Who Belongs? EP 13 - Artist Christine Wong Yap on her Places of Belonging Project

Interview

July 29, 2019

Download an MP3 of this interview.

In this episode of Who Belongs? host Sara Grossman interviews Christine Wong Yap, who became the Haas Institute's first Artist in Residence in the fall of 2018, about her "Places of Belonging" project, which was recently featured in a KQED report.

Learn more about the Haas Institute's Artist in Residence program.

You can also find an earlier interview with Christine Wong Yap in our Spring 2019 magazine.

Transcript

Sara Grossman: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs, a podcast from the Haas Institute for a fair and inclusive society at UC Berkeley. I'm Sara Grossman talking today with Christine Wong Yap who became the Haas Institute's first-ever Artist in Residence in the fall of 2018. As Artist in Residence, Christine sought to explore belonging and well-being in the Bay Area by asking residents where they experience belonging and then commemorating these places with letterpress-printed certificates installed on site, as well as featuring them in an atlas of belonging with participant stories in their own words. In this episode, I spoke with Christine about her project and how her conception of belonging changed during her time with the Haas Institute.

Sara Grossman: Christine, thank you so much for joining us today. I should say that you are in New York, which is why we are talking on the phone.

Christine Wong Yap: Oh, anytime. Thanks so much for having me.

Sara Grossman: So before we begin to talk about your project with the Haas Institute, I wanted to ask about your art practice in general as much of your work plays around with positive psychology. What is positive psychology and why are you drawn to exploring that?

Christine Wong Yap: I would describe my practice as an artist as I'm a project-based artists, and I often use printmaking, drawing, sculpture, and installation to explore positive psychology or psychological well-being. For me, I've been exploring positive psychology for about the past 10 years and started out with an interest in optimism and pessimism. Then I realized there's a whole field of people who already study this. So, positive psychology is, like if you think about the medical field, instead of waiting until someone ends up going to the emergency room with a heart attack, like actually starting to talk to people who are pretty happy already or so, so and then helping them realize what they're already doing to support or maintain their own happiness.

Christine Wong Yap: So it'd be like talking about nutrition or quitting smoking way before the fact of people waiting to till things hit crisis mode. If you look at the history of psychology, there's been a lot of focus on trauma. So, positive psychology is a more recent movement to get more knowledge about positive things, so that things that can go well.

Sara Grossman: Where does belonging fit in with this?

Christine Wong Yap: Well, I've been doing different research projects using surveys and questionnaires, and I started out doing one about collaboration and then one about interdependence and agency and then belonging. I started thinking about belonging in 2016, and actually, there's just a lot of messages out there telling people whether they belonged or not. I think with the Muslim ban, especially, and just me being a child of immigrants, I really identify strongly with the immigrant experience and wanting to just take a stand about immigrants belonging here too.

Christine Wong Yap: I think belonging is connected with all those aspects of positive psychology in that it's very much related to the sense of safety, acceptance, and authenticity.

Sara Grossman: It's interesting that you mentioned the Muslim ban and some of these other more pernicious things that have come up in the last year because a lot of the arts and cultural response that has been to focus on the negative and the critique, which is also important. When I came across your work, I was really interested in it because it is the flip side of the coin of moving beyond as a critique in towards the building something.

Christine Wong Yap: Actually, positive psychology is all about affirming the positive, and I think in a lot of academic settings, critique is framed as opposition. So, there really isn't a mode of critical affirmation, and I think working with positive psychology forces me to focus on what's going right, and I think my project is structured in a way where even though the backdrop is country or administration telling certain groups that they don't belong or that their rights are not as important as other people's rights, the project's going to start small with like, "Is there a place where you have felt a sense of belonging?"

Christine Wong Yap: The way I structure it in the questionnaire is maybe it's a place that at a certain time on a certain day of the week, that's where you felt belonging. Maybe it's on the certain field, but especially during your soccer team's practice or whatever. So, I think starting small and seeing how people build a sense of belonging in their lives and eventually that sense of belonging might expand. Then not only do people feel belonging in that place, but maybe that place starts to feel belonging to them regardless of what other people's messages are.

Sara Grossman: Before we go any further in talking about your project, could you explain a little bit about your process and the final product that you came out with?

