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Our Little Dumpling a conversation between Stephanie Yee and Merray Gerges

While on exchange at Cooper Union last winter, Stephanie Yee spent much of her time wandering the streets of Manhattan observing the hustle and bustle of a “multicultural” city. With a history of employment in factories and warehouses, her interest in repetition is evident as her gesture of dumpling-making pays tribute to the many dumpling houses of NY’s Chinatown and all the women behind those doors. For her graduating exhibition, Yee dedicated a work station to each of the six days of the exhibit’s duration. At a new station every day for six hours, her only task was to fold and fill dumpling wrappers with a blended mulch consisting of the invasive bureaucratic documents that enabled her to cross the border for her exchange. The live performance-installation culminated in a dumpling-making workshop open to the public and the burning of the hardened 3000 dumplings resulting from her labor. The window exterior of the Anna Leonowens was treated to resemble a homely Chinese restaurant while the gallery interior was austere and minimalist. As Yee sat dressed in uniform hurriedly making dumplings as if to fulfill a daily quota, numerous attendees approached her in a variety of ways, though her haste and self-discipline did not invite interaction. Following is a conversation I had with her about the implicated power dynamics between the performance artist and their audience throughout the staging of a live event in an enclosed gallery space.

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M:Throughout your preparations for the show, you referred to images of dumpling shop kitchens,- and it was apparent in your hurried, self-disciplined, repetitive actions. You avoided contact with anyone, which was so uncharacteristic of you.

S: It was the first time that food wasn’t about coming together for me, which made my first full day performance frustrating. People had been coming in thinking that it was a restaurant. People would come up to me and ask what kinds I was selling. [Since] I hadn’t had much critical feedback from the opening [I] didn’t anticipate so much interaction. The opening didn’t really count because it was more of a celebration for the other artists. The crowd that came in was an educated audience. They knew it was a gallery… they experienced it as a collective. It was almost like they were expecting me to be entertaining, in the way a large group would. But I’m not there to entertain you. I’m not there to answer your questions.

M: But you didn’t carry yourself in a way that invited conversation or questioning.

S: That was a good observation to have made about the way people interact with performance art. A lot of people throughout the week came by. Tourists, business people on their lunch break, and even students who maybe weren’t familiar with the Anna rounds every Monday. Maybe some of the NSCAD community who chose to talk to me thought it was a Rirkrit Tiravanija thing when they saw the food in the gallery.

M: I don’t think it was possible for the work to be misconstrued as a Relational Aesthetics piece.

S: Exactly, but for some people, especially if they knew me, they might have initially thought it was. The main aspect of the piece may have been the preparation of food, but it wasn’t about eating. It was the culture and traditions and production associated with food. The whole time getting ready for the show, people would stop me and say, “Oh you’ve got a show coming up? What are you doing?” I would respond simply saying that I’d be making dumplings and they would be excited saying, “mmmm, I can’t wait. I’ll come hungry”. I chose not to correct them. Especially thinking about the way I addressed the outside of the gallery, treating the window display as a restaurant storefront and the interior as an industrial sweatshop, I didn’t want to correct people because so much of it was Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect through the manipulation of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I wanted that shock to happen as you walk in and realize the interior is nothing like what the exterior presents. Just like me. I may look like I’m Chinese or an immigrant, but once you get to know me you’ll know that I’m Canadian and grew up, for the most part, as white. Carla [Taunton] and I were talking and she asked me, “how many times do people ask you where you’re from?” She was pointing out the fact that asking a Caucasian that question is different from asking me.

M: They’re digging for your racial background. That’s what that question is.

S: It was funny. On the Friday, this man came up to the windows, saw all the visual indicators that lead him to believe it was a restaurant and came in. He walked around, then came up to face me at my little work table. He was a well-intentioned man, I could tell that because I didn’t feel threatened. I think he worked in the neighborhood. Anyway, he stood in front of me and watched for a while, then placed his hands onto my table for support as he leaned in closer to watch.

M: Whoa! That’s intrusive!

S: Then after a while he asked me where I was from. I looked up at him, smiled and went back to work. He asked again and I just said, “Toronto” and he said, “Oh what area is that near?” In my head I thought, there’s no way you don’t know where Toronto is. So I just replied with, “it’s in Ontario.” He paused for a bit and then repeated the first question and once I said “Toronto” again, he responded saying, “ohhhh, I’m sorry, your soft little voice is too quiet that these old ears of mine couldn’t understand you.” He then, after a short pause, slowly peeled himself off, up and away from my table, saying, “four years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to China and I just fell in love with dumplings!”

M: OMG! What did you do? That must have got your blood boiling.

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S: I just nodded and smiled. It was irritating and funny at the same time because I wasn’t threatened. I knew he meant no harm, but it was that whole instance that was proof of how easy it is to not be aware of yourself. Of how, without thinking, I was made to be lesser than him.

