Deciphering design with Amy Suo Wu

“My practice mirrors my diasporic identity.”  

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Inspired by In No Particular Order, the design exhibition by Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie that’s currently on at Dutch Design Week, we got know some of the participants a little better. First up: Amy Suo Wu, a multi-disciplinary creative whose clever work we’d love to describe for you—weren’t it for the fact that she does it much better herself.

As a designer, artist and researcher, your field of work can come across as quite complex. How is your practice described best—or perhaps, most understandable?

Formally speaking, indeed I have a hybrid background as a graphic designer, research-based artist, and educator. After finishing my Masters in Media Design at the Piet Zwart Institute, I co-founded Eyesberg, a commission-based graphic design studio. In the same year I also started teaching at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam working in the graphic design department and teaching a minor course called ‘Hacking’ to art and design students. My practice harnesses and combines aspects of all these fields.

I think my practice also mirrors my diasporic identity, which is unstable, tactical, shifting and multi-tasking. It often falls between the divisions of theme and subject, medium and professional background, inhabiting in-between spaces while attempting to bridge different peripheries. At the same time, I am inclined to excavate fringe knowledge and resuscitate erased or obscured histories, as a way to tactically subvert dominant narratives that reaffirm status quo.

Browsing through your projects, the use of steganography definitely stands out. When did you first become interested in this technique and how has it shaped you as an artist?

For the last few years I’ve been exploring the art, science and politics of analog steganography, a form of secret writing that hides private information in the public eye. Unlike cryptography, which provides privacy by scrambling messages through the use of codes and ciphers, steganography is intended to provide secrecy by hiding messages in plain sight. Some techniques include invisible inks, the Cardan grille and text camouflage. ‘Tactics and Poetics of Invisibility’ is the title for the body of work that experiments and researches low-tech, analog and obsolete steganographic tactics to protect the communication of citizens and communities, as a response to the rising issue of high-tech governmental and corporate spying online. You can hear more about the project in this talk.

The beginning of this project was inspired by an article about the CIA declassifying WWI invisible ink recipes. Invisible ink is in fact one of the oldest forms of steganography, dating back to the third century BC. The recipes describe how to carry invisible ink in your clothes. Spies were instructed to soak their handkerchief or collar in invisible ink so they wouldn’t get caught with it. According to the article from 2011, the CIA had only released the documents because these old techniques are now considered harmless—no longer posing a threat to national security since advanced digital technology has rendered them obsolete and useless. Triggered by a comment in one of the articles, I too questioned whether such old techniques were as innocuous as they were considered. As we increasingly live and communicate online, rendering our activities and digital footprints trackable, recordable and profitable, I wondered if perhaps resorting to paper and invisible ink is perhaps safer for two reasons; 1) that paper is not ‘smart’—it cannot send information back and forth to servers around the world and it won’t send data to third parties inadvertently and 2) for the very fact that it’s considered unthreatening. The overlooked does not draw attention and therefore potentially more safe. This was the conception and premise of my steganographic practice.

Within a Western context, my focus was on alternative interpersonal communication channels against pervasive surveillance. At the beginning of this year I had the opportunity to spend three months in Beijing as an artist-in-resident at I:projectspace founded by Anna Eschbach and Antonie Angerer, and within the context of China, my focus shifted to exploring steganography as an alternative publishing channel to evade pervasive censorship. There I began to develop a research framework called ‘The New Nüshu,’ to better understand the relationship between censorship, publishing, steganography, language politics and Chinese feminism. One can see ‘The New Nüshu’ as the mother of Thunderclap.

On a more personal note, even though steganography was first explored as a political tactic against privacy and surveillance, I think this inadvertently lead me down a path to think through my own identity. Earlier this year, Mojca Kumerdej, a Slovenian cultural critic said this about me in an interview on my solo show “The Kandinsky Collective” at Aksioma Project Space, “You look Chinese, but when you speak, it becomes obvious you come from an English-speaking environment, which is neither the UK nor the US. Your exhibition is seemingly a dazzling mixture of high modernism and high-priced contemporary art, but in fact it contains a subversive didactic message… To understand you and your work, one almost needs to use a steganographic approach.”

Upon which I answered, “while growing up in Australia, my parents spoke fluent Chinese and poor English, whereas I spoke fluent English and poor Chinese. At home, we had a lot of conflicts and misunderstandings—it was always very tense. All my life, I have lived in some sort of information miscommunication, hence, I have learned to read body language, emotions, various forms of the unspoken, and I have become very sensitive towards intercepting and collecting signals. You’re right—my identity is steganographic.”

