"Racial Justice: Activism & Art" SwatTalk
with Audrey Chan ’04
Recorded on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020
Twan Claiborne: Alright, welcome everyone. Good morning, good evening, good afternoon and good night. Welcome to our SWAT talk on art and activism. This is Premier art talk in a new group of SWAT talks that are aimed around racial justice. We have our lovely panelist Audrey Chan here.We are going to get started in two to three minutes to let everyone in so make yourselves comfortable. Get a comforting beverage, a treat, a notepad, anything to sort of help you better engage with this, what is going to be an illustrious and bountiful talk about very important and pertinent topics within our everyday lives.
Audrey Chan: Those are amazing adjectives Twan. I'm so happy to be in conversation with you.
Twan Claiborne: Thank you, it's- I was practicing with the English teacher in me and I just had a lesson yesterday on adjectives and words because even in high school, we still like to say good and now-
Audrey Chan: We should all aspire to be illustrious.
Twan Claiborne: Yes, yes, and-
Audrey Chan: Illustriousness is a daily practice right?
Twan Claiborne: Right. And in the art world, there's I mean endless illustrious illustrate parallels. It makes sense.
Audrey Chan: Mhm. Exciting.
Twan Claiborne: Indeed. And we’ll get started in about one more minute, just in case some folks trickle in.
Audrey Chan: I guess we should mention that, so he's not able to join us. Unfortunately, there was a, she's not able to make it so she's with us in spirit, and she's an incredible curator who shows all of a nation, traveled all around the world. And so inspiring. So look her up. If you don't know about their work already.
Twan Claiborne: Absolutely. If I can find something I might drop a link to her work so that you all can do some investigating on, in your free time.
Audrey Chan: And thank you so much to the Alumni Council for having me. When I got the invitation, I was so excited because I feel like so connected spiritually to Swarthmore and, like at times like these, I often think about, like, the community and the conversations from my time there. And so just the opportunity to talk to you, Twan, and to kind of dive into these subjects was really exciting.
Twan Claiborne: Yes, yes, and even reading and investigating and learning more about them was very enlightening as well. To the folks out there, Audrey and I overlapped by one year at Swarthmore so we didn't quite connect on campus. Though we did know of each other and we definitely shared friend circles. So it's sort of nice, you know, this far removed from Swarthmore to encounter faces that were slightly familiar and are doing amazing things. So with that beautiful introduction, we'll get started again to everyone who just came in, or who've been here: good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and good night. Welcome to Swat Talk: Art and Activism. This is the first SwatTalk, which is organized by the Alumni Council. It's a part of a series of SwatTalks that are centered around racial justice in various disciplines and arenas. My name is Twan Claiborne. I am class of 2007, educator and drag extraordinaire based in New York City. I am here with the lovely Audrey Chan, class of 2004 and I'm going to give you all a little bit of information about our panelist before we get started. Just a couple of reminders- this podcast is being recorded and it will be available within two to three weeks from this broadcast. The first half hour will be a conversation question and answer with me and Audrey. And at the 30 minute mark, we will begin to open up to questions from the audience. You can type in your questions into the chat and we will make note of those questions to ask. When you type your question into the chat, be sure to note your class, a graduation date from Swarthmore and or affiliation with Swarthmore, whether that be a friend, alumnus, faculty member, etc. And we will answer those questions accordingly. So just sit back and relax and we are going to begin the show but like I said my computer's a little funky right now, so I apologize for not having all of these things pulled up. Where is it, here we go! About our panelist Audrey Chan, born in Chicago, is a Los Angeles based artist and educator. Her research based projects use drawing, painting video and public art to challenge dominant historical narratives through allegories of power, place and identity. Oof, such, Oh, I love that sentence! She received an MFA from California Institute of Arts and a BA with honors in studio and political science from Swarthmore College. She was commissioned by Los Angeles metropolitan LA Metro to create a large-scale public art work entitled “Will Power Allegory” for the future Little Tokyo/ Arts District Metro Station which is opening in 2022. She was also a visiting faculty member at the Programming Art at California Institute of the Arts and the inaugural artist in residence at the ACLU of Southern California. And without further ado, we like to welcome Audrey.
Audrey Chan: Hello everybody. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us today. And thank you for the intro.
Twan Claiborne: Oh, you're welcome. Our first question: I'm working on my lighting. Sorry, there is. it's just here. Hopefully that's a little bit better. My computer is a little funky. I'll try not to move so much too because I find myself moving and the lighting gets wonky. So hopefully I'll fix itself.
Let's get on to our first question, though, considering your well rounded background and growing up in Chicago to immigrant parents, then moving to Chicago, sorry, then moving to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania and then venturing out to California. There's a lot of places of access for your art and persons. Do you consider yourself an activist?
