Interview via email and millennial WeChat exhanges (thanks Angela)
KL: What’s your artistic background? How did you get into art?
ZQ: I started drawing in university out of loneliness, in a way that’s very similar to writing in a diary. I’d find a quiet corner and sketch out my emotions and my understanding of my life and the world. Through drawing and art, I get to escape some aspects of my “real life”.
My insight and sensitivity have always been around, but I got to embrace them again in school, where loneliness gave me abundant time to reflect and gather my thoughts.
KL：Using markers gives your work a primary school quality, is the contrast between medium and (sometimes) graphic content an important part of what you’re expressing with your art?
ZQ：“Innocence” and “purity” encapsulate my love for the world. I love to draw - I experience the world and express “myself” and my art through color and paper. I don’t care about technique or material, perhaps because I don’t really have any skill. Thus, the only thing that touches me when it comes to the medium is color. This is also why I experienced a surge of creativity when I first encountered colored markers.
KL: Have you always mainly used marker (some of your work is done in paint or pastel) or is it something you discovered was your medium of choice after dabbling in others.
ZQ: No. My family (my mom) lived in strained circumstances. I bought my first box of colored markers with a grocery store gift card my dad received from his company. This marked my first encounter with color. When I drew with those markers, their color touched and educated me. I experienced an artistic renascence through creating with the most candid and rudimentary tool of the craft.
KL: Is this something that you are constantly doing? Are you doodling dicks in the subway or is it something you do in the home/studio?
ZQ: I draw whenever I feel any kind of emotion: on the subway, at McDonalds, in my school dorm, on the streets… Anywhere that provides me with a freedom of space. Of course I’m more drawn to places with good lighting and minimum distractions. I made Dick’s Dream in McDonald’s and the self-study room of my school. At the time, I was interested in the dick drawings on Tumblr and wanted to try my hands at it. The result was a collection of dick doodles influenced by how I felt at different moments. I was pretty absorbed by those drawings on Tumblr. This collection kinda acts as a record of my obsession with a certain organ at that time, the same obsession that drove me to create the drawings.
KL: I notice you sometimes appropriate advertisement logos and slogans in your work, are you making a statement about consumerism or do you just love McDonalds (we see it there in the background)?
ZQ: I think slogans and advertisements have been completely integrated into our lives. We live in a commercial society driven by materialism. The inclusion of ads and plugs is unavoidable: I’m not gonna take a picture of me eating a burger and make the effort to erase the logo on the packaging. Art in the 21st century should be more inclusive and forgiving because only then will life become art, right? Actually I think other industries should move toward this as well. Seeing celebrities on variety shows drinking Coke with a pixelated logo is pretty disappointing - it’s not like the audience doesn’t know. Materialism has a large presence in our lives. The same is true when it comes to cities, muffled and concealed by a bunch of ideas and doctrines. I scream ‘Hubei is hopeless’ from the perspective of a child with a pure heart; it’s just my attempt to express some opinion about the city that I’m a part of. I become that child when I draw… it’s all a part of growth.
I draw in McDonald’s because it provides a free and open space. There are patients resting, janitors taking a break, and children doing their homework. I like to be inspired and work in places like McDonald’s, vibrant with people from different corners of society. I’ve grown attached to the place after spending so much time drawing there. I drew the phrase “Say Goodbye to McDonald’s” right before becoming an intern at a corporation. I was sitting in McDonald’s with tears streaming down my cheeks when I wrote it in my notebook; I thought I’d never be able to draw again.
詹琦: 我觉得在如今，生活中出现的广告商标以及完全进入了我们现在的生活中了，因为这就是一个物质的商业社会。你完全不可能避免的 。我不可能拍一张本来我在吃汉堡的照片，然后还要费力去抹掉包装袋上的商标。21世纪，艺术应该包容一些，更多的，生活就是艺术了。不是吗，其实我认为其它行业也应该这样了。有时我看到电视上综艺节目中嘉宾跑去哪个城市游玩，明明喝着可口可乐，却要马赛克这个商标，觉得挺扫兴的，观众又不是不知道。 物质主义存在在我们的生活中，城市也是一样，被很多东西包裹覆盖。所以我才要呐喊，我在说“湖北 没救了 ” 包含了我对自己所处城市的一些看法而已了，但是这种看法是一个绘画中有着纯洁心灵的小孩儿呐喊出来的，也是我的一种成长进程的一种感受。
我在麦当劳画画是因为它有一个开放的免费空间，病人能在这里休息，环卫工也可以，做作业以及休息的孩子。我愿意在这样充满“生活”的地方绘画，它给我一些创作的灵感。 在麦当劳里绘画的时间多了，它也就保持了一部分我的情感。“跟麦当劳说再见” 是我在将要进入企业实习前画下的一句话。挺伤心的，我在麦当劳哭泣着在本子上写下这句话，原因是我以为自己再也不能画画了。
KL: Have you considered a colouring book? Dick’s Dream would make an amazing adult colouring book.
