Kenneth Tam often casts men from online platforms like Craigslist or Reddit, asking them to perform actions that he carefully scripts for them. In this interview for Living Content, he explains the production process for his videos; he talks about the awkwardness and the comical situations that arise from these circumstances, and about the importance of striking the right balance between scripting and improvisation. Through this balance, Tam sheds light on the deeply embedded social coding of masculinity in his subjects as well as in himself.
Kenneth Tam lives and works in Brooklyn. New York
Adriana Blidaru: Here we are, at the beginning of 2020. Looking back, what would you say have been some of the most important stepping stones in your career in the past decade?
Kenneth Tam: Looking back at the start of 2010, I can’t help but cringe a bit! I was in my second and final year of grad school and still had many questions about my work and its direction. I was much less focused on jump-starting my career than perhaps most other people in a similar position of finishing their MFAs. I was more preoccupied with finding semi-stable income than anything else (remember this was still very much in the period of the great recession).
Leaving school, probably the most helpful thing for my career was maintaining a close relationship with one of my most influential faculty mentors, Bruce Hainley. He is a phenomenal writer and teacher, having taught in some of the most prestigious programs on both coasts, and mentored countless artists who have gone on to make quite a large impact. I was fortunate enough to have made work that caught his eye, and his support opened many doors for me early on. I like to think that he continues to offer his support from behind the scenes.
Easily the biggest year of my career so far came in 2015, when a number of opportunities came my way. I found out I would be participating in the following year’s Made in LA Hammer Biennial. I also won a large grant from an arts organization in LA (one of the city’s few direct grants to artists), and lastly was accepted into the Core Program Residency in Houston. The Hammer show was tremendous for opening things up for me, as the following year I was invited to do two institutional solos (at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art) and also started working with my current gallery - Commonwealth and Council. I moved back to NY in 2017, and was accepted into LMCC’s Workspace residency.
That helped connect me to a number of local curators and arts professionals that I still maintain relationships with. I participated in my first institutional show in NY at Sculpture Center earlier this year, and that was the first proper presentation of my work here, which is also how you got to know my practice. Moving forward I have two institutional solos this year, so I am definitely looking forward to this next decade!
AB: That’s true! When I first saw your video-installation All of M at Sculpture Center, I remember thinking ‘how unusual is this work.’ I was certainly intrigued. Now, a consistent line of interest that runs through many of your video works, including the one mentioned, is to investigate how masculinity is performed and reenacted through social norms. Can you offer a bit of context into how you became interested in this subject in the first place?
KT: The video work I was making during and immediately after school was focused on creating unusual intimacies with people I was meeting off of internet postings, mainly via Craiglist. I was interested in the performativity of the body, but had no interest in making actual live performance work. I was interested in enacting certain kinds of uncertainties and vulnerabilities with the body, and the encounters I was creating with strangers on Craigslist put myself into what felt like very uncharted social and artistic terrain.
There is a long history of performance art created by men who use their bodies in ways that (perhaps unintentionally) mark their power, or sense of perceived invulnerability that emboldened them to take certain kinds of risk. This may have involved either physical or psychological harm, but their sense of control over a situation was never in doubt. There was a certain kind of imperviousness to the way they used their bodies, perhaps as a result of never having to question their place in the world and taking for granted the long inheritance of masculine authority, aka the white patriarchy. Perhaps another way to put it is that the work felt very macho.
I found I was much more drawn to work by female performance artists, who didn’t come from a position of power, and who used their work to interrogate the way their bodies were objectified, marginalized, misrepresented, etc. Perhaps this was the product of being Asian, and never fully believing that I could assume the dominant masculinities that were performed by others. I think over time, as I continued to make the Craigslist work, I was questioning the kinds of spaces my body could occupy, and how the performance of certain kinds of masculinities were being enacted or broken down through my interactions. In 2015 I made the video with my father, specifically because I wanted to interrogate questions about my own masculine inheritance, and to use physical intimacy to provoke a conversation with the primary male figure in my life. That charted a new path for my work that I still am largely on.
AB: It’s very interesting to hear you mention these historical references and how you see your work in relation to them. What do you consider to be a good balance between scripting an experiment and allowing improvisation? Maybe you would want to address what are some of the moments that totally undermined your expectations?
KT: While I do rely quite heavily on improvisation, scripting is integral to the kinds of performances I’m interested in. The improvised responses of my participants almost always originate from the social scripting that they’ve been rehearsing for most of their lives as men, whether they are aware of this or not. All I am trying to do is shift their performances, so that what once felt natural now presents itself as scripted. The improvisation becomes necessary when my participants have to adjust to an unusual situation or activity, one that challenges them to respond in a way that isn’t rehearsed through their socialization as men. So the relationship between improvisation and scripting in my videos is ultimately quite fluid, and they constantly play off of each other.
