My Time In Wassaic
I'm an artist and filmmaker in Oakland working in video, installation, performance and oral storytelling. Though I've been in California most of my life, I grew up in Virginia and much of my work is about my experiences living in Southern culture and the ever-changing, unexpected ways people interact there.
I arrived at Wassaic during a period of transition in my life. At Wassaic, I found a community of warm-hearted people who were generous, talented, and inspiring. I loved the conversations that happened in the studios, in the backyards, and of course around the firepit at The Lantern. Many of the fellow residents and I have since worked in collaboration and supported each other's work. Whenever I return to Wassaic, I am reminded why art is life, life is art, and goats are great.
Currently, I am creating a site-specific installation, "Permanent Temporary Happiness Forever" to be projected at Maxon Mills. I'm also in the second year of my community and podcast project, Everybody Eats Lunch, which brings strangers together over meals.
By Lucy Commoner, May 2018
You were a resident at the Wassaic Project in 2017. How did that experience impact your artwork?
Being at the Wassaic Project gave me the space, time and freedom to play in new mediums and ideas that had been percolating for a while. The natural landscape surrounding Wassaic deeply affected my work. My studio practice tends to be very walking and exploring based; while living in rural New York at the Wassaic Project, I ended up visiting a dozen waterfalls within a few hours' drive. The footage shot during those trips became an idea for an outdoor video projection.
You are an interdisciplinary artist whose practice includes installation work, interactive pieces, performance, and video. Many of your pieces have a strong narrative element. Can you elaborate on this?
Many of my projects explore everyday issues of race, class and power within groups or cultural systems. I'm interested in the fact that no two people share a reality, and a lot of times we are just trying to inflict our reality on each other. And when that happens, beautiful things happen, absurd things happen, even violent things happen. But in the end, it all adds up to us trying to connect with each other.
There's a narrative element in a lot of my work because as with anything that explores human connection or conflict, there is inevitable potential for change, understanding, humor, and empathy.
Much of your work addresses persistent and problematic racial issues in American society. As an artist, how do you hope to affect the viewer through your work?
I think it's interesting to try to bring people into conversations they didn't expect to be part of. In so many ways now, conversations about race and power dynamics are relevant to everyone.
Rather than take a political position, though, my intention is to humanize the concepts of bias and prejudice and make them more visceral or real to the viewer; to humanize rather than generalize, which is antithetical to the notion of bias in general. In that respect, using personal stories has been a natural starting point for my practice.
Your piece in the current exhibition, Ask Your Elder, uses humor to tackle some thorny and real issues, such as generational/cultural differences. Can you elaborate on your process and how the combination of light heartedness and serious content function in this work?
The chandelier in Ask Your Elder is meant to represent traditional artifacts from my grandfather’s Chinese restaurant and those of Chinese-American restaurants in general. It's a traditional lantern with woodcarvings and frosted screens, but stripped of its usual crowd-pleasing elements: drawings, tassels, bright colors, and all the things that typically package (or dilute) Chinese culture for consumption by Americans. Instead, this chandelier is programmed to dispense the type of no-holds-barred, "tough love" advice doled out in many American immigrant families, or passed from older generations generally to younger generations. In real life, this advice can be so aggressive yet simultaneously loving that it's funny.
While I never intentionally set out to make work that is humorous, I am always looking for interesting ways to portray honest truths about people and our roles in culture. What we do and the situations we create naturally have contradiction and absurdity, so if I'm being honest in the work, then I'm naturally going to find the absurd.
Moreover, regardless of which background we descend from or generation we live in, we all want answers. We are an answer-seeking culture, and our capitalistic and cultural systems create constant options — sometimes to the point of absurdity — to help us find an answer that's right for us.
Photos by Walker Esner