Histories and Setups: Interview with Life of a Craphead
by Robin Simpson
I met up with Amy Lam and Jon McCurley for a casse-croûte breakfast at Canada Hot Dog in Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood following the opening of their exhibition Entertaining Every Second at Centre Clark and a few weeks before the unveiling of their two-part billboard project $100 Bill With South Asian Scientist Added Back In (2019) with Dazibao. Having rarely shown or performed in Montreal, Lam and McCurley arrived with an exhibition tuned to a fine pitch, following presentations in Calgary at Truck Gallery and in Saskatoon at AKA artist-run. Addressing Western imperialism in Asia—Vietnam in particular—and systemic anti-Asian racism within the Canadian art milieu, the exhibition at Centre Clark marks a turning point in their more-than-a-decade-long practice, notably occupied by the long production period for their feature film, Bugs (2015), made in parallel with their performance art show and online broadcast Doored (2012–2017). Understandably, after touring the exhibition this past year, Lam and McCurley shared questions of their own on the methods behind their practice.
Compared to research-based or documentary practices in artmaking that look for oblique angles into the archive or suggest neat speculative histories, Life of a Craphead’s work is rigorous memory work. This is memorial work, the painful and vulnerable work of research set on personal and collective trauma with a close watch on the violence behind it. It’s accompanied by straightforward titles: Find the US Soldier Who Killed Your Grandma (2018), Making Something Positive out of Chris Cran’s Painting ‘Self-Portrait with Combat Nymphos of Saigon’ (1985) (ongoing), Angry Edit (2018) or The Quiet American but Only the Parts Where the White Man Main Character Tells the Asian Woman to Do Stuff for Him (2018). Each title plays the setup to—but not, to my mind—an assurance of a laugh to follow. Instead, they are setups that leave you time to trade your anticipation for attention and understand in this suspension that you’re now to follow up on the details.
Robin Simpson: Let’s start with the place of monuments in your work over the past decade.
Jon McCurley: We’ve done three projects explicitly about monuments: Double Double Land Land (2009), Bugs (2015) and King Edward VII Equestrian Statue Floating Down the Don (2017). We have been asked do monument stuff since our successful monument thing in the Don and it seemed like, “well, what can we actually say about monuments?” But then, looking back, we’ve been thinking about monuments for many projects.
Amy Lam: Double Double Land Land was this play about this town that nobody wanted to go to. One of the plot points was that they built this public sculpture to attract people, a giant spring that, when you go to look at the spring, it bounces you out of town. In Bugs, there’s this Douglas Coupland Monument to the War of 1812 (2008) statue at King and Bathurst in Toronto that’s a part of the story. We renamed the statue for our purposes and put tape on it and stuff…
JM: …and a plot in Bugs is that the characters are trying to install a new public monument, too.
RS: I wanted to ask about Double Double Land Land and Bugs and the place of civic life in your work.
AL: Both of us don’t come from art. Jon went to art school for one year, but I definitely did not understand what visual art was until my twenties. I had never been to a gallery and I just didn’t know. Public statues are what you see, in terms of art, if you don’t go to museums and galleries. We don’t necessarily think about Toronto, it’s just important to use whatever is close to us. The statue at King and Bathurst… literally, for our movie, we asked: “Where can we shoot?” We can shoot in parking lots, because it’s free if you don’t get stopped. We can use this street corner and we can use the bathroom at Jon’s house.
JM: I really enjoy and wish I could work more in community-building. I value that a lot—building something with the people around you. That must be the way to succeed, because it just seems to be so much more honest. But as far as critiquing city planning and stuff in our projects [deep sigh], it’s just bad writing.
AL: We have had a few city-planningstyle projects, like Model for Waterfront Development (2016).
JM: Oh yeah, that piece is bad.
RS: I was going to ask about that work.
JM: That’s a deep dive.
AL: Maybe we should take all the bad projects off the website.
RS: What stands out with that project is your play with a certain style of institutional language on the panels. This can also be seen in the didactic text panels in Entertaining Every Second. Maybe this could lead to thinking about editing, but let’s start with the adoption of that particular tone.
JM: The way that all of that past work ties into what we’re doing right now is totally the text panels. That’s the comedy part: you have to get the one-liner out of the text. It’s like setup and punchline. You have to tell them straight out or you’re wasting their time. It’s true with Model for Waterfront Development that the text is the best part because it has this subtlety and satire.
