Chris is making his New York debut with Caught! Read about him on The Hub as he talks about Caught and discusses everything from subversive art to defying cultural expectations.
What was the inspirational seed for Caught?
It was a combination of many things that came together simultaneously. I’m being vague on purpose. Sorry!
What role do subverted expectations play in your work?
They play a purposeful role. When working on a project, I like to dig as far as I can into the material and into my own internal processes related to the material. I like to dig until I hit some uncomfortable places that challenge my preconceptions and that feel risky and raw. The goal of the “finished product,” if you can call it that, is to take a snapshot of that digging process, which necessarily includes expectations being overturned.
I can put it a different way too: I think a fundamental goal of art is to illuminate hidden layers of reality; and the main tool used for this is the element of surprise. (This applies to everything from comedy to action thrillers.) And in order for surprise to function correctly, there needs to be some reference point from which to launch, i.e. the illuminated unknown can only be illuminated in relation to some kind of known. This is why so many artists like to riff on classic genres.
You majored in Social Welfare. Do you see a connection between art and social change? Is art a subversive act?
When I said a main goal of art is to illuminate hidden layers of reality, for me the most compelling art illuminates hidden layers of reality that challenge the hegemonic status quo frame of mind, works that are unafraid of poking the eye of authority and unraveling the dominant narratives that uphold a certain power structure within a culture.
I don’t think all art is subversive, and I don’t think all art has connections to social change, and some art is harnessed by the forces against social change. I think art always has the potential to be subversive. Harmful power structures perpetuate themselves by a certain level of non-questioning, of hiding their harmful effects, by championing a very specific version of Truth. Art can and should be harnessed to expose and unearth different angles of what truth truly is.
In an interview last year, you said that you’d embraced being labelled as a Chinese-American or Asian-American writer. Do you feel your ethnicity leads people to have certain preconceptions about the content or form of your work? How important is it to you to undercut these expectations?
I don’t want to make any broad generalizations about what preconceptions of Asian American plays might be, because from the beginning there was a big diversity of voices and styles and content. But the pathbreaking Asian American works were revolutionary because they boldly and incisively reflected their playwrights’ experiences of the time in which they were written. I can say I strive to follow in their footsteps by trying to capture my present reality as truthfully as well, wherever that leads. If I sense chaos around me, I’ll channel chaos. If I sense strains of subtle racism or perception glitches that occur in the present Asian American experience, I’ll reflect that too.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m honored and humbled to be able to follow in the rich legacy of Asian American playwriting, and hope that the point of comparison with prior Asian American works is not so much the literal content, or some calcified view of what an Asian American work should be, but rather the fact that these were (and still are) Asian American artists grappling with their present world and culture in real time in innovative ways.
I don’t consciously go into a project trying to undercut expectations of what an Asian American play should be, but I will say that often times my goal within each piece that deals with race explicitly is to provoke using a series of unlocking mechanisms that challenge preconceptions, to the point where audiences might genuinely question, on a scene by scene basis, where the play’s (and hence playwright’s) point of view ultimately lands. A constant restless questioning is important to me.
Name three works of art you find subversive.
This is a very hard question. I’ll start with four…
1. WeiweiCam by Ai WeiWei
2. The plays of Thomas Bradshaw
3. Natural Born Killers by Oliver Stone
4. The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein