a photo of four silhouetted figures on stage lit by spotlights

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Interview with Wu Tsang

Image: ‘visionary company’ (2021) by Wu Tsang, at Lafayette Anticipations © Pierre Antoine

 

On entering Visionary Company (2020), Wu Tsang’s exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris, visitors walk down a curving, carpeted pathway that resembles a backstage corridor. In The show is over (2020), a film by Wu Tsang made in collaboration with the poet Fred Moten, the camera follows a set of bodies that move around a stage. The floor is wet with mud, and the bodies bask in a dark blue light. Nearby, Tsang has placed a sculpture which takes the form of an illusory Penrose triangle, an impossible object that appears as a motif in The show is over (2020). To make the film, Tsang translated Moten’s poetry into choreography, the choreography into film, the film into sculpture – all blending into one space.

 

Tsang works across many mediums, but her recurrent lines of inquiry are translation and community building. While studying at the University of California in the late 2000s, Tsang lived in McArthur Park, a historically Latinx and Asian neighbourhood, and one of the poorest areas of Los Angeles. She came across Silver Platter, an unassuming bar and home to Latin gay and drag communities since the 1960s. It was there that she co-created Wildness in 2008, a weekly club night for experimental performance and electronic music, eventually producing the documentary WILDNESS (2012). The film cast a reflexive gaze on the club night, raising complex questions of responsibility and privilege.

 

Tsang’s practice continues to expand through kinship. In 2014, she began working with performer Tosh Basco (also known as boychild) on the sci-fi film A day in the life of bliss (2014–ongoing). It follows Blis (played by Basco), a young pop star by day and underground performer by night, who navigates a world where thoughts are controlled by centralised artificial intelligence. Two years later, Basco and Tsang co-founded Moved by the Motion, a collective with fluctuating members – including the dancer Josh Johnson, an early Wildness collaborator, musician Asma Maroof and Fred Moten. The collective is shaped by experimentation and friendship. Eight members of the group joined Tsang in Switzerland in 2020, to share the role of director in residence at the Schauspielhaus theatre in Zurich. 

 

I spoke to Tsang in April 2021, when she was in Nova Scotia, preparing to shoot the film Anthem (2021), this time collaborating with the singer and trans activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland. A year later, the film was projected on a 84-foot curtain in the Guggenheim’s curved rotunda, as part of the solo show Anthem (2021). Glenn-Copeland is seen playing instruments and singing, his image imbued with a spectral quality on the undulating curtain, his a cappella chanting transforming the rotunda into a sonorous cavern. Meeting on Zoom, as the sun warmed the trees in Nova Scotia, I spoke to Tsang  about collaboration, translation, and the Chinese poet and revolutionary Qui Jin.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your film The show is over (2020) follows a group of performers in suits as they walk, dance and drag each other’s bodies across a stage bathed in mud and warm, foggy lighting. I was struck by the way you used the various rooms of Lafayette for the exhibition Visionary Company, and how the film’s coloured darkness and sound resonated across the galleries. Did you think of the exhibition, the space, as an expansion of the film?

A

WU TSANG

The show is over is the centrepiece of the exhibition. My conversation with the space started a long time ago. I remember visiting the building when it was still under construction. It has moveable floors, but even if those floors are fixed, a lot of light and sound pours through the galleries because of the way they’re interconnected. One of the things I was trying to take into account is how the building is porous. I wanted to make an installation that spanned across several floors, a multi-channel film with a shared soundtrack. The show is over is presented on the first floor, and a second film, The more we read all that beauty, the more unreadable we are (2020), on the floor above. 

 

The first film comes out of collaboration, and is based on a series of performances I did at Zurich’s Schauspielhaus with Moved by the Motion. Actually at least half of the Lafayette exhibition is collaboratively authored. It involves a constellation of collaborators whom I’ve been working with for years. My work has always been very collaborative, and the exhibition was an opportunity to explore that formally, in a way that I had never been able to do so before. I think somehow the porous parts of the building resonated with what Moved by the Motion is and does. We call ourselves a band, but the idea is that we do projects very iteratively and that the work is never complete. It’s always an ongoing process. So The show is over is a finished film, but it also expands into these other works presented in Visionary Company: the small sculpture ‘PIE root “to see”’ (2020)], the neon ‘Safe Space’ (2014)] and the glassworks ‘Sustained Glass’ (2020)]. These works are interrelated with the different performances that we’ve done together. Because the history of art exhibition-making is rooted in this idea of the individual artist, the wall label with a name, it can be hard to exhibit collaboration in the gallery. So it’s something you have to actively, conscientiously, work through. I found it interesting to think about how I could communicate what the collaborations are; that’s what the show is about for me. 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You speak of working with a constellation of collaborators. How does Moved by the Motion operate? What brings you together?

