Projects, Research

Studio Notes: A Poster on Angel Island Liberty Association for Celebrate People’s History

Research notes on small acts of immigrant Chinese people’s history.

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. 天使島自由協會(或“自治會”)是一個約在1922年至1952年間由被拘留在天使島移民局的華人們所組成的互助協會。在美籍華裔廚工的幫助下,該協會為被拘留在島上的華人走私信件,將信件蓋上蠟紙折疊其中並粘貼至餐具的底部,幫助同胞們通過嚴格縝密的移民審訊。Celebrate People’s History. 擁抱人民的歷史
Christine Wong Yap, Angel Island Liberty Association poster for Celebrate People’s History, a project by Josh MacPhee/Just Seeds.

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.


Process Notes

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.]


Further Reading

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:


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.

天使島自由協會(或“自治會”)是一個約在1922年至1952年間由被拘留在天使島移民局的華人們所組成的互助協會。在美籍華裔廚工的幫助下,該協會為被拘留在島上的華人走私信件,將信件蓋上蠟紙折疊其中並粘貼至餐具的底部,幫助同胞們通過嚴格縝密的移民審訊。

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Sights

See: Patrick Killoran: Passage, and more

What I get from Killoran’s conceptually-oriented practice.

I keep thinking about Patrick Killoran’s intriguing artist’s talk yesterday, delivered at the beautiful Central Branch of the Queens Library in Jamaica. It was part of Opening Day of the library installations in the Queens Museum’s Queens International.

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.

man sticking his head into his t-shirt that has a grommet in the center of the fabric.

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.

The new book cover reads, "To whom it may concern, I am a book intended to be passed on and shared. If you choose to read me, please sign-in on my back cover. When you are finished reading, give me to another person. Do not keep me in storage or put me on the shelf, deliver me to the next reader. If you find me in storage, or with someone who is not reading me, you are authorized to take me as your own and read me. I HAVE NO OWNER, ONLY READERS."

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.

A book with a fold-out back cover. It looks like an inter-office envelope, but the top says "readership," and the table headers say, "Name, location, date."

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.

Shelves of library books, with a plywood box with no face. Inside the box is a photo of shelves of library books.

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.

A view of Passage, a portal of perfectly-lined up boxes that create a negative space through the library book shelves.

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. 

 


 

Learn more about all the installations at the Queens Library (which includes The People’s Guide to the Queens International, a collaboration between Brian Droitcour and me).

Wooden display holding forms and a submission box, located at the end of stacks of library books.

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.

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Research

Points of Reference: Pockets, and Ways and Means

A new reference re-affirms a past project.

In 2015, I created Ways and Means. The public was invited to interact with activity kits housed in custom printed and sewn tool aprons.

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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

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.

So when I listened to “Pockets: Articles of Interest #3”, an episode in a six-part series in  99% Invisible’s podcast, I was fascinated to hear this:

Avery Trufelman (producer):

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!

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3 Flags by 3 artists

Revised US Flag by Maya Misra. Cunt Quilt by Coralina Rodriguez Meyer. Artist’s Arm by Jevijoe Vitug. // Source: ChristinaFreeman.net

While I like Creative Time’s Pledges of Allegiance artist-designed flag project, it seemed like a missed opportunity to not include more emerging artists. Air Rights, a project flying artist-designed flags curated by Christina Freeman at Flux Factory, is just the right antidote. The artists were less well-known. The flags were weirder. And it was in Queens.

Sights

See: Air Rights @ Flux Factory, Queens

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Impressions, Values

Points of Reference: Public Servants

How I know what I know about social practice.

I’m collaborating on a participatory project and advising a social practice grad student right now. It’s made me think about how I know what I know, and why I approach and shape projects the way I do. I didn’t major in social practice—I majored in printmaking, working with Ted Purves as a thesis advisor. Though I sometimes wonder what I might’ve learned had I majored in social practice, it’s gratifying to come across references that are intellectually stimulating because they resonate which my existing practice.


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Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon. // Source: MITPress.MIT.edu.

The dialogue spurred by Ben Davis’ “A Critique of Social Practice Art: What Does It Mean to Be a Political Artist?” still poses fresh, relevant questions. Originally published in 2013 on an activist website, Davis’ critique generated a remarkably thoughtful debate on Facebook between Deborah Fisher (director of A Blade of Grass), Nato Thompson (then artistic director of Creative Time), Tom Finklepearl (NYC Commissioner, Department of Cultural Affairs), artist Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses, and many others who have dedicated their life’s work to socially-engaged art or social practice.

This debate was reprinted in Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon (MIT Press, 2016). [That an MIT Press book would reprint a Facebook thread is sort of amazing.]

The debate spans:

  • Weighing the political efficacy of social practice projects versus their symbolic power. Davis provocatively asks if social practice projects are a distraction from activism. Many respond by defending the importance of the symbolic power of art, and the “need for a poetics of social change” (Fisher).
  • How socially-engaged projects relate to power, privilege, appropriation, and exploitation.
    • Projects should be guided by ethics, specifically, treating people with care and respect and not being co-opted by power it intends to reshape (Fisher).
    • Be wary of when the image of social consciousness is used to gain social capital (Thompson) [in other words, “performative wokeness“].
    • Does a project help or harm? Is it merely tolerated? (Fisher)
    • Socially-engaged art is not inherently good. Likewise, neither is creative place-making. Indeed, developers use artists to create “vibrancy,” rather than critically-engaged projects, and resources can be diverted away (Lowe).
  • Social practitioners shouldn’t get too “self-satisfied” (Davis) because social practice cannot replace activism and organizing. [I would argue that no one person or role builds a people’s movement. It wasn’t explicit but the solutions hinted at seemed Alinskyist.] Davis says that artists have an important role to play in political struggle, but they don’t have special access to political wisdom. [I think any artist who’s read any writing by Davis or Gregory Sholette knows that political education is a serious endeavor distinct from art practice.]
  • How to assess socially-engaged art, such as through ‘participatory action research’ and ‘collaborative action research’ and involving stakeholders (Elizabeth Grady). While you don’t want to rely only on artist’s first-person accounts, you can define efficacy first in terms of artists’ goals (Fisher).
  • The impossibility of not being co-opted by capitalism and the possibility of momentary acts of resistance. Davis cites Rosa Luxemburg on how many small victories and tiny inspiring acts are needed in the building of a movement.

