Activist Imagination

Spring Cleaning, Part 3: Student Art

Activist Imagination, Community

random and rad

From e-Flux:

kempinas tube
Zilvinas Kempinas.
Tube, 2008
Installation view, Atelier Calder, France

Žilvinas Kempinas will represent Lithuania at the 53rd Venice Biennale of International Art

fourfold program
by elizabeth travelslight

chinese new year in daly city: dim sum + polvoron

“I think for some reason we are unwilling to honor people who are politically active. We want to honor people who just have had enough and sort of spontaneously won’t take it any more. But somehow if they get categorized as active citizens, … then somehow it becomes self-serving, part of a movement which we’re less comfortable with.”

Tim Tyson, scholar, in a great segment on Rosa Parks

“Tabula Rosa”

On the Media, NPR, January 23, 2009

The strange history of lorem ipsum (5:15)
Alex Gallafent, The World, PRI, January 26, 2009

Activist Imagination, Research

Artist’s Talks: Rave. Rave. Rant.

Just heard two fantastic artist’s talks tonight!

I love artist’s talks that create narratives and contextualize work with key biographical facts, relevant personality traits and intellectual and artistic interests. It’s a superior means of learning about art and artists than reading C.V.s and looking at still images. I’m much more compelled to hear what the artist has to say and why he/she makes art. I’m looking for evidence that the artist is deeply engaged in an ongoing inquiry.


That’s why I loved hearing the talk by Scot Kaplan, a visual artist from Ohio with a conceptual- and performance-based practice engaged with the psychology of contemporary life. He also teaches theory in a university art department, which I believe accounts for his articulate, well-oiled presentation, insightful self-examination, and that driving, insistent willingness to challenge dominant paradigms (a characteristic of all the theory professors I’ve met).

Kaplan’s presentation was great because he was ready to establish the context at the start, posing the questions that drive his inquiry (about examining power relationships) and citing influences, like a Harper’s Index item on the average time spent looking at a work of art in a museum (0.6 seconds). Contending with the typical viewer’s superficial engagement with works of art, Kaplan admitted to feeling belligerence towards the viewer; that as an artist, he would require some investment from the viewer to experience his work. I wholeheartedly agree: I’m not interested in making work for others’ visual pleasure, available at their leisure. The world is full of beautiful, attractive, cute or endearing images, and the avalanche of imagery shows no signs of slowing. So as my work becomes less visual and more experiential, I’m fine with leaving those 0.6 seconds of the typical viewers’ gaze behind, if it means more selective but more meaningful engagement.

Kaplan presented early work clearly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s L’Etant Donnes. He made a series of provocative portal-like structures, such as altered viewfinders, wall-mounted boxes into which viewers insert their heads to hear audio tracks, and even a fridge-disguised portal leading to a hidden listening chamber.

Viewer interaction was required to experience those objects and installations, but Kaplan also presented work where the viewer became agent and subject. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about since my work for Activist Imagination. Kaplan’s work, though, directly addressed power relationships. For example, he created a small room that locked viewers inside for 90 seconds at a time, as well as a tightly-controlled project where individual viewers gave commands to the artist, who inhabited an adjacent room behind a security mirror. It was a performative social experiment that tested the lengths to which the artist and viewers would go, and it brought to mind the work of Marina Abramovich (two wrongs don’t make a right, but I still felt somewhat relieved to see someone other than a woman subjected to the disturbing, violent whims of others) and Philip Zimbardo, the author of the Stanford jail experiment that revealed how quickly ‘normal’ people abuse power. Kaplan executed this project in two locations in South Africa: a privileged university campus, and a Black township. While the performance is an important component, perhaps more so, the work is about the findings of the experiment: college students more often gave Kaplan abusive commands, while the township’s residents allowed the artist more dignity.

