Songs without Music performance detail.

by Jade Yumang


Yumang: You approach your work in different angles, whether through your use of text in paintings and graffiti or your performative happenings. These methods are similar when it comes to your social commentary, but you seem to take them on with such naiveté, although there is an underlying seriousness to them. Could you explain your use of aesthetic in both your text based work and your performances?
Most of my work is expressed via words. Sometimes the words are shaped in text; sometimes they are spoken/sung, depending on the project. These two ways of communicating are closely related to me. They are often so similar that they interact with each other.

The project Songs without Music consists of drawings, posters and paintings of my lyrics; work I have made in periods where I have not had access to a piano. My visuals and sounds are codependent sides of me as an artist. One cannot exist without the other and they constantly (re)create each other. I personally get unbalanced if I cannot have access to one of the tools/instruments I use to create my sounds and visuals.

I see these medias as two different but related languages of expression. Some meaning is better explained via French than English and the other way around. I meet art and music with a knowledge, awareness and respect for their history. I am a part of that history, but I am not afraid of the canon or of contemporary critics. When I create, I follow a structure that I have created. I am constantly aware of this structure while I intuitively circle around it, experiment and break it to recreate it. The structure depends on the given subject and media that I am choosing to work with.

I have heard the word "naiveté" before when people have described my work. I don't find my style naive. Rather optimist. When I deal with political issues, I use humor as a tool. It is important to me that my projects are not dictating a way of thought. I intend to open up a discussion and inspire the audience to reflect upon the given subject in a different way than if you watch the news on television. I find that humor can lift heavy subjects into a sphere where one is capable of being active, and where it is possible to communicate about the subjects instead of sitting with a feeling of helplessness and immobility.

I use classical tools like a piano, vocal, brushes, pencils and such. But they are mixed with my personal history and the society and culture in which I am present at the moment of creation. I experience that my music and visual art has the same aesthetic or style. They are an outcome of me and I have developed my skills in a way so they can hold hands, back each other up and push each other into the world I live in.

Installation view of PORTRAITNYC

Creativity is all about excess, and you clearly find different ways to manifest this. I like that you mentioned that the visuals and sound inform each other. Could you elaborate on your intersection of art and music and how you align yourself with this history? Are their certain artists, musicians, or movements that you are inclined to or even react against?

I am inspired by different movements and groups and can't deny my influence by art history since I have an MFA. However, I do not associate myself with any group or movement in particular. I often collaborate, but I am actually somewhat allergic to being in a group. I can work within a concept but try to stay out of ideologies. I like to do group projects, but I am too anarchist to have to let someone else's idea create my project. I usually work with different collaborators depending on the subject I am occupied with. Most often the collaborations are interdisciplinary.

Lately I have been hanging out in a community around an event collective called Brooklyn Wildlife. Brooklyn Wildlife creates art and music festivals, and recently I went to their Music Video Director Festival. I have met many new colleagues in that crowd during my time in NYC. It is a very unpretentious and friendly community. Some artists are very talented; some are just emerging from their pupas. Some are educated within their field. Some are not. All the artists are generous, sharing knowledge and ideas. Everybody communicates and respects each other’s artwork. I usually feel that other artists are a difficult audience, but that is not the case within this community.

If I could mention artists that inspire me, I would of course have to say Yoko Ono, John Cage and the Fluxus Movement in general. Then there are rebellious activists like Djuna Barnes, MIA and the Yes Men. The list could go on and on from Karl Marx to my mother-in-law. From Gandhi to my mentor Henrik Boetius in Denmark. From Patti Smith to Beck. From a whole bunch of graffiti writers to Erykah Badu. From Annette Krauss to Sophie Calle. Not everybody that I am inspired by is a visual artist or musician. But what defines and connects people I am inspired by is that they are active, aware of certain dictating normative patterns in the world they live in, and that they dare to be true to themselves and people around them. But to be completely honest, I am more inspired by social situations and interactions than by artists.

Video still of Behind PORTRAITNYC (view the video here)

Does your personal history dictate how you start a work? Or how do you incorporate your personal story in relation to political issues? And what are those political issues?

