Perspectives on Asian American Performance Art: Contexts, Memories, and the Making of Meaning on Stage. An Interview with Canyon Sam, Denise Uyehara, and Brenda Wong Aoki
Kimberly May Jew Washington and Lee University
This interview was inspired by absence. Though performance art has a rich history as a viable and expressive counterpart to traditional text- based theater, performance art’s ephemeral and individualistic nature has worked against its inclusion in the mainstream critical discourses of print culture and academia. Performance art embraces the central role of the performer and revels in the imaginative and physical processes of acting before an audience; it has therefore tended to ﬁ nd its place in the under- valued, embodied “repertoire” rather than in the hegemonic, text-based “archive.”1 This interview with three diverse Asian American women investigates how their performances function as embodied practices that carry cultural memories, visions, and ideals. My quest to document the personal experiences of Canyon Sam (1956–), Denise Uyehara (1966–), and Brenda Wong Aoki (1953–) amounts to an offering to the Asian American archives. An actor-centered performance art that downplays text and strict narra- tive structure dates back to the classical Greek mimes and ﬂ ourished in the sixteenth-century improvisational performances of the commedia dell’arte actors. Banned from performing in formal Greek and Shakespearean the- atrical events, female actors featured strongly in these alternative venues. As a self-conscious theatrical genre, however, performance art did not achieve prominence until the post-modern era, when theater artists began openly questioning the stability of character, the veracity and relevance of story, the controlling role of the author, and the boundaries of genre and aesthetics, high art and low art. Within this ﬂ uid world of experimenta- tion, performance artists found a discourse through which to articulate their exploration of movement, voice, stage presence, visual art, space, performance objects, music, multimedia, politics, theatrical effect, and subjectivity. In particular, Asian American theater artists have embraced the artis- tic freedom of performance art. Artists as diverse as Lane Nishikawa, Margaret Cho, Jude Narita, Ping Chong, Aasif Mandvi, and Dan Kwong
have been able to challenge and subvert ethnic stereotypes, humanize the Asian body and voice on stage, enjoy an empowered subject position, and revel in an aesthetic world in which boundaries, identities, and narratives are in ﬂ ux. Because performance art assumes the actor as the primary gen- erative force of the performance, the Asian American actor is given wide range to draw attention to his or her own living and diverse presence(s) before an audience. For instance, an audience member watching the often stereotype-busting Margaret Cho might ask, “When does the ‘actor’ Margaret Cho become the ‘character’ Margaret Cho? And vice versa? And most importantly, is this woman for ‘real’?” Or perhaps, a spectator at a large-scale Ping Chong visual extravaganza might ask, “How does Ping Chong’s apparent inclination toward traditional Asian aesthetics ﬁ t within his strong identity as an Asian American raised in New York City?” The three female performance artists interviewed here highlight the great range of approaches, tactics, and goals demonstrated by the past forty years of Asian American performance art. Canyon Sam, for instance, is a San Francisco-based writer known for her explorations of Tibetan life, culture, and the experiences of women, including her own upbring- ing as a Chinese American daughter. Neither a trained actor nor a theater artist, Sam stumbled upon the possibilities of live performance during her graduate studies. Of the three performance artists in this interview, her work is the most realistic in its emphasis on the creation of true-to- life, believable, and empathetic characters, many of whom she met on her travels through Asia. A solo performer who uses minimalist staging, Sam is committed to social activism, feminist perspectives, and storytell- ing. Her performance art works include The Dissident (1991), Taxi Karma (1991), and The Capacity to Enter (1999). Her non-ﬁ ction book, Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History (2009), has been awarded the PEN American Center’s Open Book Award for 2010. Denise Uyehara, an interdisciplinary performance artist, writer, and playwright, is the most overtly experimental of three women performers. Based in Tucson and Los Angeles, she creates highly conceptual pieces that are strongly image-oriented, often downplaying the spoken word in favor of fragmented and poetic phrases and expressionist-styled rants and revelations. Furthermore, her pieces foreground striking physical actions and Uyehara’s sometimes disturbing interactions with performance objects, including her own body. In order to explore the broad issues of gender, family, identity, and the politics of home, Uyehara employs a tech-savvy visual approach and often includes audience participation. Her performance art work and writing include Headless Turtleneck Relatives (1997), Hello (Sex) Kitty: Mad Asian Bitch on Wheels (1998), Hiro
