I met Christine Wong Yap in the Summer of 1999 in Philadelphia at a heated July Fourth political rally in support of Mumia Abu Jamal. As two young Asian-American women navigating the East Coast with little more than a skateboard and backpack, we discovered an easy alliance and a lifelong friendship far from the cool grey San Francisco suburb of Daly City where we had coincidentally both grown up. Christine had just completed her BFA in Printmaking from the California College of Arts and Crafts and was emerging as a leading Bay Area community artist and activist, creating some of the most iconic murals and illustrations of the time. She could be spotted painting in a collaborative, interdisciplinary performance alongside Angela Davis and Crystos at “Women, Prisons, and Globalization” and on the cover of the popular New York City activist publication BLU magazine’s issue No. 13, The Radical Pacific. Those who follow her current, largely conceptual, art practice may be unfamiliar with this early career.
For the Bay Area, the late-nineties were an urgent but optimistic time characterized by activist alliances forged in the face of California State Propositions 187 and 21 and a vibrant renaissance of queer and multicultural celebration. We prepped for the WTO protest in Seattle. We danced at La Peña Cultural Center and the Justice League. Apple’s latest offering, the curvy candy-colored iMac G3 (complete with CRT) was driving the City’s first dot-com fueled boom and ushering in a new era of fast digital prosperity, speculation, and displacement. The Bay Area was cash flush. The Internet was full of promise but free of advertising. Naïve to the future domination of Google, iTunes, and social media, we Asked Jeeves, made mixed tapes, and lost track of people. Friends were just friends.
A lot has changed in the time since Christine and I met: September 11th, the “War on Terror,” “The Great Recession.” As the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism takes shape and I reflect upon and explore the particular unions and intersections of art and activism in the Bay Area, I cannot help but wonder about Christine’s perspective, her experiences and the view from Queens. I sat her down for an interview over email to take in the transformations over the last fifteen years and the development of her own art practice.
ET: Preparing for this interview unexpectedly re-opened this early time in our friendship in a lot of detail. What do you remember most about the late-nineties and where were you at personally with respect to art and activism?
I’ve been thinking about the nineties a lot lately… Fellow artist Val Britton mentioned The Punk Singer and we discussed where riot girl, feminism, and anti-corporate culture are today. It made me really proud to come of age in the 1990s, and have that ethos engrained in my identity.
CWY: My strongest memories from that period of activism are of short-lived but passionate collectives/community-based organizations like Underground Railroad, Mandela Arts Center and East Bay Institute of Urban Arts. Those are places where I learned mural-making, popular education pedagogy, and political education (especially juvenile and environmental justice issues). It was also where I connected with Oakland beyond art school, meeting residents and a community of talented, revolutionary people. And I learned about roles in the movement: cultural worker, activist, organizer… My artwork at the time was very figurative. I was contributing illustrations to support the youth movement, and leading mural and visual art workshops. I was also making fable-like woodblock prints on a signpress in my bedroom facing 580.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about the nineties a lot lately. It started earlier this year, during a Martha Rosler Culture Class book club meeting. Fellow artist Val Britton mentioned The Punk Singer and we discussed where riot girl, feminism, and anti-corporate culture are today. It made me really proud to come of age in the 1990s, and have that ethos engrained in my identity. When I was thinking about Facebook’s artist residency program, I realized how being suspicious of corporate co-optation—a common attitude in the 90s—feels sadly anachronistic today.
The nineties were really formative for me as a person…. It’s hard to explain today how liberating it was as a teen to discover ‘zines—confessional, ranty, vulnerable, self-righteous, and empowering. It helped me feel like there was a way out of the suburbs (Daly City, its tract houses perfectly illustrating “conformity”), and it was through creativity, DIY, and an underground—a real alternative to mainstream culture. I also read a lot of kill-your-television type books, and learned to be critical of mass media and media consumption.
ET: At the time, it seemed that politics and activism were really central to your practice. How and why did that come about? Was it a natural extension of coming of age in the nineties?
CWY: I think I got interested in politics as a teen, but my work at that time was socially-oriented, with political overtones. Being involved with activism and cultural work at spaces like the East Bay Institute for Urban Arts exposed me to a lot of artists and art infused with politics, as well as a sense of urgency around the state of affairs around juvenile justice and criminal justice issues. And reading Adbusters, etc. So maybe yes, it was probably quite natural for me in that decade.