Audrey Chan: I would say that activism is like an aspiration in my work and activism is like a lifelong pursuit for anyone who engages with it and I've been lucky enough, especially the last couple of years to have projects that allow me to uplift and work directly with community organizers and advocates and activists and people who I call community culture bearers to like translate their stories into images and especially like the work that I worked on for a couple years with LA Metro. It's like, how to tell the community stories of Little Tokyo, which is like in the heart of Downtown LA, just like south of City Hall and it's like how talking with people over several years about like what stories do they want to carry forward what, how do they want to be seen, because I come into it not being of those communities. And so there's like a lot of listening involved and a lot of the work that I do as an artist is about, is about like, visual storytelling. And so I think about like is, can allegory be a side of activism? Because the stories that we see in an artwork can inform how we see ourselves and like how we see other people and how we see like history and identity and is that a place where like a kind of intervention can happen. And so I think when... I think when anyone's asked about activism, it's like, I think it's so important that you can like, bring your whole self to your activism. And that it can happen in so many different contexts, like it- I think activism is important, like in culture in schools and history books like in the courts, on the street, you know, we need it everywhere. And so whether or not I guess you would call yourself, one would call themselves an activist, like it's just like, I think it comes out of frustration with the status quo and wanting to commit the work to change it. Whatever that looks like, you know, and people have so many different spheres of influence. It's about like figuring out where yours is.
Twan Claiborne: Absolutely, absolutely. And I appreciate it, that last point you made in terms of folks calling themselves activists. Because whether we realize it or not, and maybe it's a product of the current climate and how information is all accessible and free flowing, there has been a bit of gatekeeping with calling yourself an activist and activism in general and being able to access whatever you are actively fighting for and being able to bring your whole self and without the gatekeeping or chastising certain forms of activism is really important.
And so I'm glad that you brought that up because that is something that we don't even consider if we call ourselves activists. Because we have to think about the ways in which it has been marketed, and if it's seen positively or negatively, depending on what we're being considered an activist for.
Audrey Chan: Yeah, and I, yeah, I think it's important when you're talking about community organizing to talk about community organizing, because there are like specific strategies within activism that are more and less visible and more or less effective in different contexts. But I guess as an artist, I have to understand, like, what are the tools I have to work with and like what are the contacts. And so whenever I can, I try to like mobilize that to support the work of organizers and advocates.
Twan Claiborne: Absolutely. And that actually, your last point segues into our next question, which is, is there a particular moment when you realized art could be a powerful medium of activism or community organizing and storytelling?
Audrey Chan: Yeah I um, I think the moment when I realized that, like, art could have a really impactful voice on speaking to society in history was when I learned about Maya Lin and her Vietnam Veterans Memorial design. And I think it was specifically when I was like an adolescent seeing the documentary by Freida Lee Mock called “Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision.” And it was this saga of her, you know, applying to this blind competition of designs and her being selected. She was just like a young architecture student and she's like a young Chinese American woman from the Midwest with academic parents. So that kind of like lined up with my own background. And then seeing how there was so much pushback against her aesthetic vision but also like how people couldn't accept that her identity was chosen to represent the experience of veterans memorials, but also the fact that that memorial even happened because that wasn't a typical war memorial. It was organized by veterans who wanted to, like, honor the fallen, because I think at that point the Vietnam War was so controversial that the government, like, wasn't looking for an opportunity to call more attention to it. And so yeah, like seeing her work made a huge impact on me and I still, like, think about it to this day, because like she's completely she completely, like, reorganized and revisioned, like how memorials function and what they look like. And sometimes it's forgotten the controversy surrounding her selection and design. And then I think when I was, the summer after high school, I think it was my first time going to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. And I saw a work by Adrian Piper called Cornered. That's a video installation where her head, like it's almost like she's a news anchor in the TV monitor and she's just staring out at you and telling you...I think she's like, assuming that you're like a White art visitor to a gallery or museum and she's basically like explaining like Black racial identity in America and how you're like implicated in it. And I just remember being like, this artwork’s talking to me, you know. I'm not sure if I match who she's talking to, but it- And I think in the same gallery there's a work by Kerry James Marshall that dealt with, like, the legacy of the civil rights movement. And I was like, “Oh, these words are, like, talking” and it's not just like I grew up, like with Art Institute in Chicago's collection and if you spend enough time there you get that sense that like art is made by dead French White men, or at least European, dead European men and it's like I- it was the first time I could kind of, like, realize that art made in our time resonated in a really different way. And I've always been really interested in how art speaks and so sometimes I assign, like, personality characteristics to artworks. Like is this artwork, like does have its arms crossed, and it's stern. Is it like, welcoming? Is it like, posing a question?
Twain Claiborne: Right.
Audrey Chan: And like with, especially with, like, Adrian Piper's work, it took me like years to really develop, like, a robust relationship with that work since um...And it was only like in grad school when I took a class called “Starting with Adrian Piper” that I realized like the impact of that work. I mean you so I really like when you can have a long conversation over several years and you can, like, grow and change with an artwork in your life. So I think those artworks were extremely impactful and like since then learning about, like, the work of Emory Douglas, who was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, Barbara Carrasco, who is actually a friend in LA now... learning about her work with the United Farm Workers movement. Artists like Barbara Kruger who uses, like, text and language of advertising in this kind of agitprop way. And then, like, Faith Ringgold, whose work is so powerful in terms of, like. storytelling and like, personal more. So I'm just like, those are artists I just have in mind a lot of the time, as has people who I wanted my work to be in conversation with.
