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AIR 14 Feature: Cynthia Chang, Interview by party hat DOG

*phD - party hat DOG


Cynthia Chang and I first met in 2016 when they were teaching a workshop called MAKE YOUR OWN PANTS. They had written a step-by-step hand drawn zine (linked here) for the event, which I still use to this day. The practical levity that they brought to the space was palpable by all of us who gathered there. One of the other attendees later on said, “You told me it’s ok to patch this material however I wanted, so I ultimately just used hot glue and it was OK!” I similarly walked away from the workshop thinking to myself, “you know what? This guy is onto something. Maybe I CAN make my own pants. Maybe that isn’t as scary as I thought it was.” This is a sentiment that has only deepened as I’ve gotten to know them and their work over the years, an experience for which I am very grateful.

In considering their recent work, I am prone to recall their Movement Research performance in January 2020 at Judson Church. The video footage notably cuts out the beginning of the performance, where they had mimicked farts, blowing raspberries into the microphone before weaving the space with arcs of toilet paper and looped sound in a full-body ribbon dance. The introductory farts were cut out of the footage, “as if I wasn’t setting up a joke!” they later laughed with me. Their recent body of work completed at the Textile Arts Center builds off of this preciously rare humor, and reminds me of something incredibly important: that butts are funny, and also worth treating with reverence, and neither of these thoughts are mutually exclusive.

Much like a fart through a quiet church, Cynthia’s work rips a hole in the self-perpetuating solemnity of the crumbling white cube. With material and sound coalescing in both densely labored swells and finely spun webs, they loop, weave and complicate the immediately visible surface. The fabric, wood, metal, found objects, ceramic and bodily performance are all layered with a sort of slippage: a neither-liquid-nor-solid-ness that allows for the spontaneous joining and fusing between materials.

In spending time with this new work, I find myself awash with cracks to play in or dance over, a dance that refuses to stand on either side of the thing, and a rejection of the side-ness that might be presumed in the first place. It is inside and over these cracks, be it a crack of an ass, a crack of a joke, or a crack between layers of a surface, that compose the path of this wandering. I think wandering is the right word here, as the work also presents a feeling of nonlinear spontaneity, the weighty baggage or contents of our pockets being accepted but irrelevant as we search to find something else, whether it is absurd, bewildered, painful, delightful, or a capacity to feel all of the above at once. We sat down and talked about this body of work on a bright summer's day in July, 2023. (party hat Dog)


phD: How are you doin today?

CC:I'm okay I'm sleepy cause I watched too many episodes of ALONE last night.

phD: Ooh I love that show. It makes me think a lot about my own individualism, or times in my life where I just wanted to abandon everything and be by myself because it sounded sooo romantic. Isn’t there a new season going on?

CC:  Yeah do you care about spoilers?

phD: No go for it.

CC: Yeah in the new season there’s a 23 year old who leaves and is like “I’m gonna go because people that I love are somewhere else and I could just be hanging out with them.”

phD: Hahahaha nice!

CC: I was going to say, thinking a lot about individualism is like one of the main tensions I find in the ethics of making art. Like, I’m somebody who's like not working as part of a collective or collaborative team, although in this coming project I hope to be working more collaboratively. I’ve been feeling like art is like very navel gazey and I spend a lot of time alone in my studio when people that I love are somewhere else, and I could just be hanging out with them!! There's like… all this other stuff that's happening in the world that feels more urgent and more important than my work, but then I have to remind myself that we do need relief sometimes! And storytelling, and humor!

phD: Can you describe the project you’re working on in greater detail?

CC: Yeah I'm working on a project where I'm combining the mediums that I've worked in. I have a music project and I make clothes and I studied sculpture. Working on all of those things separately I’ve felt like they're taking attention away from each other rather than growing upon and enhancing a whole. I'm trying, it’s kind of an experiment,  to see what combining them will be like, but I think there are some growing pains in trying to diverge from a formula that I've kind of established within working in each of those in each of those mediums individually. Right now the way I see the work coming together is creating garments that have aspects that make noise, sampling those noises, and filming the garments being worn and in movement. Then I want to use the sampled noises to make soundtracks for the video clips.

ph D: I’ve noticed that in all of your work there is a sort of slippage, a kind of spontaneous joinery that can arise between liquid and solid, hard and soft. Maybe more specifically, there’s a tendency in your work to refuse any coherence to a single material, to instead make composites out of whatever is in front of you and shift between materials in different states of matter. Do you have any mechanisms that make this easier in your practice?

CC: Ya, I think I’m interested in methods of adhesion and the precarity of being able to see the individual parts of a whole because they’re not quite all the way fused together. I used to joke with a friend about keeping a crock pot of hot glue sticks around. One method I do use is I take fabric cut offs and threads and like stuff you would normally throw away and I adhere it to this material called solvy which I think there's like a generic version that you can also get but it's just a dissolvable fusing backing and then I sew it and sew it and sew it, like essentially weaving it, with the sewing machine and then you can just wash it out and it dissolves out.

ph D: It just dissolves in water?