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(1994), Maps of City & Body (1998), Big Head (2003), and The Senkotsu (Mis)Translation Project (2009). Maps of City & Body: Shedding Light on the Performances of Denise Uyehara (2003) is a collection of her major scripts. Of the three artists, Brenda Wong Aoki has enjoyed the longest career so far, and is arguably one of most inﬂ uential performance artists of her generation. A San Francisco-based performance artist, Aoki creates mono- dramas rooted in traditional storytelling, dance movement, and music. A global artist, she combines Eastern and Western narratives and theatri- cal traditions such as noh, ky ôgen, commedia dell’arte, modern dance, Japanese drumming, and American jazz. Aoki is Brechtian in her ability to play the diverse roles required by her stories (with accent and affect), while adding a distinctly contemporary feminist American twist to her speaking role as narrator. Aoki’s monodramas are extremely theatrical, highlighting costume, her long and versatile hair, and integrating disparate forms of music and dance. Her performance art work includes Tales of the Paciﬁ c Rim (1990), Obake! Tales of Spirits Past and Present (1991), The Queen’s Garden (1996), Random Acts of Kindness (1994), Mermaid Meat (2000), Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend (1998), Kuan Yin, Our Lady of Compassion (2002), and The Legend of Morning Glory (2008). The interview that follows was conducted over a three-month period with questions presented in two separate sessions. Questions centered around two main topics: the artistic context for Asian American female performance art and the performance artists’ contributions to the creation of Asian American cultural memory and history. The questions for the second session were based in part on the answers received in the ﬁ rst. Interviews were conducted through e-mail, telephone, and in person.
Kimberly May Jew: Performance art is notoriously hard to deﬁ ne. How would you begin to articulate the goals, boundaries, and processes of this theatrical form?
Canyon Sam: I think performance art is any work that is crafted to be performed before a live audience, where the person has taken some care to craft his or her art and take seriously his or her capacity as an artist. I have seen great solo performance art that included puppetry, juggling, drum- ming, moving chairs around, opera singing, and so on. I think that the intention would be to contribute to the ediﬁ cation of the human condition, either through insight, beauty, understanding, truth, or humor. My own work deals strictly with meat-and-potatoes elements such as character,
characterization, drama, humor, and narrative storytelling. I don’t usually have an end goal except to explore an issue myself and discover how I feel about it. It’s a bonus when anyone else is stirred by it.
Denise Uyehara: The term performance art casts a wide net over many disciplines and pushes the limits of its own form and content. Performance artists give themselves permission to use anything they need—poetry, movement, manifestos, gibberish, actions, invisible theater, ants, experi- mental theater, maps, found limbs, and other objects—to communicate something of urgency. Some works of performance art are more directly political than others. I believe the best art is served up live and subversive but in dialogue with its own structure as well. It questions its own “rules” and terms set forth with the audience. The work does more than give the viewer the answers, but instead it makes her/him ask even more questions. To me some of the most effective performance art by people of color and women ventures beyond beating white people over the head with guilt and instead inserts larger questions, smaller surprises, and subversive moments into their presentation. Plus, I’m not a damn VHS tape. Each time I perform will be different, and I expect that the viewers will enter the conversation with me.
Brenda Wong Aoki: I am glad that someone today would put me under the category of performance art. I was always multi-disciplinary, and I remember people saying, “Brenda, if you are going to dance, you can’t talk, and if you are going to act, you can’t be moving on stage like this.” I came out of many disciplines—I was a music major, I studied noh and kyôgen, I studied dance—and I kept incorporating everything because it’s in my blood: Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Scots. If all that can ﬁ t into my body, then all these different ways of expression should be able to ﬁ t inside too. Words are so much weaker than what you see; the way we com- municate is not by the words but by the tone of the voice or the physicality. You can read so much in the body, I’m not going to be able to separate anything out.
KMJ: How would you characterize your own unique approach to creating performance art?