Twan Claiborne: There's so many parallels with that in the education world, especially this idea you mentioned about accessing information or accessing a piece from different vantage points as you grow, you know, within English departments across the country. Teachers are re-investigating the books that they read in their curriculum. And if they're maintaining certain texts, they’re trying to incorporate different perspectives to sort of make the picture more holistic about the text and we can really talk about it in a more meaningful way. I'm in my classroom reading the Odyssey, and in the thousands of years that it has been read, only one woman has translated it and we're reading the translated version by the woman Emily Wilson and we are investigating the ways in which language has been changed to bring some things to light. And it really has. That's one of the few artworks by dead European men that really pushed to make it a more global experience instead of something that has been chatted on and it's established as the great, and some folks are doing that with Shakespeare as well, something that was very interesting to me. And again, we always think about this, in terms of writing in English, is audience and intent and you mentioning the Maya Lin documentary, the Vietnam War Memorial, and this idea of aesthetic vision and her incorporating her identity into it. Now, when you are talking to the community cultural barriers, are there conversations about intent, intended audience and how to frame your work for those specific audiences and on top of that, have you found that those conversations if they happened, limiting in how you can express your art?
Audrey Chan: You know, I try to think of those questions. I tend to think of limitations as like, possibilities, because then you have like more of a challenge to work up against. So there's no single audience for example of the LA Metro artwork. It's like a, it's going to be a transit hub In Downtown LA. So you're going to have people who are going to work every day. You're going to have people who are like tourists, you're going to have residents of the community immediately surrounding it. And so I think there's a temptation when you have such a diverse audience to kind of aim for a “universal” and I always push up against the idea of universality, like I'm so interested in the details. I'm so interested in the specifics. Because, like, that's where you can like locate humanity. I know it's like a kind of general statement, but it's like I wanted to make a project that, where community members and community storytellers felt seen and those they could point to and say those are my stories, those are my people. And also tell the story in a way that people who saw the piece once or could or who would see it like every day could have points of entry and ways to unpack the piece. And so I think I basically spent like four years like packing this piece with iconography, that could unfold over time as people like learned about who they're looking at in the piece because it was really daunting to be invited to make the piece because it's a permanent, like, monumental sized public artwork in the heart of LA. And so I know in my contract they like guarantee it for like 25 years and it could be there, much, much longer. And so it's like not just an audience of today, but like, oh, what will this mean in 40 years from now, you know, when my son's children look at it and like, where will we be as a city, as a country, you know, like there is the risk of work, becoming like “dated”, but I think I wanted to put, like, various stories from the past, like, in conversation with like what's going on right now and to acknowledge the time in which it's being made and like we've worked on this worked on a piece from like 2016 to 2019 and very much overlapping, like, with the Trump administration. And it's like, what, what do we hope for, like, beyond this moment because it's not even open to the public for, like, a few years. But I think those questions of audience are really important and I also don't think the conversation is fixed. Like, I don't, I don't want it to be like,” I'm just saying something and dropping it”. Like I want people to like, resonate and react and to, like, change along with how they interpret the work over time. But that's, that's the hope. I think it's different for everyone in their relationship to it.
Twan Claiborne: Yeah, absolutely. That is a very pertinent thought of ideas, becoming dated or somehow unrelatable to future generations. And you, you say that one of your hopes is that, within the specifics of it, apologize if I'm misframing it... within the specifics of it, there's a- you can find the humanity in the work and the people who the work is supposed to describe and maybe there is a universality that can be drawn, but it has to be specific. It can't just be this sort of amoebas thing which may allow for it to become opaque and dated over time because you're trying to do so much and pull on so many angles, which sounds like a struggle of a teacher at once to sort of see what lands, instead of like, we know what's going to land, we know what's going to stick As my community, where I want you to tell this specific story because I know it will stick and rely on that story to do the work and to provide the longevity into infinity and beyond per se.
Audrey Chan: Yeah, and I think it's important to tell like timely stories within the permanent medium. You know, I feel like the work that we study from antiquity has survived for thousands of years, but they were telling the stories of their time, you know, and we can still pull meaning from it. And of course, our point of view on it is different from their lived experience. But it's like it's like they're sending like a telegram from the past, you know, and it's a way to allow the conversations to like cross space and time.
Twan Claiborne: Mhm. Now speaking of your artwork- I'm going to share with everyone some of the images on the mural that's going to be put into LA Metro. Let me know, give me a- oh,they can't give you a thumbs up if they see it, but here. So while you're talking about your sort of hopes and dreams you want to walk everyone through this beautiful mosaic of work you have.
