Caroline Yoo is bringing people together as an artist and community builder in Pittsburgh. Through the mediums of photography, installation, video, and performative art, her works stem to create safe spaces and prompt provocative questions. Yoo is currently an MFA candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, is part of the artist collectives JADED and HWA Records, and has exhibited work in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, including at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Pittsburgh City Paper reached out to talk to Yoo about her art and practices.
1. Your identity really seems central to your work. Can you tell us how you identify yourself and how it has shaped your work?
That’s a funny question to ask because although my artwork is about my identity, I have no idea what that identity is. My artwork is really based on questioning all of these definitions and identities that have been placed on me by the larger societal powers.
I am Asian-American, Asian, Korean, and/or Korean-American, born in Kansas and raised all over the USA in very small Anglo-centric communities, but what do any of these groups even mean? Asian-American is a construct that only exists in the Western world. In mainland Asia, people would be confused by that terminology — Asian or Asian American — because, in Asia, people do not see themselves as Asian. They usually see themselves through a nation or ethnicity, not a continent. It’s absurd when you think about the concept of Asian, especially when one starts to think about the complex and various histories of the countries in Asia.
Growing up as a child in the 1990s and early 2000s in Anglo-centric USA, I completely understand that when I meet those who identify as Eastern Asian-American from that time period, we have a similar experience of other-ing, of interchanging Eastern Asian culture as teens because the internet was not what it is today. Sometimes, the only access we had was Japanese manga or the terrible Oriental stereotypes on the Western media we consumed. For Asian-Americans, the identity Asian-American is hyper real but, in mainland Asia, it’s an absurdity. My work is really about trying to understand the nuances of all of these identifiers that were not defined by me. I see myself as Caroline Yoo, as an artist, as someone who is part of a diaspora and loves diaspora culture. My artwork is about attempting to show the edges of the silent colonialism that have already defined our own identities without our own autonomy, so that we can then start to define our own identities and definitions.
2. I saw you are one of the founding members of JADED in Pittsburgh. Can you tell me about your work with JADED and how you became a part of it?
JADED is a love letter from my team — Lena Chen, Anny Chen, and I — to the Pittsburgh AAPI community. JADED came together in 2021 after the tragedy in Atlanta where eight people were murdered at an Asian spa due to a hate crime. Six were Asian women — Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Yong Ae Yue, Daoyou Feng, and Paul Andre Michels rest in power 삼가고인의 명복을 빕니다.
Lena and Anny, who had been here for longer than I had in Pittsburgh, wanted to hold space for our friends, mentors, our loved ones to grieve and mourn together. Although I often distance myself from leadership roles in the community until I have been accepted into the fold as one of theirs, Lena and Anny needed someone with an arts organizational background, which I had, to help with the intense labor we took on to host our event in a short amount of time. We hosted REST at the Carnegie Museum of Art and it was a major success. We raised over $8,000 to donate to the victims and their families, as well as to the grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and allies, Red Canary Song. During the event, our community was very clear that they needed more spaces like REST. Ones that prioritized bodies that looked like ours and that came together not only in tragedy but also in celebration, in loudness, in friendship.
Our biggest goal for JADED, as founders, was to create a collective where, no matter your relation to your identity, you could feel safe to come out, say hi, learn something new, and hold space for lots of laughter. As founders, we all grew up in the landscape of Asia America but often didn’t feel like those spaces were inclusive to us and our friends. We wanted JADED to be for all of those that never felt included in the Asian American diaspora — queer, nonbinary, trans, femme, adopted, mixed race, disabled, those with learning disabilities, (the list could go on) or just the rebels that never saw themselves aligned with the larger narrative of Asia America. We wanted this to be a safe space.
JADED just finished our first programming this last Spring/Summer where we held three workshops, two walking tours, and one party (shoutout to our honorary team member Stephanie Tsong) that were all led by AAPI artists, educators, and creatives in Pittsburgh who had a practice of engaging with the local community, but it was a priority of ours to have them in major arts institutions and to have them for free for our public. We want to show Pittsburgh that our AAPI communities are here, they are thriving, and our voices, they matter.
