Research

To Bring Into Being an Optimistic Future

Recent points of reference about psychology, anxiety, and the need to be intentional about optimism and humor. Plus artworks made when I was first learned about positive psychology at the beginning of the Obama presidency.

 

Christine Wong Yap. Stars and Stripes from the Pounds of Happiness installation, 2009, mixed media.

Christine Wong Yap. Stars and Stripes from the Pounds of Happiness installation, 2009, mixed media.

We live in a world where there is a constant feed from social media, the news, etc., of things that can scare us, and we become so anxious because human beings are designed to be sensitized to dangerous stuff. You get a bad review as a writer, you remember it for 10 years. You get 100 good reviews, you forget them all. You say hello to 100 people in a city, and it doesn’t mean anything to you. One racist comment passes by, it sticks with you a decade. We keep the negative stuff because it’s the negative stuff that’s going to—potentially—kill us. That fin in the water—maybe it is a shark. That yellow thing behind a tree—maybe it is a lion. You need to be scared. But contemporary culture in Pakistan, just like in America, is continuously hitting us with scary stuff, and so we are utterly anxious.

I think that it’s very important to resist that anxiety, to think of ways of resisting the constant inflow of negative feelings—not to become depoliticized as a result, but to actually work actively to bring into being an optimistic future. For me, writing books and being someone who is politically active is part of that. I don’t want to be anxious in my day-to-day life; I want to try to imagine a future I’d like to live in and then write books and do things that, in my own small way, make it more likely that that future will come to exist.

—Author Mohsin Hamid (“Pakistani Author Mohsin Hamid And His Roving ‘Discontent’,’ Fresh Air, March 9, 2017)

 

Christine Wong Yap, Cheap and Cheerful #3, 2009, gel pen on paper, A4.

Christine Wong Yap, Cheap and Cheerful #3, 2009, gel pen on paper, A4.

…one of the offshoots of the rise of Trump has been to rob many liberals of their sense of humor. To pay close attention to the news is to trap oneself in a daily cycle of outrage, self-righteousness, a pained recognition of the inelegance of that self-righteousness, and, finally, a feeling of futility. Part of what made the Women’s March so powerful was its scenes of comedy, not simply the signs that mocked the President but those that recognized the joyousness in the very of act of protest.

…Constant vigilant outrage is not only exhausting, and eventually deflating, but it’s ill suited to liberal culture, which is suffused with a healthy dose of self-awareness, self-mockery, and even self-loathing. There’s a reason conservatives control talk radio, with all its grim certitude, and liberals run comedy, which is characterized by, among others things, ambivalence.

—Ian Crouch, “This Is The Future That Liberals Want” Is The Joke That Liberals Need, NewYorker.com, March 3, 2017

 

Christine Wong Yap, Unlimited Promise, 2009/2010, installation.

Christine Wong Yap, Unlimited Promise, 2009/2010, installation.

 

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Funkadelic's "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts" appears on "Standing on the Verge of Getting On," Westbound Records, 1974

Funkadelic’s “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts” appears on “Standing on the Verge of Getting On,” Westbound Records, 1974

Angela Davis once talked about the importance of being able to imagine liberation. If you’ve only known a world where you’ve never been free, it’s difficult to envision something else. If an autocratic regime becomes the new normal, and we are only able to respond with opposition, we have yet to imagine true self-determination.

When I make art about positive psychology, optimism, or happiness, I’m really talking about getting familiar with your inner life—paying attention to your mind and heart. A strong sense of self fuels the courage of one’s convictions. From where I stand, cognitive behavior strategies and real political agency are both points on a spectrum of self-empowerment.

Funkadelic’s song, “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts,” is sort of so perfect that I will only say three things: it speaks to these themes, is 12 minutes long, and is probably best heard in a listening party of one. Get out the good speakers, silence the distractions, and sit back; some of the work to be done is within.