Kaplan’s work is provocative, but he seems thoughtful and not the least bit driven by shock value or ostentatious moralizing. His projects may be subversive, but are purpose-driven. The works create a condition where the artist’s vulnerability incites the viewers; they become culpable for completing the work of art, and in the process, making or breaking a social bond.


Ivy Ma, an artist from Hong Kong, makes poetic, phenomenological installations and photographs, and quiet but impressive drawings and paintings. I was really impressed with the diversity of her media, her capacity to create site-specific projects on residencies around the world, and how true she is to her investigation. Site-specific work can be challenging in your home town, much less thousands of miles away from your studio, tools and materials.

Like Kaplan, Ma makes some performative works involving her body, but Ma is interested in outdoor environments, like the Finnish lakes or her rapidly redeveloping Hong Kong.

She presented her work in a way that was modest and endearing — this style seems characteristic of non-native speakers from East Asia — yet she’s a fierce intellect, methodical in her presentation style, undaunted by tedious projects (like drawing a nearly life-sized tree with a fine-tipped pen, or sorting beach pebbles by color) and citing references ranging from noted Bay Area authors, Rebecca Solnit and Anne Lamott.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ma’s work and presentation. It wasn’t until later that I thought about Ma’s work in relation to identity politics—something that seems to hound A.P.A. arts presenters and the artists working with them. In fact, Ma doesn’t seem interested in identity politics at all. She’s focused on her relationship to nature, solitude, and her physical environment. She may be a contemporary artist from China, but her work isn’t about the hangover from the Cultural Revolution. She may be an Asian artist making art in North America and Europe, but she’s not hung up on re-hashing cross-cultural issues. Maybe we could lighten up about it too.


Unfortunately, not all artist’s talks are so inspiring.

Twice, I’ve had the odd experience of feeling invisible as artists of color talked about their work in terms of representing a community of identity. What happened was this: male artists of color used their talks to “speak truth to power” — to call out a predominantly white, privileged, liberal audience on their convenient progressivism and color blindness. To me, their radical or identity-based work became less effective, because the talk essentialized their art. Instead of being artists, they became cultural-political ambassadors.

Of course, I have more to learn about other racial perspectives and identities. Of course, the rarefied art world ought to be reminded of its privileged status. Of course, liberalism can stand to be nudged along by radical insights.

But if the goal is to challenge racism, gross generalizations about the whiteness of an audience — which includes people of color with radical politics like me! — is just a poor tactic. One artist seemed intent on assaulting the audience with his didactic videos played at extremely high volume. [I’ll pass. An aspiring drummer in my teens, I’m entering my thirties a tinnitus sufferer. My ears are ringing like I just left a concert–every day.] Another artist made the statement, “We tend to be color blind” or “We don’t talk about race” (“we” meaning, presumably, white liberals). Actually, I talk about race all freakin’ the time. You talking about race and saying that I never talk about it makes me feel invisible. That is color blind.

Activist Imagination, Art & Development

Just Released: The Activist Imagination Catalog!

Activist Imagination catalog

Designed by contemporary art book designers Sophine Lim and Jon Sueda (StripeLA), the 72-page Activist Imagination catalog includes rich full-color reproductions of works by Bob Hsiang, Donna Keiko Ozawa and Christine Wong Yap, an insightful essay by the well-respected curator and artist Kevin B. Chen, as well as duotone photographs and selected transcripts of the discussion series, including quotes by APA artists, journalists and academics like Carlos Villa, Erika Chong Shuch, Wei Ming Dariotis, Alison Lee Satake, Robynn Takayama, Pireeni Sundaralingam and many more. Also includes reproductions of 75 early Kearny Street Workshop posters and flyers by Zand Gee, Nancy Hom, Leland Wong and others.

Published by Kearny Street Workshop with the support of the Creative Work Fund, the San Francisco Foundation and individual donors.

includes shipping and handling
(priority mail within the US)

Order it.

Activist Imagination

Activist Imagination Catalog to benefit ACLU

activist imagination catalog

The Activist Imagination catalog is now available for pre-order!

