotion, move through shame in a productive way, without defensiveness, without doubling down, without rationalizing, without demanding to be taught, demanding absolution, demanding comfort from the person who’s holding us accountable, which is often a Black person or a person of color. I’m responsible for that emotional regulation.”

Armor Is the Greatest Barrier to Courage

“…the greatest barrier to courage is not fear. The greatest barrier to courage is armor, is how we self-protect when we’re afraid. And I studied the arming-up process and just in preparation for this podcast, did I realize that this armoring-up process is so applicable to white supremacy.

So let me go through the six stages of armoring-up…

So number one … building the armor: “I’m not enough.” Number two: If I’m honest with them about what’s happening, they’ll think less of me, or maybe even use it against me. … Number three: “No way am I going to be honest about this. No one else does it. Why do I have to put myself out there?” Number four: “Yeah, you know what, screw them. I don’t see them being honest about what scares them…” Number five: “You know what? This is actually their problem. This is their shortcomings that make them act this way, this is their ultra-sensitivity…” Number six: “In fact, now that I think about this, I’m actually better than them.”

…“I’m better than people” and “I’m not enough” is the exact same standing still position of pain and shame.”

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Research, Values

On Empathy, Belonging, Interconnectedness, and Race

A recent podcast episode on empathy resonates me, since I’ve been thinking about interdependence and interconnectedness, especially in regards to racial justice, polarization, fear, and white racial resentment. This all also relates to a central question in my art practice—“How do you keep your heart open?”—which is part of a forthcoming art project.

Jamil Zaki, author of “The War For Kindness: Building Empathy In A Fractured World,” and empathy research at Stanford University, speaks directly to this on Hidden Brain (“You 2.0: Empathy Gym,” August 31, 2020).

[I planned to just share one to two quotes but so many passages from the podcast are resonant.]

On how to keep your heart open, or how support in trauma can lead to becoming links in a chain of support

VEDANTAM: Jamil, people who have been through terrible suffering can respond in different ways. Some people turn inward to avoid future pain, while others turn outward. They show empathy for the suffering of other people. I feel like I’ve seen research studies that show both these things. Can you talk about these studies and why people might go in one direction or another after they experience trauma?

JAMIL ZAKI: …We often hear about cycles of violence or the idea that hurt people hurt people. And that’s certainly true in some cases.

But there’s a lot of research that’s actually much more hopeful on what psychologists call altruism born of suffering. This is the idea that sometimes when we’ve gone through great pain, that actually sort of opens us up to caring more about other people and their suffering….

Psychologists don’t really know that much about sort of what causes people, when they experience suffering, to go in one direction or another. But one important factor that they have identified is the support that we receive from other people. So if after a trauma, an individual is able to find a community of others who support them, well, then they’re more likely to recover from their own trauma, and they might also be more likely to turn around and provide that support to others….

Threats and fear-mongering foster cruelty towards out-groups and unity within in-groups

ZAKI: …reminding people of a collective trauma, for instance, can make them more weary of outsiders and sort of more … willing to even endorse violence or aggression towards outsiders. But thinking of a common threat is also one way to bring people within a group closer together. I remember after 9/11 the way that Americans really felt like we were all one because we were facing this really deep trauma together. And likewise, there’s all sorts of evidence that when people feel that they have a common threat that they’re facing, they band together.

[CWY: If we can’t agree that COVID is a real, common threat to us all, that might account for why there’s so much disunity in taking necessary precautions.]

[Note: This is followed by insights on how police are so over-empathetic with fellow cops that they can’t understand civilians’ perspectives on police misconduct.]

On belonging, and how over-emphasizing with one’s in-group correlates to othering

VEDANTAM: …Empathy, in some ways, has this double-edged sword quality to it, which is, on the one hand, it’s prompting us to be outward-looking, but it’s also driven in some ways by factors about who’s in our in-group and who’s not in our in-group. The psychologist Paul Bloom, who wrote the book “Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion,” he argues that empathy tends to be parochial, and it tends to be biased. …

ZAKI: …Our instinctive empathy might be more driven towards people in our tribe than outside of it….

