Embracing Diversity, Not Just Tolerating It
This piece was first published on February 17, 2017 in The Flat Hat.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words,” as the idiom goes. And it’s so true; if you look at an average image used in official College of William and Mary advertising, some of the words and phrases that might come to mind would be “eclectic,” “school pride,” “multicultural,” “intellectual” and of course, “diverse.” Diverse is the ultimate buzzword when it comes to college admissions, and boy, did the College have me fooled as a prospective student. I’ll admit: there are lots of positives when it comes to diversity at the College. Organizations like the Asian American Student Initiative, Black Student Organization and South Asian Student Association have put on incredible programs throughout my time at the College that have greatly expanded my understanding of cultures and experiences both different than and affirming of my own. I will always be grateful to have gotten the chance to learn about Chuseok, Eid and so many other culturally significant observances from friends who know them intimately. However — and to clarify, I do not speak for all people of color at the College — experiencing this school as a minority student has at times been extremely unsatisfying and draining.
On my first day of freshman orientation three years ago, a student told me that it must have been easy to get into the College due to my race, completely ignorant toward what I had accomplished in high school. I (and many of my friends and acquaintances) have had racial epithets slung my way on and around campus, and when I have chosen to share stories of such encounters, I have found myself justifying my story to people who would rather see the College as a bastion of tolerance and progressivism. I even started a Facebook page for a junior year project with Rachel Merriman-Goldring ’17 meant to document instances of microaggressions at the College which, once again, several students treated as a joke.
In reality, many students of the College have little exposure to cultures and experiences unlike their own, including within their educational tracks. As Adom Whitaker ‘17 pointed out in a recent episode of The Real W&M, the College’s COLL curriculum only requires one course focused on non-Western cultures, effectively allowing students to graduate without hardly engaging with the vast world outside of the West. This lends itself to an imperialist and frankly white supremacist mindset that makes it crystal clear why instances of white students at the College laughing at students with non-white accents or wearing non-white garb have continually occurred. Students of color at the College deserve to feel like we belong here, and instances of racial intolerance and othering based on what we look like should have no place at any institution of higher learning.
Outside of unfortunate person-to-person interactions, the College also fails to accommodate a multicultural student populace due to its lack of diverse faculty and its barely-funded Center for Student Diversity (CSD). The dearth of professors of color on campus places an undue burden on those who are here, many of whom are tasked with acting as both diversity consultants to their cohorts and as mentors to their students of color. These professors are not paid more for this extra work that they put in, and as more and more of the College’s faculty of color opt to leave and pursue opportunities elsewhere, the strain on both minority students and professors only increases. The CSD does its best with what it is given, but there is only so much that one classroom-sized space, a couple of offices and a handful of employees can do to serve the needs of the roughly 2,000 non-white students that make up the undergraduate population. Many similar universities house LGBTQ centers, black students’ centers and other more focused diversity efforts that give marginalized students invaluable resources as we navigate where we fit. The College’s fundraising needs to target so much more money toward advancing professor and student diversity, because without it, the College reverts right back to the old boys’ club image it had for a long, long time.
So, how should frustrated students of color move forward? If greater efforts are not being made to improve our experiences at this predominantly white institution, why should we be expected to continue allowing ourselves to be exploited for the sake of making the College look diverse? Imagine a campus-wide protest in which all students of color suddenly refused to appear in any media related to the College. Imagine the disappearance of non-white faces from everything having to do with the College. While that image is meant more to provoke thought than constitute a legitimate suggestion, I do believe that an effective form of action to start with might be for cultural organizations to refuse to perform at the annual Day for Admitted Students. Show the administration how much this school suffers without the presence, actions and performances of students of color on one of the most high-profile days of the academic year. Maybe then diversity funding will increase in a serious way. Our most powerful weapons are the non-white faces that the College loves to prop up whenever it can.
“The Sun is Black”
This poem was first published on February 14, 2017 in GUM MAGAZINE.