ET: From my own observation, I have sense that your art practice took a distinct turn during your MFA from 2005-2007. If so, what prompted the change and how would you describe the new tone of your work?
CWY: I went to grad school to make a change. After my BFA I did a lot of cultural work, working as an educator, and painting murals and doing illustrations for various causes. And then after six or seven years, I felt I had squeezed what I could creatively from my undergrad education, but I wasn’t growing as an artist. I also felt that many of my artist-peers had moved away, and I wasn’t connecting with the contemporary art I saw being exhibited; my BFA helped me appreciate art up until about 1965. I wanted to expand my knowledge of contemporary art, and start making new, different work. I needed the challenge.
Grad school helped me think about how form and content are interconnected, and gave me more grounding in contemporary art and discourse since 1965. I remember trying to make work that embodied my idea, rather than illustrating it. And I wanted to work in a way that was daringly straightforward in technique, to make it less about me, my skills, or self-expression, and more about the viewer. This helped me break away from being married to techniques like printmaking or painting, to more experimentally in diverse yet simple media, as I was becoming more invested in concept and experience.
ET: Will you say a little more about the conceptual content of your work since your MFA? You became strongly interested in humanistic psychology, the emotional and mental processes that sustain creativity like optimism and pessimism. I’ve observed how you have really honed your exploration of these concepts in your work for many years now, through a variety of materials. How and when did this come about as an area of interest? And do you see it as a continuation of your more overtly activist, community-based work?
I loved how intangible emotions such as pleasure could be quantified based on empirical research. It suited my interest in the paradox between idea and material, or language and meaning. I also enjoyed the irony of making spare, conceptual diagrams of such an elusive thing as happiness.
CWY: I started investigating optimism and pessimism using light and language as metaphors in 2005. Then I started studying happiness and positive psychology in 2009—I was on my first artist’s residency—the Breathe residency at the Chinese Arts Centre (now the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art) in Manchester, UK. It’s a three month residency geared towards research and experimentation, so I read a lot of books, and one was Paul Martin’s “Drugs, Sex and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure.” I loved how intangible emotions such as pleasure could be quantified based on empirical research. It suited my interest in the paradox between idea and material, or language and meaning. I also enjoyed the irony of making spare, conceptual diagrams of such an elusive thing as happiness. From there I dived into books by well-regarded positive psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose research into creativity and flow continues to be a source of inspiration.
I’m not sure if there is a creative or artistic connection between my work inspired by positive psychology and activist community-based work. I have a lot of respect for activists and organizers who dedicate their lives to effecting social change through political education, building a mass base, etc. I would offer that I’m realistic about that this psychology-related artwork operates on different levels—mostly personal and sometimes social, but probably not political.
ET: I’ve often come away from your work with a experience of joyful liberation combined with strategic tools for creativity and community–both of which I find to be inherently political. Not overtly in the sense of grassroots community organizing or taking the streets with a banner, but subtly–on a deeper emotional and cognitive level. This arises in part from your wonderful skill with color and materials which are profoundly friendly and accessible as well as your choice of form and content, like your flags and diagrams for example (I suppose I’m thinking of Irrational Exuberance and Positive Signs) which seem to open a liberated emotional terrain on the one hand and provide a playful/mischievous schema for navigating fraught creative processes on the other. Personally, as an artist and an activist, I find your work powerfully supportive–not of any particular political position–but in helping me manage the psychological weight of undertaking creative endeavor, personal, political, or otherwise.
CWY: Actually, I just transcribed the conversation at the public forum accompanying The Eve Of…, and curator Andria Hickey mentioned that she does think of my past work having to do with positive psychology as having a social justice feeling to it, by being active and encouraging people to come together. So others perceive that as well.
I guess I think of positive psychology as empowering to people personally and emotionally, and that artists especially can benefit from engaging our conditions as a group to mutually benefit. Being an artist can be terribly isolating and competitive, and it doesn’t have to be—we can help shape the art worlds we want to participate in, with transparency, ethics, and so on.
Being an artist can be terribly isolating and competitive, and it doesn’t have to be—we can help shape the art worlds we want to participate in, with transparency, ethics, and so on.
ET: This doesn’t begin to address some of the darker elements also present in your work. I’ve only seen images from The Eve Of… your most recent solo exhibition in Queens, but it appears more sober in tone than other recent projects. What brought The Eve Of… about? Also, “Make Things (Happen)” strikes me as a particularly art/activist mantra, do you want to tell us a little about that?