ZQ: Haha, I’d like to. Thanks for enjoying it.
KL: 你有想过出一本涂色书吗？Dick’s Dream 作为成年人涂色书肯定特别棒/牛逼/有意思。
KL: Why do you use text in your work?
ZQ: My native language is Chinese. Chinese is the most direct way of expressing my emotions and also the first thing that register in people’s hearts when they see my drawings.
KL: I see you have done DIY pop-up exhibitions in the hutongs. What prompted you to take your work out of gallery spaces and into the streets?
ZQ: “The Everyday”. Art should be present in the everyday life. When your work is displayed on the streets, people can walk by and have instinctive reactions that reflect how art is received by the ordinary people of society. In other words, consider “Does he get it?” and “Can something still communicate its artistic expression after entering the ordinary world.” I don’t think art should sit on a pedestal, removed from The Everyday.
KL: 我发现你在胡同里有过自己的DIY 街头展览。是什么使你把你的作品从画廊和展厅里搬到街上的？
KL: Tell me about your soybean shaped pieces. You are building quite a collection, are you hoping to turn them into a large-scale artwork?
ZQ: “Shapes” (tu xing) is an ode of my love for the light in this world. For me, to draw is to create color. Color is my guide when it comes to drawing.
I’m gonna do my best to continue to create color, for it is what makes my drawings become art.
KL: Do you ever or have you ever considered collaborating with other artists, writers or musicians?
ZQ: I published a collection of photos called “A New Era: I Captured 124 Trash Bins in Building A of the Boy’s Dorm in our School” in collaboration with the zine “吃的ReallyWant”. The book was published on the 22nd of November, 2015 and can be found on the “吃的ReallyWant” Taobao store.
On the night of November 22nd, 2014, I ran around with my camera taking pictures of the 124 trash bins in the boys’ dorm building. They’re filthy and dismissible objects, yet they project all the realities of modern Chinese university dorm life. We captured that and made the photos into a book to bring encouragement to those who lack the strength to look at life straight in the eyes.
詹琦: 作为“垃圾桶”项目，和独立杂志《吃的ReallyWant》合作出版了一本摄影集《新时代了，我拍下了我们学校男生宿舍A栋所有124个垃圾桶》。摄影集在2015年11月22日发行，现在在淘宝网店搜索“吃的Really Want商店” 就可以看到了。
KL: What are your plans for your work in future? Any exhibitions or projects in the pipeline?
ZQ: To continue to capture, to draw, to keep creating “Shapes”.
I’m having an exhibition mid-April called “Coming of the New World”. Once the exhibition starts I’ll be spending three hours per day in the space. The contents of the exhibition will be updated on my Weibo (詹巴儿).
KL: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Loreli readers?
Thank you for reading this and supporting me. I’ll keep my enthusiasm for art, creation, and “The Everyday” alive. Thanks.
詹琦: 感谢你们的阅读，甚至支持，我会继续保持对艺术的创作热情，以及“表达生活” ，谢谢。
Zhan Qi is an independent artist born in 1995 who works primarily in felt-tip pen. His works have been displayed in hutong pop up exhibitions and he has collaborated with 吃的Really Want with a photo essay. He will have an exhibition in Wuhan next month and one in Más bar in May. Contact him at Sina weibo: 詹巴儿
Zine Designer/Blog Curator
Interview on March 15 at Mas, Beixinqiao
KL: So, let’s start by talking about the zine. How did it start and where did it come from?
DG: This zine started about two years ago. Back then, I thought the food magazines out there were way too pretty and sophisticated and not at all an accurate portrayal of the food people were eating everyday. I had a few ideas, one of which was making an illustrated guide of Dao Xiang Cun, an old Beijing pastry chain. Dao Xiang Cun is being talked about a lot now, but very few people actually cared or knew anything about it back then. Another idea was looking at what snacks elementary school students were eating. I also thought of showing recipes for four different ways of cooking tomato and egg (xihongshi chaojidan). My last idea was inviting the working class of Beijing to document what they had for lunch everyday. When I felt that I had enough ideas to start the project, I thought of Li Shanshan, an old colleague of mine. We weren’t so close back then, but I felt in a vague and strange way that we were very compatible; she was also into hip hop culture and dressed like a rapper chick. Our first meeting happened in the Sanlitun McDonald’s, where I proposed the idea to her. I’d seen her Instagram and liked it; I thought it was very genuine.
DG: 这个zine大概是两年前开始的。当时我觉得市面上能看到的美食杂志都做得太美了，太漂亮了，都不是我们老百姓每天真正在吃的东西。所以我就有了几个想法，想做几个选题，其中一个就是做稻香村的大图鉴。虽然最近稻香村被说得很多，但那个时候没有太多人关注到这一点。我想的另一个选题是小学生他们都去吃什么，还有一个西红柿炒鸡蛋的几种做法。最后想到去请在北京工作不同职业的人去记录他们的中午饭。当我有了这些想法，觉得可以做了之后，就想到了以前的一个同事，叫李珊珊。我们当时并不是很熟，但是我感觉我们都特喜欢hip hop 音乐和文化，她看起来也特别像个黑人女孩儿，所以冥冥之中我就觉得我们俩很搭。我们第一次是约在三里屯的麦当劳，我问她愿不愿意跟我一起来做。我看过她放在Instagram上放的东西，觉得很真实，我也很喜欢。
KL: What’s your background as far as doing design or food writing?
