Moved by the Motion: An Interview with Wu Tsang
For those ready to add the descriptor “immersive art” into the trope file, right after the worn-out “iconic'', know that there are remarkable exceptions—borrowed Impressionist images projected on giant walls not being one of them. Referring to her art in New Work: Wu Tsang Presents Moved by the Motion, the artist explains, “It’s like a space you enter into, and the idea is to encourage people to just be open to their senses. What do you touch? What do you hear? What does it make you think about? There’s no right or wrong way to experience it or move. It’s like an invitation.” And yes, you can touch the diaphanous, almost-ombre muted blue, dove and ochre panels, though it’s a viewer’s choice to duck under or around the variegated hems while exploring an intimate space that undulates with saxophone, flute, harp, cello, and piano vocals.
Since 2013, Moved by the Motion has absorbed, sampled and harmonized their surrounding sounds, colors and shapes. Finding unity and distinction, working together from outposts like Detroit, Zurich, and Los Angeles, they invite us to do the same. Visit the installation, energized by this experience produced by the multi-media, spoken word, sculpting, stained glass-making artist Wu Tsang, and remember her mission, “I don’t want to put on them what I want them to experience. I just want to create a circumstance for them to explore.” Enjoy this interview we enjoyed with Wu Tsang just prior to the opening.
Gwynned Vitello: Your work casts a very wide net, so much about the validity of all living entities. I wondered how to describe you. Is she curious, outraged, brave? How do you feel about those adjectives?
Wu Tsang: It might be helpful to start out by talking about the work in terms of collaboration because this project is actually a collaborative work that is created by a collective of artists who I am involved with called Moved by the Motion. Our group started in 2013 and expanded from two or three people, and now is more like seven or eight. It's not a fixed group, although a group of us live together in Switzerland, where we’re currently in residence at the Schauspielhaus Zurich theater.
I think collaboration and performance both unify a lot of the things that I do, and so many ways that I collaborate with people is through performance in that it helps even to connect it to what you’re experiencing here which, essentially, is a collage of recordings that were created by Moved by the Motion. We sort of call it a band, although that’s not totally accurate.
So, someone from Moved in Motion was playing the music I heard walking through the piece?
Everybody involved is creating the music together. There are three vocalists, LA based musician serpentwithfeet, poet Fred Moten and Tosh Basco, who is a performance artist living in Zurich. The composition was arranged by Asma Maroof with instrumental accompaniment by Tapiwa Svose on horns, cellist Patrick Belaga and Anye Simone playing the harp. The way we work, since we’re not all able to be in person together is by working on things, sending them to our friends, where they do a little work, and then sending it back to us. It’s very improvisational, very call-and-respnse, like an Exquisite Corpse.
I’ve heard of the game, but never played it. Elaborate for me.
It’s like a surrealist game where you would draw on a folded piece of paper and then turn it over and pass it to someone, and they continue, without seeing what you have drawn. Then, when you’re finished, you unfold it and have a drawing that no one anticipated because everyone is just contributing their little piece. That’s often how we work.
I was very interested in your short video Shape of a Right Statement, so I am wondering how that came out of such a process.
That’s a video, an early work I made in 2008 as a very young artist, when I was very inspired by Mel Baggs’ presence on YouTube, specifically their autism rights manifesto In My Language. I think that the inadequacy of language to express and articulate our experiences is something that I often like to explore in my work. I think, with Moved by the Motion, what’s really special to me is that what brings us together as a group, as collaborators, is that we’re all working with language, but we’re also trying to work outside of it. So, for example, in this piece, there’s this very tactile curtain that you walk through that you can sort of see through. But then there’s also a very enveloping sound that’s moving and swirling. So if you were to ask me what this piece means, it’s not that straightforward.
Do you think about who is experiencing it, and how it might waft through people’s consciousness?
We often are creating atmospheres. The work is like an invitation, and that’s very much what the collaboration is, as well. I’m very aware of the audience and what their experience might be. And I don’t want to impose an experience on them, I just want to create a circumstance for them to explore. I just did a sound piece at the Guggenheim recently in their big rotunda space. I think sound is a powerful medium, particularly during this time because I feel that with Covid we’ve all been so isolated. With the lockdown and social distancing, people have generally had to reduce social circles to family or whomever you are living with. I think that sound, at least for me, is a very connective medium because it allows people to share something physical in space despite the imposed distance. I think there are still ways to have sensory connections, you know. Sound is very useful to me, in that regard.