Christine Wong Yap: Oh, sure. So, I started by creating a questionnaire, and there are several parts to it. I first started asking people about how they define belonging. So, how does belonging feel? What does it feel to not belong? Then if there is a place where you feel or have felt a sense of belonging in the nine-county Bay Area? Then I also asked people, because I was inspired by Brené Brown, if they carried a sense of belonging with them, and then if they answered yes to either of those two things, then we ask them to describe that place or that feeling if it's a feeling where it came from, the impact of belonging on them, what it allows them to do.

Christine Wong Yap: Then because I was working with Evan Bissell, who's the Haas Arts and Cultural Strategy Coordinator, he encouraged me to also think about asking people what are the systems, structures, policies, and practices that support that place of belonging or that feeling of belonging. Then there is a third section that if you answered no to those first two questions, what would enable you to feel a sense of belonging? That was more like envisioning the conditions of where you might feel belong. So, there are three components. There's the book, the certificates, and the bandanas.

Christine Wong Yap: So, we made a book. It's called A 100 Stories of Belonging in the San Francisco Bay Area, and that compiles a bunch of different first-person contribution from the different groups we work with and has some photographs of the certificates and the bandanas. The certificates, basically if people chose a place of belonging, then they chose 25 places to commemorate with the hand-lettered and letterpress-printed certificate, which I claimed and installed at the site. A lot of those are public sites, so people can go see them.

Sara Grossman: Could you give an example of some of those sites?

Christine Wong Yap: Oh, sure. The Stud, which is the South of Market neighborhood's longest running gay bar, and it was nominated by Toria Cummings and John Cartwright, and I think the Stud is super interesting just as a space of liberation or queer magic. It's also great because in the story of gentrification in San Francisco, there's a lot of grief and loss, but the Stud is really cool because it overcame potential closure through a worker collective forming and saving them.

Christine Wong Yap: So then that's one of the certificates. There's a lot of other places. Then I also made Bandanas, so I screen printed six 10 bandanas, and each one with a space on stories of people who carry their sense of love with them.

Sara Grossman: When it came to designing individual bandanas or other items, how did you decide how to design them? I mean, what elements did you put into the actual art?

Christine Wong Yap: All of it is very text based, and all of the text is drawn from people's words. Then I had to find the essence of what they were saying, and then I do a lot of hand calligraphy and the form itself. It's drawing from my own tropes. So, the own style of calligraphy that I usually do, and then a certain color palette I've been using to think about belonging, which is like a salmon color and then other complimentary colors.

Christine Wong Yap: So, for example, with the bandana one was this guy Nico who talked about the mystery of being. So, for him, his sense of belonging is tied to pretty mystical sensibility. So, I made a few interlocking spirals that creates a bigger circle. To me, that's like a pretty intuitive way to visualize this sense of connection to the universe.

Sara Grossman: Did your understanding or conception of belonging change during the course of this project based on the stories and feedback that you heard?

Christine Wong Yap: Yeah, it definitely deepened and got really specific, and I think for me one of the highlight moments of the project is there's several levels of participation. There's the call for participation. There's the workshops, and we ask people to submit their contributions and had dialogues. Then there's the reception of the finished work. But in between, there's me going to each place of belonging and installing certificate and connecting with people, and what felt to me like a secret tour of the Bay Area.

Christine Wong Yap: So, this, like meeting people, seeing their spaces and hearing what belonging means to them or how it feels to be honored as a place of belonging and their relationship to the nominator. It was really, really special, and I think just the level of specificity of the difference of each of those places also really grounds belonging and acknowledges the diversity not just in a social way, but just human diversity in the Bay Area, geographic diversity. So, some of the places were like 3.9 Art Collective, which is a collective of black artists in San Francisco.

Christine Wong Yap: 3.9 represents a projected future percentage of African American residents in San Francisco, which has dwindled a lot over the past several decades. Then another place is a swimming club in the Bay, in Aquatic Park Cove, from the Bay Area. I thought I knew a lot about the Bay Area, but going to these places and learning about places that I'd never been to or even learning about the fact that people swim in the Bay, which I think is amazing. Just knowing that there's a club where people go from in the Bay every day, even if it's super cold or rainy or whatever, that really grounds like how people find belonging, and what they're doing to find belonging, where it is, et cetera.

Sara Grossman: In general, I'm curious, what was the response when people or people running places were told that they were a space of belonging? How did they react?

