To Walk Alongside One Another – Messy Tangles of Self and Society
Speakers: Rebecca Wang, Manuel Axel Strain (Manny), Angela Marian May
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MANNY: Yeah, the academy doesn’t need to know! I think you can come from a place of not knowing things and still respect it and still honour it. Those people, just because– there has to be some work to earn things too, right? So, speaking about knowledge, I don’t want to just give everything away all the time. I will say people probably think I give away too much at times. But there are certain things that people need to earn, need to work for, ‘cause it’s extractive. People’s life experiences become extracted, a lot of the time at the Downtown Eastside especially.
ANGELA: Yeah, it’s like psychotherapy often talks– it’s called the talking cure. Your point here, Manny, just making me think, “talking with whom? Talk always? With anyone, everyone?” It doesn’t seem like that’s going so well. So, the discretion. I guess trauma, denial, and discretion are all important together.
REBECCA: This leads to the next thing I’d like to discuss: the anxiety of getting the ethics perfect all the time for both organizations and individuals, dealing with sensitive identity or cultural topics. What in your opinion leads to this anxiety of getting things wrong?
ANGELA: Do you have thoughts, Manny? Do you want to go first this time?
MANNY: Yeah, I was just gathering my thoughts. I think that you gotta understand that we’re all gonna make mistakes. I think a lot about accessibility. There is no universal accessibility. We all got bodies, we all got minds, emotions, thoughts, we all have those. Not everything can be accessible to everyone all the time. We do our best, but I guarantee you there’s always going to be someone that feels like they’re left out. When those moments come, you welcome them. You thank those people. Those are beautiful moments when somebody can come to you and be like, “hey I didn’t like this.” You know, I’ve made mistakes in this regard too. And I’m only learning it now.
I think in the art world, a lot of it has to do with politics. A lot of it has to do with social media. This is my opinion, I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of critique. Obviously how we raise children to be perfect, to be individualistic, to be cool. But also this notion of critical thinking, it has to be done in a really good way. You have to think of it as love, like Angela said in the beginning. I think for me you gotta think of it as teaching, as learning.
I’ve made so many mistakes along my way. I’ve probably upset people. I know I’ve sat at tables, eaten, drank coffee, and had food with people, where I had done wrong. And I was grateful enough to have the opportunity to sit with them and have them tell me, “Oh, you did this–” that was beautiful. Those are probably some of the most meaningful experiences of my life, when another person has taught me through this ethical question of like, oftentimes, that was inappropriate or it comes in the form of, “smarten up,” almost. Those are the lessons that have got me to this beautiful place I have in my life now. And that’s how you got to see it.
ANGELA: Yeah, I mean, in short, I agree. I was glad we have time to talk about this ‘cause I was reflecting on this coming into this call, but also I think, or I hope that the beginning of this episode kind of demonstrated that in a way, where Manny and I have not met in person, we haven’t hung out, like this is our hanging out right now. And, they were kind enough to come on and be like “hey listen, this is what I was thinking about dear community and I see some things were missing here.” That really stood out to me. That is a beautiful moment. This person that I’ve just recently met in the world has taken the time out of their life to watch this really long thing that I made, and then formulate some really coherent and generous thoughts. I do welcome that. It’s such a kind thing to do and it’s only going to help me grow. It’s going to make the relationships that I’m able to have with Manny and beyond stronger.
But I think that there’s perfectionism– and I think of punishment. I think of how punitive our culture can be sometimes. I think this drive to be the most woke, the most boots-on-the-ground, the most direct action, the most down-with-the struggle– it’s a way of increasing the distance between yourself and punishment, because if you are dedicating all your energy to ostensibly doing good, then you’re not gonna get in trouble. No one’s going to get to you. I don’t know exactly how we got here, but I do kind of feel like that’s starting to happen. And it concerns me. I feel that’s gonna keep us so away from each other, and tear our relationships that we do have or risk tearing them apart. Those are really some of the most important forces in the world. Those relationships for people agree to try to do something together that’s notoriously difficult, that’s a precious thing, and we can’t really afford to have those be on the line in the way that they might be right now. I’m not sure, it seems like it to me though.
