Episode Five – Paul Wong

Additional Reading:

This episode contains strong language.

Chipo –  Hello, I am Chipo Chipaziwa and welcome to Performing? No, Performance. This is a podcast in which I ask performance artists why and how they create the work that they create, and what does studio time mean and look like to them. I’m also joined by Live’s Brady Ciel Marks, who sometimes joins in on the conversation.

In this fifth episode, I am joined by Vancouver based multimedia artist Paul Wong. Paul’s practice concerns itself with a variety of subjects. A few of them consist of the following: experimenting with the media of video, exploring identity politics, and investigating capitalism. I’m honored to have him as my final guest.

Chipo – I want to start off by acknowledging the fact that you are a founding member of multiple artist run groups. Examples of this include Video In Video Out (VIVO) Media Arts Centre, On The Cutting Edge Production Society, which is now known as On Main Gallery and the Mainstreeters. And I wanted to start off with asking, do you prefer to create with others or do you prefer to create alone? And how do the two different processes differ from one another?

Paul – I was recently quoted as, as something that I said on a conversation I had with Dana Claxton with the Love Intersections Hot Pot series. And apparently there, there was a question about mentorship and I said, you know, the community has been my mentor. And that was used as the theme this year for the Heart of the City festival. Taking outta context, I don’t remember what I said and I reviewed what I said, but that, that the festival just happened. So when you talk about do I work solo or do I work with others, I think sometimes those terms like, like we’re using studio practice, non-studio practice, traditional sculptors do this, how do performance artists do that? In terms of if I work solo or do I work collaboratively? I think that without a community context, my work would not be inspired or thrive or have have meaning. So you can interpret what, what that means. I may be doing a solo work.. invited to your space that involves working with them and we create something that is a Paul Wong thing… produced by you in conjunction with them. Mm-hmm. , what does that make it? So I think one of the things that maybe turned me off a little bit around the solo performance art thing is why I turned into more collaborative things, producing more things where I was, where I was not the person standing in this room with the spotlight on me as a the Paul Wong endurance piece because I found that a lot of that work in happening, those kinds of white gallery spaces, white wall spaces became very, very limiting. Mm-hmm.  and, and, and, and there was, those artists were traveling with their tropes, you know, their vocabulary, their repertoire, and, and so it will stop there. I’m now segueing way over the many different thoughts. So I work within a community context. Mm-hmm. , I’m not giving you your answer.

Chipo – No, it’s okay. That’s fine. 

In your own words, do you think that performance art can be commodified? Do you think that performance – and I’m now also interested to hear your answer about do you think that performance art can truly be owned by the artists? And then the parenthesis, there is an S, but still like is there an ownership associated with performance art, especially when you create performance art within a community based way? 

I’ll give you an example if you want me to further elaborate. 

Paul – Sure. 

Chipo – Okay. I think about your piece Confused: Sexual Views and how it was once considered non-art from the Vancouver Art Gallery and then I, these are actually your words, you said: ‘I feel like performance art often gets the short end of the stick because people can do an action and say that it’s art, performance art, and I cannot help but apply that same perspective when the VAG (Vancouver Art Gallery) declared Confused slash Sexual Views as non-art back in the eighties’ and after said, have you taken into account how others, especially art institutions, will receive your works?

Paul – I mean, I think the, the happenings in the sixties, the performance art of the seventies and spectacle grew out of collaborations with other forms, but it was also a rejection of the commodification of object art. That these were art experiences, site experiences, community experiences that were anti art, anti object, anti sale price, anti collection.

So performance art often took place with individual art language or collaborations with those audiences and makers as a site of rebellion and a site of ideas, and saying that experience was where we’re at, at this site, at this moment. So for me, our performance art is, this is the essence of, of an experience. There’s nothing to hang on your wall. Yeah. So, so, so in terms of your question about commodification, so, so, so that, and, and that also allowed for sites of experimentation and a certain audiences came to things with no expectations. And, and a lot of that work was very raw. 

