Li-Ming Hu and Daphne Simons
LI-MING HU AND DAPHNE SIMONS
Our Time in wassaic
We're both originally from New Zealand and both currently studying in Masters programmes abroad. Li-Ming is at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and Daphne is at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. We've worked on a few collaborative projects in New Zealand over the last couple of years, involving a semi imaginary artist-run space, a telethon to collect artworks for a national contemporary art collection, and an art prize where we created work under fictional personae. The Wassaic residency gave us an ideal opportunity to work together in the same geographical location again. We were also very intrigued and inspired by the mission of the Wassaic Project, and wanted to learn more about how it actually worked in relation to its local community and the ways in which the visiting artist residents engaged with this priority.
The best thing about our time at Wassaic was the people. The other artists, the interns, the staff, the board members, and the locals. Without all these wonderful, generous, and good-humored people, we would have produced nothing. In saying that, we also really appreciated how the Residency Director, Will, made it very clear on our first day that nobody should feel pressured to produce finished work. Instead he emphasized that our time at Wassaic was completely autonomous. If artists just wanted to go for hikes and not produce a single thing during their stay, that was totally acceptable. This worked well for us, because we worked very spontaneously, generating a lot of material, but not a finished projects per se. During our three weeks there, we recorded interviews with various people involved with the Wassaic Project and organized two public events. The first was an Emmy Awards Ceremony, an idea suggested to us by Wassaic Project supporter Robyn Cutler Rosenberg, who has four Emmy Awards from her time as Musical Director for the soap opera "Guiding Light.” This was an open-mic style event, where people had the opportunity to hold a real life Emmy, do speeches, perform — whatever their hearts desired. The second event was a 12-course eating contest, which was ultimately taken out by champion eater (and official Wassaic artist interviewer featured below) Joe Brommel! We're still making our way through the treasure trove of material, but it'll be very interesting to see how this experience will affect our work in the future. Big thanks to everyone who participated in our project directly and indirectly during the summer of August 2018. It was unforgettable.
with Joe Brommel, August 2018
Daphne: Could we film this?
[Daphne begins setting up a camera]
I like this two-way interview setup. This isn’t what I planned on asking first, but let's talk about this project of documenting your whole time here in Wassaic. Why is that the approach you wanted to take?
Li-Ming: I don't think we've set out to document everything.
Daphne: No, no.
Li-Ming: It would be an impossible task. But we've proposed some kind of reality-esque show mixed with a game show, but not wanting to be locked into any particular genre. It’s changed over time. So just collecting —
Daphne: Material, really, and talking to people. Throwing our idea out there opens up this gateway for more suggestions and ideas, and then we run with those. It’s become a bit of a storm.
Li-Ming: One example: for the artist presentations earlier this month, we showed a video of an eating contest that we’d run and mentioned that we might like to run it here. And then Dan Sternberg, one of the board members, said, “Oh, you should read this short story by one of my favorite writers. It has an eating contest in it.” So we read it, and then we asked to film him reading it because we liked it so much. But we're not sure what we're going to do with it yet.
That makes me think of your Fffuture Fffocused Art Prize. It’s a staged, frivolous event, but there also seems to be a message there.
Li-Ming: Both of us are into humor — it's a good entry point to the work for people. If we can make people laugh, then maybe they’ll want to spend more time with the work and think about other aspects of it.
Daphne: We're not taking ourselves too seriously. When we interview people, they also ask us questions, and there's a lot of footage of us just talking about how the project’s going (or how it’s not going). There’s an honesty about that. That’s what I like about our projects: we try to keep it quite accessible for people.
Li-Ming: People describe our work as self-aware, but while there's critical reflection happening, neither of us like being didactic.
Daphne: It’s not on the forefront — it’s more implied, and it's open to interpretation. So with Fffuture Fffocused Art Prize, people could see that as a parody of art prizes, or a critical angle on who's included in these prizes, and how they’re included.
Li-Ming: Conflicts of interest.
Daphne: Yeah. In that project we made the work as the artists, but we were also the selection panel —
Li-Ming: And we got our parents to be the judges. It was exaggerating to an absurd degree some of the things that do happen in the art world.
I want to talk a little bit more about this eating contest. What is it going to consist of? This probably isn't the way you approach it first, but what is the opportunity for critical reflection there?
Li-Ming: Okay, well, if you think about an eating contest, they can only happen in a certain society, right?
Daphne: And it's also a ridiculous idea to engage the community with. It's an atypical participatory art exercise.
Li-Ming: Yeah, because we were interested in this idea of site-specificity and community engagement. Those are buzzwords in certain art worlds at the moment, and we wanted to engage with those terms and what they actually mean. Like, what does "community" mean? What does "community engagement" mean? Who benefits?
The eating contest is only a small part of that, but we've got 12 courses as a nod to the short story that Dan provided us with. And we're trying to make it fairly inexpensive for us to provide, and fairly healthy so that people that participate will not get sick. Do you think that you might be interested in participating?
I would definitely be interested in participating, especially if it's not going to make me sick!
Li-Ming: Okay, you’re in.
I’m in, great! So you want to approach community building by starting these conversations rather than “parachuting” in. I’m putting words in your mouth there, but that’s the word I've heard thrown around — coming and saying, “this is the thing we're doing and this is going to benefit primarily us as artists.”
Li-Ming: But they never say that.
Daphne: Right. It’s always under the guise of the “greater good.” In general — and with this project in particular — we like to work quite conversationally. We're not just talking — maybe we give out a prompt and then we listen. That counters that “parachuting” approach for me.
Li-Ming: Yeah. Personally, I just feel like if you want to make the world a better place there are better ways of doing it than being an artist. And I acknowledge that I am an artist because I like it.
Daphne: It is a selfish endeavor.
Li-Ming: I'm more at peace with that now. I've tried other things that I feel have had more of a direct social benefit than being an artist, but I'm willing to say I'm an artist mainly because I want to do it; I don't want to pretend that I'm doing it for altruistic reasons. But at the same time, I want people to enjoy the work.
Daphne: It’s a funny back-and-forth. You're doing it for yourself, but you're also hoping that other people will get things out of it, but it's not necessarily something for their social good.
Li-Ming: But I give credit — some artists do it very well. I don't think either of us are saying that we don't believe that it's possible.
Daphne: No, no.
Great. That's about 15 minutes so I think we're all good. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. And thank you for filming it — this is so fun!
Daphne: For the viewers at home.
It's an interview within an interview, I love the doubling here. Maybe I'll even leave this part where I'm talking here in the transcript of the interview, who knows.
Li-Ming: That would be fitting!
Postscript: Joe Brommel won the inaugural Wassaic Eating Contest on Saturday, August 25, 2018.
Photos by Verónica González Mayoral