DG: None at all. My major in college was television, along the lines of communications and journalism. I worked in a bookstore for the most part, where I found a bunch of Japanese zines and posters that were pretty influential to me. Through working on this zine, I’ve realized that my childhood experience with food differs from that of a lot of people. My parents are big foodies too and were in the habit of going out to eat when they were young. Before the Cultural Revolution, my great-grandpa was sent as a part of a group of professionals from China to Vietnam as a director for the railroads. He received double the amount of salary (one in Vietnam and one in China), so he’d take his family out to restaurants like Donglaishun Hot Pot, Sen Long (near Gongzhufen or Dongan Market), and Lao Mo whenever he was in Beijing. Back then these restaurants was quite vacant. My dad and uncle loved the experience and eagerly awaited my great-grandpa’s return. My dad still remembers being intrigued by Donglaishun’s service process; that they only had male waiters in those days and how they arranged the chopsticks and plates. My mom’s family enjoyed going out as well. Rumor has it they’ve been to every restaurant in the Zoo area, including the Xinjiang joints. When I was young my parents would take me, now and then, to eat at the newly opened Western restaurant in town, and I remember being so excited for each new food adventure. I guess I’ve collected a lot of experiences and sentiments related to food.
KL: Why the zine format? I’ve noticed that this is something that excites a lot of young Chinese people. It’s very 90s. I’m interested to know about this renewed interest in zines.
DG: I think we merely chose a form of expression. Some do it through photography, some through videos, some through fashion. Ours is the same. Just a zine - something tangible through which we can express our observation of the world.
KL: How much of the zine is designed by you? I’ve noticed a lot of cool typography and photos.
DG: I do the overall design, but the content is a collaborative effort between Li Shanshan and me. She took most of the photos and we thought of the text together. The topics were chosen by both of us through discussions. For example, the Dao Xiang Cun piece was suppose to just be an illustrated guide to what’s yummy at the bakery, but after telling her the idea she told me that her grandma’s house was always filled with pastries from Dao Xiang Cun. The whole thing then turned into a story about her grandma.
KL: Would you say the content’s quite personal? Stories and things like that?
DG: Actually I don’t think our content is, but our approach is very personal because we only choose to document what we want. My original intention for this zine was to preserve my memories of food, especially the food experience particular to Chinese people, because this hasn’t been done properly before. The food habits of different families can reflect a lot of things, like the shift that’s happening in our society right now. What I want to do is to document this like it’s been done in the west. We haven’t done this from the perspective of a small unit, such as family or the individual.
KL: How do you go about getting this out to people? How do you promote?
DG: We printed 1000 copies for the first volume and gave them out completely free of charge. We distributed the zines in the cafés and bars around here: School, Zarah, Más, etc. A lot of our readers saw the zine in these places and thought it was cool. Some friends have even sent me screenshots of the zine appearing on the Wechat Moments of friends of friends. The zines gradually found themselves in the eyes of people who really enjoy them, so I think our stuff is getting to the right people.
DG:做第一期的时候我们印了一千本，完全免费。我们把这些杂志放到了这附近的一些咖啡厅，酒吧，比如 School，Más, 等等。有很多读者是只在这些地方看到了，觉得不错。还有一些朋友转发给我朋友的朋友发在朋友圈上的截图，然后又流传到别的地方。所以我觉得我们的东西真的有接触到喜欢这种东西的人手上。
KL: Is that the full scope that you want? Getting it to the right people in this neighborhood? Or do you have bigger hopes? What is your goal?
DG: Our goal wasn’t just to distribute within this neighborhood to begin with. We have a weibo (the chinese equivalent of twitter) account of around 1000 followers spread across the country. They see our content on weibo, and follow us because they genuinely like it. After the release of volume 1, a lot of people started asking us for copies of the zine. At that time we received a lot of photos people took of the zine in their rooms. Based on my observations, the bulk of our followers is made up of high school and college students. I think it’s because they think our stuff is unpretentious. Even though we’re older than them, we don’t impose a great distance between them and ourselves. We have a section in our weibo reserved for comments and letters from readers, for them to show the interesting things in their lives. I think our goal is… I want to make something that all Chinese people can understand and enjoy; I want to let them tell their stories. But of course, people interpret things differently, and some people only see the surface while others can grasp a deeper understanding.
KL: What do you think will happen with the zine scene in Beijing? What do you think of the future of print?