I would not say that my personal history dictates how I start a work. But it is always present in me as a person and artist and there is no escape from it. I am colored by the way my parents have raised me, the social democracy I grew up in, the places I have traveled to and lived in and the place where I have chosen to settle down. It is like that for everybody. No matter who you are, you can't deny your own history. Therefore it is crucial when you experience an artwork to try to understand where the artist comes from in order to understand what s/he is trying to say. You have to think about time, content and author to be able to understand a work. Most people forget about the author when reading a novel.

My author role is always very present in my projects. I am using my own life as an outlet for the issues I am concerned with – both visually and emotionally. When I do research, I communicate with people and places. It is always about meetings. I never do the initial research on the Internet or via other kinds of media. I talk to people and interact with them.

I think everything is political. When I used the word "political" earlier, I wasn't necessarily referring to "governmental politics." I mean that I work with different problematic subjects in various kinds of societies where people have agreed to have a certain understanding (and acceptance) of a given norm. I work with cultural situations that I find problematic; subjects that these societies have agreed to find normal whether it being a conscious or culturally ignorant decision and acceptance.

Video still of “Intuition” from PORTRAITNYC. Filmed by Rebekka Elisabeth Anker Møller. Mask by Kimba-Ji. Song about Kimba-Ji. (view the video here)

Do you think moving to New York City has changed or influenced your work?

Moving to New York has not changed my work. But it has definitely developed it. Every time I have moved to a new place, my perspective on things has widened. I have been in NYC for two years now, but there are still many things that are really strange to me in USA. I still don't understand the culture behind racism for example. I know I am going to be occupied with this issue in my work one day. But it is difficult to work with a subject that is so hard for me to grasp.

I actually have an interesting story from the beginning of my stay in New York, where I made a project called WANTED. I had found photographs lying around in the streets and I planned to take the pictures to a pole to try to find the people in the pictures to have them tell about the situation wherein the picture was taken. I was on exchange at Parsons here and was told by a teacher and some fellow students that the project was racist, because one of the people in the picture was African American. If I would put that picture on a pole saying WANTED with my contact details and description of the project underneath, it would be a very racist project, I was told. People would think the African American criminal. They told me, I had to take away this picture otherwise I was doing a racist act. This was such a culture clash for me. For me it would be racist if I didn't include this in my project just because the person was African American. I ended up never pursuing my idea, because I got insecure about the values. Instead of working with heavy social subjects in an activist rebellious way, I am now working with them in a poetic way, where the message is latent in the work. I somehow find it more interesting to tell a story than to preach a message. I suppose this is a development I have made in NYC.

That said, racism is a part of my daily world, and I can't escape the subject much longer. My friends and family are all colors of the world. For example, I can't understand how "stop and frisk" can be legal and accepted. It is completely absurd to me. And I am of the opinion that artists have a responsibility to deal with these kinds of problems in the society they live in.

NYC has inspired me in many ways. I ended up doing a project for my thesis that was portraying artistic scenes in the city. I called the project PORTRAITNYC, and it was showing how far people get by working interdisciplinary and collaboratively. I feel like this is what characterizes the city. The project is a portrait of the labor of 28 different people in the city.

Installation details from PORTRAITNYC

Racism is magnified here and artists in North America have to be more aware of their position, but that doesn't mean you have to be always overt. That becomes boring and reductive. Could you talk more about how you are tackling this in your "poetic way"? I think you have addressed this in an eloquent and generous approach in PORTRAITNYC because it is about social interactions with the fluidity of an artistic community. Can you expand more on this project?

Some of the things that happen here are alarming, yes, and they are in Northern Europe as well. I'm not saying there is no need for discussing the issues anymore in Northern Europe. But even though racism is never acceptable there is a certain kind of reasoning behind racism in Europe. And it is based on a fear of religion or culture that people bring with them, when they immigrate. In USA, racism is only based on a color and on a need to keep a certain group down in order to be superior.

On the other hand, NYC gives space to different religions and cultures in other ways than my home country. I love that about NYC.

