The Road Jess Traveled
Now you’d think Jess X. Chen (Brown/RISD ’13) would be a typical bohemian beatnik, a golightly gal in her svelte hipster dress relishing the best of both Brown and RISD. Well, make no mistake, Jess is more. Jess is always more.
Bombshelter Osculation (top), stills from Jess’s thesis LoveHoldLetGo
For one, she has not changed her appearance for an entire semester, and plans to keep it that way for another. That’s right, determined to commit to a noble ethos, she has been wearing the same cardigan, the same jeans, the same shoes, and the same comely brilliance as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. She also happens to keep an adorable hedgehog by the name of snow(雪), an apt allusion to her wintry middle name. As she sits in Tealuxe all clairvoyant and elf-like, Jess offers an exclusive glimpse into her college life and beyond:
I’ve heard plenty about you from ardent fans, but would you want to introduce yourself? Perhaps tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
I was a senior in FAV (Film/Animation/Video) at RISD, and I’ve been involved in spoken word and filmmaking. At Brown I was lucky enough to find a community of spoken word poets, called Word! that has an extensive history of pushing the growth of writers of color to explore their identities and look at the world more critically. I’ve been afraid to speak for most of my life due to my speech impediment and finding that community of poets helped me discover my voice as a poet, and ultimately as an artist. Upon graduating, I took my thesis play (it was supposed to be a film, but realized that live performance was better suiting) on tour across the Canada and the USA for four months, and continue to explore shadow puppet theater, film, installation art and poetry through the collective I co-founded with my partner Beyon, calledLoveholdletgo. The play, “Silence and the Earth,” which i wrote under the guidance of Brown Playwriting Professor, Erik Ehn, is about the last person on Earth and her relationship with the dying Earth, and imagines a post-apocalyptic future where one person must listen and emphasize what the Earth would say to it’s colonizers. We find Silence as a character in the play, and also as a force that overcomes the audience. I hope that those who watch the play can be encouraged to begin developing a tangible relationship with the Earth.
Brilliant, I’ve been told you are an artist, so, what does it mean to you, especially so being in RISD?
Being an artist I feel like is a way of giving voice to the unameable, and giving form to what cannot be expressed with words alone. Its a way of living in this world through making. Its a way of turning a critical eye to society and then using tangible forms to take it apart and reveal the truth hidden. It’s a way to deal with the injustices, environmental loss and madness that surround us in a constantly globalizing world. Its a way of exploring how the personal can be political.
What do you like about your work?
I am drawn to how art, filmmaking and poetry can bring together communities. That a story is completed by the audience and the community that receives it. My work never trully feels done to me . Just like it is impossible for the Earth to really express what it’s colonizers has done to it’s landscapes and body, it is impossible for a play or a film to stop evolving. I like being able to re-work into things. I like how making an art piece is akin to trying to make a difference. In our lifetimes, the most we can say is that we’ve tried.
What are you working on right now?
In fall of 2012 my thesis was a narrative documentary that collects dying words, and sparked by imagining the end of the world, and gatherings the community’s imagined last words into a film. One year later, it has evolved into a shadow puppet play called “Silence and the Earth” that incorporates folk music and many collaborations with Beyon, and addresses the last words between the last person on Earth and the Earth. We’ve performed it over 50 times this summer in many living rooms, galleries, farms, and even the Ladd Observatory at Brown, and the play keeps getting more complex, the message more anti-colonial. We hope to keep building it for another year or so. I’m also working on an Ai-wei-wei-inspired art exhibit/interactive commemoration project centering around remembering those who lost their lives in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. I have a poem, Red, that begins to explore this subject. Otherwise I am doing freelance illustration and selling prints of my work and zines of poetry to barely pay food and rent.
Sounds intriguing, must be rather impactful, that. Can you describe the time when you first realized that this was what you wanted (and presumably) still want to do?
I grew up with speech impediment, and felt shy and afraid to talk for a long time, and I would thus spend a lot of time expressing myself through non-verbal avenues such as poetry and art. I was silent for most of my life. Now that I’ve discovered my voice during my time at RISD and Brown I have been naturally drawn to work that explores desperate means of communication, in dire situations, such as the end of the world, or amidst disaster. I think exploring that very human desperation to speak, admist all odds finds its way into my work.
I see. What kind of creative patterns, rituals, or routines do you have?