Works

Funkadelic’s Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts

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Erik Drooker, Flood, Dark Horse Books, 1992

Erik Drooker, Flood, Dark Horse Books, 1992 [Source: Drooker.com]

Eric Drooker, Blood Song, Dark Horse Books, 2002

Eric Drooker, Blood Song, Dark Horse Books, 2002 [Source: Drooker.com]

Today, a pot of pink daisies jolted me from a low-level state of sadness and self-pity by reminding me of a scene in Eric Drooker’s Flood. I probably last read Flood almost a decade ago. But its emotional power hasn’t diminished, even via memory.

If you haven’t yet read Drooker’s graphic novels, do! They’re amazing. I’ve discussed some of the stunningly elegant compositions at length in my workshops. And moreover, I think of them especially now because Drooker doesn’t shy away from depicting the terror of state violence, nor affirming life, creativity, and resistance. There is empathy, joy, and ferocity in these stories.

One of the most remarkable things about Hidden Figures (also recommended) is how it makes vivid the mundane and constant ways that systems of injustice dehumanize all involved. I hope that we are entering period of sustained resistance, and though powers will do everything they can to misdirect, exhaust, and numb us, we will insist on being staying human, listening, and keeping our hearts open.

Citizenship, Works

Eric Drooker’s Flood and Blood Song

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With my 1,000-balloon project and interest in happiness, I enjoyed learning about this UK artist’s project. It’s cool, ambitious, and experimental. And it’s about challenging fears. Welcome, 2017.

Noëmi Lakmaier, Cherophobia, 2016, a 48-­hour durational living installation with 20,000 helium party balloons.

Noëmi Lakmaier, Cherophobia, 2016. Photo: Grace Gelder // Source: East End Review.

“Cherophobia is a durational 48-hour live installation. It is an attempt to lift the artist’s tied and immobilised body off the ground using the force of 20,000 helium-filled multi-coloured balloons. Cherophobia is a performance and a gathering, a one-off event that intertwines people in their shared suspense and anticipation. It takes its title from a psychiatric condition, defined as ‘an exaggerated or irrational fear of gaiety or happiness.’”

“Commissioned by Unlimited, a festival celebrating extraordinary new works by disabled and Deaf artists, in September 2016.”

Checkout a sweet video. More project info at noemilakmaier.co.uk.

Sights

See: Noëmi Lakmaier’s Cherophobia

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Research

Interdependence and politics

Over the past year as I’ve been working on Ways and Means, I’ve been thinking about interdependence, stewardship, and agency. I’ve been mulling how becoming accountable to a shared space and ethos is an intentional act, and how it’s similar to citizenship and being accountable as a political being. On Election Day, an article exploring the relationship between neighborliness and politics seemed especially salient to me, both as an artist and a voter.

Joshua Rothman’s “Enemy Next Door” (New Yorker, November 7, 2016; appears online as “Red Neighbor, Blue Neighbor”) is worth reading in its entirety; here’s what struck me.

Like many, I’ve struggled to stay engaged and optimistic about democracy and fellow citizens’ judgment. Rothman perfectly describes the sense of delimitation I’ve been seeking in response, as well as past feelings about being an activist simultaneously with being an artist.

Politics matters enormously; it’s right to care, to feel alarmed, and to argue. … And yet politics can become a poisonous influence in our lives. … It fills us with unwanted passionate intensity. Perhaps, somewhere in the territory of the self, a border marks the place where our lives as citizens end and our sovereignty as individuals begins.

What qualities contribute to interdependence and collaboration? Acceptance and open-mindedness.

Throughout American history, [author of Good Neighbors Nancy] Rosenblum finds, … good neighbors are “decent folk.” Decency, here, is a circumspect sort of virtue. Being decent doesn’t necessarily mean being good. It means accepting the flaws in others and returning, despite disruptions and disappointments, to the predictable rhythms of reciprocity.