…I think that that’s a problem with how empathy tends to operate, but I try to focus us on the fact that we can control how we empathize and make choices about the way that we deploy our caring. And if we recognize that, hey, I’m empathizing in a parochial way, in a tribal way, we can try to make a different choice and broaden our empathy even towards people who are different from ourselves.

And, in fact, this is consistent with research by my friend Emile Bruneau. He’s studied sort of parochial empathy in a lot of different intergroup contexts. And what he finds is that sometimes if you want to predict when someone will be willing to be aggressive towards outsiders or unwilling to compromise with someone on the other side of a conflict, it’s not enough to measure whether they empathize with the people on the outside. You have to also measure how empathic they are to their own group. And it turns out that people who are extraordinarily empathic towards people in their group, even if they’re also empathic towards outsiders, are unwilling to compromise, unwilling to do anything that could threaten their own tribe.

…what this suggests is that sometimes, if we want to open ourselves up to other cultures, to people on the other side of a political or racial divide, maybe what we should start out doing is not just trying to get to know them and empathize more with them, but to recognize if we’re empathizing so much with our group that we’ll be unable to be flexible emotionally.

Dehumanization as avoidance of negative emotions such as guilt

VEDANTAM: …White Americans asked to read about the suffering of Native Americans become more likely to say that Native Americans are unable to feel complex emotions such as hope and shame. So in other words, empathy not only can produce pain, pain can not only produce disengagement, but we can actually almost dehumanize other people because we’re so, in some ways, reluctant to accept the pain that comes with actually empathizing with them.

ZAKI: Yeah, absolutely, especially if you or a group that you belong to is responsible for that pain because then, empathy can twist into a sense of guilt or even self-loathing. There are a lot of studies like this. In one classic set of studies from the 1950s, psychologists asked people to repeatedly shock – electrically shock – another person. And what they found was that when people had to shock someone else, they ended up saying that they liked that person less, almost as though they were defensively, again, turning down their empathy for that individual.

Why our multi-dimensionality matters and how identifying as human can conquer tribalism

ZAKI: …yes, it’s easier to empathize with people who are like us than unlike us, but all of us have many different selves inside us at any given moment, and each self carries with it a different group, maybe of a different size.

So if I think of myself, for instance, as a Stanford person, well, then people at UC Berkeley are my mortal enemy, especially during the big game. But if I think of myself as a Californian, then my in-group, the people who deserve my empathy and who it’s easy to empathize with, that group grows. And if I can think of myself as – I don’t know – an American or a human being, then that group will grow even further.

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Citizenship

Fundraiser: Matching Challenge

I challenge you! I will double your donation to support prison abolition, relief efforts in Beirut, Black liberation, or low-income immigrant communities.

I’m offering up three small artist fees totaling $325 to match your donations. The fees are from three projects:

How to participate:

Step 1. Donate…

…to abolish the prison industrial complex…

Critical Resistance

…to relief efforts in Beirut…

a manmade humanitarian disaster

Impact Lebanon’s disaster relief fund. Impact Lebanon is a non-profit organization based in the UK dedicated to supporting Lebanese people worldwide.

Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon’s rescue fund.

…to support BLM activists targeted by police…

Such as the Wichita DSA bail fund

…or to address food insecurity in immigrant neighborhoods in NYC.

In NYC, poor Black and brown neighborhoods suffered the highest rates of infection and death from the coronavirus. In Corona, over half of antibody tests were positive. Some of those same neighborhoods are now experiencing disproportionate rates of job losses. Donate to:

La Jornada Food Pantry in Elmhurst/Corona, Queens
La Jornada has been supplying the local community with over 1,450 meals weekly, with space donated by the Queens Museum since mid-June. Donate via Paypal at lajornadany.org (if you don’t have Paypal, you can Venmo me.)

Send Chinatown Love’s Gift-a-Meal in Flushing and Brooklyn Chinatown
For only $5, you can feed youth or seniors in need while helping a small, immigrant-run business stay afloat. Donate at https://www.gofundme.com/f/gift-a-meal.

2. Email me a confirmation of your donation.

You can email me at cwy@christinewongyap.com. Donations must be between August 19–23, 2020.