Audrey Chan: Sure. Um, so I'm going to be showing like 4 out of the 14 panels that will be on the subway platform level of this metro station that's at 1st and Central in Little Tokyo and I chose images that relate to this conversation about racial justice. Because I think one of the goals of my work is to like make intersectionality visible. And I think a huge impetus for these images is that as I was talking to people of different generations in the JA Japanese American community, they were concerned that future generations will lose a connection to the experience of internment during World War Two. So that's when FDR passed on the Executive Order 9066 and rounded up Japanese-American residents of the West Coast and imprisoned them in remote locations around the US during World War Two and some of the people that I worked with were born in camp. Or their parents were or their grandparents were there, and it really, like, marked their experience of what it means to be in the US, and their relationship with the government and that time period. And the piece is called Willpower Allegory. I specifically used the acronym of the Works Progress Administration since FDR, he was so famous for his New Deal policies, which in retrospect shut out a lot of people of color from the benefits of those social programs and to think that within a few years he'd be like buying into racist hysteria around the war and incarcerating Japanese Americans is like this kind of undercurrent of the piece. But what you have, what you see here are people who are survivors of the camp who are carrying the banners representing the different camps in what's now an annual commemoration of day of remembrance and I attended one or two of these events and it's both like a solemn experience but also there's so much pride in the work of like keeping memory alive and these are like memory keepers of this time period. And what you see are like people either as they look today or some of the people are shown as they appeared like during World War Two, and I wanted there to be that like slippage of time and representation. And you also, like, along all the bottom of the panels is a procession that at times feels like the bon odori honoring of ancestors. That's a Japanese tradition. And at times, it looks like a parade. At times it looks like a protest But in the panel on the left, it also shows people at different moments of incarceration for when they were removed from their homes, arriving at camp, and then the moment of being released from camp. And so on the right is the Manzanar Obelisk that was created in the cemetery of the Manzanar internment camp in California and I just... I also, when I was there at the Manzanar, our pilgrimage, I took a photo of this incredible display of like paper cranes, that was around it. And I wanted these two panels, especially to talk about how there's this experience embody both like a collective trauma experienced by the Japanese American community, but also like within it, there's, like, so much resilience and also how much inspired like the Civil Rights activism of like the people depicted like there's Yuri Kochiyama and Edison Uno and like there was like poets and designers and people who, the experience like informed who they were as a person, but also that they could really... I wanted to show the fullness of the lives that came out of the camps too. I think there was a question...these panels do appear next to each other. So there's, in the subway station standing on the platform on one wall there will be seven and then there'll be faced by another seven and each one measures about 12 and a half by 13 feet and so they'll kind of like be rising up on the wall from where you're standing. So in the next slide are two other panels I wanted to talk about. So the one on the left depicts the Tongva nation, and they're the indigenous peoples of the Los Angeles Basin. And the woman in the center is Julia Bogany. She's a tribal elder who I met through the process of working on the metro project and she's an incredible person. She's organizing...I think she's edited now like a few volumes of a Tongva dictionary and she's shown there with her great granddaughters and she's president of the Kuruvungna Springs. So it's a ceremonial sacred site that's in West LA. And she invited me to come to their annual celebration at the springs, and I think this was the year that, at least in LA, Columbus Day was officially changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And so it was really like a cause for celebration because that was like decades of advocacy to make that happen. I'm sure it's like the kind of thing that when they first proposed it, I'm sure they only received pushback, you know. And sometimes you just have to keep pushing over so many years to make that culture shift and sometimes culture has to catch up to where people are at. And the Tongva community has, I mean, from point of contact has faced so much like violence and erasure from the missions and the government, but I wanted them to very much be a part of this piece because it's like the statement of “we are here”. And not only are we here, we're thriving, we're like, we're still connecting with our ancestors trying to connect with like who we are as a people, despite so much official attempts at erasure of like them physically and also culturally like with the boarding schools from centuries ago where children would be like separated from their families and basically like punished for expressing any tribal affiliation to like the kind of work that Julia is doing today in terms of like working with the younger generation to keep that energy going. And so I wanted to honor them, also because I was very aware that the subway station is literally like a hole dug out of the heart of LA. Like they're finding archaeological elements that just point back to the history. So it's like a huge honor and also responsibility to place permanent artwork in that space. And so I very much wanted the Tongva Nation to be represented and like people today who are doing that work to connect with their community. And on the right is a panel showing residents and activists and artists connected to Skid Row in LA, and the man in the white t-shirt under the skid row city limit sign is General Jeff, and he had a huge influence on this particular panel. Because when we first started talking, he said, “I don't want to talk to you if you're just going to show encampments and show the under-housed people of LA in this kind of like downtrodden light. Like we don't need more of that. That's like...people already see the un-housed that way. I only want to talk to you if you're going to like honor who we are as people.” And so that was, I think, a really important way to start the conversation. And the two pieces on the top, “We the People of Skid Row” and the “Skid Row City Limits” are actually- and also the photos that this middle group is based on are actually like public artworks created by and with the community in Skid Row and we identified that as like a way to have their creative work present permanently in the station, which is literally just like a few blocks away from the Skid Row border, you could say. And so, Danny Park, the guy on the left with the peace sign, he- his parents like, own a bodega. He's Korean American in Skid Row. And so we kind of like grew up with that community. And so those images are from like portraits that he took and then, and there's a tree in the middle that was put up by, like, urban environmental activists to honor Barbara Brown and a man named Africa who I think Barbara Brown was an elderly woman who like died from exposure and neglect on Skid Row and Africa was murdered by police by the LAPD. And so even though that tree didn't end up surviving like putting it within this piece was a way to keep their memories alive too. And then along the bottom is this parade, I think that happens semi annually, that's organized by the Los Angeles Poverty department that's run by John Malpede and Henriette Brouwers. They are the third and fourth people in that line on the bottom and it’s called “Walk the Talk.” And it's this incredible musical parade where they commissioned portraits of Skid Row activists, some of whom are still alive, some of whom have passed, some of whom were residents and some of whom like who started organizations to benefit the community. And it's a celebration of, like, also the artists and poets and musicians of Skid Row and so, although it's called like the Little Tokyo Arts District Station, I wanted it to, kind of, like, put all these communities that are like neighbors of each other and like, put them in a shared space in the station. And so I'm also going to be working on a kind of guide to the piece because I know that, like, a question I've gotten many times in which I anticipated was like, how can we learn more about who's in the piece and like that actually is really important to me. Like, I consider myself an educator too. I would say that, like, asking like, “do I consider myself an activist?” I would also, I guess, I would say I consider my art as a form of education as well. And so I, I want to provide resources, like if educators or the general public want to kind of unpack these stories, learn about the history of the Tongva, learn about the activism and community on Skid Row, you know, like that, I can, kind of- this can be an entry point...or like a way to do storytelling and to like build community power and energy. And so, oh yeah, I think there's some comments that like the two pieces are, that “We the People of Skid Row” and “Skid Row City Limit” are really amazing works because it uses like the seal of the city of Los Angeles and that kind of iconic freeway signage in this really subversive way because like even right now they're fighting to have their own neighborhood council, basically fighting to have a seat at the table. Because it is a neighborhood unto itself, a neighborhood that's disenfranchised and terrorized and neglected and criminalized, you know.
