Arts & Culture, Community, Article

Meet Kathy Feng: research assistant, podcaster, and visual artist

March 02, 2021

It’s our pleasure to introduce an important member of our team who is hard at work behind the scenes of Below the Radar, Kathy Feng. 

Kathy is a fourth year visual arts student in the School for Contemporary Arts at SFU, who has been working as a research assistant in SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement since Spring 2020.

She works on production and post-production for episodes of the Below the Radar podcast, helping with curation, introducing guests, recording and editing interviews, and more.

We sat down with Kathy to ask her about adapting her practice for pandemic times, what drew her to community-engaged work, and her experiences so far working in SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

So, Kathy, you are a research assistant with the Office, podcast wiz, and visual art student at SFU. Tell us more!

Back in high school, I had some experience with doing audio work through this district-wide Ace It program that we had. So I had a bit of knowledge with the technical aspects of recording, mixing, editing. But when I started at SFU, I started with the visual art program. When I heard about this opportunity through Barbara Adler, I was like, "wow, cool!" I was just doing an internship involving podcasts. I thought this would be a really interesting opportunity to work with community engagement in the office. And here I am!

Where was your previous internship? 

With PTC, (Playwrights Theatre Centre). It was kind of in the same vein as what we're doing here. But the Roots and Seeds podcast that we were working on was all about the oral history of Chinatown seniors in regards to a little community garden they have. 

I was a part of recording and conducting the interviews. I came into the project a little later, so everyone at PTC had — and also, it was a partnership between like PTC, Carnegie and the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House — so they'd been working on that for a while already. And I came in the fall semester of 2019, and kind of just started helping out with recording and also I had the language abilities. So I was speaking to the seniors in as best as I could in Mandarin and Cantonese. I'm somewhat fluent, but not as fluent as I'd like to be, so it was a bit of struggle.

Photo courtesy of Kathy Feng.

Was that your first time working in Chinatown? Or in the Downtown Eastside?

Somewhat. I think it was the first sort of community engagement project I've done. I go to school in that area, in the Downtown Eastside, at the Woodward's building, also 611 Studios. So I move through this space quite often, but it was the first community engagement project, yeah.

Could you talk a little bit more about being a visual arts student at SFU? How have your artistic studies and your participation in the university sphere affected your work at the office and with Below the Radar?

I feel like I really found a home in the visual arts program, because we're so small and tight-knit and the professors are amazing. And I've learned so much from each of them.

I do a lot of work within the visual arts program, as well as part of the Visual Arts Student Union (VASU). So through that, we try to do as much programming as we can for our visual arts faculty. I also directly do the newsletter. We have a VASU newsletter. It was bi-monthly. It's kind of been suspended now because of COVID-19. But we're hoping to revamp it. So I think in that way, it kind of ties into the work that we do here.

Could you tell us a bit about your project, stories to tell when memory fails us, which was part of the Recursion exhibition with SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts and the Audain Gallery.

So every spring semester, at the end of the year, the third and fourth year visual arts students have an exhibition that's usually, of course, in-person. We have it all set up in the Audain Gallery at Woodward's. And so this year, because of the pandemic, it was a very hectic time for us. It was about two weeks before the opening night was set to happen that we realized that this wouldn't happen in-person. A really tight, tight deadline. And the plans were constantly changing and we were constantly trying to adapt to what was happening. And then soon we found out that it would be an Instagram exhibition and obviously we were very disappointed because, I think the whole time, going through like first and second year, we're working up to this exhibition. To then be turned around was a huge adjustment. 

A lot of our works weren't made to be digital. It was really made to be installed and experienced. So we were doing a whole bunch of Zoom meetings in place of our regular class time and trying to figure out how this is going to work — what work we're going to put in. And the deadlines were so, so tight. So eventually, I'm actually really proud of our cohort. We really came together and transformed all our works. It wasn't a direct documentation for a lot of us because we didn't have access to the studio anymore. We didn't have access to a space and all the equipment that we needed to properly document our work. A lot of our work wasn't even completed. So, it was a process of transforming that, and making a reiteration that would be possible to be viewed over Instagram and how the logistics of how that would work and how we can make it still feel like a cohesive exhibition.

How did you adapt your work for a digital medium?

So, I was doing a whole bunch of glass etchings. And a lot of what I was focusing on was I was really thinking about the archive in this work that I was doing and thinking about how many ways with the archives being passed down how thing can get lost in translation, how they can be reinterpreted, how through reiterations of a work that really it ends up being a main part of the new work, how thing can change. And I scanned in a lot of glass settings and I started thinking about how that itself is a reiteration. 

The images that I selected to reinterpret essentially were old photographs I had of different spaces. And I was trying to create a story, whether or not it'd be a real story or something out of imagination, or a mixture of both. But trying to keep that not explicitly if you wouldn't know, just by first glance. And so I had a couple photos. I originally planned to have a series of five, but that didn't work out. And I processed them through Photoshop. So I bitmapped them and they became just a series of lines, kind of like in a comic book.

