Casey Wei might not use the word 'auteur' to describe herself or any one word at all for that matter but I'll loosely reach for it in relation to her. Looking at Casey Wei's oeuvre over the last however many years, if it appears that she freewheels through a varying contrapuntal pallet, that might be true to an extent but with a closer look, you'll also observe that she does this with a considerable degree of textured analysis and veneration. Seeing her shift confidently through her poly-directional efforts from text to sound to the visual; it becomes needlessly confining to reach for a single describing word. Among the many hats Wei wears, she organizes the exploratory series art rock?, she curates the serial book project Whitney Houston et. al, and she's currently at work on a Gillian Wearing inspired short film Homage to the Faceless Woman with filmmaker Jessica Johnson. In this episode of our Parking Lot series, we converse with the Vancouver-based Wei. We get to know a bit about her impetus for how she creates, her opinion on the status of punk in 2018, and the profound potentials of non-sequiturs--among other talking points.
"i don’t see what I do as divergent [...] it’s just my way of making sense of my desires, which, when I’m trying to articulate it, means making and representing what I think is good art and music, particularly in a city that doesn’t have a good reputation for supporting its artists and musicians."
I'll start by asking what's been going on around your head lately? What can't you stop thinking about?
Well, I’ve just finished editing an Agony Klub release, a book of essays on/around popular music via film titled Whitney Houston, vol. 2, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the topics covered by its contributing authors: Whitney Houston/The Bodyguard, Elliot Smith/Good Will Hunting, Yann Tiersen/Amélie, The Pixies/loudQuietloud, the Drive OST, and conspiracy cinema via The Conversation. I easily become engrossed with learning about how cultural icons came to be and thinking about what that means in historical and political contexts. Through this project, I learned that Elliot Smith’s case is still open, which means that his death was quickly accepted as suicide because, why? Because his music was sombre? It’s really interesting tracing the way information moves and morphs through the grapevine of culture, and how culture becomes representative of times. I really love Adam Curtis’ work, and his way of speaking about what he does is always inspiring. The Breeder’s lyric, “If you’re so special, why aren’t you dead?” is a phrase that keeps popping up in my head.
Its funny you bring up Adam Curtis because your Vater und Sohn film is amalgamated with multiple seemingly disparate footages, with sounds/spoken word weaving in and out and Hypernormalization came to mind. Curtis has an interesting way of narrating though like found evidence or surfacing archival material and making new senses for them...which I would say resonates with your piece. How did this collage-y way of working become handy when working on that piece….
I think we ‘collage’, intuitively and instinctively, to make sense of all the stuff we’re bombarded with. There are different paces at which we do it, and with any number of layers, to achieve different results. So, when I made Vater und Sohn, it was through an intuitive and instinctive methodology (if you can even call it that!) of collage, balanced with a narrative, and all dependent on what footage was available to me. Every ‘finished’ thing is the result of all the different parts figuring out their place in the work. I direct it to a certain point, that’s the kind of artist I am -- I see how much I can direct things where I want them to go but accept that the final result might not be what I originally intended.
And speaking of cultural icons; you did a performative Bowie solo listening marathon which I thought was pretty crazy, how did you conceive of that project and what was it like after hours of Bowieness continuously orbiting over you?
[Laughs] I’m glad you brought this one up because it’s my favorite artwork (that I’ve made). I was asked to make something for After Hours, an after-opening hours exhibition at READ Books (at the old Emily Carr University of Art & Design campus, where the work would be viewable as a projection from outside). I wanted to do something durational… and I had just downloaded his entire discography. I started it on 11 am Christmas day, and finished a bit after 11 am on the 26th. When I got to Blackstar it started snowing heavily. It was pretty surreal and magical experience.
Installation shot of 69 Years in a Day: Every Single David Bowie Song from Start to Finish (Dec 2016). This video is split between 3 monitors, and is a 24-hour durational video document of Wei listening to every single David Bowie album. Credit: Dennis Ha
Also, I read you got the name of your book series from American Pyscho, and the main character’s interlude music reviews which are super non-sequitur so I’m curious how are you using it here as the title?
The non-sequitur-ness of the passages have a very profound function, and I write about this in Whitney Houston, et al. The things/thoughts that we otherwise cast aside, don’t pay very much attention to, that are seemingly unrelated to whatever it is we think we are focused on, have a lot more influence in our lives than we’d like to admit. Pop music is very powerful and very generic at the same time. It’s a perfect vehicle to transmit some deep thoughts or feelings without becoming too focused on the “I”.
Jenifer Papararo was recently my boss, and I know you guys recently collaborated on Pink Noise Pop Up. What was it like working together on the project and going to Seoul? What was your contribution to the pop-up?
I have nothing but love and admiration for Jen, on so many levels. She is so cool, smart, and professional. In the way that I’ve seen her work, she treats every situation, and everyone involved, no matter what difficult obstacles might arise, with respect and a level-headedness that I always strive to maintain in my own collaborations. My contribution to the pop-up was playing two sets of music as my solo project, hazy. I also invited my friend (and Jen’s partner) Dan (The Pinc Lincolns) to perform as well. The pop-up shop ended up occurring in two different galleries, quite far from one another. The first one, One and J +1 gallery, is where IC had their gallery installation, and Dan and I performed at the opening, inside the gallery, both together and our own separate sets. Then, at Space One, a more alternative art space a couple of days later, I got to perform a really shoegazey guitar composition on top of the roof at sunset. That was cool.
Do you record these music for any kind of dissemination or are they just for live performances?
Yeah, I have a music practice (as hazy and Kamikaze Nurse, and the now defunct Late Spring), and a label, Agony Klub.
hazy, performing at SWARM16 in Projections at the Perel Building, Sept 2015. Credit: SFU Galleries.
