Art Meets Scholarship: Q&A with Tong Lam

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When Art Meets Scholarship in the Age of Digital Production: A Q&A with Tong Lam

Professor Tong Lam is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto. He is the author of A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949 (California 2011). He has recently been involved in a number of visual art projects, bringing art and scholarship into conversation. Some of his projects can be viewed here.

Dissertation Reviews caught up with him over the summer to chat about his ventures.

Dissertation Reviews: We noticed that you have exhibited you work in various museums and university galleries, as well as published a photo-essay book. All these are exciting but also indicate a rather unusual career trajectory for a historian. Are you moving away from conventional scholarly research altogether?

Tong Lam: Not at all. What I have been trying to do is to expand my intellectual horizons by bringing visual arts into scholarship. For me, art and scholarship are not mutually exclusive but can actually help to facilitate and illuminate one another. Historical scholarship is based on deep mining of archival data, oral sources, and, in some cases, ethnographic observation. Historical interpretation also involves empirical evidence, logical arguments, and conclusion. Visual arts, in contrast, operate in terms of associations, metaphors, allegories, and so forth. Much like literature, visual arts are more conducive to affect, empathy, emotions, and feelings. In short, in spite of their shared humanistic concerns, scholarship and art focus on different technical and imaginative skills. Still, in historical scholarship, we often talk about tentative conclusions, historical imagination, and the art of historical writing. In contemporary art training, meanwhile, a lot of emphasis is put on theory and research. In both practices, “interdisciplinary” and “multidisciplinary” have pretty much become the norm. All these suggest that the two practices are compatible and it can be very productive to bring them into dialogue.

DR: Can you briefly introduce your current visual art projects?

TL: I am working on a variety of projects that examine the distressed landscapes of urban transformation, dispossession, and consumption. My first photo-essay book, Abandoned Futures (2013), focuses on ruins and ruination in industrial and post-industrial societies. That project is still continuing, with a special focus on Cold War ruins. Currently, my most focused art project is called Precarious Living, which documents the politics of resistance in an urban village—a historical legacy of China’s socialist era—in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. I am also heavily involved in a collaborative project with historian Tina Chen and filmmaker Thomas Lahusen called Projecting China, which investigates the history of outdoor film projection in the PRC. Funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, this multimedia project is now in its final production stage and is expected to yield a documentary film, photographic exhibitions, a photo-essay book, research articles, and other visual products. I have other smaller projects or project ideas, too, but these are the main ones at the moment.
SHOP_TongLam-1Using an everyday image as a light source, this photograph from the Precarious Living series asks whether fictional images may be closer to reality in a society where state-sanctioned facts are often just spectacle advertised by urban billboards and hoardings.

DR: We did not realize that you are working on other media outside photography. Can you explain how you select one medium over the other?

TL: Photography certainly occupies a special place in my heart. But I see myself as a visual artist more than a photographer these days. Instead of limiting myself to a single medium, I try to evaluate the needs of a specific project and then select the medium and technologies accordingly. For example, even if the products of Precarious Living are mostly photographs, the making of those photographs actually involves multiple video cameras and projectors on site.

DR: Do you need to spend a lot of time at field sites for these projects?

TL: For Projecting China, our production team spent two summers in Sichuan. Some members of the team, myself included, also visited various field sites on other occasions. As for the Precarious Living project, I visited the field site at least twice a year and stayed for a week to a few weeks each time in the past two years. This will probably last for a few more years before the project is completed.

DR: Many of your projects are related to China. Are there any particular challenges in shooting videos and photographs in China?

TL: The late China historian John Fairbank once mentioned that China was a journalist’s dream but a statistician’s nightmare. For visual artists, I think China is a vast visual laboratory for it allows us to see and engage social and political issues that are not as visible elsewhere. But those opportunities also come with new challenges and responsibilities. Like historians and anthropologists, for example, we need to navigate around a complex and confusing social and political terrain just on the question of accessibility alone. Similarly, we also have the ethnical responsibility of not endangering our subjects, or harming any individuals and organizations that try to help us along the way.

