David Hockney, Portrait of Mother I, 1985.
If things are not always so at peace with the family matriarch, it is a truth universally acknowledged that you must disguise all evidence of this on Mother’s Day. On the first Sunday of every May, social media blooms with ingratiating Mother’s Day wishes. Vintage photographs sentimentalizing a rosy MILF that we were too young to know. Side-by-side portraits confirming we are indeed the more collagenated offspring of a faded beauty. Mother’s Day reifies old ideas of honor, respect, and memoriam that leave no room for fatal flaws.
It’s understandable why some might not want to lift this gauzy romantic veil. It not only disguises but also protects the truth from callous judgement; I think of Cathy Park Hong, who wrote that her own mother was too precious a topic to cover in her book, Minor Feelings. Instead, let us step back to examine the creation of a normative mother figure, or the type of motherhood that merits praise. What else is there to idealized feminine beauty in heterotopic Christian tradition than to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28)? Can there be more to admire about a woman, other than her ability to complete pale Eve’s duties and remain Virgin Mary?
Even the apparently “perfect” mother demands us to scrutinize her lack; a Stepford wife must be compromised because fantasy is meant to be unachievable. Conversely, it is not encouraged to be a childless woman, or an woman without abundance. A mother lode is the principal vein of an ore or mineral, merely a point of resource extraction. If a barren core, she is discarded, hardly of any value. It is even more taboo, if ever entertained at all, to be a reluctant mother, as Tilda Swinton plays in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). If a mother is measured purely by the societal viability of her children, what happens to the mother of a criminal, or a woman who bears rotten fruit?
It’s quite adult to have Daddy issues, but Mommy issues reduce you to a suckling child. Society seems stuck in the previous century, when Sigmund Freud first proposed that it was natural child psychology for mothers to become alluring objects (Oedipus Complex), and yet rejected the notion that the same could apply to fathers (Sorry, Electra Complex, proposed by Carl Jung!). Freud claimed that psychosis marked a male child’s unsuccessful passage through sexual attraction to his own mother. One thinks of, for example, Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, whose domineering single mother stunted his mental state to the degree that he engages in murderous rampages, clothed in her floral patterned dress and wig. Effeminate and juvenile, Bates signals that one is not born, but rather becomes a mother.
Maternal villains can reveal some of our underlying anxieties about feminine governance: that it is excessive and compulsive, that women are only maniacal agents of patriarchy. This is true of, for example, the many wives in the Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and the adoptive mother in Mommie Dearest (1981). Dark mothers with their own sense of independence risk becoming social pariahs: evil stepmothers, witches, widows, and divorceés. Hortense Spillers writes in her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” that there is perhaps no figure more egregiously denigrated and misrepresented throughout U.S. law than the black woman, or the black mother. A “matriarchal structure” served as the locus of blame for Daniel Moynihan’s report on poverty in “the Negro community” for the U.S. Department of Labor in 1965. Between giving life and facing death, flesh that is property is not given any choice.
Photo from Buzzfeed
There is something troubling about the way we traditionally depict mothers, where even celebration seems to only reinforce that she cannot be embraced in her entirety. She is a wife and caretaker rolled into one. Mothers must remain that perfectly uncracked mirror that proves we turned out okay. If we take into consideration the full picture, including the fault lines that form due to withstanding the pressures of motherhood, would we still recognize her as a familiar face? Or is it more likely that even people we have known our whole lives can suddenly become strangers? Mother’s Day asks for our critical calculation: to see if familial intimacy is strong enough to survive the fall. Perhaps recognizing the pitfalls of motherhood can be a gift in and of itself; in other words, give mom a break from the heavy maintenance of conforming to impossible standards. Mommy wants, mommy needs!
In this episode of Special Special Shopping Network, James Chrzan reflects on accumulation as it relates to time, precipitation, and experience. Connecting to his earlier video work, I Am Trying to Fill The Well (2020), Chrzan provides the enigmatic voiceover for what looks like a cloudy day in New York.
Shop James Chrzan's Hygrothermograph Drawings at Special Special. The edition of 82 drawings were produced on a custom chart paper during the group exhibition Artists’ Tools. Each drawing marks a time from the exhibition opening onward. To purchase an edition from a specific date range, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
One Sunday afternoon, Lu Zhang sets up her ceramic stand on Flushing Main Street to sell alongside outdoor vendors selling toilet paper, fish, hotpot pots, and antiques. The video swings between online and offline sales strategies, combining documentary and found footage from Estar TV and IGTV. The original soundtrack draws from online celebrity influencer Li Jiaqi’s (李佳琦) Taobao livestreams. Produced and edited by Lu Zhang for Special Special Shopping Network.
Most American children of the 1990s will recall with fondness how chirpy TV commercials colored everyday life. When I was still too young to know better, I wished for a credit card purely to splurge on all the colorful deals emanating from the TV aglow at night. This was back when these cathode ray machines took up the majority of the living room with their ostentatious cabinetry, replacing the hearth as the center of family gathering. For a lower-income household especially, who could not afford fancy services to fast-forward through broadcasted content, commercials became a source for jokes at school and comforting background murmur during weekend sleepovers. National memory hinged upon the TV commercial, particularly crescendoing around the annual Superbowl. I never did buy anything that I was advertised—those desires sublimated—but for advertisers, simply appearing in a commercial probably fulfilled more than just sales. It gave them their moment in the sun.
Generally ranging from thirty seconds to two minutes, these micro-theater performances taught me the art of persuasion. Infomercials typically began with heightened sensitivity to a problem that you never knew you had: carpet stains or bored children. Sometimes the producer decides to desaturate these scenes, to make more traditional practices like using paper towels or painting with watercolor seem ancient. At the cinematic climax, they introduce a convenient modern solution that would save both time and money. The third act concludes with an irresistibly sweetened deal to sway even the most closed of hearts. It was the promise of a good life that usually cost little more than an hour’s wage. Who could refuse something like that? But wait! Order now, and you’ll get twice the satisfaction.
Writer and scholar Sianne Ngai defines a gimmick as “overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks) but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention).” Gimmicks are ubiquitous objects that at once promise to change your life and yet, in negligible ways. Studying the aesthetic of the gimmick can reveal the qualitative realities of living in late capitalism: prismatic candy colors, unornamented sans serif fonts, and a charismatic, somewhat macho, usually white, host. A more recent reality show, Shark Tank, reveals what the gimmick promises their inventors. Each episode features several different creators who pitch a prototype to a board of deep-pocketed investors. The lucky ones snag a million dollar deal. To many who volunteer to appear, it seems worth the risk of what happens to the losers, which is public humiliation on national television.
One of my favorite gimmicky infomercials was the Magical Rainbow Sponge, created by a woman of grandmotherly warmth, Dee Gruenig. Looking back now, we might realize with clarity that the art kit was nothing more than a high-density sponge and ink. Gruenig’s exuberance comes across as overly hyper and bright, like a race car zooming through a brightly lit tunnel. But in a child’s eyes, money was like water needing to be spent on color, sensation, and distinction. Imagine owning a plaything that no one else has. Imagine being admired as much as the world admired Dee Gruenig. Lucky for my parents, children have short attention spans. Before I could dote for long upon a glorified sponge, the next commercial played. Seared into my memory are the Snuggie™ (a blanket with sleeves!) and the FlavorQuick Popcorn Popper™ (a bowl designed exclusively for popcorn!).
The history of avant garde art is often told as artists subverting or competing against dominant media, such as whatever premiered on television. We think of, for example, Andy Warhol eating a hamburger in 1981 or Chris Burden’s bizarre late-night invasions into the unconquered 1970s airwaves. The global pandemic accelerated a change in high art’s aversion to low art tactics: Art Basel launched online viewing rooms, and blue chip art galleries broadcasted virtual tours through Instagram. Desperation drives even the stiffest upper lips to embrace what they have spent their whole lives defining themselves against. High art is what they think they are; low art is what they’d rather not be. After wrapping up filming a virtual flower arranging workshop at Special Special, Mackenzie Younger remarked, “I felt like I was on QVC.” Art needs to sell in order to survive. So why pretend that we are any different from home shopping networks? And so, our subsequent exhibition Special Special Shopping Network was born.
Luxury design, too, has adopted 1990s and early aughts nostalgia for the infomercial. There is perhaps no other body more scrutinized by consumer culture than a woman’s, which makes Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear line Skims the perfect antidote for invented ailments, diagnosing every bump and crease as a pathology that can be smoothed out into a seamless hourglass silhouette. Her own celebrity persona follows the trajectory of the gimmick: at first a laughingstock, even reviled (stop making stupid people famous!), her sheer prolificness has leveraged her eventual induction to the pop culture hall of fame. Not bad for a girl with no talent.
Kardashian West, whose meteoric rise and billion-dollar empire has capitalized on her own campiness, leaned into this commercial aesthetic with her Skims campaign. In the golden era of indie brands with perfumey marketing campaigns, Skims stood out by reverting to the corporatized infomercial format. However, as Darcie Wilder observed, what made her brand appealing was not so much its self-aware exaggerated artifice as it was its enduring sentimentality. It was not only an homage to a bygone era, but to her mother Kris Jenner’s own endeavors in selling everything from candles to stair climber equipment through the TV. Skims presented a portrait of womanhood painted with whimsical dollhouse girlishness. I was watching these ads through the gauzy veil of my childhood home, once again spread out on the beige wall-to-wall carpet and flipping through the five channels available to me. I wanted to believe again that all my problems could be resolved with just a quick phone call.
Commercials were once something that we thought could be tuned out, turned off, or skipped by changing the channel. Now, self-advertisement is a staple of daily life and even the very foundations for relationships and careers to survive. Although this reality implies that we are all now relegated to living inside our own infomercials, subsumed by cycles of endless self-promotion and self-abasement, perhaps we can cheer for each other even when we present something that particularly fails. A Flop era, or the day our bodies reached a critical exhaustion, would be considered the height of our youth. Hito Steyerl defended the poor image as a product of being well-loved. If the world ran on terms of endearment rather than cash, we would all aspire to be remembered through degraded yet glittery images, with fewer crisp edges and more self-effacement.
In this edition of Special Special Shopping Network, Aria McManus, inventor of the Towelkini™, demonstrates how her product is fashioned on her trusty long-time model Marjorie.
Shop the Special Special Edition Towelkini™ at Special Special in both adult and mini sizes. Also available in Athletic Gold, Lime Green, and Hot Pink.
This month, we’re sharing staff picks from the new @3standardstoppage books at the shop.
TTP by Hayahisa Tomiyasu
As somebody who likes to photograph the same subject over many years and through many of life’s transitions, I naturally gravitated toward the photography book TTP by Hayahisa Tomiyasu. This book simply chronicles one Ping Pong table in a Berlin park over many seasons. Every page is a photograph of that one table from the same angle, observing how it is used for purposes other than its original intention: a class gathering, a baby getting a diaper change, kids sheltering from the rain, an illicit nighttime activity. Page after page, a growing empathy ensues for this passive table’s appropriated use, while the table is also a witness to the richness of life that it attracts. The table symbolizes an anthropological artifact of our collective experience through life. And as with life, in the last image, the table gets removed. This is a complete portrait of one life, and naturally, a satisfying photography book.
La Bête by Yasmina Benabderrahmane
An exploration of displacement through a phenomenological lens, Yasmina Benabderrahmane’s La Bête features photos of the lived, on-the-ground experience of her family in Morocco as well as the earth as its own subject. There are close-ups of hands and feet as well as sand, rocks, and other materialities central to the North African landscape. The hyperfocus on these imagined and embodied “roots” are contrasted by written passages throughout the book describing “The Beast” of modern development, which erects cultural institutional structures “when the immense majority of Moroccans can’t even afford the entrance fee”. If, like me, you are also born to immigrant parents who talk about the homeland that you’ve never been to, consider perusing the ethereally macro photos in this book.
Wild Design / 野生设计 by 黄河山
Wild Design / 野生设计 is a compilation of designs that the author sourced from China’s urban-rural fringe, a place that is often overlooked or deemed as tacky. I appreciate how the book pairs images of unauthorized flyers found on telephone poles and makeshift outdoor furniture with the author/researcher’s handwritten notes, distilling principles of font choice, content creation, profit-making, and information-output underlying these “wild designs”. If you are interested in finding beauty and design in the everyday and would like to dismantle the hierarchy of aesthetics dictated by corporations and art institutions, get this book immediately!!
No Country for Canine by Wu Chuan-Lun
If you appreciated John Berger’s famous essay, “Why Look at Animals?” or Donna Haraway’s observations on human-animal hybrid life, you might find a kindred spirit in artist Wu Chuan-Lun, who unleashes us on a similar journey in No Country for Canine. Essays, for example, explore how the German Shepherd signalled racial purity for Nazis and was Adolf Hitler’s preferred breed. Photographs illustrate the precarious, moldable identity of this descendant of wolves. Given that pet adoptions spiked during the global pandemic, now is an opportune time to re-examine the mysterious ways that master and thing shape each other.
404 Not Found by Li Yang
This very personal photo book has a fascinating story. It’s set in a now-deserted former Chinese nuclear base town in the Gobi desert where the photographer spent the first 19 years of his life. Having always wanted to leave as a kid, he goes back after it’s been largely deserted with a sense of nostalgia for the simplicity and intimacy of that community. The sepia tone photos are strange and beautiful and I also particularly enjoy the rich printing quality.
Art, Engagement, Economy by Caroline Woolard
American artist and organizer Caroline Woolard’s Art, Engagement, Economy is a transparent reflection that lifts the veil on the inner workings of Woolard’s practice, from budgets, to fabrication, and correspondences. Caroline encourages a consideration of exchange in all aspects of making.
Let us take a deeper look at two of Special Special’s newest in-house designs, the Cardan Grille Bookmark and Small Medium Big Ideas Notebook Set, for a glimpse into the studio, demystifying the process of conceptualization and design.
Both stationery sets were proposed and designed by our graphic designer Mark Foss. He first came across the cardan grille in Amy Suo Wu’s book A Cookbook of Invisible Writing (available as part of 3standardstoppage’s popup at Special Special). In her book, Suo presents her research on forms of analog steganography—a type of secret writing—and explores how they can be employed to evade surveillance and control.
The cardan grille dates back to 1550, when Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardano proposed using a rectangular stencil with various irregularly placed apertures to write a message. The message would then be disguised by filling in the gaps between the fragments with additional words. It calls to mind Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Purloined Letter, in which the villain obtains a letter from the Queen's lover and blackmails her, concealing the letter by folding it in an opposite direction and hanging it from a card rack in the entryway, a most conspicuous yet unexpected place. Similarly, the ingenuity of the encoded message is that it hides in plain sight.
Image from Wikipedia
Special Special’s design takes the cardan grille’s steganographic function and infuses it with a sense of discovery. In bookmark form, it encourages the reader to try to find hidden poetry and connections in pre-existing texts. In essence, it both conceals and reveals, adding new functions to an invention that dates back hundreds of years.
