Casey Tang (b. 1984) had us over for a homemade Thai larb dinner and we discussed how his art practice interweaves between ecology, forestry,and Social Practices. From planting a forest garden at Socrates Sculpture Park, to mapping the sounds of the universe, Tang's works escape the constraints of traditional mediums. He has exhibited at the Queens Museum, New York, Charpa Gallery, Valencia, Socrates Sculpture Park, New York and is the recipient of the 2013 New Vision Award from He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen.
Do you have a dealer, how have you been making art lately?
I don’t have a dealer per se. A few people I know like some of my work and have shown it and sold it. I took a summer course in Asian art history back in 2005 and my professor was originally from China. He was of the China new wave generation and knew a lot of those artists. In 2012 he put me in a show he co-curated with Feng Boyi at the He Xiangning Museum in Shenzhen, China. I won an award there and some money. In exchange they took the pieces I exhibited in to their permanent collection. From there I got a few more shows in Asia and in Europe and got into more institutional collections. I have an informal dealer based in Spain. In the late 80s, Christo wrapped her house in the Spanish countryside while she lived in it. I asked her how was it and she said “dark”.
I have not been making art lately. Forest gardens have been taking most of my time as of late. I have been doing more reading because I’m trying to change my art making methodologies.
What work do they have in the collection?
They have an object from the Mistakes archive and they also have an edition of First Sounds, a project I made in 2012. It was more of an exercise to work with scientists. It’s kind of like an American folk art object in a way, it’s a piano roll made by this guy named Bob Billing of Sierra Nevada Rolls. He’s a retired electric engineer who loved automated instruments and he built his own machine to scan old piano rolls and reprint them to preserve them. Then there’s this cosmologist, Mark Whittle who recreated the first sounds of the universe. So basically he translated those sounds and they are filtered through the (EDM harmonics) of the piano and then Bob printed it. It’s 70-feet long.
How does it work?
It depicts the first 500,000 years in the Age of the Universe; we moved it 50 octaves up to the range of human hearing. The universe started off about the size of a quarter with a tremendous amount of energy and it expanded. You can hear this movement and see this on the scroll. The notes start off rapidly in the higher octave and moves progressively into the lower octaves with fewer and fewer notes so more and more space and less energy.
Why is it presented in a scroll?
The idea was that a player piano could play it. They showed it at the Queens Museum and we used the Midi file. The piano is supposed to hold the note. Every time you see a note it’s actually held forever, it never goes way, it just decays overtime. So essentially what you hear is a giant chord that gets denser and denser. It’s very droney. The initial idea was to have an automated analog instrument playing a natural phenomenon for 24hrs.
What other recent projects have you been working on?
I’ve been working on this self-sustaining food forest at Socrates Sculpture Park and also helping a friend with naturalistic plantings for her large-scale project.
That’s a rather different trajectory!
During college I took a bunch of anthropology courses taught by this brilliant professor from Oxford. His classes made me question the various invisible infrastructures that shapes are daily existence. I came to the conclusion during college that self-sufficient resources equal freedom. If people could create self-sustaining resources then people wouldn’t need to rely on money so much, so my attraction to those systems were for social reasons. This led me to live in the woods for a month right after college and I studied sustainable design with the guy who literally wrote the books on edible forest gardening.
What was that like?
I learned a lot of landscape techniques, sustainable system theory, mixed with some basic wilderness training. There was a lot of thinking about how energy flows through a system, entropy, redundancies, measuring land, and looking for patterns in nature.
Without electricity, you go to sleep when the sun sets and wake up when the sun rises. In the drive back down to NYC I stopped at a convenience store. It was the first store I stepped into for a month and that was fucking crazy! When you live in the woods all you see is brown, green, blue with splashes of white and red. You kind of adapt to it, when I stepped into the convenience store I realized there isn’t much pink and red in nature and you are overloaded by visual information in the modern world. I became hyper sensitive to advertising; everything is yelling at you by creating as much visual noise as possible. We phase it out, but its still there.
