Interview with Yan Wu

Shanghai-born, Toronto-based curator Yan Wu has worked with Canadian arts institutions including Gendai Gallery, Art Metropole, and Blackwood Gallery, co-curated the Canada Pavilion with Janine Marchessault at the 5th Bi-city Urbanism/Architecture Bienalle in Shenzhen, China in 2013, and was Assistant Curator of the 2015 Shanghai Urban Space Art Season. As a translator, she completed the Chinese translation of Rosalind Krauss’s Passages in Modern Sculpture with James Carl, published in 2016.

With a practice spanning countries and cultures, Wu seemed a natural fit for our December 2016 panel discussion, Facilitating International Practices as an Indpendent Curator for which we asked her and fellow panelists Earl Miller and Xenia Benivolski to consider methodologies employed by local independent curators seeking to facilitate cross-national and cross-continental art projects. Apropos to the topic at hand, Wu was to join us remotely from China, where she was working on a translation project at the time. Due to technical difficulties, however, the connection was lost midway through the discussion and much about Wu’s process had to be left unsaid.

Rather than leave it at that, we decided to invite Yan to participate in a more in-depth interview on her practice as a whole, and this illuminating email conversation initiated by Letticia Cosbert, facilitated by Mirae Lee, and edited by Daniella Sanader is the result. Thanks to everyone who lent a hand to getting this published, and to Yan especially for her patience, equanimity, and thoughtfulness throughout.

Letticia: I’m very interested in your computer science degree. What’s the story there? How did you make the transition into curation and visual art? (Did it feel like a transition, or did it make perfect sense?) How, if at all, have your studies in computer science informed your curatorial practice? Can you give an example of a specific project?

Yan: Haha, I get this question a lot. It’s a long story.

In the late 90s, a few years before I moved to Canada, I was really into the underground rock music scene in China. In my opinion, it was caught in a very interesting moment: it was the tail end of a local avant-garde movement before commercialism took over in the 2000s. It was also the beginning of dial-up internet access at home, and everyone had their first personal email address. There was this small online forum that brought together people from all over the country who really believed in that kind of music. I met so many people, literally from every walk of life in that virtual network. I saved all my allowance at the time to travel those cities to meet them in person, sort of like the “teleporting” in Second Life, but in actual life. It was magical.

In the music scene, on the one hand, the only access to the types of western music we liked was through illegally pirated or cracked cassettes and CDs—they were not officially distributed in China—and all the shows we went to were pretty much illegal as well. Police could come anytime and shut them down. Sometimes they were there with us the whole time, undercover. On the other hand, local indie labels were emerging, producing alternative music from rock to punk and new wave, to postpunk, to experimental, all at the same time. In hindsight, we were operating in a territory that was obviously against the state (or any form of official force), but was yet to be subsumed into the commercial world. It was intense, independent, exciting, and optimistic. And it was never an isolated scene, with close connections to film, theatre, dance, literature, and contemporary art. I was still in my late teens at the time, but surrounded by people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. My belief in culture in general was shaped by these experiences.

After I came to Canada, I studied computer science and briefly worked in the field. This was more for practical reasons: to sustain a valid status in this country, from international student, to foreign worker, to landed immigrant, to citizen. That process took me almost 10 years. I love computer science and have definitely benefited from studying it: expanding my mental capacity and ability for abstract thinking. As software engineer, we were trained to observe and reproduce processes, and to provide the most efficient solutions to any type of problem. (This can be a constant struggle when working in arts. Sometimes things tend to work in the opposite way, and you need to respect that.) In this sense, my beliefs in culture found their grounding in my early years in China, and my thinking patterns were formed through my years spent with computer science. Together they are the foundation of what I do today, whether in curation or translation.

The transition from computer science to culture started with writing. I was the Toronto correspondent for a Chinese culture magazine for few years while I was still working full time in computer science, covering events like Nuit Blanche, places like Art Metropole, and alternative lifestyles such as heritage seed farming.  One of the first events I organized was a performance of I/O Media, a Toronto local experimental music collective based at InterAccess, in collaboration with Zen Lu, a musician based in Shenzhen, China, live over the internet. My involvement at Gendai Gallery calibrated my focus to visual art, and later to architecture and urbanism. On the day that I was eligible to become a Canadian citizen and no longer need to worry about my status in the country, I quit my day job and became a full-time cultural producer. This is a term I am more comfortable with, instead of “curator”; the latter entails a kind of power dynamic with artists that I would like to distance myself from. The only reason I choose to work in this field is to work with artists, to create occasions for artists to make work, as opposed to using content produced by artists to make my own work. I guess it’s true that, in terms of the final output, one can hardly tell the difference; intention is always invisible. It might sound strange as I even hold a degree in Curatorial Studies. For a very long time, I resisted the title, and invented ways to avoid it. I started my career through being friends with artists, not through art history or any form of institutionalized training. To me, accepting the title felt almost like being a traitor to artists. It was personal, probably still is. I came to terms with it when I started to realize that it’s a profession, and only when I become professional could I truly be capable of assisting artists. Though it’s still a struggle for me today.