Also embedded in the design is an encouragement to be more intentional behind communication, sharing, and intimacy. It is an incredibly personal and even romantic act to give someone the only key to decipher an encoded message. Mark sees this exchange of encryption and decryption as “sharing the same language.”
Relatedly, the idea for the Small Medium Big Ideas Notebook Set stems from a joke among Special Special team members. Why is there a hierarchy between big and small ideas? How do you define what is big and what is small? How would the joke translate into the form of a product design? Hence the concept for a set of small, medium, and big notebooks that serve different needs was born.
The meticulous way in which these notebooks are nested together as a set reflects the intertwined nature of ideas as they develop and evolve. Perhaps we can refer to the Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” (good things come in threes) to convey the rule of three—the principle that a trio of events, characters, or objects can create a rhythm that is more satisfying. Among the three notebooks, which one would be the best fit for Goldilocks? The small notebook could be carried in your pocket on the train, whereas the medium size could be used in a meeting. The large one, then, could be used to elaborate on these transitory ideas as you lounge around at home.
With these designs and the aperture that they provide, we can always return to Special Special’s emphasis on the intersection between art, functionality, and care. As it becomes difficult to sustain our focus in this attention economy, Special Special’s designs offer tactility and playfulness, encouraging us to slow down and be curious at moments when we are usually not.
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.
As we enter the year of the Metal Ox, read on to see what 2021 has in store for your Chinese Zodiac sign. Featuring the Deck of Character.
How your year will go: Bed
Last year you spent time perfecting and cleaning up your personal routines, your home, and your foundations. This year you are meant to continue building on this support system, but also to look back and notice how much you have actually accomplished by allowing yourself to show up and commit to something. Where can you cut yourself more slack and give yourself more credit?
Advice card: Sunken Ship
Leave the past in the past. Sunken Ship is signaling for you to make one last goodbye and unearth the parts of you that hold you back and no longer serve any purpose for your wellbeing. Doing so will open up more space for your brand new beginning.
How your year will go: Ocean
Your creativity is in full flow at the moment. You’re receiving all kinds of messages and inspirations. This year brings an opportunity to expand on your creative practices by further exploring your inner self, reaching depths you weren’t able to before. What have you noticed helps you navigate into the deeper parts of yourself?
Advice card: Moon
The moon card is a call to the emotional inner self and the subconscious. Emotions are as physical as they are mental, so pay attention to how you feel in your body when experiencing any intense feelings or revisiting the past. Even when we block something out in our minds, it is always felt in the body. How can you better balance your caretaking to be less about thinking and more about being physically present with yourself?
How your year will go: Gold Mine
Abundance, abundance galore! This is the year of truly discovering yourself and your passions, bringing in rewards of all kinds. If there’s something you’ve felt pulled to start doing, this card is telling you to go full steam ahead. Try new things and see how they make you feel. If it gets you excited, then you’re on the right track.
Advice card: Dancing Shoes
Your intuition is crucial during this time. Follow it to find your path and show up to every new approach with enthusiasm and ease. Now is definitely not the time to be self-critical, but to practice the art of simply being, witnessing and enjoying. What areas of your life can you relinquish a little more control and allow yourself to enjoy the experience?
How your year will go: Band-aid
This is a year of major healing for you. Take your time to expose buried wounds that have needed airing out for a long time. Before an injury can be covered to repair itself, it must first be tended to and properly sanitized. This is an ongoing process but this year will point your attention towards any deep-seated pain that has yet to be addressed.
Advice card: Candle
Although this year’s forecast seems a bit heavy, candle appears to remind you that the universe is on your side supporting you to make these changes and heal. You are being guided by benevolent energy, so don’t feel overwhelmed! How can you integrate slowing down into your daily routine/practice?
How your year will go: Maze
This year may feel like you’re lost or going in circles: trying again and again only to end up at the same place or conclusion. You will be pushed to think outside of the box to confront issues head-on to solve them once and for all. Try all possibilities, especially if they seem like they would not be fruitful–sometimes these are the solutions that work the best.
Advice card: Bulldozer
Stop making rules for yourself in how to approach something. It’s time to carve new paths and destroy the previous method of doing things. Give yourself permission to have a brand new start. What would that look like? What previously unconsidered methods could you try to help your life run more smoothly?
How your year will go: Spatula
This year will test you to change your perspective on something. There may be some stubborn energy around this change as you don’t want to contradict your previously-held beliefs, but this is for the better. If this is related to a relationship of any kind, try seeing things from their point of view. By understanding a situation from all sides, it allows you to remove your own personal bias and gives you more freedom. Nothing in this life is fixed, so give yourself permission to change your mind.
Advice card: Shield
You are being divinely protected and asked to do the same for yourself in the physical plane. If you always feel overwhelmed by others or like you’re always sacrificing yourself, it’s time to set some boundaries. Doing so can make you feel guilty at first, but that’s only because you’re not used to prioritizing yourself. What new definitions of boundaries (self-protection, helping you be a better you so you can better serve others) can help you flip your perspective to see how necessary and good they are?
How your year will go: Knight
This year will demand you to stand up for yourself. Up until now, you may have been playing small–whether you realize it or not. Taking up space is imperative here. Whatever conflict may come up, don’t be afraid as these are chances for you to practice advocating for yourself. Even if someone else does it for you, it does not carry the same weight when you recognize for yourself what isn’t working and what crosses your lines.
Advice card: Wrestling Ring
Don’t run away from this year’s challenges. Stand your ground firmly and know that these moments are meant to help you expand and become the person you were always meant to be. This card is about showing up and channeling your inner strength, which is already half the battle. What or who do you need to confront in order to take better care of yourself?
How your year will go: Magnet
You are being attracted towards many opportunities right now, and vice versa. There will be plenty to pick and choose from, so do not jump the gun and run with the first thing that gets presented to you and sounds good. Read the fine print on everything and remember that because something wants you, doesn’t mean that you have to want it back. Be mindful about what kind of energies you want to bring into your life.
Advice card: Leap
This is quite literally a “leap of faith” card. With an abundance of opportunities surrounding you, it’s always a risk to take one on and not know if it will work out. Let your intuition guide you here and go with what you feel the most passionate about. What fears can you replace with faith and excitement of what is to come?
How your year will go: Island
You may feel pulled or encouraged to work on yourself solo. This is a great time to start any inner work, whether it’s meditation or therapy or even buying a self-help book. Things that can only be examined and accomplished by you and you alone. Of course you can reach out to others for support, but only you can do the work.
Advice card: Thief
Stop stealing your own joy! Working on yourself is a life-long process and one that doesn’t need to be so grueling. Remember to reward yourself for even the smallest accomplishments, and stop taking away your own credit. In what ways can you count on yourself in order to help rebuild self-trust?
How your year will go: Weirdo
It’s time to embrace your weird side, what makes you unique, and what helps you stand out. How can you recontextualize your weirdness as a gift rather than a curse? This year is calling you to be or return to your most authentic self and to witness how much freedom that brings you. Only when you are yourself can you bring in like-minded energy into your life, and you deserve that.
Advice card: Sprout
This year will be essential in relation to your personal growth! You’re only at the very start of a new beginning so don’t expect to be a master right away, but remember practice makes perfect. Feel confident in your abilities and get excited about where this may take you!
How your year will go: Crystal
This year will lead you to discover what makes you unique and how you can use it to serve others. Perhaps you already have a spiritual practice, or just carry some infectiously good energy. How can you bring this positive aspect of you into your daily life? How can you use this to not only benefit yourself but others, and the collective as a whole? Expect lots of clarity and powerful messages popping up, maybe even in your dreams.
Advice card: Compass
Listen to your intuition. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not for you. The gift you are learning to use this year will help you follow the path necessary in order to fulfill your life’s calling. The more you can trust yourself, the less you will feel influenced by outside forces so that you can keep making your own path.
How your year will go: Jail Cell
You may feel trapped because of how the pandemic halted your year last year, dear Rat. However, there may be areas in your life which you could drastically improve and expand in this new chapter. In what spaces do you notice yourself minimizing who you are and your potential?
Advice card: Club
The club card here as advice is a reminder that you are never alone. In 2021, practice reaching out to loved ones more when you’re feeling confined–they care about your wellbeing much more than you let yourself think.
Jess T. Chiang, Banyi Huang, Wen-You Cai, Donna M. Mah, and Lu Zhang at Special Special for the occasion of Ben Shu (本术): Transcultural Healing Through the Elements, 2020.
When Euripides commented on the decline of Greek tragedy, followed by the rise of comedy, he wrote, "the ‘public’ is nothing but empty words, and it has absolutely no equal and self-sufficient value. Why should an artist assume the obligation to cater to a power that shows its power only by quantity?" He bemoaned that art is constantly subject to the masses and the market. To what extent should artists consider the audience in the creative process?
Like a lot of my friends last year, I binge-watched “The Big Band,” one of China’s hottest music reality television shows, to entertain myself during the long hours in quarantine. The TV show was a nostalgic retrospective of modern Chinese rock and pop music that featured obscure, washed-up, or defunct bands who would compete for votes from a live audience. In the season finale, two bands with opposing energies remained. One band, Re-Tros, has an experimental electronica sound that oscillates between Post Punk and New Wave, informed by band leader Hua Dong’s many years living abroad in Germany. They sing in English with a robotic cadence, matching the music’s sharp angularity. The other finalist, Wu Tiao Ren, maintains roots in Chinese folk and blues-y storytelling, often singing in the regional dialect of their hometown, Haifeng. Their deceptively simple verse structures are accompanied at times by accordion and acoustic guitar and centers the poetic humor in everyday life. Wu Tiao Ren draws inspiration from migrant worker social surroundings, and seems to thrive from unlikely collaborations.
Wu Tiao Ren on “The Big Band.” Image via Youtube.
My younger self would have identified with Re-Tros’s rigorous intellectualism, as I used to be someone who disregarded public approval and comprehension in the process of making artwork. Soon, I realized that the value of art is all subjective and financially dependent on a few gatekeepers. I went into a dark hole questioning whether art matters, and to whom, until I learned about the work of socially engaged artists who created unfixed relationships between their work and the audience such as Gordon Matta-Clark’s artist-run restaurant, FOOD (1972); Rikrit Tiravianija serving pad thai (1990) in an art gallery; and Tino Sehgal’s This Progress (2006), in which visitors were invited to engage in conversations with docent performers about the idea of progress as they walked up the Guggenheim Museum’s ramp.
I began wanting to make art that looks into forms of social relationships to counteract the traditional dynamics between artist, artwork and audience. Instead of placing the artwork and the artist at the center of the audience’s gaze, I sought to create situations in which people’s experiences and interactions with each other were the focus.
Aria McManus and Lu Zhang on a Pool Date, 2017. Special Special.
Wildman Clab was founded in 2017 with its inaugural work, Boat Date: It Takes Ten Years Practice to be on the Same Boat, where I created a platform for blind dates on a Chinese river boat installation during a residency at NARS Foundation in Brooklyn. People met on “dates” by signing up for one-hour time slots, not knowing who signed up to meet them. In my eyes, participants were matched through the Chinese concept of yuánfèn (缘分), in which one's good deeds in past lives lead to the "fateful coincidence" of meeting another person in this current life. The event was restaged as a "Pool Date" as a part of Special Special's summer group show SPF.
The word “Clab” of “Wildman Clab” is a combination of the words “club” and “lab”, which each uniquely evoke spaces of study, research, experimentation, amateurism, and community. Social oddness defines the “Wild,” which can be understood as primitive, ancient or simply Asian. The work exists in the social engagement of the clab’s collaborators, audiences, and their experiences. Through its various projects, Wildman Clab questions what can be considered normal or civilized as defined by a Western centric world view.
Handle with Poetic Care, 2018. Special Special.
In 2018, Wildman Clab was invited to be in-residence temporarily at Special Special after organizing Handle with Poetic Care, a poetry swap and live reading where everyone came dressed in masks. Since then, the Wildman Clab Manifesto has been realized through its Frontiers Conferences, which are a series of performances, poetry readings and workshops, sometimes in conversation with exhibiting artists, that have explored vulnerability, language, and marginalization, among other themes.
The Frontiers Conference Ben Shu (本术): Transcultural Healing Through the Elements at Special Special was a result of a conversation that Banyi and I had at the end of last year. Banyi mentioned wanting to straighten out the blockages in her body and mind, and excavate our past self and future selves. We talked more about collective anxiety and social fears. Could a performance/event help us and others?
Ben Shu (本术), or “root practice”, included a somatic exploration of Zhu You Shu (祝由术), an ancient healing process that involved praying to the origin of a disease by speaking directly to the spirits. It consisted of a short reading, demonstration of verbal and gestural incantations, and a discussion among the five collaborators who organized the event: Donna M. Mah, Jess T. Chiang, Banyi Huang, Wen-You Cai, and me.
Watch the full Frontiers Conference Ben Shu (本术): Transcultural Healing Through the Elements.
During a planning meeting on zoom, Donna, an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine educator, suggested that the five of us could represent the five elements of Chinese metaphysics (fire, wood, water, earth and metal). As we discussed how to describe the program, Donna was very conscious about the word performance, which she considered self-serving and lacking educational intent. She preferred to call it a workshop, which would offer something practical to the audience.
Through this semantic discussion, I realized that even though Frontiers Conferences was created to be accessible to its participants, Donna made me realize that I believe, most of all, that art making doesn’t have to be fixed, resolved, or offer a conclusion. Sometimes it’s about the process itself. Just like during the Ben Shu program, I was hesitant about writing the incantation referenced in the Zhu You Shu text knowing that I am not an expert practitioner, but I was still willing to share my exploration process.
Lu Zhang writing the incantation referenced in the Zhu You Shu text.
True to Special Special’s mission, I created Wildman Clab to reconcile my own conflicts about art making and accessibility. Each Frontiers Conference is like writing a poem that resists a center-margin divide, disrupts how market-driven art tends to be, and allows for chance rather than scripting what is supposed to be seen or experienced as art. According to Lauren Berlant, “Giving shape is not the same as solving the problem of crisis, or having the right emotions about it. Indeed, two poems confront a tone- an atmosphere, feeling, sense of flatness in the world.”1 At this moment, I still don’t have concrete answers to all the questions Wildman Clab has asked me, but it has allowed me to give shape to my doubts.
1. [Lauren Berlant, Thinking About Feeling Historical, University of Chicago, August, 2008.]↩
The multi-sensorial effect of music and art, paired together, allows us to shift in and out of our overwhelming reality. When I joined the team and mentioned my side gig as DJ Hanouni, it was only natural that I create a mix for Special Special. I worked with our Designer and music aficionado Mark Foss to create Special Special’s first DJ mix, which was born out of his own pastime creating a themed Spotify playlist for every show. Having our exhibition Late Summer by Benjamin Langford as inspiration made for a colorful and fruitful collaboration.