A

WU TSANG

— There is a group of performers that I often work with. The core of our band are dancers and choreographers Tosh Basco and Josh Johnson, musician Asma Maroof and cellist Patrick Belaga, and saxophone player Tapiwa Svosve, now with me in Zurich. The band expands from there: we often work with Fred Moten, and lots of other guests come through. Everybody comes from different disciplines, but we all have roots and history doing nightlife stuff in clubs and at parties. We were doing clubs before we were making art officially, so our sensibilities come from that, and our sense of creating space comes from that.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The show is over begins with a spotlight cutting the darkness open. Bodies are choreographed in and out of the glowing beam: an arm, a pair of legs and then a face appear in the spotlight, as if dismembered. At the centre of the film is Fred Moten’s poem, ‘come on, get it’ (2018), which is translated and transformed into movements and images. Fragments of the poem are repeated like leitmotifs. How did you approach and transform the poem?

A

WU TSANG

— One of the metaphors at the opening of the poem is the line, ‘the world is dry land, earth is water’. What resonated for the collective was the difference between the words ‘world’ and ‘earth’ – how ‘world’ is a human construction (the ‘world’ that we create, that we control). Whereas ‘earth’ is the thing that came before, the thing that will remain after we’re gone. The dryness of ‘world’ contrasts with the wetness of ‘earth’, the muddiness, muckiness and saltiness of it. The qualities of mud were something we tried to explore in The show is overin the physicality of making the work as well as in sound and how the images were cut together.

 

The dialogue with Fred is very casual. We don’t formally work together so much as talk a lot and share: he shares his writing with me and I share the things I’m making, and we just talk about ideas. At that time, he said to me ‘come on, get it’ is a call for collaboration, a call to literally come and get it, to come on and take this poem and do something with it – not specifically me or our group, but just anyone. One of the things I love learning from Fred is how to be a good collaborator. He’s incredibly generous, always encouraging us to jump in. I’ve been making films in response to his work for some years now, and I always feel the collaboration mandate is: if you’re going to do this, you have to fuck it up. You can’t do it respectfully, you have to almost disrespect it. You have to take it, change it, transform it, make it yours. Do to it what it does to you.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What’s the process?

A

WU TSANG

— We spent a year reading this poem. We read it infinite times. Whenever we were stuck, we just read the poem again. Then we read what the poem was referencing. We also read a lot of James Baldwin – it was in the ether. Asma made a playlist from the musical references in the poem, which are also infinite and impossible to track because Fred writes with music, and his writing is musical. It’s like lyrics come through him. There are always so many plays on words and phrases and terms referencing music. We were continuously compiling things that felt relevant or exciting. It was our first time working with a larger group. At one point there were 15 people involved, so there was a lot of translating. Our process of reading together with a larger group was chaotic and funny, there were a lot of misunderstandings because the language at the theatre is German. I don’t think we ever successfully translated Fred’s poem into German. 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The porousness of the collective means that it changes in different contexts. What was it like in France?

A

WU TSANG

— In Paris, we spent a lot of time and energy on the translation of the poem into French. We worked with a group of translators organised by Léna Monnier and Rosanna Puyol] that are an open collective, like a school of translators, that has been collectively translating Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s essay collection, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013), for the past couple of years. It is not about having language expertise, but more about thinking about translation as a kind of social organising and politics. Translation has been a really important thread in the work I do, even if it’s not always so direct.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Translation has many possible meanings. Beyond the action of changing words from one language to another, it can also be understood as the conversion from one form to another – in other words, as a transformation. I’m thinking about the name Moved by the Motion, and another definition of translation in the field of physics: translational motion, which is the motion by which a body shifts from one point in space to another. Is there a relationship between translation and the collective?

A

WU TSANG

— Translation is a great way to think about what Moved by the Motion does. Tosh and I describe the story of our collaboration starting with her saying, ‘if you tell me a story, I will tell it back to you in movement.’ So we’ve always had this idea about taking language and dispersing it into other mediums. For Tosh and Josh, who are choreographers, The show is over is about how they translate the poem into movements. For Asma, a cellist, it’s about how it translates into sound, and for me, it’s about how it translated into a filmic language. The films I make could fit in the category of experimental or documentary cinema. But within that language, there is a lot of play. How do we experience what we see in films and what does that mean? Composition, colour editing and how these things transmit meaning have always been very interesting to me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There is something ominous and mournful in the film’s title, The show is over. It conjures up those moments when the the end credits roll or the club night reaches its conclusion and the set design is exposed. In some ways this is related to the end of a collective dream, the transition from a mutually-created fiction to something bleaker. How did you name the work? 

