How did this process of hiding things within the city begin?
It began with work I was making when I lived and studied in Chicago. At that time I was working with found spaces – public, commercial, institutional or otherwise. I discovered a conference room on the School of the Art Institute of Chicago campus, the first time I encountered it was just after it had been used for a meeting. There were name tags and food wrappers from Subway strewn all over the place. It was a moment frozen in a state of post-use. I became really obsessed with the conference room, and I began using it myself as a makeshift studio, I started hiding little things in drawers. I loved the idea that someone in an official meeting would open a drawer and be puzzled by what was left behind. It started there and got more ambitious. Sometimes when I give talks, I tape a ketchup packet to the ceiling beforehand. I like the idea of this audience looking up at the ceiling because they’re bored or distracted and thinking, ‘what the fuck, why is there a ketchup packet on the ceiling?’.
Stephen Kwok, Saga, 2015
So is this idea of the joker or trickster just an act you’re putting on?
It’s not just an act, I advocate for it. I think playing with the boundaries we’re given is more exciting than precisely following the rules, or casting off a system entirely. It comes into my work. I often create a controlled experience that in some sense draws on or replicates forms of control that are implicit. I don’t work with explicit forms of control. I’m not working with the prison system, for instance. But transit systems and restaurant seating get my interest. There’s a sense of humour, but also serious investigation, in looking at those smaller forms of control. I still have that part of me that’s the rebellious teenager; I was a really good student, a really good kid. I never broke any rules, and so maybe I’ve come into that a little bit later in life. But now I find myself in situations that, because I’m an adult, are harder to break from in an expressive way. So instead I use the aesthetics of the system that exists. It’s about remembering that, although things may appear a certain way, rules are always open for interpretation.
Stephen Kwok, Recreational Meeting, 2012.
This idea of a break from the day-to-day appears important to your work.
I think a lot about the day-to-day, the fact that we don’t live in discrete moments; you don’t have an experience, and then break, and then another experience, and then break. Although we might conceive of ourselves that way; at this event and then the next; it’s actually all connected through our bodies and through our experience. I like to work in those in between spaces, the unspectacular ‘off’ moments where we aren’t performing. It’s there that I think we truly encounter ourselves. I want to fill these moments with something that ruptures the audience, sometimes through a hypnotic or meditative state, other times through surprise and humour.
Stephen Kwok, Blue Island, 2015.
How did this interest in communication technology and exploring that begin in your practice?
I grew up in a small suburb outside of Houston, so my only access to anything remotely glamorous was through mass media. I watched enough TV to want to move to LA, and when I eventually left to study business there, I started video chatting with everyone. The technology was fresh then, and it collapsed distance in a way that had never been done before. Technology is always trying to realise these supernatural abilities we’ve seen in films. Video chatting teleports us, for instance. Those pieces began early – in 2009 I was holding staring competitions over Skype with friends all over the world. I’m constantly fascinated by this attempt to collapse distance between places, to not be where you really are, to travel psychically even though you might remain in the same space.
Stephen Kwok, Edward van Harmelen, 2014.
How are you negotiating London during your residency at Delfina?
London and New york are not the most different of cities. They’re planned differently, but I find the individual’s navigation of the city is similar and so socially they resemble each other. When I go out into London I hold my body the same way, I negotiate people the same way. I tap into my New York evasiveness, I keep myself to myself and I get where I need to go. But the biggest difference between my life in London and New York is that here on this residency my time is a lot less structured. In New York I’m weighted by appointments and obligations. So when I first came to London I printed out a borough map, I would close my eyes and point to a random borough to go and explore. The first was Walthamstow, I took a trip there and I became interested in William Morris, a strange character that went from designing textiles to becoming an activist late in his life. I was plotting down points of interest, but also leaving certain things to chance. It was liberating to think, ‘why am I in Walthamstow?’, for no other reason a roll of the dice. It’s important to escape functionality sometimes.