Why this artist is on a quest to lay her vulnerabilities bare.
Fei Liu. Courtesy "the kind old Korean woman who stopped and took my photo in Seoul."
Winters in Harbin—the seat of China's northernmost province, where the Black Dragon River flows and pharmaceutical giants run industry—are known to breach sub-zero temperatures. Once, in 1989, when the weather dipped to negative thirty degrees Fahrenheit, a three-year-old girl cries when the school bell rings, because her parents, who she's told moved West on her behalf, aren't outside waiting to pick her up. In 1992, with a grandparent in each hand, she leaves the capital and its milieu (which, today, is still inextricable from the Russian railroad workers that migrated one century before) to rejoin them in sunny Santa Clara, only to avoid their foreign touch and to refuse cuddling in their American bed.
These are the stories artist Fei Liu tells me as we walk the length of Prince Street in SoHo, a Marlboro Light between her fingers and a leather jacket snug on her back. Shortly after, Liu continues, she adopted the English name Kristy, which, like the Baby Sitters Club character she adored reading, starts with the letter 'K.' "I was tired of being made fun of," Liu said, recounting horror stories of classmates—largely, alarmingly, Asian-American—who ridiculed her accent. "They absorbed racism from our classmates and passed it on to people like me, who were fobby. It was a pyramid of oppression."
Today, lifetimes later, one in which Liu works odd UX design jobs and teaches courses at the New School, storytelling remains central to what Liu does—and it's a practice she wants everyone to explore. In fact, Liu plans on building a tool that illuminates the "aspects of stories that most people haven't thought about," a mechanism she'll be cultivating at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany over a two-and-a-half-month residency this summer.
"I try to be as public about myself as I can," she said. From her stream-of-consciousness Facebook posts, to a podcast episode in which Small Data Squad aired her internet footprint from LiveJournal days past, Liu's activities both on- and offline confirm the admission. In the age of digital media, which holds its participants accountable to the narratives they broadcast, Liu's public quest to unearth vulnerabilities both hidden and forgotten prompts us to consider the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell others still, and the ones we tell ourselves.
Fei Liu, Analysis of Deduce Your Own Adventure, A Sherlockian, old-fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure Book (2013). Courtesy the artist.
Like many born in the 1980s, Liu witnessed an impending wave of alternative cultures that crested along the internet's shores in the decades to follow, granting her fluency in the nascent landscapes of the cyberverse—knowing, for example, as early as the age of nine, that chat rooms couldn't be trusted, and that Xanga was for "norm friends," among other virtual intricacies. This vantage point, she explained, enabled her to see social groups as self-perpetuating organisms that abided by their own conventions, their own systems, and their own laws, usually in isolation and at the expense of their individual constituents.
Over the years, her excursions into the world wide web would lead her to the discovery of fandom. "I wrote slash [homo-erotic] fan fiction," Liu explained, describing her ecosystem of readers and beta editors as predominantly older, single women living along the east coast. "I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't even have gay friends. It was my conduit to having a relationship. When I was older, I had done some research as to why this exists, and I learned that it's because writers don't feel part of the dominant narrative."
By the mid 2000s, Liu, then enrolled as a design student at the University of California, Los Angeles, continued to invent simulated experiences, branching out of the literary form and exploring visual articulations—often to compelling effect. In 2010, for instance, Liu created Analysis of Deduce Your Own Adventure, A Sherlockian, old-fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure Book, pictured above. The graphic configuration allows readers to follow a decision tree to various conclusions within a Sherlockian universe.
Despite her formal training in design and programming, Liu maintains that the crux of her success, as she defines it, is contingent on her ability to forge a relational connection. "Even though I have a pedigree for doing art and tech, I don't think I'm fit to do it at all," Liu said. "The work is a procedural, male-driven, and generative practice based on hard skills. It's the kind of work that asks, 'Can you program like a champ or not?'"
Instead, the artist employs design and technology as malleable mediums that lead to a discomfort rather than an end. After all, Liu is convinced that at the heart of nuanced vignettes, like the ones she recounted from her childhood, await kernels of truth, each disclosing universal understandings of hardship, satisfaction, and what it means to be human. "I want to create a tool for people to tell untold parts of their stories, the ones they find shameful," Liu said. "I want to be the person who says, 'I've done that, too. Don't feel weird about it.' Terrible things happen, but most things can be talked through or shared. I believe in the power of that."