Some points of references about why belonging is urgent.
I haven’t shared these references in discussing belonging much. I don’t want my own perspectives to overly influence the stories of belonging that participants share with me. But these are some of the references I think about…
This is a true story at a tragic nexus of islamophobia, xenophobia, white fear, gun violence, love, and grief.
In some ways, what one man shouted in anger and one woman uttered in grief capture one of America’s most troubling intersections.
“Get out of my country!” the gunman would yell, before opening fire on the two Indian men he later said he believed were from Iran.
“Do we belong here?” the widow would ask in a Facebook post six days after the shooting.
The assailant approached the friends. Witnesses recall him wearing a white T-shirt with military-style pins, his head wrapped in a white scarf. He was intent on finding out one thing: Did the men at the table belong in the country?
Adam W. Purinton, a white Navy veteran, turned to the two brown-complexioned men, both living in the United States for years, and demanded to know their immigration status.
Mr. Madasani said he and Mr. Kuchibhotla had decided to leave, but were stopped as other patrons apologized and assured them they were welcome. One guy paid their tab; the bar manager gave them another round of beer and fried pickles, a favorite of Mr. Kuchibhotla. “Everybody kept coming up to us saying this is not what we represent, you guys belong here,” he said.
Yes, he was mine and now I sing his song. But he was also no different from so many other refugees who have to leave their homes, people with names that some make little effort to pronounce who continue to build America. Nor am I any different from the millions of people who fell in love and made family here….
And in the story of Ficre is the lesson that we are impoverished if we remain strangers to one another and that what makes this country unique is that the world is in it.
Research notes on small acts of immigrant Chinese people’s history.
A Prompt, and the Challenge of Celebration
Josh MacPhee invited me to develop a poster for his Celebrate People’s History poster series, which “shares the stories of events, groups, and people who have moved forward the collective struggle of humanity to create a more equitable and just world.” He’s printed over 100 different Celebrate People’s History posters over the past 18 years. Learn more at Just Seeds.
Just Seeds is a powerful platform for radical affirmation. I love that they are not at all interested in being reactive. [I still think back to their call for art for their propaganda party in January 2017: “We will be avoiding all art with an explicit focus on Trump and his catchphrases. The more we represent him—no matter in what light—the more we re-inscribe him with power. Instead, focus on graphics that support the social movements that existed before Trump and will be fighting to exist after he is long gone.” Linguist George Lakoff has been saying the same thing: stop parroting Trump, even in outrage, instead ignore, redirect, and reframe the issues.]
In the context of family separations and heightened xenophobia, I wanted to share a profile of Chinese American resistance against exclusion and racism.
Angel Island Immigration Station
I started by researching Angel Island Immigration Station. I visited in 2001, as part of the Chinese Culture Center’s In Search of Roots program, the only program of its kind in the US that helped Chinese Americans research and visit their ancestral villages in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong. The immigration station (which seems like a euphemism for what we might call it today, a “detention center”) detained tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940, under harsh conditions and for indeterminate periods.
Historian Him Mark Lai, who co-led the Roots program, described the immigration station as a “major facility of the bureaucratic apparatus established to administer the Chinese exclusion laws.” While European immigrants were detained for an average of one to two days, Chinese immigrants were detained for an average of 16 days, with over 200 Chinese immigrants detained for over a year. Chinese detainees were subjected to unreasonably detailed interrogations. They were subjected to hours of questioning about things like, “How many windows were in your house? Which way did the door face? How many people lived in the house two houses to the East?” Answering incorrectly could result in being sent back to China. Husbands and wives were separated and barred from communicating. Despair led some detainees to suicide.
Angel Island Liberty Association
In my research, I learned about a mutual aid society run by male Chinese detainees. The group was named 自治會 (“self-governing association”), which was anglicized to “Angel Island Liberty Association.” They were active from 1922 to about 1952. Their activities varied, from advocating for better food (a major complaint that led to riots) and basic necessities (such as access to toilet paper and soap, which had been automatically granted to detainees of other races), to pooling resources for books or records and organizing diversions. Alleviating detainee’s boredom and despair is important to the wellbeing, and I don’t want to discount it. But I became enchanted by the Association’s covert activities.
