Tongji Philip Qian 
Interviewed by Fan Ada Wang
This interview was conducted in person in Beacon, New York on Memorial Weekend 2021.


Fan Ada Wang: I know you are currently working on a questionnaire project. Would you briefly explain what you are doing and what the context is for this artwork?

Tongji Philip Qian: I am unsure whether the questionnaire is an artwork but it is something I am pursuing as material. I am intrigued by the format of a questionnaire, because I find its authorship and authenticity perplexing. In this project, all participants and I collaboratively designed this questionnaire: We issued questions we were both interested in and hesitant to ask because of different reasons. The questions were then combined to form the questionnaire. Eventually, the questionnaire was offered to all participants to respond to. Of course, completion of the questionnaire was voluntary. In fact, I did not receive a set of answers from every participant who asked a question. 

FAW: What do you mean by collective planning between you and participants? Everybody asked questions and you collected them. And then you distributed the survey?

TPQ: Well, I need to acknowledge that I also edited the questions when I was collecting them, but it was done together with the participant who asked that specific question. For example, if I thought wording could be clearer, I would sit down with the participant to double-check. At the end, every question was confirmed by both that participant and me. Undoubtably, I designed the order of such questions, which was another creative dimension apart from the inherent merit of the questions.

FAW: How did you determine the order? Did you have any specific arrangement?

TPQ: I have been asking myself how I could work with such permutation. My policy—actually not really a policy—was to not place similar questions too close to each other. I also did not want any question to appear more important than another. I wanted all questions to spread out with their own space. 

FAW: What kind of questions did you have?

TPQ: To answer this question, I need to acknowledge the location of this questionnaire, which is the United States. Participants posed diverse questions, and I hope to give each question enough space so that answers do not overlap. 

FAW: Do you mean you want the questions provided by the participants to cover as many themes as they can?

TPQ: Maybe theme is not the correct term here, because my desire is to have no theme for this survey. I do not want a group of questions to define the entire questionnaire, and I do not want to predict the survey based on preconceptions.

FAW: How did you explain to participants what kind of questions they should ask?

TPQ: I asked them “What is a question you are secretly/genuinely interested in asking?”

FAW: Okay. Do you have any expectations regarding these questions?

TPQ: As the creator of this questionnaire project, I certainly hope questions can cover many different fields. But I also had some predictions, because I knew I would receive many questions on the current “situations” in the United States. In fact, the questions reflect interests in race, international relations, planetary scenarios, art, science, and philosophy, for instance. So they were diverse.

FAW: If we return to your initial comment on “authorship,” do you think participants are authors because they provided questions or answers for the survey?

TPQ: I think individual questions belong to them, but in this publication, or zine, or whatever we would like to call it, I will not specify who asked which question and who provided which set of answers. The format of the questionnaire appeals to me, because it can remain anonymous. As a result, we can more openly ask questions and analyze answers based on the submissions. I do not think it is as important to know where exactly the questions comes from. However, some question or answer can reveal who the person is.

FAW: Can you tell or can other people tell as well?

TPQ: I could guess and some participants might know too.

FAW: How did you introduce this artwork to participants? I guess it does not need to be called art yet, according to what you said.

TPQ: I told them it is a publication.

FAW: So they knew they were taking part in a publication.

TPQ: They are all contributors. They are participants in the context of the questionnaire, and are contributors for this publication. 

FAW: Has any contributor expressed any concern to you?

TPQ: Somebody asked me whether the answers would be published on newspaper, and I said no. When I encountered questions from participants, I emphasized I would retain anonymity for the questionnaire. My questionnaire was shared on Google Forms, which did not ask for their name or email, so I do not know who responded to the survey. Additionally, the link went live around 10.30 am on May 27, 2021 for everybody who has provided a question for the survey, so nobody could be identified. Nobody had early access.

FAW: What is a goal for your project or publication? I think I know more or less about the contribution of the participants, but who is this publication for? Who do you think is your audience and what is your general aim?

TPQ: I did not consider audience when I was producing the questionnaire, because I think conversations on audience are usually unpredictable in an artistic setting unless the project is a commission. Generally speaking, I do not think about audience too much as an artist. Regarding your previous question, do you mean how the participants treated this project?

FAW: No. My question was why you wanted to pursue this publication or project.

TPQ: I will acknowledge again that my current location is the United States, and I am a Chinese artist in this country. I wanted to complete this project because of what was going on in 2020. Many dimensions of contradictions in this society are powerfully challenging mainstream modes of thinking. In arts, the biography and race of artists are receiving much more critical attention, which I certainly appreciate, but I am unsure what my relationship with the U.S. society is. I am a “temporary visitor” here. I do not believe I have the authority to share viewpoints on American history, but I am willing to offer international perspectives to certain things because I have been well-traveled. Therefore, when artists visually express their critiques on the current American society, I find myself unqualified. I am curious about the function of an anonymous questionnaire, and maybe the questions can travel farther that way. Answers might bypass predictions of the artist, participants, and audience.

