In Dialogue with Victoria Catherine Chan: Realms and Layers of Reclaiming and Reimagining 

By Kate Miller

Peripheral Hours is an emerging DIY art space in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal designed to shed light on the work of local and international BIPOC artistic communities. I sat down with Victoria Catherine Chan, the artist and filmmaker who founded Peripheral Hours. In her own art, Chan looks to create work that investigates the voices and spaces ‘in-between’. Much of Chan’s work bridges the gap between fine art and science. Her advocacy through Peripheral Hours is devoted to giving space to QTBIPOC artists who have been marginalized by the Quebecois binary linguistic traditions; francophone and anglophone. 

 

In this interview, Chan takes me through the stories of her various artworks; detailing the inspiration for her installation & performance piece To Forget and To Remember, in which she evokes the untold story of her grandfather’s youth, and of so many Chinese Americans who were racially incarcerated on Angel Island immigration station between 1910-1940 in San Francisco Bay. In her other works such as Timbre of Sentient Beings, she utilised her education in avionics engineering, attained at the École nationale d’Aérotechnique in the St-Hubert Airport prior to her formal art training. This work allowed viewers to hear the voice of a tree by amplifying vibrations in effort to decipher the secret life of other living organisms, emerging a novel form of connection between humans and the natural world.  

 

Kate: What was it that drove you to create Peripheral Hours

 

Victoria Catherine Chan: “While living in Berlin and NYC, I was involved in artist-run and DIY spaces for several years. This has stirred in me the desire to start a DIY art space in my hometown of Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Peripheral Hours was born in the fall of 2018 after a spur-of-the-moment decision to host an art happening for BIPOC artists.

 

Through self-organized initiatives, I thrive to create alternative modes of art making and art exhibition by offering a platform to critically engage with experimental art practices and nurture conversation from a non-binary and decolonial perspective. I want to provide space for urgent expressions, bringing immediate artistic response to burning topics and to engage in real time where we live in. It’s not the finished work that counts but rather the process.

 

As a BIPOC community, we discuss what it means to make art in a white centered world. Like myself, most BIPOC artists see themselves underrepresented, micro-aggressed and/or tokenized in the contemporary art world of Quebec. My purpose is to build a healthy and inclusive community and open dialogues to the public, as well as offer a platform for sharing narratives and histories that speak to different intersections.”

 

 

Vernissage of the first happening at Peripheral Hours (September 2018)

 

“My subjectivity and agency define my capability to question my role in this hegemonically white nation where 'race' continues to dominate the ways in which belongings are negotiated. I use my art practice to restore my complexity, as a queer Asian woman dwelling on unceded ancestral Haudenosaunee Territory who navigates between cultures and genders. I investigate my fluid and hybrid identity through countries where I have lived, studied, worked, and lead a nomadic life.

 

I refuse to deny how systemic racism permeates the art world, and I hope to create a “space of solidarity” for the racialized communities — something I think has seldom been given in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Peripheral Hours is galvanizing this moment to build our own strength and plant seeds for the next generation of QTBIPOC artists, curators, educators, and cultural workers.”

 

You can read more about Peripheral Hours and its art events here


Kate: Could you tell me more about the latest edition of your programming, the art series? 

 

VCC: “I initiated this new art series program ‘PH V - How to Swallow a Hollow Knot’’ last Fall in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Featuring a lineup of BIPOC women and non-binary artists, the art series examine food in relation to our participants’ roots through hybrid storytelling ingrained in a paradigm shift from colonial dominance to the resurgence of ancestral knowledge.

 

In the midst of this racial reckoning and revolution - that is ongoing - I felt a responsibility to play a role. I think that everyone has a role to play, especially those with privilege. I decided to do everything that I could with my positionality as a leverage; using any resources that I could - my network, my social capital, cultural capital and financial capital - to push against the system, which has long upheld an art world that is not representative at all of the marginalised and the racialized communities.”



Featured artists for the Iteration II of PH V - How to Swallow a Hollow Knot (February 2021)

 

“The solution [to the inequalities in Montreal’s art scene], to me, is to start everything from scratch and it needs to be conceived and established under the leadership of BIPOC people. We need to restart on our own terms. We need to be uplifted, we need to have full support so that we can have a completely non-colonial structure and the opportunity to unlearn what we have been taught.  Besides Daphne, the first Indigenous artist-run centre in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, as far as I know, there is not a single BIPOC person who independently runs an art space in the current art scene. The solution is not simply hiring a single BIPOC person, in other words ‘to tokenize’. It is so important that it must be more than a short-term intervention, more than a ‘performative inclusivity’.”


The programming of PH V – How to Swallow a Hollow Knot can be viewed here

 

Kate: What do you think needs to change in today’s art world?