It can be hard to tell that the sun is Black—
looking at him directly hurts your eyes
because his brightness overwhelms.
He gifts you with comforting heat, pouring
androgynous rays on folks of all genders.
The sun sees beyond binaries.
He is a he, yes, but not patriarchal.
Feminine and masculine,
comfortable in duality, unafraid to seem either or both.
The sun is Black, and he is a great friend.
Melanin reaction is his secret handshake
with the darker kin.
The sun knows the jokes, the songs, and the dances.
He hits the Bop, the Cabbage Patch, the Charlie Brown, and
Erykah Badu albums play softly
as he sits on his patio and sips lemonade.
He cackles at Black Twitter,
and mourns for Tamir Rice,
sweet sunshine child
whose crime was public Blackness,
one of many flames snuffed carelessly.
When Black lives are devalued, he hides behind clouds and weeps.
The sun means well, but he can burn you if you do not listen.
He tells you ugly racist stories,
and he aches inside when your squints in reply
tell him you can’t see the whole puzzle.
You see his outer radiance, but not the inner Blackness that makes him whole.
You see the sun in a way that makes you feel warm and unchallenged,
never seeing him as a piece of the greater portrait
of Black complexity.
He is beautiful, but he is pained.
The sun’s heart leaps and aches intensely
as anti-Black incidents pile and pile
until he feels his light may burn out.
Be his friend and try to understand,
look at him closer,
closer, and truly see
GERMAN SINGER ACE TEE BRINGS BACK 90S R&B SOUND WITH DOPE NEW VISUAL ‘BIST DU DOWN?’
This piece was first published on the 10th of January, 2017 in AFROPUNK.
TLC meets Nas meets Brandy in Hamburg is how I’d describe German singer Ace Tee’s recent release, “Bist du Down ?,” featuring rapper Kwam.e. Translating to ‘are you down?,’ the music video manages to be fresh and familiar at the same time via its combination of crisp and bright 90s R&B aesthetics, funky choreography, and smooth German vocals. A tweet drawing comparison between Ace Tee and TLC has already gone viral, and folks are more than a little excited by the incredible time machine trip that the song and video provide together. Ace Tee will be dropping her next release ‘Sip Slow’ on August 18th, and you can check out more of her music on Soundcloud.
Interview with Cherrie Yu
This piece was first published in the Fall 2016 issue of Acropolis Art Journal (50-7).
Performance artist Cherrie Yu is a senior at William & Mary with a double major in English and World Performing Arts & Cultures. They have been performing for a little over a year and a half, getting their start by joining William & Mary’s performance art ensemble and later honing their craft with summer coursework at The Art Institute of Chicago. They have performed solo and in groups in many public venues, and all of their work is viewable at cherrieyujiqing.tumblr.com. We sat down together for coffee at The Grind on campus at W&M to chat about performance art and all that comprises the form.
What is it about the performance art medium that speaks to you as an artist, and how does it help you express what it is that you’re going for?
I think, first of all, when I started doing it, I felt like it’s a form that’s not canonized the way [forms such as] acting or music are that started many more ages ago. When my performance art professor was introducing it to us, he traced back the history of performance art, and one of the biggest waves of performance art was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the second wave of Western feminism was at its peak. That at first fascinated me, but after I started doing it I think I realized that it’s—well, it’s an art form, so of course it does require virtuosity—but it’s different from the other ones. Like, you [don’t] have to have a perfect body, like a traditional dancer, or a certain way of singing, like an opera singer. Performance art kind of works differently than that; it speaks to that genre of breaking the traditional, breaking a boundary, and you do whatever you want. On another level, if you want to do a performance that speaks to other people, you have to think really hard about how you orchestrate yourself and your piece… also it’s very interdisciplinary, so I’ve been in touch with a lot of spheres of performance after I’ve gotten into performance art, because it’s really not a thing by itself. It’s like an amalgamation of other genres of performance.
