Chasing Ephemerality, Cheating Precarity: On Publishing During a Pandemic: Sarah Chieko Bonnickson and Gordon Fung Interviewed

A grid of four photos, each representing a step in the process of printmaking—the prints themselves blackish ink on white paper in blurred and distorted lines.
Sarah Chieko Bonnickson, Archive, 2019. Magnetic drawing machine made from wood, 3D print, magnets, fabric, power supply.

In September 2020, as students prepared to return to school remotely, California College of the Arts’s Exhibitions Department put out a job listing for an Art Reporter. Beginning with myself as an editor, a handful of writers, and one graphic designer, the digital publication Review Rewind Respond came into existence with a mandate to center student voices and opinions on exhibitions, lectures, panels, and other events “on campus.” In March 2021, I talked to graphic designer and writer Sarah Chieko Bonnickson and writer and artist Gordon Fung to reflect on the project we built together and think about alternative possibilities for gathering, making, and working together. —Katherine Jemima, Lead Editor Review Rewind Respond

Katherine Jemima Hamilton What has the pandemic changed most significantly about your work life?

Sarah Chieko Bonnickson Something I have been struggling with this year is the lack of contact with my MFA Design cohort and their current work. Because we feed off each other’s ideas in a creative feedback loop, it’s hard to generate ideas in isolation. Being in a cohort, being in a community with other artists and designers, and talking about ideas and processes is an integral part of being a creative. That sense of dialogue is missing.

KJH I remember seeing a talk by the Jakarta-based artist collective Ruangrupa last summer. They were saying that your collaborators should be your friends and that artistic collaboration should be social. In working towards non-hierarchical workgroups, having friendship as a pillar of work helps create more equitable workspaces.

Speaking of non-hierarchical ways of working, Gordon, your writing and artistic practice are centered around activism. Your previous career was in classical music composition, which you’ve described to me in previous conversations as an art form for the “upper class.” What inspired a career change from speaking to the upper classes to searching for equity and equality through visual art?

The words "Rewind," "Review," and "Respond" in colorful borders, with layers of polka-dotted, stripped, and patterned rectangles layered beneath them.

Gordon Fung After I graduated high school, I kept thinking, “What can I do for the world?” My college research attempted to expand music’s parameters, crossing between ethnic music, music composition, and music history. This really irritated the internal examiner as my interdisciplinary writing was not considered “fancy” enough in an academic lens—you can either take composition or musicology, but nothing in between. My supervisor asked me to write a more comprehensive and research-based thesis, but I wanted to expand my research to craft something that felt interesting as a folk-instrumentalist—something that could speak to people outside academia.

That whole situation elucidated that some people don’t see their work as impacting other peoples’ lives. Nevertheless, I continue to do research that helps expand the fields in which I’m working. When I became an artist, I had more capacity to respond to social issues than I did while researching music.

KJH Thinking of academic work that makes material changes, many of the events we’ve covered overlap with issues that might be deeply personal, highlighting how the personal is political and how that which is political affects us personally. Did either of you find that this exploration of the political doubles as personal?

GF Absolutely. I was born here in San Francisco but grew up almost entirely in Hong Kong. It felt unfair to be able to move to the US so quickly simply because I had a passport. So, when I moved back, I kept thinking, “What can I do for people here?” I didn’t know the history of this country, this land, but when I started looking things up, I found these histories traumatizing. When school kids receive their education here in the United States, the books sugarcoat historical facts. For example, a textbook might say how the Indigenous people shook hands with the colonizers and gave up their land without problems. These are all lies.

I also learned more about the history of California. Because of the liberal associations with California, some people have acted surprised about the recent increase of aggression against Asian individuals. However, anti-Asian hate crime has a long history in major Californian cities, like in Los Angeles and Angel Island. After learning true US history, I decided something had to change. In my art practice, I began combining my interest in research and my love of history to work towards new and different futures. My writing practice echoes my research and visual art practices, as it centers around similar themes: stolen land, racial and social injustice.

The memory of pressed letters in a vertical columns fade into the background of a worn letter press.
Gordon Fung, lost in translation, 2020. Set of 30 repetitive prints through Generation Loss. 
VE set 9/30, cyanotype on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

SCB I’ve been thinking a lot about the personal as political and vice-versa in how entangled and intertwined the personal or local is with global systems of power. It’s an intimidating problem; the scale of it is overwhelming. I was recently reading Sylvia Federici’s 2019 book Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, which discusses how global systems of control are so huge, abstract, and diffuse that they are difficult to name and resist, yet they touch everything we do. The global is woven into the local; every action in social life is political just because of the way we’re situated. It’s inspiring to sit in on events at CCA and write reflections about them after the fact; it feels like collaborative thinking, which helps fill the void of what I’m missing from conversing with my cohort in a classroom setting. It hasn’t been a dialogue, per se, because writing can be one-sided. But because I’m engaging and thinking with other people’s ideas through the writing process, a conversation is present, albeit a slower one.

KJH Lately, I’ve been trying to perform writing as a dialogue, even though it seems permanent or set in stone once it’s public. That being said, authors often publish something that references their prior work as erroneous and update the writing as it becomes outdated.

SCB One of the cool things about publishing is that there’s some accountability built-in because the writing is set in a moment. A social media post or something that’s infinitely editable has a waviness to it and maybe less accountability built-in because it can be changed to fit a different time or context. There may be no record of growth or evolution. It’s more of a dialogue if you can have that record of change over time versus updating or deleting posts, which obfuscates trajectory or transition or growth.