People are so excited about coming out to experience live music, and this feels very alive because it’s in an intimate room where you can share the moment or have it all to yourself. But you’re about sharing, so how did you come to realize the collaboration was your motivation, your driving force, and where did the journey begin? Were you one of those kids who was always drawing, always sketching, who knew they wanted to go to art school?
I was always drawing as a kid and I went to art school for painting although I guess that’s not usually part of my narrative, so to speak. If you’re asking how I became a collaborator, I guess it was when I moved to Los Angeles in my early 20s and was trying to figure out what to do with my life, as so many people do, trying to earn a paycheck. I was doing all these different things and started doing clubs with friends. We started throwing parties. A lot of my close friends at the time were DJ’s, and still are. I started getting involved in nightlife and activism that was happening around LA at the time. In the early 2000s there was a lot of activism around queer, trans, and also the the immigrant and the undocumented experience, which, of course, there still is today. I was involved in throwing a party with friends. That was just the local context in which I was a young person going out. It was very fluid between the different social worlds, people doing this activity and that. For three years I did a party called Wildness, which became the subject of a documentary that I made that explores a lot of these themes. Basically, I was a collaborator before I even considered myself to be an artist. I knew I loved working with people in social contexts, and that was the driving force behind becoming an artist.
Actually, at the time I was making Wildness, I was thinking more in terms of being an activist, and I wanted to make a documentary because I felt like that was a way I could communicate with the most people in a really direct way. It was a belief I had at the time that documentary was a more accessible medium than, say, video art installation. I’m working on a feature film project right now that will also have installation iterations. This is kind of what you might call an interlocution or an interplay between visual art and film, or even fashion or theater. I like the interplay because you can say something different in each context with different audiences in mind. I think the audience has also always driven me
Are you saying that you target different audiences?
Well, art, for me, is something anyone can appreciate.
Absolutely, and I liked reading about your sense of “inbetween-ness.” I just imagine you as having a wellspring of , maybe the description is empathy, which I think embraces your activism and collaboration.
Empathy gets close to something, but also quite far from something I do care about. I find empathy to be a difficult word because it implies that you can understand what someone else feels. Language is so inadequate that I don’t think that the right word exists, actually; maybe there’s a word in a language other than English - I should find it! I don’t know if it’s an American cultural thing, but there’s always a pressure to strive for knowing or understanding. What empathy implies is that I can understand by putting myself in your position. I guess the problem with that is we can’t actually occupy another’s position, we cannot really know what it’s like to be someone else.
But that should not inherently limit us. Often for me, it’s about accepting that gap or chasm or bridge that doesn’t connect. There is no actual point where we would fully understand each other, and that’s okay.
We’re always searching for something or someone that is a connection. I even hesitated before describing you as empathetic, but there has to be a word right? Maybe I was thinking of sensitivity, as you seem very open, not to pain, but to bringing people’s feelings to the surface, to help open their minds to exploration. So, can I call that your art, your ability to encourage exploration and connection?
Yeah, you can use all those words. I think maybe I’m just tripping about compressing it all into one. That’s why I kind of explore it through phrasing. It’s like ,”kind of this and kind of that, with certain elements, but not any one of these things completely.”
That reminds me of a time when you partnered with Fred Moten who was identified as a poet, and you as the “artist”, and you both agreed that “We’re both.” And participated in this piece. How did this come about?
This is the second of a series of recording projects that I started two years ago, the first called Sudden Rise. When Eungie’s invitation came to create something here, I knew it would be sound related. Then, of course, we got pushed back because of Covid. So the band has been working on a sound collage. We’ve been doing a series of performances in Zurich, like Orpheus and Compositions I-IV and currently and the recordings more or less come out of this practice of rehearsal where we meet and read texts, go to the studio and record things, so it is sort of a collage. Sometimes I’ll send things to Fred, then he’ll write back a message, he’ll record some things, and we’ll record some things. So it’s just kind of like friendship, honestly - well, I hate using the word, actually.
