The latest in a series of interviews with artists who make work that responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Stephen Kwok: Let’s start with your most recent work, Candy Glazed Eyes of Haunted Machines. You begin with a commonplace, cute kiddie ride machine for children, but through labor and repetition transform the cuteness into something not so cute—something absurd. Can you expand on the relationship between cuteness and absurdity and how you come to this shift in the work?
Rosalie Yu: I like to look at it a few different ways. After I had a conversation with Cassie Tarakajian, cuteness and absurdity, or cursedness, became aesthetics at play in my work. It’s hard to pinpoint where it lands because it’s somewhere in between. I connect it now to my Taiwanese heritage and the identity of the island, something I’m asked to define. As a post-colonial country, Taiwan is constantly borrowing iconographies from places like Japan and the United States, manga and Disney characters, for instance, and it ends up producing a bootleg culture. It doesn't really matter how strange it looks, even if it’s a Pikachu head on top of a Mickey Mouse body, as long as it produces nostalgia. This may be weird, but we don't care. The people who make it don't care. My grandpa, who repaired and repainted kiddie rides in our backyard, didn't care. But they are post-colonial artifacts and they’re disappearing. They appear in our everyday, like ghosts on our periphery.
SK: I’m drawn to this idea of bootleg culture and thinking about it as an act of translation gone wrong. There is a mistake or misinterpretation in the process that produces something new. There’s a through-line here between this recent work of yours and some of your earlier projects such as Photographic Knitting Club and Knowing Together, where the translation of intimate everyday spaces or exchanges, like an embrace between people, becomes corrupted by technologies prone to error. Can you speak more about this impulse to work with error and what potential error holds for you?
RY: I used 3D scanning technologies for both works. I think a lot of times people tend to think spatial imaging is a tool that can capture the complete and total truth—the reality. But it's true for any kind of tool, right? That there's always the backside that we don't see. Hito Steyerl calls this the white shadow. I was interested in seeing people collectively use this tool to see what kind of specter we could capture together and what kind of insight we could gain together. That’s why the work took place in the form of a workshop rather than a tutorial hosted by a tech guy on YouTube saying, this is how you do a drone shoot.
In a workshop environment, people give and receive attention and are intimate with each other—with strangers. A lot of errors can happen when you work collectively over a period of time, due to so many factors. For example, if someone holds an embrace for 10 minutes, their body might just give out. Legs go to sleep or start shaking, and all these things are captured, as well as the errors produced by people who don’t really know how to use a camera. I wanted to make a sculpture that preserved everything that happened. I didn't take away all the errors produced by bodies or technologies, because a lot of times what was missing actually shed more light into the whole experience. There's a way I can work with these errors to turn them into a physical object.
SK: It's interesting that you bring up collectivity and non-dominant forms of gathering and learning. Is there a political component to error for you?
RY: In the beginning of Knowing Together I was thinking about my feelings as flaws—that, from a western perspective, my way of perceiving physical intimacy was an error. I didn't greet people physically, and when I received it, I felt ambivalent. I think I see that feeling—not being able to express or receive intimacy—as a defect. There's a scholar named Xine Yao who calls this "unfeeling." It doesn't mean that it's not there, but it’s a feeling that's not registered, and it can even be seen as a form of resistance. It's usually associated with people at the margin or those not from the predominant culture. So I was very interested in finding a way to recreate that situation and capture that with a group of people.
SK: I’m struck by this idea that marginal cultures could be seen from a dominant perspective as full of error. Can you elaborate?
RY: Yeah, and on the opposite side of Asians not having feelings, Black Americans are racialized to have excessive feelings. Sianne Ngai who wrote, “Ugly Feelings”, described feelings that are difficult to categorize. One of them is animatedness, and talking about Black Americans being stereotyped as people with exaggerated emotions. We have memes of Black people that people of other races use to express their emotions without the living experience. I feel like Asian people, maybe more of just where I'm from, are on the other end of the spectrum.
I think of Taiwan as an error. If I connect back to errors and images, errors and tools, there are some images that don't render because of the codec or of the available technology. Sometimes there are scans that just never come out because you are not supposed to use the technology that way. So I'm guessing when we talk about purposely glitching something, to break the tools in order to see how the system works, I'm trying to use or misuse image-making tools as a way to explore the errors of intimacy, or how I feel the errors of my own feelings.
SK: Are you working on any other projects that continue to explore your personal archive?
RY: I’m currently researching karaoke for a performance-driven project. When I was a kid I would go on these prayer bus trips to temples with my grandpa. They were special for me because of all the old people singing karaoke on the bus. But I think he was there for the karaoke and not the Buddhas. He would change from a fishnet tank top to a suit, then comb his tiny baby white hair with oil. On the bus, he would sing Japanese tunes and switch between Taiwanese and Japanese. I was fascinated by those songs because they were like time capsules with glitches.
I learned later that my grandparents were the first generation to attend elementary school in my family. Japan made primary education mandatory during their occupation but it was a way of subjugation, to make Taiwanese people feel that they belonged to and would fight for their empire. They learned their history from a Japanese Imperial framework and because of this, there’s a culture of not seeing themselves.
Karaoke as a performance also contains errors of various kinds, like, singing off key, forgetting lyrics. I’m thinking of “karaoke in a transitional place” as a narrative device, how it’s about transcendence, death and rebirth, Japan's influence in Asia, and also a cultural technology (a machine that organizes and is organized by local culture, a term from the book Karaoke Around the World).
I’m curious, actually, about your thoughts on this, since my interest in karaoke explores an inversion in the dominant direction of culture—an American take on Asian culture rather than the other way around. How do you understand that as an Asian-American person who also grew up with both Taiwanese and American culture, but in the context of America rather than Taiwan?
SK: Well, the way you talk about your relationship to growing up in Taiwan is fascinating—thinking through a framework in which Taiwan occupies a marginal space and adopts culture from other places like the United States and bootlegs it. I think your interest in technology and the errors that are produced through amateur or bootlegged uses of it has something to do with this. Perhaps your interest in these technologies and the ways in which you can utilize them in non-dogmatic and non-normative ways mirrors your perception that your positionality contains errors, which you’ve felt culturally and personally. I think that might be connected to you aligning yourself to and using these technologies in a way that embraces error, and that’s a rich place to make from.
Location: Brooklyn, NY
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I didn’t grow up with a computer at home, I think the first time we had it was maybe in high school, but I mainly used MSN and BBS to talk to friends and get cursed photos in emails.
I taught myself digital/design software for work, but I had no idea what coding was until I went to grad school, and even then, I wasn’t using it to make art. My high school math teacher was the coolest but he also told us that as an artist, all we needed math for was to get the right change. When I was introduced to creative coding I regretted not spending more time on algebra.
What did you study at school or elsewhere?
I received classical art training during high school in Taiwan and it emphasized technique. I would say a lot of that comes from the Japanese education system, which learned from Western art. I spent a decade recreating the image of Michaelangelo’s David and fine-tuning the tip of his nose with charcoal. What was more memorable to me was a mole on the cheek of a painter in a picture found in a textbook. I spent a lot of time unlearning but also appreciating that muscle memory.
I studied psychology (with a minor in film) and interactive telecommunications. I don't have a studio art degree, but artists around me have been very generous in giving me critique. I found residencies a good place to learn and experiment too.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I now teach and have my own art practice. Previously, I was a researcher at a journalism school. My first job was pouring orange juice at a wedding banquet, then drawing illustrations for the cups of a boba franchise and making Warhol-style boba art for store displays. I still remember during the interview they asked me to draw a hamburger.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)