In the lead up to the Stuart Hall Library Research Network: Duties of Self-Care. Stephanie Moran, Manager of the Stuart Hall Library, sat down with artist Ada Xiaoyu Hao to discuss Ada’s submission proposal for Duties of Self-Care: The Mask Of Sanity:
S: It’s a really interesting proposal, it’s super interesting what you are looking at. It’s quite rich, there’s a lot in there.
A: I kind of wanted to start from this injury [in my mouth]. You can touch it, but you can’t really feel it being there. That’s why, when it’s happening, it’s like there’s no pain associated with this “virus” physically. And the re-occurrence of this kind of “thing” caused by a “virus”, can go out of control and overpower the body.
S: You’re a performance artist, so the body is your medium too; so to have something that’s personally [bodily] traumatic, that also has an impact on your practice…
A: And also the body has an archive of these experiences that are conscious, subconscious or unconscious even. The body experiences, sometimes without even realising it. This affects the body too. The more research I’m doing and the more information or knowledge I’m gaining, I think feeling is something that’s really important for acknowledging the self. But then, how can that relate to this feeling of the body and the sense of self, without being over-possessed by the power of knowledge and language, and how can this mistranslation be translated into a different form or voice? For me, there’s always something else “lost in transaction” when I put my thoughts into words, regardless of what language the words are projected on. Like the sound of words, the body has gestures that come with the mouth. The body for me is like a highly functional machine with its own will. Because there’s this kind of desire to get somewhere, to get the information out and there’s a constant mismatching between the desire of doing and the actual being. Then there’s the realisation of this gap of impotency when the actual being is affected by the the “desire of doing” instead of trauma.
S: You’re talking a lot about language and translation, and how that relates to the body because it’s coming out of you. Most of your work online is just images, the whole performances are unavailable to watch. These images are very much visual rather than linguistic. I wonder what the relationship is?
A: With exhibitions, there’s this looping of events reoccurring as situations and then during the reenacting, there’s a kind of absence of documentation, so that’s something I’m really interested in. How to work with documentation, because that’s the leftover of a live performance.
S: Thinking about self-care and trauma, how do you think trauma functions in relation to the piece that you are developing, The Mask of Sanity? Does it have a relationship to your practice in general, or is it specifically in relation to this piece of work?
A: When I was thinking of ‘Mask of Sanity’, it was in a self-cleansing way.
S: So it was quite therapeutic?
A: Yeah, a mask with different kind of layers, for me, it’s like protection. To be able to clean and make it new. It’s really hard to keep something that’s in a public space clean. Even relating to the body, it’s really hard to keep a clean body, like a newborn.
In relation to trauma, after I got a hole in my mouth, which I didn’t realise I had, the mouth remembers it, and that’s something I recall in terms of controlling the body and not being able to be fully in control or protected against trauma.
Trauma is also caused by events. After this, the cleansing can function as working through these traumas, and starting afresh, with a new system, and also through the poking of this trauma, it’s also like trying to take better care of the body.
I think trauma and care are very similar because even though I’m caring, it can also be a form of trauma, to care, and even though it’s traumatic it can also be a form of caring.
S: Absolutely. I guess, it’s only when we are ill we pay attention to taking care of ourselves, otherwise, we just continue to do what we normally do.
A: Yes, I have a really close friend, she has a really low immune system, and she has to take actual care of herself and it’s really hard for someone healthy to understand that, even though they look normal. She has to do these exercises, she can’t eat certain things, and all this extra care to keep the body running and for me, it’s powerful as an actual labor of work. It’s a form of sustaining the body.
A: My initial proposal was to sustain life. The sustaining of life, on the impulses, to sustain yourself, by doing this and doing that.
S: I think it seems important to your proposal that the work is experienced live. So it’s just for the people who are in the space, and then there might be some representation online. Could you talk more about the liveness, what the importance of that is, and what the role of the audience within that is for you ?
A: At the beginning of my practice, I did one year of Photography at Camberwell and that’s where I started doing a performance. It’s kind of interesting, being within the educational framework, people won’t really position performance as a separate practice until you get to the RCA, and there’s where you get to the liveness.