I’m interested in self-initiated acts of agency and mutualism, because the empowerment and optimism that follows are compelling. It feels nice to move forward to an ideal, rather than merely pushing back against an existing system.

When politics turns against us—when we can’t trust Congress, the courts, or the police—we still look to neighborliness as a source of “democratic hope untethered to public political institutions.”

I’d venture that many social practice projects have similar rationales—that an aesthetic interpersonal gesture might temporarily reconfigure social and political relations.

…these moments of neighborly kindness aren’t, strictly speaking, political. In fact, they are anti-political. They come about because neighbors insist on relating to one another as individuals, rather than as members of parties or groups….

If temporarily reconfiguring political relations through a social practice project is anti-political, so be it. But Rosenblum warns against equating neighborliness with citizenship, through theories of holism versus pluralism:

…the implication was that, by tapping into a reservoir of neighborly good will, we might arrest the slide into polarized dysfunction. This is a comforting idea. As individual voters, we can do very little to reform our broken political system, or to change the apocalyptic tenor of today’s political campaigns. But, as neighbors and friends, we can redeem politics through ordinary human decency.

Rosenblum is skeptical of this theory. She describes it as a species of “social and political holism.” Instead, she argues, American life is characterized by “pluralism.” … We are, simultaneously, citizens, workers, neighbors, parents, lovers, [and artists, activists] and souls; in each of these spheres, we observe and uphold different rules and values. … Our values aren’t conveniently unified. They’re discontinuous.

If we can accept this contradictory nature of our selves, it seems, then we can accept our fellow citizens.

…It’s tempting to commit a kind of moral synecdoche—to take a part (e.g., voting for Trump) for a whole (being a bad person). [“The reverse is true, too, of course. Our “good” political beliefs don’t make us good people all the time,” Rothman added in a later passage.] To the extent that we avoid this, it’s by adopting a pluralistic view of the people around us. … In its strongest form, pluralism is a theory of selfhood. American democracy, Rosenblum thinks, is founded on this theory. We have in common the understanding that we contain multitudes. Reconciling ourselves to the contradictions of pluralism is what makes it possible for us to unite as a people.

Finally, the best way to make political change is to make political change.

After the election, the return of neighborliness will be reassuring. It shouldn’t be. The political stream is still tumbling along out there, as turbulent as ever.

 

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Meta-Practice, Research, Thought Experiments in Agency

Ways and Means: Points of Reference

A few past notes and new points of reference related to my Ways and Means project, on view through October 15 at Kala Art Institute.

Ways and Means came out of my Inter/dependence ‘zine, a report focusing on self-organizers. I loved the way Adam Gopnik wrote about Jane Jacobs’s interest in self-organizing [emphasis added]:

[In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs] told the story of a little girl seemingly being harassed by an older man, and of how all of Hudson Street emerged from stores and stoops to protect her…. She made the still startling point that, on richer blocks, a whole class of eyes had to be hired to play the role that, on Hudson Street, locals played for nothing: “A network of doormen and superintendents, of delivery boys and nursemaids, a form of hired neighborhood, keeps residential Park Avenue supplied with eyes.” A hired neighborhood! It’s obvious once it’s said, but no one before had said it, because no one before had seen it.

The book is really a study in the miracle of self-organization, as with D’Arcy Thompson’s studies of biological growth. Without plans, beautiful shapes and systems emerge from necessity. Where before her people had seen accident or exploitation or ugliness, she saw an ecology of appetites.

Adam Gopnik, “Jane Jacobs’s Street Smarts,” New Yorker, September 26, 2016

This sense of acting out of necessity, or appetite—the agency and empowerment of creating a desired condition to exist within—is a huge inspiration to me.