3. I’ll match the donations, up to $325 total.

I’ll post screenshots of matching donations on Instagram.


Bonus Challenge: Take this idea and run with it!

Artists, I challenge you to create your own micro challenge match with your artist’s fees (or just donate them directly to good causes) if you are in a position to do so.

Yes, artist’s fees are important, and all artists should be paid for their labor.

Yes, a lot of artists are precarious and don’t have health insurance even in ‘normal’ times, and are especially precarious now.

And… if one is White or East Asian, employed or financially stable, documented, insured, able-bodied, cis, housed, and/or educated, one can be precarious and privileged. Precarity and privilege are not mutually exclusive.

 


Thank you for inspiration, reminders, call-ins, info sharing, and motivation: Margo Okazawa-Rey (be humble and think abundantly), Armando Minjarez, Brian Zegeer, and Maymanah Farahat. Thanks for paying artists, Josh MacPhee/Just Seeds, SFCB, For Freedoms.

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organization

Tools & Resources for Organization and Resilience

I’m doing an Instagram Live studio tour/artist’s talk/Q&A with the San Francisco Center for the Book today at 3pm Pacific/6pm Eastern. Some question’s I’ve received in advance are:

  • How do you keep motivated?
  • Please share admin/organization/project management skills.

I’m posting some notes with links here.

Resilience

Journaling helps me be resilient.

There can be a perception that journaling is for self-obsessed, angst-ridden teens. I do not only write in my journal when I feel shitty. In fact, I limit how much I write when I’m distressed, because venting or “processing” can actually be rumination, which decreases mood and prolongs pain (Guy Winch, Emotional First Aid).

Journaling provides space for self-reflection—space for me to listen to myself. When I listen to myself, I can celebrate my wins, so I can need less external validation. I can be grateful by recognizing the good in my life and in other people. I name my feelings (which itself can bring relief) and sort out my needs, priorities, goals, and action steps. When I properly reframe an event, and when I find meaning, it makes me feel energized and purposeful.

Gratitude Journal

There are many ways to keep a gratitude journal. A great introduction to a simple practice can be found at “The Science of Happiness, Episode 1: Three Good Things.” This podcast is produced by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, so it is a legit, science-backed, positive psychology podcast.

I have been using a “what went well and why” method described by Martin E.P. Seligman. It’s easy: just write about what went well in your day, and why you think it happened. Sometimes I’ll keep asking “why,” drilling down deeper, or expanding wider. This has helped me recognize my own agency in situations, or the kindness of others, or the conditions or privileges broader than my immediate reality. I’ve also used this practice on great days, and it’s helped me identify particularities and savor them, multiplying my joy. A caveat: I’m careful not to mindlessly re-list my day’s to-do items.

Goal-setting, Habit Tracking, & Purpose

It’s easier to stay motivated when your actions and goals feel aligned with your values and life’s purpose.

Goals

Informed by Creative Capital’s Professional Development workshops, I set three professional goals, each with three action steps, for myself as an artist every year. I schedule weekly and quarterly check-ins.

I sometimes set intentions at the beginning of each month. These can be related to personal, mental, or physical health. I only do this as the spirit moves me.

I also set physical goals. Exercise is my most reliable mood-booster. I exercise as much for my mental health as physical health. I’ve learned so much about myself and gained  much community from martial arts and running. Sheltering in the pandemic has made me grateful for knowledge I have gained and can implement on my own.

Habit Trackers

I have an app to log my physical therapy and cardio. This is helpful for reinforcing good habits and holding myself accountable. It helps me see the connections with how my body feels. You can use a plain notebook or a habit-tracking notebook, too—whatever works.

If you’re dealing with an injury or health side effects, tracking the frequency and intensity of different dimensions of your experiences can help you can recognize the process you’re making over time. It can give you reasons to celebrate, instead of only seeing loss. Not to mention that it can give you more data to discuss with your doctor.

Purpose

No one can give you a sense of life purpose. In Grit by Angela Duckworth, you can learn exercises to identify what your life purpose might be, and how your small and medium goals relate to your purpose. When you are able to see your short-term actions in concordance with your values and your purpose, it feels integrated, which is very powerful.

