In Discussion with Christine Wong Yap

Talking with the Haas Institute’s Inaugural Artist in Residence

Sara Grossman

Communications and Media Specialist
Interview

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Christine Wong YapChristine Wong Yap became the Haas Institute’s first ever Artist in Residence in the fall of 2018. Yap, a project-based artist who explores psychological wellbeing through mediums that include printmaking, drawing, sculpture, installation, and social practice, has spent her time with the Haas Institute overseeing a participatory, site-specific project that aims to reveal the pivotal places, communities, and experiences that shape Bay Area residents’ connectedness to a neighborhood and region. Through writing workshops and an open call, Yap has mapped out where participants feel belonging and commemorate these places with letterpress printed, hand lettered certificates, as well as an atlas of belonging featuring maps and participants’ descriptions in their own words. 

Tell us about your art practice. How did belonging become an important theme and what role does positive psychology play in your work?

I’m a project-based artist whose work has involved social practice, printmaking, and publications. I’ve been exploring positive psychology for the past 10 years. I’ve used positive psychology research as content in drawings and as inspiration for flags. In the past few years, I’ve started conducting my own surveys and questionnaires, presenting findings in drawings and zines. 

I became interested in belonging in 2016. I had completed a project about interdependence, which is about being seen, supported, and counted. To me, interdependence implies a spirit of mutualism and can bring joy, generosity, and contentment. The fear, resentment, and hate of xenophobic attacks seemed like the opposite. When I wondered how to continue to affirm the positive in a climate of mistrust and division, I thought about belonging. At first, I wanted to affirm immigrants’ rights to belong in the US. This has expanded to other marginalized groups. I’m interested in what it means to be connected to a place, and how it reveals authenticity and multidimensional identities that exceed simplistic labels. 

What do you hope participants will get out of interacting with your work? What does participation in research or art practice do for creating belonging?

I like to think that asking people to respond to questions about their interior life creates much-needed space for self-reflection. When every second can be reflexively filled with digital distractions, people can lose their connections with themselves. I also think that many adults often hold self-limiting beliefs about art and artmaking and I see creative engagement on a spectrum with DIY skills, agency, and empowerment.

I think belonging is an amalgamation of experiences,
memories, meanings, identities, and connections to people, places, activities, or feelings. Reflecting on belonging can bring about awareness of it and its importance. Savoring a happy memory can improve mood. Recalling a place or person that is meaningful could increase connectedness and gratitude. Like happiness, belonging isn’t something that happens to you, which you have no power to increase. Belonging often happens because of intention, investment, support, generosity, and cooperation.

How did you come up with your idea for your Belonging project? What questions you are looking to answer? Who is the audience for your atlas?

I modeled this project for the Haas Institute’s Artist in Residence after a smaller project I did during a five-week residency at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, I commemorated places of belonging with 13 hand-painted signs. I was inspired by cultural geographer Yi Fu Tuan—that space becomes place when it accrues meaning—and Lucy Lippard, who wrote that “The goal of this kind of work would be to turn more people on to where they are, where they came from, where they’re going, to help people see their places with new eyes.”

At the Haas Institute residency, I’m expanding the scope of the geographic area, and the depth of questions. Support from the Haas Institute has allowed me to translate the questionnaire into Spanish and Chinese. We asked people about a place where they feel or have felt a sense of belonging, or if they carried their sense of belonging with them, which was inspired by Brené Brown’s book on belonging, Braving the Wilderness. Respondents also wrote about what belonging feels like, what belonging allows them to do, if there are any systems, policies, and practices that support their belonging, and if there is a related DIY activity. 

Can you discuss some of the similarities and differences you’ve discovered between notions of belonging in New Mexico and in the Bay Area so far?

For many, belonging is about familiarity and comfort, and their place of belonging is at home. For others, belonging is about feeling peaceful or connected to nature, so they belong in parks or open spaces. I love when these stories reveal ecological specificity—such as the Paseo del Bosque (a riparian forest) on the Middle Rio Grande in Albuquerque, or Aquatic Bay Cove in San Francisco. 

I conducted workshops at community-based organizations, and at least a few people at each organization would nominate the host organization. That makes sense since those programs are designed to be inclusive and supportive. In Albuquerque, I noticed that the places of belonging reflect the salience of public resources and non-profit organizations in participants’ emotional lives. In the Bay, more responses reflect a commitment to service and social justice.