 

VCC: “The system that we’re living and working in is run by white people: white directors, white curators and the prominent artists are all from the dominant culture. It is essential that the art world gives governance, gives agency, and gives support to the BIPOC community and it should not be just a response to a crisis. It has to be long term. It has to be something really honest that comes from those in power that still uphold the dominant culture and white supremacy”.

 

Kate: Tell me more about your installation piece To Forget and To Remember. How does this project relate your desire for societal change? 

 

VCC: “It is a very personal project. I spent a lot of time researching my family history. I am a child of Bill 101, a law created in 1977 that, to me, enforces and upholds French white supremacy and that was welcomed by Quebec nationalists. 

 

My parents were immigrants and I assimilated myself to Quebec culture, the language, the culture, even the accent. In doing this, I did not assimilate myself to Chinese culture at all. I speak Cantonese like an eight-year-old child would. This feeling of separation from my own ancestral roots led me to research my family tree and why my ancestors came to America.

 

I found out, whilst researching my genealogy in San Francisco, that my grandfather was detained in Angel Island for 6 months at the age of 14, a detention center for predominantly Chinese immigrants who were imprisoned between 1910 and 1940. Most newcomers came from China, but there were also immigrants from other Asian countries.

 

Anti-Asian racism, xenophobia, and violence is nothing new in America. The anti-Chinese rhetoric was there from the beginning of the first wave of Chinese immigration during the 1850's. My great grandfather was subject to the American Chinese Exclusion Act in the early 1910s, the first law that prohibited immigration based on race. 

 

We must tell the truth that this country was built on stolen land and by stolen bodies. We must acknowledge that ‘America’ was founded on mass genocide of Indigenous people and enslaved African labor, and on the exploitation of the Hispanic and Chinese people. Chinese Canadians and Chinese Americans were considered cheap labor. When you are the descendent of people who were persecuted in this way, it feels imperative, generations later to honour and pay tribute to their story through my artistic voice.  

 

Photo of the artist’s grandfather – Wan-Lai Chan ( late 1960’s)

 

I just tried to imagine the trauma he had to go through because he was hoping to reunite with his family members on the other side of the island at the Port of San Francisco. He couldn't make it and then, because he failed his interview and he probably did not manage to respond to all those questions with the American Immigration officer, he was deported. Certain questions that Angel Island officials posed to detainees were intended to baffle them – like how many feet were between the home they came from and the house next door. They were treated like criminals during the interrogations.

 

Fascinatingly, those who were educated enough and who could write and read were speaking their truth through poetry. The men would use anything sharp they could find, a knife from the cafeteria or even a rock to carve Chinese poems into a wooden wall in the detention center. 

 

In 1980, Oakland librarian Judy Yung, the late historian and engineer Him Mark Lai and poet Genny Lim, who were second and third generation Chinese Americans, felt that the story of the Chinese who passed through Angel Island needed to be told. So, they teamed up with college students and grassroot organizations to document and safeguard the poetry and ultimately, the Immigration Station was declared a National Historic Landmark and was saved from destruction. With this research and work, and my own research from sources like the Chinese American Historical Society and other museums, I was able to reproduce aspects of this wall of poetry in my installation, To Forget and To Remember.  


Victoria Catherine Chan performing “To Forget and To Remember” 


I was trying to recreate a piece of that wall in that detention center, and I was exploring the concept of touch because I was trying to address the feeling of touching something that I cannot touch - it's part of my family’s past but my father never talked about it. I wanted to be as close as possible to a moment in history of my family; to touch, to reclaim it and feel my roots. I have to acknowledge it and I have to speak about it. 

 

I asked my dad to write two of these poems in Chinese on a replicated wooden-wall board that I made for my exhibition. I can't write Chinese, so he wrote the poems with a marker and for the performance component, I carved over them. There is a rupture, there's a cut between me that is the Westernized version of myself, the essentially colonised self, while speaking the language of the oppressor and, at the same time, trying to reconnect as much as I can and reclaim as much [of my Chinese heritage] as I can. I will never be able to reach it completely or know everything and so there’s always a sense of incompleteness that I have to grieve.

 

Victoria Catherine Chan performing “To Forget and To Remember” 


In the installation, you can see that there are invisible walls surrounding the small-scale replicated wooden wall, each with a beam of light that exhibition visitors are touching. When you touch the light, it activates a sound - you hear a voice of my dad reading a poem in Chinese. I not only asked my dad to write the poem on the wall, I also asked him to recite six poems in Taishanese, which was the main Chinese dialect spoken in North America pre-1980s. It depicts a wall of invisible voices. There is this juxtaposition of the real wall and this invisible wall of voices. We live in a world of invisible walls - psychological walls, linguistic walls, digital walls, this is something I wanted to interrogate by using abstraction of the concept of the wall. Designed within an abstract architecture of walls made of wood and light beams, this piece engages the interrelationship between light and sound. I work with silence and absence to push the limits of the physical and non-physical spaces. As for the performative layer, I choose to work with the hand and the body to take us into an experiential boundary. It is with a radical gesture and an emotional texture that I am drawing out of history. 