Brady – Yeah. I’m just thinking about like this idea of the context of when you started out and like the video being the medium that was emerging, the, you know, the Portapak, Video In and, and how you said, in that context, it was anti commodification, anti, so there was a a zeitgeist maybe of new media, maybe, and also like against red dots, paintings, objects.

Paul – Well, certainly the emergence of video as a language, as a form, as an form used by artists . . Yeah, it was definitely you know, we politic, you know, we, we, we did it as, as a political, an anti art and a community tool. Mm-hmm.  Because it was a form that suddenly challenged mainstream commercial big dollar government monolithic media structures and and broadcasts. Suddenly you had a accessibly affordable and a medium that could walk away from the studio, that didn’t require huge budgets, huge producers, huge sponsorships to make. Anyone could suddenly start doing their own stories, their own actions, their own recordings, their own performances for the camera. And share that. Why It, it, it, it was very radical. It, it didn’t have the structures of television that, that the hierarchy of film and film production means and all of that stuff. So it, it, it, it, it, it, it opened up and possibilities that’s definitely threatened the status quo from the way that they tried to dismiss this new medium, saying that it wasn’t technically up to code: the white levels are way too low, the black levels don’t meet our standards. It’s, it’s, you know, it’s not high enough resolution et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 

There was, now this whole,  you know, reinforcement of professional technical standards, way of keeping you out. Mm-hmm. You know, even, you know, let alone the presence of diversity or access or storytelling, but strictly on the technical level. Right. You know, oh, no, you’re, they would look at your work and go, oh no, the white levels aren’t, don’t meet our, don’t meet our broadcast standards.

Do you remember that kind of stuff? And those things were applied . You can’t, you see, you can’t, you can’t ex – ‘we love your idea, but you can’t, you can’t expect us to show screen broadcast something made on this technology. It’s just not up to code’. 

Brady – Right. So, so can I ask a follow up questions? 

Chipo – Yeah, you can. 

Brady – So if like what would that sort of ran, radical anti anti-establishment, Paul Wong of that time do now in this time, because I think like with YouTube or just off phones, 

Chipo – TikTok, Instagram Reels. 

Brady – Yeah. Tho those, those gatekeepers are not there anymore and no one’s telling us like, that fan above here is too loud, we can’t use this audio. Right. And so if you were to sort of begin again to have that, that spirit, but now without those restraints, would you, would you be doing anything different? I mean, I guess you are too. 

Paul – Some Oh yeah. I, I, what I’ve, I’ve done a whole series of released, unreleased play times and experimentation on various kinds of platforms. And you know, for, for one someone who’s engaged in certain social media platforms. And I was very clear that I was inserting my old Chinese body and face into a youth platforms… loudly. I think I’ll just  do a selfie again. I’m sticking it in here. Mm-hmm. , you know, when Vine came out was the first platform where you could actually do a seven second video and share it and so could a network of people who we all just started doing Vines for each other and trying to do, you know, what, what can I could do in seven seconds? What can I do in seven seconds? And then went into, into 15 seconds. So, you know, I’m always playing with the context and the forms. So as a lot of those things emerged, I was kind of on it in, in, I guess, in an intuitive kind of way. I was, you know, when they able to do gifs for two years, I just made gifs and send it to people, you know, they were like, this piece of what I’m doing with this architecture, you know, five photos and three photos or an even number and let it animate. And now I’m always kind of doing these things with certain kinds of filters, like on Instagram. Oh yeah. Mm-hmm. , I try to mix and mash and, you know, do these things that are still within kind of a ten second range. So I’m, so I’m experimenting with kind of the forum and the, again my fa, my followers and my, which is your network of friends are always kind of exchanging something, which is very different.

Or is it different? Are people actually experimenting with context and form in this new generation of, it’s all about the likes. Mm-hmm. , which is a commodity because based on being an influencer and being branding and, and monetizing, it’s all based on how many likes. Yeah. So you know, yeah. There’s a huge proliferation of media, which, which is wonderful, but you know, who’s actually trying to subvert it? Or, or, or, or, or, or, or, or inform and function? Mm-hmm. 