Christine Wong Yap: Generally, people were really honored, and for me it was especially meaningful to acknowledge the work of the people who design or create or maintain a place of belonging, because it is a lot of work, and sometimes those people are a little bit invisible or not always acknowledged. So, for me, it's really wonderful to say, like your work really matters to someone, and sometimes people are in a position where they don't always hear from people about how somebody felt about a place. So it's nice to create that circle back to them.

Sara Grossman: In addition to our work with belonging, a lot of the work that the Haas Institute focuses is on bridging, and I'm curious if there were any spaces that also demonstrated bridging as in a space where you wouldn't expect a person to feel belong or made to feel belonging, but they do. Were there any examples of that?

Christine Wong Yap: Oh, that's really a good question. Well, I was really fortunate, and I was connected with a group of Chinese political dissidents who are now in exile and living in Fremont. That was a really nice connection that Abby Chen and the staff at the Chinese Culture Center helped for me because they actually helped facilitate the workshop in Mandarin, because I don't speak Mandarin. So, they had a lot of really interesting stories.

Christine Wong Yap: For example, one person from that group happen to be a wheelchair user, and he talked a lot about going to the hospital and actually having his wife's child when their wife was delivering their third child, I think. There's such an accessibility that he experienced across multiple levels including in language translation, which I think is... I know a lot of organizations have advocated for that and for many years and just to see in a really concrete way is nice.

Christine Wong Yap: He's also talked about how in China, they don't have handicap parking spots and how just being able to park is like the way he feels affirmed in his right to belong here.

Sara Grossman: Wow, that's so powerful. Were there any other unexpected stories that you heard during your project?

Christine Wong Yap: Well, this was also another nice story. So, I learned a lot in this process. One thing that was really interesting was a resident of San Leandro who chose to remain anonymous actually nominated San Leandro to city council meeting because there's a specific meeting when the city council wanted to pass the resolution creating sanctuary status in San Leandro. I didn't know this, but San Leandro was a sundown town where there's a lot of segregation.

Christine Wong Yap: For this resident passing that resolution was correcting or healing a part of their history, and this person talked a lot about, like all the diverse groups that came to testify, and there are some people who came forward who were like anti-sanctuary status, but everyone was really respectful and just being in that room and seeing all the diverse spaces and really feeling like taking ownership of San Leandro and addressing its history. It seemed like a really powerful moment.

Sara Grossman: Wow, that is so powerful. Was that actually named as a place of belonging?

Christine Wong Yap: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative). I made a certificate to nominate that specific meeting, and it's funny because it's like a point in time in 2007, so I actually approached city hall, and I think it's in the... The certificate is now in the office of the city managers in their lobby. So, I asked to make sure that it was in a publicly accessible place and that is.

Sara Grossman: Wow, that's beautiful, and that leads me to my next question, which is about the different types of belonging that you came across, which you talked about briefly earlier is somewhere, physical spaces of belonging and others are carried and other people express that they didn't feel that they belonged. I'm wondering what did you learn about these different types of belongings and the different factors that contributed to their difference? Were there different ways that people felt belonging that they carried or belonging in place?

Christine Wong Yap: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, the book is organized into different sections. So, one of the sections is this nature. A lot of people fell to sense of belonging when they're out in the wild and feeling your body and just acknowledging the Bay Area's open spaces, which led me to learn about Bay Area's open spaces, and all these places are preserved because a lot of activism decades ago, which made me really grateful for things that people did that I didn't really realize.

Christine Wong Yap: Another section is athletics in play, and I think it's important just to realize how much people need to move and be in their body to feel a sense of connection and also how it's a place for growth and personal development and connection with a team. Another section is arts and culture, and a lot of people really felt a strong sense of connection through art studios or galleries or South First Fridays in San Jose or just eating dim sum and the Outer Sunset.

Christine Wong Yap: There's another section. There's some neighborhoods which was interesting that some people just identified an entire neighborhood as a place where they felt belonging. One person nominated North Beach, and she was from the Iranian diaspora, but she could feel the Bohemian past, and it really resonated for her. She's got an amazing story. Then school and work was another place where people felt belonging, which is interesting. Some of those workplaces are connected to global health. An example is MedShare.

Christine Wong Yap: So, having a strong sense of personal purpose and service. Then people also mentioned faith in healing, like churches. A rabbi's home came up. Lastly, people mentioned homes and housing. So, for a lot of people, especially kids, their place of belonging is their home where they feel most secure. Then I also worked with The Beat Within, which is a writing workshop inside juvenile hall all over the Bay Area. For them, a lot of their strongest desires is just to go home.

