Adjacencies: Wu Tsang in Conversation with Thomas J. Lax
Wu Tsang: Not in My Language
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2014
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2014
Thomas J. Lax: Let’s start with a discussion about identity and identification, two catchalls that are often used in contextualizing your work.
Wu Tsang: Yes! Those tricky words.
TJL : Tricky and insufficient, which is precisely what much of your work brackets.
WT : They are terms I am always trying to avoid and yet having to call upon. I named the show at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Not in My Language because most of the works involve language that is not directly “mine.” It was a response to the title of autism rights activist Amanda Baggs’s video In My Language, but I was also thinking of Jacques Derrida’s aphorism, “I have only one language—yet that language is not mine,” in Monolingualism of the Other: Or, The Prosthesis of Origin (1998). In the book, Derrida writes about the way one’s singular, autobiographical relationship to language gives rise to an alienation from one’s sovereign, official language, which was particularly informed by his experience as a French Jew of Algerian descent. I can relate to feeling in conflict about cultural identity on the constitutive level of language, because I was raised speaking English with a Chinese-speaking immigrant family, which I identified with despite being alienated from my father's tongue.
TJL : But in looking at a few of your earliest works—Shape of a Right Statement (2008), WILDNESS (2012), For how we perceived a life (Take 3) (2012)—what’s interesting is that while the identitarian subjects the works take on are not yours, they somehow are allies or neighbors. In all three, your miming or what you’ve called “full body quotation” seems to suggest that the representation of an autism activist, or a longstanding community of transwomen who have immigrated from Central America and party together, or the black and Latino vogueing scene in New York all touch on issues of representation that are germane for you as a queer and trans person of color. Instead of congruence (the stakes of representation are the same), you propose contiguity (the stakes of representation are related).
WT : In a well-known conversation with Nancy N. Chen, the experimental documentary filmmaker Trinh T. Min-Ha writes about her strategy of not speaking “about” but speaking from nearby. In my work, I like it if there is a nearby closeness that becomes dangerous, or if I can make a legitimate claim, but it still raises questions. I think the danger comes from following through on the logic of very important activism from the nineties, which questions the power dynamics behind who is speaking for whom. So for example with Shape [of a Right Statement], what does it mean for me as an able-bodied person to speak FOR someone—literally appropriating a voice of someone with autism.
TJL : You put some pressure on the “for us, by us” model of organizing that you and I separately came of age in.
WT : Yes, I feel beholden to these models. They shaped my coming of age as a feminist and trans activist.
TJL : But what’s important about what you propose in Shape is a challenge to the authenticity a viewer might impute onto Baggs’s voice. Her voice is already as an imitation of another voice mediated through a machine. She both imitates the sound of an able-bodied person’s voice, but also the rhetorical forms through which voices are typically allowed to be heard.
WT : I think this imitation gave me point of entry. In WILDNESS I talk about growing up Chinese American, and being surrounded by language that I did not understand. I was always trying to relate through sounds and tonality rather than words. I think sound— and especially the voice—is a very important container for emotion. I keep circling back to thinking about identity in terms of language. There is something shared between people of very different historically oppressed groups that has to do with being incommunicable or considered “nonpersons.”
TJL : Western cultures, from Aristotle forward, return again and again to the importance of voice to political speech and representation. Articulating a coherent sense of voice is effectively a demarcation of one’s humanness, something both Baggs and you point to in your respective anti-manifestos masquerading as manifestos. In different ways, you both take on the guise of a manifesto—direct more of address, enumeration of self—yet refuse the supplication that characterizes its desire for recognition or legibility.
WT : I also can really relate to her sentiment that her language is “not about defining words or even visual symbols for people to interpret.” She goes into to say: “It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment, reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.” And indeed, in the first part of the video, she demonstrates that in her native language. For me, there’s a queer sensibility in both the kind of embodied experience she names as well as the possibility in what is not named.
TJL : I appreciate how you’re linking queerness to a particular sensorium, a seat of intense sensation by which we experience and then organize the world. This emphasis on perception is not one of stable identity or even behavior, but describes an aesthetic position if we understand aesthetics along the lines of philosophical thinking that analyzes sensory contemplation and experience.
WT : It’s like a dance or getting inside of something.
TJL : Beautiful. What’s interesting to me about Shape is that Baggs’s voice and text are the only things you mimic. You don’t “blackface” her physical action or replicate her setting or copy her compositional structure that is importantly divided in two parts. But in transposing her video to your face, with a wig cap and the iconic silver curtain from the Silver Platter, you do put on her voice. What about her voice pulled you in?
WT : Well at first I was so moved by her ideas that I didn’t even distinguish the voice as being a prosthetic computer voice. But in retrospect, maybe the computer gave me a point of entry because it hovered between being authentically her and something more impersonal, and impersonate-able. A sort of transfeminine, nonhuman voice that I could identify with, come closer to touching. But also I think it’s important that it was not the body because bodies are so immediately spectacle-ized. Disembodied voices have a different quality, a different power.