Reframing

I loved this episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Pauline Boss, “Navigating Loss Without Closure.” Here are some of my key take-aways:

    • Closure is a myth. Americans are too focused on problem-solving negative emotions.
    • Expectations or time limits on sadness, grief, or loss can be harmful. Humans can and do live with sadness, oscillating over time. That’s OK!

 

  • Find meaning. When nonsensical events happen, and you can’t make sense of that event, you can find “good enough” meaning in another area of your life.

While I’ve been very fortunate to have not been directly affected by coronavirus, the pandemic has entailed coping with fear, loss, grief, uncertainty, and stress in a drawn-out, fatiguing way (I liked my friend KQB’s phrase: “low-key horrified”). It found it helpful to recognize that Americans and the media love predictable narrative arcs (beginning, middle, end) and that’s cognitively dissonant from the realities of the pandemic (no end in sight). It’s good practices to let go of perfectionism and the urge to fix everything now, to get more comfortable with holding opposing ideas, and to find meaning where you can.

Grounding

This episode is also really great: On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Resmaa Menakem, “‘Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence.’” I especially loved this:

“..all adults need to learn how to soothe and anchor themselves rather than expect or demand that others soothe them. And all adults need to heal and grow up.”

Resmaa Menakem

A great way to self-soothe is through grounding practices—being in your body, focusing on your breath, or your feet’s connection to the ground, or visually on the room around you. The idea is to practice this, even on your good days, until it becomes second nature, so that it’s easy to implement on your bad days. Often, emotional distress is tied up with physiological stress reactions, and grounding helps regulate those physiological reactions, which can shorten the duration and decrease the pain of emotional distress.

I think this idea of practice is helpful across all these resilience strategies. I think these practices are how you incrementally increase your subjective wellbeing over years, so that your happiness set-point gets a little higher, and your ability to bounce back becomes stronger.


Admin/Digital Organization

This is going to be super nerdy and ‘brass tacks.’ Well, artists wear a lot of hats outside of making art—administrators, bookkeepers, registrars, archivists, art handlers, fund raisers, marketers and PR people, etc. Administration is legit labor. It could be a time-suck or you can try to be more effective where you can. Since the pandemic started, I’ve spent a lot more time on the computer, and I realized that there are some basic things we do everyday—such as email and managing files—which everyone sort of figures out on their own. These are some best practices I’ve found.

Email 

I like to use Mac Mail, and I try to reserve my inbox for items that require follow-up. I try to keep folders to a minimum with a hybrid system:

  • project-specific folders (for important art projects, exhibitions, and freelance gigs, etc.)
  • time-delimited folders (the time stamp indicates when it’s safe to delete emails. It’s like the principle of cleaning out your closet—if you haven’t worn it in a year, get rid of it):
    • Deep storage (this is for stuff like taxes)
    • 1-year keep
    • 3-month keep
    • hold/1-month keep (for temporary things like shipping notifications)

Receipts for deductible expenses get saved as PDFs to a folder in my sidebar. Then I delete the email.

File management

I like to keep two Finder windows in Mac’s column view, stacked one on top of each other. This allows me to find a file and file it in its destination folder more quickly. This is super helpful when resizing images for my website, for example.

Three navigational shortcuts:

  • For switching between studio, professional practices, and day-job work: I keep multiple tabs in each Finder window open. This helps me switch quickly and pick up where I left off. It’s a little like the beauty of having a studio (or a dedicated studio table) where you can leave your messy work-in-progress, as opposed to clearing the table for dinner and then setting up your art project again.
  • For quickly accessing active projects: I also put folders for active projects in the sidebar. For example, when I’m working on an application for an art competition, I’ll put the folder there, even if it’s just for a few days.
  • For quickly accessing current projects: Alternatively, I make aliases of current project folders, and put them in a folder called “_Current Projects.” (I use an underscore at the start of names for folders I want to keep at the top of a list.)