Most of the activity kits in Ways and Means have two components: printed ephemera, housed in a canvas tool pocket or pouch (which can be attached to an apron, belt, or garment). The pouch is important to me, as I see a strong connection between physical agency, and social or political agency. Freedom is first and foremost about mobility. And feeling free—say, as artists—means that we don’t have to shape our lives around systems whose values we don’t believe in. In many ways, the project is about recognizing the tools, skills, and resources (read: each other) that we already carry, made physical by the tool pouches.

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

With that in mind, Chelsea G. Summers’ “The Politics of Pockets” (Racked, 9/19/2016) is an intriguing history of pockets from a feminist perspective. It starts with the fact that in Medieval times, men and women carried pouches attached to their waists. (The following several hundred years of gender-policing-via-pockets seem like an aberration to me.) The essay also touches upon the intersection of pockets and bicycling—again, mobility implying freedom.

One of the responses to Ways and Means has to do with the number of components involved. As there was a lot of letterpress printing, the process was particularly preparation-intensive. Here’s how I kept track of things:

Workflow spreadsheet for managing each activity kits across multiple stages.

Workflow spreadsheet for managing each activity kits across multiple stages.

I am not saying this level of nerdiness is always warranted, and I think many people would chafe at organizing creative production this way. But letterpress printing takes a special kind of detail-oriented person—hence the aphorism, “check your ‘p’s and ‘q’s.” This chart was useful for getting all the pieces—plates, type, paper, board, fabric—in place before I started printing. And getting different activities to converge at similar stages was helpful, e.g., buying paper in one trip, or binding all at once. Seeing that things were in-progress helped me stay focused; there is always something to do. And when you’re working in more than one space—such as a studio and printshop on opposite ends of a complex, or a home studio and a printshop in another borough—it’s nice to remember to pack the right materials for the day’s tasks.

A minor innovation that took a while for me to arrive at is this (it’s also a peek at a forthcoming activity):

A chart of printing passes.

A chart of printing passes.

Some activities entail multiple printing passes using different inks and media, and it could get confusing. I found that charting it this way helps me to visualize the steps, and prepare the plates and type accordingly. I may have even saved myself a fourth pass on this one. Pass 1 is done, 2 and 3 remain. To be continued…

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Sights

See: Denim @ the Museum at FIT

Three garment exhibitions.

Lately, as part of a larger project, I’ve been researching garments, especially workwear. The more I learn about sewing, the more I realize what I don’t know and can’t yet do. Though I’ve sewn flags and banners, I’m thinking about more complicated items and garments. I have a long way to go, but it’s nice that even my modest experiences help me appreciate construction better.

Front: Reproduction of Claire McCardell's "Popover" dress, circa 1942, blue denim and red cotton. Also: denim jumpsuit, as women joined manufacturing for WWII.

Front: Reproduction of Claire McCardell’s “Popover” dress, complete with a matching oven mitt, circa 1942, blue denim and red cotton. Also: denim jumpsuit from when women joined manufacturing for WWII.

Denim: Fashion’s Frontier @ the Museum at FIT
Through May 7, 2016

Though it’s less than two blocks from the Center for Book Arts (where I’m a current resident; learn more about the AIR program at the 2015 AIRs’ exhibition, which opens tonight), I first visited this museum yesterday. They have good spaces, quality shows, and strong exhibition design; I look forward to seeing more shows there. I went for their exhibition on denim—one of the workwear fabrics I’ve been printing on. Here are a few thoughts:

  • The show is composed of garments from the museum’s collection arranged in chronological order. I was most intrigued by the earliest garments. The curatorial statements insisted that denim has been used for workwear for men and women since its earliest days, exemplified by a women’s skirt-set for work from 1912-15.
  • There’s a great video (though the audio is too quiet) about a pair of cotton pants with denim patches. A conservator explains the clues in the garment’s construction that helped her deduce that they were probably made in the 1840s. I love it when invisible museum work is made visible in this way.
  • Chambray became an official union shirt in the 1940s. The blue in “blue collar” probably comes from that. (Growing up as the daughter of a car mechanic, I’d associated work with stain-resistant synthetic blends that were dyed blue.)

