Featured alumnus

Sammy Chien - Multidisciplinary artist

Photo courtesy of Sheng Ho.

When Sammy Chien first came to the School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA) after some difficult high school years in Nova Scotia, he thought he was going to be a filmmaker. He soon realized that wasn’t enough for him. He needed something less restrictive, with less hierarchy and fewer rules. Chien is now an interdisciplinary artist who is pioneering new ways of integrating new media into performance while keeping the lines blurred between artistic disciplines. 

As the co-founder and artistic director of Chimerik似不像 Collective, he is also a mentor to many emerging artists who are interested in his style of boundary busting art. Chimerik takes its name from a chimera — a mythical beast made of composite animals. The collective is a composite of artists, disciplines, lived experiences, and artistic influences that come together to produce innovative works. Rather than avoiding ambiguity, he’s embracing it. 

With a CV longer than his flowing hair, it’s a wonder Chien has time to mentor young artists between all his collaborations and personal projects. One of the main goals of Chimerik is to work with young and underrepresented artists and help them advance their own practice through internship opportunities. One recent intern worked on a project with the Arts Club Theatre Company; another worked on a film project for the Pina Bausch Foundation.  

While still at the SCA, Chien learned real-time performance softwares, including Isadora, directly from the pioneer digital performance company Troika Ranch, and he is the only person on Canada’s West Coast who is an official Isadora instructor. He uses the technology to produce deep connections between image, sound, and movement in performance.

His office in the Sun Wah Centre in Chinatown is shared with the Vancouver Art Book Fair and the Festival of Recorded Movement (FORM). Next door is world-class media artist Paul Wong. It’s a space full of like-minded people that encourages creativity and collaboration. A couple floors down is the Centre A gallery (Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art) where Chein was the inaugural artist-in-residence in 2018. 

Chien describes himself as a bad student who failed at everything in high school except art and film classes. He received a scholarship for a film program during high school, and the director of that program happened to be from SFU. This planted the idea that he might travel to Vancouver one day to study film. 

One he arrived, though, he fell into academic difficulty while taking some general arts courses. He had yet to be officially accepted into the film program, and remembers being close to being kicked out of school. He credits two professors, Laura Marks and Henry Daniel, as seeing his potential and encouraging him. “Once I was accepted into the film program, I found my own strength,” he says. 

In his second year, he went to the then-director of the SCA, Martin Gotfrit, to express his frustration with the structure and hierarchy of conventional film; he wanted to experiment, incorporate other artistic disciplines, and do things in a less linear fashion. He thought he would be scolded, but instead he was encouraged to challenge the system. “I felt supported and grounded,” says Chien. 

During Chien’s final two years in the SCA, he began working on professional shows outside of school, and since then has been busy collaborating on dance, theatre, and multi-disciplinary performances. At the 2019 Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards, Chien received an Outstanding Production award along with the rest of the Camera Obscura (Hungry Ghosts) team. The award is especially meaningful, says Chien, as it recognizes him as a member of the theatre community although his formal training is in film. 

His current project, W(e)aves, is a solo interdisciplinary new media performance work that investigates migration, race and gender politics, transcultural identity, and spiritual philosophies using digital technologies, audiovisuals, text, contemporary dance, and qi-gong. The project received a Canada Council for the Arts research creation grant and has gone through various phases of research. The work-in-progress will be shown at the Vancouver New Music Festival this October, and the Heart of the City Festival in November. 

Chien is an engaged alumnus who returns to the SCA often as a guest lecturer, mentor, or external examiner. He is connected to his alma mater and local community in Vancouver while also expanding his artistic practice from his bases in Berlin and Taipei.