For 356 Mission’s blog and on the occasion of their Wu Tsang exhibition, the artist speaks with writer Fred Moten, with whom Tsang has collaborated in the past. Here, they speak about Tsang’s practice, the artist’s collaboration with the performer boychild, trans legibility, and more. Read the conversations in partial below, in full via 356 Mission.
Fred Moten: So first of all, in my experience of seeing the performance, and then seeing the drawing, or let’s say the transcript of the performance, and then this archive of materials that went into the performance and film, and the film itself, and then recognizing the scale of it all, from something very large, like the canvas of the transcript, to the very small particularities of the materials in the archive—all of it combines in my mind to make me want to ask a question. There are two kinds of spans that I’m constantly thinking about with art. One is a span from lightness to density, and the other is from something more cosmological, in terms of its scope, to something really small. It’s a four-fold: lightness and density; largeness and smallness. The ones who can traverse and maintain movement along those axes, are those who I end up thinking of as being great. Really the first question is: Do you know that you’re great?
Wu Tsang: Haha, Fred!
FM: I wonder what it’s like. It must be a difficult thing to have to deal with. Not so much in terms of living with your own brain, but being able to move on all those different planes and scales. It makes me think of a term Charles Rosen used in regards to Schoenberg’s work: chromatic saturation. There’s certain moments in a composition in which it feels like every note that could be played is being played, a tremendous marshalling of the possible musical material in a way that’s still connected compositionally, without anything having to be left out. Rosen thinks about this with regard to music, but it also connects with color. Your film is just so colorful. There’s this one particular moment where you and boychild are on a boat, and the boat is traversing this canal with the neon… and there’s another moment where the pattern on boychild’s headband becomes almost like a flag and is waving and is almost fading or melding with the image of the water. That richness is what I would talk about in regard to density in your work.
WT: I appreciate what you’re saying, because there are so many choices when it comes to moving-image making. Especially with the all available technologies and formats, it means that you can chose a lot of different ways to communicate. For example, when I made Girl Talk with you we ended up just shooting on an iPhone. I realize now, it was because I wanted the image to fall apart, or be barely there, and also to reference intimate daily communication. There’s not a systematic way of working—I’m not just trying to make something look as fancy as possible by default. But definitely with Duilian there was a choice, at a certain point, to sort of… go for it. What it meant to take on this subject-matter in this context, became about honoring the size of the material, even if it meant having to hustle to make it possible. There were certain things the material demanded, for example filming on a boat in order to be floating between space-time and geography. Working collaboratively with many people to coalesce the poetry translations required a lot of time and energy. I wanted the film to feel like an exquisite corpse, to destabilize identities and narratives. We have talked about art in terms of an axis of lightness and density, but also in terms of an axis of beauty and horror. When I’m working, I’m always searching for a certain kind of pleasure and humor combined with devastation, and the stakes have to become high in order to make a decision.
FM: There are all these things that come into my mind in an obvious way, and that’s what makes me not want to say them. It’s not that they are not real and true, but you have to work for it a little bit. How do you do justice to someone’s story? Somebody’s story is always more than just theirs. You have to get into a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t immediately have access to. If you’re getting a story by way of one person, that means you have to do all this imaginative work to try and do justice to everything and everyone else. But even beyond the simple questions of one person’s story, there’s all these other things you could talk about under the rubric of intensity. It’s like what you were saying: it has to be as beautiful and it also has to be as terrible.
WT: Yes, totally.
FM: It’s not a balance of terror and beauty. It’s all terror and all beauty.
WT: They are not separable.
FM: But then you have to figure out a way to do it, and show it so that people can receive it in a way that does not immediately trigger a certain kind of impulse to reduce. You could be writing about some shit that’s horrible and you write about it in a beautiful way, but you also write about how that horror is completely inextricably bound up with beauty. Especially the relationship between you, boychild, Wu Zhiying and Qiu Jin. How do you create a way for people to be able to accept all of it, without having to reduce it?
WT: I’m aware of critiques, or suspicions, that contemporary art has of narrative and also of beauty, which is something that I find myself wanting to push back on. If you look at it one way, there is a certain privilege to failure or incoherence, which I can’t fully relate to. My experience has been about trying to exist and to thrive, which is something I might relate to being trans. I’m not saying that I’m trying to translate myself into something that I’m not, or to make visible, to use my least favorite word. But for me simply to exist, and the realities that I’m inhabiting— for those things to be communicated and communicable, it’s not the same thing as reducing them. That’s actually something I’m actively trying to do.
FM: It makes me wonder if there must be actually some pretty intense and irreducible relationship between being trans and what it is to be communicable. What it is to be engaged in a general communicability that is beyond or outside of any restrictive and restricted economy of reduction. This is all about what it means to be working in a way that occupies or traverses these spaces that is defined by absolute intensities, densities at the same time as absolute richness and light.
That seems to me to be the goal, the task… and I think that trans is one word for it that is not just one word among others. You know what I’m saying? I have all these shorthand ways of putting shit that I steal from other people, but what I mean is that there are other words that one could use, but none of those words is replaceable. Not only are they not replaceable, they are not substitutable.
WT: Right. One could say brown.
FM: Our friend José [Munoz] would say brown. It’s another word for it, but it, too, is not just any other word. Like you say, I think the privilege comes from feeling like you could kind of slack off.
WT: There’s a position from which some can assume legibility, as a point of departure.
*Image of Wu Tsang via Out