Martin Wong: The Case of the Human Instamatic and the Charismatic Observer (2015)

“I think everybody should be a machine […] The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.”[1]

-Andy Warhol, 1963

Martin Wong in 1985. Photo by Peter Belamy. Courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York
Martin Wong in 1985. Photo by Peter Belamy. Courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

Martin Wong: The Case of the Human Instamatic and the Charismatic Observer

Martin Wong (American, 1946-1999) was a cyborg. He may have begun to inhabit his cyborg skin about the time when he set up his studio in Eureka, California and embraced the self-appointed label of human Instamatic in the late sixties. With this embrace of the machinic, Wong set out not to colonize his organic body with cybernetic appendages. At least not like some science fiction story or frontier science article would prescribe. He sought to humanize his machine-like impulses and creative restlessness. All of this occurred during Wong’s life in Northern California, which was also pregnant with visions. A struggle most likely provoked these; to balance his work with the fantastic landscapes, and the pressures of family life. Also the racy escapades to San Francisco’s Castro District, his stint living in an anarchist commune with the experimental theater troupe Angels of Light, as well as the occasional trip on LSD.

Wong operated on an opposite gradient to Warhol, quoted above. The latter created works mostly through the use of assistants and machines. Warhol famously used the camera and the silk-screening process as extensions of his eye and hand— while Wong challenged the speed and vibrancy of machine-rendered work. Wong reversed Warhol’s punning between man and machine Warhol made his trademark. Like his name Human Instamatic suggests, Wong was indeed instant, mechanical, and very human in his practice. His drawings, done in the span of a few minutes of observation, captured his subjects in real time, in real action, and in real space. Could this have been the product of some form of competition between his skills and the Polaroid or instant camera format, then a novelty? One of the cameras of the day was the Kodak Instamatic, first released in 1963, and one of the first inexpensive easy-to-load cameras to made commercially available. What Wong did very well —that a machine could not do then (although now they absolutely can)— was visually dissect his subject. He captured the quintessential aspects of the light that impacted the sitter through his flow and streams of lines across the paper. Like an Instamatic camera, Wong also produced hundreds of these, all dated and stamped with his official Human Instamatic watermark and insignia.

The name Human Instamatic suited Wong for other reasons as well. As he produced work in the fields of writing, drawing, painting, ceramic, and performance art in a career that spanned more than 30 years. In essence, Wong was an incredibly porous and versatile artist. He was a cyborg: more something that happens to things as opposed to just a painter, as most biographers present him to be.

Theorist and philosopher Donna Haraway, arguably one of the authorities on the study of the relationship between humans, animals, and machines,[2] defined the cyborg in her seminal Cyborg Manifesto, published in 1991,[3] as a cybernetic entity that is a hybrid between organic and artificial machine components. She goes on to write that, “The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.”[4] She utilized the cyborg as a trope to address the human condition in the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, where humans in the industrialized world exist caught between the thralls of our physiological and psychological needs and desires, nature at large, and our individual and collective technological capabilities.

Wong’s gifted hand, eye, and brain were his hardware; his magnetic personality was the software (no pun intended with the magnetoscopic spools and ribbon that helped operate early computers). And through their cyborgian conjugation and consistent determination, he rendered a dynamic body of work. All of these hard and soft skills also enabled him to participate in and help promote alternative artistic practices, like experimental theater and graffiti as evidenced by his involvement with the theater groups The Angels of Light and The Cockettes in San Francisco during the sixties and seventies and the Graffiti Museum in New York City in the eighties and nineties.

His manifold interests and obsessions converged with his technical skill in drawing and composition, creating a charismatic artist that honed his skills to perform as a human recording device, creating a sense of unity in his work which sought to transcend the material and the symbolic. Through his work, he makes his quotidian and intensely romantic bohemian lifestyle radiate with gravitas.

Brief Notes on Creole Consciousness, the Cyborg, and Martin Wong

Creole consciousness arose sometime around the 17th and 18th centuries, as European settlers were aggressively staking out the colonies of the Americas —as the relationships between settlers and slaves began to cross-pollinate dramatically. The struggles and the miscegenation of race and culture created in the colonial outposts of imperial Europe gave rise to a dynamic ecology of racial, religious, and political ideologies.[5] This notion was revolutionary and would persist in the DNA of the cultures that would continue to develop all through the so-called New World; indigenous, African, and European lineages would all enter into biosociopolitical interplay, creating the psychodynamics of what Haraway defines as a cyborg identity, one that consists of a “potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities and in the complex political-historical layerings.”[6]

In this way, Wong is revealed to have the primary qualities of a cyborg vis-à-vis the parallelism Haraway argues exists between migrant and cyborgian identities. He grew up in California, a land that has been Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and then finally became annexed by the US as part of its federation. Migrant workers coming from Asia —migrants from which Wong descended— also impacted all of these cultures. They created a composite yet differentiated society —much like the symbiosis of lichen communities— which gave rise to the Creole aesthetics and identity in the Bay Area and California in general, an essential motor for Wong’s work.