  

You hear my father’s voice in Chinese dialect of Taishanese and you also hear my voice in the background reciting the poems in English. The voices are intergenerational: my father telling the story of his father and I’m telling the story of my grandfather through my father. You see people engaging with my performance; exhibition visitors touching the light. When you are walking through; there is a feeling of imprisonment but when you touch the lights, you break those barriers. It’s a way of liberating those voices; the poems of those boys and young men that were confined and the voices of all those that are oppressed. 

 

You can read more about this piece here

 

Kate: This is just one of many of your works that uses sound and light as mediums and also that utilises technology to create a sensory experience for audiences. Specifically, with Timbre of Sentient Beings exhibit art installation, you were able to make not only artistic but scientific revelations, finding through vibrational connections with the plants that have a different concept of time than humans do. Do you have a background in science that prompted this kind of work? 

 

VCC: Before entering the art world, I was a Cegep student in avionics engineering. I realised that this was not what I really wanted to become but because of this scientific, technical knowledge and awareness of physics and mathematics, I was able to transfer these skills to my art practice.

 

Victoria Catherine Chan interning at Paris International Airport (Airbus 340 engine maintenance) 

  

I am so fascinated by the concepts of invisibility and visibility, and I consider myself as doing invisible labour and feeling invisible because of the dominant culture that I am excluded from. I feel as though my value and my story is not recognised because of the culture we live in. I used transduction and vibration to express this feeling of invisibility. 

 

The reason I choose sound and light as mediums is that they are sonic and chromatic, meaning that I can tackle what is visible and what is not. I work with perception, which for me is a method, a sense. I work with plants because they hold so much information and wisdom. Within nature there is a constant hum of life with trees, plants, insects and animals all signaling to each other through vibrations.

 

 3D rendering from installation Timbre of Sentient Beings (2020)

 

3D rendering from installation Timbre of Sentient Beings (2020)

 

Our modern world is so disconnected from nature, and especially living in the pandemic. We are dealing with an invisible enemy. [With Timbre of Sentient Beings, I sought to decipher the secret life of other living organisms and I was addressing the vibration of certain plants, which is so low (20 hertz). Plants vibrate at a frequency subtler than other life forms. This is why through my research creation practice, I am very interested in examining further the politics of low frequency. I used transduction to convert the vibrations of the plant into sound, light and tactility. I am so interested in touching the unheard, the unseen. The question I ask is: how do we circumvent our own understanding of the world and connect to the invisible frequencies around us?

 

Through this work, I invite viewers and listeners to think of trees as sentient beings. My intention with this work is to question if the audience could experience a deeper sense of connection and gain awareness of different ways of communicating with the natural world that surrounds us. Through this interaction with the tree, the viewers and listeners will experience an opening of the senses – allowing themselves to see, listen, and touch the coded world (vibrations) of nature.

 

People argue that this is not artistic, but scientific. I am happy to create work that is at the intersection of science and art. Human beings should learn about the vibration of plants, which is a longer time sense - the plant’s time unit has nothing to do with the human time sense – no hours, no minutes. Plants have a completely different relativity. Their sense of time is elastic – not linear. There is a sense of regenerating feedback – nothing is linear. 

 

You can read more about this piece here

Kate: Could you tell me about some of the current or future projects you're working on?

 

I recently finished P.R.I.S.M.E residency, which is a brilliant initiative for emerging BIPOC filmmakers supported by Main Film. As part of this program, I feel so humble to be attending a long-term mentorship to develop my first feature film, which tells the story of my family clan in the oldest ancestral house of Montreal’s disappearing Chinatown. I’m also creating a sound installation about sonic bodies, which will be part of the MOMENTA Biennale cultural mediation program this fall. I’m really excited to offer ‘performative listening’ workshops to a diversity of publics! Last but not least, I’m programming with my peer artists the next iteration of PH V – How to Swallow a Hollow Knot taking place at the end of August at Peripheral Hours. Can’t wait to reopen again, it’s been a long lockdown!   


For further information about Victoria Catherine Chan’s work and Peripheral Hours, please visit: 

www.victoria-catherine-chan.com

@victoria.catherine.chan

www.peripheralhours.com

@peripheral.hours

facebook.com/peripheral.hours


LATEST ARTICLES