DR: Do you have any formal artistic training?

TL: I do not have an MFA or BFA degree. When I was a little child, I was sent to artist studios for about two hours every weekend. There was nothing super serious of course as these were just art classes for children. This lasted for almost a decade until I was about 17, when I felt that I did not like any of the work that I had produced. During that period, I learned from different art teachers, themselves professional artists, in Macao, covering outdoor sketching, watercolors, oil paintings, Chinese paintings, etc. I still remember that every time I switched to another teacher, I had to start from the basics—pencil and charcoal—all over again. As a kid, I felt that drawing with pencil and charcoal without colors was hardship! Yet, soon after I finished university, I totally got hooked on black and white photography, particularly the kind of candid streetscape and social reportage of the American documentary tradition. I am still very nostalgic about those darkroom days!

DR: Who are your intended audience?

TL: It depends. Some of my projects are intended to preach to an educated general audience while others do the opposite. Abandoned Futures, for instance, was invited and commissioned by a commercial publisher, and it is on the popular end of my work. Recently, selected images from Precarious Living were exhibited at one of Berlin’s state museums, as well as in galleries at Duke and Denison universities. Also, I am planning to edit some documentary videos and visual essays based on footages and images that I have produced over the years for undergraduate classroom use. I think visual material is a great way to reach this generation of students.

DR: What are you trying to accomplish with your visual art projects?

TL: I particularly appreciate arts that are intellectually provocative. As an artist, I try to find ways of making images that can disorient and destabilize the audience. In so doing, I hope the audience would begin to ask new questions and rethink our surroundings more critically. Having said that, I cannot emphasize enough that I think it is very important to create images and visual narratives that are emotionally connected to the audience. I really think that emotional responses, and yes, aesthetic pleasure, are pivotal in experiencing art. But some people may disagree with me on this.
SHOP_TongLam-2Erasure. The remnant of a wall map of Eastern Europe in a defunct Soviet military base in the former East Germany.

DR: Indeed. How would you respond to those who argue that aesthetic pleasure is a dangerous thing? I am sure you know that there is a long history of critiquing spectacle.

TL: There is indeed a long history in which the aesthetic and the political are regarded as oppositional. This can be traced back even before Guy Debord, the master critic of spectacle. In the field of photography, Susan Sontag’s skepticism of images also comes to mind, even though her view changed somewhat towards the end of her life. Still, many visual studies scholars, from Jacques Rancière to Ariella Azoulay, also argue that we need to move beyond this binary constraint, and I share those views. In fact, making art is an opportunity for me to explore the relationship between aesthetics and politics, without simply assuming that they are contradictory. And, for me, one way to engage this question is to find ways to create artwork that induce both aesthetic pleasure and critical thinking, and to avoid presenting visual short-hands without any context. That is why I think provocative and disruptive images can constitute an effective way of inviting the audience to become active creators of meaning rather than passive consumers of spectacle. All in all, we really should not underestimate the political and transformative potential of aesthetic experiences.

DR: How would you characterize your own experience of creating art? Is it different from writing monographs or scholarly essays?

TL: We scholars often talk about how narrow our audiences are, even though we keep doing things in the same old way because we are embedded in a certain institutional structure. Sometimes, we may even be writing for a handful of specialists in our own field. As an artist, I feel I can just do my own thing, and that experience has been very liberating. Perhaps that is partly because I am not making art for a living, and I am not as close to the institution of contemporary art as most professional artists. So, I do need to acknowledge that I am in a privileged position to practice art. Equally important for me, too, is that I get to work with other artists, curators, and colleagues far outside my field. Right now, I am even collaborating with a music composer on a small project. All these are very rewarding experiences for me to say the least.

DR: How is your work received by your own institution and colleagues? Are there any professional ramifications that you would like to discuss?