In the Special Special spirit of fresh ideas, collaboration, and intersecting art with the everyday, I wanted this mix to enhance the playful essence of the show as something people can carry with them to remind them of Late Summer; that was only a click away. The Late Summer-inspired playlist Mark created was full of different genres, styles and eras, which brought up a fun challenge for me and re-ignited my passion for creative DJing that had gone a bit stale during quarantine. For example, older songs that are not mixed digitally are much harder to sync to newer ones because the tempo is off or it’s slightly out of tune, so mixing with your ears rather than eyes is key. Melding genres is one of my specialities; it surprises the listener by refreshing old classics and much like the intersection of music and art, elevates the unique sound of both tracks. All the “Flowers (Lone Remix)” by Bibio with “Perfumed Garden” by The RAH Band is one of my favorite blends in the mix for this reason, as well as the two intro songs.
Anaïs (a.k.a. DJ Hanouni) admiring Benjamin Langford's Burnt Fiddleleaf
When I began DJing a few years ago I quickly learned that it’s a skill that takes so much more practice and discipline. Not only is it about beat matching in real time, but about creating a feeling, trying to predict how the audience will respond, making sure the songs sound right together, and being able to do it on the fly. It’s really centered on curating an experience, and in this case, one to accompany viewing (in any context) Langford’s whimsically ethereal soft sculpture plants.
The preparation that goes into an audio mix is no simple feat. I use our Special Special edition Small Medium Big Ideas Notebook Set to organize my thoughts, because they tend to get messy if they’re all in the same place. My own process begins with choosing a list of songs to use– these go in the small notebook. Then, I decide which songs have similar keys and which songs complement each other the most, so these potential blends organized by BPM and/or key are written down in the medium notebook. A blend might seem like it’ll sound good on paper until you get down to testing it out on the turntables. Some songs that are both beautiful become a trainwreck together, so it’s always best to hear how their combination works out in reality. Once I listen to how they flow from beginning to end and tweak the mix to my liking, I use the big notebook for my final organized lists of each mix and instructions on how to play each song.
As the Late Summer exhibition relates to a period of intensity and scarcity circling back to the same dire themes that came to a head this year, this sound piece is a surrogate for taking a deep breath, relaxing back into yourself, and reaching a point of intuitive introspection. It begins smooth and easy, then reaches a higher BPM towards the end for danceable listening.
Benjamin Langford, Yellow Schefflera (above) and Sweet Potato Vine (below) from the exhibition Late Summer (2020), Special Special, New York.
Langford’s work asks us to indulge in themes of process. Photographing plants in a state of decay, the artist both makes their ephemeral nature more permanent and reminds us that nothing is meant to last. Whether it’s the stitching on the leaves in Yellow Schefflera or the intricately-cut crevices of Sweet Potato Vine, Langford’s larger-than-life sculptures evince a dedicated, ritualistic kind of preparation, similar to the process of crafting a mix.
Putting an emphasis on community and care is central to the Special Special ethos, so we offer this auditory experience as a method of self-care available to anyone. Layer it with a nature sound video during a bubble bath, put it on a speaker while relaxing in the park, or stop by the gallery to hear it play in its natural state, alongside Langford’s artworks.
Shop Special Special’s first-ever Holiday Gift Guide for people who are full of contradictions. What do you give the person who has everything? What if gift-giving is their last love language? No matter the occasion, we have a gift for someone who defies categories. Use promo code SPECIALTHANKS for 10% off your entire purchase online and in person through Cyber Monday, November 30, 11:59pm. Don’t forget to finish it off with our exclusive gift wrap.
1) Gifts for the Sequestered Adventurer
Travel has been sharply restricted, but that doesn’t stop many of us from daydreaming of escape. Send your adventurous friend a beach towel or NYC Fishing Journal by Yi Xin Tong to encourage a well-deserved staycation. Dress the whole family in Towelkinis for bathtime. This gift package is for those who aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
2) Gifts for the Antisocial Entertainer
One is the loneliest number, unless it means a cozy night in curled up with an extra large martini served in a ceramic vessel by Lu Zhang and a modern oracle reading from The Deck of Character. You don’t need a crowd to justify drawing the curtains and lighting a witchy candle. Singles, only children, and Aquarius suns know: the only one you can fully trust is yourself.
3) Gifts for the Urban Gardener
If you are just a nature lover in a concrete jungle, this song is for you. Adorn your home with a fabric sculpture by Benjamin Langford or pot a new cutting inside a felt planter. Splash through puddles on the sidewalk with waterproof Japanese Workman boots. Then, visit Special Special’s Plant Residency and Langford’s exhibition Late Summer. If there’s anything that this year taught us, it’s that this is the year for houseplants.
4) Gifts for the Unproductive Writer
Can’t seem to find the right words? Plagued by writers’ block? These accessories combined provide some mental gymnastics for the immobilized writer. Maybe it’s a matter of reorganizing ideas by their size or making your own rules. Add a resting place for coffee, and your creative energy will be flowing in no time.
We didn’t realize a turnip and a sunchoke could have a conversation until Bella Meyer proposed to animate them with a puppet performance using Special Special’s latest edition of Tubers felt planters, produced in collaboration with Benjamin Langford. The performance coincided with Langford’s solo exhibition Late Summer at Special Special, an installation of enlarged sculptural photographs of plants and flowers, which were photographed from around his home and neighborhood during the COVID-19 lockdown.
With Bella, Ben, and new and old friends gathered festively together, we also celebrated Special Special’s 4th anniversary, as the audience watched Bella’s performance unfold behind our storefront window from the sidewalk. A wholesome delight celebrating four years of creative collaborations at Special Special, this little video reveals a small fraction of the magic of that day.
(Above) Bella Meyer, founder of and florist at FleursBella, stages a performance in Special Special’s storefront
Tim Simonds first introduced Bella to me as his mother during his solo exhibition, Talks To Me, at our space in 2019. At that time, she was a supportive collector who brought many friends to see her son’s show, and we developed a close friendship. Every time she visited, she carried an exuberant and earthy energy which made sense given her career as a florist and founder of an artistic flower shop near Union Square called FleursBella. This charming oasis in Manhattan is known for its floral installations for art institutions, glamorous events, and restaurants around town.
Tim Simonds, left, with his mother Bella Meyer.
Bella is not only one of our favorite local florists but also a collector of the Hibiscus Hawaiian shirt, a previous edition collaboration with Benjamin Langford. She happened to be back in town from quarantining upstate for the opening of Ben’s show and showed up wearing her Hibiscus Hawaiian shirt. From outside our space looking into the new exhibition, daring to slip our masks down for a quick sip of prosecco, I asked if she would be interested in demonstrating how to use our latest Tubers planter edition.
“How about a puppet performance?” she asked. She looked at our storefront window and started envisioning stems of fresh and dried flowers slowly accumulating in Ben’s Turnip and Sunchoke planters; branches building one after another, growing taller and leaning further into each other.
Tim, who was standing nearby, interjected, “Oh, you will love her puppet performances. She used to do them all the time.” Convinced by their creative energy, I believed it was a better vision than my initial proposal to ask her to do a workshop.
Bella Meyer, right, with her assistant Leanna.
An assortment of loose stems and branches prepare for their appearance on stage.
On the day of the performance, Bella showed up with her two teammates, Leanna and George, buckets of flowers, and a shelf to organize them for the performance. Around the start time at three o’clock, friends of Bella and Special Special began to gather, reunited in masks standing outside our space in anticipation for the performance. One of her assistants hit “play” to start a soundtrack of nature sounds, and Bella appeared wearing all black behind the glass, covering her face with a black cloth as well to divert attention from herself as the puppeteer. She began filling the planters with long flower stems. Vibrant flowers in fuschia, mustard, and emerald animated the window of Special Special.
Pedestrians and passing cars stopped to peer in, as the bouquets grew taller and taller over the course of the forty minute performance. There were some moments when Bella teased her audience by stepping out from behind the window frame. As the audience started clapping, thinking it signaled the end of the performance, Bella would flick fresh flower petals at us before stepping back into the window frame to continue her arrangements. Everyone was captivated and mesmerized by the luscious assemblage of yarrow, celosia, and bramble.
Crowds gather to watch Bella Meyer’s flower puppet performance at the Special Special storefront.
Finally, she came out again to throw more flowers—this time loose orchid buds—and gave a final bow. Then, people stepped inside to see the juxtaposition of the floral arrangements and Ben’s installation inside our space. The finished display also evoked a sensorium of smells, emitting a fragrance akin to dried tea leaves and a forest floor.
Bella throws petals into the crowd.
The interior of Special Special is transformed into a surreal gardenscape with Benjamin Langford’s sculptures and bouquets by Fleursbella.
Bella continued to treat each flower tenderly even after the performance was complete. She sprayed hairspray onto dry flowers to keep them perky. Two weeks later when she came to take down the display, she apologized to each stem as she arranged for them to be discarded or recycled for other ornamental displays.
Benjamin Langford’s Tubers in varying sizes are available for your own planting and puppeteering needs. Langford’s exhibition Late Summer is on view through December 24, 2020.
Founder / Director of Special Special
Beginning Fall 2020, Special Special hosts a residency for plants you associate with another person. This is an artist residency for your plants who embody characters of a person.
Ever water your plants and wonder what has happened with the friend that hastily moved away and left the little cactus on your window sill? Reminds you to call your mom when you look at the money tree your parents bought you when you moved into your first apartment after college. Wonder if you will ever run into the ex who helped to pot the pit of an avocado you shared on your morning toast. Has your plant ever been a part of other art exhibitions?
We want to get to know your plants and help take care of these kindred spirits. You may apply if you want to celebrate them, take a temporary break from the baggage of its association, if the plant needs an alternative energy boost, or if you simply want us to look after your plants while you take a trip out of town.
Plants carry the energy of those they are associated with, and sometimes embody a deep personified meaning for the primary caregiver. In a city of 8.6 million, people come and go, and some form lasting bonds through the transfer of plants, even when the human relationship has fleeted. Plants are your low maintenance pets, yet slightly needy roommate, reminding you to get out into the sun every once in the while, and drink ample water.
The residency will consist of a collection of plants that the primary caregivers associate with people. The plants will reside at the newly formed plant themed shop at Special Special on a 1 month rotation.
During the residency your plant will be living and growing amongst a community of other kindred spirited plants. The team at Special Special will provide regular water as instructed by the primary caregiver, and a diverse array of visitors will provide invaluable critique and creative discourse for the plants’ development.
Visitors will get to know your plants at Special Special through the profile and CV attached to the plant. Special Special will provide a platform to spotlight your plant on our website journal and Instagram page.
Plants that were gifted
Plants that were left behind, or never reclaimed
Plants with a deep association with someone
Plants that were a part of a creative project, or exhibitions
Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Please find the form for submission here.
— Name of plant
— Type of plant
— Characteristics, known traits
— Care instructions
— CV or known record of residence and exhibition
— How you acquired the plant
— Photo of the plant
If selected, we will require the following documentation:
— Photo of plant at caregiver’s location
— Photo of plant enroute to residency
— Photo of plant on the first day of residency
— Photo of plant on its last day of residency
Information will be entered into a printed profile on view during the residency.
Plants Looking for New Permanent Homes
1-2 plants at a time may join the residency in hopes of seeking a new, permanent caretaker. The new caretaker may apply to adopt a plant if they write a qualified statement on why they believe the plant should go home with them.
Special Special will only be responsible for watering the plant, and its occasional trimming. Any additional requests will only be accepted at our discretion. The residents shall incur no cost to Special Special whatsoever. Upon the end of the residency the owners must collect the plant from our location.
In the interest of ensuring all other plants’ health, safety, and wellbeing during their stay at Special Special, please make sure your plants are not infested with any bugs or endanger other plants. Special Special Productions, LLC. is not liable in the case of poor health or death during its stay at the residency. Special Special Productions, LLC, will do its due diligence to follow the care instructions provided by the caregiver to our best abilities, and notify the caregiver if any negative conditions occur.
Volume 2 of Afternoon Tea and Jam Sessions streamed live on specialspecial.com on Wednesday, August 19th at 3:00pm EST. Viewers were invited to brew themselves a cup of tea, put their feet up, and tune in!
Artist Britt Moseley served up sounds and tea via his STP1000: Synthesizer Teapot, with Special Special founder, Wen-You Cai in attendance at Special Special gallery.
The STP:1000 Synthesizer Teapot is a fully functioning teapot and analog synthesizer. It is capable of playing musical scales and notes or unusual drone sounds. Britt’s performance also introduced his auxiliary tablecloth, which influenced the music when cups were placed on its conductive surface. The Synthesizer Teapot was featured in our group show Artists’ Tools.
Check out Afternoon Tea & Jam Volume 1 featuring Britt Moseley, Tiri Kananuruk, and Sebastián Morales.
For nearly four years since Special Special opened, the metal gate that comes down over the front door every evening at closing time, has been left as a blank canvas to the street. This was not the result of a lack of ideas; perhaps, it was due to an overabundance of them. However, no opportunity seemed a more appropriate occasion to extend the invitation for fresh gate painting than when we heard of Che-Wei Wang's new painting tool.
The artist was featured in the group exhibition Artists’ Tools (March 12 —August 31, 2020) and makes up one half of CW&T, a Brooklyn based design studio, run by Che-Wei and his partner, Taylor Levy.
Wang invented the Dot Blaster 8000 tool during COVID-19 quarantine in Spring 2020. Inspired by wheat pasting street artists and the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara, Wang used prototypes of the tool to paint the date everyday in the streets. Soon, he was creating more complex designs.
Painted designs produced by the tool, can be pre-programmed by uploading bitmap images with an exact height of eight pixels. One row of pixels for each nozzle. Beyond this, designs are entirely customizable and repeatable.
The painting process begins with a concoction of acrylic paint and mineral spirits, the classic petroleum-derived clear solvent. Wang funnels the mixture into bags that connect to the Dot Blaster 8000 device. Between colors, Wang must empty the gun completely of the previous color in order to ensure that a pure pigment would be delivered.
'Taktaktaktaktak!' Wang’s Dot Blaster 8000 releases a light rotary sound like the world’s gentlest automatic paintball gun. The sleek, translucent rectangular body holds a straight line of eight small nozzles, hence the “8000” in the name (according to Wang, a Dot Blaster 16,000 is in the works). Each nozzle is wired to a small, built-in computer that pushes the small blasts of paint out in specific sequences. For painting Special Special’s gate, the gallery collaborated with Wang to test new designs, including the Special Special logo, trademark name, some waves, and little figures. Over the course of an hour, Wang dribbled bands of patterns in green, blue, white, and yellow on the silver gate.
Along with Wang’s partner, Taylor Levy, their two charming sons watched from the sidelines, asking many necessary questions such as, “What’s the box for?” Upon switching the gun’s settings to scrawl “Special Special,” one child exclaimed, “A second Special?” After the gate was complete and with enthusiastic encouragement from the audience, Wang progressed onto the sidewalk, discovering that flat horizontal surfaces rendered a more legible pattern. Part performance piece, part action painting, Wang’s demonstration of the Dot Blaster 8000 left a lasting mark on Special Special and our imaginations, as we know this will only be the beginning of Dot Blaster!