Haraway explains in her manifesto that writing is about survival, and is deployed by those who do not embody the normative and in turn resort to as she posits, “mark the world that marked them as other.”[7] The power of writing, of etching on surfaces, presupposes a struggle with language, and it is this struggle that is generally the motor of the craft of the writer and the artist. The ongoing brawl between writer and writing is one that is based on the very impossibility of perfect communication; it is pushing back “against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly,”[8] as Haraway explains. This process of resistance through encoding and recoding is present all throughout Wong’s work, from his early writing to his later paintings, and they will be the telltale sign of a creole, and thus cyborgian, consciousness exercising its power. One could also argue that Wong may have lived most of his life disidentifying with his ever-shifting, critical environment as queer theorist Juan Esteban Muñoz proposes. When Wong neither identified nor counteridentified with American heteronormative culture, he simply sought to exist by protecting his otherness, his outsiderness, by purposely crafting a protean artistic persona for himself.[9]

The Crime Show (1982): Held at ABC No Rio Dinero Gallery

By the late seventies, Martin Wong was ready to face the challenge of making it as an artist in the city of New York, and resolved to leave San Francisco and Eureka in search of artistic success in the East Coast. When he arrived he found a city partly in ruins; with the wealthy all having moved out to the suburbs, and half of the Lower East Side being almost completely empty. The city was also on the skids financially, muddling through fiscal bankruptcy in spite of the growth of the fortunes of bankers and financiers. The city was utterly overrun by cyborgian bodies, intermingled with the seemingly postapocalyptic landscapes and the filth so palpable in films like Taxi Driver (1976).[10]

Once in the Big Apple Wong discovered the other side of the vibrant and titillating life of the metropolis, a complex mixture of wealth and poverty connected by sometimes crime-ridden streets and shabby transportation systems. New York of the late seventies and early eighties must have seemed to him a formidable paradox, witnessing both the decay and demolition of blocks of inner city tenements and factories, and the city’s rise to the cusp as financial capital of the world. In the mostly Latino neighborhood of the Lower East Side, where Wong settled into a modest apartment, gang violence and drug trafficking were the order of the day. The neighborhood’s economy was to a great extent dependent on the production and sales of illicit substances –an industry that in some instances required the coordination among entire families. It was in this setting that ABC No Rio Dinero Gallery, run by the artist collective Collaborative Projects, opened its doors. This space aimed to serve as a hub for both the community of residents and artists, which called the Lower East Side their home. Among these was curator Lucy Lippard and artists Tom Otterness, Julie Ault, Charlie Ahearn, Kiki Smith, and Nan Goldin, among many others.

According to artist Jane Dickson, who exhibited often there, the way ABC No Rio was run was very different than how typical white cube galleries were run.[11] There they sought to react against the prevailing discourse of conceptualism, promoting an art that sprang out of dialogue, downsizing the primacy of the artist, and having the curator act in the role of the initiator.[12]

Martin Wong, now settled in New York City, joined the community of artists that exhibited in ABC No Rio, and would make a debut during The Crime Show, a community exhibition that ran from January 15 to February 6, 1982, and that was curated by John Spencer.[13] This exhibition would have the biggest crowd of any opening at the gallery, a clear indication of the relevance of the theme, which had as prevalent topics graffiti, corporate rip-offs, landlord greed, burglary, rape, murder, and larceny. Wong famously read the news reports about crime and theft in the city, all of which he would observe and absorb to then pour into his drawings and paintings.

ABC No Rio’s administrators wanted to create a site of communication for the community to speak about the quality of life (or lack thereof) in their neighborhood, and everyone, both young and old, trained artists and amateurs, were invited to participate in this exhibition. It was also during the opening of this exhibition that Wong would meet someone who would become a very important man in his life, the Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero.[14] The latter would be Wong’s friend and lover in the time he spent in the city of New York, along with other visual artists, writers, and an emerging community of graffiti artists. Here, like in Eureka and San Francisco, he became an active observer, and would also lay down roots.

Two Cyborgs Under the Stars: Martin Wong and Miguel Piñero in the Lower East Side

To recapitulate the conversation about the cyborg’s inherent quality to synthesize identities and further entangle political-historical events, we return to the hybrid, most certainly cyborgian figure of poet Mikey Piñero. Donna Haraway further describes the cyborg as, “any people who refuse to disappear on cue,”[15] this quality certainly applies to the figure of Piñero; lover, storyteller, profuse drug-addict, and local god among the Puerto Ricans who had made of New York City and the Lower East Side their home away from home during the seventies and eighties. He challenged all dualisms with both thuggish authority and panache.

Piñero was a most formidable cyborgian creature, reconciling extreme eloquence and oratory and depictions of hyper masculine bodies that would resort to penetrating one another as a show of territoriality and domination. This surely excited Wong, who would set out to work on paintings that depicted some of the stories about jail and male relationships in captivity that came so natural to Piñero. After having done time in prison those experiences would stay with the poet, and he would revisit them in his writing, revealing details about male vulnerability and the Latino condition living in the united States, not being American, but also not being their own country; caught between two languages, two cultures, and two possible political futures (independence or statehood).