Sara Grossman: You're originally from the Bay Area, but now you live in New York, and you came back for this project. I'm wondering, did your sense of belonging in the Bay change between when you moved away and when you came back on a personal level?

Christine Wong Yap: Yeah. Well, let's see. So, I moved away in 2010, and I go back and forth with our projects and to spend time with family and so much has changed in the Bay Area in the past nine years. But then it's funny because there are a lot of times where I feel like, "Where am I?" Or it's like, "Oh my God. The area's changed so much. This place that I used to go to is no longer there." But then it's also given me a strong sense of when those places of belonging still exist, I'm so grateful, and I think doing this project really made me realize what it takes to preserve and maintain places of belonging and just acknowledging there's a lot of spaces. Some are public, some are semi-public that it just takes a lot of intention and care to preserve those places.

Sara Grossman: You also did a smaller version of this project in New Mexico, and I'm curious, what kind of similarities and differences did you find between conceptions of belonging there and in the Bay Area?

Christine Wong Yap: Well, in Albuquerque, that project was only five weeks long from start to finish, and this project in the Bay Area was five months long. So, obviously in terms of scale, I could do a lot more, and I was really grateful that with the Haas project, I was able to translate materials into Spanish and Chinese and engage a little bit of a wider audience that way, which is really important for this kind of project.

Christine Wong Yap: With the project in Albuquerque, I had two primary community partners. So, a lot of their responses were grounded in those two groups of constituents. One was a group of Hispanic/Latino, which is different in New Mexico. Young artists and some of them were Dreamers or DACA recipients, and then it was interesting for me that a lot of what their program taught them is to learn how to belong in spaces that weren't created for them with in mind. So, maybe they want to become a curator. Maybe they want to go to a fancy East Coast school, which is the best school for curating.

Christine Wong Yap: Maybe that school wasn't created for DACA recipients, and how do they create that sensibility for themselves, which I think is really interesting. Also, one of the things that was really nice for me about that Albuquerque project is learning about the environmental or cultural specificity of things in Albuquerque. That's all new to me. So, sometimes people mention acequias. They're irrigation channels, and people sometimes will go swim in them when they couldn't afford to pay to go into the public pool. So I think that site specificity is one of the beauties of the project in Albuquerque and also in the Bay Area.

Sara Grossman: Is there something that you hope viewers that come across your plaques in person will take away from them?

Christine Wong Yap: Yeah. I have an aspiration that it will help people acknowledge that places of belonging exist in the Bay Area that places mean a lot to different people, and that a lot of care has gone into creating and maintaining that place.

Sara Grossman: What are you working on now?

Christine Wong Yap: I have been thinking a lot more about vulnerability and authenticity and how that connects with resilience. But in a way, I feel like all my projects have had... Maybe all these things I've been thinking about, like belonging or interdependence, these are like nutrients or something for resilience. So, I think it's all related, and I'm just trying to figure out how to go about exploring them, and I think so much of belonging is tied to movement and activities and a sense of flow. I would like to explore somatics some more or a varying, a lot of sports psychology. I'm not sure how this all fit in, but yeah. My projects take a lot of incubation for them just in a kind of absorption mode.

Sara Grossman: If listeners want to see more of your work, where can they find it?

Christine Wong Yap: Oh, I have a website. Just my name, christinewongyap.com. That's also where they can see photos of the belonging project. All the signs are on there. All the certificates are on there and also all the bandanas. Then the book is also available. If you're interested in ordering it, you can order it through me. Also, I had some copies at Wilson's Books in Oakland, and some libraries have gotten them, and I'll try and post that on my website of what library system's there.

Sara Grossman: Christine, thank you so much for talking to me. It was so interesting.

Christine Wong Yap: Oh my God. Thank you so much, and I'm so grateful to the Haas Institute, and especially Evan Bissell with all the support of this project. I really couldn't have made it without them, and also all the participants, all the people who connected me with organizations, everyone who helped facilitate the workshops. None of this would be possible without them and their stories.

Sara Grossman: Thank you so much, and that was Christine Wong Yap, discussing her project as the inaugural Haas Institute Artist in Residence. If you're interested in applying to be our next Artist in Residence, applications are now open until August 9th. Learn more at haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/air. You can also hear more episodes of Who Belongs on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or on our website at haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thanks for listening.