What have you been working on in Wassaic?
I've been working on 23 VIEWS, a series of drawings based on US Census data that investigates how categorical shifts in language have profoundly impacted our collective understanding of racial and ethnicity identity in America.
The work is largely representational through the depiction of an ocean shore as a liminal space. However, its conceptual roots arise from the data itself as published by the Census Bureau since 1790. In the initial stages, I sifted and compiled all the data, taking note not only of quantitative enumeration statistics but also changes in categorical language used to describe race. For instance, seismic shifts occur after the Civil War following the end of slavery while the 20th century yields more nascent terms as migration patterns begin to shift and identities blur.
After compiling the data, I rendered each set into pie charts while keeping the skyline at 50% so that all meaningful data falls below it. This establishes a very clear horizon line but also presents this idea that all human activity is quite insignificant in the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. These trials and tribulations are meaningless in the big picture, yet have tremendous impact on our daily lives. Beneath each drawing is a caption — the decennial year it references along with a verb that references a major historical event or conflict of that time period.
23 VIEWS is my main project, but I’ve made plenty of time to experiment with other random stuff. I filmed the horse outside, worked in my sketchbook, and made clay chickens for Tara and the fellow residents (it’s a surprise!). It’s been fun. Though 23 VIEWS is quite serious and “coherent” in scope, all of it is play.
This feels like a continuation to me of some of your other work. I’m particularly interested in the way that you look at how America talks about itself. The pie charts are using words that are associated with events from those decades, there’s a print here on your desk of the three-fifths clause —
From the US Constitution.
Yeah. Can you say more about that part of your practice?
I won’t deny that the core of my practice is very Americentric. I’ve been trying to get to the heart of the American imaginary, its mythology, sense of morality, and failures around the American Dream. It began first as an interest in the language around the American Dream. The bulk of my graduate school work revolved around that language with explicit references to gambling, casinos, and this wild, free-wheeling, reckless attitude of “get rich or die trying” that feels uniquely American. I wanted to create work that destabilized the notion of success as contingent on hard work alone, since much of it is based on the random hand of circumstances you are dealt at birth. It’s a cosmic crapshoot! So games of chance became a big part of that conversation.
This new project, 23 VIEWS, addresses a lot of the tension that has arisen from debates on immigration and citizenship under the Trump administration. Each shift in population brings familiar questions to the forefront — what does it mean to be American? Who feels entitled to the wealth of America?
I find there’s a lot of displaced anger, a lot of resentment and hurt, particularly in working class communities. In discussions and interviews, particularly with veterans and other folks that have been hard hit economically, the prevalent attitude is one of “Deep down inside, I’m a billionaire — but something, someone has gotten in the way,” as if there’s a well just within reach that is being blocked by an unseen force. This mythology consumes the American psyche so fully that it’s hard to see the larger systems at play. So where do you displace this psychological unease of not having achieved this wealth you feel entitled to? Naturally you’d find a scapegoat.
Much of my work is about unraveling this way of thinking, while leaving it ambiguous enough for the viewer to reach their own conclusions. Critical enough to provoke, yet sympathetic enough to absorb the viewer’s lived experience.
Codes, a performance based on flag handling rituals in the US, is an example of this. I worked with actor JJ Bozeman on choreography and and composer Gu Wei on an experimental and improvisational track that we performed together in Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington DC at very, very different venues. A library, a woman’s private apartment, DIY art space, and outdoors in front of unsuspecting passersby.
In this piece, we address how flag worship functions as a form of ritual without using an actual flag. It's a pure pantomime accompanied by ambient sound. Depending on the viewer’s familiarity with military practice, reactions vary wildly. Some people read it immediately and interpreted it as a form of disrespect or desecration. Others noted the lack of a flag and felt it was an act of reverence. The piece is about how specific objects become hallowed through state ritual and part of the nation-making enterprise.
Can you say more about the differing reactions between those art-ish audiences and when you brought it to a more public space in DC?
In art spaces, people are generally primed to experiment, play, or have a discussion. That's why they're there. For instance, in Philadelphia, a few people thought we were sailing because the space allowed for a more playful interpretation.
In other contexts, a lot more people were focused on the music. The music is based on a randomization of notes from the “Star Spangled Banner.” Due to noise restrictions in Washington DC, we adapted it to an acoustic version and worked with a bass player. We were stationed at the Capitol Riverfront, which has been undergoing redevelopment fairly recently. This shift from industrial to mixed-use space brings in more commercial presence and related arts and culture programming to attract visitors, but then opens another can of worms about what constitutes art, tired ideas of propriety, and when/where you can express political opinion. But I cannot speak for everyone at the Waterfront that day, and it was the first time our performance felt like a public intervention with an involuntary audience.
