When Paul Chan won the Hugo Boss Prize in 2014, Badlands Unlimited, Chan’s publishing imprint, released a statement on its website: “Badlands asked Chan to comment on winning the prize and how he feels about the success. Chan replied, ‘I’m afraid the success comes from a complete misunderstanding of my work [frown emoji]’.” The response is typical of Chan: mediated, self-deprecating, searching, and somewhere between affected and sincere. But it poses a real question: How can we read Chan’s work, complete in all its caginess, its wry interpolations, its contradictions?
Though his Badlands Unlimited practice is most often conceptualized as a “retirement” or “break” from his art-making, it should be reframed as a natural development from his early work, inextricable from his post-Badlands work, and a crucial element to “reading” Chan’s practice as a whole. In turn, via his book-publishing itself and especially the impulses which drive it, we can most clearly read another under-considered aspect of his production: his identity as an Asian American. Though Chan may be one of the most high-profile American artists of Asian descent, his work is rarely read through a race-related lens, likely because of the absence of explicitly Asian markers in his oeuvre. But to miss that subtle strain is to misunderstand not only his own work by defaulting it to a race-neutral, i.e., white, reading, but to critically limit the range and potential of Asian American art production as a whole to its most explicit, visible, or legible aspects.
Paul Chan’s involvement in theoretical texts began long before he launched Badlands Unlimited in 2010, but there has always been a certain slipperiness to the way he approaches those texts. Just as he chose to respond to the Hugo Boss announcement through the mouthpiece of his own press, Chan began cloaking his work in the guise of others early in his career. Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier) (1999-2003), an early animation projection work, lifts its visual vernacular almost entirely from folk artist Darger’s multi-thousand-page treatise, In the Realm of the Unreal (c. 1909-1939). Chan’s take on Darger’s Vivian girls don the same pastel-colored dresses, calf-length socks, and blocky Mary Janes, feature the same ambiguously sexualized upskirt shots, and live out Fourier’s dream of utopian plenty before they are beat back by ceaseless cycles of violence. Though the color saturation in Happiness is kicked up a notch from Darger’s Realm, and treated with Chan’s signature limpid, loose-bodied lines, Chan himself has remarked that the work imagines what Darger would do if he were equipped with “an MFA and a computer.”Waiting for Godot in New Orleans (2007), Chan’s staging of the Beckett play performed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is another prime example of this stratagem of slipperiness in appropriation of text, as well as an early signal of his non-artworld-driven approach which would culminate with Badlands. The performances were not recorded, and Chan at least professed ambivalence about exhibiting documentation from the show. And though Chan’s rendition was critically acclaimed, racially and socio-economically diverse in both cast and audience, and, amazingly, staged to a full house each night, a crucial aspect of the work to Chan was the “shadow fund,” which matched the money raised for the play to distribute to local community groups, as well as his own pro-bono teaching at Xavier University and the University of New Orleans. Chan explained, “I knew we couldn’t take anything for granted, certainly not an audience,” because, in a time like Katrina, “who wants art?” In this, he seemed to wrap the true “work,” the fundraising and community engagement and assistance, in a kind of Trojan horse of an artwork. Chan seemed to say, the play was a Beckett work; the work of Paul Chan was something ulterior to it, if ultimately inextricable.
“Certain figures from … our shared cultural and intellectual history, say and make things that move me and provoke me to imagine things differently,” Chan has said about his interest in philosophical figures and texts. “[I] lose myself, in it, in them. I become not what I am. Almost to the point where I become a ghost.” Indeed, though Chan often cites elements of popular culture – Happiness is essentially scored, for instance, by Jay-Z – the majority of his reading list and the locus of his personal pantheon is distinctly Western, and almost exclusively white. In “los[ing] himself” and “becom[ing] a ghost” in the face of those particular figures, does Chan encourage a whitewashing of his own work? Ironically, that very desire to “lose himself” is crucially Asian American, echoing the manifold ways in which we have aspired to existing in predominantly white structures of legitimacy in order to reach acceptance. “Mom became a sports fan to provide for the family,” he recounts, of his childhood as one of a family of immigrants from Hong Kong in a predominantly white town. “We lived in a lower-middle-class suburb in Omaha, and if you said, ‘How about the Cowboys?’ you were O.K.”
I am isolating a distinctly Asian American impulse in Chan’s deployment of strategic inscrutability. In this particular tradition of Anti-Asian racism, Asians were/are seen as emotionless, autonomic, secretive – that is, we are literally unable to be read. But in Chan’s work, inscrutability is not only a victim’s game. For an early work, My Own Private Alexandria (2006), Chan read aloud philosophical texts, complete with breaths, fumbling, pauses, and mispronunciations. Elements of “ghosting” himself – or ventriloquizing – are certainly at play here, as well, as the words that he intones are entirely those of others. At the same time, a listener inevitably butts up against Chan’s imperfect reading, rendering it at the very least less “readable” – or entirely inscrutable. Further subverting the idea of legibility, Chan reads himself into the center of the texts, claiming or even subsuming them through the title’s possessive “my own.”
