Travel as a way of seeing.
Despite being a cliché found on every OkCupid profile and murmured on most disastrous first dates, I have to declare my love for traveling. I get incredibly excited not by the destination, but by the travel itself. Whether it’s the rumbling of the plane’s engine or a cramped car ride, I relish those in-between spaces where the world seamlessly transitions from one place to another. This is probably why I had such an instant attraction to the work of Jonathan Wang, who insists that he is based nowhere. His videos and installations are centered around the experience of travel, how it is mediated, and the precarious positioning of tourists and voyeurs (often conflating them as one and the same). In investigating the friction between fantasy and reality, what he arrives at is a humorous yet poignant homage to escapist ideals and the unwavering knowledge of travel agents, admiringly describing them as “therapists” for travelers. In the conversation that follows, Wang and I further explore these ideas, as well as our mutual admiration for cats and timeshares.
Harry J. Weil When we first talked on the phone, you mentioned moving around a lot, from the West Coast to Asia and back again to the US, with lots of stops in between. How has that influenced your work?
Jonathan Wang Yes, I was raised in a really messy pile of locations and cultural circumstances so my relationship to space became confusing pretty early on. After a while, I stopped trying to make sense of it. My practice has actually become a way for me to stir this relationship and further dissolve it. After finishing secondary school at an international school in Chiang Mai, Thailand, all of my friends returned to their home countries for higher educations. Instead I raised money to move to Nepal because I was fascinated with the idea of Mount Everest. That was when I first realized that I could completely forge my own relationship to space.
HJW When did that become evident in your art practice?
JW Probably when I was at UC Berkeley, where I seemed to have caught toxoplasmosis and began only making work about cats. It started with cat videos and it led to sculptures and installations for cats. It seems like the parasite is mostly contained now but I am still interested in cats as the ultimate jesters of space. . . with them everything starts with a survey and ends with a game.
HJW Speaking of games, your first major work, Non-spectacles (2010), was based on a visit to see the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. How did that trip come about?
JW Toward the tail end of my time at Berkeley, a close friend and I were trying to figure out a way to get to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. We are both football fans and at the time we were in a really good urban theory course that touched on psychogeography and spectacle development. So we designed some projects that revolved around the games, applied for grants, and somehow ended up winning a lot of money to go. It was just one of those good rowdy intersections.
HJW Were you seduced by the spectacle? Or was your trip just a means to an end for creating this video?
JW It was mostly seduction. . . and I think in many ways that was what the entire project was about. I wanted to understand the force that was pulling me along with the other hundreds of thousands of people to this place.
HJW What was the work’s final form?
JW Maps. One map we created was an open source map of a temporary relocation area outside of Cape Town that didn't exist on any maps at the time. It was a place where people were displaced to and suspended in a camp-like limbo. The other map was a set of videos that followed tourists. The work was shown in an exhibition titled Non-spectacles where the main piece in the show was a five-channel video installation. Each of the videos was shot from different popular vantage points like the ferry to Robben Island (where Mandela was imprisoned), a safari jeep, or the boulevard that leads people in and out of the stadium. The title, Non-spectacles, was an odd marriage between Smithson and Debord but I think what I was trying to get at was the friction between how we imagine space and how we experience it.
HJW Why Smithson and Debord?
JW They are important to me because they both moved through space at oblique angles. Like when a cat suddenly starts jumping backward diagonally.
HJW Here we are! Full circle back to cats! You have to admire a man who loves his cat, but that is beside the point. I am much more curious about a text that scrolls across one of the videos: “It is time for something new, very new, AFRICA, SOUTH AFRICA.”
JW I think that this was the general ethos in the air. Visitors were really excited to experience “Africa” but only wanted to stand in certain places and look from certain angles through certain frames. To me this is a really interesting component of leisure travel: no matter how much space is traversed, everyone always ends up in a transnational circle jerk. It's stimulating because participation happens on so many different levels and includes so many different parties. The other nice thing is that in every circle jerk there are bound to be hiccups. I tried to document those moments.
HJW Does that in any way relate to the idea of “traversing space” you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation?
