The piece that you’re installing in Wassaic, Isn't it lovely?, was started in earnest while you were in residence in March 2019. Can you talk a little bit about the arc of that piece over the past 10 months?
So when I first came to Wassaic, I had been working on a piece about race. It was an audio documentary that I’d been working on for several months, and I just hit a wall. I felt so much anger around it: this othering of Asians, this invisibility of Asians. So I pivoted probably halfway through the residency, and I asked myself, What do I actually want to be making?
One of the techniques that I use with my audio work is I'll take a lot of my archival tape, and just dump it in one session. So it’ll be a session of maybe twenty, thirty raw files, and then I'll listen through them and ask myself, What story are these telling me? Because I feel like if you're recording a lot of the conversations that you're having — even if you're with different people, even if they're in different contexts — the same themes repeat over and over. The things that you're thinking about a lot, they just start to come through in every conversation that you have.
So I decided to make a piece that wasn't just about race. Like, how can we look at ourselves as complex humans with many different identities? Not just looking at your race, your sexuality, your gender, etc.
You've called yourself a “compulsive documenter” in the past. How did you arrive at that process of recording and documenting a lot of your daily life?
I would say it really started when I started working in the podcast/radio industry. I started recording myself because I was working on a show that included a lot of personal narratives.
But also, I think that there is something about trying to explain yourself to other people that feels very challenging to me. I don't trust my words necessarily to explain myself. Which is ironic, because we're doing an interview, right? But I just don't think that I can describe in words to people the complexity of one experience, at a particular moment, in a particular day. Like, there's so many things going on in a moment that I feel like I would rather just capture it and show it as opposed to describing it.
You don't want to take the material of your daily life and then put it through another filter and turn it into something else. You just want to show the original thing.
Yeah, for sure. And of course that’s a fiction as well, right?
Because when you put out a recorder, immediately something changes. I don't know what it is, but I believe that that moment I'm recording is different than it would be if I did not have that recorder on. I fundamentally change that moment, and I'm also curating a moment, right? Like, a lot of the pieces that I do, I take archival tapes that I’ve recorded and put them in different contexts, so there is a sort of curation, a sort of fictionalizing, if that makes sense.
Yeah, absolutely. And there’s a point in another of your pieces, In Search of the Miraculous (Bas Jan Ader), where you say, “I feel like the distinction between my personhood and my art is zero.” How does that feel to so often be changing the character of space by having a recorder going?
Right. That’s a really interesting question, because I don't do it as much anymore. I think I wanted to believe that I was really present in those moments. And I think in many ways I was, but I also felt like it was changing something for the people around me as well. So I record very selectively now.
I’m also really drawn to fiction these days. I think that maybe we can say more with fiction than we can with nonfiction.
Why do you think that's the case?
Because I think that there is something very reductive about nonfiction. I experience that a lot when I'm editing for podcasts. There are always decisions you make as an editor where you say, Maybe this is too much for the audience to hold in their heads when we're trying to tell this arc of the beginning, middle, and end of this story.
In fiction, you think about reductiveness in a different way because you're creating the world yourself, and all the very different complicated elements can all drive one narrative that you're developing.
Do you think of this piece, Isn't it lovely?, as primarily fictional or non-fictional? As someone who's frequently thinking about that distinction in your day job.
Hm. Really good question. I think of it as nonfiction, I would say. Yeah. I think it’s nonfiction. Mhm.
You hesitated, though.
Yeah. I do hesitate because — I mean, it's such a ridiculous question, but what is true? Right?
I think a lot about, like, this clusterfuck of an internal reality that I have, that everybody has. In that way, I feel like it's very true and real. But if you were to ask someone else who had one of these conversations with me, maybe their experience of it would be different, because it's not housed in the same context that I'm thinking of it in. I'm thinking of it in this world where all these other conversations exist. They're thinking of a three-hour conversation that I've distilled into three seconds.
But it obviously doesn't feel just like a typical documentary podcast piece. So what do you feel is the function of, for lack of a better word, “art-ing” it? Of not making a beginning, middle, end narrative the driving force?
I’ll definitely say that I've never considered myself a podcast or radio producer. Certainly a lot of people would consider me that, but I never have. I've always considered myself an artist, and my reason for going into the podcast/radio world was to collect tools in sound to bring back to my installation work.
