Yi Yi Lily Chan with Laura Parnes

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

“I don’t consider myself an activist; I’m too quiet a person. I work intuitively and don’t script things beforehand. Character is formed through questions I ask. The reporter in my work is me, but I consider it more of a disembodied character where it could be anybody. You can see throughout the piece that I’m self-conscious about my position as an artist.”

Lily Chan

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Yi Yi Lily Chan.

LP: The characters in your work are related to the alter ego, via the artist-as-reporter, asking questions and not necessarily getting answers. It mostly starts with an intuitive process. Do you start by experimenting with the camera or do you have a set activity?

LC: I began with a question but I don’t know who to ask or where to project it specifically. There would be images that come up in my head and they linger to a point where I feel like I have to re-enact them.

Extract and Repeat, a performance I did in response to a crazy woman in the subway [viral video footage on the Internet], is about people and public places and the reasons why they break down under different social structures and political pressures. I question what it is to be like them, which I decided to only investigate in physical gesture. I don’t want it to come off as parody, but instead question the act of distanced shaming and quick judgments, as facilitated by the Internet. I wasn’t fully empathizing with or trying to justify her; I was just wondering what these bodies go through, and why people react the way they do.

LP: Do you think it’s searching for empathy?

LC: It’s very much about empathy but it didn’t start that way. My empathizing came after making the work and realizing that certain physical intensities cannot be reached without a mental state that is on par. I felt terrible about her position and I didn’t want to judge her, but question what puts us through these physical gestures and traumas.

LP: The trauma of someone having a psychotic break, or a toxic episode caught on tape and then amplified by the Internet, it’s an interesting way to develop a character and attempt to create empathy for them.

There are performance artists who feel the need to embody specific public figures because of their own relationship to them. It’s hard to think of you not personally being invested in the character based on your process.

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

LC: It’s personal but it doesn’t illustrate a personal trauma. I don’t need that to address the questions I'm posing. Because I work intuitively, most of the time it feels like I’m creatively constipated. When it does flush out there’s often no time to plan or delegate extensively.

In your film Blood and Guts in High School a lot of the characters actually came through, for me, in the editing, the time you allow them to pause and subtle kind of things you do with framing. To what extent do you storyboard your shoot? Are they products of improvising? What is your process?

LP: Blood and Guts was a very choreographed. I blocked out everything. There was always a rehearsal and if it wasn’t in the actual space it didn’t really matter. What really mattered was the framing. The movement is really important. Stephanie Vella is an amazing actress and brought a lot to the role and incorporated certain performance elements that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought.

But some of the people were non-actors and I had to choreograph everything and be very controlled with framing–tell them where to stand and exactly how to deliver their lines, often reading the line to them or feed them lines. In some ways it relates to theater like The Wooster Group. They often feed each other lines through a headpiece. You get this other kind of worldly voice. It feels disembodied and that’s very important to that piece in particular. The slowness, the blocking; it would be really funny if all those scenes were sped up. Because they are intentionally slowed down they give you no relief. Being so formally controlled and structured is part of that kind of suffocating feeling.

LC: I’m not tied down to a specific process but satisfied when my random thoughts, suddenly come together and make sense. It isn’t satisfying when I shoot something perfectly because I don’t get anything new from the process and I like working with accidents. I always have a vague idea or an image I’ll act out and because I never script what I do, the raw footage will tell me what I’ll do next. Of course I might have to go back and get more material, but it’s constantly changing. Change happens in the editing room by what I give accent to. It’s always a discovery.

But editing can be terribly lonely. Sometimes I watch the footage I’ve collected, or randomly put together, and think, “Okay this is a new lead.” Then it suddenly becomes interesting. The loneliness is gone. I would not have made some of the work I did if I gave myself strict rules to stay true to; to the character I had in mind from the very beginning.

LP: You’re often not fully in the piece. With the reporter character, it’s just the microphone you show. When we see performance artists in their own pieces often it is about seeing their face–their persona. Your performance is first person–seeing through the eyes of your character.

LC: That comes from seeing the self-conscious that’s increasing in degree. Because of my race, because of the questions I’m posing in this particular work, I don’t want to limit the reach of those questions and have them skewed towards identity politics. It’s not about my cultural background but more about a globalized peripheral question, a homogenizing experience. Inevitably if I put my whole body and face in it you’re going to read it a certain way, unfortunately. There are certain contexts in which I have to avoid that in order for the work to reach more people. This removal is not about habit or comfort, but what the work or the questions I pose in the work necessitates. I don’t have to rely on my face or my body to establish personality. Meanwhile, I put myself fully in front of the lens in the aforementioned Extract and Repeat, because the work is partly about navigating identity, ethnicity, and challenging what people expect from someone of my upbringing to say on issues of border politics and territorialized experience, all boiling up within the same national and racial framework.