DG: Everybody’s saying that print is dying, but I don’t think so. The most irreplaceable trait of books is that they are objects, and as long as the human desire for ownership persists, books will be ok. The human yearning for tangible objects will never go away. I think the most precious thing about independent publishing is that every item preserves an attitude, a thought, a perspective of the world. One doesn’t just read a book or flip through a zine; through the process, one gets to meet and have a conversation with another person. I think this is invaluable and will push the medium to become even bigger.
KL: Tell me some more about your personal project.
DG: A couple of years ago my friends (Li Bowen and Tao Ying) and I started a blog called ‘The Gaze of Youth’. We collect people’s stories from their student years. I was curious about other people’s high school lives because I didn’t have a very good one. Another reason for this project is that there isn’t enough analysis of teenagers, or the teenage experience, in China. This stage is an integral part of growth, and teenagers going through it are very sensitive. People often bear the attitude of “You’re young therefore you need care”, when kids at that age are actually already very knowledgeable about what’s going in the world and in themselves. It’s a faulty attitude. In the beginning I used a survey format for this project, but slowly realized that it wasn’t the right approach. It took me a while before finding another medium, which is now my blog. There are two parts to the blog: the main page shows a bunch of different pictures of people looking straight at the camera when they were teenagers. The story only appears after clicking on a picture. I wanted to have this combination of story and photography because I believe that photos don’t lie. Sadness can’t hide behind the guise of a smile in a picture - only the most spontaneous and authentic emotions can come through. Hence, the url of the website is: wokandejian (I Can See).
DG:我前几年开始和几个朋友（李博闻、姚莹）做了一个博客，叫青少年之眼，用来收集不同的年轻人青少年时期的故事。比如初，高中时期真实的经历。这个项目开始的起因是因为我的高中生活过的不愉快，所以我对其他人的故事很好奇。还有一部分是因为中国对Teenager这阶段的研究不够。实际上这个阶段是很重要的，经历这个阶段的人也很敏感。这个时候的人其实已经知道很多事情了，但很多时候人们有一种“从上而下”的态度，比如：“你是青少年，我要关爱你。”其实这些全都是不对的，因为那个时候人已经挺成熟的了。我一开始做的是问卷的形式，但慢慢觉得这种方式不对，就停了一段时间，直到我觉得可以以博客的形式来表达这些内容。这个博客有两个部分：打开页面之后，你可以看到很多人青少年时期的照片。点到照片之后才能看到这些人的故事。有一点像摄影和故事结合的一种东西。我之所以这么想是因为照片是不会骗人的。你在不开心的时候，不管怎么勉强的笑，都看起来不太开心。我觉得照片是最能真实地捕捉到人的状态的。而且我要求所有人都去选他们直视镜头的照片。所以博客的域名是wo kan de jian。
KL: That’s an awesome idea! Do you consider what you do there an art project? A collection of stories? Writing? What would you consider it to be?
DG: I just collect real people and their real stories and emotions. I don’t know what the correct academic label is.
KL: So, you think it’s important to give voice to the youth of China? This is why you’re doing it?
DG: Not only that, because I think having a voice is not very difficult. In comparison, communication is so much more important. Cultivating communication was a really important goal for me when I started the blog. There are so many different relationships and tropes in high school: the bully, the bullied, the class clown, the wallflower. People of different cliques and labels don’t give a shit about each other. So when a ‘good student’ hears the story of a ‘bad student’, he might begin to understand that person more. I saw a high school friend of mine the other day who said she’d seen the story of a ‘bad student’ from our school on the blog and felt very surprised. I think this understanding is an essential part of eliminating prejudice because this kind of prejudice doesn’t leave us when we move on from high school; it’s simply magnified during that period.
DG: 我觉得不仅仅，因为发出自己的声音很容易。相比来讲彼此之间的沟通更重要。我当初做 “青少年之眼” 很重要的一个目的就是沟通。在学生时代每个人都有不同的角色。有被欺负的，有欺负别人的，有的默默无闻，有的是明星。那个时候这些不同的标签和群体都是互相不待见的。当一个 “好学生” 看到一个 “坏学生” 的故事，他可能就会改变他对这个 “坏学生” 的想法。我前几天正好见了一个高中同学，她看见了我博客里一个 “坏学生” 的故事，就跟我说没想到谁谁谁还会这么想。所以我觉得这种沟通是很重要的。最终的目的是想消除大家对彼此的偏见，因为这种偏见不止停留在这个阶段，只不过在高中的时候会被放大，更加明显。
KL: How do you go about recruiting these young people to share their stories? Are these people teenagers now, or people reflecting on their teenage lives?
DG: The storytellers are all grown-ups. I don’t specifically look for teenagers, because they haven’t had enough time to process their time spent as teenagers. There isn’t enough clarity and hindsight in their perspective. After they’ve grown up, their angle becomes wider and their thoughts have more depth. More importantly, adults can look back on their time spent as teenagers and see how the events of that phase of their lives shape their mentality now, and how the effects of that period influence their assessment of their past.
KL: How many generations are you planning to cover? Just ba ling hou and jiu ling hou? Would you consider going back, talking to parents or even grandparents about their high school experience?