I mean, it’s – 

Brady – I think what subverts it for me is the body, right? That presence that lends, that doesn’t, that is sort of at base, like at the end, no matter how many filters, it’s, it’s going to be received and it comes from bodies in space. I mean, your work is based on the body, but is that, would you agree?

Paul – It’s kind of based on what’s readily available. 

Brady – Okay. 

Paul – And, and, and, and, and I think back then in, in, in the seventies when I started to do stuff, it was using each other’s bodies. Yeah, each other’s stories cuz we could turn the cameras. Yeah. We were cheap. I didn’t have to pay you cuz I did what you did for me today. Next week I do what you requ, my body is yours next week. Yeah. So that was kind of an exchange that we had going on. And also we were, none of us, the, the the, you know, the yeah the hippies, the counterculture or the freaks. You know, none of our bodies were on mainstream media. None of our stories or ways of seeing or doing were on were any covered anyway.

So it, it, it was quite radical to just turn our naked bodies, our masturbating bodies, our vaginas, our, our inner, our thoughts. And, and to record that and, and, and, and to share it. Mm-hmm. . So it was considered to be new frontier and often by, and I certainly in a lot of those early works for turning the cameras on myself and my, my, my, my friends. They were a form of validation. Mm-hmm.  Of myself and, and, and, and each other. Mm-hmm. . And it was also and I’ve always been very interested in making, I guess that’s another way of deconstructing the filters of editorial storytelling. Producers and script writing and rewriting and editings of, of turning the camera onto private matters and instantly making that public.

Mm-hmm. So that way was a whole other strategy. Mm-hmm, you know, that, that certainly taboo subjects or the idea that you would say that, or show that or do that. 

Chipo – I wonder if it’s even possible to even explore a taboo subject in this day and age, or even have some kind of sense of authenticity because when we see the camera reflected back on someone in their vulnerable for like moment, it still feels kind of performance.

And whereas when I was researching your earlier video pieces, for example, there was a part of me that was like, okay, was he actually able to capture people when they weren’t…  because I feel like now if I do this, we’re all aware of the camera. So we know, we all kind of like straighten our posture and like make our face look a certain way or be like, I hope you’re gonna use a filter because this is the best filter I look in. 

Versus you back in those day and ages, like people were just unbeknowing. But also I have to kind of ask myself and catch myself with this bias I have and be like, have humans always been able to sense the presence of a camera and then does performativity just automatically come on?

Paul – Well, we, a very dear friend and colleague of mine is actually working with a piece right now that we’ve just kind of formulated mm-hmm. And he’s very interested in my process and, and we’re really good friends. We traveled together. He’s a, from Quebec is, is an artist. And he recently was staying with me, and through a big event that I was producing Pride in Chinatown, and just before we opened the doors, he started following with the camera as I went in my multitasking form, checking on that lighting, claim someone to fix that, saying hello to you, giving you a hug, shutting into the green room, listening for sound check, doing my loop like three times, and he just had the camera rolling kind on the slide. I knew it was. . Sometimes I would go turn it off, but I forgot about it. Mm-hmm. . But I watched some of that footage recently cause he didn’t know what he was doing with it. And it’s remarkable. We talk about following the process cuz it sees the way that I’m thinking and working and seeing everything, but yet being able to go, ‘Hey, how are you? Thanks for coming’. As I saying to you, ‘could you fix that sound over there?’ And then back to you. It’s just like, wow. Whoa. So it’s… Yeah, so it’s, it’s some remarkable footage. So I was so comfortable with him and with this little camera, I was aware, but not aware. I didn’t perform for the camera, and sometimes I did like, really? You’re still following me? Okay, let’s go. You know, so, but it’s so, yeah. 

Chipo – It’s like a switch.. 

Paul – Well, I’m aware, but not aware.