Do you consider yourself an “international curator,” or do you see yourself (as I do) as someone who mostly curates in the two countries/cities that you call home? Can you maybe share an anecdote that illustrates the relationship between your practice here and in China?

By default, my practice is international because of my background, and I do work with artists and organizations in both China and Canada. But I am not sure if I would consider myself an “international curator.” Culturally-specific is probably a better way to describe myself. Moreover, on the one hand, all my projects are site-specific on both thematic and practical levels, and are not meant to travel. On the other hand, my focus is on inter-Chinese-Canadian issues and doesn’t go beyond that relationship. I guess because of my bilingual, cross-disciplinary, and cross-cultural background, I believe in differences. Focusing on site-specificity as opposed to universal issues is part of it. It’s almost like I choose regionalism over globalization.

“This is a photo of barricades I found in front of a government building in Bangkok, Thailand during the 2013-14 political crisis. When we got there, the city-wide political protest was put on hold because of the King’s birthday. The entire city was temporarily shifted to a scene of celebration. The barricades couldn’t be removed, because the protest was to resume a few days later after the birthday celebration. So they added some ribbons to the barricades as a temporary solution. It was a very interesting case study of public space to me.”

As a bilingual writer and critic, what is it like to write in two languages? Does either language present certain challenges? I would love to hear some fun anecdotes about phrases, concepts, or words that don’t quite work, or are difficult to convey in one language or the other. Maybe something you’ve come across in your recent translation work?

Nowadays, I would consider both English and Chinese as my first language, depending on the subject. For example, I have no prior knowledge of computer science in Chinese before I came to study in Canada. My entire inventory of related vocabularies is only in English. Normally it’s vice versa. I would say I am a better writer in Chinese than in English. I simply master it better. For a very long period of time, I wasn’t able to harness the emotion inherent in English. Without certain signifiers in place, it almost was an emotionless language to me. Literally. I didn’t know how to express my own emotions through it, and was not able to properly receive/unpack the emotions conveyed by others. Of course, I am referring to more nuanced, subtle situations. For example, when a couple breaks up. J Things have improved. I’m still intimated by grammar, but my thinking capacity in English has expanded, and I have access to more vocabularies and the concepts associated with them.

Most of time, translation is a process of mapping. First, I search for the meaning of a phrase from the home language in the destination language, then I locate an expression in destination language that conveys the meaning. This only works when a parallel meaning or concept exists in the destination language. Otherwise, it becomes more complex. For example, in English, the word individual comes from Latin individuum, meaning: “an atom, indivisible particle.” Its current meaning—”a single human being” (as opposed to a group, etc.)—is from the 1640s, coinciding with the awakening of the concept of human rights. Such a term didn’t exist in Chinese until around 1902, when Chinese reformist Liang Qichao introduced the concept, translating it as “个人”. Before that, “个人” originally meant “myself,” and the translation of “individual” had been inconsistent, mostly appearing as “人,” meaning “human.” The translation of art history and theory books involve similar practices. For instance, a major struggle while working on Rosalind Krauss’s Passages in Modern Sculpture was learning how to clearly articulate the different movements of reductivism (极少主义) and minimalism (极简主义) and to unify the respective translations. Before that, the two terms in Chinese had been interchangeable and constantly misused.

The book translation projects I have been working on are all in collaboration with James Carl. People always wonder how he contributes to the final work and how good his Chinese is, etc. Well, his Chinese is great, but this is just part of the equation and I do end up doing majority of the work. The kind of mapping I mentioned earlier is not a one-way process, but deals with two interfaces, English and Chinese. That’s how we divide our roles in these projects—he is the interface to English (for instance, to activate the emotion of the language, and of course for all the references that otherwise I won’t be able to access) and I am the interface to Chinese. Both are essential and irreplaceable.

