A Return to the Borders
Two years ago, when Jess X. Chen was still an undergraduate at RISD, she sent us this essay for publication. Although we decided against accepting it due to space constraints, we recently have decided to publish it on our website in honor of her return to RISD campus with Will Giles as part of their “Last Words * First Songs” API*A Poetry tour, which WORD! and VISIONS are co-hosting. In this piece, Jess articulates many of the themes that her work continues to explore: how we are able to move through the borders that exist in our everyday, defying conventions with our art as will. We at VISIONS hope to continue existing as the bridge that spans borders, between RISD and Brown, between Asian and American.
by Jess X. Chen
Performed as the 2013 RISD Undergraduate Commencement Speech
Beyond this microphone are five hundred artists who have never been in the same room together for four years. Beyond this room is the Rhode Island Convention Center, beyond these walls, is all the local communities of Providence, Rhode Island, and beyond that is the rest of our lives on Earth.
It is no accident that we have been brought together in this room today.
If there is anything that being here at RISD has taught me it is; “the only boundary between art and design is “convention.” 1
Yet “convention” is only the borderline someone else long before you draws and names as acceptable. The line between each of the twenty majors. The line between the accepted aesthetics in society and the those cast as outsiders. The line between procrastination and living our lives. The line between the bubble of college hill and the rest of Providence. What we were never taught is; whether those conventions are followed not — is a choice that you consciously make. You can transcend that borderland in a heartbeat, and rename it yourself. The Earth knows it’s lands cannot be fenced. 2
If we truly are what our majors dictate then; you are an illustration — you are a sculpture — you are a building –you are blown glass — you are a textile — you are furniture — you are graphic design — you are jewelry and I — am a movie. I am a movie that yearns to see what worlds exist beyond the film spool that has caged me. I yearn to plunge off the projection screen and be so absolutely free that my existence defies the confines of my assigned body.
Everyday we look more and more like the work we make; we are furniture hunched over in the editing suite — body curved like a bean sprout over canvas — calloused hands trying their hardest to not cut themselves on the sanding belt — our eyes gazing blankly into the universe we have created in a 15-inch mac book screen. We struggled through this all because the fear of the negative critique would always overpower the fear of not getting the sleep our body most needs. We have buried colonies of young ideas in the sandbox, because the sand castle was only in the shape of one major. We have let our education be the architect of these conventions – in fact we have all cramped ourselves in this convention center, as we line up, single-file to cross the borderland named graduation.
When we cross it, we will only continue to be lured into these pre-existing conventions, in graduate institutions, design firms, film companies, galleries, museums, and even our own studios.
What are conventions if they stop serving the needs of the human collective? 3
What are conventions if they cannot keep up with the evolution of art?
But what is art it doesn’t fulfill the very people who create it?
What is design if it cannot help us envision the world that we dream can one day be?
All boundaries can be a crossed the moment your mind can foresee yourself doing so. I have never encountered such grace; when music becomes noise, when film becomes theater, when RISD cross pollinates with Brown, when scientists become poets, when sculpture becomes furniture, when architecture becomes body, when life itself becomes performance, when our existence becomes an event.
From this day forward, we will live a different story.
Today, the conventions of learning will be defined by our selves.
Today, the only deadline for the project of being alive is when our lifetime ends.
Today, the pathway for making one’s work will no longer always have to be a struggle.
Laurie Carlos, a black experimental playwright once said, “If we must sleep for fourteen hours after a long week’s work, then we are with our dreams. If we must be immobilized by grief and can only watch re-runs of bad TV shows for two weeks, then we are with our ancestors.“ 4 I say — if we must leave the computer screen behind to take a breath of fresh air, and let the shores of the Seekonk river seep into our veins, then we are with this planet. We are 70% water, just like the body of our Earth.
RISD has illuminated in you a gift — that only you can give yourself permission to behold.
The gift of naming conventions but most importantly the critical eye to see beyond them and imagine: the world that could be. 5
Let the convention center dissolve, listen to the presence of everyone in this room, these past four years we’ve shared, all our divided majors, and close your eyes. Now imagine the world that could be:
Stand in its center.
How do people live in this world?
How do people love in this world?
What kind of art do you see?
Does your body feel safe?
Are there still forests?
Are there borderlines?
Can they be crossed?
Does every corner feel like home?
Feel your body and your body of work dissolve until you become this world. Now open your eyes.
When you exit this convention center today, give yourself permission to build that world.
Give yourself permission to live your life with all the abandon that your two-hundred-boned body deserves.
The time has come.
Class of 2013, let us build this world together.
1. Cloud Atlas (2012 film) – In Robert Frobisher’s revelatory dream he recounts to his lover, “I understand now. The boundaries between sound and noise are conventions… One may transcend any convention if only they first conceive of themselves doing so… My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.”
2. Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) – a book of poems and prose by Gloria Anzaldua. The author says “The skin of the earth is seamless, the sea cannot be fenced.”
3. “World Building in a Crazy World” (2009) – Artist/Programmer Jonathan Harris proposes in his vignettes: “There needs to be a new vision for the future of the web, one that is sensitive both to the human individual and the human collective…” Same is true for the future of art and design. And the future of the civilizations in which we live. http://www.number27.org/worldbuilding
4. Paraphrased from an artist talk Laurie Carlos gave at Rites and Reason Theater in 2013.
5. Darnell Fine, a 2009 graduate of Brown once said in the 2013 Word! poetry alumni retreat that “the beauty of spaces for marginalized voices is that it creates a venue that makes it possible for silenced voices to imagine the world that could be.” With our education and our work, we must be constantly imagining, and seeking to build that world.
Written in 2013.