Denise Uyehara: Some of my work is more risky, but some of the process just requires me to listen quietly to the story that is there, kind of like chis- eling away at a giant stone, until, through a series of choices of where to cut, you come to something smaller with a shape, texture, and emotional
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impact. It’s usually much smaller than the big idea I had at the beginning. After years of creating, I realize I have a body of work. Although I don’t go around announcing it, I consider myself a performance auteur (auteur in French means author; a ﬁ lm auteur for example, has a distinct voice despite the ﬁ lm industry’s inﬂ uence). Not that all my work looks the same, but I have a distinct voice and aesthetic approach to my perfor- mance and writing. I use the term auteur with humility instead of arro- gance: the longer I live, the more I must return to zero and really listen to create my work. I try to get all public expectations out of my head when I create—I have to “get out of the way.” I look to other artists who do this as well, such as Meredith Monk, Atom Egoyan, and David Rousseve. I am still in training.
Brenda Wong Aoki: I think one of the things that makes me unique, and Mark Izu [her husband and collaborator] too, is that both of us studied with Living National Treasures; Nomura Mansaku is a Living National Treasure, and Togi Suenobu was a member of the imperial court. Commoners in Japan don’t get to do this. If we lived in Japan, there’s probably no way I would even be interested in studying traditional forms, let alone be able to get close to Mansaku. So I think that’s something that makes us different, because we studied traditional Japanese art and then we put that together with our American sensibilities. I think what makes us unique is our devel- opment of an eclectic form.
Canyon Sam: I think one aspect that characterizes my work is the mix- ture of a lighter tone with a serious tone and the use of weighty subject matter. Janice Mirikatani once wrote in the late 1970s or early 1980s that what made my work distinctive at the time in Asian American writing was how funny it was. Often I weave humor in with heavy subject mat- ter. Regarding source material, I talk about Tibet, human rights, genocide, Buddhism, and nonviolence; I do it often in the voices of Tibetan people or other non-Americans. In that way, I’m very inﬂ uenced by the times I’ve lived in Asia and the people I’ve been close to outside of the United States. In the world of my plays I am also aware of, and informed by, signiﬁ cant social movements of the twentieth century of which I have been a part, such as radical feminism, racial and social issues, and lesbian/gay issues. Sometimes they are the social setting in which scenes take place.
KMJ: Let’s complicate the question by adding the contexts of ethnicity and gender. What does it mean to you to be an “Asian American female performance artist”?
Brenda Wong Aoki: For me, being Asian American has always been a little bit problematic, because early on, being of mixed race, we weren’t accepted by the Asian community, so I never felt Asian. Only more recent- ly as the world has changed, and more Asians are becoming mixed, can I feel more comfortable being Asian American. But of course my work comes out of my experiences as an Asian American woman. A lot of the performances I create come out of legends and old stories and I love to mix it all up from an American woman’s point of view. For instance, The Bell of Dôjôji, a noh and kabuki play, is tradi- tionally about a poor monk who is deﬁ led by a woman of ﬂ esh. I always do this piece from the point of view of the poor woman who is abused by the monk. Even in Morning Glory, I used my contemporary woman’s perspective to twist an old story. If you get down to what I’m doing, it’s what women have done in traditional cultures for years. My role is that of a shaman, someone who stands before the people talking in metaphor and symbol and through the word, movement, and music tries to move spirit and weave the people into a family or a community. It might be that my family is part Ainu; I was just too thrilled to ﬁ nd that out recently, because the Ainu women are shamans.
Canyon Sam: Being an Asian American performance artist means I’m portraying the life and experience of the Asian American female in dra- matic theater. If it were being portrayed—in the popular media, in culture, in theater, and in literature—I wouldn’t have had to do it. But since it wasn’t, I decided it needed to be done. I was a writer for more than ten years before I started doing performance art; the reason I began writing in the late 1970s was because in the lesbian/gay rights movement at that time, Asian American women were invisible, so I started writing to portray that experience. When I started doing performance art in the early 1990s, it was really as a vehicle to share the lives of Tibetan women, whom I had met and whose stories and experiences I felt really needed to be told to the world and told in a more dramatic, visceral way than the medium of print literature. Actually, I came into performance art by accident. I was preparing to go to graduate school and part of a prerequisite was a creative thesis, for which I chose to try doing solo performance. I matched that assignment with some powerful and moving interviews I had just conducted of a Tibetan nun while living in the Indian Himalayas in the Tibetan capital- in-exile. The result was my ﬁ rst show, The Dissident. After that, I had the hang of creating performance pieces, so when I had an idea for another
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piece, years later, I tried it. That show, Capacity to Enter, was also suc- cessful.