Twan Claiborne: Absolutely.
Audrey Chan: And I think they understand the need to have political power. And so I hope this piece can kind of contribute to their, like, this ability in this way, and also like the Tongva Nation isn't a federally recognized tribe. Like they are doing a lot of amazing work and- but at the same time, like they're not, they don't get the “benefits” from the federal government because they're not officially recognized, even though they, you know, are the people like of the LA Basin.
Twan Claiborne: Indeed, right.
Audrey Chan: Um, so yeah, so that's, those are there's going to be 14 panels in total. It's like, I want the peace to be like read in the round, as a whole to have all these stories, kind of like talking to each other and for you to be in the middle of the storytelling. But you know, I don't even know what it looks like at scale. I don't have a studio the size of a subway station. So I've been working generally on making these designs and then it's going to be fabricated in porcelain and enamel steel. So come to LA in 2022.
Twan Claiborne: Singly that's assigned once everything is hopefully in a more reasonable state of things so you can travel, make a plan to go to LA in 2022 to see this in action.
Audrey Chan: Or anytime after that.
Twan Claiborne: Right, anytime after that. But it's going to be up. Now, you sort of hinted at this when you were describing how you're going to imagine the panel from a small scale to a large scale. But when conceiving a project and beginning a project, what is your process?
Audrey Chan: Um, I guess we can go to the next slides too.Since for the metro project, I went into it just like, knowing that I had a lot of questions. And that it would be a lot of conversations and listening and trying to translate that into images. And, for the past year, I've been an artist in residence with the ACLU of Southern California. And I was so excited to kind of move from this piece that's about, kind of like posterity, and a permanent piece, being involved in really campaign based work that's responding to this moment. And so, this is one of the pieces that we worked on together. It was for a campaign called “ICE is not welcome here”. And specifically, it's more of a long term campaign, but this is a component that launched it. That was- it's a “Know Your Rights” education campaign to help residents, whether it's undocumented people or their neighbors understand their rights, given that ICE agents were like masquerading as police and using like lies and ruses to get people to open their doors or come inside and exposing themselves to like arrest and detention. And so, they had in mind this character Nina, who was a young Latinx girl standing up for her family and her community. And I also wanted to show like how diverse the undocumented folks who are impacted by ICE detention are. Although less visible, I mean, there's Latinx people,like people from the Caribbean and Africa, Muslim immigrants, also like Asian immigrants as well. And the English translation of this says “this is our community. We know our rights”. The English version is “ICE is not welcome here. And we don't authorize entry to ICE.” And in the next slide, you can also see that these images kind of branched out into graphics that were more illustrated like, what do you do if ICE is at your door. And they specifically wanted a really friendly aesthetic. Even though, like what's especially being depicted, they have this incredible mobile justice app. And I recommend everyone download it. It's like an app where you can record video and you can automatically send it to the ACLU as like intake and evidence. So like, you witness like an ICE raid. They can mobilize around that. And so, what was your question about the goals of the work?
Twan Claiborne: It’s all tied-
Audrey Chan: And let me know if we should move faster, further along in the-
Twan Claiborne: We’re good with timing.
Audrey Chan: Okay.
Twan Claiborne: It's a big portion and then we'll get into some of the- I'm gonna check to see if there are questions in the panel or in the chat that we can answer that you haven't already covered.
Audrey Chan: Okay. Yeah. And I was doing this work around the time that the quarantine started. So there were going to be like rallies and actions and press conferences and demonstrations, but the work kind of moved into more of like a digital activism space online. And so I can show you a few more examples of work that I did with them. So the next slide... so a lot of these were shared on like social media and for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I worked with them to- we came up with this list of Asian American activists and historical figures who really exemplified intersectional social justice work, and so Ny Nourn and Phal Sok.