TJL : How does technology mediate humanness? How does technology mediate gender?
WT : The voice in Baggs’s video has a very particular quality. Computer voices are not human but they uncannily approximate them. I find it humorous, the random specificity of computer voices. It’s also totally subjective how we interpret their qualities. Like in my new video installation THE LOOKS, I do a voiceover as an omniscient artificial intelligence (called the “Looks”), narrating the story of the protagonist Blis. It is my voice, but I was actually imitating a computer voice named “Emily from the UK.” I picked Emily out of like thirty choices from one of those Text-to-Speech websites, so it’s very specific but also canned, generic, a type.
TJL : Like a Midwestern nice white lady voice?
WT : Maybe.
TJL : How would you describe it?
WT : She is more like the blue lady, Diva Plavalaguna, in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997). An enlightened higher being. Gentle, patient, waiting for dumb humans to catch up. She is passing too. She can pass for white Midwestern lady, but she’s not. She’s being as “normal” as she needs to in order to get her message across. In order to be heard. Non-threatening. Hands up?
TJL : A Trojan horse?
WT : Yes, a beast inside. Contained inside the voice. While I was researching for Bliss and THE LOOKS, I got kinda obsessed with artificial intelligence, particularly the field of Human-RobotInteraction (HRI), which basically studies how to make robots more human-friendly. It has everything to do with emotionality and affect. One of the basic tenants of HRI is that as humans we unconsciously divide the world into objects and agents. An agent is anything that appears to move of its own volition, and when we perceive something to be an agent we begin to assign emotional motivations to its movement, for example quick jerky movements might be perceived as “angry” or “annoyed,” whereas slower smooth movements might be perceived as “happy” and “affectionate.” There is one fascinating study, where scientists secretly operated a wooden stick like a puppet, and observed how humans emotionally reacted to the stick. Actually the title of the performance I do with boychild Moved by the Motion, comes from this exploration.
TJL : In Shape and Tied and True (with Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, 2012) and in later works like A day in the life of bliss, there’s a relationship to sci-fi and speculative fiction, and the femme and women protagonists in those genres. You’re pulling on references including Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983).
WT : Sci-fi is such an exciting genre to me, especially sci-fi stories by writers and filmmakers of color, because they often completely reconfigure the world, like imagine a world that is not white-centered, or where oppression manifests explicitly and metaphorically. I’m thinking of course of authors Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and Nalo Hopkinson, or films like Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, or even Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place. Born in Flames was a major inspiration for WILDNESS, which is not sci-fi but it uses similar world-making magical realism. I really wanted to deny the expectations of white or straight people that I should have to explain our existence to them.
TJL : Many of these references are particular to visions of the future that emerge from the specificity of American history. How does this read differently in European contexts?
WT : It’s hard to parse cultural differences from my own subjective experiences, but I do find that being from LA, and being brown and trans, European audiences sometimes exoticize me. Especially my recent performances with boychild, for various reasons we might be fetishized—but not necessarily in a bad way, maybe in an “intrigued” way that can be refreshing in its openness. We try to focus on emotional content that is hopefully communicable no matter what the context.
TJL : Talk about the experience of seeing the show come together.
WT : At the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf Shape is installed next to THE LOOKS, and I can hear two versions of my voice that are both alien voices. They happen to sound similar, but they were created using completely different, almost opposite techniques. The first is task based, the second is like more traditional “acting.” At the time of making Shape, I was thinking more about being a drag performer—and the performance was a kind of drag. But I was also thinking about a body being a “host" for other creatures.
TJL : Within both alien Wu’s, there’s a relationship to the real you, as a person from a time (now) and place (United States) with an ethnic and a class background. What do you think it is about your body that allows or even wants you to play host?
WT : There is an answer that is conceptual, and then there is a deeply psychological one.
TJL : Let’s start with the conceptual.
WT : Being ethnically and gender ambiguous, I often “pass” as a lot of different things. I find that people’s assumptions about what I am, become more a reflection of their own identity issues. I guess these first-hand experiences lead me to a very intuitive understanding of identity as performance. Hosting is similarly like being a container or catering to the needs of others. Do you think that hosting is similar to taking?
TJL : There’s definitely a play of power and vulnerability that’s similar to taking. Say more about taking.
WT : Ok, YES that is something I am familiar with as a queer person. It can go in multiple directions. There is bottom power to being taken. There is a lot of power to hosting and being a host. It’s like paying for everything, taking care of others. Giving yourself over to be consumed.
TJL : Do you think this idea of taking and of the psychological within the conceptual relates to the logic of cinema and its psychoanalytic recourses to languages of identification and projection?
