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Conversations with Chinese Artists and Organizers (CAO) Collective

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chinese Artists and Organizers (CAO) Collective. They and their team shared their story with us below:

Chinese Artists and Organizers (CAO) Collective

Chinese Artists and Organizers (CAO) Collective 离离草 is a queer feminist group based in LA and NYC. Our five current members first met through Chinese diasporic grassroots organizing. We are trained in different disciplines: performance, moving images, photography, ceramics, writing, anthropology, and beyond. After seeing the need in the community for political organizing and artistic spaces that allow more nuanced narratives and approaches, we decided to come together as a collective bridging art, theorizing, and community-based activism. We root our practice in China, the Sinophone diaspora, and other experiences from the margins of identities and borders.

Our inaugural performance as a collective, the Ciba Punch女拳手打糍粑, took place in Sara D. Roosevelt Park in Manhattan Chinatown, NYC. On September 4th, 2022, we invited Chinese queer feminists and community members to punch on steamed sticky rice to make the traditional Chinese food, ciba. During the performance, twenty-two performers chanted collectively written poems addressed to transnational feminist solidarity, joined by over 100 audience members. At the same time, our long-term collaborator, sound artist Julia Santoli, led the Spiritual Figures performance that embodied our silenced, erased queer/feminist ancestors from the past and the future. Julia and the other spiritual figures dressed in red and white with their facial features and vision obscured by nylon bodysuits, a costume designed by another collaborator Kun Hong. They gently hummed, moved among the participants, and held a space for an intense quietness. Channeling our rage, grief, and care for each other into the ciba that we eventually shared with participants and other Chinatown residents in the park, we formed an intimate bodily connection through food. The incredible moments of warmth and vulnerability that we shared that day, as well as continued support from community members, encouraged us to keep on bringing art and community-building into diverse and sometimes non-traditional spaces.

The themes of food, community, spirituality, and intimacy have taken root and grown into various projects in our practice since our first performance. We took the Ciba Punch series further through a collaborative Open Studio community space, a Ciba Punch performance at the Beall Center for Art + Technology in Irvine, CA, and we are now working on a new iteration of the Ciba Punch at the BRICLab Contemporary Art residency in Brooklyn, NY.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Working together as a collective and intentionally building care into every aspect of our practices means that we need to figure things out as we go. As we continually make space for community care, we are also exploring what it means to sustain ourselves professionally, financially, and emotionally. Navigating funding sources as (im)migrant artists, we have encountered many institutional barriers that keep us from long-term funding. Therefore, as an attempt for more sustainability, we have just launched the Perennials Project 种草计划, asking for support from community members while building long-term relationships.

Our art practices often work with non-traditional media, such as sticky rice and dumplings, and in accessible spaces like public parks. We also engage with aesthetics and politics of embodiment and ephemerality, which might have prevented us from being appreciated by gallery and archival spaces that traditionally privilege what is considered “permanent”. But we regard impermanence as an expression of diasporic experiences for many of us, and we have always been proactively exploring alternative ways of documenting and archiving our work to reimagine what it means to remember and to witness.

We have also initiated many difficult conversations in the collective about labor distribution, crediting, and better practices of caring for each other both as co-workers and as friends. But we are convinced that this work is so difficult precisely because it is valuable; we are intentionally breaking boundaries in art, organizing, and friendships. These explorations of boundaries, co-living, and community care have also made their way into our communal artistic practices, and we are so fortunate to have each other on this journey.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Our first performance in SoCal was “Good Mourning 结哀顺变”, a durational performance that explores grief as a relational act in the ongoing aftermath of a pandemic, especially when we are away from our families in China. For three days in January 2023, we lived together in the Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve, massaged and cooked for each other, sculpted clay objects and inscribed words from our collective poems on them, and eventually shattered the objects that have held foods and words that nourished us. In the process, we collectively reconstructed our own ritual of mourning and healing. After the performance, we hosted an artist talk and New Year’s gathering at the old Robinson SPACE address in Historic Filipinotown with new friends and community members in Los Angeles. We are continuing the performance this December – stay tuned for more updates!

Much of our work is about intimacy, collectivity, and play. We have consistently offered Collective Poetry Workshops, connecting over 200 transnational Chinese queer feminists virtually and in LA, NYC, NC. Each workshop invites workshop participants to continue after each other’s lines under a time constraint. The process is very spontaneous: you can never expect how other people will carry on your words, and yet there is so much intimacy in the poems where people call and respond to each other. It is a collective attempt to narrativize our experiences, engaging in topics related to home, kinship, memory, and distance.

Following the first wave of returning to China of many Chinese in diaspora since the pandemic, we have hosted a few collective poetry workshops to untangle the complex feelings — of loss, nostalgia, longingness, etc. — many of ourselves and our community members have experienced with family and home. We extended this exploration in the collective poetry writing “流离诗所Nowwwhere” — the first in-person and public event we have hosted in Los Angeles City. (Special shoutout to the Pop-Hop bookstore for providing the space and the thoughtful and generous logistical support!) We wrote and drew with oil pastels on the prompt regarding the taste, smell, sight or sounds of “home,” resulting in a stack of colorful imprints of some of our dearest memories and emotional conversations about our communities and longings.

You can find some of these poems and their translations in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and the Massachusetts Review (forthcoming). We are also looking for independent publishers to put together a poetry book, so please contact us if you or your connections would be interested!

If we knew you growing up, how would we have described you?
Each of our collective members has different experiences growing up, but we share a lot of similar experiences of migration across the US and China. Experiences of migration ground much of our shared interest in transnational social justice issues and topics of home, diasporic memories, food, community, healing, and chosen family. We also share many fond memories of childhood songs, soap operas, and other Sinophone cultural experiences. We are quite different personality-wise, but we are all open to sharing and being vulnerable with each other.

Our work is built on relations both within and outside of the collective, and our boundaries with collaborators and community members are quite porous and fluid. The relational aspect of our work makes emotional labor a significant part of the process, and we are constantly exploring what reciprocity looks like when listening and giving space for each other. If you are interested in our work, don’t hesitate to reach out!

Contact Info:

Good Mourning结哀顺变. May 20, 2023. Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve, CA. Photo credit: Kathy

16mm Workshop. May 16, 2023. Irvine, CA. Photo credit: Huiyin

The Ciba Punch女拳手打糍粑. May 20, 2023. Irvine, CA. Photo credit: Kathy

“流离诗所Nowwwhere” Collective Poetry Writing Workshop. July 29, 2023. Los Angeles, CA. Photo credit: 乐乐

“流离诗所Nowwwhere” Collective Poetry Writing Workshop. July 29, 2023. Los Angeles, CA. Photo credit: 乐乐

The Ciba Punch女拳手打糍粑. Sept 4, 2023. New York, NY.

Image Credits
Good Mourning结哀顺变. May 20, 2023. Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve, CA. Photo credit: Kathy 16mm Workshop. May 16, 2023. Irvine, CA. Photo credit: huiyin The Ciba Punch女拳手打糍粑. May 20, 2023. Irvine, CA. Photo credit: Kathy “流离诗所Nowwwhere” Collective Poetry Writing Workshop. July 29, 2023. Los Angeles, CA. Photo credit: 乐乐 “流离诗所Nowwwhere” Collective Poetry Writing Workshop. July 29, 2023. Los Angeles, CA. Photo credit: 乐乐 The Ciba Punch女拳手打糍粑. Sept 4, 2023. New York, NY.

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