By that Friday, it was too late to change how I was interacting with the viewers. When I had my studio visit with Ursula Johnson and Jordan Bennett, Ursula asked me, “Are you going to acknowledge the audience?” I said, “if I did, I wouldn’t be initiating”, to which she told me, “no matter who it is, you have to treat every visitor the same. No special treatment”. After considering that, I had decided that if approached, at most, I would only speak in so few words. But as the week went on, I realized that because everyone’s experience was subjective I couldn’t just deny viewers the information they needed. I didn’t feel strong enough to deny it. For those who thought it was a restaurant, I tried to give them clues that it wasn’t by pointing to where I was making the filling and even to the windows to read the statement. A lot of people put it together with how weird it was that they had walked through Gallery One and realized that it just wasn’t a restaurant, but some actually needed me to stop and tell them. Which is funny to see just how much the visual world takes over. People don’t read– although the statement was plastered on the windows. It  said it was a performance installation. It said I was the artist. With those people who hadn’t read and didn’t trust themselves to know what was going on, I could feel their frustration with the piece. They would ask me questions, but my pointing wasn’t enough for them. They didn’t want to find out for themselves anymore. They just wanted me to answer, but I wouldn’t, so they just left.

But that being said, not every instance was like that. I think my favorite reactions were with people who understood that I was choosing not to speak and rather than asking me what they were to be thinking, they would instead tell me about their observations and would even tell me stories about experiences where they had felt similarly.

M: Your lack of addressing the audience didn’t get in the way of people asking questions. People asked questions even though you didn’t acknowledge their presence. It would be interesting to have not a talk, but more of a Q and A. For it to be a discussion that you oversee, as opposed to a conventional artist talk.

S: When I was talking to Carla about how I wanted to have the discussion, she suggested that if someone were to ask me a question, I could turn it back to them and ask them about their observations instead, since for me it became so much about the presence and interaction.

M: But people don’t give themselves enough credit for having the capacity to interpret challenging work.

S: If I can be honest, I think I am smart, but I’m not an academic. I don’t want to make academic work. Though I may draw from theories and readings on performance, my ultimate concern is with the experience. Walking into the space, I wanted people to reflect on their body and their relationship to the surroundings.

M: And their presence in the space, how they occupy it individually and in relation to your presence as well.

S: Exactly. I’ve been thinking about power and the freedom people deny from each other on a regular basis. I had some people come up to me on my off hours telling me how they felt uncomfortable by how other people had, in their words, “objectified me” by talking about me, in front of me, as if I wasn’t there.

M: …Treating the performance artist as a prop in the space. The first example that comes to mind is that of Marina Abramović – because of her art star status – and the piece Rhythm 0 where she placed props and weapons on a table and allowed the audience to subject her to as much or as little discomfort as they please. When there’s no way to anticipate how people are going to behave in the space, it becomes all about trust. Even though you know that your friends and instructors will be there, being in close proximity to so many businesses and tourists there’s no way you can fully anticipate what kind of audience you’ll have. You really put yourself at their mercy. I can’t imagine how you could relinquish any more power than by just sitting there. It’s kind of like when someone at a party corners you into an uncomfortable conversation.

S: Absolutely. All of my work is directly influenced by my personal experiences. All of my past is there in the piece. Art production in New York, cooking, thinking about family, the summer I worked in that factory. Even when I think about the sculpture I make, it’s more installation-based because it’s not about the object, but about your relation to it. In this work, it’s the relationship to me and the audience, to me and the props, the actions in the space  – thinking about the liberties people take with their body gestures.

M: How inconsiderate people are.

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S: No, not so much are, but that they can be. It’s not that they’re trying to be inconsiderate, it is just that they’re not aware. But it’s hard, I know. Everyone thinks about themselves. Not so much in a selfish way, but more in the vein of that’s what they have to draw from. If you don’t think about yourself, who will?

With that mentality, the individualist mentality, how are you supposed to think about how these things come together? That’s what the piece is about. Allowing [yourself] to feel your own presence and to see what effect you have on the space and what it contains. Some people walked in, looked around and waited for something more to happen. When it didn’t, they’d leave. Others seemed to be more patient and reflective.

M: They would enter and think, “should I stay or should I go?” I hadn’t considered the potential for that until I began to frequent the “After Anna” performance series [2011 – early 2012]. I was compelled to determine how much courtesy is owed, which isn’t relevant unless the artist is somehow present – whether in a live performance or a video screening. Often times during these events, I would want to leave but felt obligated to stay. There is a difference between experiencing live performance and experiencing a photo or painting installation. So that it isn’t just you, the performer who is stripped of power: it can also be the viewer.

S: That’s that transformation of power that I’m interested in. You have the power to walk in and walk out, but maybe while you’re in, maybe something happens and you feel like you no longer have the power.

M: It isn’t just your agency that’s in question, but the viewer’s as well. There’s a pressing tension that the viewer has to navigate. How close to you they want to get, whether they want to interact with you, if they want to talk to other people while you’re there, or just observe in silence. You had such a crazy week.

S: It was so interesting to sit there to just see what people would do…what other opportunities do you have to sit in one space for a long time to just observe? I’ll kind of miss going to the gallery every day for those hours. I’m attracted to routine –I don’t have routine in my life, [that’s] why it’s attractive.

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