I think Ny is based in the- I hope I'm pronouncing her name right- I think she's based more in the Bay Area, and Phal has a space in the LA area, they both happen to be Cambodian American and Ny is like a legal advocate who is an advocate for the Survived and Punished Coalition to and detention and incarceration of domestic violence and sexual abuse survivors because that was her own lived experience, having been incarcerated for the crime of an ex who abused her. And then Phal Sok was incarcerated as a teenager and tried as an adult. And then when I think he was pardoned, he was immediately transferred into ICE for deportation. And so he was able to, he was ultimately able to escape the system after petitioning the governor. But it just shows how within a single person’s story all these different systems can intersect and how they can, like, use that to help others who are in a similar situation. And so we had figures like Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, and even Wong Kim Ark, who is like the origin of birthright citizenship featured. And that was really, like great for me, to learn more about like Asian American history because Asian American history is very under-studied and under-presented and that's really to our disadvantage. You know, there's so much that can inform how we even think about what being an American means that's in that context. And so, in the next slide, these were portraits. So a lot of the work that I did with the ACLU, they're really interested in portraits to like uplift on these stories and their stories were most often like in the captions. But I'm kind of filling that in right now, so Juice and Navi Husky were trans siblings who went to Coachella for Beychella. And separately, but at the same time, I guess they both went to use the public restrooms, and they were both like gender discriminated against. And they reached out to the ACLU afterwards and they worked with the ACLU’s LGBT rights or Gender, Equity and Reproductive Justice team to write letters to the company that like owns Coachella to make sure that they comply with California law, which prohibits gender discrimination. And they're just like an amazing duo, and then Christine Lili Wrene Wood. She was a member of Crunch Fitness in the San Diego area and she talks about how going to the gym was like such an important part of her transition. Also, and that it was like this kind of libertarian space for her and her relationship with her body, but that she was prohibited from using the women's facilities and the women's changing room at the gym. And so she was part of a suit with the ACLU SoCal against Crunch Fitness to order them to comply with California law as well. And so I've just been so interested in the role of impact litigation and how lawyers can transform, like, the testimonies and lived experiences of people who reach out to the organizations, like build a case to help mobilize that story to help so many other people who are in a similar situation. So those were portraits for Pride Month and then in the next slide...
Twan Claiborne: We have a question too that’s actually, all of these all of the panels that you've shown us so far, coming from Marcia Grand, class of ‘60. What medium are you using for these extraordinary panels? Are you painting them with pastel? What medium are you using?
Audrey Chan: So I have been living on my iPad Pro- plug for Apple- for the last several years. Like, even for the metro project. Ultimately, I had to deliver a digital file to go to the fabricator. And so I've been working between the iPad Pro Apple Pencil- shoutout product placement- and Adobe Illustrator, which is like a vector based program. So you could put work in there. And if it's a vector based, it can be as tall as a skyscraper or as small as a notebook and it maintains the quality of the image. A lot of the drawings I did for these portraits that look more like pencil or pastel or watercolor are actually done in this program called Procreate. That's on the iPad. But I am always kind of, always interested in making digital art look like analog art as well. But yeah, basically my studio is like a computer in my bedroom, like my iPad. Yeah, so I'm, I'm always like, trying to figure out if and when I'm going to like properly rent a studio, but rent in LA is not cheap! And I just have to like, because I've been working digitally for so long, I'm so used to it, but I want to get out of that as well
Twan Claiborne: Yeah, I mean, it changes your relations. I can imagine it's going to change your relationship to what you're drawing and what you're trying to communicate, whereas going through the motions with your hands and that meticulous process... I can imagine there is sort of a connection there that can be fostered that I don't know, maybe not be there with the digital art, who knows? This is conversations we're having in education, where, you know, we're moving in a combination of all the different learning styles and learning disabilities, moving from more paper format to more digital formats of things and typing, writing. So there is that conversation- is this the next step of art? Are we moving away from, you know, a more traditional analog form to a more digital form that recreates the analog and does that, you know, change how we, you know, how we see art and how art is used and how accessible it is, not just in terms of the subject matter of the art, but who can do art. Because you know with anything, there's sort of these rings and hierarchies and traditions that you sort of go through and now that we find in an age where things are digitalized and we're seeing videos and all sort of things communicating what's going on, it's sort of, if you have these means you can show this message.
Audrey Chan: Yeah. And I will say that it makes sharing the artwork a lot easier. So a lot of these drawings were meant to circulate on social media. Like these portraits were destined for YouTube videos. So if you like, if you go to the ACLU of Southern California’s YouTube page you can like, watch the videos where you can hear their voices. And so none of the artwork that I've shown thus far was intended for like a gallery-based experience. And so there are pros and advantages to working digitally in terms of disseminating it. But, I think it's a different and related experience to experience work physically. But yeah, it's allowed me to make work a lot... it's been really great for making like public art. Because...yeah, like I had worked on that Illustrator file for like four years- taking things in, putting things in, and taking things out, and working this like nonlinear almost more of like an editing space, as opposed to just, like, working from like beginning to end, you know. I was just like, constantly moving things around and reorganizing the compositions in a way that I wouldn't be able to do if I were working on analog. But I always like pivoting, so I'm kind of excited to do watercolor next year.
