COMPELLED BY LANGUAGES EXISTING OUTSIDE OF VERBAL CONSTRUCTS, AND RIDING THE TENSION BETWEEN DOCUMENTARY AND FICTION, THE CHINESE-AMERICAN ARTIST CHALLENGES FIXED NOTIONS OF TRUTH WITH EMOTIONAL STORYTELLING, DEVOTIONAL RITUALS, AND A NEW EXPERIENCE OF INTIMACY.
Venus Lau: Much of your practice involves language: from the translated poetry by the anti-Qing female rebel Qiu Jin to the 2011 performance “Full Body Quotation,” there is always a linguistic aspect to your works, sometimes in terms of the gestural potential of speech. Would you say that the fluidity of your identity is somehow paralleled in your fluid use of language and choreography?
Wu Tsang: That’s a cool question. I never thought about in those terms, but I would say absolutely yes. Actually, the term “full body quotation” is just something I came up with to describe a vocal technique that involves mimetically re-speaking prerecorded voices. I love to trouble or de-essentialize the relationship between voice and speaker. For example, the first film I ever made, Shape of a Right Statement (2008), was a “full body quotation” performance of a YouTube manifesto by an autism rights activist named Amanda Baggs. In the film, I am re-speaking Baggs’ text exactly as she spoke it, but because she was using a computer to speak, the voice sounds very alien. Bagg’s manifesto efficiently challenges the role that language plays in defining personhood. I guess as a trans person, or a second-generation immigrant, I can relate to the experience of being illegible, or the experience of being a non-person, and the fucked up roles that language/fluency plays in passing or being seen as a human. But for me, there’s a subtle yet important difference in saying that I might relate to but not “identify” with Bagg’s statement. I do not presume to know her experience with autism, and this is why the appropriated-embodied voice is key. It’s about making an ethical relation to something we can never fully know. The film is trying to explore those blurry overlaps of our experiences, which is what most of my work is about. It’s interesting that you mention choreography, because movement also plays a big role in language. I think about movement as an articulation of otherness. Movement is a process, it’s unfixed. For example, rather than think in terms of trans “identity,” I would rather talk about something like “transness” as a mode of being, or improvisational language. Movement is communicability.
Speaking of which, when did you start collaborating with the performer boychild?
I first met boychild around 2012, I guess you could say “in the clubs” in LA and NYC. I had just finished making the documentary Wildness, and was thinking about making a new film inspired by Charles Atlas’ Hail the New Puritan, which is a “docufantasy” about the late-‘80s London club scene featuring Michael Clark and Leigh Bowery. I approached boychild about playing the main character, because I was so drawn to her movement; her drag/butoh-like performances felt somehow akin to Michael Clark in Hail the New Puritan. They are of course very different, but there was something about boychild’s energy and charisma, the way her art is so fluid with the world around her. So I ended up writing a short science fiction story called “A day in the life of bliss,” which became the basis for a series of performances and installations. (We’re currently working on a feature-length version.) I’ll never forget the first time we met up in the studio, and boychild said to me, “If you tell me a story, I can tell it back to you with movement.” I have always been intrigued by the idea of languages existing outside of verbal constructs. So our collaboration has always been about that interplay between movement and language, and different forms of storytelling.
In a previous interview in Leap magazine, you mentioned how you’ve realized your own limits of understanding the “others.” How come?
This gets into a related problem of what do you mean by “understanding,” because I actually think that word can be quite violent in its philosophical roots. [The theorist] Denise Ferreira da Silva has articulated this in more ways than I could do justice to here. What would happen if we were to let go of the idea that we can fully “understand” or “know” others? There is this one quote from Amanda Baggs’ manifesto that I find especially powerful: “My language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment, reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.” I often return to this formulation of language, as a radical challenge to let go of the possibility of knowing.
As you know, this issue’s survey aims to reformulate the notion of “radical” in relation to contemporary art practices. Would you say the “radicality” in your work lies in this challenge to forgo of traditional ideas of knowledge, as well as fixed identities? And more generally, do you identify yourself as radical, and in what way?
