Interview with Alex Paik; Art, Social Dynamics and Conversations
Featured Image: Photo credit – Jen Maler
I first encounter Alex Paik taking a peek at the list of nominees for the POWER ARTS 50 by Observer. It was inspiring to read about his journey as an artist as well as a creative who is deeply engaging with his community. This engagement and community support has taken centre stage in the many conversations I had this past year. After a year of isolation and, to a certain extend, or at least by moments, of hibernation, I wanted to reconnect with the people, furthermore with ones who put a smile on my face, which stimulate my intellect and remind me why I choose the arts. Discovering more about Alex and his many projects, as well as connecting with him as a human first, gives me hope that life balance is achievable, even for creatives, that changes are possible and that passion and hard work can move mountains. I hope this conversation will inspire you as much as it inspired me.
EL: You are both an artist and the founder of Tiger Strikes Asteroid – how do you juggle | balance your time and energy between all these projects?
AP: I get asked this a lot. The short answer is: I don’t! Between TSA, my studio practice, and being a full-time dad to two daughters (including a one-year-old), my time and energy is constantly pulled in many directions at once. What I try to do is think of things in terms of seasons. For example, this past year has been a season where I need to focus on taking care of my family, so TSA and my studio practice have taken a back seat for now. I still keep my studio and TSA going but try not to stress too much if I’m not as productive as I have been in the past. There will be busy seasons when TSA or my studio practice will demand more attention, so the other aspects of my life will take a back seat accordingly. I try to keep a long view of my studio practice — as long as I keep things moving, it doesn’t matter how slowly or how quickly things are going.
At the same time, making space for others through projects like TSA feeds back into my studio practice. Being an artist can be an isolating and frustrating experience, especially when trying to navigate the current art-market-based art world. The community and relationships I’ve built through TSA and the agency we have given ourselves to make a part of the art world that we want to exist within keep me from spiralling into bitterness/despair in my own studio practice.
EL: How did you find your way to paper-based wall installations practice?
AP: I started as a painter. After grad school, I began painting on the sides of my paintings, and from there, it was not long before I started picking up scraps from around my studio to create small scale assemblages. Some of these pieces were made entirely of paper. I responded to how the paper just naturally softened the geometry in my work, and I started to work exclusively with paper from that point on. The work slowly refined itself into being about just one form that was repeated in each piece. Although the work was static, I think that the work had wanted to become modular for a while, but I just wasn’t ready for whatever reason to take the plunge. Finally, in 2015 I decided to try a large scale modular wall installation. When I finished the piece, it felt like a big step forward for my work, like it had been trying to do something like this for years. I’ve been working that way since.
EL: Social dynamics, connections, and relationships seem to be central to your overall “role” (for the lack of a better word – agenda?) in the arts – how is your relationship with these aspects and your vision of their importance evolved?
AP: My personality and life experience are such that I’ve always been interested in the ways that things connect, relate, and grow from small parts. I studied computer programming in high school, building large programs from small bits of code and commands. I also played the violin and studied Western classical music for many years, essentially combining and recombining 12 tones to create a virtually infinite variety of expressions and styles. Even in the martial arts system, I study (Jeet Kune Do). One is constantly learning about different systems to adapt one’s fighting structure depending on the specific opponent and environment. Perhaps even my experience as the first-born son of Korean immigrants has primed me to be interested in the ways different things relate, connect, and adapt to each other, whether it is the way that Asian-Americans are racialized in relation to the dominant white/Black narrative here in the US, or more personally for me navigating my identity in relation to the undefinable and constantly shifting ideas of American-ness and Korean-ness.
In terms of my art practice, I think that I was trying to think about my work within a narrow context of how it fits into the white Euro-American canon for too long. Still, once I opened up my thinking to include the totality of my life experience, I understood what it was about in a much richer way. Opening up my thinking this way also made me realize how this core interest of fractal-like connecting/building has influenced every project I’ve been involved in. Reading Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown really gave me the language to start describing these concepts. I feel like I have a lot more clarity now about what kinds of projects and organizations I am interested in building.
EL: How did you decide to found TSA – the structure is based on collaboration, networking, conversations and exchanges – why was that so key to your vision?
AP: A few friends and I decided to start TSA in Philadelphia in 2009 because we wanted to make space both for ourselves and others. We didn’t plan on it becoming this expansive network. Still, in the beginning, the vision of trying to expand our communities and giving each other complete control over our respective exhibition slots (instead of curating by committee) became the DNA of our organization. Like a fractal, our organization is driven by the same ideas at the micro and macro levels.
The core of TSA is not necessarily the exhibitions or projects themselves. Still, rather it is giving artists the agency and resources to dream up and organize these exhibitions/projects, giving artists the agency to create and maintain their local and network-wide communities, and finally to collectively have the agency to carve out a small part of the art world that we want to participate in.
EL: Is there one lesson | achievement | something that makes you very proud of this project – that you learn with TSA that you would like to share with us?
AP: For me, what makes me the proudest about this project is the fact that we’ve been able to create space for so many artists — we’ve shown over 1000 artists and have given many artists their first solo exhibitions. One specific project that comes to mind is “Artist-Run,” at the Satellite Art Show Miami in 2015. We invited about 40 artist-run spaces from across the country to transform a room in an abandoned hotel into an immersive art installation environment.
I am so grateful to have met so many generous artists through TSA on a more personal level. Our members sacrifice their financial resources, time, and labour to make space for others, and we naturally bring in artists interested in building a platform for others.