You seem to dip your foot in a variety of pursuits as a creative -- from music, performances, film, publishing, writing, community involvement-- where do you think this impulse to diverge comes from?
I don’t identify with the term ‘creative,’ I think most artists wouldn’t either. I think it’s a pretty neoliberal nomenclature that confuses the pursuit of the artist with the pursuit of an uncritical and irresponsible capitalism. My divergent impulses come from my identity as an artist with this idealistic desire for art to do something good in the world. The relationship between art and politics has a lot to do with freedom against systems of (visual) oppression, many of which are sinisterly market driven… It’s all very difficult to untangle, and my ‘divergent’ practice comes from trying to work through that. I don’t see what I do as divergent though, it’s just my way of making sense of my desires, which, when I’m trying to articulate it, means making and representing what I think is good art and music, particularly in a city that doesn’t have a good reputation for supporting its artists and musicians. That comes back to why I don’t identify as a ‘creative’ -- it’s this branding of an adjective into a buzzword used to glorify a kind of lifestyle that is a large driving force in the twisted real estate market.
What you said is ringing in my mind now, I suppose I need to do my own digging on this too but can you share a little more on how terms like that become something that disguises from say, capitalistic pursuits and the market?
I think I’ve answered it already as much as I can without this turning into a didactic/instructive essay…it’s something I think about every day and I don’t have a fix-it-all solution or anything - it’s an ongoing work-in-progress. A ‘Creative’ (which in itself annoys me for its transformation of an adjective into a noun) is branded as some kind of elite class, and it’s really a privileged form of capitalism that ignores its surrounding contexts and histories, excludes the communities it encroaches upon, and privileges a whiteness (both racially and in terms of aesthetic) that is hegemonic and basic. Yuppie scum.
You've also done works that are participatory and now you are involved with running a publication/label with is participatory in another sense. How did you begin to open up your own personal creative activities into something public and collaborative? Why do you think it is important to extend outward in that sense?
I started playing in a band after my MFA -- Late Spring was with two of my grad school cohort, and a punk musician friend/co-worker at Vancouver pizzeria Don’t Argue, which is a wonderful space for emerging artists/musicians to work. Before that, I had a pretty solitary practice; I made a couple of long films that forced me to engage with people: actors, interview subjects, etc., but when I started playing music and working in a restaurant with this super vibrant energy of people who were all so creative and weird and talented, I felt a desire to be more social. I have the best time when I’m working with people on projects, I think my practice naturally extended outwards because I’m such a loner otherwise.
Despite my general introversion, I still want to connect with people, and the way I’m able to do that is through collaborative projects. It creates a closeness and a bond that over time evolves into a community. I think it’s always important for an artist to have their community, whatever that means… I’m not sure what it means sometimes, but sometimes I do. Extending outwards is important in that sense, to experience for yourself how far you want to go, how social and public you want to be, before a retreat. That’s a dynamic that Agony Klub exists in, this tension between wanting to be seen and to be invisible, it’s in the idea of the #popularesoteric. There’s that legendary Tony Wilson and Joy Division contract where he wrote in his own blood: “The musicians own everything, the company owns nothing. All our bands have the freedom to fuck off.” I’m not saying I have aspirations to be Factory Records or anything, but I really believe in that ethos.
How have you found that your more collaborative output impacts you when you go back to create on your own?
I guess it's a circular relationship. How I am when I’m alone influences how I collaborate with people.
You also take on monikers for some of your projects, do you see that as another way to make work that moves beyond personal/individual interest?
Since I work in both art and music, I think it’s good to work under different aliases, so that the work can be viewed as their own thing, rather than it being something that I, Casey, the ‘artist’ made, every time. Different projects have different functions in my practice, and in the community. Like, when I make a film, it’s very much me as the artist making the film, but when Agony Klub releases music, it’s not me doing it, it’s the label. I don’t want to highlight it as a part of my art practice, it’s to focus the practices of others who I think are brilliant.
"Pop music is very powerful and very generic at the same time. It’s a perfect vehicle to transmit some deep thoughts or feelings without becoming too focused on the “I”."
You are also involved with ‘art rock with a question mark’ (art rock?)...and you’ve been doing it for a bit now...since the title is an inquiry, curious discoveries have you made so far?
The question mark is a way of addressing the series. As anything can be art, anything can be art rock, and that “?” points to this. What it is, is always open. What we’ve discovered is 2 and ½ years of musical performances.
Which discovery came first for you, music or images (film/video)? Can you remember an early instance of this and what made you want to pursue it to the capacity you've done thus far and continue to do? At this point are those two inseparable for you?
When I was really young, I think I was 3 or 4, it was Christmas, and this was in Shanghai...I somehow got fixated on the image of a skull and drew it over and over again on all that year’s Christmas cards, all with a purple marker. I think some family member said something about how I should be an artist, and that stuck immediately. So images came first. I didn’t really listen to music until my 20s, what a late bloomer. But I’m pretty thankful I didn’t max out on rock and whatever else as a teen. Music and art are separable, they are categorically different, but I’m inseparable from myself, so…
What's it like working in Vancouver today?
It's ok, there are many pros and cons living in any city. There's a lot of things to complain about, to fight for and against, it's imperfect, but where is perfect?
Is punk dead? Can you prove it either way?
As an adjective, I think punk exists in many ways.
OK, lastly, what do you think the world needs more of?
Oh you know, peace, love, understanding. A fairer distribution of wealth.
Frontis Image: Video Still from Homage to the Faceless Woman (in post-production, May 2018). A short film by Karen Zolo and Jessica Johnson, homage to Gillian Wearing's work, Homage to the Woman With the Bandaged Face Who I Saw Yesterday Down Walworth Road, and to all women. Credit: Jessica Johnson