To be honest, I’m less interested in whether to frame myself as radical or not, because at the end of the day, I hope my work is not about me. I would prefer to think of what I do as being an interlocutor, a medium, an echo, or a go-between. I never had a fixed identity to begin with, so there was nothing to let go of. I recently discovered that an alternate pronunciation and meaning of my name “Wu” in Chinese is 无/無, which essentially means “nothingness,” so maybe that is fitting. If my work is successful, it’s a privilege to be offered that platform, but I try to resist the expectation to narrate in terms of my personal biography or identity. Language is tricky. As humans, we are sort of beholden to it, with our limited senses—we still depend on verbal communication in ways that other species do not. I always turn to the writings of Octavia Butler when I need a little consolation about how limited it feels to be human.
Something I find especially inspiring in your work is the feeling of intimacy, how you always approach a narrative and interact with a community in a very personal way. Duilian (2016), for example, is a work inspired by the Chinese revolutionary Qiu Jin, an anti-Qing heroine whose personal life is normally overshadowed by her monumental figure. In your work, you rather address her (fictive) personal, affective space.
I love the word “intimacy,” because it implies physical proximity, closeness, or sense or touch. Intimacy can also be spatial-temporal, in the sense of creating an intimate environment or moment. With Duilian, I was playing around with these kinds of slippages, especially with the main characters Wu Zhiying and Qiu Jin. In the film, they exist both in the past (19th-century China) and the present (21st-century Hong Kong). They are performed by myself and boychild, but we are also performing versions of our own intimate collaboration. Ultimately, it’s not about what’s real and what’s fiction—it’s about constructing a cinematic world, and the multilingual voiceover adds layers to its constructed-ness. I use cinematic language, which is essentially visual and emotional storytelling, to construct a world in which the audience can experience intimacy without it being fixed to individual characters.
Most of your works make reference to pre-existing events or figures, sometimes even adopting the documentary format, such as in Wildness. Other works, like Looks (2015) and A Day in the Life of Bliss (2014), have an obvious taste of sci-fi to them. How do you combine these different takes on reality?
Wildness was a magical realist film, but it also uses a lot of conventions of documentary. At the time, I had specific reasons for embracing these conventions, because I wanted the film to be accessible to a wide audience. Documentary is an inherently exploitative art form—and I mean that in a non-judgmental way—in the sense that you are literally using people’s lives to make art. I’ve always felt ambivalent towards documentary, because I question the ways it purports “truth” and “represents” reality. On the other hand, I love working with real people and the specificity of real life. I never wanted to make straight fiction either, so I guess my favorite films are somewhere in between.
Your most recent project in Shanghai reveals an interest in glass, a fragile, transparent material employed as an idealized metaphor of mediacy. What can you tell me about it?
My Shanghai project involves producing a series of stained-glass windows, as part of an installation of the two-channel video We hold where study (2017) at Antenna Space. This is my first time working with the material, but I’ve been working with light and glass for many years in different forms. Sometimes my video installations use mirrors or two-way mirrors to play with transparency and reflections of projected video. I also have an ongoing series of neon “infinity” mirror boxes that address the containment of language. So the interplay between see-through and reflection is something I’ve been interested in for a while. We hold where study was developed in collaboration with the poet Fred Moten, and it explores the relationship between liveness, or sociality, and images. We have been talking to each other about images as being windows, or “passages” that both foreclose and provide for our sociality. So transparency plays an important role in creating that passage of light through glass. We are also thinking of image-making as a kind of devotional practice, as a ritualistic act that is intentionally incomplete. So the exalted, religious language of stained glass works well as a metaphor here. As you mentioned, we can also think about transparency in terms of language because there are similar issues at stake. How can a work of art become a passage, to be seen through? To be seen through is to move.
Wu Tsang (b. 1982, USA) lives and works in Los Angeles.
Venus Lau is Artistic Director of OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen.
Portraits by Renata Raksha.
Works in order of appearance: still from A day in the life of bliss (2014), installation view of We hold where study (2017), Duilian (2016). Images courtesy of the artist.