And from the vantage of the university, I just see conversations about ethics all the time, especially institutional ones. We have to do these ethics applications if you’re going to do any research with creatures, humans, and animals. I don’t think bacteria are considered– I’m not sure where that line is drawn.
ANGELA: I don’t know if you’re working with like–
MANNY: What about the bacteria? What about the bacteria? [Laugh]
ANGELA: I don’t know if bacteria counts. But, yeah, you have to do these applications, you have to say– I mean, it’s good because historically research doesn’t have the greatest track record of not harming people, so it’s important that we are accountable. Usually a bureaucratic form is not the strongest form of accountability, but we do them nonetheless, and I see it reflected there too, this impulse to just be the most good, maximum good, all the time good. No mistakes, so good.
And it just makes me think of people’s desire to be unpunished and innocent. That’s a worrying direction to be moving in, I think.
MANNY: I think what else I want to add is that being ethical and being authentic, they got to be hand in hand. So in an institution, you could present yourself as being very ethical. You were talking about bureaucratic systems. If you’re ticking all the boxes and using all the right language– doesn’t necessarily mean it has any authenticity or integrity. And likewise, you can go the other way. You can maybe be a very authentic person that’s honest. Maybe you’re not ticking all the boxes, but there has to be some wiggle room there too, right?
The other thing I want to say is that sometimes punishment– I think there’s extensive writing on punishment. But also with today’s understanding of things, sometimes when people are asking for accountability, maybe it can feel like punishment. But I hope people can see at times, maybe it seems like that or maybe it’s not. Accountability, punishment, slippery slope. But not always the same. I think they get confused at times, but I think it’s important to remember to have some perspective in that realm, if you’re being questioned publicly or whatever, or are called out if you will– that’s not necessarily punishment if you think about the history of punishment, or the current reality that some people are experiencing in regards to punishment. So, I think it’s important to always maintain some level of perspective in that regard.
ANGELA: Yeah, I think that’s true. And I think that I agree there needs to be some wiggle room. I guess part of this is learning to not just make critiques as a form of love, but also receiving critiques is a form of love. And it’s important to be able to discern when something is just heavy handed and mean basically, and other times where you’re just like, “Oh, actually I’m just being held accountable and it’s fine. I just can accept responsibility for who I am.”
REBECCA: I’m glad that Angela you mentioned these kinds of fixed associations we make with notions, words, or actions. Because in dear community you spent quite a bit of time exploring the notion of cleanliness, specifically as a stereotype attached to Japanese people from the West. Why is such discussion important to you?
ANGELA: Oh, yeah, it’s very important to me. I think it’s very complicated because there’s also a lot of depictions of Asian people as dirty. [Sigh] It’s debatable and it’s not. In the context of Asia, Japan is very Imperial, and the nation that’s gonna be deciding who counts as clean and who counts as dirty, really shaping those kinds of discourses and the realities that get attached to them.
Eh, there’s so much context to explain. [Chuckle] In the diaspora here, Japanese Canadians in 1988 won federal redress through a legal argument about citizenship. So it was via claiming our Canadianness, asserting our Canadianness in concomitantly, I think is a word that makes sense, kind of distancing ourselves from our Japaneseness, that that legal argument about citizenship was able to gain some footing and eventually work in the way that people were trying to get it to work at the time. As a result of that, I don’t say the word “Nikkei” which is a Japanese word to describe the Japanese diaspora basically. I’m a Nikkei person as much as I’m a Japanese Canadian person. There’s so much debate within the community about which language is the better language to use. but I guess I just feel those Meiji era Imperial Japan leftovers, so to speak, I just think they’re up to no good. It’s hard for me to trace them. I also don’t speak Japanese, so there’s a ton of stuff that I just can’t access because of language.