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We love your Thunderclap project! How did you come across the work of He-Yin Zhen? Did you feel a certain urge to bring her ideas back into the public sphere (as a wearable zine)?

During my time at in Beijing, I was fortunate enough to meet and hang out with the Q-space (queer/feminist/maker space) community. On my first visit one of the members introduced me to their library and the book “The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory.” Through this book I became aware of the thoughts and writings of He-Yin Zhen (1886-1920)—an early anarcho-feminist and female theorist who figured centrally in the birth of Chinese feminism. Together with other Chinese revolutionaries in exile in Japan, He Yin Zhen co-founded and edited one of the first Chinese language anarcho-feminist journals called “Tianyi Bao” or “Natural Justice”. Even though it was highly influential in the spreading of radical ideas such as feminism, socialism, Marxism and anarchism in the last decade of the Qing dynasty, He-Yin Zhen’s is still a relatively unknown figure in China and abroad. Furthermore, it was this journal that first translated “The Communist Manifesto” from Russian to Chinese in 1908. The significance of this detail has been overlooked: it was the feminists who had first translated communist thought and other radical ideas into China.

In general I was impressed by He-Yin Zhen’s thorough analysis and perspective on the relationship between class, gender and wealth inequality. One of her main points is that the emancipation of women should not only improve the most privileged women, but all women – and by extension the oppression of women can’t be properly eliminated until poverty and private property are also abolished. Her writings remind us that feminism is not only a contemporary (Western) consciousness but also one that was articulated in imperial China. Furthermore, according to the authors of the book, no other feminist in the world, at the time wrote such radical critique both in depth and breadth. However, there was one point that especially resonated with me. I was particularly amazed by her sharp – and in my honest opinion, still contemporary – critique towards how the feminist consciousness was (ab)used for ‘civilising’ causes in both China and the West. In China’s case, it was instrumentalised for the sake of modernising the nation and in the West to upkeep a “progressive” superiority.

I began asking people around me for more information about this incredible woman. I soon realised that nobody knew who she was. Bookshops I visited didn’t stock her work, and there is very little information online. Many questions arose: Why has she been forgotten? Has she been erased deliberately? What happened to her legacy? In the book “The Birth of Chinese Feminism” the authors suggest that her writings were gradually erased from the historical record in China because it was considered too radical and dangerous in her lifetime.

A few people also asked me if her original writings in Chinese were available for a Chinese audience. This set in motion the goal of the project, which was to make her work more accessible in hopes of reinserting her back in Chinese history and public knowledge. However I felt that it was also important to compromise accessibility/visibility as a tactic to protect content that would otherwise remain silenced if it were in legible and visible form. I applied the principle of steganography to the project, through the instrumentalisation of fashion accessories as a guerrilla self-publishing medium. Embroidered patches and printed ribbons contain quotes from He-Yin Zhen’s essay in English nested around a QR code that when scanned, downloads her original Chinese writing.

The current Chinese fashion trend is to use English black and white text on clothes as a value signifier, appropriated from Western fashion labels such as Moschino, Hood by Air, and Supreme (for more of an impression, check out T-shirts of Beijing Instagram account. The aesthetics of Western culture is signified through latin based alphabet and literally becomes the embodiment of ‘high culture’. As a result, English text here functions as a decorative ornamental rather than to literally read, but for english readers, texts often appear like dada poetry, non-sensical wisdom or hilarious word salad. After some time I started to see them as walking billboards, potential alternative and self-publishing platforms to explore.

Moreover I saw the advantage of using the fashion trend of decorative-English-text as a steganographic element to covertly publish and distribute sensitive, forgotten or erased content precisely because it is overlooked, deemed innocuous and politically harmless. Even though I designed it for a Chinese audience in China, this is precisely the reason I chose to use English over Chinese text. In this way decorative-English-text becomes subversive decoration that ‘smuggles’ in the QR code and the caption underneath it in Chinese text saying “scan to download text”, which is in fact the actual centre of this piece. However my I:projectspace assistants and friends, Zhuxin Wang, Yiyi You, and myself spent a lot of time choosing the right quote in case of English-readers. After hours of consideration I decided to choose the general and timeless quotes over the more radical and provocative ones, for the reason that I didn’t want to cause potential harm to the person who wore the patches in case they didn’t understand the English text. 