Check out our interview with Che-Wei Wang.
Join artist Brett Gui Xin in her Brooklyn home studio as she demonstrates using Wolverine Claw, a tool developed to slice soft plastics into thin strips, which are then knit or woven. Wolverine Claw was featured in the Artists’ Tools exhibition at Special Special, which ran from March 12 - August 31, 2020.
Check out our interview with Brett Gui Xin.
An interview with artist Brett Gui Xin, hosted by Ellen Bjerborn. Brett Gui Xin repurposes waste materials into art, manipulating them with weaving, heat treatment and mechanical making! In this interview we discuss the Wolverine Claw - her tool in Special Specials exhibition, Artists’ Tools, as well as Brett's art practice and explorations.
Check out Brett Gui Xin's Wolverine claw demo.
An interview with artists Tiri Kananuruk and Sebastián Morales, hosted by Jenny Lai, production manager at Special Special. Tiri and Sebastián created the Dongle Synth 2.0 for the Artists’ Tool show.
Tiri Kananuruk creates performance art that combines her passion for technological consumerism, machine learning, and language. Tiri is a cofounder of NUUM collective, a group of choreographers, composers, programmers, visual artists and interaction designers committed to a multi-disciplinary approach to creating performance work.
Sebastián Morales is a Mexican artist, engineer, and researcher. He received his bachelors in mechanical engineering and a masters in interactive telecommunications at NYU. He develops interactive works at the intersection of living systems, robotics, and digital culture.
In April, Tiri and Sebastián also participated in a synthesizer jam session with another artist featured in our show, Britt Moseley, as part of Special Special’s Together Alone Spring 2020 Virtual Programming. Check out the Dongle Synth 2.0 in action here!
An interview with Winslow Funaki, hosted by Weston Wittry, Art Director at Special Special. Winslow's work, Shopping Cart, was featured in the Artists' Tools exhibition at Special Special, on view from March 12, 2020 - August 31, 2020.
Funaki is an artist based in Providence, RI. She's received an MFA in Furniture Design from RISD (2020), a BFA in Painting from RISD with a concentration in Art History, and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. At the time of this interview she has exhibited in New York, Providence, and Japan.
An interview with Che-Wei Wang, hosted by Ellen Bjerborn, gallery assistant at Special Special. His Hot Plastic Gun and Carbide Ring were featured in the Artists' Tools exhibition.
Che-Wei is an artist, designer & architect with expertise in computational and generative design, fabrication technologies, electronics, CNC machining, and metal manufacturing. The results range from architecture & sculpture to interactive installations & mobile apps. He is the winner of the 2003 SOM fellowship and the Young Alumni Achievement Award from Pratt Institute. Che-Wei has taught courses on design, time, creative computing, and inflatables, at various institutions. He is an alumnus of MIT Media Lab, ITP at NYU, and Pratt Institute.
Check out Che-Wei Wang's Dot Blaster 8000 demo.
Special Special’s exhibition Artists’ Tools opened on March 12th, days before New York went on pause. During quarantine, you can take a remote tour of our space and explore the work of these 32 artists through this personal guided tour! Many of these limited edition or one-of-a-kind tools are available for purchase on our website. The exhibition will be extended through the end of August 2020.
About Artists’ Tools:
Artists’ Tools is a group exhibition showcasing the innovative devices created by artists to aid in their creative practice or in daily life. Custom, handcrafted, repurposed, or created through assemblage, these tools can be considered artworks in their own right. Artists’ Tools features contributions from 32 artists working in a variety of mediums across fields of art, design, and technology. Featured tools include a string necklace that serves as a measurement device, a self-driving gallery pedestal, and a teapot that doubles as an audio synthesizer.
Special Special also introduces a limited edition of works on paper in collaboration with James Chrzan. Conceived to be created daily throughout the course of the exhibition, each site-specific drawing is produced by a hygrothermograph, recording changes in the temperature and humidity inside the gallery. Originally intended to record a drawing over a 24-hour period, however due to COVID-19 lockdown, the drawings record an irregular period of time, ranging from two to four weeks, between visits to the space by our director, Wen-You Cai.For Artists’ Tools, the gallery space is transformed into a pegboard-clad and studio-inspired setting, serving as a backdrop for viewers to discover these imaginative, playful, and functional objects.
James Chrzan, one of the artists featured in the Artists’ Tools exhibition, gave a musical performance under his solo project, My Life as a Kinetic Sculpture. The performance features Julep Maisey and Lucky Frog and was created for Special Special’s Together Alone Spring 2020 virtual programming.
James Chrzan is an artist, writer, and musician based in Ridgewood, NY. His work engages in the long tradition of the dematerialized art object. He founded the Ridgewood Community Seed Vault in 2019 and curates the non-corporeal fine art gallery Famous Chimps. A collection of new poems, Nice Job Haunting Me, was published by Puppy American in 2019. Narcissus pseudonarcissus, an opera in two acts written with Rachel Hillery, will premiere in 2020. He plays drums in the band Julep Maisey and releases music under the name, My Life as a Kinetic Sculpture.
Check out our interview with James Chrzan during the Artists' Tools exhibition.
An interview with artist Patrick Carlin Mohundro, hosted by Banyi Huang, project assistant at Special Special. Mohundro's Coaster Paintings were featured in the Artists' Tools exhibition. These canvas-style coasters made of porcelain become paintings of spilled beverages, an interactive purchase that can be exchanged with the artist when dirty for a new set.
Carousel, the Frontiers Conference Call was a performative panel that took participants on a trip across time and space. Taking place on May 17, 2020, Carousel was organized by Wildman Clab (founded by Lu Zhang, 2017) in collaboration with Special Special as part of the Frontiers Conference (call), COVID-19 edition, and Together Alone virtual programming. The Frontiers Conference is an ongoing performance residency at Special Special.
For Carousel, Wen-You Cai led a panel of distinguished experts, currently isolated in different locations, through a journey of blurry moments, reminisce on dusty small pleasures, and sometimes crisp details we have long overlooked or forgotten. The conference call connected the now discontinued Kodak Carousel slide projector, a nostalgic technology of photo sharing, to Zoom, currently the most prevalent form of communication, taking us on a digital ride that binds past, present, and future.
An interview with visual artist Sofía Clausse, hosted by Mark Foss, Designer at Special Special. Clausse's Squeegee Fingers, Cars Tool, and Pencil Dancers were featured in our Artists' Tools exhibition.
Sofía Clausse (b.1989, Argentina) is an artist living in London. Graduated from RISD in 2014, she is currently doing a postgraduate at the Royal Academy Schools.
Home Demo is an extended music video of Del Hardin Hoyle’s current musical project ‘Buffoon’. The video is a collage of performances staged in his bedroom interconnected with views of his neighborhood, the tree outside his house, the bright blue concrete of the public pool down his street, and footage of public spaces around New York shot on his TILTWARPREFLECTJIB in January 2020.
The video streamed on our site on May 10, 2020 from 6:00pm–7:01pm EST. The last minute of the video references the daily communal clapping in appreciation of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic which takes place at 7:00pm.
Del Hardin Hoyle is the creator of TILTWARPREFLECTJIB, a tool currently featured in the Artists’ Tools show at Special Special.
An interview with multidisciplinary artist James Chrzan, by Wes Wittry, Art Director at Special Special. Chrzan's Hygrothermograph Drawings and Matchbook Poetry projects are featured in our Artists' Tools exhibition, currently on view at Special Special.
James Chrzan is an artist, writer, and musician based in Ridgewood, NY. His work engages in the long tradition of the dematerialized art object. He founded the Ridgewood Community Seed Vault in 2019 and curates the non-corporeal fine art gallery Famous Chimps. A collection of new poems, Nice Job Haunting Me, was published by Puppy American in 2019. Narcissus pseudonarcissus, an opera in two acts written with Rachel Hillery, will premiere in 2020. He plays drums in the band Julep Maisey and releases music under the name, My Life as a Kinetic Sculpture.
Chrzan also gave a performance as My Life as a Kinetic Sculpture, alongside Julep Maisey, and Lucky Frog, as part of our Together Alone, Spring 2020 virtual programming.
Check out James' performance, An Evening with My Life as a Kinetic Sculpture featuring Julep Maisy and Lucky Frog, previously hosted on specialspecial.com.
An interview with Kevin Abosch hosted by Special Special founder and director, Wen-You Cai. Abosch discusses his artistic practice and chats about the current state of affairs during the COVID-19 lockdown in NYC. Abosch's Non-Reflecting Versatile Alligator Clip, a clip created to be of use in photoshoots, was featured in our Artists' Tools exhibition.
Kevin Abosch (born 1969) is an Irish conceptual artist known for his works in photography, sculpture, installation, AI, blockchain and film. Abosch's work addresses the nature of identity and value by posing ontological questions and responding to sociologic dilemmas. Abosch's work has been exhibited throughout the world, often in civic spaces, including The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, The National Museum of China, The National Gallery of Ireland, Jeu de Paume ( Paris), The Irish Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, The Bogotá Museum of Modern Art, ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien) and Dublin Airport.
Afternoon Tea & Jam is a part of Together Alone, Special Special’s Spring 2020 Virtual Programing. Enjoy this synthesizer jam session between Tiri Kananuruk, Sebastián Morales, and Britt Moseley with their artists’ instruments: a USB hub-enhanced synthesizer keyboard and a synthesizer teapot. This live performance was streamed on specialspecial.com on April 10, 2020. These tools are featured in our current Artists’ Tools exhibition at Special Special and are also available for purchase on our website.
Check out Afternoon Tea & Jam Volume 2 featuring Britt Moseley and his synthesizer teapot joined by Wen-You Cai.
Wen-You Cai was joined by multidisciplinary artists Tim Simonds and Lu Zhang to discuss how collaboration feeds their work, how they choose and identify who they want to work with to develop their ideas, and how ideas develop their community. Their conversation spanned their individual practices along with a tour through the projects that have emerged through Special Special.
As Wen-You has developed Special Special, it has become a platform that attracts all sorts of creative ideas and personalities. Curating projects and collaborating with artists at Special Special has a similar discipline to the curation of her photography to create a cohesive collection as she has done in Rooster, Tiger, Sheep by Snake, and the recollection of past stories as a way to make sense of them in the present in When You Make No Art.
WY (Wen-You Cai)
LZ (Lu Zhang)
TS (Tim Simonds)
TS: I'm Tim, I'm an artist who's worked with Wen-You, and Lu.
LZ: We've both worked together.
TS: We are going to talk through two books that will be released at Printed Matter. One is When You Make No Art. The second is newer in some ways, older in other ways, Rooster, Tiger, Sheep, by Snake, which is a book of photos in concert with an exhibition that opened in October in Macau, and is still on view. We will talk about these two books, then we will extend that into the collaboration that we have done together, and also the space Special Special that Wen-You runs. I hope that we can get to a point where we can bring some context to Special Special's curatorial project. Wen-You, can you start by talking about this book?
WY: Thank you Tim for your wonderful introduction, thank you all for joining us today to talk about our projects and our shared collaborations, and how collaboration is a big part of my practice. We decided to mash the titles of the two books together, just half an hour ago in our conversation. You will understand why as we continue.
First we will go through the photo book, Rooster, Tiger, Sheep, by Snake. This is a recent release of photographs collected over twelve years, that I've taken of three members of my family. Rooster is my father, Tiger is my mum, heep is my sister, and Snake is myself. They are taken from 2006 to 2018. The photos are currently being exhibited at MGM Cotai in Macau, inside a hotel and casino that has an arts and culture program. They've invited me to do a photography exhibition there, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Macau handover back to China. What drew me to this concept is that I've always been drawn to photography from a young age, but I wasn't able to be comfortable in front of the camera for a long time. Over the years, as I kept taking photos of my family, I saw them as very photogenic. So it's an investigation of my photogenic family, and trying to understand what that means from behind the lens. As a family, we travelled around the world together, and I liked to catch candid moments. And there are captions of little stories behind the photographs and vignettes.
This is on Chinese New Year in 2014. Throughout the photographs, there are moments that are more performative, and ones that are more candid. This one is a family funeral. I like to capture the environment as things occur. As we dressed in funerary costumes for my great-grandmother's funeral, there are little children that are going to the swimming pool in similar outfits and colors. These are more performative moments, but I'm mostly just capturing my family's natural state of the play. Throughout the photos, you see my sister, who's 13 years younger than me, grow up in front of the camera. My parents look more or less the same, but my sister becomes a timestamp. The book is in chronological order, there's also artistic elements of my father, who's an artist, and my sister, who's also cultivating her artistic side, and how that plays out in the dynamic of the family. And my family's an artistic family.
Through the collection, I'm not shown in any of the images, except this one, where you can see me in the flash, and in another one, where you see my leg. I wanted to make myself not present, but I am also present in the composition, my participation, and the interaction between the family members. This is the exhibition in Macau. I wanted to display it in a salon style manner, against blue walls because it's not a traditional gallery space, it's at a casino, in a space that used to be a jewelry store. In order to house these works, which are very intimate, I wanted people to come in and experience the rigor of memory in a way that I see them. There are some that are chronological, but there are also mish-mashes of time. And this is my family looking at the photographs.
There are also moments of our family visits in artistic environments. This is taken at the Uffizi Gallery. We are all nurtured and cultivated by the art that is surrounding us, as well as creating art at the same time. In the exhibition at Macau, this photograph is displayed in a lightbox in front of the casino entrance, so framing the image in a completely out-of-context environment. I was interested in presenting art in an environment that's not for people who are there to look at art. I wanted to make art accessible to everybody. So for people who are there to gamble, on vacation, or shopping, I wanted them to come and see intimate moments of our family. So what's really exciting is that a lot of the people who came and saw the show were usually on solo trips, completely un-family related trips, but they saw their own families in the exhibition.
Now we move to When We Make No Art.
TS: Let me ask you. This is published in 2019, and When We Make No Art was originally published in Chinese in 2015.
WY: I had written it from 2012 to 2014, right after I graduated college. The English version was produced in 2016. It was originally in a limited edition of 300 printed in yellow. Thanks to Printed Matter, I had sold out of the yellow copy. So I've re-editioned them in green.
TS: Before we go three years back in time. One simple question to ask is why you choose to refer to your family members by the zodiac sign. I don't know if it's related to not wanting to show yourself in the photographs. Is there a connection between the two? And how do you think about the zodiac names?
WY: I wanted this to be relatable to many people. Coming from a Chinese family, a lot of Chinese people ask you which animal are you, upon introduction. I wanted the book to be not so much about who my family is, I wanted the photographs to demonstrate a family of four people, one of them unseen, and show how we interact with each other. Another element to the zodiac is also that a lot of people like to instill characteristics into zodiac signs, like horoscopes. There are different associations with each animal. I was hoping by naming my family after zodiac animals, that it would be more accessible, and that it would keep people guessing, and create a dialogue, in which they might not know who this person is previously, but associate them with their zodiac traits and understand them.