Denise Uyehara: Identity labels help us talk about oppression, talk about possible similarities among certain groups of people. But they can also limit us. I used to call myself a queer bisexual Asian American perfor- mance artist. Now I say I am an artist interested in issues of memory and identity. I’ve broadened the way I talk about my interests and the narrative of “who I am,” which has been a liberating choice for me. Over dinner after my performance at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Professor Lucy Burns [of UCLA] and I discussed if my work was still “queer” even when my recent work examines the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the treatment of those perceived as “the enemy” in a post 9/11 environment. She pointed out that queerness can be found in topics beyond those that are explicitly about queer identity. My queer and feminist identity becomes part of my exploration into infringements of our civil liberties. I’ve found that having come into solo performance work during the identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s, I had begun to paint myself into an identity corner. I wanted to make sure I could always be queer, feminist, Asian American, and a person of color, but wanted to also add new con- cerns that connected me to other communities—local and global. I knew if I couldn’t make those larger connections I was never going to move beyond telling the essentialized story of myself. So I had to really question the way I constructed identity in the midst of creating work about identity. I was not able to have convenient answers to any identity. I had to allow for complex and often contradictory narratives for words such as feminist, Asian American, queer, and performance artist.
KMJ: In comparison to a written and staged play, what does performance art offer to audiences?
Canyon Sam: I think while literature and print allows you more room to roam in some ways, performance is very direct in the way it touches peo- ple—it reaches people’s hearts and emotions immediately and powerfully, at the sensory level. In my show The Dissident, audience members told me they could pick up political pamphlets about any number of important causes and endangered groups, and though they were sympathetic, put the pamphlet down again. Whereas to see and witness the experience of the nun character in my show facing the brutal conditions of arrest, impris- onment, and torture by this repressive government was something that
impacted them personally. Audiences can see it and hear it and become witnesses when they see a dramatic scene and become identiﬁ ed with a character.
Denise Uyehara: Performance art offers a very immediate and do-it-your- self form in which artists can express complex, contradictory ideas—in particular, contradiction within the body. The moment I walk on stage, my body signiﬁ es my ethnicity and gender. It’s already contradictory to many that this Asian face can speak English. So I ﬁ gure, let’s mix it up com- pletely: the form is also the content and both will blow your mind. It also gives renegade artists a chance to be in dialogue with more straight-up Asian American theater and community-based workshops. Many performers of color have begun teaching workshops, passing the baton to emerging artists. I’ve learned to create space for all different types of performance in these laboratories, but I always challenge artists to go beyond the straightforward narrative, because life isn’t really a simple nar- rative with an easy answer. If my narrative is that easy, then I am no longer dangerous; I am co-opted. My performance art also informs my playwriting for the stage: I include moments of post-modern movement, scraps of text, ﬂ ashes of images, and juxtaposition of strange objects and ideas on the theater stage. To para- phrase a mentor of mine, Marta Savigliano, human beings are very com- plex creatures who can hold contradictory ideas in their minds and their heads do not explode. If that is the case, perhaps we need to expect more of our audience than a simple, linear story.
Brenda Wong Aoki: There is something so powerful about ﬁ rst voice—it transcends gender, race, and economics; it gets to the heart. And you can’t dispute it: this is my experience, my heart is on a plate. Psychologists always say that when you’re ﬁ ghting with people, you should always use “I” words because the ﬁ rst voice is so immediate, so intimate. In perfor- mance art you can speak in your ﬁ rst voice, you can break the fourth wall, you can talk directly to the audience. And the audience has a ﬁ rst voice too. One of the most amazing things to happen to me was when we performed Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend at Stanford University. After the performance we put up microphones and asked people to witness to being people of mixed race. Of the eight hundred audience members, half stayed and talked through the night. These were not just students but also community mem- bers experiencing personal catharses in front of us. As the performers, we were like, can we go home now?
