PERFORMANCE AS INTERVENTION ON PERSONAL AND POLITICAL COMPLICITY [BEX KWAN]
EMW Bookstore was honored to host Bex Kwan, a queer and trans Chinese-Singaporean multimedia artist based out of Brooklyn, New York, at danger!awesome. They were our February 2016 feature at East Meets Words, our monthly open mic series featuring APIA artists/groups. For more on Bex’s work, please visit: www.bexkwan.com [Interview conducted by Tina Xu]
YOU INTRODUCE YOURSELF AS A QUEER AND TRANS CHINESE-SINGAPOREAN MULTIMEDIA ARTIST WHO WORKS IN WORDS, FOOD, INSTALLATION, IMAGE AND MOVEMENT. HOW DO YOU TIE ALL THESE THINGS TOGETHER?
Yeah, great question. A lot of what I do in terms of features and performing is with words and my background is as a performer. I think about the medium of things as sort of fluid, and they come and go into each other. I'm really interested in the ways that food plays into the ways we understand our bodies and the world around us. I've been thinking about how that relates to words, and how that relates to movement as well. It really depends on like who I'm working with or collaborating with. The people around me and the ways that I think about these things really change with that.
YOU ALSO TALK ABOUT YOUR CENTRAL THEMES---AND WE SAW A LOT OF THAT TONIGHT---AS CENTERING AROUND FAMILY, FAITH, DOMESTIC LABOR, RACE, MIGRATION, AND TENDERNESS AMONG OTHERS. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE THE WORD TENDERNESS?
It's important to me that the audience experiences some version of gentleness in a show of mine simply because a lot of the stuff that we share with each other in this kind of show space tends to be very heavy and coming from places of pain. There's room and a lot of value in work that doesn't center gentleness and tenderness, but for me I really want to create a space where people are a little more open to that because I feel like we can be more honest when you're treating each other with that care. Sometimes I don't think that works entirely but I try to enter into that space trying to hold that intention so that we can see each other with I think a little more realness. It really changes based on the crowd. I don't do the same thing all the time because some folks are not open or ready for that in that moment. But we saw today---people actually sharing with each other---was pretty beautiful.
YOU SAID SOMETIMES YOU JUMP AROUND IN THE SHOW TO CHANGE THINGS UP. WHAT WAS THE CHANGE IN MOOD YOU NOTICED TONIGHT?
A lot of the thought around that is where the audience is emotionally--it's both in terms of how someone's going to receive some work and also what taking care of them looks like. If I just shared some poem and I see that folks are responding emotionally and need a moment, I might not follow that up with a poem that's as raw or that might hit them in a similar place. Thinking about like crafting an emotional journey for somebody.
WHAT ARE SOME INFLUENCES IN YOUR LIFE THAT DROVE YOU TO CREATE ART?
To be honest, so much of my politics---the way I think about things---come from my friends. I have brilliant and incredible people around me that seriously shape the way I move through the world, and I have been blessed to have been influenced by them. That is like the cheap answer I can think of.
I've had people come into my life who have held different ways of using different languages. For example, my being influenced by dance was really shaped by a couple of people who were dancers and they understood things without words and that really changed the way I moved my body as a performer. Or with people who really think about food, and are like “Whoa this is a way of talking to people.”
I WANTED TO GO BACK TO WHAT YOU SAID IN THE BEGINNING OF YOUR SET WHERE YOU TALKED ABOUT YOUR POLITICS BEING BORN OUT OF AN EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION, OR A CERTAIN KIND OF INSTITUTION. HOW HAS THAT INFLUENCED HOW YOU EXPRESS YOUR POLITICS OR HOW YOUR POLITICS MANIFEST?
What is particularly salient to me is the idea that the language I use to understand myself primarily around gender, race, etc. I received from a place that holds a ton of power and also is a part of the thing that I live in that is violent. Let's not get it twisted that even though there is gratitude and blessing in receiving that information, and I think that information transfer is really crucial, that the relationship between me and the schools that I'm in is still one that is incredibly shaped by power.
Knowing and being expert is steeped in history but understanding that where that knowledge comes from is really important to reflect on. Whose knowledge it is? What does it mean that the language that is in my mouth even changes the way that I understand myself?