That was the first kind of “translation” that I did. And then I printed that out. So bringing it back from a photograph to a digital, almost like vector, linework thing, into something physical like an ink on paper. And then I etched with a little etching pen, it's kind of like a Dremel except handheld and less powerful. And so I etched into just the pane of like 12" by 12" glass to go over the line. And then obviously with the etching, you can tell that there's a hand made quality to it. And so a lot of the details were lost a lot of the lines became kind of squiggly. They weren't completely there. So it really just became, like light and shadow when it was done. It really involved obscurity and like obscuring things and questions of, what do we keep to be viewed? And what isn't deemed important to be shown? What do we toss away? And thinking about what that means. Who makes these choices? How do these choices affect later viewings and later interpretations?

Do you have future project ideas? What are you thinking about working on next?

That's a fantastic question. I cannot answer that question. Honestly, in quarantine, I've been just at home, trying to figure out what to do with myself without the studio. I think this is good training actually for when I don't have access to the studio. Yeah, I've been trying to doodle a little bit and work with technical stuff. But I'm also always just brainstorming about the next project. And throughout my whole schooling career, I guess I've been working in the realm of memory and thinking about what memory means. Who holds memory? What does memory hold in itself? And how does it hold itself in objects and images and text? So yeah, I think I'm starting to brainstorm for a project that will eventually lead to the fourth year exhibition. Yeah, I guess that's my next direct line of action, but at home I also do a lot of photography on my own and I like bookmaking. I like making zines, so that's something that I do on my own time.

What were you hoping to get from this experience before you started with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement? Do you have any highlights?

I was definitely hoping to hear a lot from the speakers and interviewees that Am has brought in — to hear them talking about their practices, their knowledge. I'm really interested in community engagement, and I was thinking this would be a really great place to hear the voices of other people that are very involved and have been doing the work for a huge part of their life. And I definitely got that. There's been a lot of really, really interesting people that have come in and that Am continues to bring. 

One of my favorite memories is actually that special episode where Tiffany Muller Myrdahl came and was the interviewer. I took a class with her almost two years ago. It was a Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies class. It was 204. I think it was called Sex in the City. And it was all about gender in regards to cities and city planning. 

It was a really good interview. She’s such an amazing prof. Very, very knowledgeable. I really looked up to her and it was just like, Whoa, seeing her come back in, and not only be interviewed by Am, a while ago, but also conduct an interview. It was really, really fun.

I have learned a lot. Actually. I'm not just saying that because that's something expected. But, honestly working with this little team is really great. I've learned a lot about working in an office, which is kind of crazy. I've never done that before. And I've learned a lot about community engagement and event planning even though I haven't really played a huge part in that and, obviously, those events have kind of been put on hold for the foreseeable future.

Zine by Kathy Feng. Photo courtesy of Kathy Feng.

How did you become interested in community engagement in the first place?

A lot of lived experience really, right. I was always interested in social justice I guess and thinking about, as a team, thinking about in what ways can we improve the world and what ways can we identify injustice and work towards building better systems? But coming to school at SFU Woodward's in the Downtown Eastside. I think that's really been what has radicalized me and also as a young adult, and one that is not very wealthy. I feel like those experiences really taught me to look for ways that I can use my own privileges and engage with the community and give back and be as much of an activist as I can. So yeah, that's kind of what really got me interested in community engagement.

Do you have any hopes for the future in regards to community engagement or any sort of project that you have in mind or want to get involved with?

I am interested in artist-run spaces for sure. And with that also comes a double edged sword of artists wanting spaces and being in community, often low-income communities because of the low rent, and then eventually getting pushed out. That's how gentrification works. And as artists, we’re a part of that. But yeah, in the future, I hope to be doing more work with artists and spaces and more work trying to resist that, I guess, the flow of gentrification and displacement.

Do you think your art practice or your politics or view of the world has been influenced by your experiences working and studying in the neighbourhood?

I think it does, for sure. Everything from like, personal, political, everything kind of goes back to being in like the, the cultural, social and political context that we live in now. And that really shapes me as a person, and shapes me as an artist. But also, I feel that I am not educated to have that big of a voice. One of the best pieces of advice that I've been given is to work with what you know, and don't claim that you know more than you do. So, I really think about that a lot when I do my work because I would never want to claim to be all-knowing and claim to have the highest moral ground or something like that. So yeah, in my work, I like to be more humble with that, but not necessarily shy away from the public. Because everything is political. So yeah, it's just a fine line of working with what affects me directly and what I feel comfortable speaking to.

Hear about Kathy's more recent artwork "sometimes I dream" featured in the BFA Graduating Exhibition, here.

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