Relationship Advice: Maia Chao Interviewed by Simon Wu

Mapping personal attachment styles onto art institutions.

Maia Chao Look At Art Get Paid Bomb Magazine 1

Maia Chao, Look at Art. Get Paid., 2016–present. Photo by Jay Simple.

Maia Chao’s work across performance, installation, and video takes the emotional, institutional, and linguistic structures of power as its playground. Over the last year, Maia and I have had several iterations of the conversation that follows. Initially, we thought it might be a book project, where we would interview our friends (mostly queer people of color) about the parallels between their love lives and their professional relationships. In the process of planning this book, however, our chats kept devolving into the makeshift therapy of friends: bad breakups, confusion, and heartbreak. At a certain point we stopped corralling ourselves and realized that this itself was the project. Institutions are made of people, so how can we best understand the relationships that sustain them, and also the ones that can change them? 

Since 2015, Chao has co-run a project called Look at Art. Get Paid., a socially engaged art project that pays people who don’t visit art museums to visit one as a guest critic of the art and the institution. Chao’s social sculptures posit play, whimsy, and rehearsal as integral operations of institutional critique. In the video What Draws Us Together, What Drives Us Apart (2019), for example, in which she reenacts scenes between sisters from twelve mainstream American movies with her own mom and sister, family comedy is the repository for ideology. We got together to discuss the type of institutional critique that Chao’s work articulates—the type of critique a lover might give a partner, or a mother might give a child.

—Simon Wu

Simon WuFor a while we’ve both been interested in the parallels between the relationships we have with institutions and those we have with friends and lovers. Institutions are fundamentally made up of people relating to one another. How have you been thinking about this?

Maia ChaoI’m interested in the wide range of definitions that apply to an institution, both formal and informal. Obviously, an organization or an entity is an institution, like the art museum, but the nuclear family is also considered a major social institution. And an institution can also refer to recurring patterns of social behavior.

I’ve been looking into relational attachment styles in psychological theory, which are applied to romantic relationships, friendships, and so on. But I’m interested in how they might apply to work relationships and institutional relationships. They were originally developed in the 1960s and ‘70s around how children attach to their parents and how those attachment styles and roles map onto romantic relationships in adulthood. The different categories are: secure attachment, anxious or preoccupied attachment, dismissive or avoidant attachment, and fearful or avoidant attachment.

SWWhat kind of relational attachment do you feel we currently have with the museum as an institution?

MCI think that the museum is avoidantly attached and that we’re anxiously attached, no?

(laughter)

SWYeah. Museums are historically imperial or colonial projects, built on imperial or colonial social relations, and we are now living in the legacy of that. So, for artists of color, maybe this is an abusive relationship. This person is abusive, has an abusive past, but you still are dependent on them. And that’s the only way you know how to feel affirmed, how to feel distributed, how to access resources. If we, as artists of color, posit our relationship to museums as such, how do we move forward from there? 

MCThat is the question: how do we repair these institutional relationships or address their histories? 

Maia Chao Look At Art Get Paid Bomb Magazine 3

Notes by a guest critic from Look at Art. Get Paid. overlaid on the RISD Museum’s website. Collaboration with Josephine Devanbu, Stephan McCants, and Lukas Eigler-Harding. Courtesy of the artist.

SWIs Look at Art. Get Paid like a form of therapy, then?

MCI wouldn’t want to speak to what it does or does not accomplish for other people. But there is certainly this reckoning that might unfold in talk therapy: confronting the discrepancy between what someone says versus what they do in a relationship, and the confusion and hurt that this gap between words and actions can cause. In this sense, we’re saying: “You [the museum] say you have these values. In your mission statement you say you’re committed to this relationship [with the community]—to being accessible, inclusive, and equitable—but many of your actions say otherwise.” 

SWHow do you think about your role in this? 

MCI think it can be mapped onto the framework of reform or separatism. Do I put all this labor into trying to shift an institution and a construct that is fundamentally, in its essence and origin, an imperial project? Or should all this labor be directed toward creating counter institutions or supporting alternative, POC-led spaces? 

SWRight. Should I try to fix the relationship, or should I just leave? 

MCI think of it as a question of positionality. My collaborator Josephine Devanbu and I are both light-skinned people of color (Indian/White and Chinese/White, respectively). Having come from families of educators and artists, we asked ourselves, What can we do? It’s important to recognize that we as individuals have been well served by art institutions. We care deeply about these spaces, as fraught as they are. It feels honest to our identities and experiences to engage the institution and utilize our access and fluency. Otherwise it’s a slippery slope of downward mobility—choosing to reject one’s privilege rather than leverage it. The question of how to engage or disengage from institutions is less a declaration of which strategy holds the most value and more an active response to the questions of, “What can I do in my subject position? What can I contribute to ways other people are acting from their subject positions?”