DG: I don’t plan on interviewing my parents because their environment is so different from ours. I don’t think there’s any room for comparison. My capability allows me to have the most in-depth experience with my peers. The most important to me is what’s around me: the people of my generation. Because we grew up in a similar environment, we faced similar problems. When we were in school, a plethora of novelties began to come to China: Nike, MP3s, hamburgers, fried chicken, different snacks, etc. Our memories are imbedded in these items. I think I’ll stick to my generation for now. Perhaps ever generation needs an archivist of some sort, there’s just no need for me to do that for my parents.
KL: Is there an element of education to what you’re doing? Or are you just sharing stories with peers, people who’ve had the same experiences. Would you like the outsiders, whether they are foreigners, older people, or even younger people, to look at this and gain some knowledge? For example, getting a low score on the gaokao does not make you a bad person.
DG: I didn’t start doing this just for documentation, not nostalgia. Anyone can see it. For example, older people… like a teacher. A teacher can read a story that a student has written and gain insight into the student’s thought process. He might even realize that he’s made some mistakes. There was a teacher in my team when I first started doing the surveys who felt touched after reading some of the stories. I also want the younger kids to see this, because it’s so important that they realize their experience is not singular. There are other people going through it as well. No matter how times change, certain things about that stage of life are universal. They can take many forms, but the struggles and emotions of those times are present in every generation. I hope I can give them some support in that aspect.
KL: Do you always cover Chinese food? Is this a purely Chinese experience? Do you ever look at western food or anything outside of the Chinese sphere?
DG: I’m not categorizing by any boundaries. I want to document all forms of food and dining that are visible in Chinese society at the moment. There’s a lot of Western and Eastern clash around us that I’m pretty interested in. The weird innovations and clashes we see now are the product of everything that’s happening in this stage of our society; they reflect very realistic characteristics of modern day China.
KL: The point of Loreli is to help young and emerging artists promote themselves. Is there anything you want to say?
DG: This might sound a bit unrealistic or romantic, but I want to let more people know what China is really like. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of emotions, practices, or affections that are uniquely Chinese yet simultaneously ubiquitous around the globe. I want to capture these things using my abilities and my format. I want to document. People can see it if they want, do whatever they want.
KL: Loreli 希望帮助年轻和新兴的艺术家说出他们的真实想法。你有什么想说的么？
Da Gua was born in Beijing in 1987. With her ex-colleague Li Shanshan she created the food zine Really Want 吃的. She also collected stories from her peers discussing their high-school experiences/teenage years.
For further information or to grab a copy of the zine contact 大瓜大瓜 on Weibo or email@example.com.
Email interview on March 14 (thankfully not face to face as I would not have been able to ask questions through the laughter)*
KL: What drew you to photography as a medium? Is it your only creative outlet?
CV: There’s a quote from a movie that says, “I’m like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one.” This is how I feel about my life and photography. A camera is a tool, and this tool allows me to romanticize that nomadic life so many of us drool over. I’ve yet to locate, definitively, what drew me towards photography, but I’m working on it, and when I find it I’m sure the sky will split open, lightning will strike me down, and it won’t matter. (eye wink emoji)
I’m afraid that photography and worrying are about the only things I do moderately well, and I can say that I’m excelling rapidly at worrying.
KL: Do you believe there is a narrative to your photography?
CV: I believe I can bullshit the hell out of my photography. I can say that I document my life (Denver, Los Angeles, Mexico, New York, Jeonju, Beijing), or garbage bins in alleyways, or the random passerby on a scooter or those stupid 2 wheel future thingies…or the 92 year old Sunday pedestrian unaware of me popping off a sloppy frame because I’m afraid he’ll go from docile to violently offended at the click of the shutter. I’m taking the long way to spout that maybe I can say there’s a narrative, line up the right photos, force the story, but really, I haven’t found it yet. I’d like to refer back to the movie quote I used in the above.
Aggression, I’m attracted to fearlessness, aggression, and intensity, but if there’s going to be a real narrative, like a true blood and sweat narrative, I need it to matter to me more than just life in general. I also don’t want the subject to wake me up, I want to be awake and make a conscious choice to cover the topic with a purpose.
KL: You do a lot of street photography but you often focus on cityscapes, what is it about skylines and buildings that attract you?
CV: A person may look at a body of mountains and attempt to ponder all the workings of that mountain-scape. I look at architecture and do the same. Everything from ‘how did they make that’ to ‘I wonder what weird shit might be happening in there.’ Really, when it comes to structures, old and new, I love the contrast of the established old and the bulldozing new…past and future being forced to coexist. Whether urbanization is a bad thing or a productive sort of evolutionary occurrence, as an observer I find it exciting.
