How Wu Tsang Is Rejecting The Confines Of Identification and Language

Wu Tsang's work occupies the liminal spaces between identities, between narratives, between words. Sleek talks to Tsang about her process, practice, and two new works at FACT.

Wu Tsang. Image: Niloo Sharifi.

Wu Tsang is difficult to introduce in the usual way; a sentence on her background, another on her preoccupations. Her work is often framed in terms of her identity as a trans woman of colour. But Tsang deals in rejecting the simplistic confines of identification. For those who are culturally what Tsang refers to as “multi-multi”, simple descriptors become inefficient to describe realities which bloom in the liminal spaces between speakable meaning. In both video installations that make up her two-part exhibition which opened at FACT Liverpool on 26th October, she asks us to engage with these liminal spaces; to see severally.

The first work, “We Hold Where Study”, is a double-channel projection. In the overlapping centre, colours become murky, and bodies entangle to make unfathomable shapes. The second, “Under Cinema”, similarly invites our eyes to flicker. The film (which documents Kelela in the process of recording her new album) is accompanied by a second screen, almost out of sight, showing a still video portrait of Kelela. My first question for Wu Tsang when I sit down with her is about this; I want to know why she diverts our eyes, having us strain to see two things at once. She responds by comparing video installation and single channel documentary— “Under Cinema” pairs a silent, still video with the conventional roving documentary narrative we often expect. “I think there’s power in both of those things, in refusing narrative and also utilising it.”

Wu Tsang, Under Cinema, 2017. Installation view: Under Cinema at FACT, UK. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Photo: Jon Barraclough

“We Hold Where Study” engages in the non-representational, rejecting the tyranny of language. Tsang calls it “a poetic film, in that it’s dealing with movement as a dominant language.” Tsang was inspired by her collaborator Fred Moten’s essay “Leave Our Mics Alone”. She compares the clarity of writing with the opacity of images. “You can’t just transpose amazing ideas and text into film. It’s not just about them existing in the film as words, it’s more about them being interpreted and enacted.”

Staying open to ambiguity is a matter of survival for those with multi-multi identities. Home forms our perception of truth, but when home is multifarious or nowhere, absolutes become unnatural. Articulating this often confines and de-contextualises these lived realities, like putting a bird in a cage for display. Tsang’s work explores the possibility of being freed from the burden of articulation. Even the grammatical disruption in the title “We Hold Where Study” creates a moment of confusion. Tsang faces the impossibility of communicating pure experience with acceptance and rebellion. “The question is, is it possible to produce an impossible image?”

Wu Tsang. Image: Niloo Sharifi.

This impossible image she grasps for constitutes an escape from what she terms the “visibility paradigm” LGBT folk and PoC find themselves trapped in. “I try to propose another way of inhabiting images that is not purely reactionary to the things we find to be so fucked up about image making. We either are fighting to be seen, or we are invisible, or we refuse being seen. For me it’s really unproductive. There are so many other ways of existing and making images outside of that.”

We hear the words from Moten’s essay as the film begins:

The hazard of movement,
of moving and being moved,
of knowing that we are affected,
that we are affective.

These artists want to empower us to feel entitled to move in this world, especially those of us who feel out of place in a world not built with them in mind. Ligia Lewis’s choreography, drawn from her own performance work on embodying blackness, provides a counterpoint to the disembodied experience of being watched in the outside world. Tsang’s portrayal of despair as inseparable from joy is comforting in its honesty. On both planes, improvisational movement attempts to rebel against inertia.

Wu Tsang, We hold where study, 2017, 2-channel video with sound, Duration: 18:56 min, dimensions variable. Installation view: “Devotional Document 2” at Kunsthalle Munster. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Commissioned by curator Nadja Argyropoulou for Polyeco Art Initiative. Photo: Roman Mensing

On the left channel of “We Hold Where Study”, boychild and Josh Johnson are in a field surrounded by busy roads and house windows bearing down on them like little eyes. Black tears run down their faces, as they dance with laboured movements around a mirror placed on the grass. The choreography is subdued; often they lie motionless. This contrasts with the light, lithe movements of Ligia Lewis and Jonathan Gonzalez on the right. Safe within the interiority of their studio, movement becomes effortless. Boychild and Johnson fall down as the camera’s gaze hits them; Lewis and Gonzalez dance like no one is watching. In the centre, all four artists become entangled.