Mutual Aid in an Unjust System
The Association colluded with Chinese American kitchen staff to smuggle coaching notes from detainees’ family or supporters in Chinatown to detainees. The kitchen staff would wrap the notes in waxed paper and tape it to the bottom of plates, which they served to Association leaders. Sometimes code phrases indicated the presence of notes, such as “extra serving” or “the chicken is especially good today.” Association leaders would find and hide the notes to distribute later to intended recipients. Coaching notes were a way to survive and resist a system designed to exclude based on racism and xenophobia.
I love this story—its ingeniousness, the solidarity shown by fellow immigrants, and the centrality of sharing food. The way I was raised (by Chinese parents who may not have always enjoyed food security in their own childhoods), eating is the sun around which everything else revolves—the day, family, life, even death (with Ching Ming). I know food is central to pretty much all cultures, but there’s something about Chinese voracity and emotional connection. (If you call someone, instead of asking, “How are you?” you ask, “Have you eaten yet?”)
This story also ties in to my interests in social practice, and how much social practice is related to food and/or radical hospitality. You could say that many social practices of sharing food are about passing messages of cooperation, mutuality, and dreams of freedom.
Though the Angel Island immigration station may now be a relic, immigration policies based on fear-mongering, xenophobia, and racism are not. When the system is unjust—teargassing children, rejecting asylum seekers—you can see how othering is about dehumanization.
I knew I wanted to depict this moment of solidarity and collusion, of the sharing of sustenance and information as keys to freedom. I also knew to show the giver and receiver both using two hands to handle the plate. This symbolizes respect in Chinese custom.
Once I identified the subject and the media, the rest was relatively straightforward. For the benefit of friends interested in drawing, I’ll de-mystify my process.
I use a lot of drawing aids. Fitting two people and the bottom of a plate in a portrait format requires foreshortening, which complicates any figure drawing. So I shot a few photos using myself as a model and composited them together (which was actually pretty funny).
From there, I printed the composite, sketched on a light box, inked my sketch, scanned, cleaned up digitally, printed, layered the print on colored paper to make the paper cut using an Xacto knife, scanned again, digitally colored, wrote the blurb, and added the text.
I thought about Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, and using a typeface contemporaneous with the content. I searched for 1920s and 1930s typefaces. Many were the same I’d seen in letterpress printing, like Kabel. I like Kabel. It’s is a little too quirky for many contemporary contexts, so I was happy to use it here. I wasn’t able to apply Bringhurst’s principles to the Chinese text, choosing visual consistency with Kabel instead. [I’ve been typesetting Chinese texts or other projects and jobs, and this web designer’s research and findings have been a helpful resource.]
If you’re interested in learning more about the Chinese American experience on Angel Island, or about the Angel Island Liberty Association, I recommend the following:
Profile of Tet Yee Ming, who was a chairman of the Association and later became a union organizer.
Here’s the text of the poster:
The Angel Island Liberty Association (or “Self-governing Association”) was a mutual aid society run by Chinese detainees at the Angel Island Immigration Station from 1922 to about 1952. With the help of Chinese American kitchen staff, the Association smuggled letters to help detainees pass detailed immigration interrogations. Letters were folded inside wax paper and taped to the bottom of dishes.
Why artists should empower themselves with a low-cost artists’ fee structure.
When a writer asked why I joined WAGENCY—an artist-run fee structure for negotiating fair pay from non-profits—I wrote in depth about why WAGENCY supplies sorely-needed information and professional standards. The article was recently published and it focused primarily on British art activity. Since WAGENCY was only briefly mentioned, I’m posting my writing here.
I signed up for WAGENCY because for years I’ve been waiting for such a well-considered, much-needed advocacy tool.
I’ve been obsessed with artist’s agency, even creating projects and conducting surveys asking artists about how they feel about the art world, how they exercise their own agency as artists, how they interdependently support and receive support from other artists, and if they use the tactic of non-participation.
Too often artists see themselves as lone, powerless individuals hoping to gain power, money or influence by way of more powerful, more established entities in the art world—non-profits, galleries, museums, curators, collectors, foundations, etc. Artists are often marginalized when actually our artworks are central—none of these spaces or staff would have anything to show or see without the legions of hardworking artists making art. Many institutions and artists perpetuate a system that exploits artists’ hunger for exposure and justifies offering little to no compensation.