How do you know about foresting?
From the course, I also did a stint doing ecological restoration for the NYC Parks department I used to work on a sustainable farm, and also reading about it too much. After getting back from an exhibition in Spain I spent some time trying to combine the naturalistic and forest gardening systems together for Socrates. I don’t think about it really as my art, it’s just something I do.
What is the line between your art and your practice? Is it land art? Is it earthwork?
They are just categories that may shift over time. For me, forest gardening is not abstracted enough or layered enough and it’s too directly functional to be good art according to current standards. It might be using some art methodology, but its not taking it far enough.
Social Practice is very literal; it can almost be viewed as design projects. It’s a "one to one"; its very basic in terms of its transmission device but perhaps the similarities it shares with the contemporary artist in art history text books or “art art” is that it is pushes boundaries but mostly social and not in visual languages or human expression. It may even be the first to do something and it is subversive which a lot of “art art” isn’t anymore but badly pretends to be.
The current system of contemporary art rewards contemporary artist who create novel transmission devices. That is, the method of communication. The transmission method is more important then the message and the more abstract but pin-pointed the method, the better. This allows for more lines of flight. It’s like creating a space for contemplation by shaking things up a bit and not like a lecture from dead words. That is the current game. I’m currently studying Zen to extract communication methods. There are a lot of parallels between Zen, ritual clowns, contemporary art and its role in culture.
What is the goal of your edible forest?
Temperate forest gardens is relatively new in the west/modern world. It occurred to me that many temperate forest gardens don’t look like forests, they look like messy vegetable gardens. People who start these are not thinking about aesthetics, they are thinking about functionality. In Japan, there is a purely functional agriculture system that mimics nature called Satoyama and there is the spectrum of Zen gardens that are tools for contemplation and that also mimics nature. I was thinking about these systems with two different users, goals, and aesthetic forms. With the forest garden in Socrates I was trying to combine the functionality and design strategies of a forest garden with naturalistic planting design methods and aesthetics. So the idea is to essentially create a more naturalistic looking, pretty edible forest garden to Trojan horse people into liking forest garden by creating this emotional connection to it, just like the Highline but with an agricultural angle. Not a lot of people have that with a forest garden because it looks like a shitty, messy garden.
I’m also collecting and storing rare perennial vegetables in hopes I can start breeding new perennial vegetables.
Can this be recreated in the backyard?
Yes, Im actually creating one in my backyard. In Indonesia they call them kitchen gardens, they have versions of them in China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America, and Vietnam. Some of them were bigger to support villages.
There is an author, Charles C. Mann, who thinks the Amazon is an artifact, that is, its man made. It’s such a western bias to think that there are these high concentration of medicinal plants in the Amazon, all near dwellings and they just happened to be there but he argues this is evidence people created it. What if you design these sustainable systems with little maintenance involved. Like if Central Park was originally designed not just for leisurely strolls but designed specifically for intensive foraging and the system was self-sustaining. What sort of wide effects would could that have?
So can viewers come and forage?
It’s in Socrates Sculpture Park and that’s open a lot. I haven’t work out the foraging part. Figuring out distribution might be the next stage of the project since free is not sustainable. People don’t care about free stuff. It’s weird. They either have to work and be a part of it. It makes me think about creating sustainable economies based on a digital platform. I thought that implementing de-centralized, self-sufficient and, self-renewing resources could make a pretty significant social change but recently I think it even bigger effect is a new digital based, currency for sustainable economies. At lot of sustainable people think about bartering or maybe micro-economies as an alternative but money was created because bartering was too simple for our increasing specialized society.
Money is the greatest fiction, everything is a fiction, culture is a fiction. Money is one of the greatest inventions because it allows for exchange. I can buy groceries here, go to Japan, have someone drive me somewhere who I don’t know and have someone cook me something who I don’t know. On the flip side of the coin, because money is an intermediator, it has the potential to distance and remove human contact; it can and is very good at dehumanizes people. It has the potential where you can buy a child prostitute or it can fund space exploration.
