August 9, 2017

Bites Sizes: Viola Chen

Throughout the Summer Institute, we'll be bringing you Bite Sizes, which is sort of an episodic mini studio visit where we get to know bits about what the participants are up to and a bit about themselves. In this episode, we speak with Viola Chen 陈宜晴

Viola Chen 陈宜晴 doesn’t easily consider herself to be an artist or at least someone who makes things they call art. She immigrated to Canada at 8 years old and like anyone who relocates at that age like she did, grows up adapting and shifting to the social and cultural norms they are met with to reach a level of comfort.

One thing Chen recognizes she has had to adapt is an artistic persona - a role she’s taken on not just to gain a kind of cultural and social capital, but also one that she uses as an approach to survival as a woman of color. The inherit inclination to be creative is something she views as distinctive from almost performing the role of an artist. For her, being artistic is a western construct she’s grown to assimilate into, and is a way to imagine a career or a type of future, or stability within a cultural environment. It is something she is doubtful she would be doing if she never migrated to a place like Canada: “The ability to participate in the professional art world as a professional career is very circumstantial to me being here...My attitude towards art and making art is informed by our sociopolitical economic climate under late capitalism in which everything is commodified and marketed in a certain way." It’s this self-cognizance and awareness that runs through Chen’s output which has predominately been through writing poetry or theory.

As a gendered and racialized person, Chen is interested in using feminist theories that employ self-deprecation and performative self-hatred as discursive devices to gain entitlement: “In order to be self-deprecating you have to come from this place where you know you have access to better things. I can only be self deprecating because I believe I am entitled to something better or something more. So I position the traditionally marginalized subject in a different place because there’s a level of empowerment in that. I’m really interested in how self-deprecation can be used to establish a power dynamic even if it is invisible.”

Another line of attack Chen uses to repossess power as a marginalized body is through the liberal ideology of needing to be inclusive and diverse. She views this seeming need for inclusivity as an opportunity to manipulate the process and make space for herself on her own terms. “If people are interested in exploiting marginalized people to make themselves look more liberal or progressive or whatever…I see that as a way through which I can market these marginalized identities that I do have. It is kind of a way of self-branding and self-commodification comes into play.” Chen adds further: “I’m interested in this space marginalized communities can carve for themselves. Or these vacuums of resistance that you can create. Although, the dominant structure of patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism they are always going to be exploitative towards certain people. I like to think about how I can create these little sites of resistance.”

As you continue to get to know Chen and her articulate thinking processes you can see she’s interested in all these separate concepts and possibilities for binding them together so they are even more coherent. She tells me she’s has interests in social media culture, gender theory, critical race theory, also traditional and contemporary art production and how all those things fit together. For the Institute, she’s been thinking about how to absorb these line of thoughts into something tangible: “I think there is an emotional satisfaction in that,” she asserts.

Chen knows it’s impossible to put those things in physical form but she is very interested in sculpture and installation work. And if those ideas could take physical form what would they look like or what would they feel like.

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