I have exhibited with non-profit organizations for years. The experiences have been good and bad. Some non-profits have a culture of scarcity and offer little to no compensation or support. When that is paired with a small audience reach, it makes you wonder what your efforts amount to. Why am I paying for a studio, a storage space, materials, a website? Why am I using my “free time” leftover from income generation away from friends and family, subsidizing my labor for the very organizations who should be my allies and champions? How long can I sustain a life as an artist? Should longterm sustainability be a privilege? Is an art world that rewards privilege an art world I would want to participate in?
When either party in a partnership feels the rewards don’t justify the effort, that’s a poor partnership. Why should artists continue to engage on these terms?
I also think, generally, there is a lack of transparency in the art world. This has been born out especially in my interactions regarding money with non-profit organizations as well as commercial galleries and museums. Many partner organizations avoid contracts like the plague. In any other business or industry, the art world’s lack of contracts, invoices, and timely payments would be completely untenable. A few partner organizations have sent me clear, thorough agreements detailing fees and payment plans, offering stipends and increasing them according to additional talks or writing, and those are—by a huge margin—exceptions.
This leaves artists in the awkward position of asking, sometimes repeatedly, for information or money, when many artists feel that broaching money is taboo, or they don’t want to seem pushy, or that the amount they are asking for is subjective or speculative. It can feel like the amount given to artists is based more on the programming staff’s whims, the organization’s “budget”, and the clout of artists, perpetuating emerging artists’ emergent status.
Compare this to my experience supplementing my income as a freelance illustrator and designer. From the beginning, I based my illustration fees and hourly design rates on the fee structures outlined in the Graphic Arts Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines handbook. I’ve cited the GAG Handbook countless times over the years to educate clients on industry standards around pricing, payment terms, cancellation fees, rights transferred, deliverables, and more. I also embraced NO SPEC: designers should decline any job on speculation, such as open calls where clients solicit designs and only choose and pay a designer upon finding a design they like. Spec work is unfair and unethical, and it undervalues the work of designers. I have declined working on spec and explained why, linking to NO SPEC’s site.
When design clients have asked for free or discounted design work, the logic always seemed faulty to me. They will pay printers for printing and paper. They will pay the shippers for shipping. The value of those services and goods are self-evident to them. It should also be self-evident that if they want a designer’s services, skills, and labor, they should pay for it. This is exactly the same principle that artists must embrace. Museums pay their employees, contractors, and suppliers. They should also pay artists—whose work is central to their mission of exhibiting art—a fair, non-exploitative fee that represents all the labor that goes into making or supplying art for an exhibition, giving a talk, or writing.
Nothing like the GAG Handbook or NOSPEC has existed for US artists until WAGENCY. Only CARFAC came close—for Canadian artists and organizations with Canadian funding. I looked forward to a fee structure like CARFAC for US artists for years, and now WAGE has finally created one.
I have just signed up to be a WAGENT this week, so it’s too soon to say what any disadvantages are.
I think it’s fair and ethical that WAGENCY asks WAGENTS to pay assistants a fair hourly rate. I don’t hire assistants, but when I do, I’ll have to think carefully about whether I can ethically afford it or not. As an artist who has also worked as an artist’s assistant, I certainly wouldn’t want an assistant to feel undervalued, nor to perpetuate a culture of scarcity. Fair is fair.
WAGENCY doesn’t require artists to decline all substandard opportunities. Artists can remain WAGENTS if they accept fees below WAGE standards (though they will lose WAGE certification). This gives artists a degree of autonomy and flexibility that allows artists to consider their current financial status or the intangible benefits and personal rewards of a partnership. It also compels artists to use the tactic of non-participation when they can. It clarifies that artists are agents and have choices. Artists don’t have to feel that they need to accept every “opportunity” that comes their way. They can, and should, decline unfavorable conditions. Doing so reinforces the value of their labor, as well as all artists’.
For me, the benefits of WAGENCY are obvious. Having a clear fee structure helps shape a more objective and fair dialogue, beginning negotiations with a reasonable starting point. It shifts the conversation from, “What scraps are leftover in your budget for me?” to “How will you fairly compensate me for my time and labor?” Being a WAGENT states at the outset that I expect to be treated as a professional. My enthusiasm to be a WAGENT—to advocate for fair compensation and to decline unfavorable terms—is a direct result of my experiences as an exhibiting artist over the past twenty years.
Killoran’s projects are often conceptual and phenomenological. His projects offer aesthetic situations in unorthodox media and environments. His practice relates to other practices at the merging of art and life. He spoke about how dependence on the white cube to frame something as art is almost a political liability of exceptionalism.