AL: For Fifty-Year Retrospective, 2006–2056 (2013) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the text panels were written like museum texts. It comes out of being asked to do things in these spaces. How does a museum work? There’s a painting and then there’s a text beside it. That’s what people see. They don’t just see the painting, so it doesn’t make sense to only make the painting. Why wouldn’t the artist also control all the other elements? Maybe it’s us wanting to direct the audience response in a very specific way, but then also point out all the other parts of how art is shown.
JM: About editing, maybe it’s because there are two of us. If an artist is one person, they don’t have to do the added step, which is convince someone who probably doesn’t want to do it. That is probably why language and editing are such a big part of our work. I think we’re trying to get away from it because, after about 40 projects, they all kind of have this one-liner feel. What do you do when you can see that about your own work?
RS: Even if this current project is a turning point for you, the process of taking into account the audience’s reaction as well as your own is something that you’ve carried over from work you’ve done over the past decade. Could you talk a bit more about this question of address?
JM: We built Entertaining Every Second thinking about the audience and our relationship to the audience. Maybe that is something we’ve taken from thinking about how comedy works.
AL: What’s annoying about comedy—but also what is so great about it—is that it is so clear. You want these people to laugh. That’s relaxing for people: “Okay, I only have to do one thing and that’s laugh.” It’s annoying because, when I go to comedy shows, people are laughing at so many things. “Why are you guys laughing so much? Do you actually think this is funny, or just because you know you have to do that?”
Maybe when we started out, we were looking at art from this outsider perspective, asking: “What is this? What are these people doing? Why don’t they try harder to make their audience understand something?” Very bluntly: “Well, we should do something very clear.”
JM: Maybe we started as some idea of anti-art. There is something that is art and we are not part of it. Maybe that still exists in some things: we have this really strange, destructive name, and the fact that it’s not just one person, because you can’t do all this stuff that an artist would usually get to do, which is be a stoic supergenius, idol character that everybody worships.
AL: We don’t get to do that?
JM: No, we don’t get to do that. So, instead, it’s just work. I mean, when one of us has an epiphany—“Okay, I’m baby genius idol”—the other is, like, “Stop,” or just “No.”
AL: A lot of it is us trying to make the other person laugh, then talking about it and thinking about all the angles of why it’s funny, and trying to see if those reasons are solid.
JM: A conversation that happens is: “I don’t relate to this at all.” We’re different people with different identities. You can say, “Wow! This really expresses my soul,” and the other person can reply, “I don’t relate…”
AL: Your soul expression is not interesting to me.
JM: Maybe this is a stretch, but in order to really convince someone of your soul expression, you have to be really aware of them as an audience. You gotta sell it to them. You gotta make them get that your “whatever” is worth anything.
RS: What’s interesting with Entertaining Every Second is how many different tones there are. Obviously, both your voices are in there—there isn’t one uniform voice for Life of a Craphead. Then there is taking on the institution’s tone in the panels and a conveyance and an amplification of comments made on your practice, as well as the voices behind historical narratives and cultural objects. I’m curious about this exhibition series being itself, so to speak, in response to encounters with these tones. You spoke about audience reaction. Further to that, what do you think of this exhibition being seen as consequential?
AL: Maybe that’s the part that I have the most questions about, because so much of the work in the show is: “Here’s this novel and here’s me writing about the novel. Here’s this painting and now we’ve made a tote bag out of it. Here’s this curator telling us that our work isn’t funny enough, so here’s us telling him off…”
JM: …“I’m a victim” art.
AL: I think the work is not just reactive: it comes from so much other stuff, obviously—everything that we have experienced. But I do wonder about it and I think I’m not really interested in making work like that anymore.
JM: Maybe being an artist is that you figure stuff out in front of everyone, everyone gets to see you make mistakes, you just figure it out. So, in this period, when we’re being critical of ourselves, we say that we’ve made a lot of “poor me” art, which is just a way of making fun of ourselves and pointing at the “reactive” element that’s in all that work. But maybe in a positive way we’re building a narrative around it that is really easy to understand and it tells our story.
RS: What are some of the underlying processes of the exhibition that are not public but buttress your practice?
JM: If there is any theme of victimhood, I think it is paired with this idea of: “This makes me really mad, I’ve got to do something about this.” I find it very empowering to share with people that making Find the US Soldier Who Killed Your Grandma (2018) was motivated by hating the 2016 Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Vietnam War documentary—which is a monument in a way—because it is what most people will watch to learn the history of the American war in Vietnam.
