“I was the bastard child, the weirdo…”

Selector Magazine is a brand new large-format, Vancouver-based, and internationally-focused publication to be put out periodically (once or twice a year) by some of the people involved with the Lifetime Collective. The first issue came out in early 2009 and has work from John Copeland, Radio Silence, Michael Jager, Vincent Skoglund, Jody Rogac, Taro Hirano and more. I was asked to interview Main St. (Vancouver) artist Paul Wong, who has created visual works in the video medium for over three decades. See interview below.

Paul Wong Interview for Selector

(Selector Magazine Issue 1 – Spring/Summer 2009)
by rhianon bader

RB: You got into video at a pretty young age, when you were still in high school. What was it about that medium that drew you to it?
Two things: video and youth. One, video was the new young medium, this new generation of technology that had become available and it was really through the need to embrace this as a young person… It made it really spontaneous, with sound and picture, you could record and have instant playback… Really DIY, figure it out yourself, and the medium allows that. Also the fact that had nothing whatsoever to do with any of the other arts, television, or film – it was kind of out there on its own, so I was left to my own devices, free of all those conventions, traditions and rules. There were no rules.

And I’m sure it was much more affordable and accessible than working with film.
Well, yeah. I was never interested in film, I’m not even that interested in film now. I found that whole filmmaking milieu boring as shit, I find most of those people odious, conventional, career-orientated… I was the bastard child, the weirdo, I was the outsider, but I’m still here.

You’ve spoken in the past about being influenced by punk rock and a kind of anti-establishment attitude in your youth, and I was wondering if this is still something that’s running through your work?
You’re shaped by those early influences, absolutely. And I was by my early politic of the 70s, and those were the influences of counter-culture, alternative culture, that was the era I developed in and was a part of – those were my communities, and I’m still very much a part of that. I’m a little more cynical about a lot of it, because I was really an idealist. I thought that we could radically influence and change the culture that we’re in… And this change that I’d hoped for – the shifts have been so minimal, so marginal and so subtle that they’re often hard to recognize, appreciate. But they’re there.

I was curious about what it was like when the Video-In Media Arts Centre [in Vancouver, BC] first started in 1973, it seems like it must’ve been a pretty tightknit scene with video being so rare at the time… What was the environment like in terms of the people that hung out and created the scene?
Well, we had to know a dozen or more idealistic people. Educators, media activists, political types, counter-culture types, artists, young people, feminists, gays – it was a mix, really a mix of idealistic people who were really interested in alternative culture and video as a vehicle where all these scenes intersect. As a tool for creative expression, as a tool for social change… as a new way of seeing, recording, documenting and communicating with other like-minded people. There was the whole idea that an audience of one here, stick it in the mail, an audience of 10 in Montreal. Which I suppose, now, the Internet is the bigger view of that.

What was it like to go from that narrow audience of exposure [in the 70s] to seeing something like Youtube today?
Well, I don’t use Youtube, I don’t belong on Facebook, I took my websites down two years ago. I kind of unplugged because I think there is so much information out there… I crashed and burned on the information highway because I was out there really very early, charging along and there’s no maps… So for me, it’s about choice and how to make those choices of what to make, what to watch, when, where and why.

During your exhibition [In Ten Sity] at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1978, you were pretty young, 22. Were you conscious of how young you were or was it different? You know when you don’t feel like you are young because you think you already know everything?
I knew everything! No, I mean, that piece In Ten Sity… like I said, I grew up alongside the medium, we had a symbiotic relationship. I was doing some fairly ambitious, smart things with the medium back then, which a lot of people are only really starting to do now. I had that energy and ambition to work on that level. A lot of that stuff came out of having a community of people and supporters and friends and colleagues that were able to be part of a lot of these things, they were my audience, so you’re living in your own world that you’ve created… when you’re an artist you’re just doing things. None of those projects were like one thing, they all kind of related to something else. So what may have been at the Vancouver Art Gallery, wasn’t like “[Gasp!]” that was just what was happening that month. It just was what was going on with me at that time. It’s taken 30 years to finally remaster that work and put out the version that I’ve always wanted to, on a single channel. That was one of the great things this year was that I was able to remaster and reversion a couple of those works from 30 years ago.

In your work there seems to be this running theme of truthful and unselfconscious expression… Are there any pieces in particular where you feel like you’ve most achieved an honesty from the subject?
A lot of the current work is a return to looking at what I call truth and beauty. And the beauty in the everyday. And a lot of these works are from ‘in the moment.’ They’re not scripted and developed and contracted and budgeted.

You’ve done quite a bit of promotion for the art of Asian and Chinese Canadians. What first prompted you to take this on and how has the representation of this part of the art community changed since you first started your career?
You know, I was a bit of a lone wolf out there when I first started out, there wasn’t a lot of people of colour, First Nations people, and specifically Asian and Chinese doing alternative media, doing radical art… and because of that there was a lack of storytellers, artists, who were doing anything that reflected the stuff I was interested in.

A more personal thing?
Yeah, it never got below that surface. I knew that there were these other stories that I’d seen in poetry of whatever, these inklings of stuff…And so not wanting to be a lone wolf I sought out others like that. Real and invented. It was out of a kind of need… I think there’s been extraordinary changes. No one thinks of Chinese as meek, uneducated, unsophisticated minority here anymore. Everyone now sees Chinese here as being a part of the whole, different yet connected to the 1.3 billion in China.

You’ve been to China a couple times Do you feel like the social/political situation there ties into your work, or do you think it’s more the Chinese-Canadian and your own personal family history that you’re interested in?
My work is from here. It’s Main Street [Vancouver, BC]. That’s what I know and do best. I can’t tell your story, I can’t tell their story. But I can tell my story, and I’ve always found that – it’s a gift of mine that if you let people tell their own story, boy, can they talk! If you let people tell their own story they’ve always got something interesting to say, as opposed to asking someone to tell someone else’s story, or the community’s story or the country’s story. It gets too general.

I was talking with a friend the other day and he was saying it seems like for queer artists there is this generational divide where three or four decades ago there was this urgency to challenge the sexual status quo, much more than people feel the need to do today. I was wondering if you’ve seen this shift?
I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit these days… Because in my lifetime it’s become accepted, it’s become legalized, you’re no longer an outcast or an outlaw, at least legally. Perhaps morally, perhaps personally, perhaps within, but you have the right to marry whoever you want. And that didn’t really register until quite recently with me, because I come from a period where that was transgressive, not acceptable, it was underground… I think that’s one of the reasons I make art. It brings people together, to share in a moment and that moment creates dialogue and that dialogue creates community.

You spent a lot of time in the 80s challenging the cancellation of your work Confused [1984] by the Vancouver Art Gallery. Do you think there’s still a lot of censoring that artists have to deal with?
The 80s was a battleground for creative freedom of expression in all forms and creative expression of one’s sexuality, and it was also the coming of age of the electronic revolution into the digital culture. Those things combined created a lot of fear [of] other voices or other possibilities… [With the introduction of video] there was no longer just this system of mainstream distribution and cinema… there was government pressure groups, religious groups, women’s groups, all kind of alarmed about the mass distribution of pornography and I was part of that community that was trying to say “Wait a minute! What about freedom of creative expression? What is wrong with sexuality? What part of sexuality don’t you like?”

You’ve gone through these periods of focusing on identity, or sexuality, what do you think your most recent work is representing?
I think I’ve just hit my stride. I think now that all of those things, those issues, those moments, those struggles, those experimentations, those dabbles, have led me to now, where I can do whatever I want, however I want, when I want, without having to think too deeply about any of those things… It’s coming out of decades of experience.


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