Exploring Solidarity, and Living It: Kenneth Tam and Michelle Woo on Art and Activism

During this time, when Asian Americans are experiencing heightened racist discrimination, artists and arts presenters have undertaken exhibitions and projects that are foregrounding Asian American and Pacific Islander artists, highlighting the crucial part that they play in our culture, and standing up against prejudice.

Among these efforts is a multi-city public art project by nearly 40 artists, on billboards throughout the country and a solidarity campaign, both organized by the artist-led organization For Freedoms and timed to AAPI Heritage Month. At the same time, there is a Times Square “Midnight Moment” spotlighting artist Kenneth Tam, presented by Times Square Arts, The Queens Museum, and Absolut Art.

Tam’s work is currently visible all over New York City. In addition to his Midnight Moment, his exhibition “Silent Spikes” is at New York’s Queens Museum through June 23. His work will also be on view as part of the Open Call series at The Shed in New York (June 4 – August 1).

The For Freedoms project includes billboards and other contributions by artists including Christine Sun Kim and Mel Chin as well as organizations like Stop DiscriminAsian and the Sikh Coalition, in cities from Atlanta to Boston and Los Angeles, as well as various digital assets and a video series.

Absolut Art spoke with Tam and with For Freedoms co-founder and director Michelle Woo about what they’re both doing in their respective fields to combat racism toward Asian Americans, and the importance of bringing this message to the fore right now.

Kenneth, why don’t you tell us a bit about the work that will be seen on the many screens in Times Square?

Kenneth Tam: What will be projected is a very short segment from Silent Spikes, a piece that was commissioned by the Queens Museum and organized by Sophia Marisa Lucas. You’ll see a series of shots where Asian American men are dressed in cowboy garb against a hazy, dreamy, pink and blue background. They’re doing movements that approximate those performed by a bull rider, but slowed down to roughly half the original speed. I was interested in taking these movements from a hypermasculine space and making them more sensuous, more choreographed, so it represents something resembling a dance.

Kenneth Tam’s Midnight Moment; video by Tatyana Tenenbaum for Times Square Arts

The larger video tries to reimagine the performance of masculinity for Asian American men. I use the cowboy image as something to play with and push up against. In the Western genre of cinema, these representations don’t exist, even though Asian American men have historically been present in the West, including as migrant laborers building the railroads. The video connects that history to the present day and suggests how these struggles exist in a continuum. The ways migrant workers were treated and thought of 150 years ago are connected to the struggles of today.

Is one of those struggles about invisibility, even in this current moment of heightened discrimination against AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) people?

KT: That was one strand I was thinking about. I wanted to reimagine these figures and ask, What kinds of representational space can exist for the Asian American participants in my videos? I wanted to enlarge what the character of the cowboy could be and complicate the history of that figure.

And since you mentioned The Queens Museum exhibition, can you add a little bit about what’s on view there?

KT: The show consists of three works: Silent Spikes and two sculptures that incorporate parts of the costumes worn in the video and have been made into slightly mysterious figurative sculptures. The show has been in the works since well before the pandemic, but Covid altered the project in a number of ways that are probably not discernable to the audience. A large part of the video takes place in tunnels in Northern California where the laborers worked. Pre-Covid I wanted to shoot and choreograph a dance in the tunnels, and show how they can act as portals to different parts of the history of Asian Americans in this country. It was an attempt to connect a lot of themes and questions about identity, representation, affect, and solidarity. Additionally, the video explores the idea of the sensuous, and how that can have a role to play in all of the above.

Michelle, how did you and Kenneth get connected, and what have you, well, roped him into?

Michelle Woo: Shortly after the March mass shooting in Atlanta, in which six women of Asian descent were killed, I had been texting with the artist Anicka Yi, who is also part of Stop DiscriminAsian [SDA]. We were talking about the moment and about art, but I also just wanted to see how she was feeling. I felt an urgent need to call people I knew and see how I could perhaps leverage my platform and resources to support the work of others. I wanted to lay the groundwork for a mass response to anti-Asian hate and its historic and contemporary connection to violence against other communities of color. Anicka connected me with Ken. [New York art dealer and SDA member] Margaret Liu Clinton and I went back and forth about what we might do. Working with artist Erin Yoshi, I started to pull artists together to do a national billboard campaign: public art in a place you wouldn’t expect to see art. It’s a big, bold statement that represents a range of voices and identities, and presents a nuance-driven conversation that I feel is lacking in mainstream discourse.

For Freedoms billboard by Kenneth Tam in collaboration with Stop DiscriminAsian; photos by Job Piston

We launched 14 billboards in April and are following up this month with 24 billboards, for a total of nearly 40 works that For Freedoms commissioned from artists and artist collectives, plus some who might not consider themselves artists, such as fashion designers and writers. We’re thinking expansively about what an artist can be. This is accompanied by a digital campaign including billboard designs and a video series with Jeff Chang and filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña. There are resources that people can adapt and replicate and share. There was also an Instagram Live series with me, JiaJia Fei, and Hank Willis Thomas; artist/activist Tanya Selvaratnam and Harleen Kaur (The Sikh Coalition), filmmakers Renee Tajima-Peña and PJ Raval as well as artist Kenneth Tam with Stop DiscriminAsian and Roberta Uno (Arts In A Changing America). We talked about what the cultural community is doing and how we can support our communities more broadly.

KT: I didn’t consider myself an activist, but early on in the pandemic I felt compelled to do something in response to anecdotes I was hearing about anti-Asian acts. When the original members of SDA got together, we weren’t sure of the severity of the wave of violence that was affecting our community, and we just naturally formed to share resources, to think about what we could do, and to remain active despite being forced into lockdown. We wanted to use the extra time we found ourselves with and focus our efforts towards creating awareness amongst our peers in the art world. We recognized there were many longstanding activists already on the ground, but we wanted to use our positions, our visibility, our influence, whatever we had in order to bring attention to what was happening and what some in the group had already personally experienced.

It’s such a shame and an outrage, especially considering that as you mentioned, Ken, AAPI people have been in this country for so long, that it’s still necessary to speak out against such a wave of hatred and violence.

KT: While it is frustrating and heartbreaking to have to wrestle with these attacks and speak about this for over a year, it’s been very helpful for people in the community to talk about problems that predated Covid, and to address much larger and systemic issues the AAPI community has continuously faced. It has been a very productive moment to organize, to think about what we can do collectively, and also to learn. It has been a tremendous opportunity to learn about what has been done by activists in the past and what we can bring to the table that doesn’t yet exist. We’ve started conversations with our peers, colleagues and other art workers, and to that end, our next campaign will be focused on working with those specifically within the art community and addressing their needs.

MW: One thing that we’re stressing is the importance of solidarity with AAPI and other communities. Part of that will look like unearthing points of connection. We’ll be working alongside one another so that we can position the things that are happening now in historical context. The racial violence our community and others are experiencing didn’t occur out of the blue with the emergence of covid.

We’re also asking, What can solidarity mean? I had a conversation with some artists who had a complaint about one of our billboards. In that conversation, I realized that part of what solidarity looks like is coming to the table with our truths, being able to show up for each other and validate the other person’s opinion. Just because we identify as AAPI doesn’t mean we’re all going to be aligned, or respond to things in the same way, or have the same needs. This kind of conversation will play a big role in exploring solidarity. And living it.