So, you mentioned the exclusion of performance art from the traditional artistic canon. What do you think of the way that performance art is perceived on a wider scale, and how do you feel about the ways people view and think about it?
One thing that I thought of immediately was… Marina Abramović did this piece [The House With The Ocean View] where she was in this art gallery for 12 days on a platform just looking at people, and that was a really famous piece of hers, and I would say it was a groundbreaking moment of her career in the way that she shifted her focus [onto the audience]. A lot of people went and participated in the piece, but there was this episode of Sex and the City that kind of referenced the piece but also made fun of her. So that was an interesting example of mainstream media’s reaction to this piece. Somebody else is portraying her in that episode, and she’s portrayed as this crazy lady with disheveled hair, standing there, looking kind of like Robert Smith [laughing], so that was funny to me watching the episode because that was such a great piece! And they totally made fun of it.
And there was this artist when I was in Beijing two or three years ago. She did this piece where she slept on a bed made of iron wires for a long period of time—it was a durational performance—and I remember seeing the media reporting on it. It wasn’t a largely popular piece since it was in this small art district in Beijing, but she was completely naked, and people focused on the nudity of it, and although it could be sexual to some people, people would overtly sexualize the piece and kind of dilute the point of it. And when it got on mainstream media, it would only be about the nudity and the sex and not the performance and the art, and the message the artist was trying to convey. Those are two examples I think of immediately, but of course I’ve seen other performances where the audience is truly respectful and understanding, which is awesome, because the audience of a performance art piece is really important. A great audience makes a great performance.
That’s a really important point. On the topic of audiences: when you conceive of a piece, do you have one message in mind, or many? How concerned are you with conveying a particular message?
I think that’s a really good question. Sometimes when I conceive of a piece I [don’t] have a message in mind at all. I’ve seen plenty of other artists who are extremely vocal and political with their pieces, but in my course of creation, I perceive before I start to think, and I try to collage different things together and make it a coherent/incoherent combination of things and start to make sense of it. Other people might start to make sense of it, and we might not be making sense of it in the same way, but it does speak a certain language. There are times where I do have messages in my mind that I’m trying to get out, and I’m very clear about that. For example, I did this piece called “SHUT UP! BITCH!!,” where that single message was recorded and repeated throughout the piece, and that was really clear, but other times I don’t have messages like that.
This issue of Acropolis is themed “chaos and disorder.” Do you relate to that in terms of your own work?
I think performance itself has, to me, become a site where chaos and disorder happen in order to break away from conventions and traditions that are already persistent in art. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about how to speak to other people through chaos and disorder, and not necessarily getting a message through, but making sense to other people, and finding some sort of order in the disorder. I think the performative creates a space in which you don’t really see the order. You see the order dismantling itself, and there’s this moment of pause where you look outside of yourself and realize, “oh, this is what’s happening in front of me, and I see this, and I’m trying to make sense of it,” and I think that moment itself where [the performance] comes into your face and you come into its face is itself a disorder, or a disorienting experience. But making a performance takes so much consideration of how you’ll make an experience so that when the audience is experiencing that disorientation and disorder that is precisely and very minutely made by the performer, who has thought about [that resulting experience] over and over. You can’t completely have control over your performance—I mean, some people do, but I don’t think I can do that. It’s sort of a balancing situation.
And how long, on average, does it take you to plan a new piece?
I would say one to three weeks, normally. During the ensemble class period we’d have two to three weeks per assignment. My friend Ada curated an art and ecology performance art show that I took part in, and it took me one week to prepare that performance, called “Post-Fall.” It depends on the thought process and the materials. As time goes on, the materials matter for me more and more. I didn’t really identify as a craftsman originally, but arts and crafts really go together, and for that piece I had to find a pile of large rocks, which took me two to three days to prepare, and I had to carry them down… dealing with the materials is totally different than just thinking about the conceptual side of performance, and I think chaos and disorder can be expressed through materials as well, especially when materials interact with the performative and with bodily movements and experiences.