But yeah, it is like friendship, and also I hate the word because I feel that it reduces what we’re talking about because it’s not about who you’re friends with, but it’s about having an openness to that exchange. Sometimes it’s with people with whom I’ve never worked before. The one in New York at the Guggenheim was a collaboration with singer Beverly Glenn-Copeland. He’s an older transperson who’s 77, and we were not friends when we started the project because he was in Nova Scotia and I was in Zurich, and borders were closed due to Covid. We finally were allowed to go, but we could only film with him for two days. It was a long journey of waiting and anticipation, but the point is that we didn’t necessarily know each other, but we could still find a meeting point to collaborate. That’s why I feel like friendship isn’t the right word, but in a way, it’s like writing emails or letters when you have a chat history with someone.
I’m going to call it "connection," but yeah you see the word, zero-in on it and pull it apart. So, how do you arrive at choosing colors and sounds?
The Danish fabric company Kvadrat, whom I’ve worked with before, supported this project. They have very interesting fabrics, and what intrigued me about the fabric we used is that its function is acoustical. Even though it’s sheer it has a lot of this power of retention. In museums the sound often sounds terrible because it’s just bouncing off endlessly down big spaces. I wanted to work with this material and the colors are like a palette I’ve been working with for awhile - blue, yellow, silver, teal, black and gray.
But very muted shades of those colors. Also, from what I can tell, you’re not wedded to a particular palette.
In this case, yes, because it’s about the sheerness of sound, but yes, I’ve been working with these colors recently. I don’t know why there’s so much blue, blue, blue. I think it’s partly a result of my collaboration with Fred because ‘blue’ is a word that, metaphorically, he uses a lot. It often relates to what we’re talking about, particularly with music collaborations. One of the things we’ve been exploring is free jazz, and so blue is a color so related to that. Maybe that’s subjective, but for me it is.
Subjective, but you do work as a group, so do you think about autonomy?
Honestly, everything kind of unfolds because there is a lot of input from a lot of people; I think that the kind of play with authorship is something that we all like to do. It’s sort of like there are different projects that come out of our collective that are kind of led by one or another of us. And, because I’m leading this project, is why I’m sitting here talking to you today. But there are other projects led by other members of the collective, if that makes sense.
It’s pretty amazing that you all have been working together - successfully - for so long. No big Beatles break-up to worry about.
I think what helps is that we’re not too institutionalized. We don’t actually have official membership. It’s like an open structure for collaboration that some of us conceived together. But often, people come through and they do things or they might take initiative. It doesn’t really belong to any of us; it’s like an invitation for us to collaborate with each other.
Can you describe how the music was created for this piece?
I’m not a musician, for example; I didn’t make this music. Primarily it’s arranged by the electronic musician Asma Maroof. She and I collaborate on all my films. She scores them. We kind of sit together, do it together, but it’s really like her arrangement. And there’s something obvious I should say. All of the instrumental stuff is improvisational. In this particular song that’s on as we talk, it was an improvisation in D minor. So, with Ahya Simone who’s from Detroit, plays the harp, with Tapiwa Svose on sax and flute and Patrick Belaga on the cello.
Everyone was working on this idea of an improv in D minor, and that unified us and got it arranged. Even though we were not in the same room, we were able to have this connecting point. The next soundtrack is one that was an improv in G minor. So it’s just using musical chords as a jumping off point. It all comes together mysteriously and I love it.
That is so much more inspiring decision making than checking off boxes on a scale or employing algorithms. So when you get together in the collective, and I;m thinking about your jazz reference, is that you all just riff on it. Have you always been improvisational?
Maybe we could have started this whole conversation with the subject of improvisation. We started with collaboration, but improv is another through line because it’s primarily what my collaborators and I do. There’s a free fall in improvisation where you have to trust that you’ll land somewhere. It’s not ‘do whatever you feel, whenever you want.’ The arc is the unknown, and yet through continuous rehearsal and repetition, it also has real discipline and structure. It has so much to do with continually doing it and is actually a distillation of all the time we have spent together, if that makes sense. The fact we can just say, ‘improv in D minor’, everybody does it, we put the track together and it sounds pretty much the way you’re hearing it.
New Work: Wu Tsang Presents Moved by the Motion @ SFMOMA, San Francisco rhrough June 5, 2022 // sfmoma.org