Naming conventions for files and folders

I use multiple strategies to make sense of all my files:

  • Project code. I try to assign every project a name or code, and then start the file name of every digital art file with that. This makes it much easier when searching for files.
  • Iteration number-letter system. When I work on digital art files, I iterate a lot. Saving lots of versions forces me to save often, keep earlier options, and have recent back-ups in case a file gets corrupted (especially true when working on large PSDs!). To make sense of all of these, I use a number followed by a letter, (“1a,” “1b,” “2a,” etc.) The number usually refers to the design round, the letter usually refers to a variation, like the same design in different colors.
    • I never name anything “final.” When you use that system, if you have to change that file, and then have to name it “final-final,” or “final-2,” and then what’s the point?
    • I just keep every previous version in a “_Drafts” folder, and the one most recent file outside of that drafts folder. That, plus the iteration code, means it’s always clear what’s the most recent file.
  • Pixel dimensions. For any file saved for the web, I append the pixel dimensions, width x height (example: ACB8j-AnnieYee-p3-01a-889×1080) to the end of the file name. This is much more descriptive and useful than “-web” or “-small.” In web design, dimensions are always width first, then height (though it’s reversed in art handling).
  • YYYYMMDD. Starting names with the date in an 8-digit code keeps files or folders chronological and easier to search. I use this for folders for exhibitions, for example, for receipt PDFs, Google Drive folders, etc.
  • 01, 02, 03. Another way to keep folders tidy is to start the name of sub-folders with numbers, so they stay in the order of a process. For example, if you have different files from different stages in a process, you might have folders named “01 Text content,” “02 Image references,” “03 Digital mock-ups,” “04 Scans,” “05 Composite PSDs,” “06 JPGs.”

Image management

For my photo documentation, I keep the source/raw files in a projects folder. Then after I make my selections, I copy and rename them, and place them in nesting folders that looks basically like this:

Documentation > Projects > YYYY Project name > Artwork Name--[pixel-dimensions].[file extension]

The code can indicate different shots of the same artwork. I've found this is a nice way to manage lots of installation views (as opposed to "detail of X" and "detail of Y"). After these are renamed consistently, then I'll do the resizing.

Image sizing

I generally keep three to four resolutions of files:

  • high-res (source res at 300 dpi)
  • medium-res files for screen display for competitions (these files are usually 1-2 MB JPGs, I'd say 1920x1080 is a good new standard nowadays)
  • two sizes of web-res (which is specific to my own website, but obviously at 72 DPI).

I use Photoshop actions to batch process resizing. I've set up different destination folders for different sized images. I use the Finder renaming tool to update the file names as needed.

Artist's Inventory Software & Estate Planning

It's important to manage your inventory: to track inventory numbers, framed and unframed dimensions, prices, where the actual artwork is (whether on loan or in storage), etc.

There are lots of options for inventory software. I don't know what's good out there as I don't have time to test and review them. Many of the options now are cloud-based. I don't love the software I currently use, so I'm not going to name it here. The reason I use it is because it's a desktop version, and I like the permanence of that for reasons I'll explain below.

Artist's inventory software is for your own studio management, but more importantly, it's also part of your estate planning. Each of us will die. Making plans and putting systems into place are act of care for our loved ones, to make it easier for them to deal with our stuff after we're gone.

If you need to start or improve your digital or physical artist's inventory, I recommend the Joan Mitchell Foundation's Creating Artist's Living Legacy "Career Documentation for the Visual Artist: An Archive Planning Workbook and Resource Guide." It's free.

While we're on the subject, I also recommend:

  • Everyone should write a will. I found Nolo Press' Online Will to be an easy and cheap way to draft one. Note: Print it out and take it to a notary public to make it legally binding.
  • It's a good idea to discuss your end-of-life wishes with your loved ones, and to fill out an advanced health care directive. Kaiser Permanente offers info and forms in multiple languages—you don't have to be a patient to access them. You'll also need to print this out and take it to a notary public to make it legally binding.
  • CALL also has an Estate Planning Workbook. This is a next step for me.

Bookkeeping

I use Quickbooks Desktop. It's a little bit of labor to manage it, but it's less painful than doing a year's worth of bookkeeping in the spring before taxes are due. More than just tracking your receipts, though, bookkeeping software helps track when art institutions and universities have (or haven't) paid your invoices.