I return to China every 3 years or so, as a means of seeing my chinese relatives, remembering my roots, and coming to terms with what it means to be an immigrant / woman of color in an otherwise white dominated society. I like to bring my camera and sketchbook with me, everywhere I go as a constant documentation of life, filming continuously and writing as much as I can. Last fall I decided to wear the same outfit for the entire year. That didn’t exactly work out as planned, as I gave up four months into the practice. I also practice the ritual of imagining it’s my last day and writing my last words every night. A year ago I professed my love on stage to someone who I had a crush on during a WORD! show, under the guise of it being the year 2012 and the end of the world was upon us. I do things like that to remind me that I am alive and human, and the fragility of this existence. I think my greatest fear is being numb. I’m afraid of letting the tides of the day to day american society rinse away my complex identity, because when that happens I lose the creative spark to make work. So these rituals are a way for me to keep being inspired.
What else are you doing on the side?
I’m did a collaboration with my inspiring friend Noel’le Longhaul (RISD Printmaking ’13), called “The Listening and the Letting Go.” Its a spoken word music album. You can listen to it and download it for free here.
I am also working on some collaborative works with Beyon, and learning to play the musical saw and ultimately the guzheng.
I hear you have a hedgehog?
Yes, it’s really wonderful and I named it snow (xue).
Do you have other pets?
Nope, but I do have some plants that are indoors.
Who/what is your favourite artist/artpiece?
After watching “Never Sorry” I’ve been really drawn to the work of Ai Wei Wei. I love everything made by Court 13, the indie production company that directed a community-based film called ”Beasts of the Southern Wild” which I worked on last summer and really served as an oasis of humanism in the film industry that is so driven by entertainment. The process of making that film, using non-actors and involving the New Orleans community in an adventure as grand as the film itself is trully something that inspires me.
Do you have any thoughts on the Asian/American arts scene in the US?
Many of the asian american artists I know, who are mostly 2nd generation, I feel like don’t identify as asian-american. Or atleast it is never seen as central to their identity as an artist. I feel like the US art scene, especially the commercial scene, is very good at erasing the complex identities of asian american artists and allowing their work to camouflage to the marketable work already out there. Then the asian/american influences explored in their work becomes a subconscious thing, or like a ghost; be it in the style that the work is in, or the line quality. It feels quite rare for exploring identity or the experience of being asian american to be an intentional theme. I am always really happy when an asian-american who was raised in US culture confronts their roots in their work, or acknowledges the effect, whether tangible or intangible that their identity has on their work. However, I feel like that door must be opened somehow — the artist must be exposed to a space where topics such as race and identity can be explored, and many of times day to day society and isn’t that safe space. I never felt brave enough to explore until I joined WORD! and my friends, Franny Choi ’11, and Paul Tran ’14, both incredible asian-american writers from Brown, opened a doorway and caused me to examine my family history and my identity and I felt safe enough to address it in my work.
What about your own identity/history?
When I was growing up most of my friends were American or 2nd generation Asian americans born in America. That was the culture that I identified with. Whereas my parents were born and raised in China during the cultural revolution. My father got a scholarship at the engineering department of University of Toronto and immigrated to Canada around the time when Canada, and the US were first opening their doors to Chinese scholars due to the poor education during the cultural revolution and the surrounding events. They worked really hard to live the life they have now, and due to the different cultures we were raised in, we have a multitude of misunderstandings. Pursuing fine art, for instance, is something that my Chinese parents have tried to pull me away from. They dream of the day that I will work for disney or decide that I want to go to law school. They don’t realize that I would be the most terrible lawyer. It has been extremely hard, post-graduation, for me to continue doing the work I want to do, under my parent’s commercial pressure. That pressure, though I refuse to compromise for it, has also made me thankful. It may take a lifetime for us as a family to come to an understanding, but that doesn’t mean that understanding is something not worth pursuing. I believe one day my family will look at my work, and understand why I have never given up on it, because ultimately I believe that our love is stronger than what society is trying to mold us into.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 20? 30?
I just want to continue doing the work I am doing now, but full time, writing and producing new plays, touring them, writing poems, writing new films, creating art that is both intimate and political, and being able to pay rent, eat, and travel with just that. I want to interchange the life of the artist with a quiet rural life and learn to farm and take care of more animals. I want to start a cooperatively owned community based puppet theater that travels in a school bus. I want to teach part time at a university. I want to keep making work with the people I love.
What superpower would you have, and why?
Transfiguration. I could fly one day and swim the other, and learn about all the animals (extinct and non-extinct) by becoming them.
If you could meet anyone (dead or alive), who would it be?
I’d love to bring him on an adventure, or cook a meal together and have a conversation with him. Tap into his wisdom. Looking at how capitalist and commercial China is now, and knowing that he was one of the earlier Chinese to explore minimalism and progressive and environmental ideologies gives me hope. I think he planted a seed in Chinese history that lead to a greater connection with the Earth.
“The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to.
It flows to low places loathed by all men.” – Tao Te Ching
The world needs thinkers like him. My only hope is that China and the world are heading in that spiritual direction, rather than continuing to expand on the oppressive, money-oriented structures that are taking over.