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KMJ: How does the issue of the audience’s ability to access your perfor- mance affect your work? In other words, do you reshape your performance for a group of diverse high school students versus a group of nondiverse regional theater goers?
Brenda Wong Aoki: I try to ﬁ nd out as much as I can about who the audi- ence is going to be—age group, demographics, etc., because it makes a difference even though I’m doing the same show. It makes a difference in my head, attitude, and tone of voice. I used to feel, but maybe it’s changing now, that in the United States when people outside the big cities booked me, they wanted me for the “kimono and fan.” But the funny thing is that when I perform abroad, people are like, “But aren’t you an American?” And in Japan, I’m actually considered an incredibly avant-garde American artist because one, I’m combining noh and kyôgen movement; two, I’m speaking English; and three, I’m not a man. In the United States, I’m con- sidered a “traditional Japanese performer,” but what I do is not traditional in Japan.
Canyon Sam: I’ve found that my pieces ﬁ nd a better reception with the audiences who can identify with the main character and the world of the play. My piece about a contemporary American character (Capacity to Enter) went over fantastically at Smith College, a liberal East-Coast women’s college, but sank when I went unwittingly before an audience of ﬁ rst-generation college students who had all emigrated from other coun- tries. The audiences who received it well shared my cultural references and political sensibilities. On the other hand, my piece The Dissident was very immediate to that same audience of immigrant college students, because they were all from conﬂ ict-ridden and war-torn nations. Where the American audiences took the torture and political repression as horriﬁ c and barbaric, the audience of immigrant college students all clamored to say, “Yeah, that happened in my country too!” They identiﬁ ed with it.
Denise Uyehara: Early on Nobuko Miyamoto asked me to perform in a trio for her company Great Leap at a library. I planned to perform a work about my grandmother’s suicide. But when we arrived I panicked: the audience was all children and senior citizens. I had to do the piece any- way. I told the story of her ﬁ ery death while rubbing charcoal on an easel behind me. When I stepped away, there was a blank spot in the middle of charcoal. Later, I performed her talking to me as if in a dream. In the post- show discussion, an elderly man stood up and said, “The love you have for your grandmother is bigger than this room.”
After the performance I was about to roll up the paper when the chil- dren gathered around me, asking me what I had drawn.
“What do you see?” I asked. “I see the grandmother’s hair.” “I see angel’s wings.” “A halo!” “I see the grandmother and grandfather kissing in heaven.”
I will never forget that day.
KMJ: Trauma is a feature in all of your works. What is empowering about communicating and embodying trauma on stage as an Asian American woman?
Denise Uyehara: In 1992 my grandmother committed suicide by lighting herself on ﬁ re in her car. Our family was in emotional upheaval. I realized I needed to create a piece that re-explored her last moments, and also let her talk to me in a monologue. I remember having to learn to listen to myself, my grandmother, my family, and my ancestors, so that the work would resonate. More recently, I responded to a hate crime in which Asian Americans beat a South Asian man and his family, believing he was Middle Eastern. I created a clay animated ﬁ gure that is torn apart as I dance in the projec- tion, playing both the attacker and the attacked. We all have the potential to love as well as hate. As with many other people of color, women, and queer-identiﬁ ed peo- ple, Asian Americans have experienced violence and yet we have no place to put these traumatic moments. When the Sacred Naked Nature Girls, of which I was a founding member, brought in performance artist Elia Arce to direct us, she would say performance was like a vessel in which we can put all these ideas. Just let them be there together, at the same time. See what rises to the surface. Often, something transformative rises to the top. Sometimes you just have to let things be. Sacred Naked Nature Girls explored the ﬁ ne line between rape and rape fantasies, eroticism and pornography, and race and class issues. We did not have neatly resolved answers to our work, and it was difﬁ cult terrain.
Canyon Sam: I am a dramatist, so I use methods of dramatic tension to engage audience members. The heart of this is the main character facing down nearly insurmountable challenges in high stakes situations; I use the depiction of trauma and of the character overcoming trauma to grip the
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audience’s attention. The viewing of trauma, therefore—especially because these are true experiences that happened to real people—is empowering, because it offers portrayals of courage, determination, resourcefulness, and strength to the audience and the community.