A: I think liveness is quite important for my work and especially having this relationship with the audience that I want to have. There’s something out of liveness, that can’t really be recreated, or received. The Stuart Hall Library has a large archive online, and that’s another way to pass information in a way that comes from a specific frame, and that’s also quite interesting, to work in a different situation, to work live and then place that within a frame.
S: Yes, we usually just use the audio as the document [for the Research Network documentation]. We don’t get that visual sense of the live performance, but you get the words that are spoken and then you get the audience response to that in the Q&A afterward, and the respondent’s response is also important. So, it’s a completely different form that maybe doesn’t compromise the fact that you need to be there to see the live performance, but it’s a different record.
A: Yes, it’s different. When I’m doing performance, I’m always thinking more about the liveness, the audience who are going to be there, then there’s the viewer to consider and the view from one viewer to another, and then the different strands of work that I’m doing and have to consider on my position in relation the audience. All leading to this relation to self-care and careness. How much I care for myself in relation to how much I can care for others and also like advantages of self-care.
A: For me, there are a lot of advantages to self-care that enable me to have more care for others, and that’s something quite interesting, to voluntarily find out if it’s a counter-political reason, or is it just a self-subjective way of knowing.
S: That’s an unusual way of putting it: ‘self-care for others’. Could you talk about the relationship with the power dynamic, what you get from the audience and why they are important to you? Do you feel vulnerable, [or] do you feel like you are in charge? Do you feel a bit of both, in terms of your relationship with the audience? How are they important to what you do?
A: I always get this type of feedback from a performance, that I have all of these tricks and I’m asked if I have a bag of tricks, but I also get criticism from that. I feel like it’s a way of giving, it’s not generous, but in a way, it is generous, by not being generous. By choosing to not show too little or by showing too much.
S: Do you think you are quite in control or very much in control of your performances?
A: Very much in control, in the beginning, then by losing control, this is like another way of controlling. Control may have just left, but it’s still controlled by the audience, because the space is holding the audience together, so there’s a safe space. In relation to self-care, we question what are the safe-spaces for? We talk about that a lot in performance, and also with different minorities and groups. Where is the safe-space for free speech, or for sharing fully? That’s where there is this kind of limitation that’s driven by words, that are spoken.
S: I’m interested that you think of the space of performing as a safe-space for you and the audience. Does that change, or does your sense of the safe-space change in different sorts of institutions or different contexts?
A: Yes. Definitely, I think definitely. I started doing performance when I was in Washington D.C, and they were doing mostly interaction events, dances in galleries, that kind of work. Then, from there, the safe-space wasn’t really there. It kind of was there, because it’s a gallery, people expect something to happen.
S: You talk a lot about the archive, and thinking about the future. You asked something intriguing about technology: ‘is performance a technology?’ You link this to a performance model increasingly encoded and occupied by its archival presence.
A: Yes. That’s one of the main topics for my research and also during feedback with the responder. For me, it’s really important to acknowledge the past. For me, I will firstly say I’m Chinese. I want to start from there. Even though I’m here, I was born there. I grew up in China, I went to a boarding high school. Then I studied my BA and then I came to the UK.
A: Going back to technology and how performance is technology. It comes in relation to archive, that there is a constant strand of the archive setting a standard if you like; even though it’s amazing, and important to acknowledge, this information within the archive, at the same time, for young emerging artists and for people who are doing their research now, I question how can we acknowledge while not being overpowered by the archive.
S: You use a lot of costumes too, don’t you?
A: Yeah. I was really into heteronym characters, which is synonymous with developing other peoples characters which are real. They are from me, but they are not me. It’s not another persona, it’s still me. The body and the face are still mine. But because of all the layers that I’m putting on as protection, to present this body in a different way, during the situation. Pessoa’s book on ‘Heteronym’ was one of my inspirations. He speaks about his personal life and lack of self-care, he didn’t really take care of himself, but he developed these characters and took care of their lives instead.
S: I’m getting a real sense of your practice as a conversation.
A: In relation to identity, when we were all 7 months old, we were all the same, then, out of our different namings, all these people are categorized into the differences in society, these things then become embedded within the body and within the mind. Even though we don’t realise it. That’s the result of the disruption, and how can I position that in a really gentle way.