…Okay, I’m trying to sound smart. ^ Who am I kidding? I look at massive structures and I picture the apocalypse. I envision giant robots, lean, scary, lethal, just peeking around some futuristic building ready to wreak havoc. I hear sirens, people reacting, some mesmerized, some terrified. I’m a giant kid who likes giant structures, mega industrial vehicles/machines, trains, etc. A building, especially one with character (old or new) inspires that overactive kid who can’t seem to give up his daydreaming days, to imagine a world years into the future. What kind of plant life will cover the CCTV building 200 years after the apocalypse? What kind of animals will roam the ruins of the Getty? All that being said, one thing I know I need to change is the angle and height I’m at when photographing structures. I’m getting bored…need to go get higher.
Also, a building’s not gonna cancel on me or tell me “I feel fat today” or “Stop that weirdo! Why did you take my picture?”
KL: How much has the move to Beijing impacted your work? How does it compare to Jeonju or New York?
CV: My whole life I’ve been shit at planning, but I can say that China was on the list of things to do. I had lived in various parts of the United States, but never overseas. The UK wouldn’t let me, fine. Korea did, and although I was a real moaner there at first, it opened up my eyes a bit. New York is a formidable place, and so far, in my opinion, the most photogenic city in the United States. ------
KL: Most of your work is in colour, what informs your choice in whether to process photos of colour or black and white?
CV: Really it depends on my mood. If I’m out somewhere and it’s really colorful or maybe the subject doesn’t match the color (i.e. happy colors, but not so happy subject or vice versa) I’ll feel that color plays a vital role to convey the emotional contrast, add some intensity to the moment. Not sure if that makes sense. However, I find black and white to be pretty damn sexy. When I used to shoot film, black and white was all I shot. I remember a friend telling me that black and white photography was pointless. It was a strange moment because I remember just wanting to rabbit punch his face. It revealed to me how emotionally invested I was. I can’t explain the technical terms of color vs BW, film vs digital, iphone vs a 50 gazillion dollar camera, but I can feel provoked, at any given time, by all of it.
KL: Explain what photo editing you use and why. What are you trying to add to the image through adjustments?
CV: Before I say anything about editing, I will say this – I don’t give a shit about purity unless purity and “truth” is what I’m after. I feel the need to say this because I hear so many different perspectives that all end up sounding the same….#Nofilter. Whenever I see this I think #goodforyou followed by #Ifilterthehelloutofshit or #tonsOfilters or #filtersabound or #yesIeditedthisphoto. Journalism, with this genre of photography there should be integrity or simplicity when editing – color correction, perhaps a crop, contrast, etc. However, when shooting whatever you want, I figure I can do whatever I want afterwards. My editing is brought on by several variables 1. My camera and all it’s artificial intelligence doesn’t always capture what I’m seeing in regards to color, contrast, etc, so I have to try and find what I saw via Photoshop (Computer), Snapseed or VSCOcam (Phone) 2. If there’s a preconceived concept before I take a photo, and it calls for something a bit more than what was available there during the shot (light and colorwise and so on). 3. I’m bored and I just like messin’ with shit.
In the last few years I have subtly slid away from intense editing and developed a hankering for simplicity regarding my approach to capturing an image (This is what happens when your torrented Photoshop goes tits up and you’re not smart enough to fix it). Although these days editing seems simple to me, I’m hoping to make it even simpler. Who knows, perhaps in the end I will be after that purity and truth, but until then #Ifilterthehelloutofshit.
Sidenote: I do believe in method and skill. Never just slam a filter on something at 100%.
KL: Do you enjoy portraiture? Is that something that you would like to do more? Is there something holding you back from doing more of it? How important is rapport between you and your subject?
CV: I love portraiture. I started off wanting to pursue photojournalism before photography school, and then discovered, after the first year of pounding my head into the wall, that I’m pretty decent at portraiture. However, my portraiture had always been something under my control. I’ve never executed a body of work that involved getting portraits of people on the street. That’s a whole other ball game, and I’m not there yet. I don’t like being intrusive, so I think before that happens; I need to figure out a more organic, human approach rather than the trigger happy ‘shoot first ask questions later’ approach. When I set up a portrait session, the older I get, the more I’d like to cut away the bullshit. If I’m getting paid, fine, lets look at your concept, do what you want, hopefully we end up connecting to better pull the quality of the portrayal forward. If it’s a session I’ve set up for the sake of shooting something, I enjoy natural, very open interactions
KL: I know you’re involved in collaboration with another photographer for an exhibition coming up. Can you tell me more about it?
CV: Yeah, Ben Ashley and I are teaming up to be a part of an exhibition about urbanization and tradition here in Beijing. We have to come up with an installation to present our images. We will try and find a rhythm between images that capture tradition and images that convey rapid growth and the effects this influx has on tradition.
KL: Is this your first collaboration? How’s it working out? Any future collaboration plans after the exhibition?
CV: Yeah, this is my first collaboration. I know that this is a typical thing to say when working in any creative vein, but I don’t usually work well with others. The reasons vary from ‘the other person just doesn’t get it’ to ‘I’m perhaps too dumb to keep up with them’ or ‘I’m lazy’. Sometimes two or more people approaching something from different angles can just confuse things, but Ben and I get along, he’s a good friend, and we don’t take certain aspects of life too seriously so we tend to laugh it off if things get stressful. As far as shooting with any other digital photographers, Ben’s my guy, no need to change that. He refers to us as “Vega and Son” which always makes me chuckle a bit.