How did I learn this admin stuff?

  • From working at no- or low-paid office positions in non-profit art organizations.
  • From working as a freelance graphic designer/sole proprietor.
  • From co-workers, partners, colleagues, mentors.
  • From trying different things and evolving over time.
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Meta-Practice

Collective Agreements from the MAP Fund

I recently learned about these collective agreements for panelist discussions from Jenn Woodward of c3:initiative, from the MAP Fund‘s RE-Tool: Racial Equity in the Panel Process (2018, PDF). I think these are great agreements to review to cultivate equity and mutualism.

Openness to others’ points of view 

Awareness of power dynamics 

Positive spirit, generosity, laughter, constructive critique 

Full attention to discussion, limiting distractions*

Letting others speak, finish thoughts, deep listening 

Staying grounded in the guidelines and criteria  

 

[*On Zoom, to me, this means limiting the what’s entered in the chat window to relevant items like agendas, links, spellings of names, etc.]

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Art & Development

Some Thoughts on Public Art

Notes from a panel on public art

Last week, I participated in a webinar called “Public Art: The Way Forward.” It was hosted by the Armory Show and moderated by the Armory Show Executive Director Nicole Berry. The guests were Jean Cooney from Times Square Arts, Michelle Woo from For Freedoms, and two artists in Messages for the CityNekisha Durrett and myself. 

Here are some of my recent thoughts about sentences on public art—some things I said during the panel, and things I wanted to say but didn’t fit in.

On the purpose of public art, and public art during COVID and the current racial justice movement

It’s interesting to reflect on public art in this moment, as monuments to white supremacists and colonialists are being toppled. Some people think those monuments represent history; I think they represent re-writing history with certain people as victors.

Public art is cross-sector. It is where visual form, storytelling, and civic dialogue intersect. Public art is a way we, as a society, discuss what we value and who we are. It asks us to think about participation, engagement, and representation.

I like to think about artwork as more than the object and the artist’s intent. People leaving a mark or toppling a statue is also part of the life of an artwork. So are people discussing what statues mean, what should replace it, and whose stories should be represented.

Truly public art is democratic. The purpose of democratic public art is to serve the public with representations, stories, and voices that reflect them.

In contrast with historic bronze statues, there’s the murals on boarded up storefronts in downtown Oakland, CA, which have sprung up in the people’s uprising for justice for Black lives. There, public art is the voice of the people, where you see emotions like anger and grief, calls for action, and—what artists can do best—transformative visions of society.

For artists, public art is an opportunity to bypass art-world gate keepers and connect with more democratic and diverse audiences.

 

About freedom of expression in public art

[In response to: “Do you feel more of a responsibility to have a message in public art? Is there less freedom of expression?”]

I don’t feel more responsibility to have a certain message, ideally. I do feel more responsibility to be ethical and diligent working in partnership with a community.

There is less freedom of expression in public art, but that’s OK, because that’s what studio practice is for. It’s not always about you. I value creative freedom and artistic autonomy as an artist. But that might be in the same way that someone else may value liberty above all and think it’s a good idea not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic. There’s more to life than doing whatever you want whenever you want.

Public art can be complicated and require compromises. But shouldn’t just be a sacrifice—there is a tradeoff. There are gifts that you can’t gain alone, which come from being in relationship with others, and those relationships are nurtured by listening, mutuality, understanding, and sharing.

There is a phrase that comes up a lot in different things I think about, as well as in current events, and in Messages for the City. I come across it in studying psychology and how people find purpose or meaning. I hear in when people talk about belonging. It’s why people participate in movements for social justice, and why they sign up to be public servants, and run towards danger, like the FDNY paramedics, rather than running away. It’s the idea of “becoming part of something bigger than yourself.” Public art is a way that artists make art that is bigger than their individual studio practice (and often, but not always, utilizing larger capacities and platforms).

 

About how the art community can promote public art and public artists

Every art opportunity is an opportunity for more equity, diversity, and inclusion.

I have to thank For Freedoms and Times Square Arts, because the artists and designers included in Messages for the City include legends whose work I’ve admired for years and sometimes over a decade. So I’m very grateful to be included. I also say this as someone who’s mostly experienced The Armory Show from the perspective of an art handler, installing art at the fair.