Brenda Wong Aoki: I am really against pimping pain, but if you are tell- ing something that will help someone else, it’s really important to do that. I always tell the story of when I performed a play about my nephew who was shot in a drive-by in Los Angeles, in Tennessee, a state where they don’t have drive-bys. At the time, I thought: why am I doing this? But I felt moved to do this play and afterward, so many people came up to me, people who had lost loved ones in Iraq, people who knew senseless violence; violence is all over the world. It was so important to do this play because there was a connection there. In performing trauma, it’s the message that’s important; you need to do it well and for a reason. Sometimes a lot of younger artists do trauma really badly, and it’s so colonial to go up there and bitch and moan. It pre- supposes that someone is going to save your ass. No one is going to save your ass; it’s up to us to decide for ourselves. And how are you going to move anyone by complaining?
KMJ: Can you cite any examples in performance art where the artist may be objectiﬁ ed, disempowered, or rendered ineffective in creating an Asian American female subjectivity on stage? Is there dangerous Asian American performance art?
Brenda Wong Aoki: The reason I started to create my own work was that I was tired of playing the prostitute, the dragon lady, the domestic. I’ve seen some really bad performance art, and I can imagine that when I was younger, I was probably doing stuff like that too. I think it’s a matter of spending time with your craft. I remember seeing a piece by young Asian American women performers. They had projections of Asian women beaten up, raped, bleeding, you know, horriﬁ c, really horriﬁ c stuff. And they stood there and kept saying to the audience “fuck you, fuck you.” It was so bad. Was that art? Why would we pay to go see that? Is this doing any- thing? I was so embarrassed. I wanted to say to my Asian sisters, why are you yelling at me? I’m on your side.
Canyon Sam: I have seen work by performers that I thought traded on stereotypes of Asians, Chinese in particular, which I found offensive. I noticed that the audiences in that case, or maybe it was two different
shows by the same performer, were mainstream, that is, older, well-heeled Euro-American subscribers of the theater. I was ﬂ abbergasted at the time, as a member of the audience; I believe I was the only Asian person in the audience. I remember looking around and thinking, “Is no one else seeing what’s going on here?” I have also seen Asian American performers, male and female, write and perform characters who are Asian from various Asian countries that I felt were ill-founded characterizations. They were not culturally accurate, given what I know about people in those countries. Not that I’m an expert, but based on the times I’ve lived in Asia, I feel that even the ways people express themselves and communicate in different cultures, separate and distinct from the content of what they’re saying, is different from how we express ourselves in the West. That can be dangerous, because when American audiences see an Asian person, albeit Asian American, repre- senting an Asian character, it sinks into their minds as being accurate and representative. In these cases it was not accurate; it was projection, fabri- cation, or whatever. Then those white persons go away thinking that they know something about Asian people.
Denise Uyehara: I believe the only real dangerous art is the kind that has been co-opted by the dominant culture. That is, the kind that doesn’t think for itself, but gives the audience what they expect or reinforces stereotypes and expectations, such as easy answers to stories of immigration, racism, homophobia, and violence. This might include romanticizing these themes or just recreating stock characters. I believe truly engaging work ﬁ nds the emotional complexity of any situation.
KMJ: What are the best means by which to document performance art for the archives? How can we preserve your work for future generations? And what efforts have you made to preserve your own work?
Canyon Sam: Have it professionally ﬁ lmed and edited, with high produc- tion standards, multiple camera angles, etc. Audio should include audience reaction. I have videotaped my shows and Roberta Uno at New WORLD Theater back East has done a great job collecting playbills, scripts, reviews, and other materials related to Asian American performance art.
Denise Uyehara: I know a very famous performance artist who keeps his stuff under his bed. Why? We all need assistants to help us box, mount, preserve in acid-free paper, categorize, transfer to digital, and send to a really good archive. Is there an Asian American performance archive?
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One that could house video, artifacts, notes, and images in a safe way? Not yet, to my knowledge. In the meantime, on the West coast, there is UC Santa Barbara’s California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives. One of the main issues is making an archive accessible to other artists, scholars, students, and the general public. There are some great archives, but they are not in major cities. Internet archives are probably a step toward accessibility. But this takes time and can be tedious. I sure wouldn’t want just anyone to see documentation footage of an entire show because it probably wasn’t lit correctly and I was not performing for the camera. I would want only scholars to see that kind of footage. But I do put short demos on line.
