Salty Xi Jie NG- A Citizen Scholar of the CosmosChorus:
Cooking and singing
The Inside Show (3x)Mark Arnold:
Fred, Where are you? FredFred Armisen: MA:
So anyway, Fred and, um, Fred, what, what are you doing? I said, go in your circle, not going in a circle.FA: MA: FA:
FA Do you have a hard time with things like driving and stuff?FA: Bill Cleveland:
Now, Salty describes herself as “As a citizen scholar of the cosmos, who explores aging, intimacy, food, lineage, identity, ritual and power, while questioning who artists are and what gets to be called art. She characterizes her work as the "research of everyday as performance" that "bears fruit as tender presentations somewhere between art and life." I would add that thus far in her fairly short but very busy career as an artist she exhibits that unique combination of audacity, humility, and quirkiness that our listeners will recognize as intrinsic to many of the stories we share on the podcast.
Salty's grandmother describes her work as, well, "projects." Curators often use the term “genre-defying.” and for good reason. pull back the curtain, if there is one, and there's no telling what you will find -- a film, a party, an intimate discussion, a festival, a newspaper, a concert, a feast, and more often that not an invitation to decide whether you want to participate as an audience member. or as part of the show. Needless to say, she has lots of stories to share. So welcome to Salty Xi Jie NG, A Citizen Scholar of the Cosmos, a two-episode presentation of Change the Story, Change the World, my name is Bill Cleveland.
Part One: Being YourselfBC:
00:04:20 XJN So I'm currently in Portland, Oregon, United States of America, although I am from Singapore. The Portland Metro area rests on the traditional sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitt, Cathlamet Clackamas, bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Molala, and many of the tribes who made their homes along the Columbia River.::
00:05:11 XJN My whole family. Yeah, it’s funny ‘cause my grandma or my grandparents, they just call it projects. Everything is “oh, it's a project”. So there's many different levels of versions of describing it. If I describe it in terms of tasks, I would describe it as dreaming up projects, initiating them, finding funding for them, (or not maybe I'm approached by someone to do it), managing and directing and curating them, publicizing them, documenting, adapting, presenting, and then when it's over, grieving them and staying in touch with the people they involve. In terms of form, it could be gatherings, publications, performances, films, panel discussions, writing, and often, the form starts as an idea. The idea is the essence or the seed of it. And then it manifests itself in some kind of more external way. And often, I tell people that I make art mostly with others. And then sometimes I say that I work with fantasy and reality, inviting people to create semi-fictional worlds together based on premises for a future that we want. And in being together, in the world we create, which is semi-fictional meaning it's both real and fantasy at the same time, then, that future that we would like to see, starts to exist by the very fact of us gathering together.::
00:07:06 XJN Yeah, I think that is a huge question that people who work in social forms of art grapple with, and everyone will have a different answer or approach to that. There are people who work in terms of art, for art's sake.
There are people who work for social change. And then there's an in-between, there's a whole spectrum. There's the artists as savior complex, which is something that I'm careful about. Sometimes people deliberately de-center themselves when working with others and, that can be for me like a false thing to do as well, like the erasure of the the artist.
This is a difficult and sensitive subject, and in considering all that. I think, when ArtsWok invited me to write that essay that I wrote for them tecently, I came to the idea that, I do the work I do as a way of, creating spaces for people to be themselves. And also in the process of doing what I do, I am am helping myself to become more of myself. It's a process of becoming for myself and for other people.::
"For me, being yourself is allowing oneself to be taken into the mysterious reaches of who you think you are, or could be. You go there and then see what happens because our society rarely facilitates that art must"
… Which to me is, is a beautiful articulation of something that I may sound simple, but as I think is quite profound.::
I felt that happened for myself. I think in any artistic encounter, whether it's like a very traditional encounter of a painting in a gallery space, or something that's more socially oriented, like sitting in a room with 15 other women talking about intimacy, for example, but encountering art brings that about.::
00:09:56 XJN I think that my practice I try to ask difficult questions and approach more taboo subjects. I think it's really important to do that, especially in a place where, there isn't a lot of freedom to express yourself. It is also a place that needs artists very much, and it's a difficult landscape to make art in, but is also a really fertile one to engage in.