WT : Despite my training as a conceptual artist, I’m actually really drawn to the filmic tradition of psychological realism, because it enables me to work with emotional content that transcends race-gender-class. For example, my experiences of exploitation from childhood, these emotional wounds are not relative like physical ones. Now I find that issues of exploitation come up in a lot of my work, particularly exploitation of brown and trans bodies. The medium of film allows me to tell a specific story, and if I can channel the emotional truths, then the story becomes relatable.
TJL : Is that different from an experience in art?
WT : There’s a formal approach to filmmaking that is very different from visual art. The way people evaluate film privileges telling a “good” story. What defines a good story is something relatable to the human condition. This was initially challenging for me, because I was coming from conceptual art, which is very suspicious of relatable emotional truths, and I think you could even say anti-humanist. I was mentored by feminist artists Mary Kelly and Yvonne Rainer, who both taught me conceptual practices. For example, Yvonne’s films embrace cinematic tropes like melodrama and romance, but they intentionally refuse sentimentality, they refuse to tell a “good” (that is, emotionally manipulative) story. Mary was the first person who encouraged me to make a film, and her method is a critical, research-based approach. I ended up teaching myself about psychological realism by making and watching films, and even taking Hollywood-type acting classes. It was a difficult transformation, but eventually it opened up a different way for me to think about, for example, the experience of exploitation outside of the strictures of ideological analysis. It forced me to gain personal insight.
TJL : Was there a moment it shifted?
WT : It was during making WILDNESS. I initially wanted to make a film “about” trans resistance but then was forced to figure out how to make a different kind of film—as an activist I wanted to tell a relatable story that would enable me to engage beyond the art world. So the political analysis ended up being embedded in the process, but the resulting form was more bastardized; WILDNESS passes as a conventional documentary.
TJL : Does that other film exist for you somewhere in your imagination? Or are you over it?
WT : Actually as I work on the expanded and ongoing Bliss series, I feel more free to just follow my instincts and not worry if I am telling a good story or if it even makes sense.
TJL : I remember you talking about your work between art and film, nightlife and activism, writing and speaking as having no center, which I thought was such a beautiful politic and poetic. Is this you bringing together your art strategies with your film strategies to make something that is a hole without a whole?
WT : I think it’s just realizing I don’t care about those boundaries anymore. And indulging in the fantasies and the magic that cinema can make.
TJL : Has your relationship to the audience also changed? In thinking about your collaboration with boychild, it seems that your connection to nightlife has shifted from one specific location to a mediated, virtual, networked sense of place. Has the audience for your work become differently located, perhaps transnational or multiply sited?
WT : One of the painful realities of WILDNESS has to do with class analysis, and reflecting on how the party ending had very different outcomes for everyone involved. For the kids from the WILDNESS party, it more or less launched our careers as artists and DJs. For Koky and Javier, they lost their jobs—not because of our party, but the ending reveals ways we were privileged. The Silver Platter continues, but that moment of real intersection—where the politics and relationships were grounded in a physical space—that has ended. And yes, I am traveling constantly, so I cannot realistically tell a story about that kind of community right now. But we also live in a different time, in terms of nightlife and underground culture. Not to be melodramatic but Instagram changed everything! WILDNESS happened at a moment before everyone’s lives became so enmeshed with the culture of sharing everything constantly online.
TJL : What are the points of contact and similarity between Bliss and WILDNESS?
WT : In many ways, I think that Bliss picks up with some of my unanswered questions from WILDNESS. I am interested in how the politics of safe spaces have shifted with the Internet and social media. As we’ve been traveling from city to city and making the film in all these locations, I feel like I’m tracking a kind of underground, or foment, that is more dislocated. It feels really different, but I’m trying to tease out what its politics are. It has something to do with the future of social media being really dark, like Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle (2013), which depicts a world where technology has created a kind of self-imposed fascism, where “privacy is theft” and peoples’ sense of selfhood is deposed by a mandate to be transparent through self-surveillance.
TJL : You’ve worked with some amazing people from Jonathan Oppenheim and boychild to Raquel Gutiérrez and Ashland Mines. What is the role of collaboration in your work?
WT : I’ve also worked with Alexandro Segade on several films; he is an amazing writer, editor, and performer. In a way, this gets back to full body quotation, and the practice of channeling other people’s voices, or speaking alongside others. I was really excited to collaborate with boychild on Bliss, and once we began working together, I re-wrote the script in response to her real-life performance—like a sci-fi parallel reality. I wanted to create a world for some of my questions to play out, but everyone is playing versions of themselves. boychild is more digital native than I am, like her first performance coincided with (and can be seen on) Instagram. Her perspective is crucial; it enables me to tell the story in a way that transcends my own experience. In general, I gain tremendous insight from all my collaborators, and collaboration is essential. I think that’s the director part of me; it’s so intuitive for me to work with people, because the whole always becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Thanks to Stuart Comer for his friendship and dialogue about Wu’s work, and to Martha Joseph for her research assistance.