Brenda Wong Aoki: What you’re trying to do is preserve someone’s life chi after they’re gone, and it’s hard: chi is ephemeral, you can’t see it, you can only feel it. I’m with the Asian American Women Playwrights Scripts Collection at the University of Massachusetts, started by Roberta Uno. I would dutifully send my plays off and when they did an exhibit, I was amazed by what they wanted: my handwritten letters, my scripts with all the scribbles on it, an old sweater. It’s sort of like going to a garage sale where people will pass by the computer that no one wants anymore but go straight to the cup that was hand-painted ﬁ fty years ago. There’s more personal chi in it. Mark Izu and I actually started thinking about this matter a couple of years ago. I have been publishing my plays and doing recordings, and we have a three-year grant from the city of San Francisco to archive our mate- rials with the Museum of Performance and Design.
KMJ: How do you explore, if not create, or even re-create, the past through your living performances on stage?
Canyon Sam: I think some of my work shows tradition as it collides with modern day social mores and movements. An example is the mother char- acter in Capacity to Enter, set in the 1970s. A traditional Chinese American mother who would love her only daughter to marry an accountant watches befuddled as her daughter drops out of university, ﬂ ees to Oregon, changes her name, and returns to visit the family home with a caravan full of garlic- scented, shaven-headed, braless lesbians. I don’t deal with the past explic- itly or try to retell it or invoke it. I make an effort to capture the present. Change is happening fast, though, especially in parts of Asia I have por- trayed. So, for instance, a piece I wrote about a Himalayan part of India where Tibetan refugees lived in 1990 was already entirely different four
years later. If I look back at that show, Taxi Karma, it’s already past his- tory.
Denise Uyehara: In his article about Luis Alfaro’s memory performances, José Esteban Muñoz cites the idea of double memory: instead of simply romanticizing your past, you must revisit it, interrogate it and yourself. When you perform the past, you are really shedding light on how you’ve constructed your current identity. I think some of my earlier work was actually more able to interrogate the past; my more notorious pieces, such as Hello (Sex) Kitty: Mad Asian Bitch on Wheels, was more direct. But by the time I’d completed it, I had to really ask myself: what is your identity? At the end of the piece, I stood naked on stage in front of an invisible mirror (with strategic dim lighting) and really took a look at myself.
Brenda Wong Aoki: I’m in three worlds—theater, music and storytell- ing—and what storytellers know is that people just repeat the same story again and again. That’s what history is: it’s a repetition of the same stories of love, greed, war, survival, and all that is around us. What saddens me is that ethnic newspapers seem to be dying, and today I could never have written Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend because I had to ﬁ nd those old newspapers in order to ﬁ nd the truth. It was only the Japanese American newspapers that told the whole other side, and if I had only read the American newspapers, I never would have continued my research. It changed my family profoundly, because prior to my research for Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend, we only knew we were poor sharecroppers in Utah. But having found this history, now we’re landed gentry Japanese and my grandfather was one of the founders of Japantown. If you ﬁ nd out what happened in the past, it can change your trajectory for the future.
KMJ: In looking back at your career, what historical events, themes, or subjectivities have you sought to preserve or commemorate through your work? How has your work contributed to the creation of a body of cultural memories, Asian American or otherwise?
Brenda Wong Aoki: I like to think that I celebrate everyday people even if I’m talking about a samurai or if I’m talking about a kid in a street gang. I want to celebrate the human individual, the individual within each arche- type, the human who has choices, pain, and joy.
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Canyon Sam: At the time of creation I don’t seek to preserve or commem- orate anything. Those terms imply a person is looking back and trying to capture something that’s diminishing or being lost or passing, whereas I try to illuminate something that’s happening in the present and give it a voice. The kind of performance art I did was like capturing a butterﬂ y— taking something alive and trying to take a closer look at it, study it and explore it dramatically. However, given that ten or ﬁ fteen years have passed, I can see that my pieces did capture a moment in historical time that no longer exists any- more and that certain events and voices were important for me to capture. For instance, I wanted to record the experience of Tibetans ﬂ eeing on foot over the Himalayas, which was not well known at the time, but is now. And I wanted to capture the response of Tibetan refugees in their home-in- exile in the Himalayas when they ﬁ rst encountered cars in their town. At the time, I didn’t think about preserving these moments but recording my own response to them as an outsider looking at these situations.