FAW: I am not sure I understand what you said. Are you claiming you can receive a palimpsest of the American society and the American mentality through your survey?

TPQ: I do not think I have such a grand goal. My questionnaire aims to provide a safer space to pose questions, and it a form of voluntary conversation. You do not have to respond to the questions, and you are still considered a contributor nevertheless, because you have submitted a question which is an inseparable part of the questionnaire. Again, I do not think any questions are more important than others. Everybody’s contribution is equal except for me, because I arranged the questions after receiving them.

FAW: Since you said this questionnaire could allude to the current American mentality, what I am particularly intrigued by is how your project can accurately comment on and relate to the society here.

TPQ: I think this publication or zine is inspired by the current United States, but it does not have to suggest alternative realities. Some questions do ask how one can comment on specific social issues, which I am more than glad to respond to, but a bigger goal with this survey is to share. That it confronts the U.S. society does not mean it has to directly offer a critique.

FAW: I think that you determine your position as a professional artist in this project, based on what I know from your past work. Do you want the questionnaire project to function as an artwork?

TPQ: I am not sure what you mean by professional artist. What you asked just now relates to your first question in the beginning of this interview. I am comfortable describing it as a publication or a project, or I can call it an artist book. I just need to edition it. However, using an edition number is not the most important artistic value. Somehow I believe if I share authorship with my participants in this project, I have achieved something meaningful. At the moment, I am unsure of all the artistic merits this project might carry.

FAW: In my opinion, if you categorize it as an artist book, it becomes clear who the intended audience is, who will collect the work, and who will read it. These people likely reside in the art community. If it is not an artist book, who do you think will want to read it, and with whom will you share this project? I assume you desire an audience after publication.

TPQ: Of course. I think your distinguishing the artist book and other publications is very accurate. If it is an artist book, I hope it will be collected. If it is another kind of publication, I hope it will be read. In other words, the artist book offers a lot of flexibility thanks to the fact that it does not demand a linear way to interpret content. Presentation could easily convey messages too. As I said before, I am unsure about the intended audience for this project, but I will definitely share it with friends in my art community. In fact, some questions in the survey relate to art and museum, for example about the representation of BIPOC artists in U.S. institutions and museums.

FAW: Besides the questionnaire and the different sets of answers, what else will exist in this publication? Are you simply presenting answers in the questionnaire as they are, or are you editing them after you receive them?

TPQ: As we speak, the window to submit this questionnaire has already closed. I know I received 13 responses from 19 participants who submitted a question, including me. 2 from the 13 are duplicates because of submission errors on the Google Forms. So, I received 11 distinct sets of answers. I will not adjust their answers and will print them as they are, which is my promise to the participants. Also, I told all participants that no specific style of writing or responding is considered inappropriate for this project, and I appreciate their candor more than anything else. The current content in my publication entails a blank questionnaire, all the responses I received, this interview which gives some context, and my recent series of works on paper from. In this past year, I thought a lot about my identity, my current location, and my community. This project enables me to find answers also for myself regarding my connection with the United States.

FAW: From my perspective, I think this project is art.

TPQ: Can you explain why you think so?

FAW: The goal is indefinitive. Because I am not an artist, I think the goal for a conventional publication is very clear, including what the content is, who it faces, and what readers will receive. For your project, from what you told me, the whole process with participants and future readers creates space for imagination. It seems interpretations from viewers are equally important, and this project differs fundamentally from other publications which set definitive goals.

TPQ: Maybe giving each reader some space to imagine is a significant artistic value, because I also want my readers to dwell on my drawings. In this zine, I have a pre-conceived skeleton which provides a framework, and in retrospect my intention is to incorporate some level of unpredictability as a conceptual underpinning. After all, I cannot and am not interested in monitoring responses from the participants. One concern which I did bring up with participants was what to do if any question appeared inappropriate, but I was unsure about the connotation of “inappropriate” in the context of this questionnaire. All answers will exist as they are. I will adhere to my promise that I will never adjust any response.

FAW: What is your reference, if I may ask? Has an artist worked with the format of questionnaire before?

TPQ: We live in a virtual world now with numerous opportunities to complete online feedback forms. What I am uncomfortable with is they send surveys to my email, so I might be tracked. For my project, anonymity is key, but it is such a loaded word. How can I unpack the its meaning in the U.S. context, in the Chinese context, and in the global context? For instance, I live in a small city in upstate New York, and it is essentially impossible for me to live “incognito” because I am Asian-Asian. I can certainly become invisible in New York City.

FAW: I have been thinking about how you use the word “anonymous”. You will list the names of contributors at the end of the publication, right? In my opinion, it is not anonymous. When I conduct field research and distribute surveys online, I do not ask for people’s identification and am unable to retain that sort of information. Due precisely to the fact that you release these names, participants can cross-check and guess. Anonymity becomes impossible in this setting, which I think is interesting. 