YOU MENTIONED YOU USE PERFORMANCE AS AN INTERVENTION ON POLITICAL AND PERSONAL COMPLICITY. WHAT DOES POLITICAL AND PERSONAL COMPLICITY LOOKS LIKE TO YOU?
The bio that you have is really shaped by the audience and the places that I get to perform in. What typically happens---and I have personal experience having been part of this in college and radical organizing spaces---there are times people are finding themselves, and in that, I think colleges teach us to be sure of things, right? Like you're finding yourself, then you solidify for your political identity and you’re sure of it.
I think that sureness can be sometimes lose a sense of “Where is my power?” We tend to focus---and I do this a lot too---with “Where am I "oppressed"? Where do I not have power?” Say I'm a person of color, say I'm queer, say I'm blank, but we don't think about ways that we are powerful. The way that I consider it is that if you're not aware of how you have power, you misuse that power because we use that power all the time.
That idea of complicity to me is where are you powerful and really focusing on that and being clear about that and how can you reuse that power to redistribute whatever you've got in ways that are more equitable.
SO IF THE INTRODUCTION WE SAW ONLINE WAS CATERED TO AN ACADEMIC AUDIENCE, HOW WOULD YOU INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO A NON-ACADEMIC AUDIENCE?
We live in a world that's shaped by capitalism. We have to market ourselves in a certain way. I'm getting on Facebook not because I want to be on Facebook really, but there's a way that artists, cultural workers and people who are organizers and want to hustle and make it in a certain way have to package themselves.
That's something I wrestle with so much because what does it mean to monetize all of ourself, right? But at the same time, we got to hold both things, both ends. If I were in a different world, I could imagine that space where I didn't have to say that introduction of “I've lived here and here and here.” How do we even dream that? Maybe I wouldn't need to do that stuff. I would be invited and turn to a space where I can be a whole person and I don't need to give you bite-sized valuable things about myself.
YOU SAID THAT IN THE END YOUR GOAL IS TO HAVE PEOPLE RECONSIDER THE HEAVINESSES THEY’VE BEEN TRYING NOT TO CARRY. WHAT IS THE HEAVINESS THAT YOU CARRY?
That's a question that I now want to ask the people in the audience, in terms of what they heard because I don't think there's anybody who doesn't carry any of that.
Right now, what is standing out to me the most is considering what it means that I, as a person and the way that I sound and organize and can make art, am not fully integrated with the people that I grew up with. I think that's something shared by a lot of people who were in the room earlier and a lot of my friends. Realizing that all of the stuff I've had access to---whether it's political jargon or thought---that if I went home to the place I grew up in and started speaking like that I would be so much of a stranger.
What is authenticity in my home family space (i.e. blood family space)? That's been really real to me recently, especially since it's the new year. This is the time that I really miss home. Both of those lives for me, I used to think of them as dichotomous, as I have to pick one or the other and I’m leaving one behind or whatever. But I’m understanding that all of my selves in different spaces are real. The person I am, the daughter I am with my mom is a real person and the way that my mother loves me and my family loves me is also genuine and real. So I think that is a really heavy thing I'm still trying to work through.
I also want to be encouraging other people to look within because I think the power that we hold with our families is something that's often forgotten---where our roots are and how we need to hold them as we build this other world where roots will continue to be grown.
ANY TIDBITS OF WISDOM OR ADVICE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE CARRYING BURDENS, or WHO HAVE SOME ARTISTIC ASPIRATIONS, or WHO DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO SPACES WHERE PERFORMERS and CROWDS LOOK LIKE THEM?
Well, I'm not sure I have wisdom. I think it'd be foolish to assume I could really say something that would enlighten said individual. I would really encourage folks to start with their history, in terms of family history but also history of how they are seen in a certain space, a land, a country---where they are physically and what that means. I also want to encourage folks to organize, because I think there are so many artists who are making cultural work who think of that as, “This is the difference I am making in the world, amen.” But what other resources are you moving? How are you using your art to dream up this world while using that cultural power that you've got? For folks who are thinking of themselves as artists and who want to be making that world, yes do it! Sit down and do that thing, AND also do your personal work with your art and do your community work. I think those things are most powerful when mixed together---and like spirits finding other people who are also interested in moving/using their power. That's where the magic stuff happens, you know?