A

WU TSANG

— Titles are always hard for me, sometimes they come out of nowhere and they are very laboured. I think in this case it was a working title and that ended up becoming the title. It’s a reference to a text in an untitled Christopher Wool painting, included in a show in 1991 the Carnegie International 1991, Carnegie Museum of Art Pittsburgh]. The painting reads: ‘THE SHOW IS OVER THE AUDIENCE GET UP TO LEAVE THEIR SEATS TIME TO COLLECT THEIR COATS AND GO HOME THEY TURN AROUND NO MORE COATS AND NO MORE HOME’. It’s this idea about theatre, of being transformed by the space of theatre. Christopher Wool didn’t write that text; he took it from somewhere else. To me, the point is not the provenance of the quote, but the idea that you’re working in the space of theatre and of what it can do. I’ve always liked to turn things into stages, and to point to the performative nature of life.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— This performative texture you speak of is also a way of sculpting liveness in your works and exhibitions. The 3-minute video Sudden Rise (2019), for example, has been exhibited as part of Moved by the Motion live performances: projected onto the theatre curtain, it begins the show. Appearing before the curtains open, it stretches the moment of liveness. Is that something you are working to locate in your films?

A

WU TSANG

— That’s the perpetual enjoyment and agony of the work. I’m obsessed with catching the moment where the performer goes onto the stage and reality shifts: we’re suddenly inside of a performance. It is my favourite moment. These moments are not capturable and that is what makes them live. Trying to figure out ways to translate liveness into the image and language of film is an endless attempt that will never be fulfilled, but that in itself is also quite fulfilling. It gives me a lot of joy. I started out as a filmmaker with the documentary Wildness (2012), set in a performance club, a drag club. I was organising and hosting performance nights and I was documenting them on film. That is what got me to pick the camera up in the first place. How do I capture what it felt like to be there in the film? The answer is you can’t, but you can certainly try and in the attempts to do that you can discover a lot. You can discover things you can do in film that you can’t do live.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

The show is over was made just before the pandemic hit, and before the murder of George Floyd led to an explosion of rallies around the world for social and racial justice. Do you think of a ‘before’ and ‘after’? Does the after change the before?

A

WU TSANG

— It’s a hard question. I’m slow to process things and so events make their way into the work very slowly. The weird, sad irony is that one of the essays we were looking at very closely for The show is over is James Baldwin’s ‘A Report from Occupied Territory’, published in 1966. Baldwin speaks about police violence in Harlem, the misuse of force and the web of violence it perpetuates. The essay was written 55 years ago. That its urgency resonates as though it were written in the present moment is disturbing, and also not surprising given the condition of being an American. We’re living in an apoplectic state that is having a seizure of some kind around its racist construction. It is melting down from the inside. With Moved by the Motion, we talked about Baldwin’s essay from an American context, but it’s also something that translates into European contexts. Baldwin left the States and lived in France and Switzerland. We were reading his reflections on his experiences of race in America versus Europe, the differences and the similarities. It is a huge subject, you can’t really address it ever all in one film, but it’s been implicit in a lot of the work that we’ve been doing for years. So in that sense, I wasn’t responding to what was happening then specifically, because it’s actually something ongoing.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your collaboration with Fred Moten began in 2014 with the film Miss Communication and Mr:Re (2014). It is a portrait of Moten and yourself, each projected on two separate screens. It’s a long-distance communication experiment, the audio being voicemails you left each other every day, while the film itself shows both of your faces. As you stare silently at the camera, different emotions graze your face: amusement, laughter and other affects more difficult to grasp. How did the film take shape?

A

WU TSANG

— I love that film. It is very simple. Fred was invited by a gallery in Los Angeles to collaborate with a performance artist, and he asked me. We were both laughing from the beginning at our assigned roles: he was the poet and I was the performance artist. We thought let’s play with that because we don’t really believe in these categories. We ended up making Miss Communication and Mr:Re at a distance. I was doing a residency in Italy at the time. We were living nine hours apart, so we would always miss each other. We came up with this protocol, which is one of the ways we continue to work, setting up rules and following them. In that instance, the protocol was to leave each other a voicemail every day at the same time. The idea was about missed communication, and miscommunication – playing with the idea of communication itself being a near miss or a far miss. When we put all the voicemails together, there were these overlaps where the messages seemed to be talking to each other even though they weren’t. That’s what I like about the film, that it feels like conversation. There’s not really anything being said, but there’s this feeling of a conversation being had. 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You also communicate with historical figures in some of your films – and I’m thinking of your work Duilian (2016), which revisits the life of Qui Jin, a Chinese outcast, revolutionary warrior, poet and feminist of late nineteenth-century China. Qui Jin dedicated her life to liberating Chinese women from the oppression of patriarchal society, and liberating China from the Manchu Qing dynasty. The Qing eventually beheaded her in 1907 at the age of 31. What drew you to make a film about this revolutionary figure?