Chipo – I even wonder, is it possible to break the fourth wall when you’re making a video piece? Or is that just a part of making a video piece? Because I wonder like, you know, that famous painting, I forget, it’s like the barmaid and you know, she’s looking at the person and then you can see the gentleman in the mirror. But then people have like, people who are good with mathematics, figured out that it’s not actually like, we’re not the man in the mirror where someone else in the painting that’s not there, like just based off the angle. So I’m just wondering like, how does that apply to the video pieces that you’ve done? 

Paul – Well, going back to Confused: Sexual Views ,mm-hmm, which was accused of just being not art, cuz it’s just talking heads. I was insistent with the people that I interviewed, that they looked directly into the camera. There was no other p.o.v , look into the camera. You’re speaking to me. Cuz most of these, even the news guys, it’s always look over there. Look over there. Yeah. And  only the announcer looks right at the camera. And they’re still using that same cliche in the kind of, in the kinds of frames. Also, you know, I was also accused of high manipulation, but literally, cause I’m lazy. I just removed all my, my questions. I was not interested in my voice.

So, you know, what is your favorite color? Blue. I always ask my people to mention my favorite color is blue. It wasn’t about me. Mm-hmm. . So I would, so the voice of the others completely removed. So it’s just like one statement after another statement, there was no sexy fade to back to make it seem seamless cuz it never was. So in half hour interview, I just took out anything coming from this point of view. It was just about, about you just, it was, it was just this mm-hmm. You were, you didn’t appear. So that was deconstructed as this ‘well obviously they’re highly edited and manipulated’ with like as –  as like the other things aren’t?  So, so, so there’s an example of my consciousness about the form that I knew what I was doing, right? I was questioning that. The way that we present, we, we present the idea of truth under this pov, the second camera, the pickup shot. Like, like, like, like it’s seamless. Mm. . So that was considered to be too real, too raw, too jagged for back then. Yeah. 

Brady – The way you describe the contrast between, so initially you said, well, film was too, too structured. Too, too formulate, two subdivided in, in terms of labor structure. It’s like your, your roles and like that kind of thing. And then you got this criticism of being too manipulative, but, and you said it was because you were lazy, but, but I also heard in your voice like an astuteness of understanding media and understanding what it would mean to cut out and understanding what it would mean to look at the camera. And so my question would be like, what, what taught you your understanding of, of video and media, film and representation? Like where did, what was school for you for that? Was it like watching television or, or cinema? Like how did that sense, even if it was informal, where, where did you develop that?

Paul – And if you watch other works like Prime Cuts and even in that section you mentioned from 4, I also was using I was imitating the documentary cause I didn’t have a second camera. I didn’t have that kind of script. So I would walk in hand held on things as opposed to having it like this. And so a, a lot, a lot of these structured things are shot in that kind of way. Cause I just, I do all of that, just about to come up on something or kind walk, have, walk heavily in, through a scene. And it’s not all perfect cuz I didn’t, I didn’t have the, the ways and means and patience to do that in lighting, all, all of that sort of stuff.

So, I’ve always played, you know, at that time I, I, I was very conscious playing a lot of the form, and that’s cause I was, I, I was, I watched stuff, I was a critique stuff I learned from seeing stuff and from others. Yeah. So it was, I was a bit of a sponge. I’m like, Hmm, that’s an, that’s, that’s an interesting way to use the camera. You know, that’s, you know, that’s quite believable. You know, that’s, that, that’s okay just to have it, you know, sitting on a table at an angle, , you know, it’s, it’s, you know, all that stuff. It’s like, why not? So it was, it was, I think it was all about being ignored, dismissed, rejected made fun of, and not being shown and not being all those mainstream things. I’ve said quite often recently, I actually now give them some credit for not sharing, not caring and keeping their doors closed cuz that allowed oth others like me and myself to create our own play boxes and make our own, make our own friends and, and create our own games. So being allowed to create your own games. And I’m just doing for you two. Anyway, I don’t care about the rest of it. I just made stuff to please you and you, and you made stuff to please, entertain me or to surprise me. So that’s what happened in the seventies and a large in the eighties. I was able, I was really able to play in my own sandbox and with my own rules, with my own playmates, with my own stuff, and it was validating . I didn’t have to be constantly having, you know, I, you know, this is where the love was. Mm-hmm. That took me a long time to learn, and still recently now sometimes just have to stop listening to all of that, all that rejection, all that critique, all that envy, all that misunderstanding. All you, always trying to change that. It’s important to do that, but at the same time, that will just suck you dry. You have to be able to play. 