Some thoughts expressed exceptionally eloquently:

“A great artwork embraces paradox and contains multiple, sometimes contradictory, truths. …this quality… gives a great socially-engaged art project the ability to reframe, reshape or, for a moment, redistribute power.”

—Deborah Fisher

Fisher also described the Rolling Jubilee as:

“a gesture that punches through that which oppresses us in a way that is infectious and influential because of its profound elegance.”

This “profound elegance” is my primary criteria for successful social practices: how they balance relations and forms, through process and ephemera. The projects I most admire are ethical and non-exploitative. They honor participants’ dignity, agency, intelligence, and time. And they are enticing and welcoming.

At the same time that I want to hold artists accountable to high standards, I also think it’s important to let artists be creative, experiment, and fail. The rules and forms of social practice aren’t codified. We don’t need any more predictable art or social relations.

The Public Servants editors wisely end the chapter with a passage from Louisa MacCall, co-director of Artists in Context, which connects artists and non-artists to collaborate on addressing issues. When I read MacCall’s words, it was like she was describing the goals in my practice (emphasis mine):

“What if we consider artists as researchers who can design, experiment, fail, innovate, and contribute to society’s knowledge production?

“To regain our sense of connection, agency, and empathy—which are vital to a just and sustainable society—we must consider the different kinds of questions and outcomes artists are proposing as indispensable to our systems of knowledge production.”


I’ll keep diving into Public Servants.

I’m also looking forward to the US Department of Arts and Culture’s “Citizen Artist Salon: Art & Well-Being” this Wednesday which connects social justice and wellbeing.

“how social justice is a chief indicator of individual and community health; how art can nurture well-being; and what you can do to build a culture of health.”

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soldiers, rolling a cigarette, watchtowner, marching, reading an order

Panels from 442, written by Koji Steven Sakai and Phinny Kiyomura and illustrated by Rob Sato // Source: kojistevensakai.com

442 is a graphic novel following a regiment of Japanese Americans fighting in WWII even as their families were housed in concentration camps in the US. It was written by Koji Steven Sakai and Phinny Kiyomura, and the artwork is by Rob Sato.

You can read 442 by downloading the Stela app and subscribing.

Rob, a classmate from undergrad, posted about his grandfather’s and great-grandparents’ detention in a concentration camp in Rohwer, AR. He also wrote:

As fewer and fewer of those who experienced [Japanese American internment] firsthand remain in the world I hope their stories remain very alive, that this history can be as much a part of collective human knowledge as possible, and not for wallowing in pity but to arm minds against xenophobia and fear mongering. If there’s anything that should be taken away from the whole mess it’s these simple but somehow still bafflingly misunderstood facts—Japanese American Internment was not just “unfortunate” but wrong, it was unnecessary and protected no one, it was inarguably racist, it could happen to anyone, and actions like it will be tried again and again and again.

See also:

Though “the court had finally overturned the 1944 decision that the United States government could force more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent into internment camps,” Japanese American internees “lamented that it came as part of the decision that upheld President Trump’s ban on travel into the United States by citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries.”

“‘This was absolutely the wrong case to include Korematsu in,’ said Alan Nishio, who was born in a California internment camp, Manzanar, in 1945…. ‘We are continuing to use the guise of national security to limit the civil rights of immigrants and people of color without really any basis.'”

Jennifer Medina, “For Survivors of Japanese Internment Camps, Court’s Korematsu Ruling Is ‘Bittersweet,’” New York Times, June 28, 2018

See also:

“These immigration policies are for people who conflated America with whiteness, and therefore a loss of white primacy becomes a loss of American identity.”

Charles M. Blow, “White Extinction Anxiety,” New York Times, June 24, 2018

#KeepFamiliesTogether

Families Belong Together MoveOn June 30 Day of Action

Citizenship, Works

See: 442

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Citizenship, Sights

See: Processions (UK)

This checks all boxes that make me happy: DIY flags. Processions. Participatory art. Empowering women, especially right now. Check, check, check!

Join us on 10th June for PROCESSIONS, a mass artwork celebrating 100 years of women voting, in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London.

On Sunday 10th June, women* (*those who identify as women or non-binary) and girls from across the UK will come together to create a vast participatory artwork taking place simultaneously for one day. PROCESSIONS will be a living portrait of UK women in the 21st century.

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Flags made by Helen De Main and participants at the Glasgow Women’s Library. // HT: Rosie O’Grady (@OGradyRosie) // What’s not to love about this? You’ve got Helen De Main’s gorgeous design sensibility [Helen was a contributing artist to my make things (happen) project in 2014] and with participants at the only accredited museum in the UK dedicated to women’s history.

Check out Processions’ Make Your Own Banner guides for extensive downloadable PDF toolkits and school resource kits.

My only wish is that I could be there in one of those four amazing cities this Sunday.

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