A

WU TSANG

— My father is from China, and when I was a young artist in my early twenties I went to China for the first time as I wanted to get in touch with my cultural heritage. I had a rude awakening. The things I thought I would discover about myself, I didn’t necessarily find. But I did discover Qiu Jin. I latched onto her because I discovered what I saw as a queer love story. There is no way to know if she was queer, but she had a very close relationship with a woman called Wu Zhiying, a calligrapher. She was very central in her life, and they had a romantic way of relating to each other through poetry. They wrote all these poems together or to each other. I felt I could see myself in this story, and I held onto that for ten years because I was young and I didn’t have the means to really research it. When I was invited on a residency in Hong Kong, I used that opportunity to do research and made the film Duilian (2016). It was a year’s worth of research, visiting her hometown, things like that. I felt I was getting to close the circle on something I’d been holding onto for a long time. 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The film opens with an address from one woman to the other: ‘You sad legend / in the pavilion of anguish, / will I see you again / in storm and rain?’. The conversation between the two women and their collaborative poetry continues shaping the film, which is recited in various languages: Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, English, Cantonese. Were you thinking about communication across languages as well as time? 

A

WU TSANG

— Qui Jin wrote in traditional Chinese, which was something I didn’t have direct access to, so I could only work with translations. I felt the poems themselves were beyond my reach because their style was very integrated with calligraphy. The poems were, in a sense, about how they were written, how the characters are structured. So I thought: if I can’t reach an understanding, I could play with that lack of understanding and use it as a process to engage with people on subjects that are related. I began to involve a lot of different people in conversations and collective readings of poetry. I set up a club called Mistranslation where people would come to translate the poems together, even though some people couldn’t read them. It was a collective effort to come up with a new poem based on the original poem. I used the new poems as a script for the film. It is a mixture of the originals, written by Qui Jin and Wu Zhiying, and modern poems playing off the original ideas. The metaphor of translation became a way to talk about queer history. Queer history always involves a bit of a misrecognition. You have to see it or misrecognise it in the clues that exist. You can only wonder and speculate, but that’s what makes it special. It has a relationship to truth and history that isn’t so fixed. 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— A crucial moment in Qui Jin’s life is the pawning of her jewellery so she can travel by sea to Japan to study, leaving her husband and children behind. She wrote a poem about this painful moment of emancipation from tradition, emphasised by the metaphor of the foot-binding custom: ‘Sun and moon have no light left, earth is dark; / Our women’s world is sunk so deep, who can help us? / Jewellery sold to pay this trip across the seas, / Cut off from my family I leave my native land. / Unbinding my feet I clean out a thousand years of poison, / With heated heart arouse all women’s spirits. / Alas, this delicate kerchief here / Is half stained with blood, and half with tears.’ In your film, crossing bodies of water is a recurrent motif. What draws you to water?

A

WU TSANG

— We shot Duilian on a boat. The waterways between Hong Kong and China became a kind of ephemeral space of storytelling. I was thinking about the idea of being in between states, and also playing with history or historical memory. I was trying to make sense of a historical legacy. It was something I wouldn’t necessarily do again, but at the time it was almost something I had to work through.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The film centres on the time Qiu Jin and Wu Zhiying share before a separation; the strength of their bond is palpable. As I listen to you speak about your collaborative approach to working, the long-lasting conversations you foster that shape some of your work, I wonder about the role of friendship, intimacy, and love in your practice.
A

WU TSANG

— Love is a difficult word. I think it is the closest thing to what motivates me. The works that exist – the films, the exhibitions – those are the remnants, the leftovers of what is actually happening.  Recently my friend Sophia Al Maria and I were thinking about the art in the gallery as taxidermy. What you see is the thing once it’s dead and stuffed and knotted. What is actually happening, live, are the collaborations and the relationships. Not always, but often, these relationships are intimate and sustained over time. 
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is an independent curator based in Paris, with a specific interest in screen and moving image cultures. 

Wu Tsang is a filmmaker and performance artist who combines documentary and narrative techniques with fantastical detours into the imaginary in works that explore hidden histories, marginalised narratives, and the act of performing itself. Tsang re-imagines racialised, gendered representations beyond the visible frame to encompass the multiple and shifting perspectives through which we experience the social realm.

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