LZ: I have a related question. The whole story in the book...The Tiger is the mom, the Rooster is the father. How do you see yourself within those relationships?
WY: There are little stories attached to the photographs. But I don’t use the individuals’ names, I use the animals. In some ways, people can guess based on that. In the beginning, it can be unclear. And I do instill a family hierarchy in the beginning, by calling my father as Rooster, my mother as Tiger, and my younger sister as Sheep. But as you look through the book, the hierarchy gradually disappears, and we are just representing animals in the Chinese zodiac. I’m trying to break free of the expectations that people have of the animals, and especially when they see this book and recognize my father as a famous artist. These photographs depict a completely different aspect than what people may originally have thought.
TS: And by expectations, you mean the image through which your family would have been known otherwise?
WY: I wanted the book to be mainly about a family dynamic, and truthfully show candid moments in our family that people might not otherwise now. We are very humorous, we travel a lot, and are very close. From the perspective of how someone might perceive a famous artist, or our lifestyle.
LZ: I often don’t see you in the photographs, you appear only in the flash in the book’s cover photo. I’m very curious about how you discovered yourself through this process.
WY: That’s a good question. In both this book, and also in When You Make No Art, it’s about trying to figure out where my place is within our family structure. In life, we are always trying to do that regardless. Our family is a big part of what shapes us in our day to day. These two books stem through a long period of time: Rooster, Tiger, Sheep, By Snake spans 12 years, and When You Make No Art spans my upbringing until I was 24. It’s an investigation of who I am, and each photograph depicts moments of happiness, sadness, and other types of information.
LZ: Why did you choose photography?
WY: I chose photography because I can’t draw. I like to use something that’s instantaneous. Most of these were taken with a point-and-shoot camera. I wanted to do something that was quick. Most of them were film too, as it’s a format that creates an object, as opposed to digital photography, where I often lose track of where the files go. Film is more artistic in quality. So I gravitated towards photography as an instant way to make art, as a “reluctant artist”, as I say in my bio.
TS: That seems to be the perfect transition to talk about When You Make No Art. At the end of the book, you have this realization that maybe you are a reluctant artist. Can you expand on that?
WY: WYMNA is a book of different stories of my upbringing relating to art, and also not relating to art. It’s about my family, my education in art school, growing up in general, and trying to find a sense of purpose. This photograph was taken when I was 5 years old. I had an album back in 1995, and each roll would be printed. I would pick a photo from each roll. I was working with an artist who wanted to capture the world from a child’s eyes. She gave me film and processed it for me. I would also write captions for them. When I was writing the book, I went back to this photo and found it very interesting. This is a project that my father did, Century of Mushroom Cloud. It’s a photo of him igniting a mushroom cloud out of his hand. In the real image that he used, it didn’t show the ladder. But at 5 years old, I took a photo of the setup behind-the-scene, which broke the illusion of the image. I noticed later on that I took a selfie at the same spot. It’s also interesting because the Twin Towers still existed in the back, it dates the image and stamps myself in the context of history.
TS: Can you speak to the context of the images in terms of the book?
WY: I don’t really have one answer to that. I think the context is that people can enter into reading this book, and perhaps understand the perspective I’m writing from, which is that at the age of 5, I did create something artistic, and it was the beginning of my artmaking. From there, I kept walking on a path that deviated from artmaking, but kept coming back to it.
LZ: I noticed that the title of the first chapter is that Museums Are An Awfully Lonely Place to Grow Up. How would you describe the relationship you have to museums, art, and artmaking? Why are museums so awful?
WY: It’s not awful. It’s just an awfully lonely place. It contributed to my sensibilities. Today, I operate a storefront space called Special Special. And it’s a shop and gallery, and I work with a lot of artists. My upbringing in museums, felt like a lot of things were not very accessible. The context is that I grew up in museums during its after-hours. The visitors would have left and I would be alone. A place with not a lot of other people and no children to play with. So I was alone a lot of the time. That helped create a sensibility in which I didn’t want to leave art, but wanted to make it a more engaging environment.
TS: Just for people who don’t know, can you talk about why it is that you grew up in museums? To give some context.
WY: My father, who is here today, his name is Cai Guo-Qiang. He’s a contemporary artist who’s had exhibitions at MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and all the major museums in New York and around the world. Throughout my life, he has been working as an artist.
LZ: When were you born? And how did you get to New York?
WY: I was born in Japan. My father was a grantee of the Asian Cultural Council residency program. We came when I was 5 years old.
LZ: When I was reading the first chapter, I felt that I was taken to a very intimate place. Instead of approaching art in a conventional art historical way, you have your own personal way of understanding art. Did that influence what you do now?
WY: Even though I studied art history and artmaking, I feel like everything that is bestowed upon me is not filtered through an art historical understanding, but more from a sense of observing it.
TS: In the book, you describe a moment of going on an El Greco pilgrimage, but there’s a sense that you never quite get there, as you are always turning towards something else. To me, that’s how the book is set up, how time is interlaced together. One moment you’re in Bilbao, but on the next page you are jumping to being at RISD, trying to figure out what a critique is. These non-sequiturs are reminiscent of the photo on the right, of taking the photo on the ladder, here’s a photo of something that got edited out. In the first chapter you also talk about being present when explosives are being set off. These are the background things that are going on, but not necessarily focused on the masterpieces or the actual artworks, but what’s going on around it. The reason why I’m bringing it up is because that’s how I see your project at Special Special, and how you think about curating, perhaps, and also of how you see artworks function beyond their outward appearances.
WY: Something that we talked about before is the idea of creating something without really understanding where it’s going. The stories that I write about, they are not so much about the outcome, but rather living in these moments and trying to figure out where to go. There’s no climactic arc to this book, but rather trying to find myself as an early-20 something who just graduated college and trying to understand where I stand artistically.
LZ: How is WYMNA related to Special Special?
WY: During the couple of years when I was writing the book, I was also behind the scenes photographing my father’s ignitions. Before I started Special Special, I had an apartment gallery, and I called my space If and When. This was an exhibition called Supporting Characters, made by Kate Phillips. She was my classmate from RISD, and made these conjoined socks that everyone fits into. They could wear and walk around in them. It's an experiment in wearing the same socks. At the time, I was starting to think about functionality, participation, and art, and how anybody entering a space, particularly my house, where I always ask people to take their shoes off, maybe it's nice to have a project/exhibition where your shoes are already off. You can have a group of strangers come together, and figure out how to wear this sock together.
This was an earlier project at Special Special. The space is on East 1st street, between 1st and 2nd Avenue, and we have exhibitions with artists and designers, and we also produce art editions that are functional. For every project that we do, I like for it to have some functionality, so people with all knowledge and background of art could come in and participate in something that we have, whether it's an installation or a purchase of an art collectible that's not a ridiculous price. These are select exhibitions that we had: this is a halloween costume show, this is a blanket exhibition. For every show we do, we try to completely transform the space. For this one, we made it into a homey living room space where blankets reside, it's by an artist named Oona Brangam-Snell. This is the Towelkini edition that we collaborated with the artist Aria McManus, and it's a towel that you can wear. For the opening, we had the model wearing the Towelkini walk around Soho, then we had her lie on the floor of the space for the duration of the opening. This is the Hibiscus installation by Benjamin Langford, and we collaborated with him to create a Hawaiian shirt with the hibiscus flower. This is a show with Sebastian Masuda, and we painted the whole space pink, and covered the wall with faux fur. People could come in and take a piece that they liked, collect it, and use it in a workshop setting to decorate their bags or t-shirts.
We also started exploring the workshop format as we worked with artists. Sebastian Masuda is a well-known figure who popularized Harajuku culture. So much of that is about the freedom of self-expression, so we invited people to express themselves through these colorful furs. This is a show by Sarah Verity. We invited anybody off the street to draw a room that they loved in. The show was called Love Hotel Room. These are different rooms that people contributed to. This project is also in our pop-up space at Macau. This is a show by Jenny Hata-Blumenfield. It's a play on light. She's a ceramic artist, but through the process of the show, I suggested cyanotype photography printing technique to her. She started incorporating this technique, as well as light and shadow into her practice. This was a show that opened in October called CHKRA. We transformed the space into seven booths in different colors. Each color represented a chakra type. They are sound booths of ambient music recorded at high-end luxury retail stores. So we call it luxury retail therapy without the expensive price tag. People could come in and align themselves at Special Special and feel like they went shopping. This is our current show called Tie Me Up! Lock Me Down!. It's a jewelry and adornment show co-curated by Banyi Huang and Kristen Lee. They both curate and make jewelry. So it's an exhibition of wearables.
I mentioned earlier that we recently created a pop-up space open at the same time as my photography exhibition in MGM hotel and casino in Macau. The concept of this space is a playground. We wanted to create an alternative space where people could go and hang out at the casino and hotel if they didn't want to go gambling or stay in their room. We have these monkey-bar contraptions. This is a see-saw we created with our fellow artist friend's oracle cards called Deck of Characters. There's also a telephone where you speak into one end, and your friend could listen at the other end of the space. We made it into a very playful shop to house our editions.
TS: Yeah I was wondering, within the playground, why did you end up being so insistent on having a space that was dedicated to forms of participatory art, and also editions, what is an edition and why are people making particular editions for this space?
WY: I re-read my book this past week, and there was a line in there where I said something along the lines of: “I wish museums could be more like a playground,” which I didn’t remember and then I thought back to that, that this was always an inherent connection. I think for me it’s because all of you are here today and experiencing this talk, and I hope that you do find something useful in this conversation. And throughout my journey in exploring art, I felt like the experience is something people can walk away with, with a new refreshed sense. Potentially they might have learnt something from another person, or they might have come up with an idea they never thought of before. So it’s sort of the serendipity of it, without a purpose and without an ego per se. Partially also that people are open to anything, and with that openness there are so many possibilities.
TS: Is that what you are coming at when you say “reluctant artist”? The lack of ego?
WY: Well that’s up for interpretation, because I can’t say there’s an ego in every artist. But I can say that a lot of artists have a vision of what they want to create, and they move towards that vision, and oftentimes we at Special Special do work with artists with a very specific set of ideas in mind. But I like for there to also be a dialogue that we have, and in the process perhaps making something unexpected. It could maybe be better sometimes, or it could be unexpected in a way where it can change the course of how they view their work up until this point. But it’s open to all kinds of possibilities. Should we jump into Tim?
LZ TS: Yeah.
WY: So this is Tim making his work for a show at Special Special last year.
TS: That’s in studio, well I’ll start from what it was. Together with Special Special, I did a scratch lotto ticket, a scratch game, but on a paper that we had produced together that was from bleached celery, and I had been bleaching celery for a couple of years before, and without any knowledge of making paper I had figured out that this could make a strange sheet of paper that is incredibly translucent. That was the project we worked on together, the people at Special Special and I all worked on it together. This is a photo of me in studio, but obviously there’s a lot… Wen-You is here, taking the photo after we had gone to buy 6 boxes of celery and 30 gallons of bleach. One of the many amazing collaborative projects that seem to have occurred at Special Special.
LZ: What’s the title?
TS: The title of the show is Talks To Me, which was the title of the game. Is there a photo of one individual ticket? You can kind of see them there. The way that the game worked is that essentially there was a conversation between people at a dinner table, and you are scratching their speech bubble, and the speech bubble happens to make a word. They’re all randomized words, so with Wes and Mark and everyone at Special Special we meticulously but blindly randomized our stamping of these 500 lotto tickets, scratch game tickets, and then ended up selling them individually but also as sheet editions. And I guess also another thing about the process that I thought was wonderful was that there was a moment where we had to juggle what is the legal terrain of making a scratch game. Which was wonderful because the object itself? finding trust between us, both in a legal terrain, monetarily, in terms of having to pay back the people that won the game.
LZ: I have talked to Tim about the project he made and I know that the process is very meticulous; the printmaking process, the paper making process, coming up with all the text to be printed on the celery paper and there is also the manna. What is that part?
TS: The manna?
LZ: Yes, in relation to the installation. The Special Special gallery had completely changed.
TS: Well manna came from many different things, but it is another edible element, or seemingly edible, but also seemingly artificial at the same time. The hair is something I’ve put into a lot of my work, as if it’s gotten caught in the mix. Because actually a lot of the pieces of paper have a hair, it was caught in the mix.
LZ: Yeah, I think that overall when we see Wen-You’s projects there are often different ways of collaborating with artists, like the way that Wen-You worked with Tim, the amount of editions they produced. It’s kind of unique in a way. In each piece as well. All of them are different, different formats but they're editions of the collaboration. I think that’s a different way. When you work with other artists there may be jackets that you can reproduce, but it’s also a limited edition in that way.
TS: Well to that point, maybe it’s what you’re getting at with the manna. What I find so wonderful about the opportunity to work in editions is it’s accessibility. It’s generous, but also generous to the artists that are producing . You are faced with the constraint of what the project space is, but not in editions.
LZ: Yeah, I mentioned it because I don’t make reproducible projects, so this way me and Tim are similar in a way that when we work with Special Special on our projects we have to think about what can be made within the concept of an edition, accessible to people.
WY: The next part is only about you.
LZ: Oh me?! Okay, so this is a show I did with Wen-You in 2018. It was a project that I did earlier at the NARS foundation. It’s a dating project, it’s called “It Takes 10 Years To Be On The Same Boat.” Wen-You came to the dating project. I turned my studio into a dating site and had it set up as a boat, a Chinese river boat. Because the sentence, if you take the Chinese translation, it will be 十年修得同船渡. So it’s a lot of me thinking about how people are meeting each other in this very convenient time of technology. You have dating apps, you have email and you can connect with each other very clinically. So I had this boat I had set up, had this website that people could set up online, and they don’t know each other, so the only thing that links them together is time they pick to go there. So in a way it’s fate that chooses to pair them together, and some people drop out right before they come to the meeting, some people change their day. So then the way that they choose to meet is based on what their own schedule is. So Wen-You saw this project and she invited me to be part of the SPF show, a summer group show, so I produced a pool date.
WY: The theme of SPF was Special Special turning into a pool over summer. Because our logo is a blue oval so it can be interpreted as a body of water. The idea was that everyone was in the same body of water, and that summer we were taking it literally, calling it a pool.
LZ: And at that time when I was working with you, the whole group show wasn’t in a traditional sense, it was spontaneous and there were different artists overlapping coming in, going out in different times. I think that was also the first time that I had experienced this in a group show.
TS: You mean that certain works were coming in and going out?
LZ: Yes, we started with three people in the beginning and then there were other people coming in, and there were other art and projects. It’s a spontaneous group show, the SPF show.
TS: Yeah, maybe to that point, when we had our show Talks to Me, I think it was maybe a week before the show opened, Wen-You said: “Oh, we have someone that’s an artist-in-residence who is going to ask you if you would be interested in doing a collaborative project with her, which is Lu. And I think there is a similar energy to this, as if someone was in-house, ready to collaborate with you.