You’ve spent the past couple of years doing curatorial residencies—can you speak about what it’s like to temporarily inhabit, so to speak, disparate spaces that are often in different countries, cities, or regions? How does it compare to, say, curating single shows in various places?

That’s an interesting question. All I can say is that I take it for granted, it’s my life. It has always been this way. You go to some place to achieve something. Once you complete it, you move on. Through the process, both you and the place grow. Sometimes you grow together, sometimes you grow apart. It’s natural. The “place” of which had been in my life the longest would be my old car, which I owned for 11 years. Yet even that is now gone, as of last week. I guess my question back to you would be: what it is like to be a permanent inhabitant? From my experience, that is beyond imagination. Maybe I don’t think of what I do as a job. If jobs were what I wanted in life, I might as well have stayed in computer science, where the pay is better. (Of course, I’d advocate that cultural workers must be better compensated for their commitment and flexible labour.)

The residency I have been doing at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto is special to me. The kind of trust we share in order to realize projects didn’t happen overnight. It took us years to develop until the point when the residency began. And now we are seeking ways to extend the research I started during this residency, which can be seen as a case of growing together. In that sense, I am not the type of person who would go to a foreign city or country, or even a “foreign” organization to do a residency. Maybe it is time to revisit the idea that “the world is flat.” As mentioned before, I believe in difference, but not universal themes. It takes time for one to grasp and internalize differences. I do move around, but I’d say vertically, not horizontally.

In the past year alone you were working as a curator in residence at Art Museum, you were an editor for the Chinese magazine Time+Architecture, and you were translating books by Lucy Lippard and Dan Graham for the Sui Jian Guo Art Foundation. First, how do you manage to be (mentally, physically) in so many places at once; and second, how do you actually to stay abreast of the art world and its doings in two very different places–or would you say that you don’t find them that different at all?

Haha, physically I do most of the work you mentioned here at my desk in a working/living apartment on Fuller Avenue in Parkdale, Toronto. Mentally speaking, it’s a matter of project management, trying to be spontaneous and well-organized at the same time (and completely missing out all the local events). Content wise, they are all centred around different conceptions of space, at least from how I read them. After spending time translating Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object form 1966 to 1972 and some texts by Dan Graham on conceptual art, I’m wondering if “conceptual art” should be added to Rosalind Krauss’s famous diagram in Sculpture in the Expanded Field, alongside to the structural parameters of sculpture, architecture, and landscape art. That’s why I agree to translate these materials in the first place. All the translation work I do is related to my curatorial research. They are reciprocal practices, not distractions.

You chaired a panel recently at York University on Canadian public art in China. Asking selfishly, since I didn’t attend, could you give a brief sketch of what this panel consisted of—at least your portion? What are some ways that Canada and China are in dialogue with one another (or perhaps participating in the same dialogue) regarding public art? How are they disparate? What can we learn from one another—is there a particular frame of thinking that you think each country could benefit from adopting?

I always find the term “public art” so problematic, its implications vary depending on the context. Theoretically, it refers to art that is placed in public space, or art that can generate public space. But nowadays it is increasingly becoming an administrative term, describing art’s funding sources or civic function. Or even worse, a term that represents the leverage between public and private sectors in shaping the city’s built form. I would argue that this notion of public art has nothing to do with art or public space. Art demands autonomy, and public space is not a physical space that can be predetermined or projected. Just as it puzzles me, I am fascinated by how much potential the term “public art” can bear. Actually, I am just about to start a new “residency” as Public Art Coordinator for the City of Markham. For the above reasons, I am very excited and curious at the same time.

As for the panel at the conference, I invited Adrian Blackwell, James Carl, and Yam Lau to share a selection of projects that they initiated, witnessed, or participated in throughout various urban spaces in China from the mid 90s to present. In addition, I introduced a project I did with them and Nestor Kruger for Shanghai’s Urban Space Art Season in 2015. Some of these projects were informally staged to confront the brutal reality of drastic urbanization in China as an artistic expression of public protest, while others were formal invitations to “correct” or improve previous development in the name of regeneration.

Friction and misconception are inevitable by-products of cultural exchange, be it ideological, intellectual, political, and/or artistic. Just like the idea of difference I mentioned earlier. Especially in the context of public art, the expected notions of “public” and “art” are rather site-specific. The purpose of the panel was not necessarily to showcase solutions, but to illustrate these frictions, misconceptions, and related contexts, addressing differences as opposed to celebrating an imagined common ground. For example, some of the early public interventions by Chinese contemporary artists in the 80s and 90s were not about making public spaces. Instead, the inverventions were their way to regain the right to private space. In my mind, accepting and trying to understand this difference could be a productive starting point.