I think there are a lot of amazing public art organizations in NYC. I think sometimes they are comfortable following the lead of major galleries and museums. It would be nice to see them take more risks with artists—especially women, Black, indigenous and POC, queer, trans, and disabled artists—whose work is not validated by the market.

I think if institutions are serious about equity, the have to:

  • Pay artists.
  • Don’t ask artists to work for free or on spec.
  • Change the culture that undervalues artist’s labor, where artists compete against each other by submitting budgets where everybody else gets paid for materials and labor, but artists get paid for only a portion of their studio time and even less of their admin time.
  • Think about the resources, support, and mentorship it offers to artists—that translation and accessibility are not afterthoughts.
  • Have strong, genuine relationships with communities, and connect artists with those communities with enough time, outreach support, and accountability.

Since public art is inherently cross-sector, it encompasses social practice, community art, crafts, outsider art, etc. There’s so much attention, resources, scholarship, documentation, archiving, support, and platforms in the art world, there’s no reason a disproportionate amount should go to the top 5% of artists being collected by the top 1% of people in the art world.


Note: The webinar had many great questions asked in the Q&A function. Unfortunately we were only able to answer a few questions. I asked the moderator if it’s possible to capture the questions, and she sent a spreadsheet with emails, so I emailed my answers to some of the questions. It was nice to learn that this is an option.

Huge thanks to everyone who attended the panel, the Armory, For Freedoms, and TSQ Arts, and the fellow panelists. I felt honored to be part of such a lively and timely discussion.

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belonging, Community, Values

On Belonging: From Hopes for Chinatown to Black Lives Matter to Anti-Asian Sentiment to Racial Solidarity

I became interested in making art about belonging in 2016, coinciding with the beginning of this Presidential administration and its policies which told Muslims, Mexican and Central American migrants, and trans people: “You don’t belong here.”

Over the past few years, the importance of belonging has been continually affirmed by the way othering characterizes American society now: political divisiveness, racism, xenophobia, the increased visibility of white supremacist groups, the murders of Black Americans by police and vigilantes, and the failure of the justice system to value Black lives.

Whenever I hear of a “___ while black” incident, I see it through a lens of belonging: white privilege allows a white person to feel entitled to police another’s belonging. It’s on the same spectrum of othering with victims in the movement for Black lives. Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers didn’t have to say, “Go back to where you came from” or “You don’t belong here” because that’s implicit in the decision to follow him while carrying a loaded firearm. When no one is charged for murdering Breonna Taylor, it communicates that being Black entails an exemption from belonging in a civil society where citizens can expect to be safe in their homes and live free from senseless state violence. When the justice system fails Black victims of police misconduct, it says that Black people don’t belong to the privileged class for whom justice will be served.

This spring, fear of the coronavirus triggered latent Sinophobia to become explicit in a wave of anti-Asian incidents. Art institutions posted pledges to speak up if they witness anti-Asian hate. (While I appreciate the allyship, I resent the necessity of promising to do the right thing. Decency should be enough, but othering robs us of our humanity, so we have to reiterate that we deserve basic civility.)

Yuanyuan Zhu—who works at Chinese Culture Center and has been an enthusiastic, crucial collaborator of my belonging projects—experienced a hate incident in San Francisco in March. In my Hopes for Chinatown project—bridging Art, Culture, and Belonging and 100 Days Action’s Art for Essential Workers—YY shared her hope for Chinatown:

“Less discrimination. More understanding.”

Photo of artwork being installed on graffiti-covered plywood covering storefront windows.

Christine Wong Yap, “Hopes for Chinatown,” 2020, site-specific public art: participation, hand-lettering, digital print, 80 x 148 inches and 96 x 48 inches. Commissioned and installed by 100 Days Action for Art for Essential Workers. Photo by Jeremiah Barber.

In the past 10 days, despite the ongoing pandemic, American uprisings have sprung up in all 50 states to insist that the police misconduct and anti-Black state violence will no longer be tolerated.

