By Chris Mueller

Photos by Vania Evangelique

Caroline Yoo is an interdisciplinary artist who was born and raised in the United States to Korean immigrants. Her lived experiences in Anglo-suburbia as well as the time spent in Los Angeles surrounded by joyous Asian diasporic culture, have informed her art practice of performance, social practice, intimate gatherings, and video installations. 

She uses translation as a tool to map forgotten histories – to reveal psychological shadows haunting the diaspora – and performs contemporary translations of rituals for the living. Tracing the edges of the hidden and silenced perspectives of the past to inform the personal and political of the present, Yoo visualizes narratives utilizing multiple voices in tension with each other to highlight the complicated structures of empire and power while unraveling imperial illusions through geopolitical poetry. 

She is a co-founder and co-leader of Hwa Records, JADED (named 2022 People of the Year by the Pittsburgh City Paper), and Han Diaspora Group. These artist collectives focus on different aspects of the Asian diaspora experience. Searching for radical existence, Yoo especially places importance on envisioning safe spaces and alternative learning models that allows her communities to dream wild, process unheard traumas, or plant grounds for new futures. 

Yoo has performed, exhibited, and culturally produced at Carnegie Museum of Art; Institute of Contemporary Art, San Francisco; McDonough Museum of Art; University of Southern California; LA Art Show; Kelly Strayhorn Theater; and more.

In this interview, Yoo discusses her work with the BOOM residency and advocating for the AAPI art community in Pittsburgh.

Q: You’re currently in the midst of the BOOM Universe residency program. What are your goals for the program? How are you utilizing the opportunity to create? 

I decided that I was going to expand my BOOM residency to bring in one of my artist collectives, Asian Salon, to integrate co-working within the space. The goal is to create new modes of collaboration that aren’t vertical dominant and aren’t about a power structure. We’re thinking a lot about what it means to have a horizontal community of artists together. 

Asian Salon is a newer collective in Pittsburgh. We have 10-15 Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) creatives from around the city. It started this past summer by Jenna Peng. The model is a mix of two other collectives I’m involved with – JADED (public facing) and Asian-American Brunch (interpersonal). It allows us to come together and create, but also talk about our hardships around being the token Asian in a safe space where everybody is going through it together. 

The motto for my residency is that with everybody’s work, we can touch anything. For example, usually you’re not touching another artist’s work in collaborative spaces. So what does it mean for someone to draw half a mural, and then the next week someone else finishes it? Or what does it mean for someone to start a sculpture and then someone else to create a drawing on top of it? Or what does it mean for one of our performance artists to play an impromptu flute set while we’re painting? How will that set influence what we’re creating? It’s the labor of community art-building that isn’t really seen. 

A lot of us are talking behind the scenes and uplifting each other, but how can we take that a step further? With BOOM’s mission, I thought my residency would be a great opportunity to open up a space for this and focus on new forms of artist creation. I’m really grateful to them. This wasn’t what I originally pitched for my residency, but everybody on the BOOM team was so down for it and have worked to make it a positive experience. You don’t really see that with other residencies. 

What inspired you to use your residency for that purpose? Can you talk about the importance of cultivating an environment where artists have access to inclusive community and non-linear collaboration?

I think it’s because, at this point in my life, I’ve been heavily institutionalized. I graduated with a BFA for my undergrad. I have an MFA from Carnegie Mellon. I’ve gone the traditional route. But before I came to Pittsburgh for grad school, I was based in Los Angeles for a couple years where my art community was very DIY. I was in the DIY art scene and the DIY performance scene. A lot of us were immigrants, low-income, queer, marginalized, and poor. It was a terrible time in a monetary way, but it was such a breathtaking community to be in. The community didn’t have the shame that institutions give you around certain art practices. It was all about being yourself and channeling your creativity.

At the time, despite LA having a big Eastern Asian Diaspora culture, I was still getting a lot of pushback whenever I wasn’t catering to a white audience with my work. The DIY community really empowered me to reject conforming to that expectation – that mode of thinking felt like a resistance to all of the previous institutions I had worked with, where somebody has to pick you for your art to be seen or for your art to have a place to display. In the DIY community, we make our own spaces. We uplift each other. We may not have money, but there’s a palpable commitment to our people, our community, and our practice. That isn’t always upheld at the higher institutional level. So it’s super important for me to be an ally for the DIY community even if I’m not as entangled in it as I was in LA. 

I still view BOOM’s residency as a privilege. It’s a space where I get to create without having to give someone a product at the end which is amazing. It allows you to think about art outside the realm of giving – I don’t have to finish a project or have perfect political tendencies in my work. There’s room for experimentation. There’s room for failure.

How did your time in the DIY community shape your approach to creating today?

It taught me to hold myself accountable to everyone who plays a part in creating. Not only the curators, but the people who are installers or sending emails out to market the gallery. Oftentimes they aren’t really thanked at the end of the day in the art world. As someone who had to organize things in the DIY community, we always made our own spaces and pop-up shows. We had to get out and ask people to rent space and equipment. That showed me how much good will goes into creating. It’s about the person donating the space. The person letting you borrow their camera for the day. Your friend coming out to support you in the audience even if they had a shitty day. Everyone plays a role in the final product. 