One activity that stands out is from ‘Breakfast in Bed.’ I have the men go around the room describing each person’s physical appearance to that individual. The activity actually began as something I called ‘complimentary whispering’, which was just that - the men would take turns whispering compliments to each other. That produced so much awkwardness and discomfort that I decided to pare it back, and instead asked the men to simply describe the other person’s physical appearance, without them needing to be compliments. The activity seemed benign on the surface, but the responses it produced said so much about how they were trained to look at and evaluate other men. You could tell that, for most of my participants, this was the first time they were transposing into language all the unspoken markers of masculinity that they judged others and themselves by. The results were humorous, uncomfortable and revealing. It was astounding.
AB: Absolutely. On screen, these interactions that you’re setting up between these men become intimate right away. And they are awfully awkward and funny but - most importantly, I think - they end up highlighting a very sharp self-awareness. And this also includes the viewer, who becomes hyper-aware of his own expectations from the men on the screen. So, I’d be curious to know: what makes for a successful outcome for all the parts involved?
KT: It’s hard to define any particular set of markers that would indicate ‘success’ for the interactions I enact. I do think that I try to create situations where the outcome is never totally predictable and lead to spaces that will surprise, and even move me. Perhaps the goal is to produce an experience that not only exceeds the social scripting of my participants, but to create something that is complex and unable to be broken down in a simplistic way. Put differently, I find myself often looking for interactions that I cannot easily describe or even readily understand.
AB: Do you feel any kind of responsibility for the men involved?
KT: This idea of responsibility is complicated. While I am certainly responsible for the situations that are produced for the camera and the entire production involved behind the camera, I leave my participants with a great deal of agency over how they choose to perform themselves. I think it’s important to understand that my participants are not performing roles that I’ve cast for them, but are responding to how they think they should be performing, based on their own social identifications of gender, race, class, etc. In that way, I function less like a conventional director trying to coax a particular kind of performance out of my actors, and assume a more observational, almost anthropological position. This way, the audience is studying not only the behavior of my participants, but perhaps also their own responses and biases.
Of course, I have a large role to play so even if I’m no longer in front of the camera, I try to allow for my own position to be up for scrutiny as well. Now, there are always certain ethical considerations that need to be accounted for when working with other people and creating representations of them for an audience, and I try to be very sensitive to these issues when I’m recording with my participants. But ultimately their performances are really their own, and I think if a work is successful they deserve a large amount of credit.
AB: You recently became a dad – did this change your perception at all on the topics you are dealing with in your work?
KT: I think it’s too early to tell. To be honest we were hoping to have a daughter, perhaps not-so-secretly to avoid all the complications that are involved with the socialization of young men in this culture, and the kinds of violence that come with it. I say this as someone who is largely a byproduct of the same culture and has experienced some of this violence firsthand. I think the most immediate effect his birth has had on my work is that many friends have asked if he will be a participant in a future project of mine, and my answer right now is a definitive no. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about the experience of raising a male child, and the ways I will perhaps find myself implicated in some of the same issues I’m looking at in my work.
AB: I’m very curious as well, so perhaps I’ll return with some follow-up questions in a couple of years. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear more about the project that you’re currently working on. From what I have seen from our studio visit, this specifically relates to how Asian masculinity is perceived in an American context. This is something that you also mentioned earlier in our conversation; your experience growing up as an Asian American man in the US and the influence that this had on your practice. So can you tell me a bit more about this?
KT: It will actually be two separate projects that will look at ideas about Asian-American masculinity, one at the Queens Museum and the other at The Kitchen’s offsite space at Queenslab in Ridgewood. The first will take a similar approach to past projects. I will work with participants that I meet through online spaces to talk about Asian-American masculinity more broadly and try to find ways to re-imagine it through the lens of American history.
The second (as I’m envisioning it now) will be a choreographed dance with trained professionals, so a capital ‘P’ Performance. I’m looking at the rituals involved in certain Asian-American social practices, specifically those performed as initiation ceremonies in all-Asian college fraternities. Masculinity is one arena in the larger process of assimilation, and the performance will engage with the very real violence that can come from that idea.
I think this turn towards working with a more specific subset of masculinity is a natural one; I feel like all my work comes first from a place of interrogating my own subjectivity and identity. I also wanted to look at the larger issue of inequality amongst masculinities - not all are afforded the same privileges on the ‘patriarchy spectrum.’ Some are certainly more marginalized than others and markers of race and class are constantly there to complicate these positions.
I will admit to feeling slightly nervous about making work that looks at Asian men. It’s a group that rarely receives any attention and when they are addressed it’s usually done in a pejorative or derisive way. While I am in no way trying to speak for an entire category of individuals, their absence in the culture-at-large makes me particularly sensitive to their representation but also gives an added urgency to the projects.