Touching my project PORTRAIT NYC, I created a portrait of Cupid Ojala who is a queer transgender performance and drawing artist. Other than that he is also the sweetest smart guy with the funniest humor, and he is a friend and colleague. I got to know Cupid when we both went to Parsons. One of the transformations he experienced while becoming himself was that his body became very hairy. And his artwork is clearly influenced by this development. I called the song I made about him “Hairimagination.”

To briefly describe the concept of the project: I chose to portray 8 different people in NYC. I composed songs about them and then handed these to 8 different sound artists who produced the songs. Afterwards the tracks were given to visual artists who created videos for the tracks.

So, I had portrayed Cupid. I had interviewed him and created lyrics based on the interview and on my own interpretation of his personality. I had ripped the chords from a chorus of a Madonna song, since Cupid let me know that he liked her. As I passed the song on to the producers Max Wolf and Nate Fish (in this case it was a couple working together), they decided to manipulate me into sounding like a man. This was a lucky coincidence, since they had not asked any questions about Cupid. I was ecstatic. Furthermore the visual artist Al Digs decided to run with a vision of a dual character – there were often two of me within the same scene – which to me represented the masculine and feminine sides within all of us. This was an intuitive process, which I experience as an artistic success. And the outcome is dope!

Regarding your reference to racism, I don't think I consciously touched on that subject in PORTRAITNYC. I did, however, make sure that the participants were real New Yorkers – a mix of all colors just like my family and friends.

My storytelling is narrative in the poetry I use as a medium. You see it in my songs and in my series of pictures. Some of my work is directly lyrical, but some of it, like "Employee of the Month" or "Bushwick Avenue" or "Human Recycled," has a nostalgia which is experienced as poetic. And they deal with heavy subjects like prejudice, wealth versus poverty, feminism and racism.

Video still from “Hairmaigination” from PORTRAITNYC. Song produced by Max Wolf and Nate Fish. Video by Al Digs. (view the video here)

Your studio is the streets. You keep yourself open and vulnerable to the frenetic energy of the public. How do you usually go about recording and translating your exchanges and encounters?

Much of my work is about documenting certain situations that have made an impression on me in a way that I feel a need to translate it in order to present it to an audience. When I record the incidents, I use a pen to take notes. These often become poems on the spot. I also take pictures. I usually put the material away for a while until I look upon it again to see, if I find it valuable or if it was just a breeze of the moment.

I find it interesting that you use the words "frenetic energy", "keeping myself open" and "vulnerable." These are ways of describing a spiritual approach to a process. I find my processes meditative. I use my intuition when I compose or collect material. The reason for my use of material is not always present on the spot; sometimes I get an impulse without any idea behind it. I put it aside for a while and take it out to investigate it to see if it makes sense. Sense is a state between reason and intuitive impulse. When an issue makes sense to me, I investigate the impulse to make it reasonable.

Fire in the Sea, funded by The Danish Arts Foundation. Cecilie onstage with rapper KGaines.

Do you have any new projects you are working on?

I am privileged to say that I always have new ideas and projects to work on. Right now I am very much into investigating sound performances. I have been invited to make one at Nublu in the East Village next month. I am looking into the history of the place to find out how to approach the stage visually. I am going to perform with a drummer called Compton Timberwolf.

Also, two years ago I went to Philadelphia to work on a project about sailors. The project went a bit over its own dimensions and I had to put it aside for a while. Now I am getting back into it and during this week, I am planning to contact the Seamen's Church Institute (which is the base of the project) to ask, if I can present my work there with an opening concert for the sailors.

I am also working on a curational project called Solasessions, which is a monthly event I do with four colleagues. We couple up a female visual artist with a female sound artist at the legendary venue Red Door in Chelsea. The art world is still highly focused on male artists and we give space to talented female independent artists to present their work in their own raw expression.

Last but not least, I have been invited to Oslo in Norway to do a sound performance at an ice gallery called Spikersuppa Lydgalleri. If everything goes well with my immigration status, the performance will go as planned and be in the end of January 2014.

I am also on and off working on my series called “Window.” And then I have a few projects that I keep only to myself – good advice I took with me from my art teacher Lenore Malen. Always keep at least one of them to yourself only...

Fire in the Sea, funded by The Danish Arts Foundation. Cecilie onstage with Compton Timberwolf.