EL: You have also started Correspondence Archive. How do you perceive this as a continuity or addition of your current practice and project? The interaction is done in writing. How does that change the way one exchanges with the other?
AP: Like many others, I have been reading more due to the isolation of the pandemic as well as being the primary caregiver of a newborn. I’ve been trying to teach myself histories that I wasn’t taught in school, essentially giving myself a self-led Asian-American studies course. What has struck me is how rich of history there is. As an artist, I have been reverse-engineering a historical lineage through artists and writers that I am unfortunately only learning about now. It turns out that the community that I had been looking for has always been there, but I had just never been taught it.
The histories and contributions of marginalized communities are either not taught or erased, and it is up to us to ensure that there is a record of our existence. That’s part of the impetus of starting Correspondence Archive — to begin to create a small archive of racialized artists discussing their practices with each other. It is also important that these conversations are from nonwhite perspectives. Many times conversations between white artists and racialized artists end up reducing and flattening the racialized artist’s experience solely to their identity. I wanted to create a space where racialized artists could be free to honestly talk as much (or as little) about their experience in a predominantly white art world. I love the range and nuance of these conversations already, even though we’ve only published a few conversations. I know that I have had many of these types of conversations informally with my friends over the years, but I wanted to have a place to archive them so that they could become a resource for younger artists to read and to encourage them that they are not alone. Basically, I’m making something that I wish I had access to when I was a younger artist!
EL: The past year or so has been deeply shaking. From the pandemic to the racial inequality issues, a lot was happening – what kept you going and grounded?
AP: Having to care for a newborn and my 8-year-old daughter as she navigated online school and moving across the country has kept me grounded for sure, or at the very least, kept me busy! Although the stress of the past year was hard to deal with, I think being forced to think about, and care for others (my family) really helped me and prevented me from wallowing too much. This past year I have really been driven inward and have found comfort in connecting with and learning about the histories of Asian-American activists and artists through books that I have been reading. I also found a lot of comfort in music written for solo instruments, like the Bach violin Partitas and the Glass piano Etudes — something about the loneliness of a single instrument really comforted me.
EL: What piece of advice would you want to give to the other artists | curators | or people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
AP: I guess I would tell artists to really examine whose narrative of success they are aiming towards. What does it mean to succeed in a system that has historically excluded the contributions and histories of racialized artists? Once you redefine your definition of a successful life as an artist, a marker on the horizon to aim toward, you can simply start slowly moving toward that goal. I constantly have to readjust and re-orient myself toward my own personal definitions of success as I continue to struggle with the traditional models I was taught and internalized as a young artist.
EL: Is there, in your opinion, one action that museums can take to make themselves more accessible and really inclusive? Or one part of the iceberg they should tackle first?
AP: It is quite an iceberg to tackle… I guess I think that any real change will need to start at the top. I am sceptical of many museums and how they seem to think that simply including more racialized artists without changing the underlying power structures is enough. I’d say a good first step would be to either dissolve your board of directors completely and/or bring on enough new board members (regardless of their ability to donate) so that the board is majority BIPOC. But frankly, I have almost zero faith that these larger institutions even have the desire or the ability to truly change (this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of wonderful curators and workers within these institutions that are doing good work and using their platforms to increase inclusivity at their respective institutions). I really think that it is up to the smaller alternative spaces and organizations to do the work in imagining what the new structures could look like.
EL: Anything else you would like to add?
AP: Thank you for these great questions!
THE [quick] BLITZ
- The greatest influence in your life (person, theory, model…)
Art-wise I’d say my greatest (or at least longest lasting) influence is Beethoven. His music has stuck with me since my youth. His music is beautiful, funny, and profound and teaches us to find hope even in the darkest of times.
- Favourite music
My desert-island pick would be the late quartets of Beethoven. They are amazing little universes, and the music was so far ahead of his time.
- A myth you would like to debunk? (Can be art-related but doesn’t need to )
That taste is not neutral or objective but rather is a system that prioritizes certain voices over others by design.
- What should the art world be more of and less of?
The art world should operate more from a spirit of generosity and less from a spirit of competition/scarcity mindset.
A little bit more about who is Alex PaikAlex Paik is an artist living and working in Los Angeles. His modular, paper-based wall installations explore perception, interdependence, and improvisation within the structure while engaging with the complexities of social dynamics. He has exhibited in the U.S. and internationally, with notable solo projects at Praxis New York, Art on Paper 2016, and Gallery Joe. His work has also been featured in group exhibitions at BravinLee Projects, Ruschman Gallery, and MONO Practice, among others.
Paik is the Founder and Director of Tiger Strikes Asteroid, a non-profit network of artist-run spaces and organizes Correspondence Archive, an online series of conversations between racialized artists.
The last year and months have brought much disruption to the world as we know it. Many of the disturbances that we experienced were the results of much-needed change in the status quo. Hopefully, they will be a catalyst to long term transformations that will bring more equity, diversity, accessibility and transparency to the arts and art world.
It is within this mindset that this new interview series is shaping itself. We have a platform, and we want to participate in ongoing conversations and offer some positive, deeply inspiring portraits of humans that contribute meaningfully to the idea exchange. Drawn from the 2020 Arts Power 50 | Observer, a list of 50 individuals that are the change-makers impacting the arts, we launched this series with Kemi Ilesanmi, a Cultural Amplifier and the Executive Director of the Laundromat Project. It is now the turn of Alex Paik, an artist as well as the Founder and Director of Tiger Strikes Asteroid.