Killoran is interested in making art as simply and elegantly as possible, trimming away anything that’s unnecessary. He doesn’t locate ‘the work’ in the objects he makes solely—he locates it in viewers’ interactions with each other as mediated by the object, with their bodies in the space.
Patrick Killoran demonstrating “Insight,” his project that turns a t-shirt into a camera obscura. This is the first project he made when he moved to NYC 20 years ago. I think it’s so smart to introduce his work with this. It helps audiences come along on a journey of his thought process.
Rebound is Killoran’s dispersed library project. He re-covers books he’s reading with the instructions that commit the book to become a common resource, meant to stay in circulation at the responsibility of each reader. Here is the front cover, which explains how people participate.
The back cover of the Rebound books have a sign-in form. While it resembles a inter-office envelope, I liked thinking about it as a counterpoint to the sign-in book you’d find at a trail summit. The latter marks a place and an achievement. This sheet, in contrast, documents whose hands the book has passed through, marking movement via sharing.
Killoran’s Passage, an intervention in the stacks at the Central Queens Library. The inside of the box is laminated with a photo of the actual stacks that the box is located in. It’s actually a little hard to find the artwork in the library—I walked right past it. Discovering it is part of the pleasure.
When you squat down and look through Passage, this is what you see. At first, when I saw a similar photo on a flyer, I thought it was an illusion created with mirrors. When I looked through the actual artwork, I had an “Inception” moment: what seemed like 2-D or shallow 3-D is actually deep 3-D. In other words, the project isn’t about the illusion of depth, it is actual spatial depth. It extends the length of the entire library—over 100 feet.
There’s a lot of wonderful openness in Passage, from seeing other people look through the box, to when patrons re-shelve books in the space, to seeing other patrons observe still other patrons interacting. I think this is an incredibly successful project. I think it achieves what Killoran’s after, with a maximal implications using minimal means.
This type of work may appear very simple. The solution is so ingenious as to seem inevitable. But making this type of art is intellectually laborious, time-consuming, and rigorous. I really respect this practice, and am grateful for the chance to hear it explained thoughtfully.
Visit PatrickKilloran.com to learn more about his work. (It’s a nicely organized, selective site with just enough text to describe each project.) I think his overarching practice is about interrogating public life: the unspoken rules, behaviors, and manifestations of courtesy, kindness, greed, compliance and non-compliance. He is interested in social relations in a neutral way. His works are experiments that say more about us than about him.
The artist’s talk reminded me of when I was making elemental, conceptual, phenomenological installations. I remember struggling to convey the nature of my interests in single images. Two-dimensional images just don’t capture experiential phenomena. I remember wondering how many people viewed my slides and didn’t “get” my practice. Sometimes your art is best shared as stories, jokes, surprises, or upendings of expectations, and the artist’s talk is a better form than slides.
In preparation for this project, Killoran held many conversations with library staff members. It made me want to have more space for conversations in my own research. Conversations can evolve and be more natural and spontaneous than writing. I’ll need to get out of my shell more.
You are invited to write about your response to Killoran’s installation. Find The People’s Guide to the Queens International writing station, located at the end of the stacks where the installation begins. Or, just look for the stacks hold books on “Unexplained Phenomena.” Complete a form and enter it into the submission box below. We’ll print submissions in our zine and on ThePeoplesGuideQI.org.
I’ll develop a participatory project to commemorate places of belonging in the Bay Area. I’ll also create an atlas of belonging. I’ll post more about this soon—including how you can participate, and how you can help.
In the meantime, one of my goals is to make my process transparent. I’ll try by posting regularly here.
Last year, I developed a site-specific, participatory project about belonging during a five-week artist’s residency at Sanitary Tortilla Factory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After conducting workshops and holding an open call, I hand-painted signs to commemorate 13 places of belonging, and produced a 24-page zine with maps and excerpts of the contributors’ own words.
Christine Wong Yap with contributors, Belonging Sign #1: 2nd Street SW, Nominated by Jessamyn Lovell. 2017, handlettered paint on pine, 18 x 11 x 0.75 inches each.
That experience reinforced my passion for belonging. Belonging relates to social and political identities, and also reflects deep emotional intelligence and self-actualization. It can mean you relate to a group or a place, and also are connected with a deep, authentic self. This initial project also boosted my confidence, and underscored the importance of artists helping artists, patience, openness, and listening. I’ll carry these lessons learned moving forward.