And so for me, as an artist, I sometimes feel limited in the podcast world, because it doesn't handle complexity, I feel, particularly well — especially when you think about how audiences are trained to receive. A podcast listener has a certain expectation of what kind of story they're going to get, as opposed to a visitor at an art gallery.
One of my former teachers, Lydia Rosenberg, when she listened to In Search of the Miraculous (Bas Jan Ader), she told me: “The podcast world wants you to wrap it up and the art world wants you to unravel it: figure out where you sit.” And I think that the benefit of, how you called it, “art-ing” it is, again, to kind of combat that reductiveness of a beginning, middle, end story. I don't feel like an instance happens in a vacuum, and I don't feel like a story about race has to be only about race. It's about everything in a history, you know?
Yeah, absolutely. Like, in some sense that plot feels like an artificial device.
Yeah. I think a lot about it as a three-dimensionality. I don't want to tell a story that’s flat and linear. I want it to expand in every direction.
This is broad, but in a lot of your installations you've done work with enclosed spaces. How did you arrive at that as something that you frequently implement in your work?
I think one of the reasons I’m so drawn to enclosed spaces is that I don’t want people to just walk past my work. I want to create ways where people have to cross thresholds, to force the viewer into a choice and also to implicate them in the narrative that I’m telling. If someone leaves, I want it to be very clear that they are leaving. And when someone enters, I want them to feel like they're in a different space, even under their feet. That’s why I carpet a lot of my pieces. Then with sound, I can literally go inside of them. It’s like being assailed from every direction, even if it's a very gentle assailing. [Laughs.] I want to take someone’s attention away from all the things that are surrounding them and push them into a more self-reflective and less self-conscious space.
The other thing is that I grew up in an environment where there wasn't very much room for me to be me. I mean, I didn't know it at the time, but I was a gay kid, and my parents were running these Christian church services out of my house, and I was the kid of Asian immigrants going to a predominately white school, and my home life was also a shit show. And so all through my childhood, I really felt like nobody understands what this is like, you know? Like nobody understands me. So I think that I'm naturally inclined to create these closed-off spaces where I’m in control, and I get to make the rules. Where it feels very intimate and safe. I used to sit in closets a lot as a kid, maybe it reminds me of that.
But I will say that my installations definitely feel like they're an extension of me, and they feel very high stakes.
Say more. Why do they feel high stakes?
Because I’ve found a way, through art, to exist in the world, and because I don’t think that what I have to say is isolated just to me, even though a lot of my work is tied to my personal history. When you really distill it down, it's about being seen and heard and understood. I think that — I hope that — my work holds space for people who don't feel like they're having space made for them in the world. It’s a small moment, but it's also not. Does that make sense?
That makes total sense. I mean, that is deeply rooted in why I enjoy doing interviews. I guess what it bottoms out at is that I think it’s important to try and put effort into taking seriously the way that people see the world.
And it's hard to talk about in more elaborate terms than that, isn't it?
Yeah. I mean, doesn't everybody feel kind of alone? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yes. But do you think that has to be the case? Or do you think that that's just part of what being human is?
Oh, yeah. I definitely feel like that's what being human is.
I mean, I think the world would be so boring if people weren’t a little bit lonely, because I think differences in people are partly why we feel alone, right?
I don't think that my work is for everybody. I don't think that it's going to make everybody feel seen. But I hope that the people who need it are actually able to see it. Like, one of the biggest compliments I got was, when I did this piece in Toronto, someone said, “My friend is grieving and I brought them to this little space that you built out and we just sat there eating peaches.” You know? I hadn't thought of it as a space to hang out with other people necessarily, but it was really humbling to know that it could operate as this space to come as you are, wherever you are.
Phoebe Wang is a multidisciplinary artist and works primarily in sound, sculpture, and installation. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 with a BA in Psychology / Thesis in Fine Arts.
Phoebe formerly produced live events at The Moth, was a member of The Heart (an audio art project and podcast), and was Senior Producer of The Shadows podcast (CBC). In 2018, she earned an NLGJA Excellence in Journalism Award and was named Best New Artist at the Third Coast International Audio Festival.
Won't You Call Me By My Name
2019–2020 Winter Residency