In your work, you place importance in envisioning safe spaces and alternative learning models that allow communities to dream wild, process unheard traumas, or plant grounds for new futures. How do you approach the creative process to make these messages come to fruition?

A lot of it comes from listening to the communities I work with through my collectives. Engaging with them to understand their needs, traumas, and obstacles. It’s about listening and then allowing my creative vision to be a continuation for their stories to come out. It has made me realize the power of storytelling. How do I hear what my community is telling me and then make that come to fruition through art?   

One common theme I’ve heard from interacting with communities like JADED and Asian Salon is around not having enough space. Like, it’s difficult to get shows in Pittsburgh when there’s usually only one slot for an Eastern Asian artist in the show, and that slot typically goes to someone with institutional backing who is more well-known around town. So because there’s a lack of space and a lack of Asian leadership running spaces around town, it’s hard for AAPI creatives to do new work that isn’t just about Asian-American political issues. It’s hard for them to create and have joy. 

When I heard that, it motivated me to go back to the drawing board and identify how to address the issue. That was the birth of JADED. Our three co-founders – Lena Chen, Anne Chen and myself – were all friends who used to get lunch once a week together. One day we were talking about it and just thought “Why don’t we make this happen?” We all had organization backgrounds in the arts. We all had ties to places in Pittsburgh. We could easily throw performance nights to create a space that allows AAPI creatives to generate new work. So at the end of the day, it’s really about listening to your community – listening to what they need and figuring out how to use your toolset to help them.

You’ve performed, exhibited, and produced work all over the country – spanning from Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Michigan, Los Angeles, etc. What advice would you give fellow artists who may be struggling to break through and expand their footprint on a wide level?

I’ve learned that you need to have patience. It’s a dream for every institution to have multiple Asian artists on their roster, but we’re not there yet as a country. You need to continually push your vision even if the world isn’t at a place to receive it yet. I came to Pittsburgh in 2020. At the time, my work was being shown very frequently in LA, but I wasn’t getting opportunities locally. I had Pittsbugh curators actually tell me “I have no idea how to curate your work.” I was convinced I’d never get a performance show here. It took two whole years. When I started to perform in late 2022, it was people I had met over the years who had decided to curate me. I think being connected with JADED and more AAPI leadership around town afforded me some awesome opportunities. Every city has a different landscape of politics and landscape of space to be involved in. It’s about patience and connecting with your community. 

I’ve also learned that it’s important to get opportunities from the right curators and the right organizations. When I was first showing work in LA, it was in a lot of white spaces designed by white curators. Those opportunities may have helped get my name out there, but it wasn’t the work I wanted to produce. However, because those were the curators interested in me, I almost felt like I had to produce work that wasn’t about my community. So sometimes you need to wait for the right opportunity to come along even if it takes more time. 

It’s really difficult to get work shown on a national level. I think it’s about applying over and over to things, and being OK with rejection. Understand that your confidence is not tied to a rejection. Through my experience with institutions, I’ve learned that sometimes you’re not getting that grant or that residency because they only have one space for an Asian artist. You were literally the runner up, but because they only have one space you didn’t get it. It’s an institutional scheme where they are performing diversity, equity, and inclusion merely as an aesthetic. It sucks to be a victim of that rigged system, but understanding that makes it hurt a little less.

What’s next for you after the BOOM residency? Are there any local exhibits where people can check out your work?

Asian Salon will continue to meet once a month, but we’re cognizant about sustainability and longevity. We understand that we’re all working artists. Some of us have full-time jobs, part-time jobs, school, multiple artistic practices, etc. So a lot of us don’t view this as a one-year thing. It’s an opportunity where people can leave and come back. Right now, we’re meeting 1-2 per week because we’re in residency, but we’re looking forward to growing as a team over the long-term – even if it’s more spaced out.  

At JADED, we’re gearing up for 2024 programming. Being a small organization with limited funding has its difficulty. There’s always a shit ton of things to do. But we’re gearing up for 2024 so we can throw a great programming series like we always do. We’re meeting up with people around town about our 2024 plan and themes. A lot of great stuff is in the works there. 

For my individual practice, I had a solo show up at Bunker Projects running from Jan. 5 to Feb. 16, 2024. My exhibition there debuted a new work on the first Korean-American born in Hawaii in 1903. It was a look  at her life – she was a radical who worked as a translator for the U.S. military during WW2 in Seoul, Russia, China, and Japan. She was raised under challenging financial conditions, but was this cosmopolitan woman who wanted to see the world and used the U.S. military to do it. But then at the end, it turned out she might have been a double-agent for North Korea who was playing the U.S. the whole time. I parsed through archives about her life and thought about the military environment within the Korean-American diaspora for the show.

Chris Mueller is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh and Denver. Twitter/IG: @bychrismueller