CWY: A few things. One is that in making work about happiness or work that embraced exuberance, I got the sense that contemporary art audiences are quite cynical, and the general public associates happiness with simplicity or simple-mindedness. That exploring happiness is not very complicated, when my interest in it is exactly because it’s not. Just because we think we know what happiness is, because we’ve experienced it without necessarily doing anything for it, doesn’t mean we really understand it, or how to create the conditions and mental patterns to increase or sustain it. So it seemed like a change to explore other emotions.
I was also thinking about my past work, having to do with optimism and pessimism, the more phenomenological installations, and wanting to make work that was less about language or conveying literal ideas. I just wanted to work more intuitively in a spare or restrained way, I suppose. Lastly—I don’t want to say too much, so I’ll leave it at this: there’s an element of confronting mortality too in the work.
Make Things (Happen) is a participatory project featuring 29 artist-created activity sheets freely available to the public as photocopies or downloadable PDFs, to be used for making things (such as drawings or a four-person swing) or making things happen (conceptual, performance and social practices). It’s been on view in Social in Practice at Nathan Cummings, and will be at NYU Tisch this fall. I’m also going to expand the project for a solo presentation at Interface Gallery in Oakland, CA, in February 2015.
It was inspired by the satisfaction of creative activity. It was also inspired by a Venn diagram I made called What Artists Make and What Artists Make Happen. I made it to flesh out some thoughts following Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), a solo exhibition I had at an artist-run space, which entailed not only making the work, but developing the public programming and calling on a small army of friends to help changeover the space and make physical improvements to the gallery. It was the predecessor to The Eve Of… in terms of an exhibition-making model.
It’s a little strange, when you think about it, that encouraging people to engage in DIY activities has a political bent to it. Of course, when I was a teen influenced by punk culture, politicizing DIY was really meaningful to me. Now, things are so digital, and making is so fetishized, I wanted to do something that was super low-tech and accessible, and also explore how creative artistic activity is similar or parallel to creative public actions. I was also interested in connecting artists with each other. I am very interested in participation, and thinking through participatory art and its ramifications. There’s a lot to explore there.
ET: That’s really exciting to hear about Interface Gallery in Oakland. And brings up another aspect of your practice I’m interested in. One of the things that amazes me is your ability to maintain such an active presence in the Bay Area art scene. I think this reflects your commitment for community building and the enduring respect you’ve garnered from those of us who still live and work here. You were a participant at YBCA’s Art City/Open City Festival last week, Montalvo Art Center in 2013, Interface Gallery coming up in 2015. Is your bi-coastal practice intentional? Do you think of it as bi-coastal?
CWY: I guess it is bi-coastal, though I certainly don’t have a pied-á-terre (unless my Mom’s house counts?).
What I do next as an artist is touch-and-go. So I’m grateful for opportunities wherever they are, and especially when they’re in the Bay. When you have relationships with people who are familiar with you and your work—when you have that history together—it’s irreplaceable. So I really value being able to continue to grow with people, such as collaborating with fellow artists Susan O’Malley and Leah Rosenberg for the Happiness Is… show at Montalvo Arts Center. At the same time, it’s very validating to be able to work with new people and organizations, like Donna Conwell, curator of that show, and be a resident at Montalvo, where it felt inaccessible to me before (the residencies were by nomination only, which changed to open calls in 2013). It is really nice to be thought of and included in Bay Area art activities. I do try to nurture relationships, and folks do make it out to NYC a lot, which is good, too.
ET: You’ve been in NYC now since 2010. What has the move meant in terms of your career? How does NYC compare to the Bay Area and has your move provided new perspective on the arts in the Bay Area? You seem to be thriving.
There are cultural and political sensibilities in the Bay Area that are easy to take for granted, and travel and living elsewhere has highlighted them for me…. Holding higher standards for race, class, sexual, and gender diversity, and espousing inclusiveness.
CWY: It’s hard to know what moving to NYC means for my career. I’m too inside my own practice to see what an external trajectory might look like. I know it’s given me access to seeing shows, meeting folks, and working as an artist’s assistant and art handler. It’s pretty killer, the concentration of bright minds here. Like, I heard one of my favorite artists, Ed Ruscha, speak at NYPL, you know!? And I’m pretty sure I spotted Fred Wilson outside one of my workplaces two days ago.