A method through which Chan induces that inscrutability is, to borrow the critic Calvin Tomkins’s term, “reckless reading.” “Part of the pleasure of reading Derrida is precisely that I do not have to understand him,” Chan says. “Comprehension is not the game. I don’t care what he thinks he’s saying – I want to read word for word, and pay attention so much that I begin to hallucinate.” This method – which purposefully centers Chan’s sometimes spurious interpretations rather than the author’s intentions – allows him to confidently collide figures who in all likelihood had no inkling of each other, such as the title characters in Happiness. Indeed, in relating his most seminal experience of art, Chan inevitably relays his first experience of Beckett, of being moved despite understanding the content little or not at all: “The combination of the cadence and the rhythms of the words coming at you, and the space and the lighting,” he says. “I was just gone…. I was after [the same] articulate speechlessness.” The power of a work of “articulate speechlessness,” Chan believes, is that it resists attempts to interpret or explain. If inscrutability of a people or thing hinges upon its being unfamiliar, foreign, outside, then Chan reclaims that illegibility as a positive trait – indeed, something to strive for.
Chan’s indeterminate sheathing of his own work in others’, as in Happiness or Waiting for Godot, shifts the paradigm for referencing theoretical texts: at the same time that he centers them, he also subverts, undermines, and has them irrevocably changed. Chan extends this ethos in his emphasis on piracy and alternative modes of dissemination. My Own Private Alexandria, for which Chan specifically chose texts that were then difficult to locate for free, along with even earlier efforts such as his releasing downloadable works and documentation related to Re: The_Operation (2002) and other artworks on his now-defunct website, are early examples of this inclination. And though a perfectly legal entity, that spirit of production and reproduction outside of the accepted or even existent bounds of contemporary art reaches full bloom in Badlands and his post-Badlands work. “Whatever they reject we distribute through our own site,” he told an interviewer after some of Badlands’s titles were censored by Apple due to inappropriate content. Indeed, Badlands should be read partly as an attempt to interject his own choice of texts into a field he so admires, adding, for instance, Aruna D’Souza and Larissa Pham to the canon of Derrida and Fourier. As a business operation, Badlands may also be the most straightforward indication of the political dimension to his work because of its demographic representation and the distribution of its capital. It employed a small, significantly Asian American staff, including the artist Ian Cheng as co-director and Matthew So as CFO, eventually expanding to include Ambika Subramaniam as head of research and development. It established its first physical location above Y.P. 99 Cents, the Asian-American-owned 99 cent store below its offices, and distributed its books through them.
But Badlands should not be read as simply a way to increase representation, whether by publishing Asian Americans or in their hiring. His slipperiness with theoretical texts and figures, which began before Badlands, continued afterward, newly-equipped with the often self-reflexive channel of his press. For example, an instance of Chan’s reckless reading gives us a central, and I argue, distinctly Asian American, tenet of his work with “Odysseus as Artist,” (2017) an essay on the Greek hero, which spawned the Bathers series, begun in 2018, which in turn led to the Badlands publication Odysseus and the Bathers (2019). “What makes [art] vulnerable to accusations of being useless, irrational, fraudulent, illusionary, even criminal,” writes Chan, “is also at heart what makes it meaningful in the broadest social sense. For it is precisely in how a work evokes, in form, the spirit of an ‘othermindedness’ that makes it radiant and enlivening.” “Othermindedness” is how Chan personally translates Odysseus’s signature trait of polytropos, literally something like “many-turning,” which other translators have called “much-wandering,” or “complicated.” Unlike other translators, however, Chan’s polytropos is specifically tied to illicitness and alien-ness, and even more, to Asian American-ness. In the essay, Chan recalls dumpster-diving next to a clothing store to retrieve credit-card numbers thrown out on paper receipts, and using that stolen information to order skateboard paraphernalia and books of Voltaire (how like him). “I’m not proud of what I did,” Chan writes. “But I’m not ashamed either. It was what I thought I had to do to cheat what fate had dealt me at the time, being the son of recent immigrants, living hand to mouth in Omaha, Nebraska.”
“Other”-ness, of course, is a long-running trope in descriptions of Asians, in general, and perhaps especially, within the US: we are foreign, exotic, alien. But even if the usage of the word is entirely coincidental, Chan has otherwise taken pains to couch his artistic philosophy in a spirit of other-mindedness, of forcing oneself or being forced to perceive and work in an alternative – or marginal – manner. In a 2016 essay, aptly titled “Second Nature,” Chan recalls being prescribed glasses but refusing to wear them, in an act of vain self-preservation. “I got used to squinting,” he writes. “New patterns of recognition developed as I practiced discerning qualities like tempo and velocity rather than shapes, sizes or colors. My field of vision slowly expanded…. The work I have made so far echoes this way of seeing.” This was a method, like the criminal credit-card scheme, devised specifically with the intention of surviving as an Asian American growing up in white suburbs – but one which also became a generative strategy critical in the creation, and therefore also interpretation, of his entire oeuvre. Though using an artist’s spoken or written words to explain their art is often a wrong-headed or incomplete way to approach the work, with Chan, it is an inevitability: his art production, though always heavily inflected by text, became inextricable or even secondary to it, post-Badlands.
It is important to note that Badlands is only the most visible and legible instantiation of a philosophy which I have tried to tease out of Chan’s entire oeuvre, and should be read as a way into the more difficult parts of his production. In its inextricability with a survival strategy; in its donning guises to buttress, undermine, explore, hide, or make sense; in its subservient sheathing in a predominantly white body of theory, I see a strain I can only mark as Asian American in the work of Paul Chan. At least, I do if I squint.