JW Yes, I’m interested in the friction and turbulence that happen when we traverse space. Oftentimes our perceptions become so inundated that we have to resort to mediation. I’ve always really liked the idea behind the airplane, where you step into a really calm room where everything is designed to distract you from the incomprehensible speed your body is moving in. Your little window creates this crazy cushion between you and the chaos happening right outside of it. And the shape of the window becomes the frame through which we see and understand it. I was recently standing atop the Eiffel Tower and was so taken by the beautiful brass coin-operated telescopes. . . they were more interesting than the view.
HJW After the World Cup, you stuck around South Africa and started FOTO Project Space in Cape Town, which you describe as a “shared studio, classroom, and exhibition space for photographers who are based in surrounding townships.”
JW Yes, FOTO Project Space was a really important project to me. Thanks to the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust, I was really lucky to be given the opportunity to spend some time fully investing in other artists. At the time I was thinking a lot about the current state of photography and it's relationship to popular African imaginaries, but in the end, I just wanted to create a real resource for a small group of talented artists who could really use it. I tried to keep it small and create a highly flexible platform that catered directly to the individual needs of the artists. Since all the photographers were self-taught and most had limited formal education, it created a lot of interesting questions and challenges. It was really great to work with those artists and they are probably all doing much better professionally than I am now.
HJW The next stop was Egypt, the backdrop for Welcome to Alaska (2011), which is just as much concerned with space and place, as it is about revolution and social upheaval.
JW Welcome to Alaska was my first specialty tourism experience, or what some people call niche tourism like eco tours, sex tours, poverty tours, or, in this case, revolution tours. I went to Egypt in the summer of 2011 when there was a lot happening and checked into a room on the twenty-third floor of a 5-star hotel overlooking Tahrir Square. The hotel had a skinny rectangle shape so one side faced the square and the other faced the Nile. So you could be on one side lounging by the pool with the sound of millions of demonstrators chanting in the background. You can also enjoy complimentary happy hour on your balcony while watching the millions of demonstrators below. These were the balconies where the majority of videos of the revolution were shot from at the beginning. There was even one point where the hotel went around to all the rooms facing Tahrir Square and confiscated all camera equipment. In Welcome to Alaska, I tried to create this sense of proximity by capturing a series of vantage points such as the balcony, the pool, a camel’s back, and so forth.
HJW But from these vantage points are you positioning yourself as an artist or a tourist? Or are you both?
JW That's a question that I seem to return to often in different ways. I used to travel without a camera because I didn't want to be implicated. Now, for some reason, I try to embrace it. I find it incredibly satisfying to stand where millions of people stand and collectively take the same picture. I also really like shooting in spaces where you are expected to be taking pictures because you can get away with anything. It also helps that I am an Asian person with a big camera. I think being an outsider is always better than being an insider, so achieving tourist status for me is reaching the ultimate state.
HJW This reminds me of a recent trip I took to Italy. When I was in Pisa all of these tourists, hundreds of them, were taking that iconic touristy photograph of themselves propping up the Leaning Tower. They went there just to do that and got right back on the train and left. The two museums were completely empty, but all those people were littering the area in front of the Tower for that one photo op. It’s like going somewhere just so you can post that you were there on Facebook or Instagram. There is something a bit nihilistic happening here.
JW Yes, and the physical act of clicking or pushing a button has become integral to the way we experience space now. It’s just like a game of Pokémon. I don’t mind that it is nihilistic. . . I think it’s cute. I think travel has always been nihilistic, but the way we interact with space just continues to evolve.
HJW Ha! I love that comparison to Pokémon! It is pretty right on. I find that your work is this continual play between fantasy and reality, especially as the places you visit are so exoticized in popular culture. So when you are in Egypt, I automatically think of the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, but also Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
JW Yes, the exotic is very important to me. I think it is the closest we’ve gotten to understanding what it is that we really desire from space. What is considered exotic is obviously always changing, and even though the term—the concept itself—seems outdated, the pursuit of it continues to exist in new forms (such as niche tourism). But as you said, it does highlight this play between fantasy and reality and I think that the camera has become a tool to mitigate that friction. Also, unlike Smithson’s spaces, I really like how the exotic inevitably connotes a pretty high level of tackiness.