Twan Claiborne: Right to get back to the new thing
Audrey Chan: Yeah, yeah.
Twan Claiborne: You have another question from Eldridge, it's class of ‘61.
Audrey Chan: Oh hello. Hi, right. He was the Swarthmore legend.
Twan Claiborne: Yes! “Your work is exciting and educational. I think the arts broadly are important as a part of education K through 12 and beyond. I find your work educational, in and of itself. Can you imagine the education for all in our education systems? When were you aware of the Chester's Children Chorus at Swarthmore?
Audrey Chan: Oh, um, I mean, I think we have to imagine education and education equity for it to, for us to be able to work towards it. And I think it's so great, the opportunities for Swarthmore students and staff and educators to connect, like, for example through the Children's Chorus. I learned about it, you know, going to concerts and whatnot and yeah, so, yes. I think that's incredibly important. And also, I think what happens is, like, everyone starts off making art. And I think as education progresses, arts are often the first thing to be cut. Even though there's lots of data, though we shouldn't just have to rely on data to prove the validity of art that it should be part of like STEAM as opposed to just STEM education, and that it's a way for kids to like grow and think that may not be served by just straight book learning as well. And it activates different parts of their empathy and ways of expressing themselves. And so I think it's, like the ACLU of Southern California has a Youth Liberty Squad and they do lots of “artivism”, like art activism work. And that is just like, understood, to be an important part of movement building. And so I am a strong advocate of everyone considering themselves an artist, like I may be working on art professionally and it's taken a lot to get to the point where I'm doing it full time. But I, it makes me really sad inside when people say, “Oh, I used to make art.” or, “I would draw, but I'm bad at it” You know, like... I think I was telling you earlier. I was, I stopped drawing like the minute I went to grad school and I was just like, “Okay, I feel like this is a conceptual program.” I went to CalArts and I just wanted to explore other ways of making what took me a long time to cycle back and it kind of felt like getting back on a bike again. And so, there's like different life cycles of artmaking everyone should have in their life, but it makes me sad when people feel like so cut off from the process.
Twan Claiborne: Yeah, I'm hoping that that remedies itself because I'm a huge, huge, huge proponents of arts in schools because for a student like me that helped communicate a lot of emotions that I didn't feel very comfortable expressing in the written form and in dialogue at the communities that I was a part of... and I'm seeing it definitely for my students as well as that, as like their calling process. I'm like “yeah doodle, yeah draw while you're reading if it helps you concentrate and focus and it leads to these ideas that you can express across different genres.” It's very important, that sort of actually links back to our conversation we had before this, and this goes back to this question by (inaudible) Class of 2001, that sort of connects to what we were talking about earlier in terms of the areas in which we find ourselves connecting to art and how we communicate art and in general and activism. Digging back to your undergrad time, how did your time at Swarthmore sort of help you find your style and vision and deepen your activism and on top of that, do you find yourself sort of revisiting those- that moment in time to draw inspiration for the work you're doing now?
Audrey Chan: Yeah, I remember I wrote my admission essay about how I loved art and political science. I think I've just been pretty consistent about having those interests in life. And that's very much inspired by my father telling me about growing up in Communist China and trying to understand, like, what does it mean to be born into, like, a communist revolution. You know, like, what does it mean for me to, like, be born into the United States in the 80s, you know, and I think about that. Though I was... in the next slide, you can actually see I deal with that a bit more in my personal work like, what does it mean for my son to be like born into LA as a Chinese Jamaican boy, you know, and like I won't really know how to- he’ll have to figure out how to make that experience his own, you know. And so these are like analog works, but they have a lot in common with the way I worked digitally. So that's an altar to my grandmother's carpe Dia de los Muertos exhibition. But, being at Swarthmore was so great because I was like an artist within a community that had so many different interests and areas of specialties, like people were doing theatre, people are doing engineering, people are going to be doctors, lawyers, you know, teachers, and I very much saw art as being part of a larger community and process and a community that's social justice oriented and I remember, I think it was maybe in my second year, I was talking to Randy Exxon, who was incredible mentor. And I was like, having some doubts about pursuing art beyond college. So I was like, should I kind of pivot to like a public policy track, because I was really kind of fascinated about government-based work. And he said, “Audrey, your contribution to society will be through your art”, and I don't even know that I had words to respond to him at that time. But like, I've been trying to live up to that wisdom, like, ever since then and in trying to understand, like, “okay, I can, I can put all that passion for like political change into the work that I'm doing in visual culture.” And I think a place where it really connected to me was freshman year, I started doing editorial cartoons for The Phoenix and it was very, like, self-guided and I had these like assignments every week and I just had to figure out how to translate the fact that 911 just happened into an editorial cartoon. It was like this- these assignments that were just so, like, bigger than anything I had done before, even if it was just like a tiny drawing that would be like in the paper in a few days. And yeah, so, I mean my time at Swarthmore overlapped with the Bush administration. And so, it created this kind of like backdrop to the work we were doing. And yeah, so, doing those drawings and cartoons like it talked back and forth to the work that I was doing and like the studio art context as well. Yes, I'm always kind of like dancing between social commentary and representation at large and like really personal storytelling. And I think the... especially with the Metro project, like, I took the things that I learned from telling like my own story or my family's story into the process of telling other people's stories like that amount of tenderness, I guess, and responsibility, but also that there needs to be like play and joy as well, within those representations. So like going, I thought a lot about my time at Swarthmore when I was applying to the ACLU residency, because I'm like, “I'm finally getting to do the art + policy + advocacy thing that I was always excited to do!” Because like, when you're going through an MFA program, I think the assumption is that you're, you're being trained for a contemporary art world context and there were certain things about my personal interest that just like weren't 100% met from that track or that path and the opportunity to work in a civic context, like in public art, and like, being part of the day to day legal advocacy work of the ACLU that really was so satisfying and represented a lot of the aspirations I had undergrad.