Which piece of yours have you most enjoyed performing?
It’d be the piece I made last December called “I Loev uou ! !!,” which I think is the most complete of my first pieces. I did that piece three times in total, and I don’t think I’ll do it again, because it’s kind of a one-time performance. I did it for class, I did it for a larger presentation, and I did it again for the sake of recording it. But I don’t think the real performance can actually be recorded or documented [as it feels in person]. That’s the one I most enjoyed doing, and it’s one of the pieces that speaks to me the most because it comes from a really personal place.
You touched on the participatory aspect of performance art that arises from the presence of the audience a little earlier. What does that experience do for facilitating chaos and disorder?
I think that’s a really good phrase, “facilitating chaos and disorder,” because it takes a lot of pre-meditation to reach the state that you want the chaos to be at. One thing we have to think a lot about in performance art is how we want to deal with the audience. By that I mean we think about the boundary between the audience and the performer, and sometimes that boundary just disappears, which people would call interactive performance, and that’s the point where you lose some of the control and give that control to the audience. That’s the sort of chaos or disorder that you wouldn’t see in a traditional theatrical setting. In early theatre, you’d just sit there in the dark, and what you’d see would be so meticulously controlled by the architecture of the theatre. But in a performance art setting, the performance also speaks to where you perform. There are a lot of site-specific performances where the site matters a lot, and sometimes it becomes an installation, and audiences will go interact with the installation, and that itself is a kind of performance in which the performer would just disappear.
Deciding how much control to give the audience is really hard to handle, because when you say too much it kind of spoils everything, and when you say too little you’re afraid that the audience might sabotage what it is that you’re doing [laughs]. But really, really magical moments come when the interaction happens, and that’s one of the greatest aspects of performance art. I’ve been thinking about interactivity in other mediums as well, and I think it’s a concept itself that doesn’t have to be confined to just performance art. I’ve started to see that same kind of interactivity arising from literary texts, which seem like just words on paper, but they can be performative as well. So I think that so-called “chaos” has become a lens through which you look at things, sort of an artistic mentality that goes beyond the art form itself.
So do your performance pieces tend to be very planned out, or do you leave room for improvisation, or both?
Most of the pieces I’ve done are pretty well planned out. I’ve taken a lot of time to think about what I’m going to do and what the audience might be going to do with me. Last year, a lot of my pieces involved sound scores, which is very confining when it comes to improvisation because, like in a theatrical setting, you’re using cues for moments of things happening, and you’re thinking, “Am I behind, am I ahead…?” That didn’t really work out for me, so I stopped using sound scores. Then I started using semi sound scores, where maybe there’s just a sound in the background that doesn’t really confine my performance. It’s more so to score the length of time of my performance, but I’d still have the different parts of the performance thought out beforehand. Another thing that stresses me out about planning is the materiality of a performance. Again, I don’t identify as a craftsman, and I’m trying to get better at dealing with objects, but sometimes objects can be really daunting for me because they become this live component of the performance that you interact with, and you try to conquer and control them but you can’t really. And accidents happen, and sometimes good things come with accidents and sometimes they don’t. That’s one thing that’s really hard to plan beforehand, because whatever happens in the moment happens in the moment. While planning the piece I did with a fish, “I Loev uou! !!,” the one thing I was really struggling with was the rope I used for the performance. That piece had a lot of materials, including a live fish in a bowl, and there was one part of the performance where I walk around the fish bowl with the rope tied around my neck and around the bowl, stretching it tighter and tighter, and every time I was afraid the bowl might tilt and spill out accidentally. I had to rehearse that part over and over, and I guess if you practice more it works better for you [laughing], but what might actually happen if the fish falls out in that moment? I might do something different and the performance becomes something different than what I conceived in my mind, and that might not be a bad thing.