CC: yeah, it's made out of alcohol starch and so like initially if you hand wash it. it's stiff and then as you wash it more it just gets like… looser.

Ph D: I also have a question about the tarot! I couldn’t help but notice that depictions of the Star, the Devil, as well as figures of the minor arcana (especially from the suites of swords and cups) all make an appearance in some of your new textile work. Are there any cards that felt like they guided through the process of making this work?

CC: Well we were talking a bit earlier about the Fool, which is definitely how I identify. I feel like when you talk about Tarot, saying you’re the Fool is almost like saying; “Yeah well I'm a Carrie in terms of like Sex in the City,” because we're all kind of the Fool, we’re all our own main character. My friend Jia Sung who also did a TAC residency made a Tarot deck that is called The Trickster's Journey and I feel like it is very interesting to wonder; is the Fool like… of their own making? And like therefore they have autonomy over how they're being perceived and that's intentional? Or is like the Fool a victim of the circumstances of life's inevitable humiliations and embarrassments? Maybe it's like, a little bit of both but hard to discern if either is the case, which is fine, I like ambiguity!!

phD: Yeah I feel like they're kind of dancing on the edge of a cliff and they don't even know the edge is there, or if they are maybe they are choosing not to care. Like possibility is there even when danger is present, which is always a hopeful thought. I love how the Fool is the zero card of the deck, which for me means it is outside of any linear ordering, and might appear anywhere, or in any of us. 

Cc: Yeah definitely. I don't know if we've talked about this, but I think with Tarot I feel hesitant to, like, heavily reference it. I don't think of myself as, like, a draftsperson or someone who's particularly good at drawing, and pulling those images is kind of like searching for ideas and meaning. I think also about how Tarot is very prevalent in a certain age group or a certain demographic, like it's having this resurgence or mainstreaming- with Tarot, but also astrology and other forms of divination. That is also a lot of what I'm curious about: trying to make meaning and trying to find something… a kind of desperate seeking of guidance. Yeah of course, whatever is going to happen is going to happen, but like trying to hold on to some semblance of control or thinking you can prepare yourself through those methods.

phD: Yes, thank you for that!! Like, trying to make meaning in spite of it all. Even if we don't have any control,  we can look for the meaning we take from the chaos or whatever. I’m reading the character of the armored figure with the chestpiece as almost a Fool-like character, in the best possible sense! How would you describe the person who wears the ruff-collared clang-bang-insides piece?

CC: Yeah I do see that character as Fool-adjacent or as a Jester or as like this character that also feels sort of disposable and on display. I think with the way that the armor operates it is kind of like, functional in a way that I do think is similar to the way that we think about humor! But I’ve been meaning to make a kind of dunce hat for it. I need to figure out how to make it structurally pointy, tall and pointy!

LBL: Hell yeah I love a dunce cap. This might be a conversation for another time, but it reminds me of how the dunce cap was created by a guy in the 13th century who believed it would actually inspire divine wisdom by like, funneling to the heavens, which is why it is associated with both wizard-like figures and, as a reaction from the church, you know, dumbassery, in popular culture today.

CC: Oh I didn’t know that!

phD: Yeah! Wild right? If i can just jump over into the sonic realm… A lot of your new work reminds me that everything has a sound or a resonant frequency, even if it isn’t perceptible to us. Or maybe, the way that a lot of sounds are processed with our whole bodies, instead of just our brains. I feel like a lot of the wearable pieces you've been making allude to feeling things in your whole body in that way!

CC: Yeah I'm curious to see how it's going to feel for whoever ends up wearing or activating the garments! Like, how it will feel to be receiving that resonance in their body and how it's going to affect their movement. Or also, like, how it's going to make them feel emotionally, going back to thinking about that dunce character as sort of like somebody who is a tool or expendable. I feel like that's the complicated thing about performance, and having actors and movers which is something that I haven't really done before, not really.

phD: Is it difficult to make the leap of inviting someone else into your state of being, or a garment that is a specific character? it’s kind of like- hey, do you also feel this way sometimes? Or does this feel weird? Maybe it is both!! And then of course there is the power dynamic of being “The Artist”- a dynamic which I definitely see you intentionally trying to question and complicate when you can. 

CC: Ya, I think it would be egotistical and just inaccurate for me to claim complete authorship or act as if whatever mover or actor or performer didn't bring their own specific energy. And it goes back to a desire for art making to feel less isolated because my favorite part of making work is always showing it to people or having people appreciate it or interacting with people around it. I think to a certain extent it’s also about relinquishing control or exploring and wandering through the process of collaboration and the unexpected results it might yield.

phD: Woof- control! So true. Well I hope that this wandering yields so many unexpected delights for you! I really can’t wait to see what becomes of it <3

CC: Thank you. <3


Artist Highlights TAC Artist in Residence