Chipo – Do you think that in this current day and age in 2022, people are now playing more than ever? 

Paul – No. No, no. Everyone who’s playing, mm-hmm, gone to the same fucking schools, with the same textbooks, listened to the same programs. 

I think there’s a lot, I think there’s a lot less artistic freedom and experimentation. Okay. Right, and, and, and, and all depends on which communities you’re talking about. You know, we here in the privileged Canada, let’s just say mm-hmm. , Vancouver, British Columbia. Mm-hmm. , you know, come from and I think, I mean, I, I always think the most interesting work comes from sites of friction. Be it political, gender, economic, social.

I mean, we’re talking about 30 year evolution of live art, performance art, and interdisciplinary art practice of some of the [Indigenous] artists you’ve mentioned, like Rebecca Belmore, mm-hmm, that comes out of, of community. Mm-hmm.  Of a community of friction. So there’s a certain necessity for it. Curiosity and hunger for it from its makers and its audience, which probably started with six people, but you know, grew to 60 , 60, you know, over 30 years, you know?

So, so it comes out of a place of, I guess, think the right word is friction. Yeah. Right. Where there’s, you know, yeah. Contrast you, there’s, yeah. It, it doesn’t, it doesn’t, it doesn’t come out of a comfort zone, you know, it didn’t begin as an academic exercise, as a, as, as, as a, as a structural thing where I’m gonna put noise against grain and I’m gonna deconstruct minimalism at the same time. I’ve could use some body art and throw in some feminism and why not Asian identity all at the same time.

But all that is pretty fraught thinking. I get it, I … , but you know they weren’t thinking of that, I’m doing something post, post colonial feminist, you know, with some quote from some book that’s gonna back them up. That’s not radical work. I learned by saying and doing, not from a classroom that was framed.

So I had to seek out where, and, and I also had, the, the privilege of, you know,  early on, almost went outta high school to be engaged with experimental artists and to be, you know, part of co-founding something like Video In VIVO Media Arts and, and then being thrown into the pit, how to organize, administrate , and, you know, you know mm-hmm. Ask a lot of these questions and try to put it into action. How do we create, and how do we learn to do this? How do we train others to do this? How do we have a space that can have open hours? How? How to make all this happen.

Chipo – Do you find yourself, your core identity, removed to some degree, depending on the mediums that you’re working in? And the works that I was thinking about when I typed this up was, So Are You, IN TEN SITY, 60 Unit; Bruise, On Becoming a Man, 4 and Prime Cuts. 

Paul – I mean, I did a lot what are called video performances. Mm-hmm. , I did a lot of things, performances for the camera. I did a lot of things, live audience shows that were live for the camera frame, projected or shown over there on a monitor, mixed in with pre-recorded time and live actions. And delayed time. So a lot of my pieces, a lot of that stuff doesn’t exist and sets up a couple of of terrible photographs cuz you couldn’t wait for those things cause they were, you know, they were never done.

So I, a lot of my works purposely played with live and pre-recorded framed reality fiction and non-fiction elements. So altogether or in different combinations. So that was, that was kind of the strategy I had in my work for a long period of time… was, was, was twisting fucking up, flattening, manipulating time.

This is now, then. Real. Fiction

Chipo – And I believe that is that. For this episode, I would just like to say a big thank you to my guest and I would also like to say thank you to both LIVE Biennale and the city of Vancouver for funding this project. Thank you.