I am hopeful that this is an inflection point in history towards social change. As individuals and communities facing reckonings, the time is ripe for Asian Americans to confront our anti-blackness and white supremacy. In fact, coronavirus-related anti-Asian sentiment provides an opportunity to develop our understanding of systemic racism and the need for Black solidarity.

We APAs want to stop anti-Asian hate. We want people to know: We are not the virus. We want to not be perpetual outsiders. We want our belonging to not be conditional.

If we truly want less discrimination and more understanding, we have to do our part: to recognize that we have benefitted from advancements in civil rights won through Black struggle, to acknowledge that the model minority myth has been used to invalidate systemic oppression faced by Black people, and to address and rectify anti-Blackness pervasive in our communities. We have to stop othering Black people so we can see our struggles for justice and belonging in America are connected and intertwined.

 


Resources


Black Lives Matter Solidarity Statement and Phrases in Chinese

As a public service in language accessibility, I asked the Chinese Culture Center to share the text of their solidarity statement with me so I can post it here. You are welcome to copy and paste the Chinese phrases for use in activism supporting Black lives and justice.

Chinatown in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter
華埠與“黑人的生命很重要”堅定地站在一起

CCC adds our voice in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and all people who are committed to justice and equity.

We are deeply saddened and outraged by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other lives lost to state-sanctioned violence. We send our heartfelt condolences to the families, hold space for your pain and rage, and share in a feeling of loss for those who are mourning loved ones taken from their communities.

Chinatown and Asian Americans across the country are deeply committed to equity and empowerment. We honor and acknowledge the leadership of the black community during the Civil Rights Movement that paved the way for many Asian American organizations to rise up and serve our communities. Institutional racism and violence against black lives must end.

舊金山文化中心與“黑人的生命很重要”運動及致力於正義和平等的所有人發聲。

我們對喬治·佛洛依德和哈迈德·阿伯里被謀殺以及其他無數因國家暴力行為而失去生命的人深感痛心及憤怒,為此保留空間以感同身受。

華埠及全美各地亞裔群體齊心致力於平等與民權。我們尊重及感謝非裔社區在民權運動期間的領導,為許多美國亞裔組織的崛起和社區服務的發展鋪平了道路。針對非裔群體的制度性種族歧視和暴力必須結束。

Black Lives Matter.
黑人的命也是命。
黑人的生命很重要。
黑人的命是珍貴的。

No justice, no peace. 沒有正義就沒有和平。

⁣⁣In solidarity,⁣⁣

CCC Team- Hoi, Jenny, Jia, Sheng, Weiying, Yuanyuan
中華文化中心團隊: 梁凱瑤,  梁凱欣, 柳嘉潔, Sheng, 于濰穎, 朱媛媛

For our AAPI community members looking for a place to work on personal development and learn more about solidarity, check out Chinese Progressive Association’s Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit at www.asianamtoolkit.org/.
對於美國亞太裔社區成員,如果想咨詢關於個人發展並了解更多團結一致的信息,請訪問www.asianamtoolkit.org/,查看華人進步會的“亞裔種族正義工具包”。

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Art & Development, Art Worlds, Citizenship, Values

Hopes for Chinatown: Ethics, Complicity, & Tactics Rationale

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.

Background

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.)

Photo of Dragon Seed Bridal and Photography storefront. A big sign above reads, "Dragon Seed" in brown text on white background. Below, the window is boarded up and covered in a wheatpasted poster. The text on the poster is in English and Chinese. It reads: Hopes for Chinatown. To see people living and working in peace and harmony, by Alina. Everyone in Chinatown will be safe and healthy. Anonymous. Less discrimination. More Understanding. YY. Chinatown's Generations of love and care will continue. Sunflower. The text is in red in light pink boxes on a background of red with a scale-like pattern of overlapping concentric circles.

Christine Wong Yap, “Hopes for Chinatown,” 2020, site-specific public art: participation, hand-lettering, digital print, 80 x 148 inches and 96 x 48 inches. Commissioned and installed by 100 Days Action for Art for Essential Workers. Photo by Jeremiah Barber.

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.

Funding

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.]

Complicity

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.

Response

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.

Rationale

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.

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