Message from Ping Chong
In 1992, Carlos Gutierrez-Solana, then director of Artists Space in Lower Manhattan, asked me to create a visual arts installation titled A Facility for the Channeling and Containment of Undesirable Elements. A few weeks before the opening, he asked me to make a performance piece to go with it. As an enticement, he told me he had virtually no budget for the piece. Well, it’s hard to say no to Carlos, so I agreed. I had just come back from teaching a 10-day intensive workshop in Amsterdam, where my students included young people from all over the world. The one requirement for the workshop was that they spoke English.
We worked, ate and played together for 10 days. In the evenings, we would sit in one of the many charming “brown” or “white” bars in Amsterdam and talk about everything from food to politics to sex. During one of these evenings it suddenly struck me that I had all along been hearing all these different languages and English flying back and forth across the table, and I thought: Here we are, a group of people from all over the world, from different cultures and experiences, engaged in a constructive and collective endeavor – the exploration of artistic expression. We were not shouting at each other nor killing each other. We were learning about each other. I wondered that night in the bar whether it was possible to make a work using multiple languages, testifying to the history of lives lived and the phenomena of culture itself. I stored this thought in the back of my mind for a later date, not knowing that day would arrive in the form of Carlos Gutierrez-Solana few weeks later.
So I set to work on what would become the first Undesirable Elements. My approach wasn’t scientific. I asked friends to introduce me to bi-lingual people and one person led to another. The first cast was Cochise Anderson, Eva Gasteazoro, Trinket Monsod, Hiromi Sakamoto, Tania Salmen, Anna Seckinger, and Olga Shuhan. Angel Gardner joined a bit later but was there earlier on, too. We took this first journey together and I thank them for their support and involvement in helping realize this piece.
Since then I have traveled around the country and beyond, and created nearly 50 original works in the series. The process is deceptively simple. I interview people within a community who come from different cultures –broadly defined. I ask them about where they are from, the history of their cultures, their experiences living in the community where we are making the piece. From these interviews I weave a performance text that the individuals perform as an ensemble.
In 2002, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Undesirable Elements and my 30th anniversary as an independent artist, I asked Talvin Wilks to collaborate on making a production with some of the memorable participants from past Undesirable Elements productions. And to complete the circle, I decided to join the cast myself for the first time.
Undesirable Elements has taken me to places – geographic, psychic, and spiritual – that I never imagined and it continues to inspire me. I look forward to future encounters with the “undesirables” around the world.