Denise Uyehara: Once I performed in Austin to a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 500 people. This was early on in my career and I was so taken aback and so humbled by the experience. I realized it was not me they were responding to, but to the work. I was simply a messenger. The more I performed for Asian American, queer, and women’s audiences, the clearer it became to me that my body had meaning. When the audience laughed, gasped, or called out during my shows, I realized people felt moved enough to respond to my live body. And since my work was live, we built a shared experience of sorts. I lived at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica as a resident artist for more than a decade. I’d walk next door to see almost every show that went through Highways Performance Space. I came to understand that I was part of a larger community of seekers, freaks, activists, and artists who used their bodies as both artistic and political vehicles. They knew their bodies were marked, that they were labeled “other” by the mainstream, and they embraced it. Even when we weren’t on stage “live,” we were doing something with our bodies: moving risers, running lights, clean- ing the green room, dancing, discussing, and laughing together. Physically moving together had a profound effect on how we viewed ourselves and our community. Years from now, I hope that viewers can still engage in the work I create, that it will still resonate with them even if they live in a different political and cultural time. With this in mind, I strive to represent complex situations and emotions embodied in Asian American, queer, and women’s
bodies. But my work is not limited to these themes. I believe ultimately I want to contribute to a long tradition of good storytelling and effective art making.
KMJ: As a concluding question, how does your performance art envision the future? What is your own future as a performance artist?
Brenda Wong Aoki: First, we were just picked up by IODA [Independent Online Distribution Alliance], the biggest digital download distributor in the world, so it seems my work is getting out there in ways without my body. But second, I always thought that I was a little ahead of the curve because I was doing performance art before it was called performance art. As the world gets smaller and more global, I’m really glad that I’m trying to get the stories out in ways that are beyond words, beyond the English language. Morning Glory is the perfect example; you have heavy text and an almost equal amount of time for music (American jazz music is set against taiko drums). Words work on an intellectual level; the emotions work through movement and music; you need to reach both the audience’s intellect and the emotions to get things to settle on a deep level. For Return of the Sun (2009), we created a holiday show that’s about the solstice and the people in the world coming together to bring back the light. We researched sun deities looking for commonality among world cultures, knowing that deep down in our bones, we all used to have this thing for the sun. Ultimately, we’re trying to create a piece about the global family.
Canyon Sam: I don’t try to envision the future, just be with the present. If, looking back, it signals a direction where the society went, so be it. What I can say, however, and this was pointed out to me by someone else, is that I seemed to be ahead of the curve, ahead of the times. My solo piece about Tibetan human rights was done in 1991 when no one knew anything about Tibet; it wasn’t until years later that the public started to gain an awareness of that place and its predicament. Tibet exploded in popularity in the late 1990s. Regarding my future as a performance artist, I found it extremely dif- ﬁ cult to maintain not the artistic part—the real joy and thrill was creating and performing pieces—but rather the business side of it. I did not have a mainstream enough act to be paid decent compensation for what I put into it; it took too much energy and effort to sell myself and get bookings. If I were compensated fairly and could make a living at it, I wouldn’t mind doing it, but I don’t see myself as going in the direction of performance
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art. I see myself going in the direction of writing plays and screenplays, perhaps more books.
Denise Uyehara: I believe that years from now work that is speciﬁ c by ethnicity will not be as important as, say, work that centers on issues of class, citizenship or lack of a home, immigration, and incongruous power struggles. While the work I do now is speciﬁ c to race, gender, and sexual orientation, larger global struggles, I believe, will be about who has a home and who does not. Asian American artists search for this in an ethnically speciﬁ c way, but in my lifetime I’m sure we will shift toward talking about who “has” and who “has not” by different standards. As an artist and US citizen, I have to continually do my homework about moving beyond my own identity politics, which can be a source of comfort but also a prison. It is possible for me to create work with a complex identity, and I suppose it is part of my job as an artist to embrace it and work from such a place. It’s part of the gig.