It’s this 10-part documentary, praised for being unbiased and fair. When I watched it, it made me so mad. They are all pro-America and pro-soldier stories. Seeing that, and having access to what is missing and not feeling represented, seeing these white people praised for telling their understanding of Vietnamese stories is infuriating. Even in our art circles in Canada, people don’t know this stuff. We’ll make this work, show it to them and they still won’t really get it. Seeing that barrier and thinking about all those things feels very motivating.
RS: Amy, in an earlier conversation about Entertaining Every Second, you spoke about uncertainty and how people dodge uncertainty by declaring some easy summary of the project. Could you expand on that?
AL: That thought was coming out of people who see the show and have this pat response: “I know what this is about, I understand the content.” And I’m talking about white audiences. This is Jon’s family story, not mine. I’ve learned a lot about the situation and the context [of the war] but I still don’t know. I am very aware that I don’t have any experience of it, or an embodied experience. When people see the work, or when curators talk about the work in a certain way—“Oh, this is about trauma. Oh, this is about race and identity.”—to just put it into these categories feels deflating.
I guess the uncertainty part is that there is this enormous pain and poison in the Find the US Soldier who Killed Your Grandma project—at least in us experiencing it. We’re looking at the Facebook page of this guy [the soldier] and it is just horrifying. We’re reading all these trial documents, containing all this detailed information that is not in the project and that should not be shared at all. By putting some of this information into our work and making it public, in some way, we don’t know what that means and we don’t know what could happen with that. In terms of a white audience, or presenters who don’t have an experience of racialized trauma, saying, “This work is so great. It’s about these themes. It’s so important…” I mean, yeah, I guess so, but also there’s this question of, “Who knows? Is it actually good? Is this actually too much?”
JM: I ask it all the time. Maybe it’s exciting because we don’t even know. It’s new to us and then we put it in an art gallery, and maybe it’s new to the audience. “What is an art gallery being used for? What is happening? What is this information exchange?”
AL: I mean, the pain is the piece of art, but there’s also the pain that has been there the whole time. It’s the pain of that history. Thinking about monuments… this is why people don’t make monuments like this, because it’s too vulnerable. That’s why you show the sealed-off version, so that’s safe for people in a way.
RS: Briefly back to comedy and audiences; earlier you mentioned watching the film Get Out in theatres and noticing white audiences laugh at different parts of the film than black audiences or people of colour. Have you applied this to Entertaining Every Second?
AL: I think the clowns that are part of the Ceilings with Clowns (2018) sculpture are interesting because that’s this audience response thing. We wanted to add clowns to insult [the festival’s curator and board], and to remember the experience of proposing a sculpture specifically about racism for a public art festival and then being fired because they didn’t like it… What we proposed—the original version of the Ceilings sculpture—is a structure that’s the “glass ceiling” and the “bamboo ceiling” combined in a checkerboard. And our line was that “you can stand underneath it and feel what it’s like to be an Asian woman.” The festival said, as part of their reasoning for firing us, “it’s not that funny”—so [in subsequent iterations of the sculpture, as shown at Centre Clark] we added clowns. Being fired speaks specifically to what the sculpture is about: that people don’t entirely perceive this kind of racism against Asian people.
JM: They enacted the bamboo ceiling.
AL: Because of all these things about anti-Asian racism—like the idea of the model minority—they don’t perceive it as an issue. It’s not important enough to make a sculpture about, it’s not entertaining. When we decided to make the clowns, we weren’t thinking that we needed a colourful part to this show that’s all about pain and death. We made them as a very sarcastic response to “it’s not that funny.” And in making them, they became this thing that does something we didn’t anticipate. They are not just clowns, they’re things that people really like to look at and take pictures of. Specifically, audiences who don’t have a personal connection to the work. Why do they feel that they can take pictures of the clowns and put them online? This response to the aesthetic of the clowns is something that we didn’t necessarily prepare for—or anticipate or plan—and it’s been a part of the show that makes it this other thing that people can access. In previous iterations of the show—without the clowns—in smaller towns where we didn’t know as many people, some people would have a really hard time talking to us. People just didn’t know what to say at all.
JM: It’s a lesson that we have learned. They look nice. Everyone loves a clown. That’s a really fun thing to brag about! We’ve never made statues before. We’ve never made those clowns. How did those clowns not turn out bad? Can you imagine never having made three five-foot clowns before and then having to make ones that people like enough that they’re not depressed by the story or the context? But just they look at it and they like it? That’s hard! That’s a really tall order!
RS: You’re going into the shiny genius baby form, Jon.
JM: Damn. Wow.
AL: He got you! He got you!
JM: That’s the kind of cold, cynical, no-mincing-of-words that I usually get from Amy.
AL: Journalism! Journalism!