SOUHA MEI YAN

Souha M.Y. is a Chinese-Arabic-American experimental artist and musician from upstate New York currently living in Boston. Her work focuses on the sampling, reconstruction, and mediation of cultural artifacts through durational sound-based and installation-based art.

Website: https://m-y.house/

Artist Statement:

My work concerns the sampling, reconstruction, and mediation of cultural artifacts through durational sound-based and installation-based art. I am interested in how technology mutates and interacts with politics and language.

By manipulating cultural signifiers (such as language, pop culture, and media), I aim to meditate on and draw conclusions from their inherent roles and functions in society and how we interact with them. Focusing on topics such as geopolitics, gender, surveillance, and violence, my art deeply contends with my own identity as a queer, transgender, Chinese and Arabic person and its relationship to the dominant hegemony.

My work attempts to confront its own form through ephemerality and non-repeatability, focusing on disquieting pieces that are based in maximally long durations. I want the audience to recognize their own role as consumers of art; by emphasizing the durational aspect of the form (whether it be long-running looping projections, or poems that unfurl over an indefinite period of time), I want viewers to sit with the dissonance between passive and active viewing, and the questions implicit in being able to adequately 'consume' art.


Project Description:

With this grant, I would like to set up an installation that I have been planning since college called "8 Immortals."
8 Immortals is an 8 channel audio installation that plays off of my identity as a queer Chinese person raised in America.
8 Immortals takes the Chinese proverb, "八仙過海,各顯神通" ("8 immortals cross the sea, each revealing their divine powers"), and splits each Chinese character of it across 8 speakers, spaced in a circle. Each speaker plays its corresponding character, and the speakers play in a random order, one after another. The result is an endless series of mangled, disjointed Chinese, which, to a Western ear, would sound like 'authentic' Chinese. This randomness means that the 'correct' sequence of characters would only be played, on an ideal average, in an order of every 40,000 times. In essence, it will never be put back together.

The ideal set up for this installation is in a public gallery setting where it is allowed to play uninterrupted, allowing viewers to walk in between the speakers and stand in the middle of them.

This piece plays into my interests as an artist - mainly, chance, non-repeatability, and the interrogation of cultural signifiers and artifacts and how we interact with them. 8 Immortals was the first actual installation piece I had conceived in college, where I was majoring in computer science. I was motivated by the idea of working with randomness and ephemerality, specifically with the idea of making an installation that would never be the same twice and would leave each viewer with a different experience than the rest. Through this, 8 Immortals was a way to connect with a past life I never experienced. I stress 'connect' rather than 'reconnect' because there was never a connection in the first place; my father is from China and immigrated here as a child, he does not have fond memories of Guangdong, or his family, and frequently acts as if he is not Chinese. He refuses to speak the language, he refused to teach me it. This piece was my attempt at a coping mechanism - quite literally taking Chinese as a language and disassembling it, and then reassembling it into my experience of it (fragmented, overwhelming, impossible, etc). Through my initial research into this piece, I had to gather information on the Eight Immortals, who are influential figures in Chinese mythology, but this proved difficult through traditional, English-centric means; searching online in English only gave so many results before being useless. I had to find Chinese text and translate it to read more, and the fact that I had to view 'my' language through so many different, Westernized lenses pointed me to the need for a piece like this. Even inside the process of research, I was disassembling and reassembling language and parts of my identity.

The piece functions as a patch written in Pure Data, an open-source programming language for audio. It is fully complete, except for the realized speaker set up. It exists solely in my computer - I have the audio files and the program to randomly play them all set up, I just have never had the means to actualize this set up in real life. Ideally, I would use this grant to place this piece in an environment as I described above: public and interactive, letting it play out on its own. I would use this grant to procure the 8 speakers needed and set up a system to play the piece through them, and procure a space to let this installation live temporarily which would be publicly accessible.

When I first started working on this project, I was fascinated at the time by the artist Xu Bing's piece about fake Chinese characters that, to a Westerner who only speakers English, appear Chinese, but quite literally mean nothing. I thought about those characters in relation to my own cultural identity; reckoning with the feeling I ought to be on one side of the joke but am forcibly stuck on the other. My immigrant parents fought to assimilate and as a result I grew up cultureless. I had no bearing on either of my parent's cultures, and I constantly felt left out of my own cultures while also not fitting in with the dominant cultures where I grew up.

For a similar reason, this project would easily resonate with BIPOC who grew up mixed-race; many mixed race POC like myself frequently feel the tug-and-pull of being too much or too little of our identity, or we are viscerally seen as our identity by white supremacy while being disconnected from our cultural heritage. I see this piece as an opportunity to express a specific frustration within the Asian American experience in a highly conceptualized way. This art piece works to dismantle Chinese language in a disjointed way similar to how I've always experienced it, growing up as an Asian American in a family of immigrants who desperately wanted to assimilate into American culture. The lack of understanding, confusion, repeated attempts to decipher cultural signifiers, and lack of belonging are all part of a strong experience I've felt growing up, and I'm sure other POCs in Boston would feel similar emotions.