LZ: Yeah I think that’s really interesting. I would also like to give a little context to why Wen-You and I started thinking similarly. When I started doing the dating project, I started an organization called Wildman Clab, and it’s a lab and club where I try to find the primitive human instinct, through the form of communication and interaction. I think that’s when I was just thinking a lot about the unthinkable community, how to find alternative ways to communicate. And communication does not equal connection. You have to make an effort and make an exercise together to get to this connection. Because pure communication doesn’t mean you’re connected.
TS: No, I think it’s also, it also reminds me of how I really think of the lotto tickets also, making a scratch card that's on translucent paper, and a really delicate one. And I am mentioning it because it’s similar to what we worked on together, that with something that’s a piece of translucent paper, if you print on both sides of it, they are communicating by negotiating with each other. You can only read on if the other side is helping you in some way to read this side, but they're not actually fused and connected, they're these two sides.
LZ: I’ll jump into the project that Tim and I did. This is a performance we did together during Tim’s show, it’s when the Frontiers Conference started entering. Because right now Wildman Clab is doing a year-long event residency at Special Special. That’s something I think I’ve never heard of, as well, which Wen-You came up with a plan and then we worked together. So for the Frontiers Conference I proposed to do a poetry reading and performances at Special Special with the exhibiting artists, or with artists from the outside and then just figuring out what the communication or connection could be about. So I think that during Tim’s show, or together on his piece, it’s called Efforts in Reading Kaspar by Peter Handke.
TS: Do you want me to talk about it a little, or talk about it together?
TS: So, well I guess in part, in relation to this idea and collaboration, around the time that Lu had asked me, and we were trying to decide if we should do something together during the time of the show, I had been returning to a play that I had stuck in my mind, which is Peter Handke's writing of the story of Kaspar, Kaspar Hauser, that’s disfigured. Historically the story is that it’s a figure that's been locked in a chamber, cave somewhere maybe by somebody and enters into this village without having any language or way of communicating at all with anybody, without having any language at all, and in the larger story he acquires language slowly through this teacher, and it has a very upsetting ending to it. But the play, Kaspar by Peter Handke, has these different characters and it has Kaspar, this figure that kind of comes on stage and doesn't really know what the stage even is, doesn’t know how to walk. The world around Kaspar is kind of undefined because there’s no language to define it. And then there’s offstage instructors that are teaching Kaspar, and giving Kaspar language, and there are certain steps in the play that they go through. So we decided to work directly, physically, with the text of this play. There was a simple thing in the beginning, of learning how to read the text itself, and we did this in several ways, by working through the text redacting a lot of parts, and switching off into different roles with Aaron Lehman, who was with us too. There were different roles of being an instructor, teaching how to read something. But in our conversations there was also a certain point where we were going to translate a part of the text. Coming to some object, like this paper, from two sides, and knowing that communication isn’t necessarily the connection between those two, but it’s the trust that whatever someone is doing on the other side, you're sharing this object together. This may be a bit theoretical. Put more simply, there were parts in the performance where we were reading the play and we would dip it into a bowl of water so that we could read the text backwards. And if you’ve ever read a text backwards, that you haven't encountered before, I mean some people are much better than others, but if you voice it, you are really trying to sound out what seems to be recognizable language, so it is like trying to learn how to read, but trying to learn how to read backwards.
LZ: I think that Tim gave a little bit of background of the performance, and we helped each other read through these pieces of paper. But then to me, I think that this is one example of how Wen-You is allowing us, or allowing collaborations to happen in a very different way at Special Special.
WY: Yeah, something about Special Special that I always tell people is that I want to create a platform and give people the opportunity of doing something that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do in another setting, in a conventional art setting, and I want to give that space to people to explore.
TS: Where do you feel you are in terms of that, when an exhibition is at Special Special?
WY: The place started in 2016 with the idea that we would have exhibitions of art editions that we would produce too, with the artists. And more and more the idea of what an art edition is, that’s also functional, has very much expanded. For example with Tim making a scratch lottery ticket on celery paper, that’s kind of another direction of what it means to be functional. And then in terms of workshops and performance I started to think in the function of experience, where people come to the space and they experience something, and that’s what it is - they function together in a space. And the idea of the Wildman Clab collaboration, and we call it the Frontiers Conference, it started from this idea that we had during our more of a shop-like rendition called Handle With Care where we wrapped everything in gift wrapped paper for the holiday season, all our editions, and we decided to do a masked poetry reading one afternoon. This was Lu’s idea and we collaborated and Wes made these masks, and we pulled out all our poetry books and picked poetry to read. And after experiencing this we had some kind of epiphany, at least for me, after doing that I realized there could be a whole series of potential performances. I presented it as a conceptual poetic performance, and the idea of a conceptual poetic performance is that it could be anything. So that is when I asked Lu to be our event resident.
LZ: So I am just temporarily in Special Special posting the Frontiers conference. When I came up with the idea I was just thinking artists, musicians, poets, they’re kind of scientists, trying to explore emotions, communication, connections with each other. So this fits Wen-You’s no boundary, endless form of an art piece. There were a bunch of performances in 2019 and we named it in order of number. It’s a group effort each time. Mark works on the design of the poster and Wes does the set up, and then communication with the artists. So I always see that when I work with Special Special it’s teamwork and a group effort.
WY: And also, the residency is also in dialogue with the existing exhibition and the space, so it becomes a collaboration, sometimes static, sometimes not static, depending on the level of participation by the artist. So this was during the Love Hotel Rooms project, where we had people participating in a workshop to draw a room, and then Lu invited her friends Rob and Wo to do a drag performance in the space where they are two friends coming together as lovers, and then it was opened up to the audience to recall someone in their life they had loved that was no longer in their life. It became a very sentimental, heartwarming exchange. It’s just very open.
LZ: And then the next one is me and Tim. How do you feel about this one?
WY: I liked it. I think part of what was amazing about this one was that it was a complete surprise. In the first project there was a script. There was going to be a 20 minute dance performance, there was going to be a 40 minute sound recording of people talking about someone that they loved that was no longer there, and then we opened it up for anyone to talk about someone in their life, and then with this one, Tim and Lu just started talking. I set them up and said: ‘I think you two would be good collaborators.’ And then they went off and brainstormed on what they would do, and I didn’t know until the performance, I really didn’t know what was going on. But I have felt like I trust these two artists to do something that is in the spirit of what I am hoping for. And that was what I was banking on.
LZ: It was a really long time reading text. We read many, many times to edit the text down, in order to transform a play into a performance piece. It’s two strangers met together through Wen-You, and Tim and I just sat down reading a text book together, and then I think the time of being with Tim, working on this piece, added a lot to the chemistry of the piece.
WY: It's Lu who brings everybody together.
LZ: So the next one is a fishing workshop, an NYC fishing workshop. The artist is Yi Xin Tong and he fishes all around the city, and then he published a book called Fishing in NYC by Gong Press. So we invited him to give a series of fishing workshops, very practical. Like where to find what type of fish, which season you should use what type of tool, so he gave a demonstration about that. So this was very different from the previous poetry readings. And then the next one was Jenny Blumenfield. It’s a practice of looking at ceramics, at materials in different ways. So we had people behind the mirror, describing the object to the audience, and the audience would draw. And the most recent one is still happening, it’s a live Cam Karaoke. Wes worked on this technology part a lot. He figured out how to set up live surveillance inside the exhibition space, so now you see all the Special Special staff singing in front of a camera. We have Instagram live online and Youtube live online.
WY: I just want to add that our space that you can see up until this point is actually quite small, so we can’t really fit too many people. And when we have performances we want many people to come, but there is a limit to it, so we started thinking about how we can do these performances in a way that’s accessible to more people, so that more people can tune in from anywhere. This is something we in the past month have started experimenting with. And then tomorrow, all weekend we actually have a Cam Show, and we have programming. So this weekend, please tune in on our Instagram, and also on Youtube where you can see a multi-channel view of our space.
LZ: I think we’re good now.
TS, WY, LZ: Thank you!
WY: I want to quickly thank Printed Matter for hosting us today, and I want to thank Tim and Lu for joining me on this talk, and being great collaborators and really understanding what I’m trying to do, and helping me articulate that. I’m very grateful for that, and thank you all for coming today.
TS: We have 10 minutes for a few questions if there are any.
Q: Why the name Special Special?
WY: So Special Special is a word doubled. There are many reasons why, one main reason is because it’s here we are producing something special, but it's in multiples, it’s in edition form. And also growing up, my mom always thought I was too special.
Q: I’m wondering how big of an impact the practice of taking those photos over those years had on your relationship with your family, and how your role as the documenter and observer of your family, but also participating, affected your relationship.
WY: I feel like the experience of photography for me is… One is in the present moment where I find something interesting, so I capture it, and the other is in the reflection upon it. So it’s being able to capture a moment, compose a moment and then going back to it. And I think over the years, as I go back to these images, I can recollect what it was, but also see it from a different light, and so it’s upon the review of it over time that I am constantly re-orienting myself in these stories and real-life moments that I have. And it's also a personal study of trying to understand where I am in relation to my family. I feel like it’s always changing. So even when I was putting together this book with 175 photographs, I was trying to curate and figure out what I wanted to include in this book, and editing the photos, editing down from many more photos that I had. And I was also seeing things. A lot of the things in the photographs, seeing new things in the photographs. And it’s so much a relationship in our lives, where we recall something and it could be different over the years.
Q: Why do you think editions, rather than just one photograph, or one book, or as with the artist you invite to work at Special Special?
WY: It goes back into the accessibility of Special Special, that I want to instill that not only one person can collect, but that more people can access, and I’m hoping that in writing this book for more people to read, they might understand something that I don’t understand, and they might reach back to me and we can have a dialogue about it, and I might find something new. And with the book too, someone might see something that I don’t see. I don’t feel like I know everything about what I am producing, but I want to put something out there for people to come back and start and a conversation with me, and that we get to that next level of place together.
LZ: I want to just quickly make a comment of what Wen-You said, because when I think about community, I often think about when other people have similar views, and hoping that other people can understand, But what Wen-You did is, she stepped out to make voice of what she thinks it should be. And in that way we heard, and came together and became a group that understood each other. And when I met Wen-You, we never talked about what we like, and why we like the things we like. But during the year of working together, we realized that this accessibility is a reason why I created Wildman Clab.
Q: There are a lot of alternative art, independent art projects, also in the LES and East Village. How do you feel that you are contributing to that?
WY: I think a big part of that is that there are a lot of creative types in New York, which is why there’s all these creative spaces, which is why there is a large pool of people to work with, and I feel like everyday, these platforms help people gather together and create meaningful dialogues. Just like how I’ve worked with a group of people at Special Special, and now we’re here at Printed Matter, we’re all just working towards understanding one another. And there are pockets where we might find common things and one another, or we might express one side of it which is a little different from another side, one way of looking at it. So it’s about creating perspectives, which I think is very valuable to a bigger artistic community.
TS: Can I add something? Just because I don’t know if it came up so clearly. What I find very unique about Special Special, and to the question about the editions, is that when you ask an artist to do an edition, your whole team, everybody at Special Special, is there in their willingness and excitement to make it together. Doing an edition you know, it’s asking for us to be collaborating towards something together, which creates a completely unique set of connections amongst the people who work at Special Special. Besides the edition being distributed, it’s automatically entwined with everybody who’s there. Everyone has different roles, everyone who works at Special Special is more than willing and wanting to have their part in it. I find that incredibly unique. I mean it’s way beyond what you could think of someone commissioning an artwork. It’s someone saying “Here! Here is a space where we will show something you want to do,” and everyone here is not here just to be your PR, everyone is here to contribute to figuring out how we can do this together.
WY: And to that, thank you to everyone at Special Special.
*applause*TS: And to Rooster, and Sheep and Tiger, and to others!
Tie Me Up! Lock Me Down! is a group exhibition of jewelry and adornments at Special Special, curated by Banyi Huang and Kristen Lee. Set in the bedroom of an imagined character, it recounts stories of love, heartbreak,and reconciliation, inviting the audience to be engulfed in unhinged emotionsand extreme fantasies, poised between indulgence and repression, explicit desires and hidden symbolism. The following is a conversation livestreamed on Special Special's instagram account, between Banyi Huang and Sydney Shen, one of the artists participating under the brand name of Gesualda.
B (Banyi Huang)
S (Sydney Shen)
B: I’m here with Sydney Shen, who is one of the artists in Tie Me Up! Lock Me Down!, participating under the name Gesualda. And we are here to talk about that project, and how it fits within Sydney’s larger artistic practice.
S: Gesualda is my jewelry experiment, a place for me to try things that are adjacent to my practice, that I’m still working through. That as a creative exercise. I decided I wanted to make fine jewelry (sterling silver, and eventually gold). These are some pieces available at Special Special. They are various post and dangle earrings. I feel like I’m on QVC.
Some of the forms include a twisted cherry stem that’s cast from a real cherry stem; a thinner one; there’s a few variations on the cool S, also known as the “Stüssy S”, optical S things that everyone drew on the margins of their middle school notebooks. In the future, the S will be even more extended, eventually into oblivion. There’s also a treble clef. As far as these motifs, and why they are placed on an elf ear.
I mentioned how Gesualda is a way for me to work through things that are not a part of my fine art practice. In that respect, it feels like I’m assuming the persona of Gesualda herself. The reason for the naming is that it’s the feminine form of the Italian surname Gesualdo. Carlo Gesualdo is an early Reneissance composer, whose music I really like. He’s known for being a visionary for making music that is dissonant. He also embodies the idea of the gendered myth of the male genius. He also brutally murdered his wife, and her lover. The whole story also fits within the scope of this show. It was said that he killed them while they were having sex, and there’s rumors that afterwards he was seen wearing the tattered, bloodied dress of his wife, running through the streets, howling in agony. He was a real character, an archetypal villain. In that respect, he’s a very interesting person, but at the same time a total douchebag. I’m trying to reconcile those ideas, which in the context of today is important, because we are also grappling with the concept of art and the individual who made them.
I thought one way to approach it is to rename it as Gesualda, thinking, why can’t women be evil geniuses too? That’s how these motifs came about. This larpy medieval ear is a little bit baroque, but also twisted.
B: The myth of Gesualda, along with its gendered dimensions, reminds me of Elizabeth Báthory.
S: Totally, they are in the same canon of crazy aristocrats, which I’m very fascinated by.
B: Within those legends, there’s so much room for the projection of torture and sexual fantasy. Elisabeth Báthory was a Hungarian noble woman who was rumored to have tortured hundreds of slave girls in her castle. Within that gendered space, there exists the idea of the monstrous feminine. There’s a lot of fear projected onto that figure, once you have gender reversal.
S: Fear of?
B: Fear of this unquenchable blood lust and desire, of sexual fulfillment. Or at least how these myths build through time. Some people say that the whole idea of her killing all those people was a conspiracy to blacken her name.