The Puerto Rican community of New York City certainly satisfies one of the most fundamental qualities of the cyborg, that which enable it to be unafraid of permanently partial identities and the embrace of contradiction. Puerto Ricans back in the island and in New York struggled with their dual creole and cyborgian consciousness’, product of five hundred years of traumatic colonial history, and now so did Wong, as he now became assimilated into the Lower East Side and Loisaida communities. Art historian Haydée Venegas, in her essay “Puerto Rican Art: Hybridism, Alterity and Travestism” (2003) points out some very important aspects of Puerto Rican art and identity: “To be or not to be Puerto Ricans? To be, or not to be, Spanish? To be, or not to be, Africans? To be, or not to be, Americans? These vital questions had no answer then, and have none today; thus they keep the people divided into layers of complex political muddle.”[16] This must be why when the famed Argentine art critic Marta Traba, who had a stint in the island, published her essay titled “Polemical Proposal on Puerto Rican Art” (1971) she condemned our heterogeneity and asserted “Puerto Rican art suffered from an incapacity to choose between attitudes that were often antagonistic”.[17]

Martin-Wong_La-Vida
Martin Wong, La Vida (1998), Oil on canvas, 96 x 114 inches. Yale University Art Gallery.

Nuyorican writer and curator Yasmine Ramirez explains in her essay titled “La Vida: The Life and Writing of Miguel Piñero in the Art of Martin Wong” that it was Piñero who introduced Wong to the Nuyorican approach to language and spoken word, deploying what she describes as a “poetry directly inspired by the hybrid speech patterns heard in the streets, an aesthetic that showcased the poet’s ability to amplify the significance of ordinary verbal encounters.”[18] Wong had effectively gone from observing with the captive gaze of a machine, to now opening up to include the acousticon, or the entire range and possibility of sound and meaning in his new urban context. Wong also adopted a sign language inspired letter type, which involved the aid of a stencil, and which created a punning between visual codes and speech.

Wong was a cyborg that had evolved. This new awareness would enable him to form a fruitful though temporary alliance with Piñero, who would be both a collaborator and his muse. By the mid eighties Wong’s paintings were pregnant with text, harkening back to his days of profuse writing back in California, but fully bilingual, having absorbed what little Spanish he could learn from random reading material, poetry given to him by Piñero, and by conversation with the new family he acquired in Loisaida. A hybrid cyborgian identity had been forged; a fusion of Chinese, Puerto Rican, and US aesthetes and customs that came alive in the imagination of Martin Wong.

 

Conclusion

Wong’s multiple assimilations, those perpetrated by him, and those perpretrated onto him, speak volumes to the cultural porosity of the United States. In a time in the history of this country when racial slurs are still meant to hurt and divide, and egregiously unjust racial profilings exist —a rejection of the cyborgian and creole consciousness simultaneously— the work of an artist who can act as a bridge among communities becomes even more relevant. The twenty-first century may belong to real cyborgs, and the many possible levels of humanic and machinic compenetration and cross-fertilizations, but it will only be possible if we first learn to lose our fear and insecurities and know when and how to dauntlessly embrace the other. This, one could argue, is the most important lesson we can take away from Wong’s cyborgian practice, as he embodied Haraway’s “condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.”[19]


[1] Warhol, Andy. Interview with Gene Swenson, Art News, 1963.

[2] Pardon the apparently inevitable parallelism that must be maintained between human animals and other animal entities.

[3] Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge. 2000. 291-324.

[4] Ibid

[5] An example of this is the syncretism invoked by the Afro-Caribbean religion of voodoo, invented by black slaves, which gave Catholic saints’ faces to Yoruba deities from West Africa in order to enable their continued worship outside of the range of suspicion from their enslavers, effectively encoding and cross-fertilizing religious canons and practices.

[6] Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” 2000.

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1999. Print.

[10] Taxi Driver. Screenplay by Paul Schrader. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, and Jodie Foster. Columbia Pictures, 1976.

[11] Dickson, Jane. Interview by A.R. Vázquez-Concepción. Google Chat interview. November 16, 2014.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Moore, Alan, and Miller, Marc. ABC No Rio Dinero: The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery. ABC No Rio and Collaborative Projects. New York City. 1985. Pg. 106-107

[14] Ramirez, Yasmin. “La Vida: The Life and Writing of Miguel Piñero in the Art of Martin Wong,” Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong. New Museum of Contemporary Art. New York City. 1998. pg. 33-47

[15] Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” 2000.

[16] Venegas, Haydee. “Puerto Rican Art. Identity, Alterity and Travestism.” Art, Minorities and Majorities. Dakar. July, 2003: 5.

[17] Traba, Marta. Propuesta polémica sobre arte puertorriqueño. San Juan, Librería Internacional, Inc., 1971, p. 11

[18] Ramirez, Yasmin. “La Vida: The Life and Writing of Miguel Piñero in the Art of Martin Wong.” 1998. pg. 33-47

 [19] Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” 2000.

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