I just feel like something’s going on. I see people take just immaculate care of large SUVs, golf clubs, and clothes, particularly in the context of Paueru and Downtown Eastside more broadly, I really feel like I’m seeing those kinds of leftovers playing out. I guess part of why dear community is so heavy handed and so focused particularly on the Japanese Canadian community at the expense of acknowledging other very important communities and place names, is because I’m quite committed to trying to develop this critique, as in a loving way. But I do think it needs to be there, because I’m not sure who else is gonna tell it like it is. These imperial leftovers are still doing things, and now they’ve coagulated with settler-colonialism and white supremacy in Canada. It’s very difficult to watch what’s happening and to make sense of it, but I’m convinced that something’s happening and I don’t think it’s good. So I’m just trying to be attentive to those forces, and they are amorphous, and elusive, and strange, and difficult.
REBECCA: I know there’s a painting of Manuel’s that made an impression on you when you first looked at their work. Also because you used the portraiture in dear community to showcase the complexity in individuals. I think it’s A Cottage white Girl With A Dog, Pitcher, Small Pox and Heroin, this painting of Manuel’s that reminded you of something that you try to challenge in dear community, which is how quickly we tend to attach fixed meanings to certain words, cleanliness and dirtiness being two examples. Would you like to say a little bit more, Angela?
ANGELA: Yeah, I can definitely say more. I also know that Manny just said they are curious about people arrive at– people encounter art with their own history and way of being, and form meanings through the interaction of all those things. So maybe I can share a little bit. The way that I saw the painting was through Manny’s Instagram page, in which it’s actually in the background. There’s experiences missing, I guess, from my encounter. There’s audio that I haven’t experienced, which Manny describes in the caption of this post. So I’m only paying attention to a painting here and I acknowledge that there’s parts that I haven’t encountered yet.
But the painting alone is really compelling, at least for me, because I’ve spent so much time in this cycle between cleanliness and dirtiness, and what’s literally dirty and what’s just being constructed as dirty and same with clean. I feel like paying attention to those things is important, in terms of my role in my own community, and how we as Japanese Canadians are building relationships with outsider communities. So Manny’s painting reflects but also challenges that cleanliness dirtiness kind of cycle between those two, those words, their meanings, and their realities.
So instinctively for me, when I saw this painting, I saw– I attributed the cleanliness right away to the white girl and the style of the painting, in which Manny painted her as well as the background. By contrast, I attributed dirtiness to smallpox and heroin. Then swiftly after that I was like, oh, well that was automatic. I thought I was trying to keep tabs on these words and their meanings and how I’m thinking about them. What’s going on here? So I feel like I could find myself staring at that painting for a long time and just trying to observe– just being observant of my thoughts and how they move and what gets attributed to what. Because in some ways the painting tees you up to juxtapose, really draws attention to a certain kind of contrast, or welcomes that kind of interpretation. But then you can also think, well are they really that juxtaposed? Because smallpox came with white people, so is there maybe actually not a contrast and actually a connection or a sameness here? It’s a very compelling painting. I could go on but I’d probably just be talking you through my thoughts and circles, and I think the bottom line is just letting the painting steep, letting it do its work.
MANNY: I love that. That’s a great observation. I think what I can add is I never really associated that particular painting with notions of cleanliness or dirtiness myself. But I will say, a big piece of it is also thinking of the romantic or sort of questioning romantic ideals is another big piece of it, especially in relation to land. ‘Cause there’s rocks in the installation. There’s the landscape painting and then there’s the rocks, and then there’s audio headphones connected to the rocks. So, I’m also thinking a lot about or getting people to question their romantic ideals of land.
I work a lot with British romantic painting ‘cause I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that these landscapes are not real. And then beyond that, a lot of the time, many of the paintings, they’re private landowners. So you’re not really looking at a landscape, you’re looking at property. It’s property, it’s not land, it’s the idea of property. And then you go into this idea that referencing this, the intellectual property that I question in that regard as well. So the idea of property is a really significant piece to it as well.