Twan Claiborne: This is actually going to be our final question. I realized we can keep on going at Swarthmore.
Audrey Chan: I’m so long winded.I haven't been in like a Swarthmore discursive space in so long that I'm really excited.
Twan Claiborne: No, and it’s always, as we talked about before this, it's always so central how at some points, the farther away we really are removed from Swarthmore, the more times we find we come back into this space because it's sort of needed. There's not a lot of spaces and our lives to parcel out in a real meaningful way what is happening with us, how our places in society, all of those sort of large existential questions we had time for a while at Sharples and McCabe. We're doing it digitally, or if we encounter people in our own lives and sort of this final question is connected to that larger point. As we conversed here, given that, this is Andrea or Andrea, apologies for the name pronunciation, Packard, but “given the challenges art majors face today, do you have advice for Swarthmore students and others who may not be considered artists who want to place a creative practice at the center of their life?”
Audrey Chan: Hey, Andrea, I worked for Andrea at the List Gallery, when I was an undergrad. So it's great to hear from her. Okay, so I actually had a recent art major who graduated reach out to me with advice, and I think it's, um, man, it's hard to give a like, step by step, kind of advice, but I think in pursuing creative work... A reality is that you have to kind of sacrifice some stability, whereas, and this is a thing that actually results in a lot of people not being able to continue being artists, and something like, for instance of the people that I went to grad school with, a lot of people were just like saddled with loans the day they graduated. And it's like, I was like, you have to- it can take years to build any kind of sustainability, especially in cities where art hubs are, because they tend to be very expensive places to live and work. And I guess it depends on your goals because like, if you want to live off your work, that's one thing. Up until when I got the Metro commission, I was working in museum education. And so I knew that if I wanted to stay in LA, I had to do my artwork on nights and weekends. And some people, you know, rocket into the art world from, like, while they're still in school. Some people can take like another 10,15 years, you know. And so, I guess it depends like, how much one values financial stability. But also, like that being said, like the digital art conversation was really interesting because it is a kind of democratizing approach because you don't have to have a studio to make an oil painting. You know what I mean, like, now there are so many tools that are so accessible, like on a consumer level that weren't even when I was like in college. Like the fact that anyone can make a movie on their phone, that's great! And so I think in terms of something being called capital A art, like the systems of validation In society for what's allowed to be called art, I think can be kind of toxic. As far as this conversation is concerned and I don't even think that the, what's called the Capital A Art World really encompasses the full range of culture that's valuable in our society. And like, elite spaces kind of pick and choose when they'll lift up, for example, like community based work to be respected, like on the same level as people that follow a more traditional path. And it's like thinking about the Chicano Mural tradition in LA, it's like, those artists weren't allowed into galleries and museums spaces. They had to put their messages like on the walls of their neighborhoods, you know, and it has like a different power in a different charge, but also it's like, it's acknowledging a kind of exclusionary practice within Capital A Art spaces. So I have a lot of ambivalence around those categories, because I see where they can benefit and where they can detract from different types of culture being valued. So that's kind of the creative tension that I think of a lot.
Twan Claiborne: Well, that is, that was a wonderful way to end it off. Beautiful, thank you so much Audrey again for taking the time out of your wonderful activist, artevist, as alumnus Jody Williams said, your artevist life, to share with us what you've been doing and sort of bringing voice to communities that have felt voiceless and giving us a lot to chew on. Um, is there a way folks can see your art online or keep track of what you're doing in case they have any questions for you?
Audrey Chan: Sure! I have a website that's audreychan.net. So, I tend to kind of use that as a collection of works I've done in the past. So yeah, this has been really lovely. And I'm just like, “Oh, I wish we could talk for like five more hours,” but I think we don't have time for that.
Twan Claiborne: We need to do Part 2 or something.
Audrey Chan: Yeah, yeah. Part 2 of our quarantine realities. But thank you so much to Twan, to the Alumni Council, and to everyone that is on the call and/or asked questions. Swarthmore love, I have lots of it.
Twan Claiborne: Thank you all, thank you all! Thank you, Lisa. Thank you both. Thank you. Alumni Council and please, as I said before, this video will be up hopefully in the next two, three weeks on the website. Otherwise, stay tuned for more enticing and wonderful investigatory panels on racial justice and various forms and we'll be talking to you soon. Good morning. Good night. Good evening, and good afternoon!
Audrey Chan: Take care everybody. Thank you.