KL: Have you had relationships in the past with particular models etc? How did these interactions work out?
CV: Past working relationships, hmm they’ve ranged from rapper clientele to models building a portfolio. I enjoyed the contrast of subjects because they ranged from lethal to beautiful…. one of my favorite moments is when lethal and beautiful mingle into one subject. Back in the states I had a few muses who made themselves available to photograph. They were female, and full of so much character, but most of all they were fearless and intensely contemplative. I enjoy capturing these characteristics in a person so long as it’s genuine.
KL: What are your plans for the future (any projects up your sleeve after the exhibition)?
CV: I’ve been talking film with a couple of friends (Ryan and Jon), but I’ve yet to take on the task of reintroducing myself to the poetry of the darkroom. As far as digital photography goes, I’d like to go after portraiture again, but seeing as how most people I’ve met here don’t fare well in the cold, I’ve been waiting for the temperature to pick up a bit before I fully tackle any new portrayals. You know, and I know this is going to sound a bit (jerk off motion) douche-baggy, but it’s not about the camera, or the parameters of my work. It’s about an evolution that’s hopefully taking place in my head. There’s chaos, there’s the whole dog chasing cars thing…there’s this mess that I used to think stemmed from a lack of intelligence, which still may be the case, but ultimately there’s storm brewing, and I like it.
Some say that Christopher Vega was born in Oceanside California and raised by a pack of wolves in Pueblo Colorado. It’s been said that he Studied photography at the Art Institute of Colorado where instead he should’ve just purchased a ‘how to’ book and made friends with a couple of Photoshop nerds. Check him out on tumblr and instagram.
Or visit the exhibition:
City Tradition : Tradition in Urbanization runs from 23 April till 13 May at Yan Huang Art Museum, 9 Hui Zhong Road, Asian Games Village, Chaoyang District, Beijing
*As the interview was conducted in writing, answers appear in American English
Artist / Graffiti Aficionado
Interview on 2nd March at Banana, Wangjing SOHO
KL: Tell me about yourself.
FC: I work mainly as a graphic designer. I do a lot of site projects as a fine artist and also I’m very interested in street writing, what is usually called graffiti, and street art in Beijing. I organised a series of exhibition events usually related to the concept of vandalism. I’m very interested in vandalism as a form of appropriation of public space. For my next project, on Saturday 26th of March, I’m going to publish a fanzine, around 60 to 70 pages of graffiti and street art that has been done in 2015 in Beijing. So it’s a very specific subject. So over one year we are following mainly one artist, his tag is SBAM and some of his friends. We have artists like ANDC (ABS crew), ZATO and MASK and other artists who are quite active in the graffiti scene of Beijing. What’s interesting about this new project is that we [Filippo and collaborator Lu Ran] are trying to look at graffiti from very specific points of view, the artwork but also taking into consideration the environment where the art has been done. It’s interesting this kind of self-expression in a country that is not famous for freedom of speech and incredibly is quite well tolerated by the government. Graffiti writers in China enjoy a lot of freedom.
KL: Do you know what the punishment is in China?
FC: They have no specific law for this kind of vandalism probably because it’s a problem quite new to China. They had their very first writers maybe 10 years ago but it started to be a little more popular only after 2007-2008 so it’s really a new thing and is not very well developed, it’s not very successful. I cannot say there is such a big scene here. It’s a very small number of artists.
KL: When you talk about the scene not being very developed, what do you think about the artistic merit of what they are doing?
FC: The scene has some very peculiar characteristics that keep it very different from what happens abroad in the graffiti scene. One of the most important things is they don’t paint trains and subways, I suppose because then the topic would become more serious and could be related to terrorism and these kinds of things. For your question about the value, the writers here are still a little immature. They don’t fully grasp the concept behind graffiti writing, some artists just see something on the internet and try to emulate it but, I must say there are a few artists, not so many, that have a very good attitude and they are quite excellent in what they do.
KL: Do you think they are using it as a political statement?
FC: No. My new magazine focuses specifically on street writing, on graffiti, so not so much on street art. The big deal for them is to write their tag as much as possible with the best style so there is no political aspect and I’m also sure that Chinese writers stay away from this kind of statement to avoid any problems with the authorities or police. Graffiti writing is post-political. It’s not a hippie movement where you want to change the world to make it better, usually graffiti writers fully accept the society for what it is and they fully accept the rules. This kind of crazy competition, the subtle violence of contemporary societies, they embrace it and develop this kind of childish game but in the end it’s an emulation of what you see in the street, like what advertising does, they write their name everywhere as much as possible, as best as possible. A graffiti writer, in a childish way tries to do the same, to promote himself as much as possible.
KL: To what end? Is it fame within the scene?