And the audio– you can hear some of my nephew. There’s a conversation with my nephew. We record a phone call. There are also some of my q̓ic̓əy̓ relatives. There’s a recording of that. They’re speaking to me as a family. There’s also one where I just simply say this many people have died from overdose. So it’s also I’m getting us to think about disease. I think it’s a big question we don’t have time for, but there’s a lot of, I guess discourse around, and always has been the idea that the substance is a disease. I think for many, many people it was– maybe an older train of thought is that addiction is a disease or substance use is a disease.
I think there’s people that are advocating for safe supply or they’re advocating for the rights of drug users to have access to life. I think there’s a lot of questions like, is this a disease? That’s maybe changing a little bit right now for some people that I’m noticing. I don’t have the answers. [Chuckle] I’ll be honest with that, I don’t know the answers. I think for the majority of my life, I definitely viewed substance usage as a disease or a disorder. But I think when we’re thinking about the autonomy of people that are doing drugs, their right to life, their access to Iife, I think whether or not it’s a disease, this is something different to think about.
We talk about trauma in many ways. If I was an active substance user, I probably wouldn’t want to think of myself as having a disease, you know? So I think there’s a lot of interesting discussions there when you juxtapose this image of microscopic heroin with smallpox. A lot of the work is questioning, the questions. It’s not really– like I said, I’m just asking questions.
ANGELA: I love questions.
MANNY: Yeah. Land, property, representation, disease, if you will. Lots of stuff.
ANGELA: And the girl doesn’t have eyes, does she? it’s small, the version of it that I saw. She’s got a dog, and I didn’t see– anyway.
MANNY: Oh yeah, she’s got eyes. She’s got eyes but they’re like– she’s kind of–
ANGELA: Is she looking up?
MANNY: She’s like blind almost.
ANGELA: Okay, okay.
MANNY: If you see the picture, you could definitely see the eyes. But they’re really white.
ANGELA: Okay. Gotcha.
MANNY: That’s another question. [Laugh]
ANGELA: Yes. That’s significant as well.
MANNY: Yeah, I think for me not being able to see things has a lot of meaning in that for me.
ANGELA: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.
REBECCA: We are at the end of our time together here. It was such a great pleasure to talk with both of you today and get to know more about your work. I think the messy tangle of self and society may have gotten messier and didn’t get detangled, but I really enjoyed this conversation. [Chuckle]
MANNY: It totally got messier.
ANGELA: Yeah, we’re not detanglers, we’re tanglers, I think.
REBECCA: Is there any last word you would like to say to each other, or to the audience?
ANGELA: I mean I would like to say that I’m just super grateful to all of you. There’s so much work that goes into a podcast, but there’s also a lot of– like Manny, this is our hanging out! We only hang out here and you’re so great. Thank you so much for your teachings and your generosity, your openness, and your refusals. It’s been such a great time chatting with everyone. Yeah, I appreciate it. I’m just grateful.
MANNY: Yeah, it’s really great hanging out. I love these discussions and hanging out like this. It feels really meaningful to get to know someone through this weird zoom thing, but–
ANGELA: [Chuckles] It’s unique, hey?
MANNY: Yeah. I’m sure we’ll be in the flesh sometime soon. We’re both doing some work down there, so I’m sure we’ll cross paths. I’ll say I really enjoyed– I watched dear community probably about three times.
MANNY: I think the first time I watched it sitting down and I continued to listen to it just as I was doing my dishes and cleaning around the house and put the headphones on and just listened to it. I’m really grateful that I had that opportunity to sit with that. It really spoke to me and it’s really beautiful.
And I’ll say for the people listening, thank you so much for taking this time and listening. I think that this was a very compact conversation. So, thank you. If you’re here you made it that far. [Chuckle]
ANGELA: [Chuckle] Congrats!
MANNY: Yes. And to everyone at Cinevolution, Rebecca, Minah, and Yun-Jou, I want to say hay čxʷ q̓ə, hay čxʷ q̓ə, hay čxʷ q̓ə! I’m really grateful to be able to do this, and I look forward to more discussion and more opportunities to do things together, walk beside each other. So thank you!
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