TPQ: You might be right. It is a paradox when I offer anonymity and credit at the same time. In fact, when some participant asked me what kind of answers I was looking for in this questionnaire, I said that I would want genuine responses. However, I also expressed that if all answers were real, they might reveal who the participant was. For instance, if I was the only person interested in football and referenced football on many occasions, people might know it was me. Therefore, I present full sets of 19 responses from each participants, instead of framing it based on what kind of answers one specific question generated. In other words, I am more intrigued by the construction of identity based on a set of 19 answers.

FAW: Do participants know each other?

TPQ: Some do and some do not. From the 19 participants, some are my students from a college art class. They know each other.

FAW: Do you think they will be excited to see the final outcome of this project? Do they see it as an assignment from their professor or is their participation self-motivated?

TPQ: I probably have three kind of student participants. The first kind is “I do not care.” I would give you a question to include in the survey but I would not offer a set of answers to the 19 questions. The second kind is “I am kind of interested,” and they asked me questions like where the publication was going and how credit would be offered in the project. The third kind had critical comments. They questioned me. They asked me what my goal or vision was, and I could not answer. I might have appeared to equivocate because I was not sure about my priorities then. I also had a very tight timeline. I feel fortunate that they did endorse this publication despite my inability to share more. I will reiterate that this project is based on sincerity. I long for authentic answers from participants, but I also want to show them I am an authentic artist. I will never use their answers to argue against them.

FAW: Why do you have a tight timeline for this publication?

TPQ: I hope I can give them the publication before they graduate, because this group of students is our first graduating college class. Even though this publication is informal, I want to treat it as a gift to the graduating students. For our midterm project, I introduced Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox exhibitions in 1969-1970, and students were invited to create an artwork and draft a gift/donation letter to a museum of their choice. As they engaged with an institution with an imaginary stance, I wanted to create a gift as my own way to give back to them. Most importantly, I believe we might have co-authored this gift.

FAW: I think it is cool, and I appreciate your gesture. Besides students, do you think your school will like this project?

TPQ: I do not know, but I hope I can receive some critical reception. Maybe “like” is not the right word here, and I do not care whether people like it, to be honest. It is not my goal to be liked. But I hope students and colleagues can show interest.

FAW: So you will actively promote and introduce this publication.

TPQ: Of course, and I will try to frame it well. It will be difficult to control the reception of this zine, but I am confident I will receive some opinions. However, I am not sure how such feedback will inform similar future projects of mine. As artist, I like to place myself in interesting and somewhat peculiar spaces and use my surroundings as material.

FAW: What do you think students will receive from this project?

TPQ: Firstly, I want them to participate as contributors. I never see it as an institutional project even if I initiated it and I had an active role to play in that institution. But I hope I was not overriding them in the work, because I value “the equality of intelligence.” If I used grades and other incentives to encourage them to participate, I would be asking for a favor. What excited me the most was the extent my students shaped the project, which was similar to mine.

FAW: I think you are resisting the idea of a 工具人. Have you heard of this term before? It is discussed a great deal now in China.

TPQ: I do not know what it is.

FAW: For example, if your participants created the questionnaire but never received any credit in your publication, they would become your 工具人. They just helped you achieve your goals. In your project, you made sure your participants were not 工具人.

TPQ: My involvement with the project certainly exceeds that from others, because I had to secure funding, invite participants, contact graphic designers, and conduct an interview with somebody who knows my work and gains my trust. All of these relationships become the context for this publication. The essence, however, is indisputably this questionnaire, which I believe paves the way for argument and imagination.

FAW: I think I have a pretty good idea about your project. The last question I want to ask relates again to readership. For readers who are not familiar with your artistic career, who are 闭眼玩家, do you want to or have to offer some background information? Do you just hand them this zine without too much contextual information?

TPQ: For this publication, even if I choose not to directly edition, an edition exists. It is impossible for me to print an unlimited amount of zines. Currently, I am thinking about 100-150 copies because of budget. In this sense, the people who receive this publication are friends, friends of my friends, colleagues, or colleagues of my colleagues. For these so-called 闭眼玩家, I am curious how I could reach them.

FAW: Based on what you said, I think I can say two kinds of audience will exist for this work. One resides in your art community, and the other is related to your current institution.

TPQ: I think you can say that. However, I like that you brought up 闭眼玩家. Although I am unsure what kind of precise meanings 闭眼玩家 carry, it is certainly true that context is not available to many readers. Answers to specific questions will be read more closely if readers cannot glean the full picture. Like I said, these questions are important, but I place more value on my collaboration with participants and the synergy among the questionnaire, the drawing series, and the interview. By the way, my drawings and this interview are not merely describing the survey. They exist in parallel yet inform each other.

FAW: Do you have any plans to follow up with your readers?

TPQ: I will be open-minded. I think it is most important for an artist to keep both eyes open and one ear closed. I have to open my eyes wide to observe reception, but I also lament the fact that I am incapable of following all feedback. I cannot create a project which appeals to everybody.

FAW: I look forward to the publication and I want to see how my interpretations might change. We can connect again afterwards.

TPQ: Of course. It would be a pleasure. Thank you for your time.

FAW: Thank you for your invitation.