Selling Out or Sold Out?:
Yuchen Chang and Yi Xin Tong
by Wen-You Cai

What happens when you pit artists with different understanding of art, media, and commerce against each other, and have them sell each other’s work on Special Special Shopping Network?

Special Special Shopping Network hosts a series of videos where artists market art editions in their own style and understanding of self-promotion and marketing. As each person has a unique take on commerce, we invited them to take this opportunity to record a video in a manner that is authentic to how they would approach making an advertisement. It can be a performance that captures alter egos. Some will have one personality when they make art, but manifest an alter ego when they sell art. We were curious about how people express themselves using the language of marketing, and also sought this as an opportunity for Special Special to consider marketing as an artistic framework that is flush with contradictions. For example, the overt, lofi message to buy can sometimes deter customers from making a purchase. And sometimes feigning that things are not for sale, or unavailability, can make a purchase more enticing.

We first approached Yuchen Chang, artist, bookbinder, creator of @use_value, and also an artist featured in Tie Me Up Lock Me Down, a previous exhibition at Special Special. She told us, “It’s like confronting the constant pressure of capitalizing your personal narrative or even body parts, and try to own it, try to do it in an honest way.” We knew to some extent that different personalities would lead to different outcomes, but we were still delightfully surprised when we received the artists’ manifestations of our prompt.

Yuchen Chang in Tie Me Up Lock Me Down, Special Special, 2019.

To coincide with our first time participating in Printed Matter Art Book Fair, we launched two videos by Yi Xin Tong and Yuchen Chang on their publications with Gong Press, an art book publisher based in New York and Beijing. The first, “Ten Night Night Night Night of Dreams,” is a video by Yi Xin Tong on Yuchen Chang’s text-and-audio publication Ten Nights of Dreams (2018). Yi Xin delicately unravels and handles the scroll of the publication while humming Night Night Night Night by Chyi Chin, a popular chinese song from over two decades ago. In the second video, “I got a publication by Yi Xin Tong,” Yuchen Chang methodically and meticulously unboxes each component of Yi Xin’s publication, NYC Fishing Journal (2019). Throughout the video, Yuchen makes acute observations of the content and reveals to the audience what she knows about the artist, including his love of watches.

Over the years the pair have come to know each other through periodically bumping into one another at parties and artist residencies. They each worked with Gong Press to make unconventional book objects for the publisher's first two publications. As Special Special is also an unconventional art space that produces accessible and functional art editions, Gong Press’s mission felt appropriately aligned with ours. Special Special has carried their publications since 2019, when we hosted Yi Xin’s NYC Fishing Workshop as part of his publication launch on the hottest day of the summer (so happens that our air conditioner broke that day).

Yi Xin Tong hosts a fishing workshop at Special Special.

In late January, Qianfan Gu, publisher of Gong Press, and I, along with our trusty Wildman Claborator and artist, Lu Zhang, approached the artists via Zoom to propose that they market their publications as a kind of performance art for Special Special Shopping Network. Yi Xin and Yuchen approached it with opposing perspectives. Yi Xin immediately said, “We can’t perform selling very well as artists.” Meanwhile, Yuchen was more optimistic about the prospect of marketing through digital platforms, having made marketing videos at the bookstore Printed Matter that have yielded profitable results. For every video, Yuchen would write a script and perform in front of the camera to appear as though she was improvising in front of her audience across Instagram and Youtube.

As our call continued, we learned that the two artist’s perspectives couldn’t have differed more:

Yi Xin Tong: From the visual perspective, art doesn’t seem like it can compete with contemporary media.

Yuchen Chang: I can’t stand what you are saying, Yi Xin. Do you really believe that art is segregated from everything else in the world? Do you believe art is not a product? Do you believe that art is not a performance? I don’t know what you think is shocking, maybe because you are too separated from society, that’s just the way things work. Advertisements are selling stories, feelings, imagination. Advertisements come from art. All ads today emulate Wong Kar Wai. All ads stem from art from 20-30 years ago. Hasn’t it always been like this? So do you think when you make art you are doing something separate from anything else?

YXT: Not necessarily, art comes from a study of mainstream media.

YC: I don’t believe the separation of art and mainstream media. On my way to work I consume the ads at the train station. I think Special Special is a good example of not segregating between art and commerce.

YXT: I don’t think that art and commerce is separate. I think that there is a separation between art and mainstream media.

And subsequently Yuchen proposed to Yi Xin, “How about you promote my publication? And I promote your publication?” And Yi Xin agreed to making a video for Yuchen, and later added that the business of making marketing videos was an “unchartered territory.”

To bring it full circle, we share our assignment for Yuchen and Yi Xin. Will performing for the sake of selling result in sales, even if some artists claim to be allergic to this process? What kind of contradictions are embedded within the process of making without a desire to sell? In any case, we are happy they were able to come up with clever ways to present each other’s publication that reveal their deep understanding of what the other expressed through the work. Afterall, we are a creative and collaborative platform always seeking to express ourselves in unconventional, yet sincere ways.