Paul Wong Is Queering Chinatown

This article is a part of Hyperallergics 2024 Pride Month collection, that includes interviews with art-world queer and trans elders all through June.

Paul Wong appears to all the time be in movement. The 69-year-old artist, curator, and organizer co-founded the Satellite Video Exchange Society, now VIVO Media Arts Center, which celebrates its 51st anniversary this yr. But he’s not resting on his laurels: As he spoke over Zoom from his spacious Vancouver studio, he picked up his laptop computer and panned to black-and-white pictures and sheets of printed textual content pinned to his wall, a glimpse into the preparation of a Vancouver Art Gallery present he’s curating on the Japanese-Canadian photographer Tamio Wakayama. 

Wong has additionally developed Pride in Chinatown, an annual collection of exhibitions and performances rooted in a 2018 residency on the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. While telling me this, he flung his distressed jean jacket open like a superhero, baring a black t-shirt with “Pride in Chinatown” printed in sizzling pink. He not too long ago premiered his first sound set up, “Be Like Sound” (2022) — a riff on Bruce Lee’s well-known quote, “Be like water.” Indeed, our dialog flowed freely with a fluidity that permeates his work at massive, blurring the boundaries between classes and experimenting with strategies of transferring via the world. 

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Hyperallergic: Tell me about your observe. 

Paul Wong: I’m a lens-based artist; I body the world via my lenses. I picked up a video digicam in highschool, and that was my main medium for many years. That’s how I thought, you recognize? That is what actually launched me to interdisciplinary efficiency, set up, images, sound — working with every kind of artists in entrance of, behind, and across the lens. 

In truth, I presently have my first sound-only set up known as “Be Like Sound,” you recognize, spinning off of Bruce Lee’s “Be like water” quote. I recorded totally different sorts of waters, from creeks to oceans to waves to rapids. I used to be considering that sound may take many sorts of shapes, can go round and thru issues. It was configured on this half circle of enormous spherical screens in a public plaza with 16 audio system. You can stroll via it, and all of the sounds and visuals play collectively briefly, non-synchronous loops, so it’s ever-changing. 

You might keep, change into absorbed, or you can simply stroll via it and by it. The inspiration was the disappearing sounds of Chinatown. 

H: Speaking of well-known quotes about water, I’m excited about that Heraclitus quote: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

PW: Yes — I consider my work form of like jazz. A free-form, improvisational dialog. I did a site-specific public artwork venture not too long ago for the Vancouver Opera. I forged opera singers. Three of the 4 establish as queer, and one carried out his personal materials in drag. There was no storyboard, no starting, no center. It was about giving the performers the house to be themselves exterior of the opera. It was concerning the devices and voices, with out the trimmings of the opera stage. So what you hear just isn’t essentially what you see.

H: Can you inform me about how Vancouver’s annual Pride in Chinatown collection of exhibitions and performances started? 

PW: It began with a year-long residency I did on the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in 2018. It was transformative, each for myself and for the backyard, to shift from being solely a vacationer vacation spot to creating programming that was for the locals. I noticed it as a possibility to experiment with what it could possibly be apart from a passive backyard.

H: That makes me consider water, too: its shiftiness, its capability to alter dynamically. An challenge usually mentioned in Asian diasporic circles is that “authenticity” is conflated with custom, issues which are legibly “Asian.” How did that affect your programming?

PW: It was about shifting away from the standard exhibitions of scrolls and brush portray to extra efficiency and modern types of artwork. I invited queer drag artists to collaborate with conventional Chinese opera singers. In Chinese opera, males historically performed the function of girls. Now, girls have additionally been taking part in males’s roles. That was the start of this concept of queering Chinatown and claiming an area the place we had been by no means welcome or seen.

H: It appears like collaboration is vital to your observe — a lot of your work appears to be about inviting others in.

PW: Part of being a mentor is inviting collaboration: that includes pan-Asian artists, fostering new artwork varieties, new sorts of collaborations. Creating incubators that don’t simply enable for queer Asian artists to make standard artwork varieties with some queer imagery, however actually to attempt to be one thing else.

H: What methods have you ever used to queer areas all through your profession? 

PW: You know, I’m usually known as blunt. Being an elder and having that have now — it’s exhausting to say “no” once I ask as a result of I gained’t take no for a solution. I’ve all the time tried to create an area that’s about yeses.

I believe that goes again to my beginnings, to choosing up the video digicam when it was marginalized within the artwork world. We had been pressured to be outsiders, so we created our personal stuff in our personal methods and developed our personal audiences. We had been pressured to play exterior, so we created our personal sandbox. I look again and I thank these gatekeepers. We networked with a number of folks in New York and all over the world who had been doing the identical factor: work that was radical, experimental, gender-bending. Work that was radically queer. That’s been the muse for all the things I do. Queers created prolonged households for survival.

I used to be concerned in collectives and teams, and beginning artist’s areas — there was a number of help and funding in Canada. It allowed us to create a special form of artwork manufacturing that’s not market-driven or based mostly on artwork gala’s. There was ephemeral efficiency and work about politicized identities; these had been secure areas for us to play, experiment, and evolve as artists, directors, and facilitators. You had been my stuff, and I used to be yours.

Within areas like Video-Inn, there have been all the time unbelievable queer voices. We had a library the place anyone might are available and watch this work, a few of which was interviews with trans folks or efficiency artists who had been doing extraordinarily queer performances. Our mandate was all the time to supply tools, entry, and coaching for marginalized voices. Satellite Video Exchange Society was an unbelievable playground. I additionally frolicked at Western Front, which was extra into conceptual efficiency and experimental artwork. These had been severe breeding grounds for mentorship. People got here and went as visiting artists who allowed me to watch, hearken to, and play with others.

H: Who had been among the folks whose work attracted you? 

PW: I used to be drawn to the freaks within the artwork world. In the early ’70s, once I was a teen, it was the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Lou Reed. Andy Warhol’s Factory. They all appeared like, wow — this isn’t well mannered society. The Dalessandros, the Taylor Meads, the Vivas. People who had turned their again on the White center class. These had been nonbinary folks, pansexuals, individuals who appeared to be having a number of enjoyable, individuals who had been lovely. And within the ’80s, the AIDS disaster was foundational. That’s a interval that I lived via, fearfully, and got here out the opposite finish. I take into consideration what was misplaced throughout that interval — and what was made. People like General Idea, and Gran Fury. The work of ACT UP. 

And now, Kent Monkman. He’s somebody who I’ve identified for a few years. He’s a painter, a multidisciplinary, Indigenous artist, who’s mischievous and doing these ranges of critique round colonialism and postcolonialism, gender and queerness. 

H: When did you your self come out?

PW: There was no nice huge “YouTube” second — that appears to be the factor today. I used to be attracted to being an artist very early on. The making of artwork, be it drawing or video, was an early escape. It allowed me to focus, and the remainder simply … disappeared. It represented a sure form of freedom and inside that freedom was self-expression: being no matter you would possibly wish to be.

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