This summer I did the strangest performance I’ve done, “Welcome to My Room,” in the basement of a nightclub. I’d invite people in and wash their feet, and it started out with that idea in my mind, but I took a lot of time thinking about the dimensions of the space I was in, and the items I was using… all of the stuff people wouldn’t notice if they just came in and starting having their feet washed. And there were chaotic moments coming from that performance: people would ask me if they could wash my feet, and I’d have to say no, but I wasn’t supposed to talk so I’d have to communicate it in other ways. Most people were fairly polite, I’d say, but I guess the point is that there’s a lot of planning behind seemingly peaceful, simple performances.
In those moments where you’re in the middle of a performance and you have everybody’s attention on you, what’s going through your head?
It varies. The fish piece was a quick piece, about 15 minutes long, and I got drunk doing it. [laughs] So I was thinking, “AH, WATER… getting through this monologue, it must sound good!,” and it was over just like that. But I’ve started doing longer pieces over the past few months. For “Post-Fall,” I postured myself in front of a pile of rocks, which was pretty uncomfortable. I sort of felt like I became a rock during that piece, which was intentional, and the moment I got down on the floor I felt like I became something else. It was in the middle of a larger art show, so people were walking past me, standing next to me, talking near me, and one person kicked one of my rocks, so I was like, “what’s happening?,” [laughs] but I didn’t want to disrupt the stillness. It felt very strange in the moment that I stood up, and I felt this strange passing of time during this hour in which I wasn’t myself but I was still myself. Something uncanny happened and I felt like I had lost an hour of my life, which was definitely strange.
And for “Welcome to My Room,” which was another durational piece, I set out invitations beforehand. That was a strange experience because sometimes people would look at the invitation, laugh, and walk away, and I had to sit there for the whole three hours until the end of the night. At first I felt sort of rejected and started blaming myself, but on the other hand it’s no big deal; the invite’s out, the ball’s in their court, and I’m just here. So I felt self-conscious during the performance, but then people started to come, and I’d have moments with them, and time starts to pass really really fast, and it becomes “oh, a foot… another foot… another foot [laughs]” and three hours have gone by. I had that feeling of initial disenchantment with the audience when no one would interact with me. So I was really depending on the audience for that one. You never know what might happen.
College Students Use Multimedia Project to Explore Intersections of Race, Sexuality, and Gender Performance
This piece was first published on the 3rd of May, 2016 in AFROPUNK.
Our names are Erica West and Kyle Lopez, and we are both juniors at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. We are the co-creators of Collage, a multimedia creative project which investigates the influence of race, gender, sexuality and other markers of identity and difference on the personal styles and gender performances of queer people of color. Through interview, photography, film and audio we delved into the background of our subjects, with the hopes of crafting a narrative around what it looks like to occupy the liminal space of so many marginalized identities while also trying to survive and thrive in a world not built for you. While the concept for Collage has been in the works since Winter 2015, the final product was created as the final project for a Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies class at our university called Queers of Color Critique.
For us, Collage was not just about aesthetics. Throughout the process, we also immersed ourselves in critical theory and academic disciplines of all kinds, including: anthropology, queer theory, critical race theory, fashion studies, and the studies of various ethnic groups. We were heavily inspired by the work of José Muñoz, particularly his book Disidentifications, a foremost piece of literature in the canon of queer of color critique. One of the main ideas Muñoz posits in his work is that there is more than standing completely with one’s culture or diametrically opposed to it – rather, there is always a middle ground. As we found with this project, often times this is the space occupied by queer people of color.
The idea of the personal as political served as a great inspiration for the project, since our bodies are constantly politicized any time we occupy public space. While fashion is often seen as a shallow and exclusionary pastime, we believe that expression through personal style can be used as a tool for empowerment and affirmation of our complex identities. Having our subjects speak about their style choices revealed so much about how they think about their presentation. From Falon’s sporty ‘soft butch’ aesthetic that also reflects her background as a dancer, to Pallavi’s edgy mix between masculine and feminine, accented by the Om symbol necklace she wears as a tribute to her Hindu faith and culture, style is about so much more than just throwing on clothes, for them.