But I also feel like the NYC art world is also still quite vast and unknown, and I’d like to know more about artist-run spaces and like-minded artists. Being part of the Bronx Museum of the Arts’ Artists in the Marketplace program has helped me find a mutually-invested cohort… I’m also excited to share that I just became a member of the artist’s collective, Ortega y Gasset, which had a gallery in Ridgewood, Queens, and will be transitioning to a new space. My decision to join was driven by the desire to contribute and participate in an artist-centered scene here. Partly that’s due to having a strong reaction against the market orientation of NYC art, and partly because I recognized the value of the Bay’s amazing alternative art scene. Here, there are alternative spaces, but they’re not as vital as the Bay’s.
NYC’s seem polarized by the market, with venerable spaces operating like commercial galleries and younger spaces itinerantly popping up for short periods on the fringes of gentrification waves. I don’t think comparing the art scenes in the Bay to NYC much more beyond that is very helpful; the size of the regions and relative histories of art commerce are too different.
ET: The Internet, circling back to the beginning of our conversation, seems to have made it possible for you to cultivate an active “presence” here despite the distance. You blog, comment and post thoughtfully and regularly online. Is this an integral part of your studio practice? How did it come about?
CWY: Oh, God, no, social media and studio practice are pretty antithetical. I have a poster up in my studio reminding me to get offline. Being in the studio is about being in my own head, or even better, shutting up my own mind. I took an FB sabbatical in August for The Eve Of… residency, and it was surprisingly easy, and quite pleasant.
Admittedly, some of my writing on my blog is me thinking through ideas that arise from, or feed back into, my practice. And crowd-sourcing for recommendations, advice, etc can be very helpful.
In terms of maintaining my visibility (which I don’t consider part of my studio practice, but more of my professional practice as an artist who doesn’t want my work to only exist in the studio), then yes, it does help me stay connected with folks in the Bay, and hear what they’re up to, and learn about new spaces and projects. It’s weird how social-media-oriented things are now; though I’d like to spend less time on social media, sometimes you can’t avoid it–some art shows only have FB event listings and no webpages.
ET: It seems that so much has changed, not just since the time we met, but also in the years since you moved. In particular, over a year ago, already high housing costs in the Bay Area skyrocketed, displacement and evictions reached epidemic rates. This was and continues to have a the tremendous impact on local and longstanding arts and activism communities. How have you seen this play out? Online? I’m curious about your perspective from Queens, given your close first-hand experience with many of these communities.
CWY: I only have secondhand info, and none of it seems any good. People sometimes ask me if I’d move back. But I don’t think I could afford it now. The news out of the Bay is a bummer, and it doesn’t appeal. Of course there are lots of people and things and places within the Bay that I love. But just observing from afar, it seems like only a shadow of the place I knew remains.
ET: One of my hopes for the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism is strengthen community around the values inherent in artistic and activist practices. I realize that it’s a broad spectrum–of both practices and values. When you consider art and activism together, given both your early career and recent work, what really shines for you as valuable? Are there aspects of these practices and values that are characteristically “Bay Area”? And given all the changes in the Bay Area, what is worth working to sustain?
CWY: These days, I’m thinking a lot about transparency, ethics, and parity in the art world, thinking about diversity as a woman, and also as a person of color. I also think about labor and treatment of artists and art workers, and issues of visibility. These are concerns within a smaller subset that draw upon the activist values of justice, fairness, equality and “tolerance” (a word I dislike, but I mean it as accepting and embracing diversity, and challenging privilege).
There are cultural and political sensibilities in the Bay Area that are easy to take for granted, and travel and living elsewhere has highlighted them for me…. Holding higher standards for race, class, sexual, and gender diversity, and espousing inclusiveness. Unpretentiousness (people are generally less likely to let their ambitious make them act like jerks). And generally, progressivism. And a tradition of cultural work, and Third World identities. I’ve been read about this lately in Jeff Chang’s “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” and it’s been such a pleasure—to acknowledge, learn about, want to preserve, and feel like being part of something bigger than yourself. For artists, the Bay is a great place for experimentation, growth, and making things happen on your own. Which reminds me of something Angela Davis said, about the power of imagination—to be able to envision more than what exists. So one thing worth preserving is that sense of hope and viable pathways of creating to a political reality or a cultural community of your own.
Christine Wong Yap will show at Interface Gallery, Oakland in February 2015. You can view more stunning images of her work here and follow along online via her blog, R+D | On Be(com)ing an Artist, Citizen and Arts Community member.
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