Activist Imagination: a multi-disciplinary look at the past, present, and future of APA activism, featuring the work of Bob Hsiang, Donna Keiko Ozawa and Christine Wong Yap.
Essay by Kevin B. Chen.
Design by Jon Sueda and Sophine Lim.
72 pp. (inc. 24 pp. color). Please allow 2-3 weeks for delivery.
$25 includes domestic shipping via US Priority mail

Now thru May 23rd, for every Activist Imagination catalog purchased on, I’ll donate $5 to the ACLU — they’ve worked hard to defend the right to marry!

Activist Imagination, News

Artist’s Talk at KSW on Thursday

Thanks to everyone who made it out to the Artists’ Talk at Frey Norris Gallery on Thursday, or to the Headlands Open House on Sunday.

It’s really great to have the chance to talk about the ideas behind the work in depth with supporters. (Thanks FNG for the opportunity!) It’s amazing how the social nature of openings shapes conversations — so while I like many artists who I see at openings around town, the talk at FNG was the first time they were able to hear about my art in any depth.

If you haven’t been to an artist’s talk at a gallery, I’d just like to point out that the format is usually less formal than an artist’s lecture in a lecture hall — and while most artists use jargon in their written statements, many artists can speak in frank, colloquial terms about their work in more casual settings. So if you’re interested in art, artists’ talks are really painless ways to get familiar with an artist’s body of work and methodology. And you’ll usually also have the chance to ask questions — biographical, advisory, technical, intellectual, whatever: “How long did it take to make that?” “Where did you go to school?” “What is that made of?” “Did you hear about the Society for Cynicism? Like they need your support.” “Is your work influenced by Nauman?” etc.

So if you want one more opportunity to hear me talk about my work, please come to the Activist Imagination Artists’ Talk this Thursday, April 24, at 7 pm at Kearny Street Workshop. Donna, Bob and I be doing a gallery walk-through of the new work we created for the show. Many of my pieces are site-specific installations, and I’d love to have to chance to fill in any gaps or answer any questions you might have.

The talk starts promptly at 7. If you’re interested in my work, note that I’ll be the first artist to speak. Refreshments and snacks will be served; grazing commences at 6:30.

In the meantime, here are some pics of a new experiment I showed at yesterday’s Open House.

Sun-catching mirror near the sun-drenched neighboring building
A mirror placed near the sun-drenched neighboring building, casts sunlight into my basement studio.

At first glance, two mirrors on a shelf make for a minimal installation.
At first glance, two mirrors on a shelf make for a minimal installation.

Strategically placed prism and mirrors casts a spectrum on participants\' faces.
A strategically-placed prism and set of mirrors casts a spectrum on the faces of those participants curious enough to explore the mirrors up close.

Activist Imagination

Where We Are Going: The Future of Activism

Kearny Street Workshop presents
Where We Are Going: The Future of Activism
Ron Muriera, Erika Chong Shuch, Pireeni Sundaralingam, and Carlos Villa
Moderated by Wei Ming Dariotis

an Activist Imagination event

Join Kearny Street Workshop and artist, educator, and curator Carlos Villa, poet and writer Pireeni Sundaralingam, choreographer, director, performer and teacher Erika Chong Shuch, and community activist, performing artist, educator, Manilatown Heritage Foundation Executive Director Ron Muriera for a discussion about the future of activism, the arts and community, moderated by writer, academic, and long-time KSW member Wei Ming Dariotis.

The discussion will explore and envision activism for the days and years ahead. Given our history and the current political, social, and environmental climate, what forms of activism will be relevant in the future? How can those who want to effect real change consider technology and global forces in developing strategies? What forms of activism can we imagine that will hold relevance, and power, in the days to come? And what challenges can we identify on the horizon?

Thursday, March 27th, 2008; 7pm
Kearny Street Workshop‘s space180
180 Capp Street, 3rd Floor, @ 17th Street, San Francisco
Free and open to the public.