S: I mean, she was rumored to have been the most prolific serial killer in all human history, which is pretty sick. She was also reputed to have bathed in the blood of virgins.
B: I wanted to ask where your interests in the morbid and the macabre stem from, and how you initially started to explore that.
S: For me, it feels so innate that it’s almost hard to pinpoint. Making artwork is trying to understand those impulses. Horror is like contradictory states of fear and wonder, the sacred and the profane, pain and pleasure…etc. They are often themes that occur in genre fiction, horror in particular. That’s interesting, because those are attempts to imagine what lies beyond, trying to transcend our state of being human. IN the case of horror, the only way to experience that transcendence is through the obliteration of yourself. Characters in horror fiction are compelled by unknown forces toward these terrible discoveries.
B: It is a vacillation between attraction and repulsion. I think it’s also interesting how in your work, when you explore themes in Western contexts, like the bubonic plague in Medieval times, you always pair those with scientific terms. The fascination with the occult and witchcraft, when situated in a Western context, it doesn’t really have a parallel in East Asian traditions. Because of foundations of science, the Enlightenment, and classification practices, in contrast, aspects of the occult and the morbid become so pronounced, and in turn hold so much appeal. I wonder if you notice those differences, and how that impacts your work, as you do research in both realms.
S: That’s a good question. For me, maybe I am trying to process it. I was really interested in reading Liao Zhai, the tales by this 16th century Chinese scholar Pu Songling, whose stories are ubiquitous and popular in China. They are short stories told in a casual vernacular, of weird and freaky stuff that happens to people. For example, it would illustrate the following: a friend of a cousin told me that a friend sneezed, and a little person came out of its nose. These goofy narratives are contrasted with supernatural tales, demons, fox spirits, people convening with the dead or falling in love with them. I’m interested in that it’s not only horror, but also the idea of the weird. Currently, there’s a lot of interest in a movement called the New Weird, but I feel like a lot of it has already been a subject of study in 16th century China. When I read Liao Zhai, it makes me think of the Twilight Zone, or Tales from the Crypt.
B: That’s awesome! I’ve been reading it too. It was first translated as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. For me, it was so astounding that the author was writing in such a matter of fact way, it’s like detailing a grocery list, when he’s chronicling people coming back from the dead, or a woman engaging in bestiality with her dog when her husband’s away. What’s interesting is that it was first translated by Herbert Giles, the British sinologist who helped establish the Wade-Giles Chinese romanization system. In that version, he basically omitted everything. As someone with Victorian sensibilities and moral high ground, he just couldn’t bring himself to include narratives involving so-called sexual deviancy. So definitely no woman having sex with a dog. You couldn’t reframe it or censor it so that it makes sense to a Western audience. It kind of goes back to this point in history, the East and the West had such different attitudes the body, sex, and horror.
S: Right now, I’m working toward an exhibition for next year. It is based on a lot of research. I’m thinking for it to be taking the form of a slightly falsified archive, which is something I’ve never done before. It has certain overlaps with what you were talking about. Georges Bataille had all these photographs of people being executed in China, known as death by a thousand cuts. He was instrumental in circulating them around the West, and also for their misinterpretation. Actually, the people who were being executed had already been dead, so their corpses were mutilated postmortem. So it refutes the perceptions about a certain of cruelty that’s associated with these photos, and certain ideas about Chinese society at the time. For Bataille, the reason he liked them so much is that the people appeared to be in a state of rapture occurring simultaneously as a state of suffering. Something martyr-like or Christ like. It’s interesting to see how these photos repudiate the idea of photography as an accurate documentation of the truth, but rather that it is clearly a mediated form of authorship, both in its producer and the consumer who embellishes it. I’m trying to figure out how to talk about that, in conjunction with lurid, sordid imagery that circulates on the internet now.
B: That’s really cool. What form do you think this constructed archive will take?
S: I really want to make some photos. I also do a lot of secret writing that I’ve never figured out how to incorporate into my practice and actual artworks that I show. This might be an opportunity to create a narrative around it.
B: In a previous interview, you mentioned having a writing project, Puritan Salvage.
S: For me, doing something not under your own name often alleviates the burden, it makes it less precious. Just the mental state of thinking that Gesualda is doing this, or Puritan Salvage is, makes it easier. Puritan Salvage is a project under which I write short fiction and poems. It’s supposed to be a waste removal company. Thinking about it as crap makes it easy to not treat it preciously, because sometimes you get too caught up in something being precious it becomes paralyzing.
B: It’s like having a secret tumblr. I also wanted ask about your interest in BDSM, for example punitive boots, binding chains, and various forms of torture devices. Can you talk about what that means for you, and if it’s not explicit.
S: I feel like it comes back to this desire of wanting to exceed the limits of the body, simultaneously being very limited by it. How can you push the body to the extent where it transcends? I feel like BDSM practice is a part of it. There’s a built-in existential question to that. Why do we want to know what it’s like to be something else? I’m so fascinated by the idea of transcendence.
B: Transcending our physical shell?
S: Yeah. To me, it feels like a paradox where that which restricts the body, or doing one of those salt water pool things (sensory deprivation), or meditation. In those states, you start to feel like you no longer have a body. There’s a fine line between having control and not having any control. To me that’s super interesting. Even up until now, I think the way I was approaching my art practice felt very punitive. But I’m slow realizing it doesn’t have to be that way.
B: Maybe returning back to Gesualda, is there a particular direction you are hoping to take? What are you hoping to incorporate that you couldn’t do with your fine art practice?
S: I’ve always wanted to be better at metal work, so I thought that jewelry-making would be manageable on a micro level. Through that, I’m starting to understand the hobby of miniature-making, because you are literally creating your own world, and just thinking about the shift in scale. It allows you to be hyper-detailed about something. I feel like my art practice is not like that, so jewelry-making is a good place to continue that.
I also want to make other types of wearable objects. I work with chainmail, so I’m trying to figure out a way to work with it that’s not too tedious to weave. I just want to make more time for Gesualda in general. I’m craving doing this again.
B: Do you feel like part of this is about constructing a myth? Today, there are currents towards doing that. You could be going back and making up myths where they should have existed, perhaps due to gaps in history. I was wondering if that also ties into your project.
S: That’s definitely a part of it, of filling in the blanks. So much of history is fiction, and there’s a lot of room for elaboration and even embellishment. Jewelry is the perfect format for that, because it’s all about ornament and surface in that way. That’s something that I’ve always felt unable to reconcile with in my art practice. As an artist or a visual person, there’s a certain idea about taste, rigor, content and form, that makes something like steampunk considered to be such a vulgar aesthetic. But for me, because I am drawn to the attraction/repulsion duality, I am attracted to things that are hyper-ornamented, things that are pointless embellishment. But at the same time, I like the idea of these things, even though if I can’t embody them, maybe this other person (Gesualda) could embody them, and point out how ornament is quite important to visual discourse.
B: Do you feel like you are trying to undo some of the externally or internally imposed hierarchies in the visual art realm?
S: Absolutely. Definitely a lot for myself. It’s also an experiment in allowing myself to not follow what things are supposed to be. I realize that a lot of those are self-imposed, arbitrary rules. Maybe being an artist is about developing an internal logic and questioning it.
B: Normally, you do a lot of research to jumpstart your projects. What does your research process look like?
S: It’s like a black hole. I just get into something and hours go by. It’s absurd. I just lose track of everything around me as I get hyper-interested in something. I try to contrast that with times when I’m sorting through all the information, and trying to come up with some sort of index for figuring what makes something interesting. The nice thing about doing research for art versus writing a paper (didactic processes), is that it’s a lot more open-ended. You come up against a lot of unexpected things. In that way, fiction and fact become more intertwined. I allow that to happen more.
Four Thieves and Vinegar, it was at Springsteen Gallery in Baltimore.
B: I haven’t been to that show myself, but just looking at images of it, I find an element of cruelty that’s pervasive in your work. For example, upside down chairs, the claw machine that doesn’t work at the New Museum. Is that something you think about?
S: Maybe cute but sad is another way of putting it. That’s a feeling I’m into that maybe relates to cruelty. But sometimes people are surprised when they meet me, because I’m actually quite nice.
B: I’m really looking forward to your next project, and whatever that comes out of Gesualda. Is there a platform that you are hoping to release new content or products on?
S: I really need to relaunch the website. Goal is to get it up by Valentine’s Day, the most romantic day of the year, or prior to that, so you can get stuff before that. There will be new jewelry items, and also other types of wearables. Another thing I’m working on under Gesualda is my collaboration with Gregory Kalliche, who runs the project 57 Cell. It is an art space that you can’t visit, and only exists in the form of a catalogue. It’s basically a rendered space that he expertly makes. I see my project with him as the opportunity to make a lookbook for Gesualda. It will be cool.
B: It’s digital? Or physical?
S: It will be a physical book. But the space allows for an impossible exhibition, because it's all digitally rendered in a hyperreal style. I anticipate a lot of giant women, who are anthropomorphic, alien characters modeling the pieces, maybe centaurs and stuff.
Yi Xin Tong visited Special Special to host a workshop about fishing in NYC. The event was held in conjunction with Gong Press’s release of NYC Fishing Journal at Special Special (available for purchase at specialspecial.com). The workshop was the third Frontiers Conference event, organized by Wildman Clab as part of its year-long residency at Special Special.
“Fishing in NYC: A Workshop with Yi Xin Tong”. Photo: Wen-You Cai
1. What is fishing?
People always ask me why I fish in New York. Firstly, you get spectacular views in Manhattan. Sunsets. Shipwrecks - there’s a boat graveyard near Coney Island. If you are not catching fish, you can pick berries.
Secondly, you can also fish for images. I have a GoPro camera that I turned into a lure and then attached to a hook. When I use the camera lure, I am also capturing sound and images. You might also find a pearl inside a seashell.
Freshwater or saltwater fishing, which is better? It costs $25 for a freshwater fishing license, but for saltwater fishing, you can just get a free license online. With saltwater, you never know what you are going to catch. I ran into a seahorse once, and I felt the texture of its scales, as well as its tail around my fingers.
Here you are looking at a pregnant female blue crab.
Before you start fishing, you have to know what you’re getting into. You will get tan lines. Every summer I get very dark, and I turn paler in the winter. In the past, I was a good studious artist. Now I'm different.
What can we catch in NYC?
You follow the change of seasons. With different seasons, different fish migrate into New York City’s waters. Around April, the striped bass and bluefish come from Florida, moving up north to Nova Scotia. Fish follow a certain pattern, and that’s how you catch them.
2. Gear Talk
To start, you need a basic tackle, rod, and reel, not that much. I’m an urban fisherman, so I do wear a shirt. You might also need a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and facemasks.
Basically, there are two kinds of rod and reel. One is spinning, beginners like to use these. The other is bait-casting, for which the reel is on top. Personally, I prefer bait-casting reels. They are compact, so you can cast and retrieve really fast. It’s good for catching bass.
I noticed that fishing reels look like cars. People really spend money on these things. I’m poor, so I can only spend a lot of time.
I’ll show you how it feels when you catch a fish. Usually it takes 5 seconds to reel in a fish, but this was a big one. The reel is a device that stores line, so when you cast it out, especially if the fish is really strong, it will take the line out of the reel. So you have to let the line run.
People would cheer for me and even request to take photos with me. You get more attention and compliments than when you’re doing an art show. How many people come to your opening and say, “Can I take a picture with you?” Consider changing your career now.
How do you catch striped bass and bluefish? They love lures. You can catch them with these soft plastic spoons. When they flutter and move in water, they resemble fish. Sometimes you can work your rod so that the bait looks like injured fish, and these appear to be easier prey that takes less energy. Fish are lazy, and so are we.
That is a bluefish, broiled in the oven with potatoes. It tastes perfect. We usually release the larger ones, as they don’t taste as good. Once you have the lures tied to your line, you need to know how to cast. I’m going to show you how.
Let’s practice at home like this. On the edge of your bed.
Yi Xin Tong, Goldfish Fishing in a Hotel Bedroom for a Tiger, 2019,
HD video with sound
Fishing in NYC takes practice.
If you are seeing the fish, you cast close to the fish. That’s called sight-fishing. If you don't see any fish and you cast, it’s called blind casting. Usually, if you are fishing from the shore, you want to cast further.
In May and June, different species move into the water, such as flounder or fluke. They can change their colors to the sub-strait. It’s really amazing that they can camouflage themselves. You can catch them with lures as well. They taste great and are very desirable among fishermen.
This is a porgy. It usually weighs around one pound. They fight frantically when they are hooked. The one below is a tiny black sea bass. This one is about 6 inches or so. People also call them sea biscuits because of their good flavor.
Now we are moving onto the concept of rigs. A rig is a combination of items including line, hook, and perhaps a bait.
Sometimes you have to use smaller fish as bait; they come in chunks. You hook them onto your hooks then toss them out. This process is called chunking.
3. Bonding with Different Types of Fish
These things are called skates. It’s one of my favorite fish, and one of the most hated fish. They just grab your bait and run. A lot of fishermen just leave them to die on the shore. They don’t throw them back because they are really bothered by them. However, some people find them tasty, and they are valued in other cultures. Sometimes you can find them at Korean markets.
Do you see a difference between the image on the left and the right? The cross legged one is a male. The other is a female. People shouldn't be mean to a certain species. If you don't like them, just leave them alone.
Yi Xin Tong, Animalistic Punk - Skate, 2018, Jacquard tapestry,
metal tube, eye bolts, 63 x 90.5 x 3 in
Moving on to herrings. They are around in the winter. You’ve probably had canned ones, right? Russians and Eastern Europeans love them. There are huge schools of them coming around to Coney Island and Brooklyn. It’s fun to catch them. You use long rigs with multiple hooks so you would have a string of fish coming up. They are super tasty.
It’s great to hang out with old people. They are really devoted, going out even in minus degree weather.
Most of the time, you don’t catch fish. That’s the reality of fishing. But once you catch them, it’s really enjoyable.
The one on the left is a sea robin. It’s very unusual looking. This is the first fish I caught in New York - it took me a whole year. I learnt by myself; I didn’t attend a workshop like this. On the right is a dogfish, it is like a shark. Like it or not, when you get fish and chips from restaurants, that's the preferred kind of fish.
When you are feeling lazy, it’s hard to catch fish. What are some alternatives? You go to Sheepshead Bay, and you pay $75 or $100 for a half-day trip. Usually it makes it easier for catching smaller fish like ‘scup’ or porgies; you can probably catch 20 or 30 a day. Just make sure the boat doesn’t sink. I found this image on Craigslist: someone was trying to sell a boat that sank in the ocean.
Yi Xin Tong, Animalistic Punk - Abandoned Sunken Boat, 2018, Jacquard tapestry, metal tube, eye bolts, 45 x 80 in.
You can find many other species. There’s trash fish, northern kingfish, and oyster toadfish, which are sometimes sold in Chinese seafood markets. That’s a freshwater turtle I found by the ocean. Someone must have released it. I brought it back to Prospect Park, where a lot of turtles gather in a freshwater environment. This one is a huge American eel, it’s really tasty. This one is a puffer fish. They have the most amazing green-blue eyes.