I would also like to add that this is the first project in which I’ve explicitly addressed the (intersectional) feminist struggle. I guess one of the reasons why I actively engaged with this conversation in a Chinese context was because the construction of gender norms and attitudes that my parents transmitted to me came from their Chinese cultural heritage. Somehow these stereotypes weighed heavier on me and I was provoked to challenge them. In any case, I see this project as the thematic sedimentation of many other projects, e.g steganography, surveillance, survival tactics, but also my interest in finding and learning about “unofficial” (underground, lost, erased) knowledge that undermine official historical narratives, which ultimately questions discourse regimes and how the powerful shape reality through the management and construction of acceptable knowledge.

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Your website includes a diagram of the three countries that raised you. Does your diverse geographic background influence your work at all? If so, how?

I was born to Chinese parents in China and I grew up as the only child of first-generation migrants in Australia. At the age of 20 I ‘fled’ because I felt like a stranger in my ‘own’ country and have since spent the last 11 years in Rotterdam. After many years of getting acquainted with the infamously hospitable Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) and ending up in bureaucratic loop holes because I failed to sufficiently prove my identity according to Dutch standards, I am relieved to say that I have recently attained Dutch citizenship—rendering me a first-generation migrant here in the Netherlands. Despite that, I am in gratitude to the friends, colleagues and (by now) family in Rotterdam that welcomed and loved me in a way that I had not felt before.

Before immigrating to Australia in the late 1980s, my parents were (applied) artists working on public sculptures commissioned by the local municipality of my hometown, Shantou 汕头. My mother always encouraged me creatively by teaching me tricks, tips and various craft techniques. After my parents divorced, my mother entered a reputable fashion school in Sydney at the ripe age of 40. These were formative years exposing me to an environment of sewing machines, fabrics, sewing patterns, threads, and scissors. I actually wanted to study fashion or fine arts after I graduated high school but my father disapproved, so we settled on design. Even though I became disillusioned with graphic design to some degree, I’m indebted to my education that taught me critical thinking, discipline and practical skills that I still use in my practice today.

My recent experience in Beijing is another significant turning point in helping me claim and embrace my identity. I really enjoyed being surrounded by Mandarin, listening, speaking and learning it. Another feeling which was totally new for me was being invisible. It was such a relief to not be afraid that some ugly racial comment would get spewed at me on the street because of the way I look. No one looked at me strangely, I was camouflaged… until I opened my mouth and my broken Chinese blew my cover!

Since I’ve been back in Europe, I feel like I’ve come out of the closet as a ‘Chinese diaspora’. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to grow up in the West with the constant feeling of displacement and not belonging but also the struggle of coping with everyday racism in Rotterdam—which is increasing over the years. I can feel that has already started to reshape my identity, politics and practice, only I’m not quite sure where it will take me yet….

Which project have you been able to realise with the Stimuleringsfonds Talent Development Grant?

After I:projectspace in Beijing I did another residency at ZK/U in Berlin, which was directly influenced by my project and experiences from China. In Berlin I spent the time re-thinking and reevaluating the conversation we have in the West on digital surveillance from a post-colonial point and feminist of view. Shifting the perspective of general surveillance studies that addresses white men as the neutral population (given the tech community is predominately white and male), I was thinking about the colonial legacies of surveillance and how this continues to affect marginalized groups.

The project I developed this line of thought is “Shanzhai Passport”, a counterfeit passport stand offering forged passport services. You are welcome to come and browse through my forged passports in the upcoming show. Attempting to put into action the articulation of Iranian design researcher, Mahmoud Keshavarz, that passport forgery can be viewed as a “critical practice of making which momentarily interrupts the matching accord of body, citizenship and freedom of movement”, these fake passports not only try to place questions of race and empire at the centre of the surveillance discourse, but also how this continues to perpetuate the construction of illegalised bodies from the ’third world’ and illegal counterfeit products made in Asia.

I think my mother would be proud of me because all those years I spent as a graphic designer using Photoshop have finally paid off.

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Amy’s work is on show at Dutch Design Week until the 29th of October.

 

In No Particular Order presents the contemporary conditions of creative growth, as experienced by the 32 recipients of the Stimuleringsfonds’ year-long Talent Development Grant. The nine installations in the Van Abbe Museum reflect on the themes: Attitude, Inspiration, Habitat, Representation, Money, Fortune, Language, Discourse and Market.

For these installations, all of the 32 participating designers provided input with conceptual as well as physical contributions such as sketches, prototypes and sources of inspiration.

 

www.amysuowu.net

www.stimuleringsfonds.nl

www.ddw.nl

 

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