The rest of the exhibition reviews how jeans became symbols of rebellion, and emerged as leisure, popular, and luxury goods. The connection to work became symbolic at best. Cheers to MFIT for providing an online exhibition.

Fairy Tale Fashion @ the Museum at FIT
Through April 16, 2016

Coming from the denim exhibition, with its theme of women’s labor, I couldn’t help but see this show’s content in an unfavorable way. The fairy tales here are Eurocentric (maidens with fair skin, gold hair as symbols of gold) and hetero-orthodox. (It’s 2016. I want heroines who kick ass like Ronda Rousey or Rey, who change the game like Missy Elliot and Awkwafina. Also, what’s up with the ageism of fairy tales? Why aren’t there ever evil maidens and heroic middle-aged women?) This show is not for me.

  • If you want to see beautiful gowns, dramatic capes, and nice beadwork, have a look.
  • I was impressed by the exhibition design. The space is underground, with very high ceilings. The exhibition designers did a great job using scrims and dramatic lighting to set a slightly menacing tone.
  • I noticed the use of the word, “sculptural,” to describe functionless elements that diverged from the silhouette or body. Coming from an art/sculpture point of view, it’s interesting to think that a three-dimensional object is not inherently sculptural, but becomes so after adding superfluous parts.

"Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro," at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center,  Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery. // Source: http://www.newschool.edu/

“Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro,” at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery. // Source: newschool.edu

Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro @ The New School/Parsons
Through April 18, 2016

This was also my first visit to the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center’s Kellen Gallery. While the FIT museum had carefully calibrated the lighting to preserve the garments, this space is an airy white cube with dramatic windows and plentiful natural light. I will visit again, as they’re clearly interested in pushing boundaries (check out the concurrent exhibition on mass incarceration).

  • I was intrigued by this exhibition of “garments for hypothetical, invented, coveted, imaginary jobs.” Unfortunately I felt underwhelmed by how little creativity was on display, how the speculation sometimes only made small leaps from present reality. These garments evinced whimsy, not reinvention. I am not sure that this is a valid critique—I think it comes out of an expectation that designers are technologists, and thus futurists. But sometimes designers are just designers. (I love the name of AIGA NY’s “monthly series of provocations where practitioners and critics discuss the changing nature of design and visual culture.” It’s “We used to ____, now we ____.” It’s a worthy prompt for designers and artists to consider.)
  • I was struck by how many garments were simply garments in recognizable silhouettes and forms—size o dresses, suit-shirt-slacks-tie—that were embellished to fit a theme—’girl who picks carrots,’ ‘girl who picks strawberries,’ for example. (Maybe I shouldn’t expect fashion to be less gender-binary, but I can’t help but feel disappointed.)
  • There was an outfit for a “Post-Fordist,” comprising of ready-made vacation separates, a laptop, and a Blackberry in a vitrine. I get that the banality of immaterial labor is what makes it so insidious, but that doesn’t mean creative work about it can’t be more interesting artistically.
  • Men’s ties suggest an outfit of rags under a shabby jacket—a garment for “a migrant”—in a particularly fraught misstep.
  • OK, I liked the exhibition design. An aluminum I-beam was suspended from the ceiling at an angle. Clamps on the beam held up monofilament, which allowed the garment to spin. It signaled the work theme and avoided a static display well.

Other observations:

The Garment District

One of my favorite things about living in NYC is access to all the garment district shops. The district near Hell’s Kitchen is so vital that shops can specialize in selling only one type of thing: linen, spandex, notions, textiles for men’s wear, textiles for quilting, etc. On occasion, I’ll stumble into a building full of garment industry services. Earlier in the week, I got to peek inside a huge embroidery studio. I felt so grateful that so much industry still happens in Manhattan. I hope these small businesses—and the workers doing such skilled labor—keep going strong.

 

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