KJH What were some events or exhibitions in the past year that stood out to you?

GF The most exciting piece I wrote about was No. 7, a hybrid online-physical exhibition and part of the Alt Knowledge series. It’s activism, though not in the sense of radical work in the streets. Especially in Hong Kong, graphic designers and artists worked for the consumer market. This exhibition pushed against that, asking what kinds of impact graphic designers have when they are given artistic license, and their work artistic value. Design professor chris hamamoto, [who supported the Alt Knowledge series] and other faculty members at CCA are trying to decentralize design education and change how the public interacts with design. By doing this, they educate students on how to achieve anti-capitalist ideals through their designs. That’s radical; that’s artistic.

An open box on red tablecloth holds collaged newspaper clippings, a stack of pamphlets titled "No.7 If you don't like it, make your own" and other assorted objects.
Installation photograph of No. 7 at If/Then in Berkeley, CA.

SCB The event with self-described “performative publishing haus” Hardworking Goodlooking was interesting to cover. Hearing a few of the members think through colonialism really resonated with me. The pain of seeing Western ideals iterated and perpetuated in their own culture was something that felt super personal, even though their experience is quite different from my own. From my perspective of being American and mixed-race, I often think about how imperialism and patterns of forced or pressured assimilation play into my family history. I don’t want to appropriate Hardworking Goodlooking’s way of discussing their own struggle, but how I related to some of their frustrations as creative workers helped give me some new ways to process the challenges of working within larger systems of oppression.

KJH Turning from the personal to the global, there was much talk surrounding global learning systems and art worlds before the pandemic. Working on a super local level with RRR, do you think there’s a place for hyper-local content within the larger ecosystem of art and design?

SCB I’m not sure how I would characterize the design field’s global perspective because the canon is still super white and European. Even though there are designers worldwide, the white-Eurocentric perspective has also proliferated globally: designers from around the world go to Europe or the United States for their education, and the most widely available pedagogical design books still represent a Eurocentric viewpoint.

That being said, I think an excellent example of design working at both a global and a local level was present in Maki Suzuki’s talk this semester about the 2019 traveling exhibition Which Mirror Do You Want to Lick? Suzuki, a transdisciplinary graphic designer, spoke about how this exhibition used design objects and ephemera to imagine alternate realities. Every time the show moved cities or venues, its contents and design were adjusted to be in dialogue with the new environment. New collaborators from each country would be brought in to help navigate the design translations that would take place to address a specific audience. While this example relates primarily to exhibition design, it’s also an allegory for how design can function and adjust between scales of context.

The cover of a paper book with the words "Filipinio," "Folk" and "Foundry" against an orange and blue background, divided diagonally by a straight line.
Poster for the Hardworking Goodlooking lecture on October 23rd, 2020.

KJH Having that genuinely global perspective is difficult, especially in the US, because it’s clouded by US imperialism. It’s the opposite in Canada, where I’m from, because the nation is constantly fighting to have its own unique identity on a global stage. As such, the global perspective is shadowed by an idealized national voice.

But all that talk about global hyper-connectivity seemed to calm when the pandemic hit, and the cultural field’s inherent precarity was in plain view. This year has highlighted how something once assured to us can quickly be taken away. How have you been thinking through precarity in the cultural sector?

GF In my piece on No. 7, I discussed how museums significantly impact art economies and ecosystems because they control which artworks and artists are seen. When you walk into SFMOMA, there’s not a lot of representation of Asian artists. They’ve acquired more work by Asian artists in the last few years, but sometimes the works are treated as exotic objects or are only present for thematic shows. Rarely are they on display for an extended amount of time. However, the online exhibition acts as a tool for decentralization, moving away from institutionalized centers of art and culture-making. Hopefully, these moves will give power back to the people to decide what is culturally significant. And because we are still unsure how the pandemic will end, museums might have to continue making exhibitions and engaging the public through virtual means.

KJH Sarah, is there a similar set of tools the design field offers to dismantle its own hierarchies?

SCB I’m not sure there is a prescriptive design “toolbox” we can use to dismantle. In some ways, design has been and still is foundational in systems of inequality. It can play a significant role in the construction and maintenance of hierarchies of value. So, when thinking about the tools that design has to offer, I try to be critical in assessing those tools and being open-minded in using other processes or frameworks. Studying design has made me think more flexibly and experimentally, to question the assumptions that are part of every designed thing.

KJH Thinking about RRR’s precariousness, it exists because we were willing to dedicate time to it—there was never any reason to put so much effort into its cultivation. What does it mean if this publication disappears after the world reopens? What does it mean to not institutionalize it?

GF When things go extinct, there are usually two consequences: it entirely gets washed out or evolves into something else. A future team might not continue the same form of publication, but maybe they collaborate more with other departments, giving it a different look or feel. The publication might also exist as a time capsule in an archive for students to research art production during this time of crisis.

SCB At the beginning of the pandemic, when there was also a lot of energy supporting the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, there was a strong impulse to document the moment. But I’ve now seen several projects fizzle out. People are holding so much right now, it can be hard to maintain a high level of commitment to many different projects at once on top of work or school, processing trauma, or just taking care of yourself and others. Beyond just funding issues, many things can cause a publication to fade away, but there’s something beautiful about that ephemerality. There are a lot of really influential publications that have only had one or two issues. Looking back at those now, they show how a group of people wanted to carve out space for a certain kind of conversation or content at that moment. That alone is amazing to look back on.

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