TL: In many ways, I am fortunate enough to be in a large institution with open-minded colleagues. Most of my colleagues are very receptive of my endeavor, but the real challenge is to convince them that these are not something that I am doing in my spare time, as they often like to think. Indeed, in addition to writing research articles related to these visual projects, I am working on an unrelated monograph. Nonetheless, these visual art projects, some of which are funded by recognized research grants, are not just a hobby or something on top of my research. Rather, however experimental and different, they represent another approach. Sometimes, I think it is really interesting that although we have been talking about interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches for decades now, those terms, as it turns out often have rather narrow meanings for some people.

DR: Do you think, then, that the academic world is not quite ready for visual art as a mode of intellectual inquiry after all?

TL: I suspect that it depends on discipline and subfield. When historians talk about the visual turn from a few decades ago, they often refer to the use of visual material as historical evidence and as a teaching resource, rather than creating visual art themselves. There are of course historians who are involved in making entertainment programs such as those on the History Channel. But that is not what I am doing either. Nevertheless, this is not always the situation in some other disciplines. A case in point is anthropology, where visual anthropology has very much become an acceptable mode of inquiry. In fact, they even offer degree programs along those lines, even though visual anthropological projects are not always the same as art projects. History, on the contrary, remains highly uneven, and it is more challenging to carry out such experimental and creative work. At the same time, what is tenure for if one does not take risks and experiment with something new?

DR: Historical research entails the use of empirical evidence. Are there any elements in these research-driven art projects that resemble conventional historical research?

TL: Definitely. In these projects, in addition to using textual material from published and archival sources during the research process, whenever appropriate, oral history, ethnographic data, and archival footage are also used. In some of the projects, I am also working on standalone research articles or book chapters. Regardless, visual arts, which open up new possibilities and bring new insight to scholarship, involve modes of inquiry and storytelling that cannot simply be judged by the criteria of historical writing.

DR: Digital humanities are receiving a lot of attention these days. It sounds like your art projects also involve quite a bit of digital technology. Would you like to reflect on how digital humanities interact with your work?

TL: When I first learned photography, it was all analog. As much as I like film cameras and the darkroom process, the time commitment simply makes it impossible to coexist with my research and teaching obligations. But digital technology has changed all that, making the production of arts far more democratic. As for digital humanities, historians have predictably put a lot of emphasis on data-related issues, such as big-data and so forth. However, I think the digital humanities should cover more than data gathering and processing. Art, for example, is one such area as it involves new ways of image creation and communication with profound implications. There is of course quite a bit of discussion of these issues in visual and media studies already.

DR: Are you currently supervising any PhD students who are working on visual projects? Is there anything that academic institutions could do to support these initiatives?

TL: I have students using visual material. But creating visual art is a whole different matter, and I am not supervising students in this direction at the moment. Since there is so much at stake, my advice to junior scholars, at least in my field, is to do this only after you have tenure. But I hope this will change in a decade or less. That said, in the past couple of years, I have received quite a few inquiries from graduate students in anthropology, architecture, sociology, and visual studies whose dissertations are anchored on visual art projects. Generally, they just wanted to get in touch or were seeking advice on very specific issues. It is reassuring that there are so many young scholars out there starting their academic careers in this direction who are supported by their supervisors and institutions. I should mention that the American Historical Association has recently drafted some guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship. Among other things, the AHA encourages digital scholars to explain and document their activities. Ultimately, it is up to us to craft out a space for new methods and initiatives, whatever that maybe. But visual art, unlike digital technology, should not be seen as a tool. Therefore, while I believe that visual art can breed insights into scholarship, I do not think it should be fully incorporated into our profession. To stay creative, I think art should always operate at the margins, carrying risks and being experimental.

Image: An image from Tong Lam’s Precarious Living series, which documents the politics of depossession and resistance in an urban village in Guangzhou, China.

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