“Other species: Northern kingfish, oyster toadfish, weakfish, blackfish, American eel, winter flounder, mackerel, Atlantic menhaden (bunker), shad, turtles, pufferfish.” Caption and image from artist.
I’m sure a lot of you are concerned with whether the fish are safe to eat. According to the government's map, fish that you catch in the Lower New York Bay are safer to eat than those caught in the Upper New York Bay. Coney Island is also fine. They advise you to eat the larger fish you catch only once a month because the larger fish are more likely to be predators, and accumulate more toxins in their body. For smaller fish like porgies and summer flounders, the government doesn’t provide much data, which means they are safe to eat.
“Catch and release. Do not take more than needed.” Caption and image from artist.
That’s me catching a 30 inch striped bass in Coney Island. It took me a long time. I thought I was going to release it, but I kept it for my friends. We went to a restaurant and asked the chef to prepare it. It took him an hour. It was really beautiful, almost transparent. He did it in the Cantonese hotpot style. There were thicker chunks with meat and bones, as well as super thin pieces.
4. Don't Get into Fishing
With fishing, you will also encounter disasters.
You lose all your rigs, you get stuck, and worst of all, you get into a fight with another fisherman.
It gets dangerous. You always want to go to areas with less fishermen. Also watch out for slippery rocks and isolated places.
Other disasters include dangerous animals, like jaguars, snakes, beavers, depending on the area you are fishing in. But I would say the most dangerous are peer fishermen. There’s also the danger of isolating yourself too much. Initially, you do it to get away from people. You spend time away from your friends and family. You might forget to speak and lose your communication skills. I had to practice a whole week for today’s presentation. But you might build your bond with other animal species.
One goal I had with this workshop is to convince you not to fish. If you are still serious about it, we have to learn the fisherman’s terminologies. You have to learn how they dress and how to speak. It’s all about acting and performing. If you want to learn more about fishermen language, check out this playlist called “Fishermen’s Words” on my YouTube fishing channel Gravesend Fisherman.
“Still serious about becoming a fisherman / fisherwoman / cat? Learn their terminologies. (from Fishermen's Words, 2018–ongoing, poetry music video series)” Caption and image from artist.
A common saying is “Jeez Louise”. You can say: “Such a big fish. But I lost it. Jeez Louise.”
I would say good luck, or in fishermen’s terms, “tight lines”. Why is that? If there’s a fish at the end, it makes the line tight.
About the Artist
Yi Xin Tong is a nowhere-based artist and fisherman. Tong studied geology at China University of Geosciences in Beijing and received his BFA in Visual Art from Simon Fraser University and MFA in Studio Art from New York University. In poetic and absurd languages, he uses multimedia installation, site-specific project, video, and sound to analyze seemingly desperate social conditions, and our contradictory relationships with ourselves and with other living beings, objects, and cultural entities. Recent solo exhibitions include Snarte Space, NARS Foundation, Vanguard Gallery, Katzman Contemporary; group exhibitions include the BRIC Biennial, Guangzhou Airport Biennale, chi K11 art museum, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, MOCA Shanghai, CAFA Art Museum, Aranya Art Centre, Long March Space, Chambers Fine Art, and Alyssa Davis Gallery.
About Gong Press
Founded by Qianfan [New York] and St.Jiu [Beijing], GONG PRESS is a continuation of The Hunting’s “Gong” Column. It is named after the weapon “GONG (弓, bow)”: a bow without arrow remains in a mild yet potent status. GONG PRESS encourages, supports, and produces art publishing.
About Wildman Clab
Wildman Clab, founded by Lu Zhang in 2017, is a lab/club for researching and proving the existence of primitive individuals. WC organizes activities and provides experiences. Wildman Clab has previously created social encounters through mobile karaoke at Columbus Park, New York, Boat Date at NARS Foundation, and Pool Date at Special Special. Wildman Clab is currently the events resident at Special Special and organizer of The Frontiers Conference.
Wen-You Cai, When You Catch a Fish After Gravesend Fisherman, 2020. Video: Chia-Ying Yu
Wherever you are, whenever it is, you can virtually fish anywhere according to tips by Yi Xin Tong (aka Gravesend Fisherman). Bad Weather No Problem: No Fish in Theory.
(Above) Benjamin Langford, pictured left, and John Belknap, right.
“I definitely consider the things I have around me as all part of my art practice.”
The following is an interview between Benjamin Langford and John Belknap, facilitated by Wen-You Cai and conducted in 2018. Langford and Belknap are Brooklyn-based artists who were a part of SPF, a group exhibition at Special Special that transformed the storefront into a conceptual “swimming pool” throughout the hot months of May through August. Belknap curated Overflow, a group exhibition at Special Special that followed Hibiscus, the third part of SPF by Langford.
This interview is published on the occasion of Late Summer, Langford’s second collaboration with Special Special, and has been edited for length and clarity.
J: John Belknap
B: Benjamin Langford
WY: Wen-You Cai
J: Is any of it going to be edited? What’s off limits? Like we can go into anything?
B: Where do we start? Do you listen to music when you make work? If so, what type of music do you listen to?
B: I don’t listen to that much music when I’m working. I do sometimes put on ambient things if I’m specifically cutting the flowers out. That’s kind of the only part of my process where I listen to music. For some reason, I don’t like listening to music when I’m on the computer, but when I’m doing anything that’s kind of meditative, where I’m just slowly cutting, that’s when I like it.
J: Wow, that’s interesting.
B: When do you listen to music?
J: If I’m making, like sketches. Or if I’m writing. I’m always listening to music. I’m always on it. But I feel like I’m one of those people that always listens to really happy, really pop saturated music. So I can try to be happy. (laughs)
B: By force; you try to force it.
J: Right. Yeah, a lot of Charli XCX has been happening the last couple weeks. I get both ways of listening to music. I feel like the majority of the time, I’m listening to something that makes me feel sinister. I like things that feel very ominous. I don’t know why.
J: Are you listening to classical music when you are doing cutouts?
B: No, it’s more like ambient, electronic beats. Things like that, that are just like little soundscapes. But also, you know, I’m not opposed to pop music, while walking through streets or something like that.
WY: So how was your experience working on the SPF show, seeing as both of your experiences are quite different? We approached you, Ben, to make a Hawaiian shirt and create a new hibiscus installation.
And then with John, before you worked on this show, we worked with you on a show here last year, The Bathroom Interiors show. And then this time, we kind of talked about a different approach for a collaboration, and your approach was curating twenty-two artists to overflow our space.
So, I’m just curious to hear what your thoughts were on working with Special Special.
(Above) Benjamin Langford, Hibiscus, 2018, Special Special, New York.
B: I think that it was an interesting experience for me in that I’ve never made a product before, or prioritized that in any kind of way. I think I went into it thinking that it wouldn’t be quite as actually labor intensive as it is to make like an edition of 50 shirts and the concerns that come with something that isn’t a one-off art piece, and that also requires packaging, and all the other things that come along with what’s sort of expected from a product.
And I think the shirt’s interesting in that it kind of has certain qualities that are not product-like. Like the fact that the second batch of dyed shirts has a pretty drastically different color than the first batch and certain other unpredictable elements from the process.
(Above) Benjamin Langford,Hibiscus, 2018, Special Special, New York.
J: You’re dyeing them in hibiscus tea?
B: Yea I’m dyeing them in flowers, in hibiscus flowers specifically. But it was important to me to have something that still feels unpredictable and kind of loose about the process of making something, even if it is slightly more regimented, product-like objects.
And then, the installation I felt like went really smoothly as I expected, because it kind of like comes naturally to me to sort of weirdly treat them as decorative objects, beyond their life as an image. I’ve actually had this [hibiscus flowers] in my living room for most of the time since the (first) show. Just because like I like living with it and sort of having it around.
J: Have you ever done a rose?
B: I have done a rose. I have a couple roses.
J: Would you ever do a Venus flytrap?
B: I haven’t done a carnivorous flower. That would be a whole other thing.
J: What about those big smelly ones?
B: Amorphophallus, the “corpse flower”? Yeah, I make a pilgrimage for the corpus flower everytime it blooms.
J: Really? Where is it?
B: It’s in the Bronx Botanical Garden. They only bloom once every fifteen years.
J: I didn’t know that. Oh my god, I love it. Are there any flowers that are off limits that you would never do?
B: I like flowers that work for the effect that I would like to achieve, which would only make sense for flatter flowers. Anything that’s more like a clustered flower or something that’s too delicate, in a way, it becomes less easy to deal with. However, I’m starting to push the limits of this with some of my newer pieces. I think that my former mentality started when I was trying to be more minimal about the shapes. I’m starting to do some slightly smaller pieces that have more intricate cutting, that are more precise, with little dangling edges and things like that. With those, it’s less about initial impact and more about these light airy pieces.
J: So, do you have a garden?
B: It’s hard in New York City to grow anything too substantial, but I do have a little personal garden project, which is a pretty big wooden planter that I built. I have a couple of different climbing vines in it. They are a couple of aggressive climbing vines, like Wisteria and Trumpet vine. They take intense training, but you can kind of train them in any shape you want. If you are really involved, you can make it look like a little tree if you work at it. Or it can take over an entire building. I’m kind of in the early phases of dealing with it.
J: Did you grow up with a garden as well?
B: Yeah, my mom essentially is a gardener. My earliest life is in Connecticut, where my mom has a really nice garden out there, to this day. But also spending six years in London as a kid, where there is also a big garden culture, and also living in Singapore for a few years in high school—I feel like all of these places have such an emphasis on garden culture. And they are in such different climates. I feel like I have all this subconscious of nature built in my mind, that is definitely an influence to me.
J: Where is your favorite of the three?
B: I think I like my years in London the best. I like my memories of it. Whereas, my parents still live in my childhood home in Connecticut, and when I go back there, I kind of don’t have any contact with anyone other than that. It’s so close to the city. It's funny to have a place that is at once the childhood home, but also not feel like it. Versus London, I have more nostalgia and mythology around there.
J: How do you navigate exhibition openings? Let’s ask that question.
B: I guess I try not to give myself any expectations for openings and just let it be a celebration for whoever shows up. I have a tendency to have post-opening depression. Basically, every time I have an opening, I’ve never really felt satisfied afterwards. I usually feel depressed the next day, or the next few days. It’s not like you expect anything in particular to happen, but I think there is that buildup of working on something, and then the reward doesn’t happen at the opening. I usually find that the reward happens when you’re working on something—all the little surprises along the way. I think, more and more, I just don’t worry about the opening. I don’t let it be a mental weight for me at all. How did your opening go?
J: I don’t know. 22 people is a lot of artists.
B: Yeah, It was a busy afternoon.
J: It was weird. I have these stark things in my memory that were like, I’m going to do this, I’m going to make this show happen. And one of them was the last opening I worked at, at the last gallery I was at. And a friend of mine who comes to openings was like, “When are you going to be on the other side of this?” So I really wanted to do that, in the sense of making something happen. And then it’s really hard to both have the play and the work mode on at the same time, which was not what I was used to. I can go to this opening even if I’m fucked up and totally avoid everyone. And you can’t really see the art ever. Or it’s like, I’ve worked a bunch of openings and secretly got fucked up in the basement drinking wine. I don’t know. I was very happy with the opening. So many people came through. And seeing in real life, the degrees of separation were so much fewer. That was so great. So many people came through, which was important. And kind of refreshing. It was really hot, though. Everyone wound up not being in the gallery space, but in the outside spaces. Overflow.
WY: Dumpster overflow.
J: Gallery trash.
WY: It's funny you mention the depression. I get that a lot. It used to be worse, but it’s gotten better over time. Just the more that I've done, but I still feel restless at the end of the night. Like, I can’t sleep after opening a show at Special Special. I think there’s just a lot of work that has been built up to that deadline and then suddenly it’s done, but then there’s still a lot to do. The artist's work is mostly done at that point, but from the shop’s perspective, we still have a lot to do, or we have to organize everything and make sure the place is up to the standards of being visited, and organize photos, and do all this other stuff. And then prepare for the following project, too. So, there’s lots of shifting pieces. But that sort of extreme anticipation, and then suddenly welcoming a lot of people into the space, and a lot of them I don’t know. With every show, we bring in a different crowd because of the different types of work and different artists. I think the anxiety comes from welcoming people into a personal space. To me, it’s a fragile experience, like letting people into my home.
B: I don’t know if this is a good metaphor, but the idea of it being almost like you’re giving birth—your artwork, or the body of work, becomes a being. There’s a weird depression like, alright, now my child is out there, and you can’t control something that’s alive.
J: This is a very intimate conversation.
WY: How do you guys see your practice? Can you talk a little about your practice? One, the day-to-day of what you build, in terms of self discipline as an artist, like aspirations, and then the future.
B: I think that making a shirt, or making anything that’s a lifestyle object, is kind of an interesting extension of my practice. I definitely consider the things I have around me as all part of my art practice. I tend to collect a lot of things. I take care of a lot of plants. I try to create a mental space for myself.
It’s interesting to extend art to objects for living with, because it’s actually not that common in artists’ mental process these days. It's like, it’s more relegated to design, objects that are intended to be lived with rather than contemplated and seen once. So I feel that, not that that is creating a new direction in my work really, but it's an interesting tangent. I might actually be reacting against it in my more recent projects because I’m starting to make some pieces that have more of a serious tone. I’m trying to push the flower motif into as not-kitsch of a direction as you possibly can with flowers.
J: Do you get that reaction from a lot of people, “Oh that’s kitsch”?
B: No, I think the way I made them was always as kind of idiosyncratic. That’s not generally how people see them. But now I’m going further in the direction of it not being, as vis-à-vis, luscious of an experience to look at, in a way.
J: Yeah they feel very life-like. Real life in a strange way. Like Da Vinci’s...
B: Like the Vitruvian Man?
J: They’re very...maybe not human? But a very alive animal.
B: And the petals almost look chewy or something. They almost remind me of a scratch and sniff. It looks like, if you just scraped the surface…
J: Have you sprayed perfume?
B: No. I think that’s another reason why I was so quick to arrive at this decision on the shirts, which is to digitally print the hibiscus pattern but then subsequently dye them in the remains of hibiscus flowers. I’m always interested in this weird, surface, back-up material. I think it’s interesting how a digital representation, in a way, does actually make you arrive at a final point that is through it’s synthetic quality, closer to nature than a representation that’s less digitally perfected. The accuracy of this versus what a painting of a flower is, kind of intrigues me, that it’s this kind of objective cold way of viewing flowers, but then paired with either the physical remains of flowers or something that breathes some life into it. That’s my fascination.
J: Can people wear these flowers?
B: I have actually made a dress with these canvas flowers. But it’s not everyday wear. You can’t wash it.
J: Met Gala 2020.
B: Yeah, someday.
(Above) Benjamin Langford, Hibiscus, 2018, Special Special, New York.