HJW That friction is at the heart of Enter to Win (2013), a video installation where viewers are literally entering a sweepstakes.
JW Yes, a tropical vacation for two to the Bahamas! Sunny, free, and perfect. When I was driving across the country with my partner, we got really desperate for pho so we found a Vietnamese place about an hour off the freeway in a beige strip mall somewhere in Virginia. It was the worst bowl of pho I’ve ever come across, but in the corner of the restaurant there was a Plexiglas vacation sweepstakes. I filled one out and we got back on the road. A few weeks later I began getting calls that said I had won. I was busy at the time so I tried to ignore them but they kept calling. Eventually I got curious, so I looked them up and found all these forums where people shared their scam stories. The stories were really good tropical tragedies! I also really liked what these businesses were doing because they were actually forging extremely unstable relationships between the “winners” and these tropical spaces. It got me thinking a lot about scam aesthetics and the suspension that happens with sweepstakes.
HJW Notwithstanding scamming, sweepstakes are a hope that we could have something bigger, better, and shinier.
JW It is one of those suspended states that feel so good. On a lot of the scam warnings you'll find online, they refer to this vulnerable state as wishful thinking. It’s funny, at the end of the exhibition, the sweepstakes box was completely filled with ballots and personal information! There were several times I had to replenish the forms at the gallery. Humans can’t resist lotteries.
HJW Can you blame them? It’s an escapist ideal, a desire to be somewhere else or have oodles of money.
JW Yes but there is also an entropic quality to this escapist ideal. The tropical beach, like many other images, however, has become so thin. In Enter to Win, along with the sweepstakes box there was also a slowly dying palm tree and posters of a tropical beach themed tissue box that were peeling off the walls, floating in the air, and lying on the floor. It was like a travel agency that was hit by a hurricane. I like the role of the travel agency and how agents used to heavily curate your experience of space. The travel agent was like a drug dealer and the destination was your fix. Most agents were killed by the Internet, but I think that will change soon because there will be a return to expert knowledge.
HJW If you could go anywhere right now, and money wasn't an object, where would it be?
JW I keep applying for funding to participate in vacation scams but no one has bit. Apparently how they get you on these free trips is by ripping you off on upgrades. If money wasn’t an object I would go on one of these vacation scams and say yes to every upgrade and document it all.
HJW You could always get a timeshare in Boca, I can’t wait to retire there!
JW Sure, I think timeshares are cool and Florida seems funny. Though we must be careful (or not) because along with fraudulent travel clubs and deceptive vacation packages, there are also lots of timeshare traps!
HJW And aside from these warm weather dreams, what else do you have up your sleeve?
JW I’ve been focusing on camouflage recently because hunting season is a pretty big thing where I am. I think the history and trajectory of the design points toward our evolving relationships to space. A lot of the new designs in hunting wear like “Break-up Infinity” are highly digital photorealistic renderings of the natural world. I like this because when we wear these designs back into the woods and wild animals see them, they are being initiated into the digital world. I think that there is something very erotic about this. So I’m trying a few things out right now. I recently got my hunting license and a lot of pink women's camo wear from Walmart. We’ll see where it goes
I am really excited by an Airbnb project space I am starting in Hudson, NY called ZEZE. Everything in the house from the magazines to the clothes hangers and the cat toys will be conceived and created by invited artists and it will all be for sale. The exhibiting artists will reinterpret common household items to produce lifestyle proposals that can only be experienced by renting out the place for a night. I also like that Airbnb is an accepted form of voyeurism that inspires a certain performativity, where for a weekend you can pretend to be someone else and eat from their plates. Hudson is an interesting place to play with this idea since there has been so much hype around this town as a premiere artistic destination, especially with the coming of certain celebrity artists, like Marina Abramovic—the New York Times is really loving it. You should come check out when it opens this May.
Harry J. Weil is a writer living and working in Brooklyn, New York.
This interview is a project of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.