These simultaneous videos present problems of multiplicity— as our eye flickers towards one we cannot see the other. Wu Tsang embraces this both thematically and within her collaborative process. “One of the things that I detest most is this idea that I am the sole author of my work,” she tells me. “With Kelela, ‘Under Cinema’ becomes a vehicle for her to speak what she wants to say.” Rather than directing in the traditional sense, she passes the mic to artists she admires. Tsang says she shares Kelela’s interest in making art that comes “from an authentic self place, but is also not about the personal self… It’s a little bit about taking yourself out of the equation.” I am reminded of Kelela exclaiming “I want the aunties on their way to work on my record! Cos that’s me.” Her creative process starts with lived experience, not shrewd marketing. She hopes for black women to value themselves “before someone says ‘You’re great. We wanna make money from you’”.

Wu Tsang, Under Cinema, 2017. Installation view: Under Cinema at FACT, UK. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Photo: Jon Barraclough

The exhibition’s location physically embodies this theme of creating under the weight of the capitalist industry of image making. Head of Programme Ana Botella earlier described her elation that Wu took to the space— it is situated under the gallery’s commercial cinema, and the dimensions of the room are confined by a slanted roof and obtrusive corners. But Tsang was inspired by the negative space left under FACT’s cinema gallery. The opportunity to create a physical underground cinema found such affinity with her show that she titled it accordingly. A set of bleachers dominate the room, transforming Gallery 2 into what feels like a secretive DIY movie club in town for a limited time only. She is repelled by institutionalised art spaces: “The first thing I wanted to do was [discard] the ‘white cube’— it was more like starting with a black box, or more accurately, the nightclub”. Tsang shares Kelela’s priorities: moving lives over the commodification of their image.

With this, Tsang refuses the hyper-self-awareness that is demanded from minorities in a market where the performed self is profitable.To do away with the problem of being seen she de-centres herself. Tsang’s joyful rejection of crippling questions of ego is powerful. Tsang’s voice is soft but sure; “authorship often comes up around things like ‘that’s not yours’, but I think that’s actually, like, a great problem— what happens when you inhabit other people’s materials?”

Wu Tsang, We hold where study, 2017, 2-channel video with sound, Duration: 18:56 min, dimensions variable. Installation view: “Devotional Document 2” at Kunsthalle Munster. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Commissioned by curator Nadja Argyropoulou for Polyeco Art Initiative. Photo: Roman Mensing

Tsang describes her work as “the after-effects of a process,” more about “producing circumstances for images” through relationships than beginning with the image itself. “I think part of it is just letting go of the idea that I could control that process.” Her meandering approach welcomes unpredictability— “It all seems chaotic at the time, but at the end it seems like it was meant to be,” she laughs. She offers an alternative to those who grapple with the impossible task of forging a single self from the fragments that compose us. The image is reimagined as a holding place for multitudes — friends; communities; collaborators. Her work is a joyful escape from the solipsism of artistic production.

Tsang refuses to subjugate the messiness of reality to the idealism of the art image. But I want to know if she believes in the existence of an ideal; is a utopia possible? “No,” she says, “because I think that implies that we don’t have within us the means to have a better experience of the world, and I think it’s more about looking more carefully at the ways that we live”. This puzzles me for a moment, and I ask whether this is sort of giving up on the world. “The opposite… It’s not about projecting like, an alternate future, it’s more about paying attention to what’s actually happening, which is a painful thing. Because reality is painful!” she chuckles as she says this. “But for me… the only world I wanna exist in is the one we’re in.”

Wu Tsang. Image: Niloo Sharifi.

“Under Cinema” and “We Hold Where Study” are on show at FACT until 18th February 2018; for more details, please visit FACT’S website.

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