The Activist Imagination project is made possible in part by a grant from the Creative Work Fund through support from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation. Activist Imagination is also supported in part by a grant from the San Francisco Foundation and from KSW’s members and individual donors.

About the Panelists and Moderator

Wei Ming Dariotis is Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, with emphases on Asians of Mixed Heritage and Asian Pacific American Literature, Arts, and Culture. Wei Ming Dariotis serves on the Board of the Asian American Theater Company and the Advisory Board of iPride, which runs the FUSION Summer Day Camp for Mixed Heritage Youth. Her recent publications include, “Developing a Kin-Aesthetic: Multiraciality and Kinship in Asian and Native North American Literature,” in Mixed Race Literature, ed. by Jonathan Brennan (Stanford University Press), “On Growing Up Queer and Hapa” in The Multiracial Child’s Resource Book, “‘My Race, Too, Is Queer’: Mixed Heritage Chinese Americans Fight For Race and Gender Marriage Equity” in Chinese America: History and Perspectives/Branching Out the Banyan Tree Conference Proceedings, and “Crossing the Racial Frontier: Star Trek and Mixed Heritage Identities,” in A Science Fiction Phenomenon: Investigating the Star Trek Effect.

Erika Chong Shuch
is a choreographer, director, performer, and teacher. Deemed by Robert Avilla in the SF Bay Guardian “among the leaders in the field”, the ESP Project (Erika Shuch Performance Project) is one of only two resident companies at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco’s oldest alternative arts space. ESP Project’s has premiered 6 full-length performance works, as well as numerous shorter works since 2002. Exploring the inevitable terrain of love and death with vulnerability and humor, Erika’s ruminations coalesce into integrated and imagistic assemblages of music, movement, text, and scenic design. Erika’s work celebrates the extraordinary within ordinary human experience and aims to amplify the role of theater as a tool for inspiring social change. Erika was awarded the prestigious Emerging Choreographers Award by the Gerbode Foundation, SFBG’s GOLDIE Award in Dance (2003), the Dance USA grant from the James Irvine Foundation, was an Artist in Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts (2006) and at Djerassi (2007), and worked under the mentorship of Joe Goode through CHIME (2003-2004). Erika is a co-founder and faculty member of the Experimental Performance Institute, a BA and MFA program at New College of California.

Born and raised in Sri Lanka, Pireeni Sundaralingam currently lives in San Francisco. She is a PEN USA Rosenthal Fellow and editor of Writing the Lines of Our Hands, the first anthology of South Asian American poetry (forthcoming). Her poetry has appeared in national newspapers and political journals such as The Guardian (UK) and The Progressive (USA), university teaching texts including Three Genres (Prentice-Hall, 8th Edition, 2006), and anthologies such as Masala (Macmillan, 2005) and Contemporary Voices from the East (Norton, 2008). Having given readings on national radio in Sweden, Ireland, the UK and America, Pireeni’s work has also been featured in such venues as the United Nations headquarters, the International Museum of Women and the National Theatre (UK). Working with her partner (violinist Colm O’Riain), Pireeni’s latest album Bridge Across the Blue brings together 23 musicians and poets to tell the immigration stories of America. Awarded the Californian Potrero Nuevo Fund Prize for Social Justice through the Arts, the album has been described as “a triumph of transformative collaboration, and a blueprint for cultural sanity” while the editors of have selected it as “one of the best recordings of poetry and music ever recorded”.

For nearly fifty years Carlos Villa has explored the meaning of cultural diversity in his art and in doing so has expanded our awareness of what we consider as “multicultural.” What began in his early career as an attempt to understand his own heritage–a complexity of Filipino traditions with its layered strains of Asian, African, Indian and Oceanic cultures, along with influences of a Western artistic tradition–became over time an exercise in creating his own visual anthropology to represent his personal background, and, in a broader sense, the dynamics of intercultural weaving. – Preston Fletcher. For more information visit