I’ll be the Bay Area from mid-November to mid-February.
[Though Haas has described the residency as “yearlong,” the residency dates are November 1 to May 1. In my interview, I was forthcoming about my availability. I’m explaining all of this because I know how important it is to make the most of a competitive opportunity. But I know that I can get a lot done in a short time, making up for less time with more focus and attention.]
Coinciding Belonging Projects
It just so happens that I’m currently exhibiting a project on belonging in San Francisco. It’s part of Take Action, an exhibition at CCA’s Hubbell Street Galleries in San Francisco, and is a collaboration with For Freedoms. It’s on view through November 16.
Participants can mark their places of belonging on a map of the Bay Area, make their own poster to commemorate that place, and send a postcard to someone about belonging.
Christine Wong Yap, Belonging, 2018, mixed media: participatory installation with letterpress-printed activity sheet, dimensions variable.
But first, I ask people to complete the questionnaires, in order to deepen self-reflection about belonging. Gallery assistants are collecting the questionnaires, and will share them with me.
I already collected some questionnaires. Some were completed by CCA students in workshops I led, some were completed during the opening. I’m astounded by the hope, earnestness, and unique life stories and perspectives revealed in them. There’s a young Russian immigrant who struggled to find her place here, and she came to forge lifelong bonds in a co-organized life drawing group. She encourages others to initiate their own places of belonging. I was moved to hear one young man described what belonging feels like in the negative, as “not being intrusive or bothersome.”
I hope to inform the Haas project with these stories, as well as feedback I got during the workshops. Thanks to everyone who’s participated so far.
If you visit Take Action and participate in my project, please consider entering your name and email address so I can ask follow up questions or invite you to public feedback sessions or celebrations. I won’t add you to any mailing lists. This is just so I can follow up about the project to be accountable to you and your contributions to this project.
The Bay Area
Though I’ve lived in NYC for the past eight years, I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 33. I’ve lived in the East Bay, North Bay, and on the peninsula. When I visit the Bay, I sleep in the same bedroom where I was during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
I’m looking forward to spending more time in the Bay Area. I hope to develop a project that reflects the best of the Bay: thoughtfulness, experimentation, accessibility, diversity, and inclusion.
In 2015, I created Ways and Means. The public was invited to interact with activity kits housed in custom printed and sewn tool aprons.
Christine Wong Yap, Ways and Means, 2016, letterpress, woodcut, linoleum cut, and screenprint on paper and textiles, mixed media, participation, dimensions variable. Exhibited at Kala Art Institute, Berkeley, CA. Photo: Jiajun Wang
Activities housed in canvas pouches, displayed on a wall. Participants can attach them to garments using the snaps. Supported by a Fellowship from Kala Art Institute and an Artist-in-Residence Workspace Grant from the Center for Book Arts. Photo: Jiajun Wang
I was trying to convey feelings of autonomy (deciding for yourself) and agency (being able to do things) by emphasizing mobility (being able to move freely).
Essentially, I wanted the tool kits to remind participants of the intangible tools they already carry—such as help they’ve already received, or their commitment to their own values—that allow them to express themselves fully, do things, and go places.
Man’s great evolutionary advantage is the creation of tools. The problem is, we’re not marsupials, we need to carry them somehow. And this idea of who has access to the tools they need, who can walk through the world comfortably and securely; THIS is what we are talking about when we talk about pockets.
Hannah Carlson (lecturer at RISD):
Pockets speak to this question of preparedness, and your ability to move in public and to be confident. It’s really difficult to get around if you don’t have what you need, and it’s about, I think it’s about mobility and movement in public.
Trufelman and Carlson continue, and touch on the psychological security of ownership when your tools are closer to your body:
HC: If the formal question for me is, “What difference does it make?” “What’s the difference between a pocket and a bag?” And I think the key difference is that the pocket is internal. And it’s secret.
AT: A bag can be stolen. A bag can be lost. And then, that’s it. You don’t have your things anymore.
HC: With a pocket inside, you don’t have to think about it. You forget about it, but you still have stuff in there. It is seen as this territory of your own. That connects you to the objects you carry, in a way. Those objects become part of you.
They also dive into gender and the disparity of pocket size. Many woman will relate to the dislike of the ridiculousness of tiny pockets as an extension of patriarchy. It’s a great listen for general listeners and designers alike. Recommended!