You’ve recently completed your latest curatorial project, Making Models at the Art Museum of the University of Toronto. What were some of the opportunities and challenges that arose in working between disciplines—or working within the resident curator framework—in developing and mounting that exhibition?

It was a big project with a complex structure: a museum exhibition, an outdoor installation, and a competition. The Art Museum had never done anything like this before. For me, I can see the continuity in relation to my past work: the public art project Subtle Gesture, which I produced with four artists and architects on the streets in Shanghai; Comfort Zones, a social-spatial research project at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus; and even the architect-in-residence program we tried at Gendai Workstation many years ago. I was lucky that Barbara Fischer [Executive Director/Chief Curator at the Art Museum] gave me the opportunity and autonomy to experiment with this project, and I’m grateful for her willingness to explore with me. In some ways, it was a risk. We were developing the infrastructure, structure, and content all at the same time. All nine works shown in the project were new, developed specifically for the site. To me, opportunity and challenge are one of the same thing; it shifts depending on one’s mindset.

In Making Models, I was particularly interested in the juxtaposition of art and architecture, and their respective sensitivities. The artists and architects were given the same premise to develop a proposal. What would they do differently? Of course, on a practical level, one can argue about the unequal distribution of resources, as some architecture studios brought in a big team of assistants. But to me, it was part of the reality on display in this project, and it was presented transparently. Also, the convention of the curator’s interpretive voice (a.k.a. the curatorial essay) was deliberately removed in this project. Instead, the curatorial gestures were inserted in the process as a series of design decisions: from the selection of the participants, to the design brief, to the exhibition didactics.

I was curious about the experiential aspects of real time versus representational time in the space of architectural model. It was somewhat like a reality TV show, but more fragmented in both a temporal and spatial sense. Even though the different structural elements of the project all served specific functions throughout the process, they were forms of representation at the same time. Very few people were able to see beyond the literal presentation. I was more interested in what a competition could become, as opposed to establishing another conventional competition. Ultimately, the process is more important to me than the result, which itself is simply the outcome of practicality.

Making Models Postcard 3, 1, 2, Designed by Chris Lee

A sequence of events led to the content of this project. The selection was largely made by the existing context (for example, university administration, jury decision, etc.) As a curator, my contribution was to set up the elements of the situation and participate in it as well. I was wondering how to address the gaps and overlaps between the roles of participant and spectator, and between the realms of creation and reflection.  This interest was not just for the final gallery presentation, but the production process along the way. For example, the artists’ and architects’ presentations for the jury selection day: these were ultimately performance. I wish they were open to the public, and they probably should have been. But doing so without compromising the authenticity of the competition could have been a challenge. CN Tower Liquidation did a fabulous job in their presentation to the jury. Their bodies literally became the medium of the presentation. Yet, it’s very interesting that on one member’s resume, this project was mentioned as an architecture competition. Their proposal was obviously a calculated artistic response, countering built form using bodies and the phenomenon of colour. Herein lies the challenge, for instance, of how to introduce the space of performance into the context of architecture. I see it as a relational space, but the jurors from architectural backgrounds couldn’t make the same connection. And then, the proposals by Public Studio and Terrarea could also be seen as performances. I was impressed by the fact that they were even performing their budget lines as part of the scheme.

Of course, only when the proposal is selected and realized in life-size, it enters the realm of reality. Otherwise, it remains a representation or speculation, like Tatlin’s Tower or Kabakov’s models. How to locate this threshold?

What’s next for you? What are you interested in? What are you excited about now?

The top three items on my 2017/18 To Do List (no particular order):

Finish editing the Chinese translation of Lucy Lippard’s Six Years and finish translating Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion, which are both going to be published in 2018. Both books, especially Rock My Religion, have very much informed my thinking while developing Making Models. Even working on this interview, those excerpts of artist interviews from Six Years were inspirational.

In my new capacity as Public Art Coordinator in Markham, one of my first major tasks is to help the city develop its first public art master plan. It will be a big learning curve for me.

Continue my research and experiments on the intersection of art and architecture, or in Barbara Fischer’s words “spatial practices”, hopefully with the Art Museum.

All very exciting and challenging!


image, top: Photo of Dan Graham’s work in Munster by Yan Wu: “I saw it this summer while I was translating his text. This photo is visual evidence of how I internalized his writing when encountering his work.”

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