Could you tell us more about the performance you did for the exhibit?
I read an English-language book “backwards” to gallery guests using the traditional Chinese modality of back-to-front and up-and-down. It’s a modality that was used by my family in their native culture and also cultures that speak Hebrew and Arabic. I was interested in finding out how hearing a scrambled story affects our perception of a familiar or shared narrative. The books used in the performance and the installation “Books on Tape” were somewhat specific to American life, including novels like “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?” “Huckleberry Finn,” Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” and “American Baseball: A History.”
Many immigrants arrive in the U.S. without speaking English and must adopt a new language and culture that initially feels counter-intuitive. As a native English speaker and descendent of immigrants, I was interested in turning the tables on myself.
What interests you about deconstructing language?
It’s human nature to want to connect and spoken language is usually the most available means to do so. When that option isn’t possible, it naturally causes division, alienation, absurdity and sometimes comedy in our daily lives. For example, when I was growing up in an immigrant family, my parents didn’t speak English so I was the translator. This meant that the plumber often had to sit through conversations with a 10 year-old, and that school teachers often got notes written by a kid, excusing themselves for being late, etc. On a heavier note, it also meant that when heady issues came up such as receiving threats from white power groups, finding the right words to make sense of what was happening always felt important. I feel we are all constantly attempting to translate life to each other, no matter what language we speak.
Was it difficult to record 30 – 40 hours of yourself reading books backwards?
It was fun, weird, and also surprising. I think telling each other our stories has meaning even when we don’t understand all the words or how the sentiments go together. Similar to when you travel and can’t read a billboard or don’t understand the guy at the supermarket, but you still grasp what they’re trying to say. I’m forever fascinated with language because what’s unsaid is often as interesting as what is said…..And what’s unspoken leaves a lot to the imagination.
What do you hope people will take away from the exhibit?
I hope people feel they are invited to playfully consider how language affects them on a day-to-day. My intention is to highlight both the struggle and magic in watching each other trying to connect, be heard, and keep our different perspectives relevant. Moreover, the many ways the collective artists in Magic Word look at language feels both empathetic and challenging to our political climate. I find the work by the other artists to be provocative and truth-telling.
I love that the show itself became a meeting ground for the artists to discover each other’s work and unique ways of looking at poly-lingualism. SOMArts has very much given artists a home for this type of conversation.
About Christy Chan:
Christy Chan is an interdisciplinary artist in Oakland working primarily in video, installation, performance and oral storytelling. Her work has been included in exhibitions at Kala Art Institute, Southern Exposure, Root Division, SOMarts, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and in storytelling venues such as NPR. She has been awarded residencies and support from Montalvo Art Center, Project 387, Kala Art Institute, The Headlands Center for the Arts, and Real Time & Space in Oakland. Chan holds an M.A. in Communication Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University.
About the Interviewer:
Tara Chandi is SOMArts’ Communications & Gallery Events Intern. She is pursuing a Master’s in Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts. Her work is focused on designing for sustainable solutions and systemic change.