Are there any larger thematic conclusions you’ve made so far about belonging in the Bay Area? What do you think that readers of the almanac will or should take away from reading these stories?

I think the stories capture diverse voices and perspectives. I hope this fosters a greater appreciation for who “we” are as a region, and where we think of when we think of the “Bay Area.” 

I am very grateful that I was able to conduct workshops with young athletes in Soccer Without Borders at Castlemont High School, and with Chinese asylees at the Union City Library with assistance from the Chinese Culture Center. We were also able to partner with NIAD and The Beat Within to collect stories from the artists and youth in juvenile halls, respectively. I think there are people and groups working very hard to create belonging among disparate populations, who each appreciate them in particular ways. Perhaps the particulars in these collected stories form a breadth and depth of the emotional resonance of belonging.

Based on your work, can you offer insight into what it means to “belong” in a physical space or community? What kinds of different forms of belonging have you come across?

I think there are different levels of belonging: personal, interpersonal, social, cultural, and political, and they’re interconnected. A lot of responses were about not being judged, which is interpersonal; and feeling self-worth, which is personal. At the same time, imagining belonging in certain spaces—like Dreamers attending Ivy League universities, or women in STEM—is social, cultural, and political belonging, which in turn affects your sense of agency and self-efficacy. From Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, I’ve learned that self-worth should not be based in other people’s or society’s approval. We are all inherently worthy of being loved, and I’d say, of belonging and inclusion.

A lot of respondents felt belonging when sharing space while doing something, such as working in a rewarding job, or volunteering at their child’s school. Many people’s places of belonging were sites of physical activities—swimming, climbing, dancing, or soccer, for example. These involve teamwork, cooperation, endorphins, and flow, and probably other links between physiological and psychological well-being. Contributing to something greater than yourself is another recurring theme. This might be in communion with a higher spirit or a congregation, or fulfilling a life purpose related to service. 

Your work focuses a lot on personal experiences of belonging, while at the Haas Institute we examine belonging from a systems and structural analysis. How does art help bridge that perceived divide? How do the individual stories you collect and present help us better understand structures of belonging and/or othering? 

Belonging can be very abstract. Even when you ask people about their personal experiences of belonging, people who haven’t given it much thought can find it hard to pin down and put into words. This project compiles specific, real examples of belonging via 25 commemorated places and dozens of others via stories in the book. Six carried senses of belonging are inspiring bandana designs. I’m a visual thinker and I like concrete examples. 

For example, we know that preserving natural open spaces is important, hence the Greenbelt Alliance has preserved many coastlines. We know that experiencing nature can promote psychological well-being. The stories in this project are testimonials about how specific places like the Marin Headlands and Aquatic Park Cove foster belonging for individuals. 

Evan Bissell, the Haas Institute’s Arts and Culture Strategy Coordinator, has been helping me to identify and present themes in the stories related to public health. We’re highlighting instances of these dimensions of well-being—like authenticity, being accepted, connectedness, and family—in the stories, and in contributors’ definitions of belonging and what belonging feels like.

How have your ideas around belonging changed or shifted through working with the Haas Institute? How do you think your ideas on belonging might enlarge our framework on belonging?

I’m interested in psychology and emotions, and I was afraid that the hard science of public health would only find medical statistics about mortality interesting, that self-reported feelings would be too “squishy” to be informative. But I’m learning that epidemiology is also concerned with stress, anxiety, and depression as factors that further impact low socioeconomic status populations. The idea with positive psychology is that psychology should not over-focus on the negative and under-research the positive. So I think we ought to understand love, joy, connection, and belonging as much as we do stress, anxiety, and depression. 

When you ask people about who gets to stay in the Bay Area and who gets squeezed out, I think it triggers a sense of crisis, futility, and fatigue. Thinking about gentrification, displacement, homelessness, racial violence, or what feels like a nadir of integrity and truth can feel overwhelming. It can make you feel powerless and unmotivated, because why do anything if nothing you do will matter? I think focusing on the ways Bay Area residents continue to find belonging here, how resonant places of belonging are to different people, and how formative experiences of belonging are in personal evolutions, can be refreshing. It can remind people what works well here, what we stand for, why people keep coming here, and what is worth fighting for.