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STEP travel grant reflection (Seek)

With the STEP travel grant I was able to offset the travel cost to JOYA: Arte + Ecología, an artist residency in Southern Spain. During the residency, I completed the research and video shoot for my project, found spontaneous collaborations and developed new relationships with fellow artists.

The impetus for the project was to use the camera as a device for meditation and synthesize the footage in a video. As I became more interested in the relationship between autobiographical materials and universal emotions through tales, I shifted from this originally generative approach to focus more on storytelling with pre-meditated imageries. I wrote a script before departing Rotterdam, in which I set the main scenes near a lake.

When I arrived in Veléz-Blanco, the local climates suggested something different from the lake scenes. The land was arid. There was no visible body of water. All of us at the residency were encouraged to conserve by keeping shower water in buckets and washing dishes in bins. Coming from an urban environment where water is taken for granted as part of the infrastructure, its sudden scarcity provoked new thoughts:

What is the essence that I want to convey through water? Can I evoke the same message in a drastically different landscape?

To find the answers, I developed a routine. Each morning I left the dwelling and walked down into the barranco, a type of ravine formed by erosion (both by rainfall and agro-pastoral modification common in this region). I observed the weather, geology, flora and fauna with my video equipments: a DSLR camera, two lenses, a field recorder, a pair of headphones and a tripod. The barranco inspired new development of the script and became the central imagery of the video.

Collaborations took place both within the project and across dinner tables. For the video, I collaborated with two volunteers I met at the residency, Lucy Wade and Francesco Ferrari. I recruited Lucy as the voice of the video and Francesco as the musician. For one of the communal dinners — which our hosts generously provided every night — I planned a Mexican menu and cooked with two London-based Korean artists who stayed at the residency concurrently. Our friendship continues beyond JOYA.

During my stay I also learned about JOYA's ambition in the cultural ecosystem in the region of Almería, Spain. The organisation hosts a constant stream of contemporary artists, architects, writers and provides knowledge of the history, economy and environment of this rural area of Spain. The founders, Simon and Donna, also curate. They have invited artists to exhibit in the medieval castle in the village of Veléz-Blanco, generating a new form of cultural tourism. The ground of the farmhouse — with its own water treatment system and wind turbine — is also an educational site for permaculture and off-grid living.

The travel grant was the first grant I received after my decision to further my artistic career in Europe. The funding alleviated some financial burden for a young artist with a non-EU, non-western passport like myself. (Visa was not a concern this time as I currently hold a temporary residence permit from the Netherlands.)

I am currently editing the footage I gathered during the residency. The final version of the video will be screened at the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam in early March and will be publicly accessible on my vimeo page around the same time.

The roles of theory and story in my work: how I made Seek (an unfinished essay that never started)

[I never finished this essay, partly because I stopped wanting to analyze the work, Seek, and moved on before the deconstruction happened. This essay would connect: my recent piece of work, theories on photographic and cinematic time/"the arrow of time" (in physics), the story as structure. The part on theory is still quite useful.]

I want to write it in a personal tone rather than an academic one.

In the first part I will describe my 3-minute film seek - my process of arriving at a script and changing it based on the environment the footage was gathered. I will detail how I internalise a story I heard from a friend into a story embodying emotions of my own.

In the second part I will link specific scenes of the film to concepts of film theory (such as the use of photography in cinema). How does theory help me make aesthetic decisions?

Last, I will write more in-depth about how story serves as the overall structure. Why am I drawn to story (after distancing myself from it) and how story-telling fits the medium of the moving image?]

-- part on theory (rough) --

I read The Cinematic, an anthology of film and photography theories, with the intention to familiarize myself with relevant film theory vocabularies. The benefit of reading the anthology is the quick access to a sizable amount of different perspectives in one single volume. The drawback, on the other hand, is the density of abstract ideas and abstraction. The anthology includes pieces of canonical texts as well as criticisms regarding these pieces. This anachronism was confusing.

Luckily, I was shooting for a video project while reading these and had a chance to contemplate the theories through doing. My script featured a voice in search of a lost past with imageries based in nature.

Discussions about certain photographic quality of cinema [cite text] and the contemplations on real versus cinema time [cite text] had an impact on me during the production.

I came to realize that I am more interested in the cinematic — movement, association, directed experience in a set time — than the photographic — the captive moment that allows pondering for as long as one wishes.

So far, theories play a few roles in my practice:

1. Theories give me a historical perspective of what has been done. I am not studying art history in any comprehensive fashion, but through theories I am gradually learning to place my works and their relevance in accordance to the form(s) I choose.

2. Theories provide soundbites for rumination. I avoid jargons in describing my work (or even writing the imaginary wall text for it). When I read jargon-sounding words, however, the terms become starting points for connecting systems of knowledge. In articulating these connections I can strive to be genuine, specific, and unpretentious.

3. The case studies from theories give me works to see/watch/research, which helps widen my perspective. The fact that some of them resonate with me more than others drive me to inquire about my own preference — visually, narratively, affectively. By reflecting on other people's work I can also be more certain about my own aesthetics and processes.

Reflecting on autobiography in my own work: reading Alexander Chee's The Autobiography of My Novel

A year ago, I wrote a short story called Eating Alone in Tallin. I call it a short story because I perceive it as fiction based on an encounter as I traveled in Estonia. But if I were to be precise, I should say that it was translated from that encounter, for which I substituted "I" with "she" first and developed the characters further with my imagination.

I remember reveling in the newly-discovered angle of the observer, watching the protagonist and those she interacted with from a distance. I was able to describe the external and internal happenings of all characters — she, the waiter, the couple, the lone man. "She" represented someone mysterious, naïve and melancholic. The discovery of “she” led to a deeper curiosity towards her surroundings. From me. To the readers.