A lot of my artistically formative years were spent, in the U.S. when I did my MFA here at Portland, but the work I've done in Singapore has been important to me artistically in terms of, asking questions about the freedom of expression and the ways that people get to interact with each other in spaces.I made a feature film in:
00:11:21 BC Watching Roy do his thing. I had a hard time imagining that he was in Singapore because he's amazing. When you say Singapore needs artists, Singapore needs artists like him because there's such a freedom of expression that is both humble and audacious at the same time.::
00:11:47 BC For listeners Salty is sharing the cover of the book Street Found, with a self-portrait of the busker, artist, trickster Roy Payamal. Maybe if we listen to a snippet from Singapore Minstrel, your film about Roy, listeners can get taste of this incredible artist and the film.
00:13:58 XJN Singapore minstrel. They can find it on singaporeminstrel.com.:: ::
Part Two: Party Time:: ::
There were no artists in the family, and I went to top schools in what is considered one of the world's most stressful, punishing education systems. I think my soul was born [with] a lot of imagination and a lot of curiosity for people in relationships as a child and a teenager, and to some extent, still today. I love to organize big parties, themed parties, would boss everyone around, curate the whole program, and then I loved archiving family history.
I'm still the family historian, family entertainer, and I love hosting and finding out about people in their lives, and so in a way, I was both born to do what I do today, and also spent my life honing the skills for my current work. I did theater studies as a strep subject in high school or what we call junior college in Singapore, which is two years before college or university, and that was life-changing for me. It was like a bunch of naughty, creative teenagers, who were given a lot of reign to express themselves and create pieces and things like that, and we never had that. We never, because we always studied, literary texts, like in English literature class, but we never had an activity where we were supposed to write our own poems or anything. So, there was a lot of studying, but not a lot of, expression through creation of one's own.
The theater studies experience was really, it was, it shifted my life in a big way, and it was what I was waiting for needed at that time as a 17-year-old. And then I went to university and specialized in photojournalism and documentary, and then I made my final film in university. [It] was what we called a fantasy documentary on elderly love and sex in Singapore.::
Heres a clip from that film…
00:17:42 BC: I know it well.::
00:17:46 BC: Oh yes, I did.XJN:
I didn't know about the term social practice, in social practice, socially engaged. I was making little performance, doing things that were with people in collaboration, and then one day I decided I had to leave Singapore and put myself in a rigorous academic art environment, and I Googled MFA, USA. Then what came up was the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA program, and I was like, “oh, what is art and social practice?” So I did some research and then I was like, I went to their website, I read about it. And I said, “oh, that's me. That's exactly me. so here I am.”::
XJN 00:19:12 Yeah, I did. One thing I loved about the program was how broadly it looked at, and approached social forms of art. There was a space for everyone.::
00:19:32 BC: I'm a big believer in the process of inquiry as a way of working in the world. Could you talk about how questions figure in your work, because I know they figure prominently?::
00:20:37 BC: Yeah, because the world of art-making can be intimidating to some people, and some artists are declarative in the way they do their work, but the sharing of a question is intrinsically an invitation, and to me there's an infinite future the minute that you ask a question.::
I see myself as someone who is finding out things I'm curious about for myself through the projects I do. For example, in the project, The Grandma Reporter, which is a publication I started on senior women's culture across the earth. I am clearly not an expert in that situation. I am a curious young woman asking questions to these older women, and contributing my skills of facilitation, direction, curation, design, photography, whatever it is, and helping them to answer those questions to be expressed in a creative form for other people to learn about, the questions that we are posing. Whether it's, “what is your favorite outfit at the age of 74?” or “what does masturbation mean to you at 65?”::
In the past there weren’t many checks.
You only saw the doctor when you were near the delivery date
They would give you a card to bring along for birth
I had to chop firewood, leave it aside for confinement
And rear chickens to eat during confinement
For the birth of my first child, we spent $3.95
$5 for the second, $5 for the third, $10 for the fourth
So thrifty weren’t we?
Life now is very good, even people tell me that
So old and still not going to die
At this age we must die soon. An easy death is best
Every day I pray to Grand Uncle God to please give me an easy death
My ashes are to be places at Bright hill Monastery.
In life, I like things to be neat.
When I’m gone I want the same I like things properly done.
I believe we should not speak improperly or do bad things.
So that when you’re gone, others will be sad
Your children will be sad that their mother is gone
Isn’t it? They will cry.
Grandchildren will cry with much suffering. "Grandma is dead”
I won’t know a thing
I would be sleeping
How would I know a thing?