SWSpeaking of your subject position, in your video Gently Used (2018) you work with your family to sell items that they’ve been hoarding, and in What Draws Us Together, What Drives Us Apart you reenact “sisterhood” scenes from mainstream American movies. Why are familial relationships such a fruitful place for you to explore institutional dynamics? 

MCIf I’m going to examine the macro scale of the art institution’s relationship to surrounding communities, it follows that I would also need to examine the micro scale of relationships and intimacy. Engaging my family deeply informs how I engage an institution and vice versa. Gently Used addresses the quandaries of our political moment. Living amidst talk of permanent war and eternal states of emergency, it’s easy to feel paralyzed by the big questions. But they all manifest in some way at an individual level. I’m interested in approaching daunting questions of change at different levels—at the individual, domestic level, and at the collective, institutional, public level. So what does change look like, even if that’s just getting things out of my parents’ basement? I approached that piece asking what it would look like for me to initiate with my family, bringing humor and experimentation into a process that—

SWThat would otherwise be painful.

MCWhat connects my social practice to my other projects is that they’re all looking at how I can engage—as opposed to disengage from—other people with whom I create the system. It’s this notion of “staying with the trouble” in both professional and personal spheres, institutional and domestic.

There’s a driving desire to have a conversation that might not happen otherwise—to name the elephant in the room, be it a conversation between a museum curator and someone who has never been to an art museum, or an exploration about race with my interracial family. There’s risk and discomfort in these propositions, and so staging them as exploratory projects is a way to say, “Maybe we’re not actually ready to do this, but let’s rehearse a reality in which we do address this.”

In Look at Art. Get Paid. we are asking museum staff, “What would it look like if we acknowledge the violent legacies of art museums? What would it look like to set up the conditions under which folks who are marginalized by this institution can engage and maybe, even momentarily, be centered in their own position of power and expertise?”

SWI’ve always appreciated how your work feels like a queering of institutional critique. If critique binds the criticizer in an unhappy marriage with the object of her animus, then your response to this begrudging attachment is to offer concrete alternatives that foreground failure, play, and whimsy. Can you speak a bit about the role that poetics plays in your projects?

MCUltimately it comes down to joy and play—to surviving and being with people. Collaboration and joy are integral to the process of whatever project I set up. There’s so much to be cynical about these days. But I suppose I’m interested in this notion of repair, asking what it means to make things together right now, during such a sad, hard time. How do we take care of ourselves and each other? 

SWDo play and joy also open up space for conflict? The political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues that finding constructive outlets for negotiating conflict is at the root of a successful democracy. She contrasts agonism, conflict on the basis of mutual respect and understanding, with antagonism, conflict with active hostility or opposition. 

MCThat idea of an agonism makes me think of relational aesthetics and institutional critique—the friendly agitator. In Look at Art. Get Paid. we are super aware that institutions gain value and moral standing by engaging in self-reflexive critique, and that there is a constant risk of critique being co-opted. Though this may be more aspirational, I imagine the ideal would be something that moves between agonism and antagonism in its effort to escape co-optation and produce rupture. 

SWIt feels like the heuristic of agonism presumes that people are standing on the same ground, but really the power dynamic is not even.

MCI agree. Friendly conflict is sort of the sinister tool of neoliberalism.

SWThis brings us back to the notion of an abusive relationship. The grounds on which the interlocutors are standing has never been equal. Having a conflict with an abusive partner is not the same as two people standing on the same block having a friendly conversation.

MCYeah. We’re aware that Look at Art. Get Paid. can easily just be lip service, a way for art institutions to say, “We brought the margins to the center as a spectacle, and now we’re woke.” So it’s extremely important for us to feel like we’re setting up relationships with institutions where the terms are clear.

There’s the challenge of setting up a situation in which folks who don’t feel comfortable, empowered, or valued by a space feel confident enough to participate in critiquing it. But then there’s also that question of how to deal with the responsibility of communicating those critiques and stewarding change. There’s also an incredible weight and risk in where those critiques land, and who needs to confront them. It’s really not that productive to have them land on frontline staff who are just doing their jobs, but that can happen easily. 

SWYou had mentioned that your new direction leans more heavily into these questions around emotions. How so?

MCCritique, as it is traditionally practiced in art schools, has its origins in empiricism, in the Enlightenment, in the assumption that knowledge and truth are based on what we can see and observe in front of us. But of course, there is so much that we exclude with this approach—histories, ancestors, spirituality, and so on. So we’re thinking about how to set up critiques in ways that engage and surface different abilities and modes of knowing. 

It’s an exciting shift on many levels. There’s so much important work happening right now on how to transform paradigms of critique, so I’m looking forward to seeing how Look at Art. Get Paid. can be in dialogue with current scholarship on critique. But also how it can be pushed as an artwork, informed by the tools of rehearsal, play, and experimentation that feel integral to more liberatory ways of being in relation to one another. 

Look at Art. Get Paid. is a socially engaged artwork that will take place at various museums through August 2021.

Simon Wu is an artist based in New York City. He serves as the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute and is an alumnus of the Whitney ISP.

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