FC: I suppose that we live in a society where you know the sense of community, the sense of groups, these elements are becoming more and more weak so what is left is the ego, the self so with their work they are just trying to boost their ego as much as possible. Of course with the instrument of people who have no power, no money, usually these people who don’t completely fit into the rules of society. They still reclaim their own space, their own right to say, I am here. I exist. I suppose also that graffiti was founded on the failure of culture and the failure of revolution. When the movement of 68 ends up as nothing or even has been captured by capitalism to make money; being younger, trendy, rebel so you can sell music, clothes… when all of this was failing in the end of the 60s and the early 70s that’s when graffiti and punk music are born. So they give up on this positive message of Let’s change the world, Let’s save the planet because it became obvious that it doesn’t work like that.
The game is quite serious, these kids invest a lot of time in it, a lot of resources but still, it’s a game.
KL: What about when tags get vandalised as we’ve seen with the crown on the bunnies around Gulou?
FC: I suppose that’s normal. When something gets very popular somebody will try to grasp that thing’s fame. Usually in the more traditional graffiti writing, what you do is you start what is called a beef with another graffiti writer and you cross them; you go over and you paint over it. So inside the graffiti writer community it becomes the talk of the town, You know that guy crossed that very good and talented guy, so it’s a problem. For the bunny, that’s more related to street art, they did the same, the bunny got really popular so they used the fame of the bunny to become more popular by interacting with it. It’s basically quite smart. I like it. I find it interesting that they use any instrument and again, this kind of simulation of the rules of capitalism, being ruthless. Generally, in my opinion, contemporary art is always a source of inspiration for capitalism. In the beginning of the 20th century people were reacting with more shock but that’s when there was a religious conservative mentality. Capitalism is constantly eating up all of these revolutionary messages. They take it and remove the problematic parts and use it to boost their sales. Contemporary art, after awhile, will always end up in music video or advertising.
KL: Let’s talk a little about your art. I came across your works in Mado.
FC: I’m not a graffiti writer so I just take pictures of these things and then I overlap drawings, like censorship, I get rid of the original message. There was an exhibition [at 20% Picture House, Dongcheng] featuring three artists: me and two other artists. One artist who goes by the tag ZATO was just showing photos of his work in the city. My work was taking the pieces from the city and elaborating on them to redefine the art. Then we had another graffiti artist, a Chinese guy, very talented, called MASK, who just did paintings using his style from the street. So it was from the city to something in the middle to something that gets rid of the city and only the artwork remains. I’m very interested in this idea of using the city space because I really believe that cities around the world are a little bit the new nations. Cities are the new countries and I mean that in a cultural way. People say, I’m Italian but I think nowadays people can also say, I come from a big city. Big cities all have something in common. New York, Tokyo, Beijing, London, of course they all have their own characteristics but also a lot in common. Humanity is becoming more and more similar.
KL: So what is your aim with releasing this fanzine?
FC: I’m always ambitious so I hope it can influence the way of seeing the graffiti scene in China. This is really focussed on street writing, illegal stuff, more than focussing on the beautifulness of the art, showing the raw energy of painting in a place where you are not supposed to paint. I hope to show to the young generation of street writers in China one important aspect of their graffiti writing because a lot of writers here are excellent in doing their letters, their painting is beautiful, they’re technically amazing but what they lack is this energy. That is something that is common in contemporary art, you can be an amazing artist but nowadays it’s not very meaningful. Art should always add new meaning or a new interpretation. If you repeat something you are doing handcrafts. It’s a little bit the same for graffiti. The thing that is interesting for me about graffiti is it’s environmental art, art performed in a context and that its inner message is always a kind of rebellion. I’m trying to show the beauty and the power behind these ugly paintings.
KL: So this message is to young graffiti writers in China?
FC: Yes, some times they miss a little bit of this raw power. This is the first graffiti fanzine in Beijing and one of the first in China. I want to show them so they will start to be a little more conscious and proud of the Chinese graffiti scene and probably they can start to develop something of their own. I’m not this kind of westerner who makes the comment that graffiti in China is exactly the same as in other countries. I mean what do you expect? Graffiti in China they paint dragons and demons, graffiti in Italy we paint angels and Jesus Christ? I mean, of course, contemporary is a worldwide thing. It’s not that person in a village painting a wall 600 years ago. I’m not saying that there should be a Chinese style of graffiti. Of course, it’s an environmental art so the environment is different in China than the states or Europe so the graffiti will have different characteristics. So for the fanzine I want those two things: to find some of that raw power and to become more conscious of graffiti art in China.
Filippo Cardella is an artist and designer based in Beijing, his work uses the city and its inhabitants as an endless source of inspiration for his artworks. Despite never been directly involved in street-writing he studied the phenomenon all around the world getting in contact with some of the most significant artists of this movement.
The Graffiti zine will be launched at Beiluo Bread Bar: 70A Beiluogu Xiang, Dongcheng District 北锣鼓巷甲70号(近南锣鼓巷)
wechat ID: GiantSteps