So you said you're pretty new to performance art — in the past several years or so you’ve also made a transition from a more illustration-based practice to something more conceptual. Can you talk about that transition more broadly? What has changed? What has stayed the same?
It was not easy. I really went into illustration because I was focused on the idea of accessibility. Though I now do a mix of illustration and conceptual based work, I still maintain a commitment to that ethos. But ultimately, in either industry, it’s still trying to feed a commercial demand, so you’ll have to find what moves you and avoid what eats your soul. Illustration was tough for me because I couldn’t compete in a market that I didn’t care much for. Maybe that sounds a little rude. [Laughs.]
No, I think that's true of a lot of pursuits. You hit a point where you're like, I just don't care about this thing as much as other people, and that’s gonna be the thing that gets me out of it eventually.
Right. For me, it also became an ethical issue. Since illustration is consumed quickly and more passively in our day to day, it has an insidious way on the way we think. There’s a lot of contemporary illustrators doing innovative and exciting things, but in my experience, I often found myself creating work for a client I disagreed with. As an example, I was given feedback once from a client for drawing “too much like a man.” What does that mean?
[Laughs.] Hm, let’s unpack that.
Well in this specific situation, the project was specifically targeting middle-age women as consumers. The implication of that comment was that, according to “market analysis,” women would only purchase an item if the motifs were curved, swirled, and soft. Is that something inherent to womanhood or do you consign them to these options based on a narrow worldview based on profit margins?
My breaking point ended up being halfway through my thesis in grad school. I was thinking about randomness, circumstance, and gaming culture as it relates to immigration. And I was killing myself making these drawings, receiving lukewarm feedback, and realized that illustration might be too narrow to capture what I want to say. Because I was slammed pretty hard during critiques. It was a great benefit, of course, to have these art directors and magazine people come in to look at my work, but the consistent statement was, “It's not salable. No one wants to look at this. How am I going to use you to sell a lifestyle?” And I was like, “Well, you’re not!” [Laughs.] That was it.
In spite of this, drawing is still at the core of my practice and I feel committed to this idea of narrative. Even this 23 VIEWS feels like a type of book with its portrayal of time. If I took anything from the illustration industry, it’s that visual language is a powerful way to tell a story. Even the experience of conceptual art is a story.
Can you tell me a little bit about the project that you were working on before Wassaic? I overheard you talking about it a bit when I was in your studio yesterday.
This interactive piece was done in tandem with the flag performance in DC. Based on our previous performances, I noticed viewers were confused, reeling, or had something to say, so after the performance we invited people to chat or contribute to collective dialogue by responding to a few prompts via typewriter. I’m drawn to old objects like this that produce a lot of noise and can quickly activate space as an “old” novelty. (I found this specific 1949 typewriter from Craigslist in Baltimore.) People were generally excited to answer these questions, and since we were in DC, we had quite a few service members and embassy diplomats.
The language is pretty consistent among military personnel — it describes an existence based on sacrifice. One contributor, a young woman who must have been 18 or so, was a new Navy recruit. She wrote: “Why service? Service is obligation to family, obligation to nation. To be part of something that is bigger than oneself. To defend freedom and promote security. Service is necessary, and I volunteer. I waive my right to free speech so that others may practice theirs.” It’s so heavy when you stop to think about a young person proselytizing this mentality. But that’s how successful armies are made. You train people to believe in a thing bigger than themselves.
There’s a lot I admire about that, even if it can be naive. Very few people can say that they've been so selfless in their life. But it's weird to consider how much of this comes from a place of individualism versus collectivism. How does the military and army come to replace family? Or is it just an exchange of body/time to financially provide for your future self and/or current progeny?
Tiffany Lin is a visual artist, wordsmith, and dreamer.
Through drawing, writing, and performance, her work investigates the nebulous distinction between want, need, and desire in context of political and capitalist spectacles. She maintains an intimate sketchbook process that serves as a sociological platform, documenting encounters that situate the artist as observer, participant, and researcher. By manipulating vernacular language and signifiers of chance, she reveals how manifestations of want are informed by the nation state, free markets, and imperialist legacies.
Tiffany currently lives and works in Las Vegas where she joins the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Design and Illustration.
Dimensional Portraits with Tiffany Lin
2019 Summer Residency