3. Is there any piece you are particularly proud of? Can you explain or talk about it?
Currently, I am proud of a new piece that I debuted in Los Angeles this past summer, called “38 Stars.” Since 2020, I have been slowly building my new individual art portfolio that has been focused on the tension between personal lived experience and the history that has been recorded. I've become more interested in creating longer narratives of artwork that begin to hint at how complicated being and becoming can be, especially in between cultures.
“38 Stars” is about the 38th Parallel or the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which is the name of the border between North and South Korea. The U.S. military quickly aligned themselves in South Korea, and, as of 2021, there are still over 28,000 USA military occupying the country.
In the video work “38 Stars,” I use visual riddles for viewers to realize the absurdity of a border made by not their own agency but by the imperial powers at play. However, I am also acknowledging that because of the war, because of the political powers that dictated South Korea after 1953, my family was able to immigrate to the USA. Although I do not condone the racism, misogyny, and classism of the West, I know I am the person I am today because I grew up in the USA. I would not be able to survive growing up in South Korea, a country that is plagued by misogyny, intense anti-feminism sentiment, and continues to adhere to Confucianism. All lived experiences are complicated and I think “38 Stars” is one of my first iterations of my artwork that is trying to show the tensions of history and personal and how they may or may not align.
4. Are there any projects you are planning for the future? Or can you describe a dream project or collaboration you want to make?
I am currently working on “MAGO: The magic of the myth,” an immersive performance for lens and video installation using the forgotten history of the Korean goddess, Mago, to question the futures of the Asian femme body. Mago is the only origin mythology of Korea that is female. She predates language, nation states, and history. She predates human greed for power and control. Mago was erased in the last Korean empire as her story was feared for birthing a Korean woman without a husband. Using Mago’s narrative, and surveillance cameras of military-grade infrared technology, the installation will follow the story of MAGO from her beginnings to her erasure to her new beginnings reincarnated through stories of my dead maternal grandmother, tracing the maternal lineage of powerful women in my family. I think of it like a sci-fi immersive theater/opera Korean mythological experience questioning war, what a nation state means, while uplifting radical feminist stories, and reclaiming space for my family’s migration to be offered as sacred mythology. Part of it will be presented at Kelly Strayhorn Theater on Nov. 11, 2022, as part of the Fail-Safe curation and the final will be displayed in my thesis show at the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art in April 2023.
At the moment, I am looking for Korean and Asian collaborators (dancers, musicians in particular)! If you are interested in learning more about MAGO or my practice feel free to reach out. I love engaging in dialogue, especially with new people.
5. Your art is often rooted in social practice, how do hope to affect your audience with your work?
A lot of my social practice work is based on intimacy. I believe that being in context with people, with community can be life changing. As someone who grew up without joyous Asian diasporas around me (much of us were shamed for our culture, so how could we embrace ourselves when we never had anything else modeled for us?), moving to Los Angeles in 2018 was a new way of being. In Los Angeles, there were so many weird, in all the best ways, Asian diaspora artists and folx doing experimental, complex art on their identities so publicly, and they were proud. To witness that type of culture, I had to refabricate my existence.
Before LA, even though I had Korean/Asian diaspora friends, I felt like we were all hiding. In LA, people were bold about wearing their culture on their sleeves and, in their shamelessness, there was a beauty I had never seen before. LA has more of an understanding than Pittsburgh that diaspora stories need as much space as any other type of artwork and naturally because there is more room for that type of work, there were a lot more opportunities to engage with different artist diaspora collectives, and friendship came naturally.
We, as peers, supported each other unconditionally, danced, ate together, raged against racism, institutional hierarchy, and dreamt about futures we envisioned that could be more kind, inclusive, and equitable than our present. It is here that I learned how radical joy could be. Personally, my goal for all my social practice work is to create relationships between and with the participants. I am happiest when I see that people in our workshops and projects become friends with each other. It’s these connections, it’s the people around us that sustain us.
Caroline Yoo. carolineyoo.com, instagram.com/cyoophotography/
Hwa Records. hwafirerecords.wixsite.com/my-site, instagram.com/hwarecords/
JADED PGH. instagram.com/jadedpgh/