That’s really dark.
Yeah, it made me think that maybe we need a new currency.
Do we even need paper currency anymore?
It’s all a story and a fiction. Maybe money isn’t the right thing. Money is the medium between point A and B and maybe we can just replace the conduit. Money has a design flaw because it lets people be huge assholes and maybe it even encourages it. We need to redesign money where it has a built-in asshole blocker. This could be totally wrong. I haven’t totally thought this through but so much of peoples’ thoughts and actions are dictated by a framework and money is a big one.
Who assigns value to things and why do they have that power?
It’s weird to think about how it’s all made up. It’s an old established game with real penalties. But it’s all a fiction, its really bizarre. I can start a currency of old Iphone 4s backed only by rocks picked up from Walmart parking lots if enough people believed in it.
These days everyone is moving towards technology and you are moving towards nature.
I work in technology and as technology gets more advance it starts getting closer to natural systems. I like thinking about nature because it’s the best example of a sustainable system and it sustains us. We need it to actually survive; we can’t live off of servers and data (yet). Im also partially, sort of a doomsday dude.
How does this relate to your other work?
On one level, thinking in systems, fitting things together. On another level, subject base; thinking about the proliferation of systems and its impact on individual humans and the deterioration of natural landscape., the relationship between man and nature. For my most recent project I created a short video for the Queens Museum. It takes place between a ghost tour at Slater Mill, the proto-typical factory in America and Chongqing, China a newer megacity. Both places were established because of their location near rivers. Slater Mill is supposed to be hunted because of all the workers that died due to the horrid working conditions. They have a demonologist on staff. He's the main guy in the video.
What were you trying to portray through this video?
I was trying to connect two radically different points in the history of industrial capitalism; it takes place between the proto-typical factory in America and (Chongqing), a newer megacity. I wanted to highlight the similar effects the system has even though there is a tremendous difference in time and geography.
Slater Mill, was created right before George Washington became president. The mill helped America gain its independence by creating its own industry, which stimulated its economies. Centuries later a lot of producers started looking for cheaper production and left America for China. Because of those industries, China has a rising middle class but also China is freaking out now because the labor force is shrinking and getting more expensive so now they are looking for cheaper labor. It’s like a hot potato that countries pass along except the game is faster now.
The score at the end was influence by Afro-futurism and African music. A lot of musicians in Africa adapted their traditional songs to western instruments to form new genres of music. Taking this model I had someone transcribe a guqin song to a modern western instrument, the synth. Usually when countries modernize it’s the other way around. Countries will play western songs on their traditional instruments as some sort of kitschy, world music jam. By reversing that action, its almost like hacking an instrument by making a western instrument sound foreign. I was also thinking about soundscapes and how music defines places.
The cinematography towards the end plays with the same idea just visually. Its imbued with Asian aesthetics: tracking, panning, long takes, small figures in context and overpowered by their environment, emphasis on horizontal perspective instead of deep perspective, emphasis on feeling and abstraction, “Abstracted Reality” rather then linear narrative.
How did you end up choosing this city?
I told a China architecture, urban, development expert/researcher what I was looking for in a Chinese city and he recommended I go to Chongqing. It’s located in the middle of China. The government is relocating a lot of people in that region into the city and pouring money into it to try to connect the rich coastal cities to the poorer western cities.
The city is weirder then a lot of the other Chinese cities, its newer, feels less westernize and hasn’t been frequented by that many foreigners. When I got there it was super foggy and smelled like weird metal. When my fixer picked me up at the airport I asker her “why does it smell like metal” and she replied, “what smell?” At night they turn all of the lights off in the high-rises and the skyline goes black. It’s just black on black. It look’s like a ghost town or maybe a very sleepy city.
So what music do you listen to?
It used to be a lot of African music, I used to study African guitar styles but lately it’s mostly rap and traditional music from different countries. And more ambient music, I’m getting old.