This film again incorporates first voice conversations with what you call semi-fiction or fantasy. So....::
00:19:49 XJN I think that you can talk about trust-building methodologies and trust building over time, and while all those things are very important, for me in my practice, I think a lot about fate and destiny and karma and why we enter each other's lives in these project situations. So, there is something mystical about trust as well. I think, why does someone see the open call to talk about intimacy for older women and decide to contact me? And then after talking on the phone for half an hour, she agrees to come for the group meeting that we're going to have and then starts to share things. And then we start developing a close, personal relationship, as well as this collective relationship with the group. I think that it is possible possible and sometimes even easier to trust a stranger, especially when people are coming together to talk about something that they have in common and they might all come from very different backgrounds.
I've heard people in some of my projects say that the they love hearing all these different perspectives from the other people in the project, and these are things that they don't talk to their own family or friends about, but they really enjoy coming together with these other people they barely know in that they have a strong curiosity about to share.
[I also] think maybe trust is partly developed from this feeling that you can be yourself. And I try as much as I can to let people feel that they can fully be themselves in the spaces that I create for them.::
00:26:37 XJN I've always had a connection with older people. I was very close to my paternal grandma growing up, and also my grandparents in general, and over the years I did more and more projects with older people, starting with that one on elderly love and sex that I had mentioned. So in 2016, in my first year in Portland, I decided to create this collaborative publication project called The Grandma Reporter which is about senior women's culture across the earth. And, I would make it, in collaboration with older women in various places. It’s a form that can be taken anywhere and with any theme, and it can be made in a very intense, and extensive way, or it can be made in a one hour workshop. So as a format, I really enjoy it's a flexibility.
So the first issue was on style, and it looked at a self-presentation and aging. I did it at the Hollywood Senior Center in Portland, Oregon, and invited all the women and one older man who was very, interested in joining us. So they all came in their favorite outfits, and we took pictures and talked about the subject, and then I paired each of them with a younger person, for the younger person to recreate the outfit in their own way and think about style and aging as well.
And then that issue had other things like, a Filipino grandma's underwear collection, and an article about poodles. So that issue was done pretty quick and easy.::
00:28:50 BC: Yeah, especially now where we struggle to emerge from our vaves, into this tentative quasi covid-landscape that we are living in.::
So about over 10 women were part of the project in different capacities, and I invited four other women artists to join the project. They were in their twenties and thirties, like me I'm in my thirties. So it was an intergenerational project, intergenerational gathering of women, in a little classroom at the Hollywood senior center while people were playing cards outside or having tea time, we were inside talking about sexual needs, and talking about friendships, and nature, and so many different things. So it felt transgressive in some ways, and very exciting and very intimate in its own ways, and the women that joined were all very different, but they all share the desire to excavate these thoughts from themselves, and share it with the world, which was very moving to me. We split into many different small group projects. So all the collaborators could choose which of the sub projects they wanted to join based on their interests. Maybe someone wants to join the one on movement and touch, and someone else wants to think about scars for intimacy.
We also had a Senior Women's Erotica Club, my favorite part of it, and I facilitated that. And,I brought in, senior erotica, and we would read it like a book club style and then, give critique and feedback on how we relate to it or don’t. I brought in prompts for discussion like a vibrator, dildo, pictures and such, and then I invited them to write erotica. One of them did and the others declined to, so what happened was that I wrote the piece of erotica, the main, the big piece, which felt fitting in the end because I was the curious young woman who wanted to know more about this world with these other women.
I wrote it in consultation with them. so like they, they gave their critique and feedback on like the terms being used and the storyline, and together we created a piece that was about a kind of emotional intimacy that we were not seeing in the pieces that were out there. So we created what we wanted out in the world, and it's exciting. and,I would like to continue with this senior women's erotica club actually.
What I gained from the whole thing personally, this feeling of being in a house with other women and a feeling of learning about a subject that was important to me, that I never had conversations about with my mother or grandmothers.::
00:32:13 XJN: They can go to thegrandmareporter.com and also, what happened this year was I was commissioned by Theater Works, which is a Singaporean arts organization to make a Singaporean version of the intimacy issue, but it manifested mainly as a short films and livestream performances on an online interactive online platform. But there's also the companion publication, which is The Grandma Reporter: Issue Three on intimacy from the perspectives of Singaporean older women.::
Change the Story,Change the World is a production of The Center for the Study of Art and Community, and if you are curious about what that is, check us out at www.artandcommunity.com. The show is written and produced by yours truly Bill Cleveland, our theme and soundscapes are by the incomparable Judy Munsen, our editor in chief is Andre Nnebe, and as always our inspiration rises up from the mysterious UKE 235.
So, until next time, stay well and spread the good word!