When I shared the story with a writing group, I didn’t mention its genesis until I received comments on the actual language. (Many were fascinated by the waiter and his actions.) I then told the group how I came about this writing. “Have you heard of auto-fiction,” someone asked me. (She was a PhD in English Literature, I later found out.) “It’s a debated term.”

Although I am aware of the use of “I” in fiction — a potent example is Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness — I have never been able to write fiction with it. My use of "I" was divided: in creative non-fiction whenever my writing was to be shared publicly and in private journals. The public, non-fiction use of "I" changed, however, when I started writing plays, in which the characters always spoke in first person ("I am tired of your sweet little nothings.") There was something about plays that enabled me to write "I" publicly, but I never quite understood how or why.

That's why I am drawn to Chee’s essay. As he walks the reader through the process of writing his first autobiographical novel, Ediburgh, I am starting to understand my conflicted with of using personal materials publicly and the liberation play as a form has brought me.

Chee shows his struggle of arriving at the final novel after attempts with different narratives, characters and plots. He refers to an early character before conceiving Edinburgh as "in some way autobiographical." The character, Jack Cho, possesses the same cultural background (immediately visible in the name) as Chee, and has the same sexual orientation, political leaning and activist practice. Chee calls him a cipher, “someone who is like me but not me.” Through the character Chee writes about his personal struggles in friendships, relationships and breakups.

At the time Chee was uninterested in writing about identity. “I was still discovering that this identity—any identity, really—was unreliable precisely because it was self-made.” He was fighting against the idea that he represented an identity (Korean American, gay, or both) in which other people found more meaning than he did.

This speaks to me. The reason that a lot of my “I” writing is trapped in non-fiction is, perhaps, out of the obligation (so I feel) to clarify an identity that has been burdened with other meanings. Two of the most predominant ones are, namely: Chinese (and a certain generation of it) and American (and a certain sect of it).

Chee keeps a binder of fragments of writing from his MFA at Iowa: short stories, poetry and chapters of an early novel, which he regards as gestations towards a novel about his experiences in life. He later describes his first attempt as unsuccessful because it merely presents a list of what happened, which is not necessarily a meaningful journey for the readers. His comments on the use of tenses are particularly interesting:

  I was interested in this idea of the self brought
  to a confrontation with the past through the
  structure of the narration. I found that writing in
  the present tense acted as self-hypnosis. …
  Using it casts a powerful spell on the writer’s
  own mind. And it is a commonly used spell.
  The present is the verb tense of the casual story
  told in person, to a friend — So I’m at the park,
  and I see this woman I almost recognize . . . —
  a gesture many of us use. It is also the tense
  victims of trauma use to describe their own

In plays, characters engage in direct speech or action most of time. One of my playwriting teachers once said, “if you find your character start a sentence with: do you remember… Slash it.” The characters use present tense. They do things in real stage-time. They are not recounting events but living them. This might explain why I am able to write as characters (and, when structuring the play, for) rather than about them, and why I have no trouble writing “I must tell you this. I must I must I must won’t you just list—” with a sincere sense of urgency than I would ever be able to muster up in non-fiction.

Chee starts his second attempt. “I wanted to write a novel that would take a reader by the collar and run. And yet I was drawn to writing stories in which nothing happened,” he reflects on his past works, which he later realizes as a reenactment of his childhood trauma -- to remain “still and silent” in order to protect himself from harm. In contrast, he finds plots from melodrama, something he has not written, resonate with the kind of novel his wants to write. “Stories about the most difficult things need to provide catharsis, or the reader will stop reading, or go mad.”

Chee elaborates on his investigation into plot. As he reads Aristotle’s Poetics, he finds that he needs action rather than narration, which coincides with his realization on using present tense, and that his biggest problem is to create poetry rather than history. “A simple recounting did not convince,” he now sees the insufficiency of retelling what happened to him (and his mother) as was, “even if it felt like one of the great tragedies of my life… As a story, it was only the account of good people undone by misfortune.”

Revelation for Chee. And I.

What I have done in “Eating in Tallin” might have been great for developing characters, but should I write a substantial story with the goal to move beyond just evoking melancholy, the method of changing “I” to “she” will not sustain. The translation of life events into fiction in this case is, at best, the account of a woman eating and feeling amused by being alone in a crowd.

Chee chooses the plot of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, a tragedy, and changes the characters to fit the purpose of his storytelling. He takes inspirations from the myth of kitsune, the shape-changing Japanese fox demon, and -- with memories of his father pulling out a red hair (mythologized as a sign of having fox ancestry) and his own imagination about the demon -- constructs a half-Korean, half-fox protagonist. “[The protagonist] meets him when he takes a job at his school, falls in love with him, and is seduced, unknowingly, by the son of the man who molested him as a child, these many years later. Only after they fall in love do they discover the truth about each other.”

Now I come back to my relationship with autobiography. I have written two scenes of a play with all autobiographical materials. The first is a child observing the a line of ants moving the body of a dragonfly. The fifth (as I numbered it, for I always thought I would add more scenes in between) is a person, struggling with visa regulations and being forced to leave America. I have thought of my personal life as thought-provoking, yet the best way to tell the story that will lead to moments of: sadness, aloneness, loss, vulnerability, and the empathy of all of these, is perhaps not an autobiographical one. It is something rooted in autobiography but goes beyond it.

Does it go towards the portrayal of a universal humanness (as in Humans of New York) or does it go towards what Chee (and, to some degree, LeGuin) has done: an other-worldly telling of a tale?

For now, I remain pondering.